Tuesday, December 9, 2014

You Can Change What Product of History You Become

You don’t get to look to your interesting and rich heritage – whether it is the heritage of your family, friendships, geography, religion/philosophy, profession,  hobbies, nation, political party and more, and understand that much of who you are today is a product of all those things (and who/what those things have been over the course of all that history) . . . and also think that the racism which existed in every stage of our country was suddenly halted, screeching, to a stop - just short of affecting you. Nothing goes away that quickly, especially nothing that was used to build the literal and figurative wealth and structure of our nation. 

What took centuries to develop, implement and cement, took us only 40 years to rip out from the root? Come on! Be a student of history. Radical change like that doesn’t take place without revolution. And when that’s over you have to rebuild and STILL heal and evolve. The revolution of the 60s & 70s weakened certain abuses in our nation. It did NOT eradicate them and it did not solve the entire host of other problems that had also developed. Work has been done and that work is valuable but we all have to strive much, much harder. We are not done.

You know, this isn’t the first time I’ve said something like this. I remember speaking like this many years ago, except there was this pronounced difference: Back then I was trying to convince White people that Black people really aren’t as bad as White people think they are. "You've got it all wrong!" I asked them to consider how long it takes for an oppressed group to overcome such horrors, and to be patient.


I’m ashamed of that. Black people aren’t to be patronized and my perspective above refers only to problems that exist in the Black community. It does not even mention, much less suggest accountability for, the abuses committed by White people. That's how we've been taught to see things. Now, I’m trying to convince White people that they aren’t as unsullied as they think they are. I want them to consider how long it will take OUR people who've woven oppression into their culture, systems and yes, heritage . . . to finally get it all right.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Fears of an Aspiring Anti-Racist

Sometimes, you just have to write it all down and hit print before you lose your nerve. Here are some fears and confusions which plague me:

I need to have always believed and known what I now believe and know. If my social justice friends find out all the ways I used to be racist, if they find out all the ways I am still racist, they will never forgive me. Is there a way to convince myself once and for all that 1) they absolutely know how racist I was and still am and 2) they know I’m working on it and won’t write me off because I make mistakes? How do I convince my White peers not to be scared to engage in this work when I am scared myself? How do I show them that we must be vulnerable and willing to accept critique when both petrify me? Why do they still petrify me when I experience them all the time and always live to tell the tale?

Will I ever stop being scared of the conflict that comes from this work? I mean, obviously I’ve pushed through some of the fear to do what I do, to have gotten where I’ve gotten. But there is always fear that keeps me from pushing more. Will I ever be completely fearless? Is anyone? Should I stop aiming for fearlessness? Is fear a tool I should use?

I believe that while my personal education and growth are important, and the work in which I engage is meaningful and fruitful and valid . . . there is a significant missing piece: my time in the community. In organizations that combat racism in any number of ways, from explicit anti-racism education to community organizations that address the resulting ills of racism. My time is split in 3 big chunks: work, family life and school . . . with little chunks of extended family and friends floating around, often neglected. I work long hours an hour away from home in a job I’m not leaving anytime soon, and take night & online classes which means that when I finally get home I’m usually doing homework or collapsing. My weekends are designed to make up for what I’ve missed during the week: full-on family time with only the occasional diversion to hang out with friends or work/family-related travel. I’m already stretched thin, how can I possibly add in a time commitment to a community organization? Yet, how can I NOT engage in this crucial aspect of this work? Should I be looking at this time in my life as a season and know that one day I will have more time for community work, or is it always going to be this way (it has been this way for YEARS) and I just need to make some other change to the way my life is structured so that I can engage?

I am not qualified to do this work. I have not mastered ___ concepts and don’t know all the racial identity development models or many of the Names in anti-racism and I can’t afford to go to conferences and I’m not on staff at ___ organization and I still freak out when people yell at me and tell me I suck for doing this and I still cry when friends drop me or slowly back away from me and tell me I’ve changed and they don’t like the new me. I should read more journal articles and should have a thicker skin and shouldn’t second-guess my interactions with people I admire and I only learned about intersectionality a few years ago and I still have three John Mayer songs on my playlist and and and.

This work can only be done in two ways. It must be academic or activist or it isn’t real. I am neither and so my work isn’t valid. I know I said in a different paragraph above that it is, but really it isn’t. I am an imposter and I will be found out.

How do I balance the knowledge that White people need to stand up and get involved with combating racism, and that committing to this means I will begin to stand out to some people as an “expert” simply because so few others are making the same visible commitment, while not taking up the spotlight that has for so long been pointed at White folks instead of the People of Color who have always been doing the work, who live the work? How do I combat this thing where White people will listen to me about racism before they will listen to a Person of Color, while not ignoring the ways my privilege gives me access to those who need to hear it? How do I use my privilege without abusing it? Can it be used, ever, without it being abuse?

How do I convey the gravity, urgency and devastation of racism without co-opting people’s stories? Without using their trauma as an object lesson? How do I tell White people that terrifying things are happening to people without training them to only respond to the most terrifying story? How do I help people respond to the “small” stories, the everyday occurances if the only thing that gets their attention are the over-the-top horror stories?

How do I show the ways that racism damages communities – financially, for example – without painting the picture that People of Color all live destitute lives? How do I combat the stereotype of People of Color = poverty without erasing the fact that poverty is a hallmark of being oppressed via racism?


Can I do this and one day look back on my life and believe I tried my hardest and made a difference? Or will I look back in regret at all the ways I failed?

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Mistakes and Humility


Sometimes my White friends who are learning about anti-racism will get frustrated because their efforts are not always fruitful and because they continue to make mistakes. Here they are, slowly learning and examining themselves, and they say or do something with good intentions, and someone like me comes along and tells them that while the effort is appreciated, the end results are still problematic. It can be deflating and it’s common to see people throw up their hands while exclaiming that it seems they can’t do anything right.

I don’t experience these feelings or thoughts very often anymore, and I have to remind myself that most of my White peers haven’t had the same personal experiences nor the time committed to anti-racism principles as I have had. This doesn’t mean I am better than any of them, it only means that I have been doing this longer and have developed – over time and after messing up A LOT – a different perspective on critique that comes my way related to my White privilege.

One of the things often explained in anti-racism writings, trainings and conversations is that we are going to make mistakes. We are always going to make mistakes.

WE ARE ALWAYS GOING TO MAKE MISTAKES.

This is something that can be easily understood, but no matter how well we know it intellectually, it doesn’t feel like something inevitable when it happens. It feels terrible – at least it usually did, to me. Knowing that I am bound to make mistakes forever doesn’t stop me from feeling remorse when I realize – or have pointed out to me – that I have derailed a conversation, or have made an assumption about someone or their identity, or when I make a joke I think is funny which is offensive or hurtful to someone else. But knowing I am bound to make mistakes forever does help me recover from that guilt and disappointment in myself, and it does help me get back on my feet, brush off the dust and get back on the path toward my goal: combating racism.

There is actually some freedom in knowing I am never going to “get this” exactly right. I don’t have to hold myself to a standard of perfection because everyone knows I will never attain that standard anyway. So why is it still so mortifying when I/we mess up?

We certainly have a lot of examples in the public eye where people have made major mistakes around race, and I know no one wants to find themselves on the front page of “Racism Times” (you know, the publication which outs anyone who does something stupid related to race). It’s important to distinguish between people being vilified for their initial racist action and their response to the public outcry, though. Too often, people get defensive rather than stepping back and examining whether there is truth to the critique being lobbed at them. When people make the news for racist words or actions, the story tends to drag on and on if they deny they’ve done anything wrong, or try to explain how their actions are justified. When people admit they were fully in the wrong and that they are going to do something to learn more and be better, the furor tends to go away. Unfortunately, people don’t respond this way very often.

A while back someone asked me about navigating the “minefield” of winter holiday greetings. They were scared to offend someone by saying the wrong thing – what if they said Merry Christmas to someone who doesn’t celebrate it? Exactly how far down the road of developing generic holiday greetings would we go before people realized we’re making a big deal out of nothing?

My response was this: I don’t know about you, but the people I know who make a big fuss about holiday greetings are the ones who celebrate Christmas – NOT the people who don’t celebrate it. Of course, many employers, especially in service industries, now have policies which require their employees to use generic greetings and holiday language. Certainly, the only reason employers and others have made the switch to more generic holiday greetings is because some of the non-dominant groups made a fuss, and understandably so – they weren’t being represented AT ALL. There is a difference, however, in making a fuss because of no representation EVER, and making a fuss because even though you are represented the majority of the time, you are not represented every single time, by everyone.

Still – what does one do if they mess up and extend a greeting that’s offensive to someone? Well, humility goes a long way. Instead of getting huffy because someone corrects you, why not apologize and inquire about more details so you can have a better understanding? Here’s a possible exchange, and the sort of thing I have both witnessed and been involved in myself:

Me: Merry Christmas!/Happy Holidays!
Them: Actually, I don’t celebrate Christmas/any holidays at this time of the year. I’m not Christian/Jewish/religious.
Me: Oh, dang, I’m sorry. You know, I’ve been saying this so long that sometimes I forget to be more inclusive in the way I speak. Gotta keep working at it! Are there other times of the year when you celebrate something important to you/Do you have something you celebrate that is kind of like the equivalent to Christmas in terms of importance, or your community coming together with a lot of fanfare?
Them: Not really, just the usual federal holidays/Yes, I’m (insert faith) and we celebrate _____ during (month/time of year)/Well, I’m atheist so I celebrate certain things along with my family but I don’t ascribe to the religious aspect of the holiday . . ./Other response about their traditions.
Me: I don’t know much about (insert holiday/faith/tradition). What’s the significance/what does it represent/how do you celebrate it?


And so on. Humility + willingness to learn about someone else’s way of doing things = evidence to the other person that you have room in your life for more than your own perspective and experience. The more you practice having this sort of response, the easier it becomes to receive critique and the easier it is to know that the world isn’t going to end because you flubbed again. 

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Say It Out Loud, It Won't Kill You: I Am Culpable For Racism

This summer at NCORE I was able to attend a screening of “The N!gger Word”, a film by Dr. Eddie Moore, Jr. At the time I didn’t know who he was: the creator of the White Privilege Conference, among other things. I’m a little glad that I didn’t, otherwise I might have been too intimidated to speak up during the after-film discussion.

You can watch a trailer for the film here:



There were probably over 100 people at the screening, most of them Black and most of them appeared to be 30 years old or older – there were quite a few people who looked to be in their 50s and 60s.

After the film, a discussion started – what did people think? Opinions were shared, and there was quite a bit of disagreement. Some felt that the word was part of their culture, that they had given it new meaning and that there wasn’t a problem saying it. Others felt that there is no way that word could ever be made positive and that no one should ever use it. (Seriously, if you didn't watch that trailer yet, watch it - you'll see a lot of people sharing their opinions of the word).

At some point, a young (college student, likely) White woman spoke up and said something about racism being wrong, etc etc etc. Dr. Moore asked her a question. He said he was really interested to know how she came to the viewpoint that racism was wrong – how did she get to that viewpoint from the starting place of believing that racism was a good thing? The young woman seemed flustered by the question and I don't think she gave much of an answer. Another white woman, probably in her late 30s, maybe early 40s, stood up to respond to Dr. Moore about how she had evolved from "woo hoo, slavery rocks!" to "fight the power!"

She talked about how she's Jewish so she's known oppression which is what made her begin seeing the oppression of others. (She was also tall, thin, White, blonde, pretty, and wore standard upper middle class clothing). Out came the list of the stuff and people she's studied under, activism she's been involved in, etc. Basically, she gave her anti-racist pedigree. She did stop short of telling us that some of her best friends are Black.

I was sitting there, boiling, the whole time. It really took me some time to articulate to myself what the problem was. I felt like she was full of shit but I couldn't figure out why. I mean, she answered his question - this is how she got from thinking as an oppressor to thinking as someone who fights oppression . . . but it just sounded so self-congratulatory. I'm sitting there, all testy, and finally it becomes clear to me why what this lady said didn't sit well with me. I raised my hand and said something along these lines:

"You asked how a White person makes the transition from being accepting of oppression and enjoying the fruits of it, to knowing it is wrong and fighting against it. Well, there was no transition for me. My self-perception, because of how I was raised, has always been that I NEVER accepted oppression and that I NEVER benefited from it. My self-perception has always been that the only thing I've ever done is fought against oppression. Now, how I have perceived myself and the reality of my life are two very different things. But for most of my life, I had no concept that I held any culpability in the oppression of others. I didn't identify with people who owned slaves and I've been taught that those people were bad, I was good, and I AM NOT THEM. From day one up through my adulthood, and even still today, when I express remorse or pain or anger over injustice that has been done to someone else by a White person, someone pats my hand and tells me “You didn't do it, there's no need to feel bad. YOU DIDN’T DO IT.” This is what my schools, my parents, my church, my community have taught me. Even People of Color teach me this and tell me what a good White person I am and how I should not feel responsible for the sins of my ancestors. I am coddled and protected by everyone. My entire world has worked hard to ensure that I don't see myself in the faces of slave owners and cross-burners and to ensure that I live my life believing I'm one of the “good ones”, especially now that I actively speak out against oppression. So if you ask me how I moved from one to the other, I can't tell you, because I never perceived myself as being in the first group at all. That's the obstacle I'm fighting now."

Dr. Moore didn't say anything, but he nodded at me. I had to go to another session and felt like I would be asking for cookies if I waited for him to ask what he thought of my comment, so I didn't press it. I did, however, see the White lady a few times and though I smiled at her, she just stared at me. Ah well.

I know that I’m not the only one who has experienced this – been taught to disassociate from the actions of our ancestors and the people who paved the way for our privilege today. I encourage you to look closely at how your life might be different today had White people not created our society, and Whiteness, as they did. I encourage you to look at how you perpetuate what they created. I encourage you to feel the pain and anger that comes with admitting you have benefited from the pain of others. Stop telling yourself that YOU didn’t do it, and examine ways you might be doing it, after all.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Proof

There is pain in knowing you have to do this.

There is pain in doing it.

There is pain in their understanding it, seeing it sink into them. Seeing them understand this is who they are, or at least who the world decides they are.

There is pain in having to explain it to others because it didn't occur to them. There is pain in remembering that it didn't occur to you, either, not until you birthed that child and your husband explained what you'd have to do.

And there is pain, and rage, when explaining it, and describing your pain, and your fear, and your actual lived experience . . . they still tell you that you're full of shit. They don't believe you.


If you want them to believe you, you're going to have to prove it to them.


Exactly how far must I go to prove it to you? Do you need to see a bullet in my son for it to become real for you?





Monday, August 26, 2013

Motivation

Yesterday I recognized some conflicting thoughts I’ve been having. In recent months, especially since   Trayvon Martin was murdered and since George Zimmerman’s trial began, I have been talking to people about my children – specifically, my sons. My fear for their safety increases as they get older and they’re not even teenagers yet. The way our society views and interacts with Brown and Black males is disturbing and I feel like it is only a matter of time before my family experiences some type of injustice based on nothing other than their skin color.

My kids are good kids – my sons and my daughter. I mean, they are REALLY good kids. Normal kids, sure – not perfect. Good. But – as I’ve heard from many educated, accomplished Black men and women – none of that matters to a racist individual. It doesn’t matter to a racist system. My well-behaved, intelligent, kind, funny, creative, curious boys will inevitably be seen by someone, somewhere, as aggressive troublemakers with no work ethic or ambition. They may be seen as suspicious, even dangerous. If Trayvon Martin’s death and George Zimmerman’s tardy arrest and then exoneration tells us anything, it is that the law will stand on the side of the person with the suspicions, not on the side of my boys.

So here’s the conflict – I’ve been sharing my fears with friends because I need the outlet and because I want them to take it personally, more personally, perhaps, than they have been after hearing similar stories from strangers. In the case that they never hear similar stories from strangers, I want them to hear it from someone, at least – me. For the longest time, though, I have felt as though I should not be motivated to work for justice because of the people I know and love. I have thought that my motivation should be there regardless of whether I have relationships with People of Color or not. The underlying worry here is that if I had never met those People of Color, that I would not have been motivated to do this work. Or that if somehow all the People of Color left my life, that I would no longer feel pulled to fighting injustice.

I was thinking about this yesterday and it hit me like a ton of bricks: if I can be in a relationship with so many People of Color and NOT have my concern for their welfare and happiness become a part of my motivation, then something is terribly wrong. It SHOULD impact me greatly, and strengthen my resolve when a friend, co-worker, neighbor or family member expresses pain or frustration over an experience of racism they’ve had. Stories of how racism has changed the course of a person or family’s life should burrow down into my heart and become a reminder of why I care and why I am hoping to help.

Yes, I am motivated on behalf of people I will never know – including people who aren’t even alive anymore and people who haven’t been born yet. And I sure hope that if all People of Color left my life, that my motivation would remain intact. Of course, were that to happen I’d probably need to spend countless years in recovery because that would mean losing my husband, children, extended family, close friendships, neighbors, co-workers and acquaintances. My life would be a ghost town with the most important people missing.


My next thought is: what about the people who care about equality and justice, but have few or even no meaningful relationships with any People of Color? I have thought about this often in terms of that circumstance making it difficult to understand the perspectives and realities of others, but I haven’t thought about this in terms of motivation. How much more difficult must it be to commit to justice work no one you know has ever had it denied of them?

Friday, August 16, 2013

Cookies Aren't Supposed To Make You Sad

Sometimes cookies make me sad. This happens when I write something on Facebook, or say something in a meeting, and a Person of Color expresses to me how much it means to them that I spoke up. First I feel like blushing for five years and then I just feel so sad that my Facebook post or statement I made at work is apparently so out of the ordinary for my friends to witness. I don’t deserve a cookie for trying to draw attention to the suffering of others, I don’t deserve a cookie for sharing a different perspective, I don’t deserve a cookie for reminding others to be inclusive – and if there were more people doing these things, cookies would be unnecessary because the behaviors would be unremarkable, right?

If more people were doing these things, eventually we’d have fewer problems with racism because changed people change their environments. If more people were doing these things, my friends wouldn’t need to tell me how much something I said meant to them because they’d have more people in their lives who are standing up for them, standing alongside them. That any of my friends – that anyone, anywhere – has cause to express such gratitude because they have been so hurt and let down by others . . . that breaks my heart. It does not make me feel like I’m an awesome person. It makes me feel like a whole lot of other people are not awesome. I would gladly give up all the cookies in the world in exchange for all or even most White people being willing to speak out against racism.


Do you know how meaningful it will be to some of your loved ones who are People of Color for you to become informed about race and to speak up, publicly, in solidarity with them? 

You could ask them and find out.