White Privilege

July 20, 2013

At dinner the other night, over some delicious food and perhaps a few drinks, my friend and I were talking about the Zimmerman trial. The conversation (inevitably) went to white privilege and he said

“Let’s just call white privilege what it is: racism.”

I understand intellectually that, on some level, this is obvious. But I had never connected it like that in my mind. I felt like the Earth shifted beneath me and I asked him to clarify and confirm that white privilege is a synonym for racism. I must have looked befuddled, because he gave me a moment to turn it over in my mind before he did.

In the very beginning of my thinking, learning, and talking about white privilege and racism, someone said, “Of course white people in America are racist. It’s in the water. And you can’t blame a fish for being wet.”

The idea of acknowledging my racism and the fact that I am, honestly, racist felt dangerous. It still does. Despite everything we’ve been through, seen, read, witnessed, “racist” is still a nuclear word, reserved for white people who use the n word and wear white sheets. It’s abstract and other. They are not our families, our friends, and certainly not us. Calling someone racist is a sure way to shut down any conversation. Even calling out third parties as racist makes white people twist and flip and adopt a defensive attitude with no empathy or compassion.

Have we couched our internalized, persistent, ever-present, destructive racism in the frame of “white privilege” to make us more comfortable? Ironically, centering the conversation around us (for instance, when someone says “white people always think xyz” we jump up and say “I’m not like that!” making it about us, and not the experience being relayed by a person of color) is central to white privilege. Is framing the discussion about us by calling it white privilege instead of acknowledging we are racist an extension of that?

Sitting with that thought reminded me of an invitation I received a couple of years ago to this:


My instant reaction was of the “what the fuck?!” variety and I still feel that way. And now I think I can really pinpoint why.

to death

July 14, 2012

I’m dozing in bed on a Saturday morning. Like so many previous Saturday mornings, I woke up early – before 7 – and chose to listen to the radio, check email and twitter on my iPad and wait to get drowsy. The first time I remember staying in bed all day (or at least all morning) without being asleep are the days after my mom died. 

My calf is aching. This time it’s the right calf. It started a few days ago and I really hoped I had injured it. I just started taking to cruising down Metro escalators like a pro, like I did before four knee surgeries, many, many infections, and six months of fear of falling because the blood thinners I was on meant that a fall could mean bleeding out or bleeding in. I don’t know which would be worse.

In the days after my fourth surgery, I had a similar feeling in my left calf. It was painful enough that I thought it inhibited my mobility more than the 10inch incision bisecting the flesh over my knee. I got an ultrasound in the middle of the night (they joys of being in the hospital for a long stay – you go when the equipment is available, even if it’s 3am) to confirm what everyone suspected: blood clots in my thigh. A young intern and his teaching doctor from internal medicine had a long talk with me about the possible cause and the risks, as well as the six-month course of medicine in front of me, including shots I woud be taught to give myself. By the time I left the hospital, internal medicine team and the nurses had me pretty convinced I could very well die if I didn’t take the meds. 

Honestly, I vacillated between terrified and ambivalent. I just can’t be terrified all the time (although I gave it a good try), and, at one point, the sunset of orange, blues, and purples across my belly, along with the tenderness and the hard little nodules of tissue the injections left behind made me wonder if a pulmonary embolism would really be worse. Still, I kept track of my blood pressure, went to the clinic weekly, paid attention to my breathing, stayed vigilant about chest pains and tried to trace my mental fuzziness to pain killers and not stroke. 

During this six (or seven, or so) months, I was told so many times how many ways I could die. This infection? The one I cancelled a doctor’s appointment over because I felt too sick to go and thought it was viral and didn’t want to get anyone else sick? The one that elevated my temperature over 103? If I hadn’t gone to the hospital the next day for IV antibiotics, I could have died. In fact, untreated, it kills more than half the people who get it. Sepsis? My original diagnosis? People die from that all the time. And then the great clot threat. 

The night before my first (or was it second?) surgery, I was in the hospital and had convinced myself (in what I thought was a rather matter-of-fact way) that I was going to die from the anesthesia. I felt truly awful for my friends and couldn’t imagine the unspeakable grief of my dad and brother, as my mom had died only months before. I shared this with my friend, Erika, who was kind enough not to tell me I was being utterly ridiculous (which, of course, I was), and who reminded me that there’s no sense in acting as if I know the unknowable and acting as if it’s truth. Worry is most decidedly being in another moment and, therefore, not in this one. She invited me to come back to where I was. 

On June 18th, I got another ultrasound. The technician who performed it (who had worse bedside manner than a box of rocks – at one point I could hear the blood wishing through my veins and it sounded like the typical “that’s that baby’s heartbeat!” moment and I asked if he could tell if it was a boy or a girl and he made no response) told me that he didn’t see any clots. After that, I went to Whole Foods and got a boatload of spinach (leafy greens were limited while I was on blood thinners; they’re coagulants) and some bubble bath to celebrate. My friend, Vanessa, met me outside of Whole Foods and I was jubilent. We recounted all I’d been through and blinked and laughed at the notion that it was finally all over. This stupid, long, death tango was finally over. For a while, anyway. Until the Next Thing, which, god willin’ and the creek don’t rise, is many years off.

I’m lying in bed, almost dozing, acutely aware of this calf pain that is, again, hindering my mobility, weeks after I finally ditched the (motherfucking) cane that was my constant companion. It occurs to me that, given the way I’ve heard pulmonary embolisms work, and all the people I have heard of who just die in their sleep at any old age, every time I doze off could be the last time. 

I told a neighbor – the one who has promised to get me ready for a 5k in november, as soon as I am fully mobile, which my physical therapist says will be in a week – if it was another clot, I was going to throw myself in front of a bus. He grabbed me, suddenly and tightly, hugging me and kissing my cheek, telling me no. I won’t. I will get through it and I will run with him.

Next week, I’ll see about getting another ultrasound, this time of my right side. And I’ll try not to worry myself to death.

To the Girl Who Called Me a Fatass on the Bus

June 3, 2011

I know we haven’t known each other for very long – we were only on the bus for a handful of minutes – and I suppose it’s possible that my weight gain is sudden, but it’s not. I have been hauling this junk in my trunk for probably longer than you’ve been alive. And you’re not the first person (and likely not the last) to call me fat. So not only are you not as shocking as you probably hoped, you’re not terribly original, either.

Not only am I a fatass and a big fat fattie, I am well educated, I have a good job with reasonable hours that pays me well, and I am loved. I go on vacations, I have fancy meals out with my friends, I have a nice apartment in a great building with wonderful neighbors, and a cute little dog who amuses the hell out of me. When I get sick, I can afford to see a doctor. My refrigerator and cabinets are always full. I have the tremendous privilege of free time to read, watch trashy tv, blog, navel gaze, meditate, and wonder about the meaning of life. I get manicures and pedicures whenever I want. I had a fantastic massage last week. I am surrounded by people who love me just as I am.

When I look in the mirror, at my face, I sometimes smile. I like who I am. I even like the curve of my hips and the swell of my breasts. I have managed to extract some self love from the battlefield that is my body. Like yours, my body has been under scrutiny and judgement for most of my life. We both face a constant barrage of images and expectations of what our bodies should be like. We will probably never be enough. Skinny enough, curvy enough, tall enough. We will never be just right. And if we are, or close to it, our reward all too often is harassment from strangers in the street, in the store, on the bus, where ever we have the nerve to be attractive to or noticed by someone in public. From early on, we are watching what we eat, binging and purging, counting calories, measuring inches, thinking about our “skinny jeans,” sold diets and fasts, and scrutinized for what we put in our mouths. And despite that, maybe because of that, your words did not shame me. That’s why I held your gaze for so long after you said it.

I’m not telling you this to one up you. I am telling you this because I wish the same for you. I hope that you grow up avoiding or shedding the judgement and shame that is foisted on your body and runs the risk of keeping you from living fully. I hope you find yourself in 25 years in comfort, with little struggle and lots of love. I am writing this to remind myself, too, that I am so much more than the words you slung.

I could have written the title of this post 25 years ago. The rest, I couldn’t have written until today.

Gender Text Field

December 9, 2010

Today, I got an invitation to sign up for a neat new thing called Diaspora. I haven’t quite figured it out yet, but that’s beside the point.

The registration process was typical: name, gender, birth date. But when I got to gender, I noticed something completely atypical: the gender field was not a drop down, but a text field. So rather than have to choose from the standard binary male/female, I was able to enter whatever I wanted. (I entered “yes.”) I was delighted.

And then I sort of forgot about it and started checking out Diaspora: their background, the blog, what ever I could find to help understand it. I saw they have a presence on Twitter and started following. This was the most recent tweet:

RT @sarahmei Why Gender is a Text Field on Diaspora: http://bit.ly/hTcgGf

where the person who developed it that way explains why.

This, in particular, blew me away:

I made this change to Diaspora so that I won’t alienate anyone I love before they finish signing up.

I made this change because gender is a beautiful and multifaceted thing that can’t be contained by a list.

Go tell that.

Please consider this my electronic standing ovation. Thank you, Sarah.

The Myth of White Privilege

July 23, 2010

Because of what Jim Webb has gone and said, (although, please notice he doesn’t actually talk about white privilege so much as the woes of the white man) I wanted to post a couple of reminders – specific and general – about White Privilege.

First, from Tim Wise, Imagine: Protest, Insurgency and the Workings of White Privilege:

Let’s play a game, shall we? The name of the game is called “Imagine.” The way it’s played is simple: we’ll envision recent happenings in the news, but then change them up a bit. Instead of envisioning white people as the main actors in the scenes we’ll conjure–the ones who are driving the action–we’ll envision black folks or other people of color instead. The object of the game is to imagine the public reaction to the events or incidents, if the main actors were of color, rather than white. Whoever gains the most insight into the workings of race in America, at the end of the game, wins.

So let’s begin.

Imagine that hundreds of black protesters were to descend upon Washington DC and Northern Virginia, just a few miles from the Capitol and White House, armed with AK-47s, assorted handguns, and ammunition. And imagine that some of these protesters–the black protesters–spoke of the need for political revolution, and possibly even armed conflict in the event that laws they didn’t like were enforced by the government. Would these protesters–these black protesters with guns–be seen as brave defenders of the Second Amendment, or would they be viewed by most whites as a danger to the republic? What if they were Arab-Americans? Because, after all, that’s what happened recently when white gun enthusiasts descended upon the nation’s capital, arms in hand, and verbally announced their readiness to make war on the country’s political leaders if the need arose.

Imagine that white members of Congress, while walking to work, were surrounded by thousands of angry, screaming, black people, one of whom proceeded to spit on one of those congressmen for not voting the way the black demonstrators desired. Would the protesters be seen as merely patriotic Americans voicing their opinions, or as an angry, potentially violent, and even insurrectionary mob? After all, this is what white Tea Party protesters did recently in Washington.

Imagine that a black rap artist were to say, in reference to a white politician and presidential candidate: “He’s a piece of shit and I told him to suck on my machine gun.” And what would happen to any prominent liberal commentator who then, when asked about that statement, replied that the rapper was a friend and that he (the commentator) would not disavow or even criticize him for his remarks. Because that’s what rocker Ted Nugent said in 2007about Barack Obama, and that’s how Sean Hannity responded to Nugent’s remarkswhen he was asked about them.

Imagine that a prominent mainstream black political commentator had long employed an overt bigot as Executive Director of his organization, and that this bigot regularly participated in black separatist conferences, and once assaulted a white person while calling them by a racial slur. When that prominent black commentator and his sister–who also works for the organization–defended the bigot as a good guy who was misunderstood and “going through a tough time in his life” would anyone accept their excuse-making? Would that commentator still have a place on a mainstream network? Because that’s what happened in the real world, when Pat Buchanan employed as Executive Director of his group, America’s Cause, a blatant racist who did all these things, or at least their white equivalents: attending white separatist conferences and attacking a black woman while calling her the n-word.

Imagine that a black radio host were to suggestthat the only way to get promoted in the administration of a white president is by “hating black people,” or that a prominent white person had only endorsed a white presidential candidate as an act of racial bonding,or blamed a white president for a fight on a school busin which a black kid was jumped by two white kids, or said that he wouldn’t want to kill all conservatives, but rather, would like to leave just enough–“living fossils” as he called them–“so we will never forget what these people stood for.” After all, these are things that Rush Limbaugh has said, about Barack Obama’s administration, Colin Powell’s endorsement of Barack Obama, a fight on a school bus in Belleville, Illinois in which two black kids beat up a white kid, and about liberals, generally.*

Imagine that a black pastor, formerly a member of the U.S. military, were to declare, as part of his opposition to a white president’s policies, that he was ready to “suit up, get my gun, go to Washington, and do what they trained me to do.” This is, after all, what Pastor Stan Craig said recentlyat a Tea Party rally in Greenville, South Carolina.

Imagine a black radio talk show host gleefully predicting a revolution by people of color if the government continues to be dominated by the rich white men who have been “destroying” the country, or if said radio personality were to call Christians or Jews non-humans, or say that when it came to conservatives, the best solution would be to “hang ‘em high.” And what would happen to any congressional representative who praised that commentator for “speaking common sense” and likened his hate talk to “American values?” After all, those are among the things said by radio host and best-selling author Michael Savage,predicting white revolution in the face of multiculturalism, or said by Savage about Arab Muslims and liberals,respectively. And it was Congressman Culbertson,from Texas, who praised Savage in that way, despite his hateful rhetoric.

Imagine a black political commentator suggesting that the only thing the guy who flew his plane into the Austin, Texas IRS building did wrong was not blowing up Fox News instead. This is, after all, what Anne Coulter said about Tim McVeigh,when she noted that his only mistake was not blowing up The New York Times.

Imagine that a popular black liberal website posted comments about the daughter of a white president, calling her “typical redneck trash,” or a “whore” whose mother entertains her by “making monkey sounds.” After all that’s comparable to what conservatives posted about Malia Obama on freerepublic.com last year, when they referred to her as “ghetto trash.”

Imagine that black protesters at a large political rally were walking around with signs calling for the lynching of their congressional enemies. Because that’s what white conservatives did last year, in reference to Democratic party leaders in Congress.

In other words, imagine that even one-third of the anger and vitriol currently being hurled at President Obama, by folks who are almost exclusively white, were being aimed, instead, at a white president, by people of color. How many whites viewing the anger, the hatred, the contempt for that white president would then wax eloquent about free speech, and the glories of democracy? And how many would be calling for further crackdowns on thuggish behavior, and investigations into the radical agendas of those same people of color?

To ask any of these questions is to answer them. Protest is only seen as fundamentally American when those who have long had the luxury of seeing themselves as prototypically American engage in it. When the dangerous and dark “other” does so, however, it isn’t viewed as normal or natural, let alone patriotic. Which is why Rush Limbaugh could say, this past week,that the Tea Parties are the first time since the Civil War that ordinary, common Americans stood up for their rights: a statement that erases the normalcy and “American-ness” of blacks in the civil rights struggle, not to mention women in the fight for suffrage and equality, working people in the fight for better working conditions, and LGBT folks as they struggle to be treated as full and equal human beings.

And this, my friends, is what white privilege is all about. The ability to threaten others, to engage in violent and incendiary rhetoric without consequence, to be viewed as patriotic and normal no matter what you do, and never to be feared and despised as people of color would be, if they tried to get away with half the shit we do, on a daily basis.

Game Over.

And, of course, White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack by Peggy McIntosh (pdf):

I was taught to see racism only in individual acts of meanness, not in invisible systems conferring dominance on my group

Through work to bring materials from women’s studies into the rest of the curriculum, I have often noticed men’s unwillingness to grant that they are overprivileged, even though they may grant that women are disadvantaged. They may say they will work to improve women’s status, in the society, the university, or the curriculum, but they can’t or won’t support the idea of lessening men’s. Denials that amount to taboos surround the subject of advantages that men gain from women’s disadvantages. These denials protect male privilege from being fully acknowledged, lessened, or ended.

Thinking through unacknowledged male privilege as a phenomenon, I realized that, since hierarchies in our society are interlocking, there are most likely a phenomenon of while privilege that was similarly denied and protected. As a white person, I realized I had been taught about racism as something that puts others at a disadvantage, but had been taught not to see on of its corollary aspects, white privilege, which puts me at an advantage.

I think whites are carefully taught not to recognize white privilege, as males are taught not to recognize male privilege. So I have begun in an untutored way to ask what it is like to have white privilege. I have come to see white privilege as an invisible package of unearned assets that I can count on cashing in each day, but about which I was “meant” to remain oblivious. White privilege is like an invisible weightless knapsack of special provisions, maps, passports, codebooks, visas, clothes, tools , and blank checks.

Describing white privilege makes one newly accountable. As we in Women’s Studies work to reveal male privilege and ask men to give up some of their power, so one who writes about having white privilege must ask, “Having described it, what will I do to lessen or end it?”

After I realized the extent to which men work from a base of unacknowledged privilege, I understood that much of their oppressiveness was unconscious. Then I remembered the frequent charges from women of color that white women whom they encounter are oppressive. I began to understand why we are justly seen as oppressive, even when we don’t see ourselves that way. I began to count the ways in which I enjoy unearned skin privilege and have been conditioned into oblivion about its existence.

My schooling gave me no training in seeing myself as an oppressor, as an unfairly advantaged person, or as a participant in a damaged culture. I was taught to see myself as an individual whose moral state depended on her individual moral will. My schooling followed the pattern my colleague Elizabeth Minnich has pointed out: whites are taught to think of their lives as morally neutral, normative, and average, and also ideal, so that when we work to benefit others, this is seen as work which will allow “them” to be more like “us”.

I decided to try to work on myself at least by identifying some of the daily effects of white privilege in my life. I have chosen those conditions which I think in my case attach somewhat more to skin color privilege than to class, religion, ethnic status, or geographical location, though of course all these other factors are intricately intertwined. As far as I can see, my African American coworkers, friends and acquaintances with whom I come into daily or frequent contact in this particular time, place, and line of work cannot count on most of these conditions.

I usually think of privilege as being a favored state, whether earned or conferred by birth or luck. Yet some of the conditions I have described here work to systematically overempower certain groups. Such privilege simply confers dominance because of one’s race or sex.

1. I can if I wish arrange to be in the company of people of my race most of the time.
2. If I should need to move, I can be pretty sure renting or purchasing housing in an area which I can afford and in which I would want to live.
3. I can be pretty sure that my neighbors in such a location will be neutral or pleasant to me.
4. I can go shopping alone most of the time, pretty well assured that I will not be followed or harassed.
5. I can turn on the television or open to the front page of the paper and see people of my race widely represented.
6. When I am told about our national heritage or about “civilization,” I am shown that people of my color made it what it is.
7. I can be sure that my children will be given curricular materials that testify to the existence of their race.
8. If I want to, I can be pretty sure of finding a publisher for this piece on white privilege.
9. I can go into a music shop and count on finding the music of my race represented, into a supermarket and find the staple foods which fit with my cultural traditions, into a hairdresser’s shop and find someone who can cut my hair.
10. Whether I use checks, credit cards, or cash, I can count on my skin color not to work against the appearance of financial reliability.
11. I can arrange to protect my children most of the time from people who might not like them.
12. I can swear, or dress in second hand clothes, or not answer letters, without having people attribute these choices to the bad morals,the poverty, or the illiteracy of my race.
13. I can speak in public to a powerful male group without putting my race on trial.
14. I can do well in a challenging situation without being called a credit to my race.
15. I am never asked to speak for all the people of my racial group.
16. I can remain oblivious of the language and customs of persons of color who constitute the world’s majority without feeling in my culture any penalty for such oblivion.
17. I can criticize our government and talk about how much I fear its policies and behavior without being seen as a cultural outsider.
18. I can be pretty sure that if I ask to talk to “the person in charge,” I will be facing a person of my race.
19. If a traffic cop pulls me over or if the IRS audits my tax return, I can be sure I haven’t been singled out because of my race.
20. I can easily buy posters, postcards, picture books, greeting cards, dolls, toys, and children’s magazines featuring people of my race.
21. I can go home from most meetings of organizations I belong to feeling somewhat tied in, rather than isolated, out-of-place, out numbered, unheard, held at a distance, or feared.
22. I can take a job with an affirmative action employer without having coworkers on the job suspect that I got it because of race.
23. I can choose public accommodation without fearing that people of my race cannot get in or will be mistreated in the places I have chosen.
24. I can be sure that if I need legal or medical help, my race will not work against me.
25. If my day, week, or year is going badly, I need not ask of each negative episode or situation whether it has racial overtones.
26. I can choose blemish cover or bandages in flesh color and have them more or less match my skin.

I repeatedly forgot each of the realizations on this list until I wrote it down. For me white privilege has turned out to be an elusive and fugitive subject. The pressure to avoid it is great, for in facing it I must give up the myth of meritocracy. If these things are true, this is not such a free country; one’s life is not what one makes it; many doors open for certain people through no virtues of their own.

I’m not sure why Jim Webb thinks these things are mythical. They are very real parts of many Americans’ every-day existence.

Baldwin, Arizona, and the Tea Party

May 19, 2010

I said in my last post that I blame Joshua for me reading James Baldwin, and, indeed, he’s been nudging me in that direction for a while. The tipping point, however, was reading a post by Tim Wise on Facebook, quoting No Name in the Street.

The paragraph he quotes in the context (primarily) of the new Arizona immigration law is, as he says, a powerful message “for those who think white supremacy, and American supremacy, and Christian supremacy are forever.” The perspective and near prescience Baldwin brings to the discussion is provoking – enough so that I bought the book right after reading Wise’s post.

“Force does not work the way its advocates seem to think it does. It does not, for example, reveal to the victim the strength of his adversary. On the contrary, it reveals the weakness, even the panic of his adversary, and this revelation invests the victim with patience. Furthermore, it is ultimately fatal to create too many victims. The victor can do nothing with these victims, for they do not belong to him, but–to the victims. They belong to the people he is fighting. The people know this, and as inexorably as the roll call–the honor roll–of victims expands, so does their will become inexorable: they resolve that these dead, their brethren, shall not have died in vain. When this point is reached, however long the battle may go on, the victor can never be the victor: on the contrary, all his energies, his entire life, are bound up in a terror he cannot articulate, a mystery he cannot read, a battle he cannot win–he has simply become the prisoner of the people he thought to cow, chain, or murder into submission…the excluded begin to realize, having endured everything, that they *can* endure everything. They do not know the precise shape of the future, but they know that the future belongs to them.”

I dove into the book right away. Any plan I had to search for the paragraph above was abandoned when I became engrossed in the story Baldwin tells. One morning last week, on the bus, I came across a paragraph so powerful that I read it, filled with awe, several times:

“But for power truly to feel itself menaced, it must somehow find itself in the presence of another power — or more accurately, an energy — which it has not known how to define and therefore does not know how to control. For a very long time, for example, America prospered — or seemed to prosper: this prosperity cost millions of people their lives. Now, even to the people who are the most spectacular recipients of the benefits of this prosperity are able to endure these benefits: they can neither understand them nor do without them, nor can they go beyond them. Above all, they cannot, or dare not, asses or imagine the price paid by their victims, or subjects, for this way of life, so they cannot know why the victims are revolting. They are forced then, to the conclusion that the victims — the barbarians — are revolting against all established civilized values — which is both true and not true — and, in order to preserve these values, however stifling and joyless these values have caused their lives to be, the bulk of the people desperately seek out representatives who are prepared to make up in cruelty what both they and the people lack in conviction.”

I couldn’t help but think of the connections between the formation and rise of the Tea Party and our “post-racial” America, as proved by the nation’s first Black president. The rush and urgent need to “take America back” has undertones of racism and fear. Certainly, it’s ridiculous to say the election a Black president signals the end of racism in America and ushers in a post-racist era, but it’s easy to see how it might be seen as a menace against (white) power. Reacting to this menace, though conscious or not, could be manifested in portraying President Obama as a witch doctor during the course of the health-care debates or calling health care for all “the beginning of reparations.” It could be why, while insisting they are not a racist movement, Tea Party rallies often have strong, unchallenged racist messaging.


May 19, 2010

I’m starting to think it’s possible that fear is the root of all evil.

Semantic discussion of the religious implications of evil aside, I have seen people twist themselves in knots in fear. Fear of pain, hurting someone else, or seeing something unlovable in themselves. Fear of seeing themselves as they truly are, as if it’s something unimaginably horrid. As if seeing ourselves in all our history and present is worse than death.

Around racism and privilege in particular, I have seen this fear manifest as (sometimes incredibly skillful) avoidance. From often vague and lofty claims of colorblindness, to interpersonal conflicts and competition among white people that are misplaced – if not entirely created – to avoid even talking about talking about racism.

I’m struck in particular by one dichotomy I’ve witnessed. On the one hand, it’s generally accepted when talking about and exploring white privilege and racism, it’s up to white people to do their own work. Part of White Privilege 101 is that it is not okay to ask a person of color to teach us about racism and oppression, both because one person can’t be asked to represent an entire group and because it’s not their job to educate us about our shit. And privilege and racism is definitely our shit. White people also add that they would likely not be as honest about their own racism with a person of color in the room. On top of that, people will question someone of color who is willing to lead or facilitate a discussion with white people on privilege, wondering about where they are with their own internalized racism and having genuine concern about the re-wounding of a person of color in that role. On the other hand, I get a strong message from people of color and other marginalized groups – and throw off the same signal in groups where I am marginalized – that if you are trying to be an ally to me and protect me from your -ist bullshit at the same time, then you have seriously underestimated me. The notion that we can decide what other people can handle around their oppression seems to be a privileged one, and one that meets with lots of resistance.

To further confuse myself, I have started reading James Baldwin. (If you know me and you know Baldwin, you’re right to be scared. I blame Joshua.) From No Name in the Street:

If Americans were not so terrified of their private selves, they would never have needed to invent and could never have become so dependent on whey they still call “the Negro problem.” This problem, which they invented in order to safeguard their purity, has made of them criminals and monsters, and it is destroying them; and this not from anything blacks may or may not be doing but because of the role a guilty and constricted white imagination has assigned to the blacks.

There’s a lot said in Buddhism about being fully present in the moment, and fear seems to be the antithesis of being present. I think fear has a lot of anticipation of what’s next in it.

There’s a well-known Zen koan about a man chased by a lion over a cliff. Clinging to a vine for his life, he sees a tiger below him, waiting to eat him, while the tiger that chased him is just above him on the cliff. To add to the peril, there are mice gnawing at the vine he is clinging to. In the midst of all of this, when his fear should be at its highest, he sees a strawberry near him. He lets go of the vine with one hand to grab the strawberry and eat it and enjoys how wonderful and sweet it is.

I’m told the opposite of fear is love. I’m tempted to wax poetic about how the world would be so much better if we could love ourselves enough to love one another enough to vanquish fear, but that’s too corny and optimistic for even me. But if we could place love – or being in the moment – where fear comes up, I wonder how the conversation would change.

Thank you, Dr. Dorothy Height

April 29, 2010

From her last interview, March 15, 2010.

I think my greatest legacy is that I started out at 14, winning an oratorical contest on the Constitution of the United States. And I took the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments, and I am still working to see that the 14th Amendment and its promise of equal justice under the law is fulfilled.

I think my greatest legacy is that I’ve tried to stay the course; that I have tried to focus on rights for women, for men, for everybody.

Dog-Whistle Racism

April 28, 2010

I first heard the term “dog-whistle racism” a couple of years ago on twitter and was instantly curious about what it meant. Its name is a pretty good descriptor for what it is: “us[ing] coded words and themes that to appeal to conscious or subconscious racist concepts and frames. For example, the terms “welfare queen,” “states’ rights,” “Islamic terrorist,” “uppity,” and “illegal alien” all activate racist concepts….”

I saw a great example of it today in a local real-estate blog, DC Mud.

I read it quickly at first, curious about the pending development because it’s a couple blocks from where I live. I was talking about it with a coworker who mentioned he wasn’t thrilled with how the whole post started, so I read again, paying more attention:

Though it may be hard to believe, U Street still has a few rough edges without the pizazz of chic bars and swanky loft apartments…

And then I knew exactly what he meant. “Rough edges” is racist dog whistling. The area has been “in transition” for years. It’s an historically Black neighborhood that borders two predominantly white areas – Dupont Circle and Adams Morgan – and is getting gentrified like crazy, even in the face of the housing bust.

If you have any doubt that these code words trigger racist concepts, read the comments.

Guest Post: the myth of colorblindness

April 21, 2010

My friend, Alicia, has a blog over at Manifest Freedom. Because I thought it was so on point, I have copied the following from her blog (here), with her permission:

“I don’t see color, I don’t care if you are white, black, or purple with stripes.” oh, good ol’ post racial america. we have a black man in the white house, we are all MLK’s dream realized, right? um…i think you know the answer. there has never been a question more rhetorical. I’ve been having some very interesting conversations about race and color blindness lately. and quite frankly, much of it has me feeling spent and hopeless, wondering when racism will end, because at this rate, talking about it daily is getting exhausting. I mean, sure. I’d love to be in a world where race doesn’t matter, but we don’t live in that world. there have been a few troubling things about these “color-blind” conversations, but in the interest of not writing a dissertation, I will pick my favorite questions. and by favorites, I mean my least favorites.

while, it would be nice to live in a world that didn’t see race, or where race was not a barrier, when I open my eyes in the morning, I am acutely aware that I a person of color. media, and systems have made me the “other” or “exotic, ethnic, spicy and plain ol’ black” and I experience the world in that way– but what about people who genuinely don’t see race as a big deal? or the people who say: “I don’t see color, I don’t care if you are white, black, or purple with stripes”?

well, in addition to being an absurd statement (noting that as far as we know, there are no humans who are purple with stripes) it is dehumanizing. it also minimizes the fact that for some of us, race is an important part of our history, culture, and lived experience. if you don’t see my race, you don’t see me; my history, my culture, and something that has a huge impact on the way I view and experience the world. here’s the thing. you can’t help to end racism if you swear you don’t “see race” or say that “race is no big deal to me” or that “race doesn’t matter.” it’s a big deal to me. denial of racial difference does not make racism go away. just like in AA, in order to change something- you have to admit that there’s a problem.

ok then. what about those who say “well if you keep talking about race, it will keep being a big deal. it’s the people who always bring it up that are the real racists”?

two comments on this point. 1. often (but not always, as I have learned more than once this week) the people who propose colorblindness are white folks. why is that? in my opinion, colorblindness gives a perceived (but impossibly false) sense of a clean slate. however, what it does not give is accountability. if people of color are saying, “hey, this is a big deal to us” and white folks continue to deny that any socio-economic or educational differences exist based on race, people of color are continuing to be silenced. when women say to men “we want our rights, and sure, we can vote, but rape is still happening, so the work isn’t done yet” most would not accuse women of sexism. stating reality, and lived experiences should never be discredited. ignoring race is racist. 2. “real racists” is a misnomer, i believe. here’s the thing about racism (classism, sexism, and heterosexism). besides all being quite interconnected, one does not cancel out the others. if i am a white, gay man, i can still be incredibly sexist and racist. being gay doesn’t give me a “pass” on using my white, male privilege. similarly, if i am a black straight man, I could very well be homophobic and sexist, while still experiencing racism. i know this seems pretty confusing. we all have multiple identities. some of which give us social and institutional power and advantage, some that do not. we are complex people, living in a complex construct of oppression. the other thing about racism (classism, sexism, etc) is that there is no inverse or reverse. there is no “reverse oppression.” oppression, by it’s very nature, is created by one group, and experienced by another. therefore, men and women cannot both oppress based on gender. i have heard many different theories on racism (and oppression in general, but especially race), including the belief that “anyone could be racist” and “we are all a little racist.” i have a different perspective.

prejudice (unreasonable, or unfounded bias against a group)+ power (institutions, laws, socio-political status quo)= oppression.

therefore, even if i have a prejudice against a person, or group, based on a physical, or spiritual difference, without power, i am not oppressive. for example: i could hate every man in the world. (i don’t) and obviously prejudice is bad, damaging, unhelpful, and on a very interpersonal level, is very hurtful, that is not the same as systems of oppression. my general disdain for men will do nothing to keep them out of militaries, government services, keep them from being the ruling majority and decision makers for everything from reproductive justice issues to domestic violence laws. it will do nothing to curb incidents of rape, it will not undo laws that keep women making 80 cents to every male dollar and will not change society’s ideas about a woman’s place vis a vis men. similarly, as a woman of color, i simply do not have the laws, government control, the current or historical power to influence white folks lives, histories, educations or pockets. as a queer person, i could hate every straight person in the world. but am i oppressing them? my [inter-personal] hatred may make one straight person cry, which of course, would be very sad. but my hatred will not take away their ability to marry (over and over again) or be with their partners in the hospital, or get tax credits because of marriage status. oppression is not interpersonal.

there are those that will say, “well, i’m not racist, i’m a first generation polish immigrant, and i had nothing to do with anybody’s slave trade” or “hey, that was my great-great grandparents. they weren’t bad people, and they were just doing what was normal for the time. and besides, i wasn’t there.” no. no you weren’t there. neither was i. yet, what you receive now, based on that slavery my ancestors endured is great. white folks are still receiving benefits based on 400 years of slavery. and people of color, are still experiencing disproportionate amounts of unemployment, unequal housing, unequal education. indigenous people are still living on reservations- so, while neither of us were there, we cannot dismiss that things that happened a year ago, still affect our lives today. white folks get to write our history books. white folks are primarily the ones making major decisions about brown folks’ education. the fact is, you didn’t have to be a slave-owner to benefit from institutions of slavery and racism. you still get white privilege today. right now. it doesn’t matter if you a KKK member or a white liberal gay woman. you still get white privilege. you can’t give it back. but it’s not hopeless. what you can do is be actively anti-racist. by being a good ally.

ok. so what does this have to do with being colorblind? well, white folks have created whiteness as a standard. i am non-white. simple, right? white folks are never “non-people of color.” this is because whiteness is the standard by which all other races are judged and compared. therefore, in an ideal world, sure, it would be nice if whiteness was not the standard, but the fact is, i do have a visible difference based on race. so, to suggest that those differences do not exist is false. it minimizes and silences. color-blindness is in fact white-washing our diversity. because when white folks don’t see color, i think, what they are actually saying is “i want to see everyone exactly like me, because my way is right.” colorblindness wipes away any larger, governmental accountability about inequities in policies, and allows the government to place blame on individuals, to re-write our histories, and make the past seem irrelevant to the present. for example: “there is a black man in the white house now. the rest of these blacks are uneducated because they are just good for nothing” vs. “ok. there is ONE black man out of many presidents who is the exception, not the rule. and black folks were not allowed to read in the usa for 400 years in an effort to keep them uneducated, and then when the government finally gave them the “right” to read, black children had inaccurate text books, and sometimes none at all. black and brown children are disproportionately not provided with the same educational tools as their white counterparts.” see the difference?

and besides. what’s wrong with being “different?” what would happen if we could acknowledge our differences, and notice it, and talk it about it, and still be loving, and treat people with respect, taking into account our various needs and experiences? my hope is that world. that world where we are finally equalized- not through dismissing, white-washing or downplaying our differences, not through erasing painful histories, and not through guilt. but through accountability, owning up, speaking our truths and being heard. and then real healing and reconciliation can occur.

have you had conversations about colorblindness? what were they like?


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