Archive for February, 2010

Institutions and Racism: What’s Wrong with this Picture, Part 2

February 27, 2010
10 On-air personalities of MSNBC, all white

Meet the Faces of MSNBC

Ten prominent faces of MSNBC, their on-air personalities from morning ’til night, and not a single person of color. Certainly, they were not all hired by one single racist person acting with strict intent to keep their public face white. More likely, it’s institutionalized racism. The only other possibilities I can think of are coincidence or a dearth of talent and ability among people of color, and neither is plausible.

Quoting Melissa Harris Lacewell in The Nation:

Racism is not the the sole domain of Republicans, Conservatives or Southerners. Not all racists pepper their conversation with the N-word or secretly desire the extermination of black and brown people. Racism is complex, multi-layered, and deeply rooted in the American story.

As my friend UrbanBohemian pointed out, MSNBC may have even outdone Vanity Fair:

Vanity Fair cover showing "young Hollywood." Nine women, all white.

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Talking the Talk: White Privilege, People of Color, and Racism

February 25, 2010

I am really new to the world and words of anti-racism. So new, in fact, that I sometimes forget the language common to anti-racist discussions isn’t necessarily known and understood by everyone. From discussions I have had with friends today about my post yesterday, I realize that there are three terms in particular that I would like to provide clarity around.

The first is white privilege. This is a term used to describe the advantages white people have based solely on the fact that they are white. It’s not earned or asked for, and it is not about consciously claiming or asserting superiority. It’s simply the result of having the same color of skin as the people who hold the institutional power and who are considered the “norm.” Often, part of white privilege is not being aware that you have it.

Second is people of color. A brief, informal poll on twitter today revealed to me that lots of white people seem to think this is a euphemism for Black people. It’s not. The term people of color, in discussions about race, refers to anyone who is not white.

Finally, racism. Racism is often used and defined as any sort of racial prejudice. For purposes of anti-racism discussions, it is specifically prejudice plus institutional power. In that framework, people of color cannot be racist, because they simply don’t hold institutional power.

All of these terms as I have described them apply to anti-racist discussions in the United States.

All of these definitions are from my understanding of a subject I am pretty new to. Please let me know if there’s anything I’ve missed or bungled.

White Privilege Homework

February 24, 2010

Last month, I attended the first in a series of facilitated discussions with white people about white privilege. The first meeting was mostly logistics and introductions, with some hand outs and a homework assignment. The homework is to help the facilitators understand where the discussants are and guide the conversation going forward.

I’ve been carrying around the questions for weeks and the answers are due today. As it turns out, carrying the questions around isn’t an effective method of responding to them. I also started this post days ago by cutting and pasting the questions into WordPress. No, that didn’t work either. But I have been thinking about them a lot. Kind of reminds me of writing papers in college. I would read up on the subject at hand and think about it all the time, then stay up the entire night before trying to piece it all together. I’m told this is a sure sign of a true perfectionist, but I digress.

I am sharing the questions and my answers here with you, partially in hopes of getting your response.

Oh, it might help to know that these discussions were initiated in the context of a Buddhist group, or sangha, (thought the facilitators are not Buddhist) so any Buddhist principles or mentions are due to that.

Here goes:

When did I first realize I was white? What did I feel experience in this awakening?

This, I’ve decided, is a trick question. As a white person in the US, I am born with the privilege of being the accepted default normal. (Moreso if I were male, hetero, cis, etc.). It seems like the question should be, “When did I first realize someone else wasn’t white?” And that’s how I thought of it at first. Thinking about when I first realized I was white is a subtle but mind-blowing paradigm shift for me, which I suspect is important to my understanding of white privilege. Claiming an identity, to me, seems to necessitate rejecting the ingrained, default “normal.”

The first time I realized I was white, I was probably 17 or 18 years old and it was because I was one of two white people in a crowded restaurant. I remember very clearly feeling isolated, on display, and afraid. I felt like I was in the wrong place and unwelcome. My friend who was with me, the only other white person there, seemed not to notice. But I remember staying as close to him as I could and really feeling urgency around getting out of there because I felt so self conscious and like I didn’t belong.

What are the significant events along the way that have influenced who I am today as a white person?

Another tricky one. It would be too easy to talk about what things have simply influenced my life and what part white privilege had in those things. But, trying to keep in the paradigm shift I’m trying to get my mind around, I am left to think of things that have happened since I’ve become aware of white privilege.

As part of my training to be a rape crisis counselor and advocate, I took a day-long training with my fellow trainees on “isms.” Racism, sexism, homophobia, ableism, ageism, etc. When we started talking about racism, we discussed being “color blind,” and I was floored by the reaction of people of color in the room. I was in my mid-30s and had never heard anything negative about being a color-blind white person until that day. In fact, I thought it was rather enlightened of me. What I learned that day was it is my privilege as a white person never to think about race and how it affects me. Or other people. To blithely and boastfully say that I was blind to it was expressing the height of my then-unknown privilege.

During the same training, another one of the counselors in training, a black woman who by then I considered a loved friend, talked about being called the n word by a softball coach when she made some sort of error during a game. He yelled it in front of her teammates, the other team, and everyone who was at the game. As she talked about it and tears rolled down her cheeks, the sense I got from her was not anger, but overwhelming, soul-shriveling shame. The n word is the one word I’ve ever had my mouth washed out with soap for saying, so I always knew it was capital-b Bad. As I grew up, I began to more fully understand the social implications of the word and how it was inappropriate for me to use it ever, for any reason. But until that day, I didn’t even begin to comprehend the emotional weight behind it, the horrifying dehumanization of it. I am certain I still don’t understand it fully and never will. But in that moment, I got a nauseating, Earth-shattering glimpse. I realized then that there isn’t a single word with the same weight, effect, or history that could be leveled against me, and that shifted my perception of myself as a white person. The combination of the frank discussion of color blindness and the introduction to the words “white privilege” made that a life-changing
day.

A couple of years after that, when I was working for the same organization that offered the training, I said something racist to a colleague. Fortunately, I was in an environment that, for all its other failings, fostered confronting the isms it taught about, and a colleague confronted me in the moment. She was very direct and plain, and did not mince her words with any pleasantries or kindness – nor did she have any obligation to. I reeled and walked away, dumbfounded, knowing my intent was much different than my impact (but not yet knowing the importance between the difference). Later that day, I took her aside and told her what she said was really painful to hear. She told me calmly and resolutely that it was not her job to take care of me around that pain and she walked away. Again, I was left with my jaw on the floor. It took me weeks to sort it all out for myself, and I am forever grateful to her for it.

What messages do I hold about being white?

I feel like I have to skip this one. I don’t know. Usually, I (still) don’t think of myself as white. I am learning that as a white person, I am afforded certain privileges. I feel like being a white anti-racist could be powerful. I feel like as a white anti-racist, I have a moral obligation to call out other white people when they are being racist and to otherwise leverage what power and privilege I have to work toward eradicating racism.

What privileges do I hold/enjoy because I’m white?

I think Peggy McIntosh covered it pretty well in Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack. More specifically, I can catch a cab on K Street here in Washington – even after dark. I can complain about services or products in a restaurant or store and not be suspected of trying to get anything over on anyone. I am generally perceived as non threatening on sight. I can be angry or belligerent or loud in public without it being attributed to or perceived as a bad reflection on my race. People don’t comment with surprise when I speak intelligently and without an accent. No one is ever surprised after they talk to me on the phone that I am the race I am. When I interview for jobs in my chosen profession (writer/editor), most people look like me. Most of my political leaders, CEOs, and bosses look like me. I can find a community of people who look like me in any urban or rural setting. It goes on.

How often do I talk directly about race with other white People? What do I find difficult to discuss?

Outside of anti-racist groups and in a general blogging/twitter sense or among people I know are anti-racist, almost never. I try to get a feeling for where they are on the subject before I bring anything up.

I find it difficult to discuss the fact that I think all white people are racist, including me. It’s difficult to discuss whiteness outside of privilege.

When and where do I get stuck? Not show up very effective or competent as a white anti-racist? How do I feel when I’m stuck and less effective?

Talking to other white people about racism, especially when it comes up in a group or professional setting. When I am stuck and ineffective I feel like a jerk and a fraud. I feel anxious and ineffectual and angry.

What do I know about my practice of Buddhism and how can I apply the “awakening” to this group process and beyond?

A big part of being “awake” is being in the moment. I think there’s a key part of understanding white privilege and being white that I can uncover and understand by listening honestly to my heart in the moment I react to something, the moment before I pile on all the stories I tell myself – all the old, learned responses that obscure and even completely bury honesty and clear thinking. It’s the internal version of hitting the snooze button without even becoming conscious (or waking up!). To unpack, as it were, ingrained, learned, immediate responses around race and identity and see things as they are with clarity in the moment would really help me not only fully understand my own internalized racism, but be more conscious of racism when I experience it externally – from individuals or institutions.

So, there it is. In the interest of full disclosure, I’ve left out some questions and responses, mostly about group dynamics. If you are dying to know the other questions and my responses, I am happy to share.

I would love to hear your responses and questions, whether you are white or a person of color. I especially encourage white people to think about being white and what it means, what messages it carries, and what identifying as white means.

What’s Wrong with this Picture?

February 15, 2010

Vanity Fair "New Hollywood 2010" cover

Vanity Fair wants us to know that young Hollywood is white and skinny, cisgendered, and hyper feminine. I’m certain they didn’t think about it in those terms when they put the cover together and that most of those things don’t even come to mind when most people look at it. In fact, when the sheer whiteness of the cover is pointed out, a lot of white people seem to lose their shit, totally missing the point by bemoaning the lack of white people in Ebony magazine and the like. One reason media, groups, and organizations exist specifically for people of color (and other oppressed minorities) is because they are so underrepresented in the “mainstream.” Another is to have space where the day-to-day weight of oppression and isms can be lifted, if only a little and only for a while.

I’m glad to see there’s a lot of chatter around the sheer whiteness of this Vanity Fair cover, even if it does bring out the bizarre notion that, somehow, post-racial America means “they have their magazines and we have ours” (and I wonder what Vanity Fair would think about being perceived as a “white” magazine). But the whiteness is just the tip of the iceberg.

There’s some chatter, too, about the size of the women on the cover. Whether through the magic of airbrushing, diet and exercise, or nature, the women all seem very, very thin. It’s too easy to be snarky and lob thinly veiled accusations about eating disorders and the like. Bodies come in all shapes and sizes. The disturbing there here, again, is that only one type is represented and it is the type upheld as the ideal. Exclusion is part of oppression, and not seeing it is part of privilege.

What I haven’t heard or seen anyone discuss is the unabashed heteronormativity. They all seem hyperfeminine. From the way they’re dressed to the way they’re holding their bodies, there is no question that each and every one of them is a woman. With the exception of one, or maybe two, can you imagine a man sitting like that? Each one of these people probably presents as female in their daily lives – in fact, counts on their femininity for their profession. Anything less would make us squirm and wrinkle our noses. KD Lang wore a suit and (apparently) no makeup when she sang Hallelujah at the opening ceremonies for the winter Olympics in Vancouver this past Friday night, and the Twitterverse was alight with people commenting on her lack of femininity and saying they didn’t know who she was at first because they thought the singer was a man. Short hair, slacks, square shoulders and an unadorned face on a woman skirts (as it were) the edge of transgender, but it’s enough to make us scratch our heads. Imagine if Bryan Adams came out in a dress, heels, and make up? We would question his sexuality and his sanity. And very few among us would see anything wrong with that.

So, what’s wrong with Vanity Fair’s picture of young Hollywood? It aggressively, unabashedly, (perhaps unconsciously) and without apology reinforces race, body, and gender norms, asserting and supporting oppression and privilege by means of total exclusion.

Too Fat to Fly and Fat Shame: Why Are You Surprised?

February 14, 2010

In case you haven’t yet heard the buzz, director Kevin Smith was escorted off a Southwest Airlines flight last night because of “safety concerns” over his size. He mentioned it almost immediately on Twitter, and his rant continues today.

Southwest, via their own Twitter feed, has attempted to manage the situation as it’s whipped through the Twitterverse and into the blogosphere, going so far as to issue “heartfelt apologies” on their own blog. Unfortunately, in Kevin Smith’s words, it basically says “Sorry, sir. But you ARE kinda fat…”

Southwest’s policy isn’t new, as evidenced by the Customer of Size Q&A on their Website.

I could get into a whole litany of things about fellow airline passengers that make me uncomfortable or invade my space, but as Kate Harding pointed out, that can devolve to quickly into other kinds of shaming. And therein lies the rub: Southwest Airlines is counting on their customers to be so ashamed of their bodies that they will sheepishly allow the airline to kick them off a flight – or worse: buy two tickets to avoid the shame in the first place. Yet they claim it’s not a revenue generator.

The biggest surprise for me in all of this is actually the surprise from everyone else. I’m fat, and I’m very well accustomed to fat shame. I worry every single time I fly. I worry that I will have to ask for a lap-belt extender, and then I worry that the flight attendant will be mean about it, or that people will stare when they hand it to me, that the person next to me is going to complain that I am too fat, that I am taking up too much room. I get aisle seats so I don’t have to get past anyone to get in or out and then suck up the fact that it results in me, inevitably, getting bashed in the elbow by a flight attendant’s beverage cart.

The shame doesn’t end in the air. I worry that I take up too much space on the bus and train, restaurants, and even on the sidewalk (exacerbated by our recent snow, resulting in one-lane sidewalks). I’ve been approached in Victoria’s Secret in DC and not-so-politely been told by a sales person that they didn’t have anything there for someone of my size.

We hear you. We’ve been talking about negative body images in the media for years and years. And now the message is louder and more pointed. Look around – tv, magazines (I’m looking at you, Vanity Fair), the First Lady: fat is BAD and you’re going to DIE, but first we’re going to make you feel REALLY BAD about it.

So my question for you all is: why are you so surprised?

Kevin Smith on a Southwest Airlines flight

Kevin Smith: Too Fat to Fly

Snowmageddon Oh Ten

February 4, 2010

I have been pretty obsessed by the weather since I was a kid. I blame my big brother (photo escapist), who not only has a natural ability to attract lightening and tornadoes, but has also always known how to torment me. One summer morning, way back before the Internet, when cable was brand new, I was watching the weather channel. In its earliest stages, it was just a screen with the basic facts: temperature, wind direction and speed, humidity, etc. I was fascinated that the humidity was past 90% and asked my older, wiser brother what would happen if it hit 100%. With a very calm and serious tone, he said, “We all die.” And he left the room. Left me there to watch the number climb while I fretted, wishing my parents would come home before the inevitable so we could say good bye, wondering why the rest of the world wasn’t panicking with me.

So, freaking out over weather is no stranger to me. But let me tell you: I have nothing on DC. We shrug at anthrax, roll our eyes over yet another bomb threat, and don’t even look up from our mobile devices when the President goes by in a motorcade that includes sharp shooters and lots of big guns. But weather? DC loses its collective mind. This is true for bright sun (I’ve heard many traffic reports with bright sun warnings), wind (I’ve received e-mail reminding me with some urgency to secure any objects that might fly away!), rain, thunderstorms, and most of all, snow.

One of my first winters here, 6 or 7 years ago, there were lots of threats of snow. Every time the s word was in the forecast, everything for miles would shut down, from schools to grocery stores to the Federal Government. Every time, we’d hunker down and wait for the death and destruction and every time we would get a dusting or nothing at all. It was that winter I realized that this town is insane. We’ve learned since, though, and there is still a fair amount of hand wringing accompanying each snow prediction, along with the jokes about stocking up on toilet paper and milk, but we almost adopted the same shrugging cynicism about snow we have about pretty much anything else.

Until this year.

There are a number of reasons I won’t forget #snOMG this past December, not the least of which is the off-duty police officer who brought a gun to a snowball fight I was at with friends. That storm arrived on a Saturday morning and left us with a little over 16 inches. I was glued to the TV that morning, watching local coverage with reporters standing outside in the snow, telling us just how bad it was, interviewing people they could find to reiterate that it was really, really bad. There were also the weather guys out on their weather decks with their yardsticks periodically updating us in snowfall totals. All the while, of course, a long list of closings scrawled across the bottom of the screen. DC is so ill prepared for snow that the Federal Government was shut down the following Monday.

This past Wednesday, we got 3 or 4 inches over night. What amounts to a squall of lake-effect snow in my native Syracuse closed down area school districts and kept most of my colleagues home from work. DC’s mayor made a special announcement Wednesday morning about the snow removal efforts as the sun shone brightly and the streets were clear.

But nothing I have experienced in DC weather compares to the current fervor. Even before our mid-week snow event there were mumblings and rumblings among forecasters about a potential weekend storm. I held hope, but mostly dismissed it. Predictions that far out usually bust, and I didn’t think we could possibly be so lucky. Watching it unfold yesterday and today, though, has been utterly fantastic.

This was the prediction yesterday morning from @capitalweather:

“current probabilities put it at 55 percent chance of 6+. It COULD rival mid december”

and at lunchtime:

So, You guys probably expect me to say something about now… Still figuring out how to not sound scared and completly paniced. #bread #milk

late afternoon:

PM Update: Big snow becoming likely: Winter Storm Watches already up for late-week storm

and last night:

Update: Confidence increasing in high snow totals: * Winter Storm Watch Friday morning through Saturday evening

When I got into work this morning, the whole office was abuzz with snow talk. By lunchtime, we had an e-mail from the head of internal services reminding us of our telework and emergency policies and admonishing us to stay home if it’s not safe. By mid afternoon, the Federal Government announced that they will be open tomorrow, but on “liberal leave” – basically, “you should stay home but we’re not going to pay you to.” By the time I was commuting home, the bus routes were already a mess (although … with WMATA, that could be just about anything), local school districts had started to close, and the snowfall prediction was up to at least 16 inches.

The height of pre-snow insanity, though, came via a series of reports on Twitter from folks around DC trying to stock up at grocery stores. Long lines and little left. typical in its own way, yes, but one person reported a wait to get into a Wegman’s parking lot, and another a half-hour line to get in to Whole Foods – not the parking lot, the store.

The biggest snowstorm on record for DC is January 27-28, 1922, which was 28 inches. Forecasters are saying tomorrow’s storm has the potential to beat that. I hope it does. If we do get as much as is predicted, my bet is that the Government will be shut down Monday, and maybe even Tuesday. I’m looking forward to continue to watch it unfold on TV and Twitter.

a white privilege primer

February 3, 2010

My first post will be largely not my own writing, but I have a feeling I will want to refer to it from time to time.

From White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack (pdf) by Peggy McIntosh

Daily effects of white privilege

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 that I think in my case attach somewhat more to skin-color privilege than to class, religion, ethnic status, or geographic location, though of course all these other factors are intricately intertwined. As far as I can tell, my African American coworkers, friends, and acquaintances with whom I come into daily or frequent contact in this particular time, place and time of work cannot count on most of these conditions.

1. I can if I wish arrange to be in the company of people of my race most of the time.

2. I can avoid spending time with people whom I was trained to mistrust and who have learned to mistrust my kind or me.

3. If I should need to move, I can be pretty sure of renting or purchasing housing in an area which I can afford and in which I would want to live.

4. I can be pretty sure that my neighbors in such a location will be neutral or pleasant to me.

5. I can go shopping alone most of the time, pretty well assured that I will not be followed or harassed.

6. I can turn on the television or open to the front page of the paper and see people of my race widely represented.

7. When I am told about our national heritage or about “civilization,” I am shown that people of my color made it what it is.

8. I can be sure that my children will be given curricular materials that testify to the existence of their race.

9. If I want to, I can be pretty sure of finding a publisher for this piece on white privilege.

10. I can be pretty sure of having my voice heard in a group in which I am the only member of my race.

11. I can be casual about whether or not to listen to another person’s voice in a group in which s/he is the only member of his/her race.

12. 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.

13. Whether I use checks, credit cards or cash, I can count on my skin color not to work against the appearance of financial reliability.

14. I can arrange to protect my children most of the time from people who might not like them.

15. I do not have to educate my children to be aware of systemic racism for their own daily physical protection.

16. I can be pretty sure that my children’s teachers and employers will tolerate them if they fit school and workplace norms; my chief worries about them do not concern others’ attitudes toward their race.

17. I can talk with my mouth full and not have people put this down to my color.

18. 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.

19. I can speak in public to a powerful male group without putting my race on trial.

20. I can do well in a challenging situation without being called a credit to my race.

21. I am never asked to speak for all the people of my racial group.

22. 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.

23. I can criticize our government and talk about how much I fear its policies and behavior without being seen as a cultural outsider.

24. 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.

25. 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.

26. I can easily buy posters, post-cards, picture books, greeting cards, dolls, toys and children’s magazines featuring people of my race.

27. I can go home from most meetings of organizations I belong to feeling somewhat tied in, rather than isolated, out-of-place, outnumbered, unheard, held at a distance or feared.

28. I can be pretty sure that an argument with a colleague of another race is more likely to jeopardize her/his chances for advancement than to jeopardize mine.

29. I can be pretty sure that if I argue for the promotion of a person of another race, or a program centering on race, this is not likely to cost me heavily within my present setting, even if my colleagues disagree with me.

30. If I declare there is a racial issue at hand, or there isn’t a racial issue at hand, my race will lend me more credibility for either position than a person of color will have.

31. I can choose to ignore developments in minority writing and minority activist programs, or disparage them, or learn from them, but in any case, I can find ways to be more or less protected from negative consequences of any of these choices.

32. My culture gives me little fear about ignoring the perspectives and powers of people of other races.

33. I am not made acutely aware that my shape, bearing or body odor will be taken as a reflection on my race.

34. I can worry about racism without being seen as self-interested or self-seeking.

35. I can take a job with an affirmative action employer without having my co-workers on the job suspect that I got it because of my race.

36. If my day, week or year is going badly, I need not ask of each negative episode or situation whether it had racial overtones.

37. I can be pretty sure of finding people who would be willing to talk with me and advise me about my next steps, professionally.

38. I can think over many options, social, political, imaginative or professional, without asking whether a person of my race would be accepted or allowed to do what I want to do.

39. I can be late to a meeting without having the lateness reflect on my race.

40. 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.

41. I can be sure that if I need legal or medical help, my race will not work against me.

42. I can arrange my activities so that I will never have to experience feelings of rejection owing to my race.

43. If I have low credibility as a leader I can be sure that my race is not the problem.

44. I can easily find academic courses and institutions which give attention only to people of my race.

45. I can expect figurative language and imagery in all of the arts to testify to experiences of my race.

46. I can chose blemish cover or bandages in “flesh” color and have them more or less match my skin.

47. I can travel alone or with my spouse without expecting embarrassment or hostility in those who deal with us.

48. I have no difficulty finding neighborhoods where people approve of our household.

49. My children are given texts and classes which implicitly support our kind of family unit and do not turn them against my choice of domestic partnership.

50. I will feel welcomed and “normal” in the usual walks of public life, institutional and social.