Archive for March, 2010

Savage Humor? Privilege Among Marginalized Groups

March 24, 2010
cut out from Dan Savage's blog post with McKenna's picture, identifying him as transgendered

Savage Humor?

I can’t say for certain whether or not McKenna is transgender, but all evidence I can find points to no. If he is, he’s certainly not public about it. And whether he is or not is, frankly, none of my business. Nor is it that of Dan Savage.

What’s infuriating to me here is the effect of what Savage has put forth, whether in “humor” or not.

Savage says “Rob McKenna doesn’t make a big deal about (being transgender)” in the post pictured above; his own bio on the site says, “Savage can also lay claim to being the only person at The Stranger to have actually converted his sexuality into a profession.” Savage is a gay man.

I don’t want to make a mess of co-mingling sexuality and gender, but I do think it’s fair to say both gay men and transgendered people are marginalized groups, and fit into the LBGTQ spectrum. Any false sense of community aside, there is a certain insidiousness when one member of a marginalized group attacks and asserts privilege over another.

Whether Savage is “outing” McKenna as a transgender person or leveling an unfounded allegation in the name of humor (that rises to the level of calling something you don’t like “gay”), he’s demonstrating his cisgender privilege.

In our culture, we think it’s very important to identify gender at or before birth (what is the first question you ask when you find out a friend is pregnant or has given birth?). We codify gender with everything from color to clothes to toys to jobs to range of emotion. Traits, abilities, or interests that fall outside our preset, deeply ingrained norms are called into question, often ridiculed, and can be dangerous. Being gay challenges gender norms, but being transgender blows them to pieces.

Speaking of danger:

* 33.2% of transgender youth have attempted suicide. Clements-Nolle K., Marx R., Katz M. (2006). Attempted suicide among transgender persons: The influence of gender-based discrimination and victimization. Journal of Homosexuality, 51(3): 53-69.)

* 55% of transgender youth report being physically attacked. (GLSEN. (2003). The 2003 national school climate survey: the school related experiences of our nation’s lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender youth.)

* 74% of transgender youth reported being sexually harassed at school, and 90% of transgender youth reported feeling unsafe at school because of their gender expression. (GLSEN. (2001). The 2001 national school climate survey: the school related experiences of our nation’s lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender youth.)

* In a survey of 403 transgender people, 78% reported having been verbally harassed and 48% reported having been victims of assault, including assault with a weapon, sexual assault or rape. (Wilchins, R., Lombardi, E., Priesing, D. and Malouf, D. (1997) First national survey of transgender violence. Gender Public Advocacy Coalition.)

– From Youth Pride, Inc.

That Savage published a picture with this attack is no accident. We have in our minds what we think men and women should look like – again, we are taught these things from birth. Savage is giving us an opportunity to tap into those notions and decide if McKenna looks “manly,” or like a “she male,” or “delicate,” or “girly,” or any number of descriptors often levied as slurs against people whose gender we feel we have the right to examine, question, and criticize.

Whether or not the claims Savage is making are true, he has levied his cisgender privilege to successfully call into question McKenna’s “manhood.” Whether it’s a joke or an outing, the effect he’s creating is to further marginalize and ridicule transgender people, and that’s inexcusable.

Tea Party Racism

March 23, 2010

From NPR‘s website

There’s a lot to be said about the racist undertones (and sometimes overt messages) in protests of the current administration’s policies, most notably by the Tea Party.

Although I have heard some feeble cries from among the Party that those voices are isolated and don’t represent them (and the same cries from among Conservative Republicans, who fund and support the Tea party), the fact is they are continually and with no apparent internal resistance showing up at Tea Party events with their signs, shouting epithets.

As I become more aware of my own racism and white privilege, I often find myself looking around groups I am affiliated with and noticing whether people of color are represented and, if not, why not. I wonder if the Tea Party’s founders, funders, and members have the same question. I think white people rarely do.

I wonder, too, if racism isn’t so steeped in our culture, society, and the way we move through every day life that outpourings like this, filled with such vitriol and seemingly rooted in a deep fear that their way of life and the founding of this country are at stake, are manifestations of that deeply rooted racism being challenged daily by a Black President.

That, conflated with the empty allegations of a “post-racial America,” seems to have carved out a niche for racism that is more virulent and viciously defended than any other I’ve seen in my lifetime.

How Important is it to be Comfortable? Framing Discussions on Race and Privilege

March 8, 2010

Way back in August, when a handful of us Buddhist white people got together because we were all interested in discussing white privilege and racism, I don’t think any of us would have guessed it would take seven or eight months for the discussion to actually begin.

When we first met, sitting on the grass in upper Meridian Hill (or Malcolm X, depending who you ask) Park, our immediate task was to find someone to teach us. Naive as I am, I was certain that there would be no dearth of people in DC who would be chomping at the bit to lead us in our discussions about white privilege and oppression. I volunteered to find us a teacher.

Through the miracle of Twitter, I was in touch with the brains behind GAP Consulting LLC, Aisha Brown. It occurred to me in conversations with her that she might be the perfect fit and she agreed. I asked her to put together a proposed curriculum. In putting the proposal together, Aisha worked closely with me to understand the group and our goals and reached out to the leader of the POC community in our larger Buddhist community to see what the issues were from their perspective. The proposal she put together was amazing.

At our planning group’s very second meeting – inside this time! – I had copies of the proposal to share. I was excited that I’d found someone and I was eager to get working. I started to tell the group about Aisha, but as soon as I said her name, I could hear the needle go off the record and the wheels come off the bus. One person interrupted me to tell me they assumed because her name was Aisha, she was Black. I confirmed that she was and that’s when things got really uncomfortable. So uncomfortable, in fact, that the group would not even look at the proposal.

The group came up with lots of reasons why they couldn’t possibly learn about white privilege from a Black person.

First of all, it’s not the responsibility of people of color to teach white people about privilege. We’re supposed to do our own work! I agree with this. As white people who want to fight racism, it’s our job to examine ways in which we benefit from privilege and institutional racism. It’s our job to dig into the ways in which we have adopted and act on racial stereotypes. Asking a person of color why some things are offensive or racist or what people of color think about something is thoughtless and insensitive – it puts them in the place of speaking for all the people who look like them, and that’s not possible, much less reasonable. I also think this approach runs the risk of getting permission to not change or examine behavior. If one Black friend says it’s okay for me to use the n-word and that’s as deep as I go, I could use that permission to continue in racist and oppressive behavior.

However, Aisha’s role was not to act a a representative of all people of color and I am certain she would be very clear about that. We were not asking her to teach us about people of color. She was offering to lead our discussions and work with all of our ugly, messy stuff. For us as a group to decide it wasn’t fair to her to guide us in conversations about oppressions and privilege is incredibly presumptuous. We were assuming that we knew better how to take care of her than she did, that we understood her needs and impact of her role better than she did.

Another reason we couldn’t possibly have a person of color teach us was because we wouldn’t be as honest with her in the room for fear of hurting her by voicing our racism. I was on the fence about this. On one hand, it’s pretty enlightened to realize brave to admit. On the other hand, it seems like a cop out. It makes people gathered for the expressed purpose of talking about privilege and racism look like, as my Daddy would say, they are “all hat and no cattle.” As if people are willing to say they are going to talk about race to a point. Enough to be a good white person, but not enough to be uncomfortable.

The issue of comfort came earlier up at the same meeting in a different context, when we were talking about how, when, and where we would like the meetings to be. As there will be when eight people come together, there were at least eight opinions on everything. One person, clearly growing a little impatient with the logistics discussion, said that perhaps we should realize that not only would we not all be 100 percent comfortable with how things went, but that other people – including the people we were striving to be allies to – didn’t have the privilege of carefully tailoring their environment for their comfort every day when they walked out the door.

Another reason, and maybe the one that bothered me the most, was that a person of color couldn’t talk to us about white privilege because they didn’t have it. How could she identify with what it’s like to have privilege? How could she understand the burden we carry?

It might sound reasonable on its face for a second. However, there are different types of privilege and being a person of color doesn’t exclude an individual from enjoying them. (Cis)Gender, class, and hetero privilege come to mind first. People of color experience these privileges. It would be foolish of me to compare or equate privileges (and about as much fun as comparing oppressions) and just as foolish of me to dismiss someone else’s experience of privilege because it’s not the same privilege I have. I don’t want to contemplate what assumptions the group may have made about Aisha based on knowing she is a person of color, so I am going to assign this reaction to panic. Hard to do with Buddhists, but that’s where I am with that.

In the end, the group decided on a more broad approach to seeking a teacher/facilitator. Everyone was given the responsibility of researching and suggesting someone. We ranked possible teachers according to our ideal criteria, including experience, availability, cost, Buddhist background, and, ultimately, race. It was rather unceremoniously decided weeks later that we would absolutely not consider a teacher of color. I wanted to ask the group which of them would contact Aisha and tell her we would not be hiring her because she is not white. My only out-loud resistance was to ask the group, point blank, in hopes that it would jar them, if we would only hire a white teacher. The answer was swift and certain and, it seemed, unashamed.

Yesterday, when we broke into two small groups to discuss ways in which we had ineffectively engaged issues out of our dominant group membership in a way that was real for the people in the room, I told the story I just told you.

I’m not sure my anger and frustration over this process is appropriate to discuss within the group and I hate feeling like “my stuff” is the center of a group’s attention. At the same time, I think it would be the perfect thing to engage people in the real-live, present effects of how we act and react. This group, and the planning group before it, has been so skilled in avoiding actually talking about race and white privilege that bringing it into the room seems to push all the air out. However, the objective act of a group of white people flatly denying a person of color a job opportunity based on her race seems too rich not to explore, no matter how uncomfortable it makes people.

Avoidance and Having a Seat at the Table

March 7, 2010

No, sorry, this isn’t going to be a post about food (although I am about 20 minutes away from putting almost no-knead rustic bread in the oven). It’s going to be about privilege.

One of the many messy things about having privilege in any area is the tendency to believe we can fix things. While it’s usually well intentioned, it bears with it the assumption that we’re invited or allowed in the discussion of how to “help” or make things “better” in a group we don’t belong to.

It’s a tendency I struggle a lot with, personally. Part of my cultural baggage as a white woman is the strong urge to smooth everything over, to make everything nice, to make everyone comfortable, to rescue people, to help. I’m not assigning this desire any positive or negative value, just acknowledging that it affects how I move through the world.

I remember watching the movie Malcolm X in the theater when it first came out. When a well-meaning young white girl approached Malcolm X as he left a building on a college campus and asked if there was anything she could do to help, Denzel Washington, playing Malcolm X, didn’t even look at her when he said, flatly, “No.” The black people in the theater with me erupted in cheers and applause. I was utterly mystified. How could they possibly not want our help?

I see similar feelings of confusion and frustration among privileged folks when members of an oppressed or “other” group seek space of their own to come together. Why are we required to share our spaces with them, while they are free to exclude us? I think this is the flip side of the “helpful” privileged thinking: that we always have a seat at the table. That our opinion is always welcome, that our help is, in fact, needed.

Nope. In a culture that systematically and institutionally assigns privileges to certain groups of people, people who are not in those groups deserve a space to not only share their common experience, but be free of the exposure to that privilege (by its presence in the room), even if only for an hour a week, or a weekend retreat, or in entire organizations and institutions dedicated to them.

Part of this urge to help and need to fix things is a fantastic way to avoid doing our own work. If I declare that race doesn’t matter to me, that I am colorblind, I give myself a pass on examining and dismantling the privileges afforded to me because I am white. This goes, too, by the way for the misanthropic old favorite of mine, “I hate everyone equally.” An attempt by me to be witty, but still a denial of my privileges.

I’ve learned over the last several months that there is no shortage of ways to avoid doing white privilege work. My little group started a planning committee in August – six months ago – and has now only met to talk about privilege twice. We had planned a little book group as a way to actually “do the work” while we were working on talking about talking about it, but that never took shape. Now that we’ve met twice, we’ve talked about white privilege … not at all. Our homework last time was enough to prompt more than half the (15-member) group to express misgivings about continuing. And we spent most of the rest of the meeting addressing an interpersonal conflict within the group, which ultimately resulted in a change of venue. (The first meeting was mostly ground rules and logistics.) I am so frustrated about our collective avoidance that I’ve completely disengaged from my own white privilege work this week. I’m pretty sure I can stoke this frustration and anger long enough to avoid my own work for at least another week.

The third meeting is today, and I have more homework to do. I’m supposed to complete some exercises on triggering events in my work on dismantling racism and reflect on a specific time when I spoke up and ineffectively engaged issues out of our dominant group membership.

But my bread just came out of the oven …