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?

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 …

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.

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.