I gave a short speech today on dialogue and accountability and being gentle with each other while doing what we can. The quality of this recording is poor, but I’m parking it here until I find something better (runs from 0:06 to 7:12).
Lately I’ve been hanging out with someone when they watch Third Rock from the Sun.
For those who don’t know it, it’s a comedy television show which ran from 1996 – 2001. The premise is that a group of aliens are sent to earth, disguised as a human family, to experience and report life on the 3rd planet from the sun. The cast includes John Lithgow, Jane Curtain, and a young Joseph Gordon- Levitt, and the observations about the silliness of human culture is fun, but….
Wired deep into the humor of the show is a fundamental assumption that men will assertively sexualize women (and girls) and it will be (1) assumed to be normal and (2) deflected and laughed off (or (3) welcomed.)
The first scene here (to 1:19) is pretty representative
It seems to happen at least once each episode. I wonder if the writers and actors even noticed.
Ally, accomplice, trying-to-be-a-decent-human….
Whatever we call it, we should do what we’re asked. I was asked today by a long-time friend to write this.
She asked me to write a post to which she could direct the earnest, well-resourced people who want to support her work but do not see that she IS her work. She wants me to tell them that she is really good at bringing racial consciousness to her peace work because she lives it every day. She wants me to tell them that this also means that she can’t always pay her rent, and doesn’t always have enough to eat (like, there is no food in the house until payday, and then only if she shorts the landlord again or BEGS the phone company not to cut off the way people reach her to give her paying work.)
She asked me to write this because she’s tired of exposing her financial insecurity to people who ask where check should go and then tell her that she “can’t expect people to give her the money directly!”. Better, I guess, to give it to an organization that will take the admin fee and then give some of it to her as less salary than she is worth (or if she proves personal need to their satisfaction). Better, I guess, not to trust the person you KNOW works full time on a part time salary to craft peace to know what she needs to continue that work.
In this post I was asked to write, she asked that I tell people who want to make the world better to reflect on what they are able and willing to give. We all have limits on how much of our privilege we’re willing to do without. Just be clear about it. (And maybe don’t talk about your trip to Paris while apologizing for not being able to do more.)
Finally, and this may be a subtle point, she is NOT asking for reparations for historic imbalances. She is trying to answer the question asked of her, “What do you need to bring your unique skills to solving an important problem?” Telling her that her need to eat is not part of the equation is not helpful.
It’s a journey of layers, understanding the impact of this Skin I’m In.
Though I’ll never call myself “woke”, I know I’m making progress when I bump into questions I can’t answer. Then I live next to them for a while. Sometimes the right knowledge will drop and a barrier will shatter and I will see more depth in the pattern. Glass shattered this week when I listened to an amazing podcast series on racial politics, Scene on Radio’s Seeing White. (The first of the 14 parts can be found here.)
The questions I’ve been holding recently concern Structural Racism. I’ve been studying on them and get it that, for example, a group of people kept from using the GI Bill and cheap mortgage rates after WWII are unlikely to be in the middle class a few generations later. I get it that African Americans have a harder time getting jobs and finding apartments. I know bias and/or racism means that African American, Native American, and Latinx people are in more danger at the hands of police than I am. I was not surprised by last month’s events in Charlottesville.
However, I did not grasp the concrete ways White people have been constructing racial identity to permit the violent exploitation of specific groups since the 1400s. I missed the unavoidable truth that the people we now call White created the idea of race identity so we could rationalize forcing other people to do our work for us, killing them, and stealing their homes. Whiteness exists for the purpose of supporting injustice. Whiteness isn’t a by-product of the problem, it is the problem.
Not sure how I missed this, but there it is.
Though we are all literal cousins to each other, a vile 600-year-old story has been woven around evolution based on where our ancestors went when (if) they left Africa. It is a story that holds each of us apart from our full humanity. For White people, our racial identity is the material composing the bars that exist to constrain our family members.
As Chenjerai Kumanyika (a collaborator on the Seeing White series) says at the end of Part 2, this makes “good whiteness” a contradiction. Accepting this and moving on, I’m just working out how to navigate over broken glass.
Years ago I heard this poem by a 12 year old Black girl on the radio:
America the Beautiful,
Who are you beautiful for?
Or, as Langston Hughes put it in Let America be America:
I say it plain,
America never was America to me,
And yet I swear this oath—
America will be!
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Very few of us want this state of things, but if we want to join with Mr. Langston’s commitment we’re going to have to dig a little deeper into our meditations on why it’s not better yet.
I’ve been reflecting on what privileges I am willing, and not willing, to give up. I’ll surrender social capital with my family and friends, am willing to be arrested, and even willing to be physically hurt. The line I’ve identified for myself is that I’m not willing to lose my home. It feels crappy to say out loud that there is a place beyond which I will not go as an ally in this work, but I’m pretty sure it’s better to own it so that the people I’m working with know how far they can trust me.
(Trust me, they know there is a limit. I’m just trying to be honest about mine.)
In that spirit I offer this disturbing game to identify the ways we hold on to privilege and never even notice. (Hint, will you deny your kids their maximum possible opportunities?)
Maybe someday we’ll be celebrating Interdependence Day instead of Independence Day. Then giving up some of what we each have so we all are better off will lead to a more satisfying answer to the little girl’s question.
It’s dynamic, language and how it shapes how we do life. Back not so long ago, the word “Ally” had power. It stepped away from the idea that members of subordinated[i] groups (those from whom rights have been taken) needed rescuing by members of the dominating groups (those who took the rights), and toward the idea that members of the dominating groups ought to follow the lead of subordinated peoples by standing with and not for them. Then we lived inside that story long enough for two things to happen.
First, we started teasing out what this idea means, such as shifting from using it as a noun (to be an ally) to understanding it as a verb (allyship as a thing we do) or as a relationship. Second, our larger shared story asserted its relationship-shaping power and the word became (in some circles) mildly scornful, as in “ally performance” for when people aim to look right but not do right.
There is a Code Switch podcast which explores these concepts of ally and allyship. Like all their work, it is informative and deep and thought provoking and explores multiple perspectives. For some of the show’s guests, the concept of ally assumes inherent problems, like allyship is based on sympathy not empathy, or that allyship is “done to” a group/people, or that it requires compromises of the people “receiving the allyship”, or that allyship assumes that what is good for me is not good for you.
Seeking a better word for better action, some of us used “accomplice” to try to draw closer to expressing the action of challenging one’s own privilege in service of moving toward humanity-based justice. I haven’t heard it used in many places, and expect there are other words for this idea. I also expect that, with time, we’ll be back to the Ally problem for all these terms, that whatever language we use will eventually reflect dominant group blind spots and subordinated group frustration and we’ll be here once more, critical of people who do allyship wrong and our imperfect language.
The thing is, we really do need what that original version of Ally aspired to… that people with disproportionate access to resources work as real partners with those that access was taken from. I don’t know if we’ll ever settle on a word for it, but here is what I think it looks like:
- Dominating groups will always include people who want to contribute to creating a fairer world.
- When we members of dominating groups try to be part of the solution, many of us are going to start out in (or fall back into) the patterns that say we’re in charge. We can educate ourselves out of some of this, but it’s pretty much a chronic condition. This is our responsibility to handle.
- Foundational principles include: That what we do is more important than what we say we believe; That we are likely to mess up sometimes; That people who point this out to us are doing us a favor; That sometimes we need to center our experience (e.g. whiteness when talking about racial identity) so we can learn how this stuff works, but it should not be centered otherwise; That we are harmed by socially unjust patterns, but people in subordinated groups are wounded and killed by those patterns so their needs come first; That we don’t know much about the lives of people in subordinated groups and should believe them when they tell us.
- Finally, we should try until we do and not retreat when we get critiqued for trying wrong.
As my friends and I say, if this work were easy, it would already be done. And I am sorry for all the times our trying is … very trying.
[i] These issues of oppressing/oppressed groups are important in many forms of identity and always lead to language that is clunky and incomplete. Henry Louis Gates uses Dominant and Subordinated and that seems a good a model as any.
There exists in psychology a concept named the Johari Window. This model (shown above) describes “selves” based on what we know about ourselves and what others know about us (either because we told them or they figured it out.) The model is about individuals in general, but I keep wanting to apply it to white[i] individuals who want to be part of dismantling racism. In this context:
Open Self–that which we and others know about–could be the “I’m not a racist”, “I don’t see color”, or “I read Baldwin” face we give to the world. It’s important to note that this isn’t necessary a lie or a cover… it just isn’t all there is to the story.
Blind self could also be blind spots… those things you don’t know about yourself but others see. Maybe the cheer-filled overcompensation when you make a point of saying hi to the only Black person at the party solely because you want them to feel welcome and worry they might not. (Saying “hi” is fine, and striking up a conversation as you would with any person, but grinning like a fool while you do so might convey something besides ease to the person you are greeting.) Or it could be a little flinch when a large Black man in casual weekend wear gets onto an elevator with you alone. You might not be aware of it, but chances are pretty good he’ll notice.
Hidden self is the material you are aware of, but do not let show. It could be that you still hear your beloved uncle’s voice using a nasty racial slur when you pass a group of boisterous youth on the street, or that you kind of think maybe cops should be worried in neighborhoods of color and have a right to protect themselves though you don’t say so out loud, or that you decided to buy that house you loved and could afford even though the realtor told you with a wink that only “the right sort of people” were shown homes in that neighborhood.
Unknown self is what lives in each of us unseen by anyone. This could be all the undiscovered messages about whiteness and how they shape who we are in the world and with others. Through experience, personal refection, and relationship some of this hidden material can be brought into one of the other three selves. We’ll never know all the details of that dream that unsettled us or left us feeling whole when we woke, but we can learn more about what we’ve been told about race, what we made of it, and how we behave based on that understanding.
So, being human, we all have all of these selves. No one (at least no one I’ll work with for long) is asking us to not have areas of which we are ashamed or unaware. We are asked, however, to take responsibility for seeing each of these areas more clearly so we can then address what requires attention.
In my experience noticing how my open and hidden selves do (or don’t) align gives me information I need to be more consistent with myself. This, I’ve observed, seems to increase the authenticity with which I meet the world. Moving beyond that, believing (and being grateful for) feedback about how I’m Doing Whiteness (mostly from POC) gives me insight into my blind self which enables me to move that content from my blind self to my open or hidden self. This also increases my authenticity in my relationships. We have less ability to explore and integrate the unknown self intentionally, but I’m betting that working on the other three is a good way to start.
[i] Standard disclaimer: White, Black, and POC used here for readability only. None of these are quantifiable human attributes, but point to socially created and supported racial identities which cause no end of mischief and which, therefore, we need words to talk about.