Independence Day

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:

O, yes,
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.


Allies Are Trying… Very Trying

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.

Selves and Authenticity

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.


They Only Call It War When We Fight Back

By now, most of you will have heard of Robert Fisher, the NH state rep who was recently discovered to be a promoter of some reprehensible ideas about women. You probably already know that he founded a website called Red Pill[i] which had about 200,000 followers and framed itself as a platform for men’s rights.

Bypassing the tempting subjects such as how women are boring except for sex, which is why men put up with them, or how to manipulate them into having that sex, I want to talk here about a principle underlying another quote you’ve probably seen—“Rape isn’t an absolute bad, because the rapist I think probably likes it a lot. I think he’d say it’s quite good, really.”—and another you may not have noticed about how oppressed men are, because masculinity is the victim of the “feminine imperative”.

Fisher is, as one smart friend put it, a walking colostomy bag, but outrage over his egregiousness masks three more important points. The first is that he is not new and he is not alone; The Men’s Rights Movement has been around since the second wave of feminism in the early 70s, and is all over the internet. Fisher is just the one we saw scurrying away when an investigative journalist flipped over the rock.  The second important point to notice is his premise that men have a simple right to take what they want from women, whose experience is not of interest. This is the foundation of Rape Culture and directly linked to why women get tired of being told to smile by strangers. The third point, and the reason I sat down to write today, is that loss of privilege is sometimes experienced as oppression even though it is not.

I find it easy to believe that Fisher and his kind sincerely believe that their rights are being taken from them. It is the pattern that we see in any dynamic in which power is being readjusted in a more equitable direction, including gender, racial identity, class politics, and patterns of colonialization. When we are granted something taken from someone else under cover of social sanction, we assume it is ours. Restoration of appropriate balance then feels like someone took OUR toys.

Reparations, anyone?

I actually do agree that current gender arrangements have costs to men. The burden of being the assumed breadwinner, of not being allowed healthy emotional expression, and the assumption that the mother is always the preferred custodial parent erode men’s experiences in ways I’d like to see changed. However … I do not agree that one of these costs is that men are now an oppressed class because women no longer want our appeal and usefulness to men to be the most important thing about us.

That right to have and control our own humanity I go on about? It still holds true. If someone taking theirs back makes you feel ripped off, that’s kind of not their problem.

[i]The source of this name is explained about halfway through this illuminating article.

45 Ways to Slump

Sorry, the title is a tease. Really I only have two ways to slump, but I didn’t feel like resisting the allusion to the man who got the job of running (using the term loosely) our country.

My first way to slump was collective. I hadn’t been hit by it yet, that punch that deflates hope. Sure, I have been aware of the relentless march of hate and greed against love and community, but I kept some distance from it by staying connected to efforts to resist it. Then I saw some news story about the likely effects of what is about to happen to research funding and down I went. I don’t know why this was my final straw, but it was.  And then I heard from a friend about a large company that will no longer be covering spousal health insurance, right before reading a brilliant piece about how intentional poverty is and how vulnerable so many of us are to it. And then I read about how evolving Artificial Intelligence is incorporating racial and gender bias.  And it was suddenly All Too Much.

Yeah, I know, welcome to your world.

So that was my first slump, opening up to my grief about the mess we’re in together.

My second way to slump was personal, about how I live in this world, what I experience, what my options are, what I think it all means. Lately, I have seen collective problems headed my way and they scare me because they look a lot like personal economic disenfranchisement. If grief about our big life softened me up, fear about my own small life knocked me down.

The first thing I want to say about these forces I fear will reach me is that I know they have been the reality for a lot of people for a long time. All that’s different for me in our new world is that now this tide is lapping at MY toes … My WASP, educated, intelligent, naturally slender toes. For all my deliberate efforts to be conscious about my unearned privilege, this still feels like an offense. Kind of like when a white woman jogger was grabbed from behind by a cop for jaywalking and then detained for resisting arrest when she slugged him before looking to see who it was. Kind of like when I didn’t get out of speeding tickets even though I was hyper-polite.  Kind of like my irritation that the only jobs to apply for seem to require highly specialized experience or high school diplomas and reliable transportation. On some profound level I have absorbed and believed the story that this sort of stuff isn’t supposed to happen to people like me.

I knew better intellectually, but knowing that more marginalized people have been the canaries in our coal mine is different than finally feeling the effects of the gas that hit them generations ago. I have noticed that the narrowing of the privilege gap is often experienced by the people with privilege (PWP, a new acronym perhaps?) as oppression. I’m happy to report that I have not had that reaction. I have, however, experienced a deep sense of shame: if this happens to me, one of the PWP, surely I screwed up in some way. I have, after all, been told for a lifetime that the tide would never reach me.  I wonder if this is part of the deaths of despair story that is now showing up in in social science data. I gotta say, it feels pretty bad.

It is important to clarify that I am NOT saying here that I deserve some special protection from these forces, just that after a lifetime of being told that I wouldn’t have to deal with them it is an emotional adjustment to notice that I unconsciously believed that story. Doonesbury did a pretty great cartoon on this, that previously marginalized people aren’t experiencing our new losses as anything special because they already had less to lose. When I said I need to learn from POC, I wasn’t planning on it being how to emotionally manage economic insecurity. I still think there has to be a better way for all of us.


What I meant to study…

The last thing I did on my way out of my (unfinished) PhD program was write an encyclopedia entry for serious publisher on communication research of health care disparities. I may never know how they got my name, but I poured everything I had into this project and was delighted when it was accepted without revisions.  A few days ago (two years later) I received notice that the Sage Encyclopedia of Communication Research Methods has been published. I’ll spare you all 1,700 words, but the opening paragraph gives you the idea:

“The concepts of health disparities and health care disparities refer to the differences in health and health care between population groups in which socially disadvantaged people have worse health outcomes and access to health care than other groups. Health disparities means that some groups (generally based on race/ethnicity or socioeconomic status) experience a higher burden of illness, injury, disability, or mortality than other groups. Health care disparities means that these groups have less access to care, health care coverage (insurance), and when they do have health care, it is typically of poorer quality than that of other groups. These issues are important subjects for communication research with regard to message development, dissemination, and effects, as well as patient–provider communication and provider cultural competence. This entry examines some of the underlying causes of health and health care disparities, reviews organizational and governmental attempts to reduce those inequities, describes approaches that can help reduce the disparities, and concludes with an overview of how communication research can play a role in reducing health and health care disparities.” (emphasis added)

Given that the whole thing costs almost $700, I’m unlikely to ever own my first published (non-journal) work, but I can share the PDF with you if you like, eventually. The online PDF version should be at by the end of May.

White People in Racial Justice Work

[In the spirit of ongoing dialogue, this was edited on 4/13 to reflect important feedback.]

There is, in some of my circles, an essay making the rounds which critiques just about every majority-white anti-racism group of which I am aware. The gist of the criticism, as I read it, is that white folks can’t be trusted to do this work well without the supervision of People of Color, and that we are generally pretty bad at setting up and sustaining meaningful structures for such accountability. The consequences of stepping into this work without these structures range from not-enough to harmful. As I understand the author, these negative consequences include an over-investment in giving white people safe places to learn about racism and their (our) role in it, and a deflection of resources from activists of color to these white groups. Also that gaps in our understanding and a human preference for comfort over discomfort lead us away from the emotional, intellectual, and material sacrifices necessary to engage in the ways this work requires of us. And these consequences harm POC.

In the spirit of transparency and growth, I have to own that my initial response to this essay was a predictable sputtering defensiveness. Since I have learned that this sort of reaction usually points to something I need to look at, I’ve been unpacking it with trusted friends since the essay came out. The core of my irritation seems to be with the implication that whites rarely get it right, can’t be trusted, and should at no point be alone with this material. (So, still keeping it about us, not the harm the author was trying to get us to look at.)

There’s a joke I like… “My cousin thinks she’s a chicken.” “Why don’t you take her to the doctor?” “We need the eggs.” I like the joke because it reflects some of the absurdity of how we get along in face of deeply rooted contradictions and challenges, such as the one about how (if) people with entrenched unearned privilege can participate in the process of dismantling that privilege. For better or for worse, right now white anti-racists think (hope) we’re chickens. And we (collectively) really need the eggs. So where from here?

This question wove into some thinking I’ve been doing about the long-term trajectory of my focus in this work. So far, I have mostly tried to learn about and then educate other white people about the history that created our position, the systems that hold it in place, the way these systems create murderous imbalances, and how we participate in and profit from these imbalances. Pending new insights, I continue to believe that this work is necessary and that there are practical reasons to have these conversations in majority-white groups led or co-led by white people who frequently check their understanding with people of color[i]. However/And…. the next question coming into focus for me is how to apply this knowledge to contribute to change: As I wrote a few months ago, “… it isn’t enough to simply help white people see barriers set up against others but not them. It’s time, I think, to turn my attention to taking those barriers down.”

As to what this means about working in majority-white anti-racism groups … I’m not sure. The truth is that I’d rather do the work imperfectly—knowing there will always be corrections to make—than not at all.  The next step is to check accountability in groups I’m part of, including believing that we sometimes hurt others so we can apologize and learn from the experience. Hopefully we’ll get some eggs out of it.

[A note on language: Race is a constructed concept that sets intellectual traps if accepted. The term Racial identity, which bases the distinctions on social and psychological labels rather than inherent traits, serves to remind us that humans made this illusion. I use “Black” and “white” for convenience, as we need some language to talk about the issues we are seeking to address. I do not mean by this that I think our racial identities are fixed and determinative.]


[i] (1) White people are more likely to unpack embarrassing material about racial identity if we’re not being listened to by the people the crap is about and we have to unpack it before we can move into the clearer understanding that supports action; (2) There are things about whiteness that only white people know (just like any in/out group dynamic). We can use this knowledge to reach into the thicket and show people some paths out of it. Though we aren’t the center of the collective story, there is a need to sometimes center the conversation on how we do what we do; and (3) there are more white people who need this basic training than there are people of color with this work as their calling. I’d rather have leadership of color giving me outlines and checking me from time to time (if they want), but doing the bulk of their liberation work in the thickets I can’t enter. And, yes, I do write checks for this. And, no, I don’t want any cookies for trying to help correct the balance.