Some people asked me to come talk to them about white privilege. The recording from that wasn’t great, so I retaped it. It’s the highlights of what I’ve figured out so far about racism and how move toward increased integrity within it as a White Person. Runs about 20 minutes.
A few years ago I asked a biologist how she liked her work. She told me it was sad, because her field had the task of “monitoring the decline.” I’ve been thinking about that phrase lately, as we collectively witness the decline of support for so many things that support healthy biological and human communities.
Each day seems to bring with it threat of some new unacceptable loss: Laws that protect bear cubs on public land and their moms while they hibernate; Unexploited federal lands; Federal funding for the arts (including Big Bird!); Legal help for people without a lot of money; Computers for people without a lot of money; Decent public education; Clean water; Clean air; Thoughtful community policing; Affordable, comprehensive health care; Policy informed by data and compassion. If you’re still reading my work after the first few weeks, you probably have your own I didn’t get to here. If you are still reading my work, you are likely keenly aware of the disruption, pain, and death that will come to the least protected of us through these changes.
And all this is hard to hold.
And the power of the forces we are resisting is located in important places, primarily the legislative and budgetary processes of the federal and most state governments. Since they are the ones with the legal ability to collect and spend our money (and to legally shoot and imprison people), they do require attention and response. I am loving the response I’m seeing in the grassroots efforts to find and run candidates who support healthy communities, the resistance at town meetings, and the flood (too small a word) of calls and letters to our elected representatives.
They do not have all the power, not even all the power we sometimes assume they do. When I hear on the news that their proposed budgets would cut arts, legal services, food to poor families, health care to a whole lot of us, and programs to help cops see Black people as humans rather than criminals, then I remember that “would” is conditional, not definite. Then I remember that if we are irritating enough we might mitigate some of the damage.
I also remember that we have the power of the legal system, imperfect as it is; that journalists have the power to name truth no matter how much the Bully Pulpit tries to live up to its name; and that we, collectively, have the power to be decent to each other, to protect each other, and care for the community of life of which we are part.
Yes, there are awful forces moving against things that I love, but it is not naïve to notice that there is also a vibrant network nurturing, supporting, and defending these beloved lives, places, ideas, and values. The magazine that feeds me best for remembering these good works is Yes Magazine. I’ve linked here to their 20th anniversary issue, which lists 50 inspiring ideas to make the places we live more sustainable and inclusive, but it’s pretty much always great.
I’m not sure yet if we’re monitoring the decline or witnessing a birth of something we need to become. I am sure which one I’m going to try to make happen.
(This post is dedicated to Louise Spencer, who is one of the most effective and humble change agents I’ve met in a long time. I am grateful to have found my way into the vibrant network she helps to create without even really noticing how powerful she is.)
Wendell Berry connecting racism, war, and the environment, said:
“For I believe that the separation of these three problems is artificial. They have the same cause, and this is the mentality of greed and exploitation. The mentality that exploits and destroys the natural environment is the same that abuses racial and economic minorities, that imposes on young men the tyranny of the military draft, that makes war against peasants and women and children with the indifference of technology…We would be fools to believe that we could solve any of these problems without solving the others.”
(From “Think Little” essay in ““A Continuous Harmony.”, 1972)
Racism: Trump is moving forward on “law and order”, including bringing back a program that was shut down in 2014 because it led to wide-spread racial profiling of Latinos, and cutting back support of DOJ-mandated reforms (consent decrees) of police departments with records of civil rights violations.
War: His actions in Yemen are seen by some as unravelling progress made toward a political solution.
Environment: The house just approved the NRA-backed bill to permit killing bear cubs in Alaskan wildlife refuges. (The senate vote hasn’t been scheduled.) And, you know, that whole shut down the EPA thing.
This all didn’t start with Trump, of course. Today a state report out of Michigan says that racism played role in the Flint water crisis. No surprise here. The causes are greed and exploitation.
Q: Why do progressives have such long meetings?
A: Because our respect for the right of each individual and group to articulate the terms by which they and their experience are referred to and the metaconversation we need to have about who is “centered” and/or privileged in and by our language means that we value precision and alternative narratives in groups composed of members who may not share experiences, meaning, values, or levels of socioeconomic power rooted in structural and historical patterns…..
You get the idea.
All this language we need to talk about is dynamic. Harry Belafonte is reported to have said “When I was born, I was colored. I soon became a Negro. Not long after that I was black. Most recently I was African-American.” This dynamic nature is not just across time (dating back to the Reconstruction), but also within it: Different people want to be referred to in different ways for a combination of personal, social, and historic reasons. And who is doing the talking and who they are talking to and where they are talking makes a huge difference. In my world, white folk don’t get to use the n-word unless they are talking about how to disable the cruel history carried within it, and even that permission is highly contextual. In my world, “Politically Correct” is just another way to say that we should talk to and about people in the way they want. If that takes a little extra work, I’m okay with that.
Race isn’t the only complicated subject requiring nuanced language, but it’s a good one to explore because it’s not real. Anthony Appiah and many others make a solid case that race doesn’t hold up as a measurable thing. What does hold up is the concept of racial identities, which are based on social and psychological labels. As I see it, this concept provides the language we need in order to resist the negative power of those labels. It makes sense these conversations would be complicated, because they aim to break down collective misconceptions. (Insert Matrix reference here.)
I promised a friend I’d try to keep these posts short(er) so I’ll stop here, even though I didn’t get to “centering” “privilege”, “marginalization”, “colonialization” or “People of Color”. Are there any you wonder about?
(She also suggested pictures.)
In my last post I had a list of racist organizations Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) lists as being active in New Hampshire. Today I ran across a reference to one of those groups as being one of the “most violent U.S. racist organizations”[i]. These words sent a chill across my skin. These words made me want to edit my last post.
I have known for a long time that one of the hallmarks of privilege is that we get to decide when take advantage of it. So far, that’s mostly meant deciding if I want to speak at a meeting if I know that I’m using stolen airtime, or if I really want to be one of a handful of people on a street corner saying that Black Lives Matter. It turns out to have a very different feel when I choose to name groups who use physical violence to resist values I espouse. Most of the risks asked of the privileged are social or emotional. Physical risk is a whole other thing. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t scurry back into that protective privilege, if only for a moment, when I realized these people could now learn about me, find me, and hurt me.
I get it that listing a racist group in a tiny blog doesn’t get me anywhere near the level of risk experienced by members of our marginalized communities for simply existing. This does not mean, however, that I want to ignore that shot of fear and my panicked initial reaction.
Better, I think, to notice what made me want to cut and run. I’m not the only person with some sort of privilege to decline it until the moment it will protect me or people I love. This is why I don’t take it personally when members of marginalized communities are skeptical of my commitment to addressing their concerns. I think a prerequisite for being an effective ally or accomplice is to know that these moments will happen and that sometimes we may fail to live up to our values. What matters more is what we do next.
In my case, I’ll leave in place my blog that names scary groups, and maybe even try to get my butt to the next BLM event. Do you have a story about when you were startled back into privilege by your fear, and what you did next? I’d love to hear about it in the comments below.
I can’t say I have delved deep into an understanding of the white supremacist mindset. As far as I can tell, it’s swampy, illogical, and disturbing and not a place I want to hang out. That said, I do attend to it when it pops up in my world, as it did this morning in my FB feed from D.L. Hughley about these folks losing their, um, cool over Netflix’s promotion of the series, Dear White People, based on the 2014 movie of the same name.
Their concern is that this show promotes White Genocide. By this they mean genocide of White People because, you know, giving Black People space to do themselves without being hassled or hurt is the thin edge of the wedge to White People being wiped out because of their race. It’s possible that they have an alt-dictionary for the term in which genocide means we’ll intermarry more and have a smaller portion of White People down the road, but this is part of the swamp I’ve not gone into yet.
It’s easy to ridicule this and decide to ignore them for silly wrongheadedness, but the four cases of racist school graffiti I’ve heard about here in the last few weeks have had the same message, that “Diversity is code for White genocide”. I’m thinking this is a message these people are coalescing around. I’m thinking the words (as vile as they are) aren’t their only plans. This suggests some push back is needed.
The article I link to above observes that their boycott is unlikely to ding Netflix’s bottom line, but I’d like to show the series some love anyway. Counteracting the trolls by looking for #NoNetflix or thanking Netflix through some channel would offer some satisfaction. While you’re at it, though, you could also give a few bucks to Colorofchange.org, because they do great work and today asked for help training Black student activists to protect free, quality education. It’s an intersectional world we live in… I figure saving decent education is a pretty good way of resisting swampy, illogical and disturbing thinking.
I spend a lot of my time thinking about how to live with integrity as a white person inside a racist system. I read about it, watch movies and TV about it, write about it, teach about it, talk about it, and try to give people (especially other white people) chances to learn, think and talk about it. This is a part of my work-work, but more important is that I let it change me as part of my how-to-be-human work.
This material has been on my mind for going on 30 years. It was one of the reasons I didn’t want to move to New Hampshire when the idea first came up 20 years ago: How could I do racial justice work if I lived around mostly white people? The demographics have changed a little since then, giving me more opportunities to work for and with people of color in a few nearby cities[i], but the truth is that most of the places I go have a lot more white people than anyone else.
When we moved here I assumed most of my work would be with white people about their unearned privilege—that it exists, how it manifests, how to notice it, how to resist it, and how to follow the advice of the self-described black, lesbian, mother, warrior, and poet Audre Lourde, who told us that
To acknowledge privilege is the first step in making it available for wider use. Each of us is blessed in some particular way, whether we recognize our blessings or not. And each of us, somewhere in our lives, must clear a space within that blessing where she can call upon whatever resources are available to her in the name of something that must be done.
And I have found such opportunities. The twin shock waves of the murders of men, women, and children of color hitting our twitter feeds and (more recently) the election of someone who openly sanctions hate rocked many of us out of complacency, leaving us shaking the fuzz from our heads and asking “Now what?” The process of answering this question starts with reading, thinking, and talking so I get to be useful in this way from time to time.
(Okay, I have to say here that an uncomfortable part of this work is the routine discovery that you have been missing something obvious … Something people without your privilege know and have been trying to tell you. Here’s my most recent one.)
… if there aren’t a lot of People of Color around here it ISN’T because none of them wants to be.
Southern New Hampshire is a great place to live. It is beautiful, with forests, fields, ocean (18 whole miles of it!), and mountains all within a few hours drive. The cost of living is relatively sane, city culture is kind of close, it’s easy to make a difference in one’s community and state, and unemployment is among the lowest in the country.
This raises the question: What pressures are keeping away people of color who would like to live here?
Some of it I know about. The local NPR station and the Carsey Institute (a public policy group with the University of New Hampshire) put a study out last year about racial disparities in the state’s criminal justice system[ii]. The short story is that “black and Hispanic people are arrested and incarcerated at higher rates than whites are, and at more disproportionate rates than black and Hispanics nationwide (emphasis added).” Blacks and Hispanics account for 9% of the state’s arrests, though they are less than 5% of the population. They are 2.8 times more likely to be arrested than whites. In the county with the two largest cities and most diverse populations[iii], a black person is 5 time more likely to be incarcerated while waiting for a trial (with the rolling, awful consequences of not being able to get to one’s job and take care of one’s kids). I don’t have the stats on being stopped for Driving While Black, getting hired, and finding decent housing, but I’m going to assume here that these are also issues. The Southern Poverty Law Center reports that Crew 38 (racist skinheads), the National Socialist Movement, the KKK, and the Eastern Hammerskins (racist skinheads) are all active here[iv]. I know of four incidents of racist graffiti recently at local schools, all saying that “Diversity is code for white genocide”[v].
What pressures are keeping people away who would like to live here? Enough that 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.
p.s. Better thinkers than I have gone before me down this road. One I follow closely is BlackGirlinMaine (in my Websites I Follow list over there è). What I am trying to clear my vision to see, she has lived. Always listen to the ones who have lived it first. And support her blog if you have the resources. We need her voice.
[v] http://www.wmur.com/article/unity-vigil-held-in-response-to-racially-charged-signs-at-manchester-schools/8637015, two by personal report in Concord