Believe the Need

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.

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.

Image: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/michael-shaw/reading-the-pictures-i1st_b_698388.html

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.

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.

Navigating Privilege

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.

White People Losing It (part one of ?)

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.

Who is Missing, and Why?

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.[1]

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.

But…

(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.