No Excuse – edited 12.4.2018

Generally, when I screw up about race it is something I haven’t done before (as when I was startled by the discomfort in my class when I brought up race, noticing for the first time that in the past I’d always been ASKED to help people explore it), or it is based on knowledge I inappropriately generalized (as when I annoyed a new acquaintance by offering her an umbrella to protect her hair style from the rain). Those I can live with. The screw ups I hate are the ones in which I know better but forget for a minute, as I did this week in a room full of people of color when I referred to a grown Black man as the “boy” (rather than the son) of a woman there I respect but don’t know well.

The first and most important thing is that there is no story which makes this okay. I know this. I know the dismissive, infantilizing power and Jim Crow history of referring to an adult as a child. That this knowledge was not in my conscious mind at the moment does not make my language okay. That I used words I would have used with a white person does not make it okay. That I did it to (try to) create intimacy with someone I want to know better is my problem, not hers.

What I had said was a problem for her, and she called me on it in that room full of anti-racist activists, many of whom didn’t know my name before that moment. All I could do at that moment was nod and affirm the truth being named. I also spoke to her after the meeting to apologize, tell her I heard what she had to say, and thank her for acting as a mirror for me.

Then I brought it back home to learn from it.

I have recently settled into a comfortable grove with the anti-racism work…. Some skills and knowledge that seem useful to fellow people of European descent, some places where people want to hear about that, some places where I can unpack how it works in me and my life, some work with and for strong facilitators of color. I forgot the cardinal rule: If it’s comfortable, you’re doing it wrong.

A few weeks ago someone I trust tried to remind me it shouldn’t be fun to work on these issues and I dismissed what she had to say as not about me. I now see this as a yellow light for which I should have stopped. I now see that I’ve been enjoying being one of the more-conscious-than-most white people and slipping on remembering the racism we white people carry within us and need to work on all the time. This week god (or whatever you like to call that force that binds us together) gave me the gift of letting me be the white person all the other white people in the room got to be better than. Karma is a clear teacher.

So here I am, back in the discomfort, where the real work is. The thing is, “uncomfortable” is too small a word for this space. “Uncomfortable” is an airplane seat that is too narrow, a neck ache from sleeping wrong, a conversation you don’t know how to get out of at a party.  “Uncomfortable” does not describe the gut-twisting shame that you have not lived up to your own values or the grief of knowing that poison might slip out of you at any time to attack people you respect and love. It does not describe how it feels to know that you might never get clear of the thing you most want to heal in yourself. And it does not describe how it feels when a room full of people with whom you want to work look at you with legitimate mistrust.

Because it needs to be said, I take responsibility for my microaggression and am sorry for any negative impact it had on those it reached.

And.

Apologies without change are just noise.

I’m diving  back into the deep sludge. I leave it to others to decide if/when they want to let me stand with them in this work.

 

Addendum, December 4, 2018:

Sometimes I feel a learning a while before I actually have it, like when I had the experience I described above. I knew there was race-biased behavior in there someplace but couldn’t put my finger on exactly where in me it originated. Today it clicked to a clearer level: I wanted her attention and friendship and assumed I could act like it was so. This “assumption of access” is the thing that would have been different if she’d been white: I would not have been so familiar with a white person I knew as distantly as I really know her. This is the (a) way toxic whiteness poisoned my thinking and behavior without me even noticing it.

I really hate this stuff.

 

Risking Deeper Dives

A friend of mine has been doing anti-racism work since before it was cool. Her training, work history, and lived experience combine to make her very good at helping white folks notice patterns they may have missed before. She was recently asked by a group of white progressives to come do some extended work with them. She said sure and they started working out the details.

The first sign of trouble was when they asked if maybe a white person would be a better trainer for them, since she or he would have a better understanding of the white experience of racism. She got through that (being a patient sort) by pointing out that being white–and therefore not racism’s target–they had some important blind spots she could maybe bring to their attention.

She then kept talking to them until they told (not asked) her to send her curriculum to them so they could tell her what changes to make.

Let that sink in for a minute.

The group of white people hiring the African American woman to help them see and unravel patterns of racism in their lives first told her they weren’t sure that a person of color could help them learn what they needed, and then told her that they wanted to make sure that she was going to teach them the right things. (I’ve been imagining telling my Spanish teacher that I wanted to learn nouns but not about their gendered nature, because that made me uneasy. Can’t see it getting very far.)

Since I am one of her “What the f is WRONG with you people?” white people, she called me to express her frustration. Then she sent them Robin DiAngelo’s very useful article describing white progressive groups’ defenses against deep anti-racism work. Now she is sorting out how to respond to the fact that they are promoting the workshop with her name without confirming with her that if it’s her workshop, it’s her rules.

She’s working on a letter which says:

·         that she believes they want to really work on this stuff,

·         that this behavior is a demonstration of how racism can work, and

·         that she’d like to unpack this set of interactions as a learning tool in the workshop, but

·         she’s not willing to do a “stay inside the lines” training that will let them check the box on this work without risking real insight or growth.

I don’t know what she’ll decide to do and it’s not my place to say, but I do wonder sometimes what the f is wrong with us.

Many Rivers to Cross

I made a rookie mistake recently, offering an African American woman I’d just met an umbrella to protect her hairstyle as we ran from a building to a bus in the rain. I did this based on conversations with other African American women about how unconscious most white people are about the damage rain can do to particular hairstyles, but I didn’t know her and she did not like my offer.

Because of the context in which I met her, there was an opportunity later to have 1-to-1 conversations about race.  She sought me out to let me know how my actions hadn’t worked for her. She told me that I had generalized about Black women and had assumed that she couldn’t take care of herself. I owned that I had made a mistake and thanked her for calling it to my attention so I could avoid it next time. She then leaned in, softened her tone, and told me there was this thing called implicit bias and I had acted out of it.

Though her tone and body language were that of supportive educator, this did not go over so well with me. What I tried to say next was that I was familiar with the concept, but that my mistake (which was real) was rooted in different issues (applying to her what other Black women had told me about themselves). She dismissed my attempt to share my experience as whitesplaining* and I shut down, said I agreed with her, thanked her again for her feedback, and waited for her next conversational move. That move was to gaze at me sympathetically and ask me how I was.

This is the point at which I need to mention that our collective day of talking about race had done its job and I began our conversation already in deep grief about the impact of racism. I didn’t mind this (I think it’s important to let these feelings change us) but I knew that if I opened it up I’d fall into howling sobs. I didn’t think it would be good white anti-racist behavior to pull attention to my process in a room full of People of Color in the middle of their own work. When she asked how I was, I was one thin onion skin away from totally falling apart and committed to NOT doing that there. Also, because she had just told me I didn’t understand my own experience I didn’t trust her with my messy material. Instead I said that she and I didn’t know each other and – though I was in the middle of some deep work – she wasn’t a person I felt safe unpacking that with. She then told me that she was a good person and her white friends trusted her.

Now I get on a deeper level why that doesn’t sell from the other side either.

I again declined to share my process and we moved on to safer subjects. She and I didn’t speak to each other the rest of the four-day training. Maybe at the next one we can use this experience to build more meaningful connection. Or maybe we don’t get to trust with everyone. And that’s okay.

 

*When white folks try to explain away racism and its consequences.

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 given 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.