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.

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.

image: 2.bp.blogspot.com/-fP8sevs0xBo/UVQYpshKSCI/AAAAAAAAAw8/e8pya-PNsz4/s1600/Johari+Window.jpg

 [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.

 

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.

Education of White Folks (v2)

This post is a reworking of one posted last week, changed to reflect answers to questions raised by a friend.

The original post responded to a recent Code Switch podcast which talked about how many current shows centered on the Black American experience have more than 50% non-Black viewers. I used these data to indulge in some hopeful speculations that white people are hungry for information about non-white experiences because we have been shaken awake by recent events. These speculations were not clearly supported.

The language in the Code Switch podcast, and in the Nielson data upon which it was based, suggested that this viewership pattern was either an important shift or contradicted existing perceptions. I couldn’t find any information about previous viewing patterns based on race, but did find reference to “pernicious and problematic stigmas attached to ‘black productions’—that they only appeal to black audiences and can’t be financially successful for studios” (Fusion, 2017).

So, the news in this story is that Black people aren’t the only people watching stories based on their experience. What is not commented on is that, with one exception, who watches these shows is still disproportionate with our demographics. Though we are currently 14% Black or Black and other, all but one of the shows listed in the Nielson report has 20% or higher Black viewership.

Capture

Missing information keeps me from unpacking the story that is nagging at me from inside this report. First is lack of detail on the “non-Black” viewers. Whiteness, with its self-perpetuating illusion of being the “normal” state, has very different implications than other racial identities. Second, I want to know if these numbers are changing. Specifically, I want to know if more whites are finding ways to connect with narratives by and about people of color than before. (That hope I had in my first version of this piece? I’m still hoping to find evidence of a trend.) Third, I want to know if anyone ever wrote about “white productions” in light of possible stigma that they might not appeal to non-white audiences, or if Nielsen ever reported on racial patterns for “white themed” shows. (My strong expectation is that they have not.)

The things I do notice in the data are that (1) Only one show (This Is Us) is watched by a disproportionately low percentage of Black people, making me wonder why, and (2) the shows with higher non-Black viewership seem to stay in white comfort zones, being set in cultures we are familiar with (Black-ish, HTGAWM). I wonder if shows with higher Black viewership, such as Empire or Star, are more firmly rooted in Black culture without bothering to translate for outsiders, and I notice that the recent release of James Baldwin’s challenge to white America, I am Not Your Negro, did not play at the local multiplex.

I had hoped the story in this news was that non-Black people were beginning to recognize stories centered in the Black experience as their (our) stories as well—valuable because they are centered in experiences they (we) cannot understand directly. Intellectual integrity keeps me from drawing this conclusion from these data. In the meantime, I am glad that at least the people to whom these stories belong are beginning to control the process and profit from sharing them. I bet they’d rather have that than our approval.

 

 

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.

Talking about Talking

Joke:
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.)