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.


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

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.)


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, 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.


(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.


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