Reflections on the White Privilege Conference

Black and White: Racism in the Criminal “Justice” System

Few issues expose the  comprehensive racist oppression present at the systemic level in the United States better than understanding the criminal (in)justice system.  From street stops to arrests to charging and plea bargaining or jury selection to sentencing to treatment within the penal system to disenfranchisement post-release, racism infects every single level of the criminal (in)justice system.

No resource more comprehensively addresses this vast social problem than Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, and as such, it ought to be required reading for every person in the United States.  But for those who shy away from the strong language of the “new Jim Crow” to describe mass incarceration in the United States, consider the following:

 

In considering this graphic, we should recognize that this is not just a Black vs White issue and that racist mass incarceration does disproportionately impact all people of Color, most particularly those people of Color without access to wealth.  While the graphic is useful, it should be understood to be limited.

Beyond that, though, perhaps the measures in the “There’s Hope Still” section at the end of the infographic bring hope to some, none of those indicate a widespread transformation of the systems of racist oppression that make the rest of these stats possible.

What does give me hope, though, are the people-powerful, organized activists both inside and outside of prisons who are fighting for justice and change.  Whether we’re talking about the organizers of the California Prisoner Hunger Strike or the people at the Sentencing Project or local activists (like Save the Kids here in Minneapolis) who are working daily to transform the (in)justice system that disproportionately impacts people of Color, knowing that there’s power in the people gives me hope that water will eventually drip through stone.

But if their work is ever going to do more than change the fates of individuals wrapped up in the racist system, there needs to be a critical mass of people calling for systemic transformation.

So start by knowing your facts. Then figure out how you will take action.

***

Infographic courtesy of Ashleigh Bell and ArrestRecords.  Ashleigh Bell is an author, working with strong passion for the site ArrestRecords.com. Her interests relate primarily to crime & criminal justice issues.  Feel free to drop her a line at ashleighbell928(AT)gmail(DOT)com.

n-word

4 Reasons White People Can’t Use the N-Word (No Matter What Black Folks are Doing) [UPDATE]

A few years back, I published a post titled “4 Reasons White People Can’t Use the N-Word.”  Since it’s publication, it’s been one of my most popular posts.

Well,  I gave it a bit of a reboot over at Everyday Feminism.  Check it out below…

New debates are springing up in a long-contentious dialogue about reclamation of oppressive language.

During the recent ESPN “Outside the Lines” special discussion of a proposed NFL rule to penalize the n-word, Twitter erupted in critique, criticism, and debate.

Screen Shot 2014-02-25 at 8.29.37 AM

 

Screen Shot 2014-02-25 at 8.23.21 AM

 

Screen Shot 2014-02-25 at 8.26.30 AM

 

Screen Shot 2014-02-25 at 8.45.29 AM

 

In the midst of this debate, though, there is generally one rule when it comes to the n-word on which there is almost total consensus among Black people:

Screen Shot 2014-02-25 at 8.32.15 AM

 

Yet White people don’t seem to get it.

I’d likely be a wealthy man if I had a dime for every time I’ve heard a White person ask “If Black people can just throw the n-word around all the time, why is it not okay for White people to use that word?”

I can only imagine the number of dimes Black people would have. Innumerable.

And despite how important listening to the voices of marginalized and oppressed people is to social justice work on the part of those with privilege, White people on the whole really seem to have hard time with this one.

Perhaps this is because we don’t like being told that anything is off limits to us.

Or perhaps we just have trouble hearing the voices of those we consider, at some basic level, to be lesser, not fully human.

Regardless of the reason, maybe it’s time for a different tact.

Perhaps you can hear it better or differently if a White person explains why exactly we don’t get to use the n-word, regardless of what Black folks are doing.

So here is my message to you.

Dear White Folks,

We have to stop using the n-word.

Like really, really.

And I know what you’re thinking, “But—But—‘They’ get to say it all the time!”

Well, tough cookies.

Here’s why it’s not okay for us to say it, no matter what Black folks are doing:

1.  We Lost the Privilege

You know that whole 600 year time period when White Europeans were buying and selling Black Africans as chattel?

And remember how that whole system was enforced by a violent system of repression whereby Black slaves who did not act the way the White folks wanted them to were beaten and murdered?

Oh, and remember that time after slavery when Black people were locked in a system called Jim Crow that used a similar fear of violence and repression to keep Black people in “their place?”

Well, in the midst of all that shit, there was a word invented by White people as a pejorative for Black folks. And it was used just about every time a Black person was whipped, chained, beaten, insulted, spat upon, raped, lynched, or otherwise humiliated and mistreated by White folks.

Thus, I really don’t care how much White folks want to use that word.

I don’t care how unfair you think it is that someone else gets to use it when we don’t.

Our people gave up the privilege to use that word the moment we invented it as a tool of oppression.

2.  Why Should We Get a Say in the Conversation about That Word?

Read the rest at Everyday Feminism.

Steubenville High School Rapist Released

Conflicting Feelings: On Steubenville, Rape Culture, and Incarceration of Black Men

When I opened up the news earlier this week, I couldn’t believe my eyes:

Steubenville High School Rapist Released

My immediate reaction was fury.

10 months!?  Convicted of rape, and he served 10 MONTHS!?

And then I saw the statement from his lawyer:

“The past sixteen months have been extremely challenging for Ma’lik [Richmond] and his extended family . . . At sixteen years old, Ma’lik and his family endured hardness beyond imagination for any adult yet alone child. He has persevered the hardness and made the most of yet another unfortunate set of circumstances in his life.”

Not once in the statement was the victim, her trauma, or her family mentioned.  The victim, clearly, was Ma’lik, and this was just an “unfortunate set of circumstances,” not a series of deliberate choices to hurt another human being.

And then I read some of the comments sections.  Don’t ask me why I chose to read the comments on a piece about sexual violence, but I did.

They ranged from blaming the survivor for her own rape to wishing prison rape (often in a “hilarious, joking,” sort of way) on Richmond.

Literally nothing about this story left me feeling hopeful or good or like justice had been served.  So I took some time away from this story.  I didn’t click any links relating to Steubenville or Richmond at all.

But I couldn’t turn off my brain, and over the last few days, some nuance has crept into my thoughts.

And now I find myself with two conflicting feelings:

  1. In a society where too few who commit sexual assault are held accountable for their actions, I want to see him serve his term.
  2. But in a society where far too many young, Black men are locked up (and are more likely to be locked up for committing the same crimes as White men), I have to admit that seeing one less in jail felt good.

Even as I write this, I am afraid to admit the second one.  After all, I don’t want to be labeled and lambasted for being a “rape apologist” or accused of saying that a Black rapist shouldn’t serve time simply because he’s Black.  After all, the internet is a place of over-simplification, and over-simplification doesn’t advance dialogue.

So as I think through those feelings, I have to ask myself why I want to see him serve his term and why it felt important to see a young Black man free of prison.

Punishment vs Rehabilitation

When I heard that Ma’lik Richmond and Trent Mays were convicted and sentenced to prison for rape, I cheered.  I cheered because far too often, men who commit this heinous crime walk free, and many in the town where they live did everything they could to make sure these young men were not held accountable for their actions.

But was I also cheering because I wanted to see them punished?  Most definitely.  And they deserved punishment.  But unfortunately, our criminal “justice” system rarely goes even a single step beyond punishment.  Rehabilitation is almost never considered, and worse, when people are released from prison (no matter their crime), they are unlikely to be able to access the resources they need to avoid going back to prison.

Hence my conflicted feelings.

I wonder whether Richmond could possibly have come to understand his crime considering his short jail term and the sentiment of his lawyer that established Richmond as the victim.  Yet I also wonder what kind of access to rehabilitation and counseling Richmond actually had in youth criminal detention.

As noted in this Slate piece by Irin Carmon (ignore the terrible title and focus on the point),

Rehabilitation, of course, is one of only three separate functions that intervening in sexual offenses serves, explains Mark Chaffin, professor of pediatrics at the University of Oklahoma College of Medicine and director of research at the Center on Child Abuse and Neglect. There is “community protection,” identifying predators and keeping those who might re-offend away from potential victims. There is “accountability,” which sends a message as to what is and isn’t acceptable in a community. And then there is rehabilitation, on which researchers are quite optimistic — at least when it comes to juveniles.

“Twenty years ago people lumped juveniles and adults together, and had this idea that if a kid committed a sex offense, he was on this immovable trajectory that was going to head towards more and more sexual deviancy and a lifetime of predation,” says Letourneau. “But that just isn’t the case.”

More and more research indicates that rehabilitation of sex offenders, particular young sex offenders, is possible!  And as Katie McDonough puts it, “Consensus in the juvenile justice and medical communities holds that young people should be given counseling, not hard time, for crimes they commit.”

Perhaps by releasing Richmond early, the state has failed in the “community protection” and “accountability” aspects of “intervening in sexual offenses,” but what of the third aspect, rehabilitation? While his sentence mandated counseling, did Richmond receive competent rehabilitation services?  And was his progress in those services part of his release?

It’s unclear.

Locking Up Black Men

But the lack of rehabilitation in our “justice” system, highlighted well in The New Jim Crow, is one of the many reasons why I generally do not cheer when I see that someone’s going to be locked up in our society.  And the other reasons that I don’t cheer are the very root of my conflicted feelings.

Our prison system does little more than produce more crime while disproportionately destroying the lives of the poor and people of Color.

When 1 in 3 Black men can expect to go to prison at some point in their lives, a strong plurality for non-violent drug offenses, and considering the racial disproportionality of sentencing in the U.S., seeing a young Black man who could be reformed gave me pause.

I felt some hope for Ma’lik Richmond.  Maybe I’m not supposed to, as he is a rapist, and statistically, that tells us that he will rape again.  But I felt some hope.

After all, if there is a chance that one less Black man will be caught up for a lifetime in our racist criminal justice system, could that not be a good thing?

Nuanced Complexity

And so I wrestle.  I wrestle with the desire to see someone punished, even when I don’t believe our criminal justice system should focus on punishment.  I wrestle with my hope that Richmond received counseling to help him change for the better, though I know our system does a terrible job at that.  And I wrestle with wanting simultaneously to see one less young Black man locked up while wanting to ensure justice for a young woman who was assaulted.

I wrestle.

And I reflect.

Because I know there are no easy answers, but nuance and complexity in my feelings are far more conducive to my growth than than the certainty I know I don’t feel.

ChangeFromWithin Logo

The Top 10 of 2013: Change From Within’s Year in Review

Happy New Year!

2013 was a transformative year for me and my writing.  My business and my blogging have changed and grown a lot in the last 12 months.  In a lot of ways, my writing here at Change From Within has taken a back seat to my writing for larger platforms, namely Everyday Feminism and The Good Men Project, which has been cool to see. As is my yearly tradition, it’s time to reflect on my writing of the past year and highlight those pieces that were most widely-read.

Over at Everyday Feminism, three of my pieces really stood out in terms of reception and hits:

‘That’s Racist Against White People’ A Discussion on Power and Privilege was by far my most popular piece of 2013 at EF with more than 80,000 hits.

Also worthy of mention from my Everyday Feminism writing in 2013 are Intent vs Impact: Why Your Intentions Don’t Really Matter and So You Call Yourself an Ally: 10 Things All ‘Allies’ Need to Know.

At The Good Men Project, I had a few different pieces go bananas in 2013.

The Healthy Sex Talk: Teaching Kids Consent, Ages 1-21“, a piece I co-wrote with Alyssa Royse, Julie Gillis, and Joanna Schroeder, was by far my most-read contribution of 2013 with more than 1 million hits on numerous platforms.

My Open Letter to the Rapey Frat Brother and the ‘How to Get Laid’ Generation also was widely read, getting picked up by the Huffington Post.

Change From Within’s Top 10 Articles of 2013

Over here at Change From Within, the posts that were most read speak to the changes in my own work.  More and more, I have tried to highlight the writing and perspectives of the amazing people in my community, and that’s reflected in the most-read articles of the year.  4 of the top 10 articles of 2013 were composed by friends and mentors!

Without further ado, here are the top posts from Change From Within in 2013:

10. Shaking Off the “Harlem Shake” Meme – Tools for Resisting Cultural Appropriation

Screen Shot 2013-03-14 at 4.35.47 PM

After “Racism, Appropriation, and the Harlem Shake” (coming in at #2 below), lots of readers were asking questions like, “So what are we supposed to do?  How do we actually resist cultural appropriation?”  In response, I wrote out a list of simple actions that we can all take to resist cultural appropriation around us.

9.  Standing Up to Racial and Religious Profiling

Kadra Abdi

After being racially and religiously profiled by the TSA in June of 2013, my dear friend Kadra Abdi wrote this powerful call to action with ways that we all can stand up to racial and religious profiling.  Her compelling story challenges us to think critically about our own judgments and how we can be part of the solution to this pressing problem.

8.  Rethinking Lisak & Miller: Checking the Math

After much criticism for my piece entitled “Preventing Sexual Violence – Rethinking Lisak & Miller,” I wrote a piece that tackled some of the math being used in criticizing my reconsideration of the groundbreaking Lisak & Miller research.  My friend Rida helped me run some mathematical scenarios that rethink the “predator theory” for who exactly we should be focusing on in our work to prevent sexual violence.

7.  Coming Out of the Woods: On Hugo Schwyzer and Accountability

In August, Hugo Schwyzer, a man who I have defended in the past, showed everyone who he truly is: a misogynistic, racist fraud.  In turn, I owed a lot of people apologies for my defense of this indefensible man.  Here is the public version of that apology.

6. 33+ Suggestions for Action After the Zimmerman Verdict

Justice for Trayvon MartinFor me, like many people, the “not-guilty” verdict in the George Zimmerman trial was devastating.  It wasn’t particularly surprising, but it was devastating emotionally and in its wider implications.  Thus, I was incredibly thankful when my friend and mentor Daniel Escalante emailed me with a list of suggestions for action that he (and others) put together. Now, a few months after the verdict, it is good for me to revisit these suggestions and recommit to action in 2014.  I encourage you to do the same.

Continue Reading

Christmas_fight

The Holiday Family Freakout: Calling Family In to Dialogue About Justice

Few things give me more anxiety than thinking about spending the holidays with my entire extended family.  Don’t get me wrong; I love them! And much of our time together each year is joyful and loving.

But inevitably someone is going to say something idiotic (read: racist, sexist, heterosexist/homophobic, anti-immigrant, anti-choice, religiously bigoted, or otherwise infuriatingly offensive).  And for years, I’ve struggled with how to navigate these family spaces.

After all, confronting the bigotry directly has been known to lead to all-out Christmas or Thanksgiving verbal brawls with shouting and crying and people walking out.

And I know full well that calling my anti-immigrant uncle out and starting verbal wrestlemania isn’t going to change his mind.  He revels in pissing people off with his political beliefs.  He’s the ultimate internet troll (except that he’s sitting on my grandmother’s couch).

Yet as I walk the precarious path in trying to be an accountable ally, I feel a calling and responsibility to address this stuff.  It’s tough to know what to do.

When talking with a friend the other night about whether or not to engage, I couldn’t help but think of a quote from the controversial but surely-quotable Tim Wise:

“The power of resistance is to set an example: not necessarily to change the person with whom you disagree, but to empower the one who is watching and whose growth is not yet completed, whose path is not at all clear, whose direction is still very much up in the proverbial air.”

As I think about whether to engage, I should consider less whether I want to fight with my trolling uncle than about who is listening.

Christmas_fight

Because I’m not going to change his mind, but I very well may plant the seeds of resistance in the minds of my young nieces and nephews.  They are listening.  And at 3, 5, and 7, few times of their lives will be more formative in their development of self and in their construction of “other.”

Further, I might empower someone else in the family to speak up.  Maybe they’ve been just as fed up with the nastiness and bigotry but felt alone at family gatherings.

Inclusiveness CAN Be a Family Value

And while a resistance to bigotry and a commitment to seeking justice are currently not family traditions or ethics, but they certainly can be.

When I saw Cornel West speak at the 2013 CIRCLE Conference, one of the many parts of his talk that stuck with me came in the Q&A.  I can’t remember exactly what question was asked, but he spoke to the need for an ethic of allyship and solidarity as a value.  He talked of needing to highlight more White allies in history, and he talked of needing more vocal allies working with others who share their identity to shift tides of oppression.

But that doesn’t just happen by buying our kids gender-neutral toys or books with fantastic messages.  Instilling inclusiveness as a family value requires some tough conversations.  Yes, these conversations should be respectful and carried out with love, but they need to happen, and they need to be public so that everyone in the family can understand that it is okay and encouraged to challenge someone on a statement that furthers oppression and marginalization.

But it’s also about timing.  If my uncle corners me alone in the kitchen to goad me into a a debate about how Phil Robertson is a perfect example of how Christians are the oppressed minority in the United States today, I’m probably not going to take the trolling bait.

But if during the meal, someone makes a statement about how immigrants are ruining our country, I need to find a way to challenge it and call them in to a discussion.

And while doing so might cause a collective family meltdown, the risk is worth it if we manage to have a powerful conversation that sets the precedent that we can talk through the tough things in our family. After all, doing so makes it clear to those little ones that our family is one that engages, not disengages, with the harsh realities that are the context both inside and outside the walls of our family celebration.