WhiteManEars

Here Are the Real Reasons Why We White People Struggle to Admit That Racism Still Exists

Originally published at Everyday Feminism.

When I was 18 years old, I listened to The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill on repeat.

My girlfriend and I would just sit in silence, listening to Lauryn unpack her brilliance, taking away something new each time.

So I was devastated when I heard the (now disproven) rumor that she told an MTV interviewer, “If I’d known White people were going to buy my last album, I never would have recorded it.”

I stopped listening to her because as a young, passionate liberal who “stood up to racism in all its forms,” I couldn’t in good conscience continue to support a “racist.”

Then, when a Latina woman I greatly admired suggested that it’s impossible for people of Color to be racist against White people, I lost it, furious at the perceived double standard.

And now, as debates about racism and a “post racial America” rage in my social media, I see these same frustrations in my fellow White people over and over.

We, as White folks, are upset that “everything is made to be about race these days!” We regularly claim that the “most racist people in the world are [insert group of people of Color].”

Many White people perceive that we’re under attack because people of Color and their White allies are angry with systems of racial oppression – and at us for our complicity in maintaining those systems. We get called names and told that our “White tears” don’t matter.

So we respond with how the dictionary defines racism as “poor treatment of or violence against people because of their race.”

And by that logic, we’re the real victims of racism! Right?

And if that’s our only context for understanding racism, then surely someone thinking I’m racist just because I’m White is racism!

Yet it seems that we’ve come to a place where the single worst thing that we can be called, the single insult that most enrages us, is suggestion that we might actually be racist.

And I get it – because I have said and thought every single one of those things.

But what troubles me most in all of this is that we are so invested in proving that people of Color are “more racist” than we are or that we’re not racist, we are more upset by allegations that we might be racist than about the very real ways that racism plays out in the society around us.

I see my fellow White people so wrapped up in defending the idea that systemic racism doesn’t exist that we are unable to empathize with the real pain caused to people of Color by racism, both interpersonal and systemic.

For goodness sake, even the McKinney police admitted Eric Casebolt was out of line in assaulting a young Black girl for legally observing his actions, yet White people in my life were trying so hard to explain how the officer was in the right and how this “isn’t racial.”

All of this leaves me wondering about the roots of our defensiveness to admitting that racism is alive and well.

Why are we so resistant to acknowledging the countless examples of our racial privilege?

What do we risk by actually empathizing with people of Color and acknowledging how racial oppression plays out in our society?

Almost every White person I know at least claims to live by a strong set of values, and I rarely meet people whose core values say that it’s good for people of Color to be treated as second class citizens.

I don’t think I personally know anyone who believes that their core values sanction their participation in the hurting of other people.

And yet both systemic and interpersonal racism hurt people. Racism destroys lives.

So how is it that we can live more fully into the values that so many of us claim to hold when we’re defensive about whether we might be benefitting from racism?

1. White People Must Choose to Extend Our Personal Values towards Racial Issues

Because otherwise, we continue to contribute to White supremacy.

When someone calls us as White people out for racist behavior or language, we are almost never being accused of being card-carrying members of the KKK.

Yet so many of us are stuck in a surface level, 1950s conception of racism where we can clearly identify it as wearing White hoods and burning crosses.

But even then, racism was far more complex and insidious.

The reason that so many people claim that people of Color can’t be racist is that racism is about more than individual attitudes that we hold.

Racism is about the ways that virtually all of the systems in which we live (economic,educational, judicial, medical, and so on) were created to serve White people (particularly White, cisgender, straight men) while oppressing people of Color.

And even with major reforms over time, this is still true.

So if we only see racism as flying the Confederate battle flag over a state capitol or as an individual racist gunman, it makes sense that we get so damn defensive when the topic of race and racism comes up. Few of us want to be associated with that blatant hate.

But to understand the issues of race and racism that are being tackled by anti-racist movements like #BlackLivesMatter, we White folks need to make sure we’re being clear about the difference between Whiteness (also sometimes called White supremacy) and White people.

One of my favorite authors on the topic, Dr. Zeus Leonardo, lays out this distinction well, noting that Whiteness is something created by wealthy Europeans that subsumes all light-skinned European ethnicities into one identity.

Why was Whiteness created? For social control: to allow wealthy White elites to unite poor and middle class Whites against people of Color.

Whiteness, then, refers to that system of social control and its institutions that were built to serve White wealth and power concentration.

White people, on the other hand, are individuals who have been caste into this racial hierarchy. We are not Whiteness, but we are inscribed with it from birth. As such, we face a choice.

Just as men can choose whether to align with feminism and work for gender equity, White people can choose whether to turn away from defending systems that are literally killing people of Color while we benefit.

And instead, we can choose to invest in racial justice.

To me, that is such an incredibly empowering and liberating realization!

As White people, we have agency about how we will engage with the racial world around us.

And yet so many of us, as I described above, do all we can to convince ourselves, and others, that racism cannot be real (except in the rare cases of a KKK rally). Why?

Well, because there are damn good reasons for us as White people to invest in Whiteness, to invest in those systems that tell us that racism isn’t real and that we aren’t privileged.

Some of those reasons are tangible, as we have real political and economic stakes in being defensive to racial justice movements. Others of those reasons are emotional, and as such, are far more terrifying to actually grapple with.

2. White People Benefit Materially from Racism

Therefore, most of us have an unacknowledged political and economic stake in maintaining White supremacy.

It can be really hard sometimes to feel like we get any sort of political or economic benefit from our racial identity when our lives feel pretty shitty.

I remember once when I had written an article about White privilege, my friend’s dad called him and railed about what I had to say, asking my buddy who works really hard at a carpet cleaning and installation company, “Do you feel privileged right now while you’re busting your ass to feed your family?”

We’re struggling with our mortgages. We’re struggling with relationship problems or divorce. We’re struggling with the other aspects of our identity that are marginalized or oppressed. So it’s hard to believe that there could be any sort of racialized wind at our back.

And I get that!

But benefitting from racist systems doesn’t mean that everything is magically easy for us. It just means that as hard as things are, they could always be worse.

We could face the daily onslaught of overt and covert racism that impedes people of Color on top of all of our struggles.

I could lay out statistic after statistic, article after article, book after book about how White people are privileged in almost every place on Earth that Europeans colonized (all but a handful of countries), but that will do no good if we’re not simply willing to listen.

It’s our defensiveness to understanding the racialized world around us that we must understand if we want to live in a way that better aligns with our values, the values of justice and equity so many of us hold.

After all, those values are in direct competition with our material realities.

If our children are more likely to go to college because they grew up surrounded by Whiteness, wouldn’t we want them to have that opportunity?

Or if we will be more likely to have a comfortable retirement enjoying state and federal parks if we ignore calls from Indigenous people to return land (both public and private), why would we join that movement?

Divesting from Whiteness means divesting from material realities that make our lives better at the expense of other people’s lives – and also  at the expense of solidarity that could, eventually, raise the standard of living for all people, including us.

And that’s really scary to consider!

So to even consider divesting from those systems, we have to dig a little deeper.

3. White People Have an Emotional Stake in Denying White Supremacy 

Because that way, we can avoid dealing with how we’re complicit in its pervasiveness.

Admitting that we’re acting in racist ways or supporting racist systems is terrifying. And it hurts.

Scarier still is doing the deep emotional reflection to understand the ways that we may be truly racist deep down.

And if you’re anything like me, I don’t like doing things that terrify me or that hurt.

So I have an emotional stake in coasting along with the status quo.

I have an emotional stake in reacting defensively to allegations that I have hurt a person of Color with my privileged actions.

I have an emotional stake in pretending that my equitable values are in alignment with the world I create for myself.

Because to admit that racism is real means that the world around me isn’t as I thought it was, and it means that I am living out of alignment with my values.

And that hurts deeply.

So is it any wonder that we fight tooth and nail to deny that racism could be at play in police killings?

Or that we disproportionately vote in ways that actually are against our self-interests (in an interesting contradiction to our economic and political stake) in order to enact policies that hurt people of Color?

Or that we are far more outraged by allegations of our own racism than by the everyday racism that destroys people’s lives?

We are living in a “culture of make believe.”

But living in this fantasy also comes at a tremendous emotional cost.

One of the most powerful of human capacities is our ability to empathize, to see ourselves in another human being even when we may have next to nothing in common outside of our humanity.

And when we defend racist systems and refuse to be self reflective about our complicity in them, we turn our back on that core, connecting aspect of what makes us human.

By investing in Whiteness, we turn our backs on our own humanity.

4. Working towards Racial Solidarity Means Being Vulnerable

Because that’s the only way for us to transform ourselves for the better.

My own investment in working for racial justice didn’t come from being presented with lists or statistics about my privilege. It came from being called upon by mentors, both people of Color and White people, to live more fully into my values.

They asked me to quiet myself and listen to the voice of people of Color who described devastation caused by the everyday interpersonal and systemic racism.

They challenged me to get in touch with my human capacity for empathy.

When I opened my heart to this empathy, it hurt tremendously, and it inspired me to change myself in hopes of transforming my community.

But even further, some of my most powerful transformation came when I was asked to frame my investment in justice not only through empathic concern (how racism hurts people I love) but also through recognizing what I lose by investing in Whiteness (how racism hurts me).

And I’m still answering that question.

But in my journey to understand what Whiteness costs me paired with my ever-evolving desire to be in more accountable solidarity, I’ve found that I am living a more spiritually-fulfilling life than I ever did before.

And that’s because I’ve chosen to live into my values.

All of us as White people are offered a choice, then. Will we choose to live into our values and into our human capacity for empathic concern? Or will we invest in the alluring benefits of Whiteness?

If we choose the former, then we have to resist our inclination to be defensive when talking about racism and our own complicity in its systems. We can’t pretend that we are simply “post racial.”

We have to commit to finding a third way, a way characterized by building accountable relationships across difference and striving for anti-racist solidarity.

And that solidarity is powerful and important. Over and over, we can hear people of Color asking us to set down our shields of defensiveness and call in our own people to change.

But we should also recognize that by allowing ourselves to get in touch with why we are defensive, we open the door to something more than solidarity.

We open the door to powerful self-transformation and to growth as people.

Because by investing in what makes us human and by working to live more fully into values of justice and equity, we invite positive change into our lives.

And in doing so, we set a powerful standard for other White people in our lives: our families, our friends, our colleagues, and, most importantly, the next generation of White people to inherit this flawed world in which we live.

Rear view of two men walking with their arms around each other

If White People Really Want to Help End Racism, We Need to Invest in Other White People (Yeah, I Know It Sounds Counterintuitive)

As I sit here writing this after learning of the brutal murder of Natasha McKenna while in police custody, a death local authorities ruled an “accident,” a familiar feeling rises inside of me. I recognize this anger and this sadness.

Sadly, this is a feeling that comes up for me nearly every single day as I work not to allow myself to numb to the brutality Black, Brown, and Indigenous people experience at the hands of the police. And frankly, I have little patience at the moment for talking to White people.

Similarly, after the grand jury decided against indicting Darren Wilson, I found myself lashing out at those who share my race and who were defending the decision. I was incredibly snarky, and I was looking for the best thing to say to sound right, not to actually help them understand the roots issues of systemic racism at play.

Seeing these gruesome images is something all too common in our age of cell phone cameras and social media – not that the violence is happening more, only that we as White people are privy to this racist violence in a way we never were before.

Yet I’m watching my fellow White people do mental backflips to justify this violence and to deny that this is in any way connected to a wider system of racism in the United States.

And I should feel angry.

If we as White people striving to be in solidarity to people of Color don’t feel anger, then we seriously ought to question our motives and wonder whether our investment is solely intellectual.

But how that anger and hurt and frustration gets expressed will go a long way in determining how effective I am in working with White people – my people – for racial justice.

In thinking about that anger, I can’t help but remember this brilliant piece from Spektra Speaks that came out after the non-indictment of Darren Wilson – White People, Stop Unfriending Other White People Over Ferguson (seriously, if you’re White, you need to read this piece).

After all, if you’re anything like me, being told to “f*ck off” or being berated doesn’t exactly inspire me to self-reflect, to consider how I can be better and do better – and cutting White people out of my life doesn’t advance racial justice.

Far too much of what I have justified as “calling someone out on their privilege” was little more than a dismissive slight aimed at boosting my ego and making me look like the “best anti-racist White person.” How does that actually help anything?

Thus, the more that I think about it, I realize that White people who wish to work in racial justice solidarity and who strive for allyship need to realize our fundamental responsibility to do more than simply “call out” other White people.

We must take up the long, difficult, often emotionally-exhausting work of calling them in to change.

The Need for Tools

Changing ourselves and other White people is exhausting, but to be honest, our privilege does not afford us the luxury of lost patience if we truly want to do the work to realize racial justice.

We have a responsibility to cultivate a deep well of patience and compassion for working to change the hearts and minds of our people, just as our hearts and minds were changed somewhere along our own journey.

As my dear friend and mentor Carla reminded me recently, I have a responsibility to cultivate a deep well of agapic love for my people, the agapic love that Dr. King wrote so prolifically about, noting that agape doesn’t ask of us that we “like” those with whom we’re in conflict, only that we work for a love based in an “understanding, redemptive goodwill for all.”

Compassion alone, though, is not enough. We need skills.

Read the rest at Everyday Feminism.

Ferguson

In Solidarity with Ferguson, Act Locally: 5 Things White People Can Do to Combat Racist Police Violence

Scott Olson/Getty Images, Found Here

Like countless others around the country, I have been wrapped up in pain, anger, and concern over the killing of Michael Brown, the police cover up, the protests, and violent police response to those protests.  It’s been concerning (though perhaps not surprising) to see the state-sanctioned displays of White supremacy and utter contempt for the constitutional rights of poor Black people (especially with recent restraint used by institutional power when White protestors were pointing weapons at federal agents).

Perhaps what’s most concerning, though, is how this situation is described by White acquaintances, friends, and family who are not actively engaged in anti-racist action.

Some responses blame the victim: “Michael Brown was a criminal.” “If the protestors would just be civil, the police wouldn’t react the way they have.”

Other responses express naive shock and outrage: “How could this happen in America?” “Clearly the police in Ferguson are corrupt.”

But what seems to be missed in many of these reactions is that this is not a problem of Ferguson, MO. This is a problem of every single city and municipality in the United States of America.

As a result, there is a need to take action.  If you are able and are called to do so, consider joining the Black Lives Matter Ride to Ferguson on Labor Day weekend.  If you can’t head to Ferguson, consider financially supporting those who are taking part in this historic ride  (link takes you to Darnell Moore‘s fundraiser, but there are others linked below his to support as well).

However, those of us who cannot travel to Ferguson might feel like there’s nothing more we can do. Yet when we understand this as an interconnected problem of power and oppression, we immediately open up a world of action locally.

After all, when we as White people see Ferguson as an isolated problem, we actually contribute to the wider problem of White supremacy in our systems because we forever treat the problem as “over there” rather than right here on our home cities.

As a result, there is a need for us as White people (particularly since we often easily move from issue to issue and cause to cause) to see protests in Ferguson as part of a wider movement against the state-sanctioned extra-judicial murder and brutalization of people of Color by police and their proxies.

And when we realize that Ferguson is part of a history and a movement against police brutality that disproportionately affects communities of Color, we empower ourselves to act locally for justice.

5 Ways to Act Locally Against Racist Police Violence

1. Know Their Names, Say Their Names

Every 28 hours, a Black person is killed by police or those protected by police in the United States. That doesn’t even account for the Latino, Asian or Pacific Islander, Indigenous, or (most often low-income) White victims of police extra-judicial killing.  Nor does this number account for all of those victims of police brutality who survive but must live with the trauma and injuries from this violence.

Thus, no matter where you live, people locally are being impacted by police (and proxy) violence.

An important place for you to start, then, is to do the research to find the names and stories of those locally impacted by police violence.

Alonzo Ashley, Source

When I lived in Denver, activists were organizing to hold police accountable for the murder of Alonzo Ashley.

In Minneapolis, activists are working to hold the police accountable for the murder of

Terrance Franklin, Source

Terrance Franklin and for the beating of Al Flowers for demanding to see a warrant when police invaded his home.

By knowing the names and stories of those locally impacted by police violence, you ground this movement in your community and you open the door to local action.

2. Raise Awareness Locally

Once you’re aware of the police violence affecting local communities, you can help raise the consciousness of those around you. Local awareness and engagement is vital for changing policy, police training, and civic practice in your community.

More often than not, White folks are totally oblivious to this violence and/or blame the victims for the violence taking place. Thus, there is a particular need for us to call other White folks into the conversation about police brutality.

Whether through social media or over a dinner with a friend, look for ways that you can help those who are unaware understand the problem of police (and proxy) violence in our cities and towns.

3. Pressure Local Power Holders

Once we are aware of the problem, we have to do more than bemoan the issue within the comfort of our homes.  We have to hold local power holders accountable to creating change.

Particularly for those of us with access (as a result of wealth or connections), there is a need to press mayors, city council members, alderman, police chiefs, public prosecutors, and other local power holders for change.  When they ignore you (and they likely will), keep contacting them. Set up meetings, and email them regularly.

When you reach out, here are a few specific, measurable things you can call for:

  • Demand Police Body Cameras – We live in an age that allows incredible surveillance of police behavior for accountability purposes, but only a small minority of police forces prioritize the technology for this accountability. Body cameras, a simple and inexpensive addition to the police uniform, have been found to reduce incidents of excessive police force by as much as 50% where used. Costing as little as $199 per officer (plus hosting and transmission costs), this not only can reduce the violence committed and protect citizens from violence, but it can protect police who are doing their jobs legitimately.  Plus, limiting police brutality also ensures that cities don’t need to pay out millions in settlements in civil suits, so if you’re talking to someone who values tax savings over considerations of human life (yes, they exist), you can show how cameras actually save tax payers money.
  • Demand Accountable Civilian Review – Having cameras and accountability procedures is ineffective unless there is a legitimate and empowered civilian review authority with actual teeth to hold police accountable. After all, when footage from body cameras or dash cameras is held and stored by police, it’s far too easy for footage to conveniently disappear (“Oh, that camera was malfunctioning that day”) when there’s an incident of police violence. Thus, if your city doesn’t have a civilian review authority with actual teeth, demand one. The local police union will fight to ensure it is ineffective, but civilian review from members of the community most affected is a powerful tool for change.
  • Demand Independent Police Liability Insurance – Currently city governments are on the hook financially when their police officers brutalize citizens, yet police unions are powerful enough that local politicians rarely hold police accountable.  However, insurance companies that care about their bottom line would have no problem holding police accountable when they abuse their authority.  Thus, a simple thing to demand in your municipality is for police to be required to pay for their own liability insurance as a condition of employment in the police department. If they brutalize citizens and end up losing a suit, the insurance companies will make it quite expensive to hold insurance or will drop the officer completely, thus ensuring that the person can no longer be employed as a police officer in your city. Simply put, hit them in the pocket book to hold police accountable. Learn about the movement in Minneapolis to require police to purchase their own insurance.

4. Join The Movement Against Police Brutality Locally

Everywhere that police are brutalizing citizens, people are organizing to hold police accountable. If you live in even a medium-sized city, there’s a good chance that your city has an organized group working against police brutality. Connect with the local organizers and organizations that are demanding change. Not sure who those folks are? Show up to local protests against police brutality and ask about who the organizers were, or connect with local activists via social media and ask how you can help.  Then work to build trust and volunteer your time and energy to help!

Keep in mind, though, that as White folks, it’s not our job to be in charge.  Offer your support, but recognize that you don’t need to be in the limelight or in a leadership role. There are powerful activists in every community with the lived experience and history in activism to lead. If we’re just coming to the movement, it’s our job to listen, learn, and support.

5. Connect and Collaborate with Nearby Movements

Knowing that this is a problem in pretty much every community in the country and knowing that there are seasoned activists who’ve been standing up to this problem for generations, connecting with multiple organizations in an area can help build a wider movement.  Maybe they are already connected and learning from one another, but if they’re not, a simple way to help is to network and learn from others nearby who are doing the work to hold police forces accountable.  The more we connect our efforts in the age of digital media and communication, the more effective we can be in ensuring that violent, racist police forces (and the powers above them) cannot act with impunity.

———–

Regardless of how we engage, we have to engage. As we are far less likely to be impacted by police violence directly, but police violence hurts everyone as it tears apart any hope for true democracy.

Sure, there are White people who are beaten or killed by cops, and they are more likely to be low-wealth White folks.  We need to understand, though, that while fearing state-sanctioned violence is a daily reality for most people of Color in the United States (but particularly for Black, Indigenous, and Brown people), it’s just not something most White folks ever consider.

And finally, to those who immediately jump into the #NotAllCops defense upon hearing criticisms like those in this piece, stop. No, not all cops are actively participating in the murder and brutalization of citizens, but this is about more than the racism of individual cops. That’s why there are plenty of police of Color who contribute to the problem.

This is about a system of oppression that since its inception has used the implied or active violence of police forces for everything from slave patrols to re-enslaving escaped slaves to beating civil rights marchers to brutalizing people of Color in order to crush the hopes and dreams of those for whom this country was not made.

Simply put, “America is not for Black people,” and one of the most foundational roles of the police is to protect and maintain the status quo in a system of oppression.

Other resources:

Donate to Lost Voices, activists on the ground in Ferguson

Donate to Millennial Activists United through PayPal using the email address millennialAU@gmail.com

Donate to those providing legal support on the ground in Ferguson and STL.

The Wages of Whiteness: How Ferguson Calls On Us as White People to Regain Our Humanity

Showing Up for Racial Justice – Police Brutality Action Kit

12 Things White People Can Do Now Because of Ferguson – By Janee Woods

12 Things White People Can Do About Ferguson Besides Tweet – By Kate Hardin

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Cultural Appropriation: Calling ‘This American Life’ In to Accountability

AliceAlice H. is a writer, educator, dreamer, and social worker.  She is dedicated to supporting and encouraging the work of interconnection and allyship through anti-oppression work, storytelling, and communion with the natural world.  She works with the emotional healing of the heart, communicating the message to people that they have a right, no matter the circumstance, to be seen and acknowledged.  She believes through the sharing of our stories we traverse the process of healing our hearts, which enables us to be better stewards to ourselves, to each other and to the earth.  She derives great wisdom from her teachers in the animal, plant, and spirit world and seeks to share these learnings through her writings.  She is based out of Denver, Colorado.

Read more of Alice’s writing at her blog, Weaving Webs.

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I was recently listening to a This American Life podcast as I biked to work, and I became quite irritated by the story I heard.  A few days ago, I wrote This American Life an email with my thoughts and response to that specific story.  Below, is the email, which I would like to flesh out into a larger piece regarding the insistence that white folks step back and create/allow/demand space for other communities to share their own stories and to just listen to the stories that are already being told by these communities.

The story that was shared on This American Life was regarding the writing of The Education of Little Treea book that is still taught in high schools today.  I have not read this book myself, and the information that I share regarding it comes from the show.  The “autobiography,” which was written in the mid 1970s (not so long ago) claims to be written by a Cherokee man recounting his childhood growing up with his Cherokee grandparents and learning “the ways.”

The book became a huge success; it was at the top of the New York Times bestsellers list, the author was on the Today show, and Oprah put it on her booklist in the 1990s.  While the book was being released, some folks in Alabama recognized the fellow claiming to be Forrest Carter as Asa Carter, a prolific white supremacist writer and Klu Klux Klan leader who wrote many speeches for the anti-civil rights, racist governor of Alabama, George Wallace.

“Segregation today, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever” ring a bell?  Yep, that’s him, Asa Carter, who moved to Texas in the late 1960s, grew a mustache, tanned his skin, changed his name to Forrest, and began to claim Cherokee heritage.

And let’s be clear: these hateful words and others created a climate of fear and violence where four young girls were killed in a bombing of a church and where state troopers beat and teargassed civil rights demonstrators.  The information regarding Forrest Carter’s real identity came out right before the book was published, with little response.  Much later, the book was changed from non-fiction to fiction but can still be found in the Native American Section of bookstores today.

To me, this is the outrage and this should have been the focus of the program, or at least more throughly critiqued so as to still fit within the overarching theme of the show. The question that the program posited was whether Asa/Forrest Carter could have done a complete 180 degree turn in his life.

In my opinion this could never have been true regardless of if his views regarding race had changed.  This could not have been true because he was still a White man claiming the story of a Cherokee person, a story which garnered him much acclaim and, I would guess, profit.  The fact that this story is still being taught today in our schools only serves to perpetuate this racist notion that it is okay for White folks to claim others’ stories.

Let me be clear, White folks and other folks with institutionally backed power: THIS IS NOT OKAY.  I know that many have good intent and are unaware of the underlining unjustness of claiming another’s story or sharing someone else’s story through your socially normalized vantage point.  I know that many believe that our society has moved past racism and the need to acknowledge its deep wounds.  As such, we have moved towards a more insidious form of racism which is cultural appropriation under the guise of “honoring” and “sharing culture.”

This is a contemporary form of colonization, i.e. the claiming of something that doesn’t belong to you without any kind of contextual knowledge or true responsibility at the psychic cost of those whose culture is being appropriated.  To understand more about cultural appropriation, read Naomi Archer’s open letter to the British Columbia Witchcamp.

I know that many believe that they are offering homage to a culture that they admire, but this is not being an ally.  Being an ally is working in solidarity, not charity or sympathy.  It is listening to the stories that are being told, and sharing these stories with permission and guidance within your community.  It is examining the ease with which you and the stories of folks like you take up space in our society (your privilege). It is taking a step back. It is being uncomfortable. It is being humbled.

Please read Paul Kivel’s guidelines for being a strong white ally.  To follow is the email that I sent to This American Life with my thoughts on their portrayal of the Forrest/Asa Carter story:

Hello,

I was wanting to share my specific response to the first segment of 180 Degrees regarding Asa/Forrest Carter and The Education of Little Tree. This is no doubt an important story to share, but it frustrated and saddened me that the underlying racism of a White man (historically a White supremacist) claiming a Cherokee story that is still being taught in schools today (with and without acknowledgment) was not more critically examined.

Without this, your program unfortunately becomes a continuation of this type of racism.  It is true that today we (White folks) continue to take/share/co-opt the stories of folks of Color with good and malintent. But intent matters little when the impact causes pain, particularly when the privileges of one group is in direct relationship with the genocide and oppression of another.  This, I wished your story had mentioned, as well as how inappropriate it is for schools to continue teaching this story to our youth with made up words and history.

A story that continues to romanticize the spiritual Native American (which impacts our current justification of the racist trend in fashion and lifestyle) without sharing the story of genocide, of forced relocation, of boarding schools, of the prohibiting of spiritual and cultural practices that manifest today in disease and in pain is simply irresponsible. And of course these communities exist in and create great beauty today as well, we often forget that it all manifests simultaneously. Cherokee folks, Native folks – they exist and are here; they tell and write stories, and it is these we must hear and read in our schools.

It is not our role to tell these stories. It is our role to provide space for these stories to be told and to demand that White folks listen to these communities so that healing can continue. It is through honoring and hearing each others’ stories that we come together as a larger community, that we move forward into a time when we treat one another and the earth with more love.

I believe your program wants this change, and I am grateful for your program; it has touched me, educated me, and humored me for many years. However, at times you miss important points that should be highlighted, and the segment I mention is an example of one such opportunity.

One way you could have addressed this issue or become aware of it yourself is to have asked a contemporary Cherokee activist to share their thoughts on this story.  I do not doubt Alex Blumberg’s good intent in producing this story, but unfortunately he becomes another White man re-telling the story without asking folks from the affected community to share their thoughts.  Simply stating that the introduction to the second pressing of  the book was written by a Cherokee man does not do this.

Those that grow up under a system that normalizes this type of co-opting are of course prone to believe in its legitimacy.  I am also aware that folks within the Cherokee community will have differing views on the appropriateness of Carter’s actions, and this is part of the ambiguous times that we live in.  I would hope for your show, and perhaps you already do this, to hire some folks from the communities whose stories YOU are sharing, editing, crafting from footage YOU research and record to see and hear their thoughts on YOUR portrayal. It is in this way that we as White folks attempt to be accountable.

In conclusion, I want to make clear that I am not writing this email with anger. I am writing with the desire that true dialogue and reflection can take place. I am happy to answer any questions you may have.

Best, Alice

Originally posted by Afropunk, though I’m not sure the original source.

8 Things White People Really Need to Understand About Race

When I recently read this fantastic article from Jamelle Bouie entitled Why Do Millenials Not Understand Racism?, I couldn’t help but think it didn’t go far enough.

As someone who works with young people all the time, I definitely see the patterns Bouie describes in his analysis of research done by MTV (yeah, MTV does research! Whodathunk?), but it’s just too simple to say that Millenials don’t understand racism.

I think a lot of millenials in general misunderstand the connection between systems of oppression and interpersonal experiences of prejudice, but this is also a race-specific problem.

And by race-specific, I mean that this is a White people problem more than anything.

Now, let me be clear about why this article is directed at White people.

First, I am White, and as such, my role in ending racial oppression must be in engaging other White people to join accountable work for racial justice. Plain and simple.

Second, because privilege conceals itself from those who have it and because White people benefit most from the current systems of racial oppression, we as White people have a particular tendency to bury our head in the sand on issues of race, but we also have a particular role in acting for racial justice.

Are there people of Color who act in ways that reinforce systems of racial oppression? Sure. But it is not my place to address those issues. It is my place to work with White folks.

Thus, inspired in part by 18 Things White People Should Know/Do Before Discussing Racism, I would posit that there are a few things that it’s about time all White people figured out.

These are things we’ve been told collectively by people of Color countless times, but we don’t seem to be hearing them. Perhaps we can hear them differently when called in by a White person to consider how we can actively work to end racial injustice and oppression.

1. Racial prejudice and racism are not the same thing.

I recently posted the following graphic on Facebook:

Originally posted by Afropunk, though I’m not sure the original source.

Originally posted by Afropunk, though I’m not sure the original source.

(If you’re not sure why reverse racism isn’t a thing, that’s a wholly different article. Read this before continuing.)

It led to a frustrating and tense conversation with a White man who called it “the single dumbest thing [he’d] ever read.” I tried to unpack the “Prejudice + Power = Racism” argument, but it wasn’t working.

He kept coming back to something I often hear from White people when this notion of racism is presented.

He was very concerned about how this sentiment is unfair, as it seems to let women or people of Color or other oppressed people off the hook for prejudicial behavior.

Perhaps this speaks to how we as White people need to engage White folks differently in the conversation. Reverse racism is not real because racial prejudice directed at White people doesn’t have the weight of institutional oppression behind it, but that doesn’t meant that White people aren’t sometimes hurt by racial prejudice.

This is not to say that we should cater to White people’s feelings in conversations about racism or that this hurt is in any way comparable to the hurts caused by racism. It is to say, though, that we as White folks need to talk about this concept in a new way when engaging other White people.

If we never acknowledge the ways that White people feel wounded by interpersonal racial bigotry, we can’t push past this defensiveness to make change.

So no, it does not feel good to be called a “cracker.” It’s legitimate to feel hurt by that language. And as White folks, we can validate that hurt in other White people as we call them in to a conversation about racism.

It’s not legitimate, though, to equate that language with racist language that reinforces the oppression of people of Color. Sure, it can be a hurtful reaction, but equating racial prejudice against White folks with that experienced by people of Color erases the often-invisible structures of oppression at play, and doing so ensures that we never actually deal with root causes.

2. Interpersonal racism and systems of racial oppression rely on one another.

Race as we know it was created to ensure that poor Europeans utilize interpersonal expressions of racism to uphold bigger systems of oppression.

Thus, whether we’re talking lynchings or everyday microaggressions, the end result is the same:the actions taken by individuals further marginalize and devastate those already oppressed by racist structures like our educational system, our criminal injustice system, and so on.

Thus, while we absolutely must focus our energy on racist individuals or actions, it’s not simply for the sake of that individual or those they impact.

We must see engagement of interpersonal racism as a tool in the wider dismantling of racist structures.

3. Race isn’t real, but the impacts of race and racism are very real.

One of the more common responses that I hear from White people when confronted with the socially-constructed nature of race for the first time is for them to push a “race-neutral” ideology. This is often characterized by statements like, “But I don’t see race” or, “If race isn’t real, then we really are all one human family!”

Read the Rest at Everyday Feminism.

 

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Throwback: Stop Saying Affirmative Action Disadvantages White Students

I’ve got a whole bunch of awesome irons in the fire at the moment, but that means that I don’t have as much time for writing new material (hence the number of guest posts recently).  However, I have been thinking a lot about affirmative action recently, and I thought it would make sense to repost an older article I had written.

I recently had a student come up to me after I gave a presentation at a conference, and he said something I often hear from young White people: “I agree with most of what you said, but you didn’t talk about the ways that White people are institutionally discriminated against.”  When I asked him to clarify what he meant, he said, “Well, like affirmative action, for instance. It is reverse racism!”

reverseracismcartoon

Considering how often this sentiment is expressed and considering the recent debate about what reparations can and should look like spurred by the amazing Ta-Nehisi Coates article in the Atlantic entitled, “The Case for Reparations“, I figure it’s time to repost an article that I originally titled “Are White Students Being Disadvantaged by Affirmative Action” (though my friend Scott bemoaned the passive voice used in the title).

***

I notice that whenever I can do question and answer sessions with young people (high school and college students), the same questions come up every time.  First, a White Man usually asks why Black folks are allowed to use the “n word” but he’s not (read my response here).  Then a White young person usually asks, “How do you feel about Affirmative Action? Because from what I understand, White people (particularly White Men) are actually now at a disadvantage in college admissions because of Affirmative Action, and it’s not fair that I will have less of a chance of getting into college because of what happened in the past!”

Ask any White person how they feel about Affirmative Action, and you’re almost guaranteed to hear that it is “racist against White people” and that it is “unfair” or “reverse discrimination” and that they oppose it.  Further, most White folks will tell you that they are, in fact, actually less likely to get a job or a position in a school than a Person of Color because of Affirmative Action policies.

This is not true. Not only are White people not being discriminated against actively, White people are still benefitting regularly from a system that was built from its inception by White people for White people.

You see, White folks will often tell me, “White people make up 72% of the American population, but they only make up 62% of those admitted and enrolled in degree-granting institutions.”  And the tricky part of that statement is that it is not false, not in the slightest.  It is, however, wildly misleading.

The Demographics of Success

Demographics are tricky.  In the United States today, there are A LOT of older White people.  Simultaneously, though, there are also A LOT of younger People of Color.  Thus, while the percentage of the American public that are White hovers around 70%, the percentage of traditionally college-aged folks is much lower: 59.7%.  The critics are right, though, that 62.3% of those enrolled in degree-conferring institutions are White.

Want to know if affirmative action really disadvantages White students? Read the rest of the post here.

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.

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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:

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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.