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.

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A Message to Megyn Kelly: Jesus Wasn’t White

In case you missed it, Aisha Harris wrote a really awesome piece about how it’s about time we stop depicting Santa as an old White dude and start picturing him as a penguin.

Aaaand then this happened:

Yeah . . . You heard that right.  “Jesus was a white man, too. It’s like we have, he’s a historical figure that’s a verifiable fact, as is Santa, I just want kids to know that. How do you revise it in the middle of the legacy in the story and change Santa from white to black?”

Ummmmm . . . No.

Megyn, let’s start by talking about geography.  I’m sure you know most of this, but it’s worthy of review.  Jesus was born and lived in the historical land of Palestine/Israel.  It’s in the Middle East.

What that means is that Jesus was most likely an Arab Jew (though he may also have had some darker-skinned, North African roots).  If you’ve never met an Arab Jew, here are a few modern Arab Jews who might act as a good reference.

So Jesus likely looked more like these folks than like this:

Beyond all of speculation about the color of his skin, though, there’s the contention that Jesus was “White.”  Considering that our modern understanding of Whiteness came about in the process of European colonization, particularly the colonization of North America.  There was a long history of Europeans looking down upon darker-skinned people from other continents, but the idea that all or most European people were of the same “race” was laughable until it was needed as a tool of control in the 1600s, 1700s, 1800s, and 1900s.

Thus, even if Jesus HAD been light-skinned and blue-eyed, he wouldn’t have been White.  He would have been seen as a Semitic Canaanite, someone “other” to the Europeans like the Romans or Greeks who made their way through the region.

My point is this: if your goal is to further the racist hierarchy established by rich Europeans (people we now would consider White) by distorting history, then we see you.  We’re on to you.  And we won’t let it stand.

If, on the other hand, you’re just that ignorant of history (which I highly doubt since you are a brilliant, well-educated woman), then please do me a favor and read this.

Oh, and also check out this phenomenal follow up from Aisha Harris.

So You Call Yourself an Ally: 10 Things All ‘Allies’ Need to Know

As happens every time that I read something from Black Girl Dangerous, I recently found myself snapping, nodding, and yelling out “YES!” while reading a piece from Mia McKenzie.

Her article “No More ‘Allies’” made me profoundly uncomfortable – which is a good thing.

I was uncomfortable because it was a call to reflection about my own “ally”identifications and my own work.

To start, read her piece. Seriously. It is awesome.

Beyond that, though, it’s time for those of us who fashion ourselves “allies” or as “currently operating in solidarity with” to have a conversation.

More and more, I am seeing precisely what McKenzie is describing – people of identity privilege who are identifying as “allies” almost as if it is a core part of their identity.

What’s worse, I keep seeing people respond to criticism about their oppressive language or problematic humor with, “But I’m an ally!”

For instance, I recently saw an acquaintance (who notably identifies as Straight)post a pretty problematic joke about Gay men on Twitter.

Aside from expressing my discontent in a tweet, I reached out to her in a private message to explain why I took issue with her joke.

Her response, though, was to say, “Jamie, you know that I’m an LGBT ally! I speak out for Gay rights all the time! This was clearly just a joke.”

And therein lies the problem.

The identification of “ally” was so prominent in this person’s mind that she couldn’t even hear criticism of how her actions were out of alignment with her professed desire to be an “ally!”

So “allies,” let’s talk.

Credit Where Credit is Due

Before I say anything else, though, I should note something important about this article.

None of what I am writing here are my ideas.

They are drawn from Mia McKenzie’s piece, from conversations I’ve had with people of many different marginalized identities, from theorists, novelists, bloggers – but none of them are inherently mine.

They are the ideas of the People of Color, Queer-identified people, women, differently-abled people, poor folks, Jewish people, Muslim people, Atheists, undocumented citizens, and others.

And noting this is important.

Because part of being an ally means giving credit where credit is due and never taking credit for the anti-oppressive thinking, writing, theorizing, and action of the marginalized and oppressed.

Which I guess leads me to my point.

10 Things Every ‘Ally’ Needs to Remember

There are lots of ways to be a great “ally” – and innumerable ways to be a terrible one.

But it’s not rocket science.

There are simple things you can keep in mind and do in order to be a better person “currently operating in solidarity with” the marginalized or oppressed.

And while this list is not comprehensive, it’s definitely somewhere to start.

1. Being an Ally is About Listening

As McKenzie puts it, “Shut up and listen.”

As someone striving to be an ally, the most important thing we can do is listen to as many voices of those we’re allying ourselves with as possible. 

Now, does this mean that we should assume that just because, say, one Person of Color said it that it’s the absolutely truth that we should parrot? Absolutely not.

If that were the case, then Don Lemon would clearly speak for all Black people.

But listening to a diversity of marginalized voices can help you understand the core of any given issue.

And it also can help you understand why the opinion of your one Lesbian friend is not necessarily the best defense of your use of heterosexist language.

2.  Stop Thinking of ‘Ally’ as a Noun

Being an ally isn’t a status.

The moment that we decide “I’m an ally,” we’re in trouble.

As Mia McKenzie puts it:

“’Currently operating in solidarity with’ is undeniably an action. It describes what a person is doing in the moment. It does not give credit for past acts of solidarity without regard for current behavior. It does not assume future acts of solidarity. It speaks only to the actions of the present.”

3.  ‘Ally’ is Not a Self-Proclaimed Identity

Really, being an ally is not an identity at all, but it’s vitally important that we understand that we cannot simply decide we are allies.

Being in solidarity is something we can strive for, but in the end, it is the choice of those we are attempting to ally ourselves to as to whether they trust us enough to call us an ally.

Additionally, just because one person considers me an ally, that does not mean that every person of that marginalized identity considers me an ally or should!

Trust is something earned through concerted action, not given simply because of our actions in a particular arena or context.

Read the rest at Everyday Feminism.

“That’s Racist Against White People!” A Discussion on Power and Privilege

Lately, I’ve been hearing a lot of White people screaming about racism.

I wish these were anti-racist ally White people who were speaking about the prison industrial complex or about systems of privilege and oppression, but no.

These are White folks who are claiming that the Obamacare tax on tanning beds is “racist” against White people. These are White folks who are claiming thataffirmative action is racist against them. These are the White folks who honestly believe they suffer more racism than people of Color.

And every time I hear these folks cry racism, I can’t help but think:

And it’s not just people of racial privilege who are doing this!

Certain Christians claim they are being religiously oppressed because the rights of Lesbian and Gay people are now being recognized at federal and state levels. The entire Men’s Rights Movement is basically predicated on the idea that men are far more oppressed than women (or transgender people or genderqueer people or really anyone who isn’t a cisgender man).

Now aside from the mountains of evidence that makes someone look a little silly when they claim that those with seemingly endless identity privilege are widely oppressed in society, I am realizing more and more that we have a problem of language precision.

Too often, when people are talking about racism or sexism or heterosexism or any other form of oppression, they’re simply referring to when a person was made to feel bad for or about their identity.

There is absolutely no acknowledgement of wider systems of oppression and power.

And this is no accident.

There has been a concerted effort made by a small but loud group (like theLimbaughsZimmermans, or Robertsonsto coopt language and shift the discussion so that things stay just the way they are.

But whenever we say things like “Well, sometimes women can be just as sexist as men,” we are contributing to the problem.

Precision of Language

Yes. Any person of any identity can be an asshole to any person of any other identity. But that doesn’t make it oppression. It doesn’t even make it racism or sexism or heterosexim or any other -ism.

There is a profound danger in watering down our discussion of identity by removing any mention of societal power, oppression, and privilege.

Doing so ensures that the conversation remains about interpersonal slights rather than about the larger systems of oppression that are the true problem.

Racism is Prejudice plus Social PowerRead the rest at Everyday Feminism.

 

Guest Post – Standing Up to Racial and Religious Profiling

Kadra AbdiKadra Abdi is originally from Somalia and Kenya, and grew up in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. She obtained her Master of Public Policy degree with an emphasis on Gender and Global Policy and a minor in Human Rights from the University of Minnesota’s Hubert H. Humphrey School of Public Affairs. She received her Bachelor of Arts degree from Luther College in Anthropology, and Women and Gender Studies. She has a strong background and interest in international development, social entrepreneurship, and community-based organizations. She has worked with diverse communities in Kenya and Minneapolis-Saint Paul, Minnesota with a focus on program development and the creation of healthy relations across cultures. Follow Kadra on Twitter at @JESUISKADRA ———

“We define ourselves as a nation of immigrants.  That’s who we are — in our bones.  The promise we see in those who come here from every corner of the globe, that’s always been one of our greatest strengths.  It keeps our workforce young.  It keeps our country on the cutting edge.  And it’s helped build the greatest economic engine the world has ever known.”

– President Barack Obama

 In June 2013, I traveled to Stockholm, Sweden as a grantee of the U.S. Government, specifically of the U.S. Embassy in Stockholm. The purpose of this travel was to present a workshop at the 2013 Nordic Somali Youth Summit, “a project that continues to strengthen and connect engaged youths across the Nordic borders and promote cross-national cooperation on education, employment, social entrepreneurship and political participation.”

 During the summit, I led a workshop titled, “Modern Somali-American.” I discussed the dichotomy of traditional and modern social norms and how they are reconciled day-to-day in Minneapolis, Minnesota. I also shared stories about efforts to engage community members as active participants in creating solutions to community concerns.

 I was proud to be an American in Stockholm. I was proud to emphasize my American-ness more any other part of my identity.

 I shared stories from my four, formative years at Luther College. It was at Luther where I learned to be comfortable in my skin and with my identity, which was not exactly mainstream in a Norwegian-American Lutheran college.

 I identify as a Muslim, Somali, American, and a feminist. At Luther, I learned that the intersection of those identities is not only possible, it is a strength.

 Over the years, I became much more self-aware. I became aware of my ability to comfortably navigate and shift between cultures and identities. I learned to be at peace with being a perpetual insider and outsider.

 My Somali counterparts in Sweden could relate to my stories. We connected on our shared narrative. I left the Summit feeling inspired. I made friends, and potential collaborators. I made connections that would last me a lifetime.

 Sadly, upon returning to my own borders, the same values I was espousing to foreigners abroad about America’s tolerance of immigrants were not extended to me.

 I traveled back to Minneapolis on Sunday, June 9th. Upon returning, a U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) Officer at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport conducted an unnecessary, unjustified, illegal, and degrading search.

 I understand that for some people, searches at airport checkpoints might seem routine, but let me explain to you why this was not.

 It was not a random security check upon my arrival into the United States. After the initial questions, the officer referred me for additional screening without explaining the process. I was the only passenger chosen for the additional screening, and the screening took place in the open area, not in a private room.

 The Officer said my name and country of origin were “red flags” and that people with my name do “bad things.” He said “there is always an issue when people are entering the United States.” Simply put, I was the target of racial, ethnic, and religious profiling.

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The Importance of Listening as a Privileged Person Fighting for Justice

Everyday FeminismThis is a strange position to be in!  Though I am writing a lot of new content lately, I am now in my third week of not having to post something new to my blog directly!  As a contributing writer to Everyday Feminism, I am expected to write two articles per month for the site.  Well, lately my articles had been backlogged at the site, and now they are all getting published.  I am still writing new content for CFW, but I will keep it in the wings until there is a week when I am not being published elsewhere.

In the mean time, enjoy this week’s post from Everyday Feminism.

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The Importance of Listening as a Privileged Person Fighting for Justice

In my work with high school students, I am regularly asked, “What can I do? I know that injustice exists, but I feel so powerless. I want to help!”

More often than not, the students asking the question is doing so from a place of privilege: a straight student who wants to be a better LGBTQ ally, a white student who wants to be more anti-racist, an able-bodied person who wants to better support his differently-abled brother.

It’s no surprise to me that folks of privilege are the ones struggling to figure out how to act for justice. More often than not, those who are denied access, voice, privilege, and justice in dominant culture know exactly what they need to do to act for justice.

Those of us with identity privilege, though, can simply coast, never considering how our unchecked privileges contribute to a system of oppression.

To that point, my answer to their question is always the same: “Listen.”

Listening Is the Root of Justice

There are lots of steps that someone can take to become a better ally, but surely there is no more important step than listening.

I was raised in a culture where I benefit from a great many privileges.  I am cis-male, white, straight, English-speaking, and able-bodied, and I come from a family of wealth privilege. In the words of Louis CK“How many advantages can one person have!?” 

With those unearned advantages comes a little voice that tells me that I am always right, that I am above reproach, that I have power and deserve power.

And not only does this little voice tell me that I am always right, but it tells me that there is no need to listen to the voices of those who are different from me.

“What could they possibly teach me?”

And therein lies the arrogant lack of perspective that can come with any form of identity privilege.

After all, when a person lives in a vacuum of privileged voices and perspectives, how brilliant can said person be?

Men who refuse to listen to women, cis folk who ignore trans* voices, white people who ignore people of color… In every case, we are denying ourselves the knowledge of powerful perspectives.

And because privilege conceals itself from those who have it, those of us who benefit from identity privilege are often unaware of the perspectives we deny, silence, and stifle with our voice.

As such, I’ve done a lot of silencing in my life, but most of it wasn’t active. I haven’t simply talked over someone or shouted someone down.

Instead, I’ve resorted to one of my most powerful weapons as a person of privilege: my refusal to listen.

For example, white people like myself are taught that we shouldn’t listen to voices of color. After all, if we did, we wouldn’t need study after study to prove that racism is real and that we don’t live in a “post-racial” society.

We would simply be able to hear it in the stories and voices of those folks of color that must live in our racist society every single day.

Read the rest of the article at Everyday Feminism!

Cut Through the Defensiveness: 6 Suggestions for Conversations About Privilege

I once published a piece about White privilege, and my White friend’s dad lost it.  He read it and immediately called his son at work and asked him, “What are you doing right now?”

My friend replied, “Working, why?”  My friend worked as a carpet cleaner, backbreaking labor for sure.

“Well, Jamie says you’re privileged.  Do you feel privileged right now as you bust your ass to feed your family?”

“Are you kidding me?!?  Screw him! I’ve never had anything handed to me!”

And so the story goes.  How many times have you tried to discuss privilege with someone who is well-meaning but who has no sense of their own privilege and gotten a similar result?

What is “identity privilege?”
Any unearned benefit or advantage one receives in society by nature of their identity. Examples of aspects of identity that can afford privilege: Race, Religion, Gender Identity, Sexual Orientation, Class/Wealth, Ability, or Citizenship Status

After a while, my friend brought up the conversation he had with his dad, and we discussed it.  It didn’t go well.  He immediately got defensive, so did I, and the conversation ended in anger.  As I reflected upon our talk, I took stock of some of the tools I have been given over the years to make this conversation more accessible and less hostile.  I decided to try again, so I reached out to my friend.  The second conversation was tense at times, as any conversation about privilege can be, but this time it went really well, and I think it did because I worked hard to change the tone of the conversation.  Afterward, I couldn’t help but think, “I need to share these tools!!!”

Thus, whether you’re trying to talk Male privilege with your dad, White privilege with someone on the bus, or right-handed privilege with your golfing buddy, here are a few things to consider before jumping into the conversation:

1.  Start by appealing to the ways in which they don’t have privilege.  One of the fastest ways to disarm a person’s defensiveness about their own privilege is to take some time to listen to the ways in which they legitimately do not have privilege and validate those frustrations.

I once attended a workshop with Peggy McIntosh, the original author of “Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack.”  The goal of the workshop was to give people tools for leading workshops of their own on privilege and oppression that get past the defensiveness.  One of her suggestions was to have people divide a paper in half.  Have every person start on the left side of the paper and write down all of the ways in which they do not have identity privilege.  They can include everything from being left handed and having to drag your hand through the ink to being a woman and having to deal with the gender wage gap.  Then folks would write on the opposite side all of the ways in which their identity does afford them privilege that they did not earn.

From there, folks pair up and do a listening exercise where they listen intently to the other person talk about both sides of their list.  Doing so allows people to air their frustrations at being denied privilege while also acknowledging that they do, indeed, have privilege.  From that place, it is a lot easier to help folks understand the power of privilege in creating a system of oppression and how eliminating that system is liberatory and transformative for everyone.

Now, to do this, you don’t need to turn it into a workshop.  Just try asking the other person to talk about the ways in which they don’t have identity privilege, and validate those hurts and frustrations.  Simply listening can go a long way!  Plus, it’s a starting point for helping them build empathy for those who do not have their same privileges.

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