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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White People: Take a White Friend to “12 Years a Slave”

White people,

This weekend I saw 12 Years a Slave.  I am still sorting through my feelings and my reactions to the film, but one thing is plain as day to me after seeing this film: more White people need to see it.

12 Years a Slave

Though this film is not without its criticisms (as brilliantly put by bell hooks in this discussion with Melissa Harris-Perry where she criticizes the portrayal of Black women in the film), it is a rarity.  Not often in Hollywood are films made with a Black leading cast that are written by a Black person, based on the true story of a Black person, and directed by a Black person, particularly if they tell the truths of White Supremacy.

And in the rare circumstances that such films are made, White folks avoid them like the plague (this ain’t no Django fantasy).

So this Thanksgiving, I want to give White folks a challenge.  If you haven’t yet seen the film, consider going on Wednesday night.  

Then make an effort to bring the film up with your family and friends on Thursday, discussing how it made you feel and what its implications are for our modern constructions of race and Whiteness.  And then from there, consider what action you can take to work for racial justice.

In the words of my friend Julie Landsman (you should probably just read her whole piece),

I find that some white people who see or read accounts of slavery or Jim Crow retreat into guilt without naming it as such. They rest there, immoveable, privileged by their skin color yet unwilling to accept the past which still determines much of the present policies and day to day indignities in our country. Some say they will not see the movie because it would be so hard to watch. I get that. I also get the desire to turn away, contribute to a bake sale for a child’s school and call it even. Yet this is not enough.

Steven McQueen the director of 12 Years a Slave, said he wanted to make it possible for the viewer to get inside the experience of slavery. He and Alfre Woodard each said at different times during a press conference in Toronto after the first showing of the film, that the movie is really about human dignity and about love. It is also about complexity and nuance, more so than any other such film I have seen on the subject. It is about those who are left behind. It is also about a country that still persists in leaving a whole people behind. There is little joy or ease in the 2 ½ hours spent watching McQueen’s work. Many movies have traumatic tales to tell but this one, the genocide that was a part of our history, and that influences how white supremacy perpetuates the system that still oppresses many African Americans in a unique way, is shown in such a manner that it enables us to get at least a cinematic idea of how all pervasive the slaughter of human beings was here.

So go see the film.

But when you see the film, I have a second challenge for you.  As much as you are able, do not close your eyes.  Do not shy away from the all-too-real depictions of brutality.

Because the present we know is not divorced from the foundation upon which it was built, a foundation of brutality toward Black bodies (and all bodies of Color).  When George Zimmerman walks free and it takes 2 weeks and tremendous public pressure for police outside of Detroit to charge a White man in the cold blooded-murder of Renisha McBride, this “justice” stands upon a system that was fundamentally built on the enslavement and brutality of Black bodies.

To force ourselves to watch when we want to close our eyes or put our hands over our faces is to breathe in, in whatever way the fiction of film may allow us, the air that surrounds us every day but we often choose not to recognize is there: the air of White Supremacy in these United States.

In the end, there is no amount of film watching and discussion that will allow us to truly know the brutality that comes from White Supremacy, but the simple act of, as a mentor and professor often says, “wading through the shit,” facing the brutality, at least might allow us to connect emotionally and spiritually with the price we pay for the privileges of Whiteness.

So let’s start there.

In Peace,

Jamie

P.S. If you can’t afford to pay $12.50 to see the film, consider watching what bell hooks called the only film on slavery that she’s truly liked, Slavery By Another Name.  You can stream it for free online.  Then talk about it with your family and friends.

P.P.S. For those folks who are indignant that this is so specifically addressed to White-identified people, listen to Julie Landsman one more time:

It is not up to African Americans to follow through. It is not even suggested here that they go see this movie. Each of us can decide that for ourselves. I do believe, however, that it is up to whites to understand our history, our complicity—whether it was my uncle’s bank in Connecticut that profited from the slave trade, or the ivy league universities that also took advantage of the bondage of millions. I believe it is up to whites to make time for 12 Years A Slave, because until we experience this from the inside, as McQueen hopes we do, we will not have the will to redress it. We will not understand the intimate way it feels to experience loss, and the historical memory of such a loss on a grand scale. We will continue to leave whole people’s behind.

Whiteness: A Matter of Degree

This weekend, I attended an incredible arts and social justice youth summit in Seattle called Amplify: Tell Your Story, Transform Your World put on by The Art Affect.  As part of the weekend, we were each challenged to create a piece of art reflecting the work we had been struggling with throughout the weekend.  I personally was doing a lot of Whiteness and White Privilege reflection this weekend, so I created the following poem.  It is my response to the oh-so-common statement by White people that “my family never owned slaves, so how am I responsible for all this stuff?”

 

“A Matter of Degree”

My Grandfather taught me a great many things.
Like the peace only found in casting a line
And how very young an old man can be.
He also taught me how to fear.

When I was probably 4 years old,
My Grandfather demonstrated
In no uncertain terms
That I am White.

So now, if you were to take your sharpest blade
And flay my fair skin
From chin to pelvis
The way that my Grandfather taught me to flay a deer
And if you were to turn that skin inside out,
Once you sorted through the blood
And sinewy pink,
You’d find a history.

My people never owned a slave,
But we still came like a lynching,
Blood on our breath,
Greed caked into our finger nails.
Into my skin is written this story,
A story as old as the hills of West Virginia.

My people were not at Sand Creek,
But we still came like a genocide,
Blood on our breath,
Greed caked into our fingernails.
Into my skin is written this story,
A story as old as the Black Hills.

My people were not at My Lai,
But we still came like Napalm,
Blood on our breath,
Greed caked into our fingernails.
Into my skin is written this story,
A story as old as the Mekong Delta.

We came, and we came, and we came . . .

This story is as vital
As the air I breathe,
At once apart from me
And a part of me.

And I must force myself to breathe in that story,
Hold it in my lungs,
Fight through the burning,
And Recognize . . .

Recognize . . .

Recognize that that which I have
Is only mine in as much
As it was build on the backs and unmarked graves
of Black, Red, Yellow, and Brown.

So while my people
Never bought another human being,
We still bought our way
Into a system called Whiteness.
And the difference
Is only a matter of degree.

A Letter to Baby Jett

A few weeks ago, I reposted Andrea Gibson’s question, indeed a vital question in Feminism, “What will you teach your son?”  Well, I’m not wholly sure that I want children of my own, and even if I have children, how I am I to know if I will have a son?  In lieu of kids of my own, though, I do my best to be a great uncle to my sister’s three girls and one boy.

This week, though, I was given a whole new world of responsibility.  When my dear friend Stacie told me she was pregnant many months ago, she and her partner came to me and said, “Jamie, we wanted to ask you to be the Godfather, but we’re not sure where you stand with God . . . so . . . will you be our kid’s Fairy Godmother?”  How else could I answer than with a resounding “YES!”

After agreeing, I stopped to think . . . this is an incredible amount of responsibility!  It is my responsibility to ensure this child’s growth in all things Magic, Maternal, and Magestic, particularly in ways in which the parents are unable.

Well, this week my responsibility began as Jettison (Jett) Wesley Ray Craven was born.

So, on this, the week of his birth, I want to dedicate my blog to Andrea’s question in the form of a letter to my Fairy Godson.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

July 19, 2011

Dear Jett,

Welcome to our world!  I know you’re probably wondering why on Earth your loving parents would bring you into this crazy world, and not just because you’re on sensory overload and can’t stop pooping.  This is a world of opposites.  While filled with so much love, there is so much hate.  While filled with so much joy, you will undoubtedly experience an incredible amount of sorrow.  While you may be blessed to have all of your needs cared for, there are many more who are not so lucky.

In all of this, there are a few things I want you to know, so I decided to put together a list of little take aways for you on this day of your birth.  These are just a few of the lessons I have learned about being a man, a white man, and since you’re new to this being a white man business, I thought I would share them with you.  Don’t worry . . . if you forget any of these little nuggets of wisdom, I will be sure to remind you.

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