Challenge to White Folks: Take The Black Girl Dangerous White Privilege Bucket Challenge

I was recently challenged by a dear friend to participate in the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge. Coming from this friend, the challenge was particularly poignant considering that her father was recently diagnosed with ALS, and just watching the video where she challenged me brought me to tears.

However, I wasn’t sure I wanted to do the challenge.  It’s not that I have a problem with the ALS Foundation or with people’s participation in the challenge.  It more had to do with what I saw on my social media at the height of the challenge.

When most people were participating in the challenge corresponded to a pivotal moment in our nation’s history: the protests in Ferguson, MO after the extra-judicial killing of Michael Brown. Virtually every person of Color I knew (and some White folks acting in solidarity) were posting about Ferguson, offering analysis and updates of what was happening on the ground.

But from the mostly-White youth that make up the vast majority of my Facebook fam, silence on Ferguson and a whole bunch of Ice Bucket Challenge videos.

This is not to say that there should not be young White youth participating in the Ice Bucket Challenge. It was just wholly indicative of a problem of perception in the U.S. right now:

According to a Pew Research Center poll released Monday, 80 percent of African-American adults answered that the shooting and killing of the 18-year-old Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, raises important issues about race, while 18 percent answered that the topic of race is “getting more attention than it deserves.” White adults polled held very different opinions: Thirty-seven percent answered that the case is raising important issues while a plurality, 47 percent, said the topic is receiving too much attention.” – Source

There’s no question in my mind why 80% of African Americans knew Michael Brown’s killing raised important issue about race: Black and Brown people in the United States live the reality of state-sanctioned police violence against their lives, bodies, and communities every day in the U.S.

That’s simply not a problem very many White folks face. Yes, in the lowest wealth White communities, the problem of police brutality is understood, but by-in-large in the U.S., we as White folks have no idea unless we’re choosing to step back from our privilege and to listen to people of Color who must live with this violence.

So when I say this lack of attention among young White folks to Ferguson was a problem of perception, what I really mean was a that it is a problem of White privilege: the privilege to close our eyes to the truths of endemic racism in the United States (of which police violence is but one iteration).

Thus, my hesitation to participate in the ALS Ice Bucket challenge stemmed from my desire to see a different social media landscape among the White folks in my network.

The Black Girl Dangerous White Privilege Bucket Challenge

That’s why I was delighted to see my friend Sarah participate in and challenge me to join the Black Girl Dangerous White Privilege Bucket Challenge.

If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you likely have read at least one post from the brilliant Black Girl Dangerous, as I love the work done there and tend to link to them fairly often.

But Black Girl Dangerous does more than host a platform for Queer and Trans People of Color to offer their voices, analysis, truths, stories.  Black Girl Dangerous is a revolutionary organization that challenges the Cis-, Straight-, and White-dominated media landscape.

That’s why the Black Girl Dangerous Editor in Training program is so important, and it’s why I accepted Sara’s challenge in the White Privilege Bucket Challenge.

From the BGD website:

The mission of the Black Girl Dangerous Editor-In-Training Program is to educate more queer and trans people of color in writing and editing specifically for online independent media. Online indie media sites have specific needs with regard to writing and editing. This program will focus on gaining those specific skills.

Many of us who have the most to contribute to important conversations happening in indie media, including conversations on race, gender, queerness, economic injustice, disability justice, issues affecting youth, etc., have the least amount of access to the training, education and experience needed to be successful in contributing to and leading independent media movements. Continuing our commitment to amplifying the voices of queer and trans people of color from all walks of life, BGD will train queer and/or trans people of color in online media editing and writing over 6 months. Participants will learn the skills necessary to write well for the web while also learning to effectively edit the work of other writers, to contribute to and build quality platforms. Participants will have the opportunity to write and edit for BGD, and to carry those skills into their own future indie media projects.”

So having taken the challenge and made my donation, here’s my video:

Why Challenge White Folks (Particularly White Men)?

Since releasing the video a couple of days ago, I have had a few White people ask me why I’m challenging White people (but particularly White men) to take the challenge.  One person asked, “If this is an issue that affects people of Color, why don’t they fund it?”

My response to that is two-fold:

1. This does not just affect people of Color. Being shielded through our privilege and our media from the lives voices of people of Color hurts us, as it ensures we live in a painfully isolated echo chamber. When we change the structures that deny Queer and Trans People of Color access to mediums for having their voices heard, we all benefit.

2. Simply put, White people need to be willing to redistribute our wealth.

In the United States, White privilege doesn’t just mean benefitting from little advantages throughout our day. For most of us, being White has meant that we have access to economic opportunity that ensures, as Ta-Nehisi Coates made so clear in this brilliant piece, that White poverty and Black poverty in the United States are not differences of “degree” but are poverties of a wholly “different kind.”

In turn, part of being accountable to our privilege means being willing to give as much as we’re able to people of Color-led efforts at realizing justice.

If we say we stand for justice, we have to put our money where our mouths are.  And a great way to do that is to give to the Black Girl Dangerous Editor in Training Program.

Thus, White folks, you should give.  Now.

White men in my life, I am particularly challenging you to give.  If all you can afford is $5, give $5.  If you can afford to put them up over their goal with a huge donation, do so.  But give.

As of the time I publish this piece, the fundraiser is a little more than halfway to its goal, with $11,673 left to raise.

Black Girl Dangerous Editor in Training Program

If (I’m sure mostly White) people can fundraise more than $55,000 for some damn potato salad, we should be able to get BGD at least that much.  If not, let’s get them to $25k.

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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

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.

***

Screen Shot 2014-08-06 at 10.55.24 AM

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

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.

 

Holding the Tension: Whiteness vs. European Cultural Identity

I recently attended a fundraiser event for Oyate Nipi Kte, an organization dedicated to the recovery of “Dakota traditional knowledge, including Dakota language, spirituality, ecology, oral tradition and life ways.”  At the event, Waziyatawin, Ph.D, called on White settlers who live on occupied Indigenous land to consider what it means to participate in resistance to White supremacy and continued colonization.

During a small group conversation, my friend Lex said something that has stuck with me, running through my mind daily since: “As White people, it’s important that we do the work to figure out who our people were before we were colonizers.”

It’s notable that Lex said this the day before St. Patrick’s day, during a weekend when countless people of all ethnic backgrounds donned green and drank green beer until they puked a verdant mess.

For me, reclaiming who my people were before we were colonizers means understanding my Irish, German, and Dutch heritage, yet I know next to nothing about my people and the cultures from whence they came.  Why?  Well, because they became White.

Whiteness as a Construct

Despite the way it’s often discussed, race is not a biological concept, and it sure as hell isn’t static.  First, “Whiteness” didn’t exist when Europeans first came to North and South America.  There were simply European landholders who held tight to power.  Over time, though, these European landowners needed a way to stave off slave and proletariat rebellions, so they invented this common “race” for some Europeans.

As laid out in Nell Irvin Painter’s “The History of White People,” at first, only certain Europeans (read wealthy men from north-western Europe) were considered worthy of being in the club.  In the early-to-mid 19th century, though, the wealthy “White” folks realized they needed more allies who could serve in slave patrols and in menial labor positions, so groups like the Irish were slowly allowed to become “White” in order to offer these European immigrants/colonizers a pittance that would keep them from uniting with enslaved African people and Indigenous people.

From there, Whiteness was expanded again in the early-to-mid-20th century to include most Europeans and even to include Jews who, no matter where in Europe they were from, had been traditionally excluded from the “White” label.

The Wages of Whiteness

What this label offered was access: access to land (through things like the Land Grant Acts which was almost totally denied to anyone not considered White), access to education (both through better-funded public schools and the G.I. Bill, which was systematically denied to soldiers of Color), access to jobs (though anti-Irish and anti-Italian job discrimination did exist, it didn’t have the widespread impact that policies like Jim Crow did), and access to countless other little and big legs up in American life.

IrishNeedNotApply

Despite common refrains from modern White people of Irish descent, these signs were rare.

But Whiteness came with a cost.  Becoming White meant leaving behind the cultural heritage of our people so that we could access the economic benefits, sometimes ones desperately needed, of the “American Dream” (aka the “Dream of White Supremacy”).

There’s a reason that I don’t speak a word of Gaelic, Dutch, or German.  There’s a reason that I know next to nothing about the cultures from which my people came.  There’s a reason that I don’t know the true reasons for why my people fled the land they always knew to see opportunities as colonizers in North America.

That reason is Whiteness.

When we look at race through this context, it is easier to understand Whiteness as more than a racial identity: it’s a system of privilege and oppression better known and understood as White Supremacy.

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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.