Friday, September 4, 2015

Martin Luther King Jr. Can’t Share His Opinion of Black Lives Matter

I understand people like presidential candidate Governor Mike Huckabee who object to the use of the phrase “Black Lives Matter.” I am a straight white U.S. American male. I grew up an upper middle-class family, child of a male who had a professional career outside of the home and a female who had a domestic career within it.  I was taught that our differences don’t matter, that it’s the ways we’re the same that matter.  No matter what your race color or creed, we’re all Americans first.  And since our differences don’t matter, we don’t talk about them.  Highlighting our differences is the first step to racism.  How can we treat everyone the same if were thinking about the ways we're different?
What Gov. Huckabee had to say in a recent interview on The Situation Room is perfectly aligned with what I learned about race growing up: "When I hear people scream, 'black lives matter,' I think, 'Of course they do.' But all lives matter. It's not that any life matters more than another. That's the whole message that Dr. King tried to present, and I think he'd be appalled by the notion that we're elevating some lives above others.”
The continuing process by which I came to hold the racial beliefs that I currently do, ones very different from the one’s I was raised with, is not only too long and complex for these pages, but is also, in many ways, not available to my conscious mind.  It involves study with powerful practitioners in the multiculturalism field. It involves having meaningful relationships with people who are not only of other races but exceptionally warm, open, and patient with me.  It involves crippling bouts of foot-in-mouth disease, attacks of which I have on a regular basis.  It involves much, much more.
One of the most important things I have learned as a white person who is committed to racial equity is to listen to non-whites in the knowledge that they are capable of analyzing their experience much more accurately than I am. This doesn’t mean I must uncritically believe anything that anyone who isn’t white says, but I do have to respect others’ perspectives. Based on what many people of color are saying in general, and the specific feedback I get from the people of color in my life, I feel as if my understanding of the phrase Black Lives Matter is informed by the experience of my brothers and sisters of color. One of the reasons people of color are using the phrase Black Lives Matter is not because they think that black lives matter more than other lives. It is because they have the experience that many individuals and our society as a whole do not behave as if black lives actually matter as much as white ones.  Most people I know hold to the belief that one should care about one’s fellow human beings.  Certainly Gov. (and Reverend) Huckabee does.  When someone we care about says, “the behavior that you are engaging in makes me feel as if I do not matter to you,” what is an appropriate response? Should we be offended? Should we tell them that their perception of reality is wrong?  Should we ignore the data that they present to us upon which their belief is founded?  Should we value their silence and our comfort over their perception of what is in their best interest?
Sometimes it feels like we whites are purposefully shutting out the experiences of people of color.  Those of us who see the marginalization, and in many cases murder, of people of color can feel frustrated to the point of outrage. Gov. Huckabee’s statement is an excellent example of this.  Reduced to its face value the statement that Dr. King would be appalled at the notion that some lives matter more than others is probably true. I hesitate to put any words into the mouth of any person of color, let alone the great Dr. King’s.  But the context of the statement goes deeper. 
One context is the actual reducing of the statement to its face value. Reductionism is a value within white culture that has led to much success.  I’m not saying that no one other than whites engage in reductionism, and I’m not saying that all whites do all the time, but I am saying that breaking concepts down to smaller parts so that we can study and understand them is central to the white mindset.  (I’m also not saying that I don’t expect the comment section of this blog post to fill up with the appalled protestations of my white brothers and sisters who read this post and out of its entirety perceive only the statement: ”Only white people reduce and they reduce everything always!” On the contrary, I do.) 
Another context, which is less reductionist, is historical.  Dr. King was born a few months before my still living father. If he were alive today he could quite possibly be a robust 86 years old and we very likely would’ve been able to hear Dr. King’s opinion about the Black Lives Matter movement directly from the man himself. Unfortunately, Dr. King was murdered by a white man, one who very likely held the opinion that black lives do not matter as much as white ones. For Gov. Huckabee to invoke the example of murdered, black Martin Luther King Jr. to rally against a movement that identifies itself as Black Lives Matter is at its simplest thoughtlessness to the point of dangerousness.  How are we to trust the governor’s motives when his actions lack such basic historical perspective?  How can we be surprised when we act similarly and our brothers and sisters of color do not trust us? Do good intentions trump negative impact?  Not when the impact is on you.
Since April 4, 1968 our world has been without Dr. King; without his insights and inspiration; without his passion for justice; without his skill as an organizer.  His children have been without their father, his wife without her husband. What might the people of the Black Lives Matter movement be doing right now if Dr. King’s life had mattered more than it did to James Earl Ray?

Sunday, August 16, 2015

7 Things We White People Can Do When We’ve Said or Done Something Biased

It’s a painful truth that just about everybody has preconceived notions about other people, sometimes based on their racial identity. We whites spend a lot of our lives bombarded with messages in the media and from those around us about what people of other races are like and how they behave, often based on irrelevant or vastly misunderstood ideas of the lived experiences of members of other groups (whiteness and the media being a huge topic in and of itself for another time). This is compounded by the fact that many of us whites spend very little time in the company of people who are racially different from us. For those of us who do, if we ask ourselves honestly how close we are to people of other races, we often discover that we only have passing relationships with them. We don’t have dinner at each other’s houses nor do our kids have play dates with theirs. This is not to suggest that anyone reading this should run out and find a new friend of a different race: it’s just to be frank about some of the realities of the way many of us live race in the USA.

Of course, none of us wants to be biased. In the waiting room before we came to earth as children, we didn’t tick the boxes; “Blond hair: check. Blue eyes: check. Unconscious negative racial bias: check.” Our unconscious racial biases are inherited from our exposure to the system of racial bias. But just because we inherited them doesn't mean they’re not ours, any less than our (metaphorical) blond hair and blue eyes are ours. And just like anything that resides in our unconscious, our biases can rear their misinformed heads and lead us to say or do some pretty stinky stuff sometimes. When we do, here’s a list of suggestions that might help to process that lousy feeling, grow through it, take responsibility for ourselves, and become less likely to act out our biases in the future.

1. Admit it to ourselves. If we’ve said or done something to expose them, staying in denial doesn't hide our unconscious biases from others, only from ourselves. Being able to admit that we’ve done it, or err on the side of believing we have when we aren’t sure, is the most basic thing we can do to move in a new direction. While we don’t want to be cavalier about our biases, in my experience people of other races are often not surprised when a white person around them says something racially naive. They see it a lot. One of the reasons it’s important to deal maturely with ourselves when we’ve done it is to not make the racial burden of others any heavier.

2. Accept it. One of the worst things a person can be in our society is racist. It’s so bad that a card carrying member of the KKK will tell you that, “I’m not racist, I’m just fighting for the survival of my own race,” as if we whites are somehow a dwindling race, or it’s a bad thing for the races to live and love closely. How much harder is it for us well-meaning whites that think the races should live in harmony and that fairness should rule? Admitting we have biases is very different from deciding to act out on them. Accepting them makes it possible for us to confront them head on.

3. Take responsibility for our feelings. Saying or doing something that exposes our unconscious bias is a painful and often embarrassing thing. For many of us, the need to feel relief from feelings of guilt or shame becomes our number one priority and, in one way or another, we try to get the person who was the target of our bias to help us feel better by telling us it wasn’t biased (as if they know our inner lives better than we do), telling us that they weren’t offended or annoyed (what if they were?), or any number of other ways we can enlist them to help us feel better. In doing this, that person has now not only just been the target of our bias, adding an unpleasant experience to her or his day, but is now being asked to help us manage our feelings about it. That’s doubly unfair! If we can’t handle the feelings we’re having, we should talk with a person we know and trust and who won’t minimize the importance of our awareness development. If we don’t have anyone like that in our lives, we should get someone.

4. Admit it, if appropriate, to the person/people that were the target of our bias. This is a tricky one. The first priority should be the experience of the other person. If we feel that we can safely contain our feelings and not ask the other person to do any emotional or psychological work for us, and if saying something won’t make it more awkward for the other person, then an honest apology can be a good thing. Maybe we can say something like: “You know, I think what I just said came from a biased place. While I didn’t intend for it to happen, I take responsibility for it and I apologize.” If the other person wants to talk about it then perhaps we can talk more. But it’s important not to force the other person into a discussion about race. They’re not there to teach us about it. They might just want to get their groceries, or get off the bus, or whatever they were doing before we came along.

5. Don’t let it end there. And since they’re not there to teach us about race, it’s our responsibility to educate ourselves about it. There are hundreds of great resources. There are books like, A Race is a Nice Thing to Have by Janet Helm which is a primer on white racial identity awareness development; The History of White People by Nell Irvin Painter; White Over Black by Winthrop Jordan, to name a few. There are fantastic groups that offer training on race, such as the Undoing Racism Workshop offered by The People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond. The organization Training for Change offers various workshops. My blog, Middling to Fair, has a number of resources and you’re always welcome to connect with me there. 

6. Compassion, compassion, compassion. While racial inequity is a burden for people who are its targets, in a more subtle way, we whites are also damaged by it. We are given bad information from an early age that actually separates us from our fellow humans, makes us less aware of our realities, leads to us being more emotionally brittle than we might be otherwise, and subtly manipulates us into perpetuating the biases that are foisted upon us. The most powerful tool we have to fight that is compassion for ourselves in the process of becoming more fully aware of who we are as racial beings. Being compassionate does not mean relinquishing our responsibility to grow and treat people fairly. It means that we acknowledge that we are flawed humans that make mistakes. It means moving beyond our own guilt and towards greater love for our fellow humans and ourselves. It means refusing to beat anyone, including ourselves, into submission, but inviting all, including ourselves, into inclusion.

7. Repeat.  We are people in a process of personal development. It is a journey that may have a goal but never has an end. When we think we’ve arrived all that’s really happened is we’ve stopped moving. We should expect that we’ll say or do something biased again, and when we do, we can commit to growing through it again.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

It's On Me

Some comments about the Teachers College Winter Roundtable

Yesterday and the day before were The Winter Roundtable at Teachers College which, to quote their website, is “the longest running continuing professional education program in the United States devoted solely to cultural issues in psychology and education.” One of the highlights for me was the plenary session which included speeches by and conversation between Thomas A. Parham, Ph.D, and Dr. Joseph L. White. Dr. White shared his experience of being the first Black PhD psychology student at The University of Michigan and among the first in the US.
Dr. White's description of his strategy process within the White dominated system was powerful to hear. His ability to understand social networks and the impact of White supremacy on his choices both early in his career and in the current times are great lessons for me as a White practitioner, both to give me more insight into the added bandwidth that people of color are forced to bring to their work compared to us Whites, the importance of applying strategy to my own work, especially in the context of my racial awareness development work.
Drs White's and Parham’s relationship was also a great pleasure to experience such as we were invited into it during their interactions on the stage. I was left with a feeling of admiration that would be akin to Mudita, from the Buddhist term meaning appreciative joy at the success and good fortune of others.

Yesterday I presented my workshop, “It’s On Me: Processing Our Microaggressions.” It was designed to create a space for people from privileged groups, especially Whites, to discuss and strategize how we deal with our own unconscious bias, especially when we have committed a microaggression. In the context of The Roundtable, there were a number of people of color, more than whites, so that the conversation naturally turned to strategizing around being the recipient of MA’s at times, but it was refreshing to see people of all groups consider and speak relatively freely about their experiences, concerns, worries, and triumphs in dealing with their own unconscious biases. It’s never an easy thing to keep people focused on things that cause them discomfort, and what could be more uncomfortable than having acted out unconscious bias?
I'm looking forward to the next opportunity to deliver this workshop.

Monday, December 22, 2014

Me and My Bias

If we refuse to face our unconscious biases, no matter how much we
 want to be part of the solution, we are the problem.

We are at a point in our society where any time anyone alleges bias it’s likely to be met with a lot of defensiveness and anger and, “How could you say that?” And the reality is we’re all infected with some unconscious bias. We all hold stereotypes. We may not mean to be racist or biased or sexist but it’s within us. So when someone says, “I think this was biased,” or, “This was an oversight that appeared to be based on bias.” Instead of reacting defensively to say, “Oh, maybe it was, and I’m sorry,” that, I think, would be a nice model for us as a nation in handling our issues.

Michelle Alexander, author of “The New Jim Crow” in an interview on the 2/21/14 (#308) episode of Real Time.

A few years ago I attended a conference on race and racial issues in the United States.  In one workshop that was part of this conference, a group presented a psychotherapeutic technique with which I had some objections. The presenter was a black woman whom I’ll call Sandra. As Sandra proceeded, I became more and more uncomfortable with my objections until I could no longer contain my frustration. I raised my hand in the middle of the presentation and said loudly, “I have a problem with this.” Sandra said, “that’s OK, you have a right to your feelings.” I responded, “I know I do.” I got up and left the workshop.
Once outside of the room I began to calm down. Small emotional outbursts have never been completely foreign to me but to have one in a professional and/or activist setting like that took me by surprise. As my equilibrium returned something occurred to me: I was (still am, actually) a white male who had just had an emotional outburst disparaging the content of a workshop that was being delivered by a woman of color. Was it possible that my outburst had a racial component? While I may be a pretty emotional guy, I’m usually able to keep my opinions to myself in group settings, choosing rather to seethe quietly and then talk trash about it with my friends afterward. The possibility of there being a racial element to my behavior started as only an idea; a hypothetical based on the external facts interpreted by me in the manner I would interpret them if any other person had done what I’d just did.  I had just flagrantly and publically de-authorized a woman of color.
I spoke to a friend of mine, another white male who has done a good deal of work and writing in the white anti-racist field. I asked him what he thought and his response was (to paraphrase), “I’m not going to tell you what it was because I honestly don’t know, but look at what happened and decide for yourself.”
I thought about it. I realized that, of course there was a racial element in this interaction. As a white male I felt utterly authorized to tell a woman of color how wrong she was. If it had been another white male delivering the workshop I never would have been so forthcoming in my criticism. I never would have stormed out of the session. In fact, I would have felt a good deal more pressure to subordinate my own views to the ones being expressed. Rather than feeling empowered to challenge the presenter I would have felt threatened by the challenge to my own beliefs.
As the realization that I had quite publically and poetically enacted white privilege in the middle of a race conference dawned on me, a complex soup of emotions simmered up in me. The overwhelming feeling I had was shame. As a person who is committed to racial justice, how could I be so na├»ve about myself? How many times had I heard that it was no longer the explicit white supremacist that was the biggest threat to racial justice? They can be readily dismissed and overtly racist actions are not only illegal but considered morally reprehensible. It’s the well-meaning white person, steeped in privilege and unaware of his racial biases, that is the greatest block to racial equity.  Didn’t my actions make me a part of the problem?
By the time Sandra’s workshop was over I was able to find her and haltingly, sheepishly, apologize.   She was very gracious in accepting it, even though I could barely get the words out for my embarrassment. I spent the remaining time at that conference unable to think of much else.
I’ve come to understand a few things about my response to my outburst. Though I was able to spot my own behavior, the primary response I had was one of shame: shame at having acted out and embarrassment at having been so blatantly the opposite of who I thought I was by attending a conference on race. This is a fundamentally self-centered reaction. It is also, obviously, a shame-based one. Ironically, that shame can be the primary impediment to my becoming a more aware person. If I were unable to face that shame and work my way through it, I could easily have short-circuited my development, such as it is.
Another important realization I have had about this incident is that never once did I have a conscious experience of racial animus towards Sandra, not at the time and not since. I know it’s there, however. Not only do I infer it from my actions, but, against my will, in spite of my commitments and experience, in contradiction to everything I value and believe about the universal equality of humankind, I know I carry biases with me through life. When I see a young black male driving an expensive car, against my will I think, “Drug money.” not, “Spoiled little brat. I bet his mom is an investment banker and his dad is a doctor,” like I would if he were white. I perceive children of color going home from school in groups on the train as loud and menacing rather than young and excited. In predominantly non-white neighborhoods, I hold my backpack a little closer and stay a little more aware of those around me, even as I have been an agent of gentrification. (A workmate of mine once commented, while giving me a ride home,  “You’re like a marble in a bowl of raisins in this neighborhood.”) My perceptions of people of color come through a fog of negative assumptions despite the years of work I’ve done to grow into a multicultural person.
Sometimes my attempts to avoid my biases get acted out in an inability to see negatives in people of color as well. While it’s important to be able to take leadership from racial others, doing so blindly and uncritically is another acting out that is unfair to that person of color. But while this is a possibility, I have to avoid using that as an excuse to act out on my negative biases. It’s conceivable that I could unconsciously attribute negatives to a person out of biases and then convince myself that I’m being equitable by challenging that person.
Some people will be appalled at the things I’ve described about myself here.  For them, what I’ve written about myself will simply be proof that I’m a bigot.  I don’t see it that way. I see my ability to be consciously aware of my biases as the best hope of managing them and, because of that, not acting them out in my life and, therefore, being less of an instrument of oppression in the lives of others who are impacted by me. I’m writing this because I believe that a huge percentage of us whites (ok, I’ll admit it, I believe all of us) have biases of which we are unaware and this makes us more likely to enact them in our own lives and deny it when they are enacted in society as a whole.
          I can envision someone reading this and believing that this is intellectualizing. It’s not. I am treating my biases similarly to how I deal with any other unwanted part of myself that dwells largely in my unconscious, like I would treat fear of success or my tendency to cover up unwanted feelings with an unhealthy diet. Seeing it, naming it, and talking about it is a path to managing and overcoming it. My doing it publicly is an attempt to crate space for others to do so as well.
           Because racism is so deeply ingrained in our society I am also describing an attempt to abide within the inescapable, something that people of color have done consciously for centuries. Those of us who seek to overcome our biases know it is a lifetime of improvement (if we’re diligent and lucky) that never reaches perfection. This is at least one way that a destinationless journey looks.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Appropriate Appropriations

We Whites doing racial justice work need to understand our own cultural identities. That's not as simple as we may think.

 The group is always of mixed race and ethnicity. The times I’ve done this exercise the two largest participant groups tend to be Black people and White people, followed by Latina/o people, Asian people, and South Asian people. Participants are asked to decide for the purposes of the exercise which racial or ethnic group they identify with. The question is: “What do you like about being a member of your group.” The facilitators pick a group and ask individual members of that group to respond. They always start with the group of people who identify as White.  Whites almost universally report that the things they like about being White are things like access to resources, safety and security, not being automatically criminalized by law enforcement officials, and having their values reflected in the media and often in the broader culture.
Then the facilitators ask the next group to tell us what they like about being a member of their group. The answers from this group and all the other groups are dramatically different. People talk about specific values: family, community, and spirituality. They talk about art, style, and expression. They talk about cuisine. They talk about, their skins, their hair, their bodies and their beauty. They talk about their strength and resilience in the face of oppression.
The facilitators then ask how the responses differ among the groups and it’s usually obvious to most participants: the White people think about the benefits of privilege when they think about being White.  The members of other groups describe the lived cultural experience of being members of their groups.
I, like many other Whites who have done this exercise, was taken aback the first time I did it.  My thought was that I was missing out on something important and valuable, a source of strength and pleasure, by not seeing myself as a cultural being and understanding what it meant to me to be a member of my racial group. I spoke to one of the facilitators of the group, a woman whom I knew, who had played the role of mentor in many ways for me in my quest to end racism. She told me that the next step of my journey was to reconnect with the Italian culture that I had lost when my family came to the US.  The process of becoming White had stripped my Italian-ness, my cultural birthright, from me and reclaiming it would be a source of strength. I listened. I thought.
I had been studying multiculturalism for a few years and had joined some activist groups to try to develop my awareness. Often when we start a gathering that is focused on racial justice activism, if the group is small enough, we take a moment to introduce ourselves. We go around the circle and say a few words about who we are, why we’re there, and what’s important to us. For me, especially early on in my racial awareness development journey, I used this time to list a brief resume of my actions and beliefs in support of racial justice as a way to prove my credibility, to show the other members that I have the right to sit in a group that hopes to do something about inequity. I can also admit to no small measure of competitiveness in these moments, flexing my “cred” muscles and hoping that no one else has more than I do. After all I AM a straight White male, taught competition from the outset. And while I can’t read minds, I usually get the sense that I’m not the only one who’s in that mode, whether we’re aware of it or not. I know for me, this habit comes from a combination of insecurity, guilt, and the desire to protect myself from challenges to my sense of myself as highly developed. What can I say? I’m a work in progress.
One thing I do always say during intro time is, “I’m White. I’m not trying to be something other than that.” I have seen too many White people co-opt things from other people’s cultures while trying to do racial work and I don’t want to myself. When I enter the cultural space of another group I do so as an observer and participate at the level of an outsider. I try to be aware of what is considered polite within the cultural spaces of others but when, for example, I’m in Japan, even though I may have an impulse to, I don’t strive to act like a perfect Japanese person should. I understand I cannot. When I go to an Indian[1] cultural event like a powwow or other gathering, I don’t want to “become a member of the tribe” like some kind of 21st century Man Called Horse. When I’m in a group of Black people I don’t use slang that might be considered “Black.” Of course, I use slang that was contributed to the English language by Black people through the co-optation process, like the word “cool,” to mean “stylish, good or excellent;” or the word “hang” used to mean “spend time with.” I used words like those for years before I understood, in some small degree at least, the immense contribution of Black people to White culture, and in fact, the entire socioeconomic fabric of our nation and world. What I don’t try to do is to sound “Black” or like I’m “down.” I am not “down” as much as I wish I wanted to be.  I. am. White. I enter racial justice spaces White.
When my mentor told me that I needed to explore my Italian heritage I had already specifically and intentionally done so as part of my journey of becoming a multicultural person. I had read a number of books, such as Blood of My Blood, by Richard Gambino and Growing Up and Growing Old in Italian-American Families, by Colleen Leahy Johnson, which gave me a great deal of insight into the Post-Italian immigrant experience in the US but also spoke more to my parents’ generation than my own. I had conducted research into third generation Italian Americans, my generation, formed more impressions in that experience, and saw the generational thread from my parents’ to my own. In my family, though we considered ourselves White, we were aware of our Italian-ness and held ourselves apart from mainstream White/WASP society. My parents would call people who were more mainstream White, or not from Italian descent, “Meddigon,” an Italian language bastardization of the word American. It was not a compliment.  I had spent a good deal of my life aware of the salience of my family’s Italian-ness to me. I had spent a good deal of time coming to terms with the fact that I personally was post-Italian. I was born in the United States to parents born in the United States.  I speak only the simplest pidgin Italian (though I speak French and a small amount of some other languages).  I hold affection and some affinity for people and things Italian, a bit more so for people and things that might be called Italian-American, but most of my cultural being is expressed in White society. My grandparents, and to some degree my parents, had to discard or hide an Italian cultural identity to assimilate into US society and they did this to varying degrees. I, on the other hand, had not. This is not to say that my being post-Italian has no impact on me whatsoever. I have many shared qualities or habits with other post-Italians. I see my Italian-ness in my communication style. I often attribute my emotional intensity to being raised in a post-Italian home. I speak with my hands in a very “Italian” way. I am drawn to Italian foods and Italian films. I love these things but I am not of these things.
My White identity is much more salient to the way I move through the world. Here is one important example of the way my Whiteness expresses itself and exerts itself in the face of my cultural post-Italian-ness: Italian culture is collective. The unit of analysis is the family but in a very specific sense. The family is a large, extended entity of relationships that spans far beyond the parent/children “nuclear” family of (mainly) White USAmericans.  It approaches the notion of “clan.” There are good reasons for this. Italy, especially southern Italy, where the vast majority of immigrants to the US originated, was a generationally poor region that was dominated by outside powers for centuries. The only people one could trust were ones with which one had strong interrelatedness. The only institution that could be trusted was the family. Italians, as all people of all cultures do, created ways to function within their societies and in context of their cultures. If the only people you could trust were your family, and you wanted to accomplish anything that took more than the number of people you could give birth to, you had to create a meaning of family that included more people. In so doing they created and engaged in a collective cultural norm. A person who has a collective worldview uses the collective, in this case the family, as the unit of identification. The collective’s identity within society is a powerful force in the collectivism psyche and the individual’s identity is constructed based on her or his perceived relationship to the collective.
I, on the other hand, have an individualism worldview, which is the dominant worldview of mainstream White US culture. The individual is the unit of identification for me. It is my own actions that are most powerful in the construction of my understanding of myself. It is my own thoughts and actions that define me. To be clear, there are a lot of things about individualism that can perpetuate racial inequity. Perhaps the most important of these is that if we only see people in the context of individualism, we might underestimate or altogether fail to see the impact that systems have on individuals. And if the system is unjust, our blindness to it acts as a way to perpetuate it. But individualism can also be the source of great joy and power. The most ironic example in my own life is that my decisions to try to become a more racially aware person stem from my individualism, my sense of being lied to by the system, duped into believing that meritocracy is the rule when millions did not have access to it, and my refusal to let this soul-crushing system define me.
Beyond the pleasurable but diluted connection I feel to my Italian roots, there is another important aspect to my post-European immigrant identity. I share the post-immigrant experience with a great many others. In any ethnic culture, shared history plays an important role. I see racial culture as having a great many of the aspects of ethnic culture; as racial groups we have shared experiences and are pulled by shared assumptions from within and without those groups.  As a White person in the US, there is a history I share with the vast majority of other Whites. Part of that history is the process of becoming White. The vast number of people who come from immigrant roots in the US share the family history of becoming White, of turning away from the forms and norms of their previous homelands and taking up the forms and norms of Whiteness. While of course this was a loss to them, it was not a loss that I personally experienced. And while I do not seek to eradicate history nor ignore its importance in the present, I also, as a culturally White person, do not derive a great deal of personal strength or meaning in my family history. When I do, it’s with a very White understanding of my family history’s impact on me in the present, through the framework of psychoanalysis and its views on how generations impact each other.
I see it as a continuation of denial of our Whiteness for us post-Europeans to use our ancestral roots as the core of our cultural identities. Whites often say, “I’m not White, I’m [place European ethnicity here].” We often use our European ancestors’ immigrant hardships in the United States as examples of the American dream: the generations who came before us struggled so hard to help us to get where we are today. While acknowledging the past is a healthy thing, we often use our family histories to avoid feelings of responsibility for racial inequality in the United States. We often use this as evidence that the system is fair and that People of Color should somehow be further along, implying cultural or individual inferiority on their part. What we’re really doing is only acknowledging half of history, only seeing our “Whitennable” families’ histories as representative of all family histories, even those families who have been denied access to Whiteness. We leave thinking about White culture to White supremacist who have rewritten history and have confused the loss of cultural dominance with the loss of freedom.
Whites have always co-opted other cultures. We co-opted hip-hop and rap culture. We take on modes of dress and cuisines from countries that would be considered “Third World” countries without acknowledging the impact of colonialism on them. We ignore colonialism’s impact on the US economy, which benefits us Whites disproportionately to members of other races. The notion that I can enter Italian-ness and take it on as my cultural identity strikes me as co-opting a culture that is not mine. It may be morally different than co-opting another culture, but I owe a great deal of thought and consideration to Italian people and their culture if I am going to presume to take it on and own it as my own.  My grandparents left Italy. Of course it was for material reasons. But the nation of Italy is populated with the descendants of people who did not leave. I see it as within their rights to claim ownership of that culture in a way that I cannot and to demand a great deal of care and consideration if I presume to call myself Italian. That was one of the trade-offs that came with my grandparents’ decision to come to the United States. Being culturally Italian is not my birthright. After all, a culture is more than the art, history, cuisine, and other quantifiable artifacts of a people. Lived culture is a mindset. It is a worldview. It’s how we think how we love, how we work. It is in the air we breathe. Human beings don’t just select a worldview and subscribe to it. It’s something that we’re socialized to. It’s how we navigate the world. Most of us Whites haven’t even considered the realities of what our worldview is. We might be able to choose a worldview and make it our own but even if we can, the only way to do that is to deeply understand the worldview that we already have. And judging from the “What We Like About Being a Member of Our Group” exercise, while some of us Whites might understand the workings of privilege in our lives, fewer of us understand the culture that is the context from which our worldviews stem.
The belief that I must return to the pre-immigration ethnic identity of my forbearers has ending racism as its goal. I see this as having an ironic and unintended consequence. Without deeply understanding our cultural identity as Whites we cannot truly understand ourselves as cultural beings. Even if our goal is to change our cultural identity and worldview, we have to know what our starting point is, if only to make a beginning. We have to know our cultural beliefs explicitly and consciously, for if they remain unconscious they will always subtly (at least to us if not to others) dominate our actions.
None of this is to say that others who have a different relationship than I do to their ancestral history are not having a valid experience nor have no right to that connection. I will venture to say, however, that anyone who has not explored the underlying dynamic of her or his cultural identity might very well benefit from doing so.
Many Whites have no conception of the relationship that the construction of Whiteness has with racism. Often when we learn Whiteness’s role in oppression we seek to end Whiteness. But we cannot end our own Whiteness. There are many historical threads that are woven into the tapestry of White culture, but one of the most salient is this one: White culture has its roots in history, in the process begun by the English invaders and eventual dominators of North America trying to do two things: 1) separate themselves, many of them bonded servants, from the African bonded servants who had been brought here against their will, and 2) create a cultural identity for themselves in relationship to England, their place of origin.  As time went on, 1) what started as the short-term bonded servitude of post-Africans became codified into life-long bonded servitude, one of the few bodies of racial laws ever to exist in the world, and systemic oppression, and 2) cultural behavioral norms and shared assumptions among Whites unrelated to their relationship to post Africans came into being. New immigrant groups found themselves in a land where they had to assimilate into an existing post-English context to be successful, a context that post-African slaves had no hope of entering. Those slaves’ descendents and the people that are members of that racial group still live within a system that is on many levels the continuation of that situation. Whiteness both negated and absorbed aspects of large immigrant groups in a process that continues. While both slavery and the assimilation process are acts of physical, moral, economic and cultural violence, that violence is not the only thing that happened.
A culture also came into being, one that is not only that violence. We wouldn’t be able to live in the US at all if that were so. I know many People of Color who have a cleared-eyed view of the United States’ inequity but still love it as a nation and seek its continued success. The great thinker and constant critic of the United States James Baldwin said, “I love America more than any other country in the world and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually.” We don’t love things that should be discarded. White culture has contributed vastly to the United States. Denying either its positive aspects or, more importantly, its existence, will only perpetuate its worst aspects by keeping us Whites unaware of the cultural assumptions we make, making us people steeped in privilege and draped in the garb and ritual of others. After all, isn’t the belief that you can reinvent yourself at will a particularly White one?

[1] I use the word Indian here because the people I know who might be considered Native American, people who are the descendants of the indigenous people of the America’s, use the word Indian to describe themselves. It is out of respect for them that I use it.

Friday, August 22, 2014

My Impression Outranks Your Experience

Some of us see color and go blind.

Here’s an expression of White privilege for you. The privilege to hold our beliefs about what happens to People of Color in the United States as more valid than the experiences that they actually have. A recent New York Times article discusses how, rather than ask why People of Color (and thankfully some Whites) are protesting in Ferguson, many of us are presuming to think that we know how they should respond and, to no one’s surprise, that response should be quieter.  Many of us actually think that we are in a better position to understand the people who are protesting than they are themselves.

“A lot of them have gotten better than fair shakes,” said Mark Johnston, a 61-year-old white merchandiser who was on the job on Thursday in Mehlville, in the mostly white and working-class southern reaches of St. Louis County. While expressing sympathy for the Brown family, he said of the events that have unfolded since the shooting — the protests, the looting, the cries of injustice — “I think it’s a crock of stuff, myself.”

Is this a crock, Mark? “The unemployment rate for African Americans in the nearby county of St. Louis City was 26% in 2012, according to the Census Department’s latest available stats on employment and race in the area. For white Americans, the unemployment rate was just 6.2%.”[i]  How fair a shake is that? Or the fact that “While people of color make up about 30 percent of the United States’ population, they account for 60 percent of those imprisoned.”[ii] What kind of shake is that? Fair? Middlin’?

And how should People of Color respond?

“As far as justice and peace, we need to have it, of course,” said Arlene Rosengarten, who watched the march from farther up the sidewalk. “But we need to make sure there’s real justice and not jump the gun just because everybody’s angry. I think this is just setting a bad precedent.”

Jumping the gun when it’s actually a gun is not as objectionable as doing so when it’s public opinion. Silencing the outrage of racism’s targets is evidently not setting a bad precedent.

The notion that the outrage is manufactured by the media is also mentioned.

Jeff Heydt, who is white and watched the protest in Ferguson on Tuesday, said he was initially troubled by the shooting. But now, he said, he sees the protests as “an opportunity to reinvolve people in the political process who were disappointed by Obama.”

Jeff: what were they disappointed about? Was it perhaps the hope that in two terms in office our first biracial president would have a greater impact on the system of oppression?

I am so angry at many of my White brothers and sisters. If your friend came to you and said, “I’m broken hearted,” would you tell him he’s over reacting? Or would you ask him what happened? If after years of being stepped over for promotion your sister told you, “I’m being treated unfairly,” would you not believe her? Or would you listen to her to understand? If after years of torment your son physically lashed out at a bully, would you think to tell him, “Now, don’t fly off the handle.” Or would you try to comfort him, even perhaps be proud of him standing up for himself?

When are we going to start listening to our sisters and brothers of Color?



Monday, January 21, 2013

My Own Private Birmingham

I have been to the supermarket, and I've seen the other isle.

     With the 28th Martin Luther King Jr. day upon us I’m going to take a moment to point out exactly what I mean by my assertions in this blog that, “Racial Identity is a White Issue,” and, “We’ve Come Far but Not Become Fair.”
     I’m not going to make a complex argument about whose responsibility it is to end racism. Those arguments are out there if you seek them.  I’m simply going to say that racism is a problem in the racist just like theft is a problem in the thief. If the thief doesn’t steal there is no theft.  If the racist stops his racism there is no racism.
     I’m not going to quote statistics about racial inequity, though if you go seek them you will see that Whites in the US hold power and wealth disproportionately compared to People of Color. 
     If you believe that all races are equal in natural ability then systematic, often-unconscious White oppression is the logical explanation for the racial disparities in the US.  After all, 99 years after slavery was made illegal in the US we needed to pass the Civil Rights Act to enforce equality among the races, and 49 years after that there are still disparities among the races in achievement, power, and legitimacy in our culture.
     And of course, if you believe that racial disparities stem from one race being superior to other races then you are, by definition, racist.
     But this is already more than I wanted to say today. Here’s what I really want to say: Last year on MLK day I went to the supermarket and there I saw the color line starkly. On this national holiday celebrating this Black man who was a civil rights leader, every single person buying food was White and every single person working behind checkout was a Person of Color.  MLK day seemed to be a great opportunity for us White folks to catch up on our shopping while for People of Color, at least in my little corner of the world, it wasn’t a day off.  Yes, they may have been getting holiday pay, yes they may have been glad to make some extra money, but no White folks seemed to be in the same boat. For us it was a day off. 
     At the time I wanted to say something to the person who checked me out, to at least acknowledge that I saw it, but what could I say that wouldn’t be some attempt to be viewed as a “good” White person instead of one of those other, bad, unaware White people? “Boy, that racism sure is persistent! Oh, I brought my own bag…” 
     All this happened, mind you, while the first Person of Color to be President of the United States is in office, a thing that until it happened many people thought was unimaginable, even in 2008. 
     And so my little experience reflects the philosophy of this blog. With Obama in the White house we have “come far” in terms of what race means in the US.  With such disparities among the races still in place, we’ve “not become fair.”  It is my responsibility to continue to do what I can about it because it’s doubly unfair to ask the targets of inequity to take the responsibility for eradicating it: “racial inequity is a White issue.”