Saturday, June 28, 2008

Progressives and Racism

Back when I was first invited to take this spot on Sunday mornings it was because I had started a weekly series titled Blog Voices This Week wherein I tried to summarize interesting information I had found in the diversosphere. I eventually wandered into other territory on Sunday mornings, but this week I'm going to go back to those roots and pull some long quotes from a couple of the people who have alot to say about progressives and racism.

The two people I'll be quoting are Donna from The Silence of our Friends (that blog title is powerful and tells you alot about what Donna has to say) and Nezua at The Unapologetic Mexican.

First, a little background. The diaries I'm going to quote were posted in February/March 2007. They were sparked initially by some things Glenn Greenwald said in Awkward Discussions of Race and Obama.

It is always preferable to have views and sentiments -- even ugly ones -- aired out in the open rather than forcing them into hiding through suppression. And part of the reason people intently run away from discussions of race...is because it is too easy to unwittingly run afoul of various unwritten speech rules, thereby triggering accusations of bigotry. That practice has the effect of keeping people silent, which in turn has the effect of reinforcing the appearance that nobody thinks about race (which is why nobody discusses it), which in turn prevents a constructive discussion of hidden and unwarranted premises.


Nezua wrote a response to this titled Speech Rules or Beliefs and Attitudes.

In this analysis (or this part of his post at least) the problem is the various unwritten speech rules. But guess what? There really aren't any. There are just poor attitudes we keep about people who look different. Or who we've been taught to think of differently. And there is a "White" attitude of deciding for everyone else how they should live, be, self-identify, and do many other things. There are old slurs and old tropes that hurt people. These are the things that are flushed out when people speak: attitudes, thoughts, beliefs, manners of speaking that hint at lurking attitudes.

People avoid talking about race because they are scared of exposing their thoughts and views on race. They are afraid they are A RACIST. They are not afraid of "unwritten speech rules." They are afraid that what they really think and feel will cause them to be ridiculed or ostracized in public, or that they may see a part of themselves they have to feel bad about. So they keep the potential to themselves.

But if we keep the focus on Speech Rules, we miss the opportunity to change ourselves.


The whole diary Nezua wrote is interesting, but even more so the thread of comments. Glenn Greenwald showed up to comment and most of the people of color involved felt they were dissed by him. I'll let you go read it if you're interested to see for yourself. But the exchange started a whole series of discussions all over the diversosphere about progressives and racism. It's fascinating stuff and any of the articles I'm linking to here will take you to much of it.

Donna had a lot to say about it all and its hard to pick just one quote, but here's something that I think might summarize it best from her post titled Bewildered Part III (scroll down for this post on March 6th).

Dammit! This is so fundamental and it makes me want to scream when those friendly to us don't get it! You can't give someone a pass to hold racist ideas because you like them, you can't give them a pass because they are nominally liberal and on your side, you can't give them a pass because they're unaware celebrities. You can't give anyone a pass even if they do not INTEND to be racist. You are asking too much of us; you are asking us to spot clean when this blight is ingrained in the entire fabric of our existence. To be honest, I could more easily live with the spots, which are the declared haters like the Klan, if I could get you and all the nice people like you to let go of your grain of racist ignorance. For every visible spot there is a ton of invisible dirt, crumbs, dust, mold, and mildew.

That's why you hurt us more than the declared haters. You don't intend it but you do it anyway and when you are called on it, you minimize the damage you do. It doesn't affect you negatively, so what's the big deal?


And here's just a bit from a long post by Nezua titled The Skin of My Soul. If you'd like to read just one thing on the diversosphere that will give you a clue about what white progressives need to hear from people of color...this is it. I'd suggest reading the whole thing, but here's just a bit.

If people are Progressive, why do they not make progress on this term?

Because RACIST paints the picture of a person none of us feel we have to identify with. And it's far too easy to talk about non-things than to dig down, or wrap your hands and heart right around that grain of harm that we all fear to touch. So let's make some progress. Let's kick this shit all vulgar-like and common. Hell, let's even forget the word entirely. (Pow! How ya like me now?) Maybe it's not even useful. Maybe it's a word we only apply to others, while at the same time others never accept it. See a problem here? See an eternal word war? See a divide that we not only try to recognize with a word but then exacerbate by warring over a word? See a Symbol being mistaken for Essence?

So what are we talking about when we use the symbol "Racist," anyway? What is the Essence we intend to describe? During my recent conversations on the subject (and I know you have a feel for how many of these conversations I have) it occurred to me that the problem is not the dreaded Racist tribe that lives somewhere yon, it is attitudes in everyday people who think they know more about what is Right than others; who think they are superior to others; who are just plain ignorant on matters of history; who are afraid of people who live differently or look differently; who want to be better than others with no real grounds.

...

Mi novia says that it really frustrates White people that no matter how much they know or want to know, there may be an area of experience or knowledge that they cannot access. Bingo, Gringo.

This is another way of saying White Privilege.

How dare the world harbor some sort of Thing that I cannot experience! How dare you insinuate that you possess knowledge I may have to ask you about in humility! How impertinent of you to even imagine that I cannot, with study and great wisdom and effort, also know what it is like to grow up Brown™ in America!
The voice of privilege thinks no seat is unavailable, no land unconquerable, no food untasteable, no right deniable, no experience out of reach. It is a slap in the face to this line of thought that there exists an area that cannot be known, even to a WHITE person. Gasp.


Tough stuff??? Yeah. But stuff I think we need to hear.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Durga pierces the heart

Today I'm going to quote mostly from a book that I have just begun reading - but has already had an enormous impact on me. It's The Bond Between Women: A Journey to Fierce Compassion by China Galland. Here's a bit from the synopsis.

Around the world, women are working for healing, and the lives of these women reveal an unusual source of strength: the fierceness of compassion, symbolized in ancient icons, images, and archetypes of the divine feminine. Known to Buddhists in Nepal and Tibet as Tara, to Hindus in India as the goddess Durga, to Catholics in Europe and Latin America as the Black Madonna, and as Jemanja in the Afro-Brazilian tradition of Candomble, this fierce divine feminine arises when the world is on the brink of destruction, and saves us, the ancient stories say.


Galland begins this journey by telling the tale of the Hindu Goddess Durga.



The world stood posed on the brink of destruction once before.

Rivers dried up, plants refused to grow. People starved. There was war everywhere. Slaughter prevailed. Dancing stopped, even singing was forgotten. The demons, known as the asuras, were loose in the world, raging unchecked across heaven and earth, drunk with destruction. No one could stop them, not even the gods, who had been defeated, one by one.

Humiliated, the gods withdrew to the heights of the Himalayas and took counsel amongst themselves, to no avail. Their dilemma was insoluble. They had lost all power against these demons and could only leave the world to its inevitable destruction. Then it was remembered that this time had been foretold - a demon would come to destroy the world, and only a woman could defeat this demon - only a woman could save the world.


Durga is called forth and takes on many battles with the demons - defeating all. Until the final battle that Galland describes this way.

Time stopped as the Goddess and the Demon embraced in their fight, turning and pitching, rolling across the sky. The cosmos groaned with the enormity of their encounter. At the last moment, Durga pierced Sumbha's heart with her dagger and he fell tumbling out of the heavens. The world was safe at last.


Galland draws the following conclusions from this ancient story.

This is what gives this ancient story such a contemporary ring. It tells us that the demons can be defeated, that the world can be saved - but not by traditional solutions, and not until defeat has been acknowledged.

...

The solutions would come from unexpected quarters, from a place they had not thought to look - from the Goddess, from the power of the feminine. The stone that had been cast out had to become the foundation.

...

And in continuing this commentary, it is important to note that it is the final scene of the battle that is the most telling. Durga had killed the Demon Mahisasura many times in the earlier battles in this story, and though she cut off his head, he would come back to life in another form. He was not decisively defeated until his heart was pierced. This is the crucial element in what the story tells us. These human failings, these "demons" who threaten us can be defeated only when we go beyond reason, when we pierce the heart.


Galland writes about her own "heart piercing" in the opening prologue.

I want to begin with what is beautiful. I want this because what follows is hard for me to tell you. It is a small part of a much larger story, but it is the thread that drew me through the eye of the needle.

The waters were rising, flooding this constricted place inside myself. I had to swim for my life to get to where the way opened, to make my way to a broader shore. To safety. I could no longer stay in the narrows, handless, voiceless. But this is not what I want to write.

I want to write about what is beautiful, about how wisdom - the principle of enlightenment - is within each one of us, about how it is unavoidable.

I want to write about a passionately happy, blissful source of wisdom, a dynamic, fierce female divinity who awaits our discovery - awaits the sun and water of our attention - to transform our life.


Is this, in fact, the power that can defeat the demons and save the world? If so, she's there waiting...

Know the Mystery
that if that which thou seekest
thou findest not within thee,
thou will never find it without thee...

For behold

I Have Been With Thee From The Beginning

And I await thee now.
Blessed Be.

Traditional Wiccan prayer

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Tipping Point

Today, I'd like to riff on a comment made by Valtin in Buhdy's essay this week about fear:

All fears are conquered, ultimately, by facing them, and by accepting the fear that is felt, and acting anyway.

The trick is to face the fear. For that, one needs social support. This is how soldiers go into battle: solidarity with their comrades, and with leadership they believe in.

The same will be true for the legions who must be mobilized to change things. Once people perceive that others are willing to take the risk, things can begin to move quickly.

It is my assessment that the political elites, both Democratic and Republican, are sitting on a social volcano.

And when it blows...

(emphasis mine)



His statement reminded me of Malcolm Gladwell's book The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference . I'm not one to give total credence to any one theory as the sole explanation for human behavior, least of all social behavior. But I think Gladwell has some interesting ideas that we might explore a bit in our thinking about how large-scale change happens.

By way of background, Gladwell says the idea of the tipping point came from his investigation of the AIDS epidemic:

The word "Tipping Point", for example, comes from the world of epidemiology. It's the name given to that moment in an epidemic when a virus reaches critical mass. It's the boiling point. It's the moment on the graph when the line starts to shoot straight upwards. AIDS tipped in 1982, when it went from a rare disease affecting a few gay men to a worldwide epidemic.


Tipping points then, are the levels at which the momentum for change becomes unstoppable. What Gladwell does then, is help "unpack" the process by which change becomes unstoppable.

Robert Paterson has a nice summary of The Tipping Point on his blog. Here's one of the things he says:

There are exceptional people out there who are capable of starting epidemics. All you have to do is find them. With an epidemic, a tiny majority of the people do the work.


So how is it that Gladwell defines these "special people?" He puts them into three categories that he calls "The Law of the Few":

1. Connectors are the people who "link us up with the world ... people with a special gift for bringing the world together." (page 38)

2. Mavens are "information specialists", or "people we rely upon to connect us with new information." (page 19) They accumulate knowledge and know how to share it with others.

3. Salesmen are "persuaders", charismatic people with powerful negotiation skills.

Gladwell also spends time talking about the importance of the message, which he calls the "stickiness factor," and the power of context. But the process of the spread of epidemics involves:

1. Clear examples of contagious behavior.
2. Little changes that make big effects.
3. In order to create one contagious movement, you often have to create many small movements first.

All of this makes me think we're on to something here with our talk about ripples. And I know we could all probably identify the connectors, mavens, and sales(wo)men among us. So I agree with Valtin...it won't be too long before this baby blows!!!