Thursday, November 19, 2009

The subtle racism of friends and allies

Have you ever heard a person of color say that they prefer the open racism of conscious bigots to the subtle racism of us do-gooders on the left end of the spectrum?

I remember an African American friend of mine here in Minnesota who years ago would often tell me that she longed for the day she could move back to the south where racism was right up front for everyone to see. I'd shake my head at her and feel completely clueless about why she would think that. After all, I had grown up in East Texas and couldn't get away from all that craziness fast enough.

Over time though, I've come to understand that view a little better. Much of that awareness came from reading in "the diversosphere." I found that people of color express things in blog posts that would never be said in "polite company," but would typically be shared with each other behind closed doors. I will forever be grateful to so many of them for opening their lives and hearts to me and so many other readers.

For example, here is what I think is one of the most powerful posts ever written on the internet about white progressives and racism. Its from Kai, who blogs at Zuky and is titled: The White Liberal Conundrum.

As I've often noted, many white liberals remain oblivious to the depth and breadth of anti-racist work, opting to hide behind the delusion that anyone who votes for Democrats and doesn't have a pointy hood in the closet is "a good guy" in the movement toward greater social justice <...> Some might be surprised to learn that when people of color talk about racism amongst ourselves, white liberals often receive a far harsher skewering than white conservatives or overt racists. Many of my POC friends would actually prefer to hang out with an Archie Bunker-type who spits flagrantly offensive opinions, rather than a colorblind liberal whose insidious paternalism, dehumanizing tokenism, and cognitive indoctrination ooze out between superficially progressive words. At least the former gives you something to work with, something above-board to engage and argue against; the latter tacitly insists on imposing and maintaining an illusion of non-racist moral purity which provides little to no room for genuine self-examination or racial dialogue.

Countless blogospheric discussions on racism amply demonstrate the manner in which many white liberals start acting victimized and angry if anyone attempts to burst their racism-free bubble, oftentimes inexplicably bringing up non-white friends, lovers, adopted children, relatives, ancestors; dismissing, belittling, or obtusely misreading substantive historically-informed analysis of white supremacism as either "divisive rhetoric" or "flaming"; downplaying racism as an interpersonal social stigma and bad PR, rather than an overarching system of power under which we all live and which has socialized us all; and threatening to walk away from discussion if persons of color do not comform to a narrow white-centered comfort zone. Such people aren't necessarily racists in the hate-crime sense of the word, but they are usually acting out social dynamics created by racism and replicating the racist social relationships they were conditioned since birth to replicate.


Any of that second paragraph sound familiar? Yeah, me too. I've been there, done that. I highly recommend following the link to read the whole diary.

I remember a few years ago asking an on-line friend of color if I ALWAYS needed to take a charge of racism thrown at me seriously. I've been on the receiving end of my share of those kinds of charges and sometimes I've questioned their reliability. She didn't give me a yes or no answer. Instead she said that what I have to do is consider it...fearlessly and honestly.

Over the years as I've tried to heed her advice, I've found that there's so much I don't know and don't understand. That's mostly because I haven't experienced things through the eyes and hearts of people of color. And until I do, applying my experience to their lives leads me to dismiss whole realms of reality...and to racism.

Here's how Nezua put it years ago in a blog post titled The Skin of My Soul.

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.

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.


That's the crux of white privilege...thinking that what we've lived and experienced is a valid way to measure what other people have lived and experienced. And because whiteness has been the default for so long in this culture, many of us are not used to the idea that there's so much that we don't know and need to learn. Until we do - we're likely to hurt people and cause them pain out of our ignorance. I don't imagine that most of us mean to cause that kind of pain...but we do. That's what my friend who longed for the South was trying to tell me I think - that it actually hurts less when it comes from people who openly hate you than it does when it comes from your friends and allies.

A few years ago Donna at The Silence of Our Friends told a story that is both simple and poignant about this kind of pain. It starts off with her explaining that she was once part of a group for Native American women. They were open about who joined - as long as the reasons had integrity. One of the women who joined the group had Native American ancestors way back in her heritage and wanted to learn what she could about them. I'll let Donna pick up the story from there.

It was like any friend or neighbor who thinks you are interesting and you think she is interesting and you get along great. I don't know what got up her nose this one day, but we were sitting around discussing current problems on our reservations and things like unemployment came up. She gets a little huffy and chimes in, "Well why don't you just go get a job?" Now the others in the group just stopped talking to her, they knew they got slapped down, but I didn't. I tried to explain that it wasn't that easy and that alot of our reservations are out in the middle of nowhere and you need a car to go into town or maybe even get on a bus and completely leave your home. She didn't hear any of it. She said of course it's easy, you fill out applications and get a job! I tried one more time telling her that cars and gas cost money, that bus fare costs money, that clothes for an interview cost money, the extreme poverty means there is no money, and because of the distance to the nearest city you might be abandoning everything and everyone you know to go somewhere you know is hostile to you. And she dismissed it saying I was just making excuses. She really thought we were either too stupid to think of her simplistic answers ourselves, or too lazy to go and do it. I lost it and gave her hell over it, but her answer to that was that white people don't have to be our friends and listen to anything we say, and yet she did it all this time, and now I was being so rude and ungrateful when she was just trying to help.<...>

I got quiet. I didn't know what to say. I had to stop and ask myself, am I really equal? Am I even human? At that moment in time, I didn't know anymore. Now these kinds of things have happened to me at other times but this one was especially painful because I had been friends with this woman for 2+ years. I didn't see it coming.


Can you feel it?

Certainly this woman demonstrated some ignorance about the employment barriers for Native Americans living on a reservation. But when challenged with that ignorance...the really ugly aspects of her racism arose. "White people don't have to listen and I'm just doing you a favor by doing so. You should be grateful." It reminded me of all the times I silently (but perhaps not so subtly) assumed that I deserved gratitude from people of color for my efforts to engage. Just another layer of my own racism that Donna helped me recognize.

I tell that story to help us be mindful - not as a request to walk on eggshells (which is a whole other problem). Its the subtle things from the people you're supposed to be able trust that often hurt the most. And that's racism too.

Monday, November 16, 2009

What's your story?

I've always been interested in politics...ever since I was a little girl. I even majored in Political Science for awhile in college - until I succumbed to that age-old "wisdom" that asked, "What kind of job can I get with this major?"

I think my passion for politics comes from the fact that I felt in my bones that all was not right with the world. I had an interest in understanding why that was and trying to make things better. During my childhood, no one ever thought I'd accomplish much (ie, make money), but deep inside I had the feeling that all of those expectations were missing some potential that had yet to be recognized.

Eventually that desire to find out how I could contribute to fixing what's wrong in the world led me to a career in family counseling at a program for runaway youth and then to become the Director of a small non-profit where we work with youth who are starting to get in trouble at home, at school, or with the law. I've been blessed with the reality of living out my dream to change the world - not on a grand scale, but in a very real way right here in my own community. Every day I am humbled and grateful for that opportunity.

Over the last couple of years, those of us in this organization have realized that its not enough for us to continue to try to help heal the wounds of young people (and their families) who are constantly being beaten down and left out by the culture in which we live. We think its time to begin to ask that culture to do what we've been asking youth to do for so long...take responsibility for yourself and change.

That shift has prompted us to expand how we look at things and learn some new skills. One of the people I've been learning from is Marshall Ganz, lecturer in Public Policy at Harvard Kennedy School and the community organizer who played a major role in developing Camp Obama. Ganz cut his teeth in community organizing by being involved in the Civil Rights Movement in Mississippi and then with Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers in California.

I recently read an article by Ganz titled Why Stories Matter: The art and craft of social change. In it I think he has some lessons for all of us whether we're organizing in our own community or trying to pass health care reform. In addition, I think he helps us understand more about who Barack Obama is and what he's trying to do.

The initial question Ganz asks is how we motivate people against inertia.

How do organizers master urgency to break through inertia? The difference in how individuals respond to urgency or anxiety (detected by the brain’s surveillance system) depends on the brain’s dispositional system, the second system in the brain, which runs from enthusiasm to depression, from hope to despair. When anxiety hits and you’re down in despair, then fear hits. You withdraw or strike out, neither of which helps to deal with the problem. But if you’re up in hope or enthusiasm, you’re more likely to ask questions and learn what you need to learn to deal with the unexpected.


This certainly puts some context to the idea of "hope." Its not just some nebulous emotion. Its what motivates us to ask questions and learn...the very basics of beginning the process of change.

But as Ganz goes on to say, we can't just walk around telling people to be hopeful. So what do we do?

I find his answer to this question fascinating. But it should come as no surprise given that most every religious and moral leader in history has employed the same strategy. We instill hope by telling stories.

In a story, a challenge presents itself to the protagonist who then has a choice, and an outcome occurs. The outcome teaches a moral, but because the protagonist is a humanlike character, we are able to identify empathetically, and therefore we are able to feel, not just understand, what is going on.

A story communicates fear, hope, and anxiety, and because we can feel it, we get the moral not just as a concept, but as a teaching of our hearts.


Ganz then outlines how our own stories are the root of how we engage others in a movement for change. First of all, we tell the story of self - our journey that is a unique testament to our own challenges, obstacles and crises. Secondly, we tell the story of us - what it is that we share that binds us together. And finally, we tell the story of now - the tension that exists between the way the world is and the way we want it to be. That tension is what calls us to act.

In another article I read by Ganz, the example of a story of self, us and now that he used was Barack Obama's speech to the 2004 Democratic Convention (link to youtube, transcript here). If you have a few minutes, watch that speech again with these three elements of story in mind. It gave me a whole new understanding about why that speech launched Obama as the national leader of a movement that eventually led to his Presidency.

Ganz sums up the art and craft of social change this way.

Our goal is to meet this challenge, to seize this hope, and turn it into concrete action. After developing our stories of self, then we work on building relationships, which forms the story of us. From there we turn to strategizing and action, working together to achieve a common purpose, learning to experience hope—that’s the story of now.<...>

Paul Tillich taught us that the work of justice requires power, and for power to become justice requires love. All three are intimately related. We cannot turn our love into justice without engaging power. Justice is not achieved without struggle. It’s not achieved without mobilizing power. Organizing is about mobilizing power.


The power that we need to create change is collective power. We'll realize that power when we tap into the story of self, us and now that leads people from inertia to hope to action.