Friday, August 22, 2014

Sexism analogy.

Dear fellow women, 
You know that really frustrating feeling when you try to explain to a man how unsafe you feel sometimes just for being female, and how you have to always be cognizant of the fact that although not all men will, *all men can potentially hurt or sexually assault you*, and how when you walk down a street by yourself or even with other women, it can be scary just because you're a woman and thereby potentially a victim, and how mad/hurt/confused you get when you hear men or even other women victim-blaming rape survivors for wearing that outfit or for provoking him, saying things like "she was asking for it"

...and you know the man you're talking to is a good man, but he just doesn't really understand what you're saying or he argues with you because you're being dramatic or he undervalues your statements, which by the way, do actually reflect your personal experience in the world of being female, by refusing to accept your explanation of what life is like for you, saying things like "You know I'm not like that, so why are you getting mad at me" or "Not all men are rapists" or "You shouldn't be afraid of men" or "You're imagining things." or simply, "No, you're wrong."

You know that feeling? How helpless you feel to convince the man to put himself in your shoes and accept that this is your reality as a woman? And even though you know that part of why he doesn't want to hear it is because it somehow reflects on him and even though he knows he would never hurt you, it just makes him feel bad and defensive and he doesn't want to talk about it. And you end up feeling unheard or like maybe you're just being crazy or paranoid?

You know that feeling? Yes? So, extend it to others. Can you think of other times this sort of dismissive logic is used? Can you imagine how it makes other people feel when their personal experience of being marginalized or undervalued or targeted is discounted because the people hearing about it don't want to accept that people like them are doing 'bad things'? While not directly analogous, it might help to contextualize in a new way some of what is happening currently in our city/country/world. I hope it helps.


Why it doesn't actually matter whether Darren Wilson is racist.

Dear fellow white people, 
It's me again. So, in light of recent conversations I've been having and witnessing, I'm going to try and guide the conversation to a deeper and more abstract place. I can't promise I'm going to do the best job at it, so have some patience as I attempt, perhaps clumsily, to tease out some of the additional issues that are coming up in the wake of the #Ferguson events. Remember that I, like you, am looking at things from the vantage point of my own "otherness" and so I can't rightfully claim any firsthand knowledge, and I am completely open to being corrected if my assessment strikes someone who does have firsthand knowledge of such things as inaccurate.

There has been a lot of talk around the question of whether Darren Wilson was acting from a place of racism or race-based prejudice and how (if) that informs both the legitimacy and ultimately the outcome of all of this. It's obviously true that we do not have "all the facts", which seems to be the biggest concern for a lot of people, especially those who know and love individual (ostensibly non-racist) cops. So I'll say maybe this is one of those "Yes, AND" conversations. Yes, I agree that we *don't* have any idea whether that particular cop holds any racist attitudes. Reserving judgment on that particular police officer isn't difficult for me personally. But that is because I don't think that Darren Wilson needed to be racist in any intentional way in order to hold unconscious bias that might lead him to be more quick to shoot an unarmed black kid. The bigger question is why he might -consciously or unconsciously-believe himself to be in greater harm because Mike was black, and how that could have influenced what happened. Regardless of Darren Wilson's PERSONAL CONSCIOUS FEELINGS about black people, the situation is still problematic because it speaks to a perception issue that IS directly linked to race.

There are several studies demonstrating this phenomenon (

Part of the larger systemic problem that people are angry about, and my understanding of at least a contributing factor to why this is continuing in Ferguson, is that black and brown men are statistically significantly more likely to be pulled over, detained, arrested, charged, sentenced, and incarcerated - AND/OR SHOT TO DEATH- than their white counterparts in otherwise similar circumstances. Ultimately, in the bigger and more abstract social justice picture, it's not really about Michael Brown or Darren Wilson and what happened specifically between those two men on that day. That situation is tragic and sad and confusing for all of us who are paying attention to it.

However, it seems that the events in Ferguson are also serving as a catalyst for a larger conversation around (among other things) how black men, particularly young urban black men, are perceived and responded to as if they are more dangerous than white men. For people who keep asking, whether out of genuine confusion or out of irritation at an age-old American problem that just won't go away, "Why are we talking about racism? The cop might not even be racist. Racism isn't the issue."

Let me be clear: racism IS the issue. In an abstract way, it's the WHOLE THING. Racism is the principle that drives the conversation around what happened and why it matters, regardless of the exact details of that day. I am struggling with how to take this idea from an intuitive, abstract place (which I totally understand can be confusing to people who aren't used to critically engaging in this way) and turn it into a digestible nugget of information that will make sense to people who are stuck on the idea that what is ultimately at issue is whether Darren Wilson is racist and/or clearly used excessive force in this particular case. I just don't think that is the issue at all and that it's a distraction from grappling with the bigger, uglier elephant in the room, which is the long legacy in America of devaluing, disenfranchising, and ultimately criminalizing black men. 

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

I have faith in you, fellow white people.

Dear fellow white people, 
For my white friends who think I am being dramatic in writing the posts I've been writing…please read this link (at the end of my post). It gave me goosebumps and brought tears to my eyes. The author does an infinitely better job than I could do at contextualizing what I've been trying to explain to you, because she is an actual person and this stuff is personal to her in a way that it simply cannot be for me. I have been writing the Racism posts this week because I think it is SO IMPORTANT as white Americans that we understand the effects of not only the structural and institutionalized racism of the systems in place, but more immediately our poor interpersonal race relations, on actual human beings. The offhanded remarks of clueless friends, both in real life and on social media, is causing real damage to real-life relationships. The lack of effort to deeply engage with uncomfortable realities is showing up all over social media, and I hope you know your black friends and acquaintances are seeing you not try. The lack of sensitivity so many white people are demonstrating in regard to the recent Ferguson events is damaging all of our current and potential future relationships with people who don't look like us. It is reinforcing the false social constructs of race and supporting the segregation St Louis is so (in)famous for. To truly show up as an ally, you have to stop saying unhelpful, intellectually lazy things both in your everyday life, and on this semi-public forum, and instead, maybe sit down with a black person that you know and have an ACTUAL CONVERSATION*.
*Please note: not every black person you know is going to have the patience or emotional bandwidth to take on these conversations, and you also have to be respectful of that. To some extent, it is your responsibility to learn this stuff, and it is not their responsibility to teach you. Minorities often find themselves doing a lot of the heavy lifting in these conversations, and it isn't really fair. Please note also that there is as much diversity among black people's opinions on all this as there is among whites'. One black person's opinion isn't all black people's opinions. You don't get to have one conversation and be all, "oh, I get it now!" Revisit the concept of white privilege if that doesn't make sense.
This is all REALLY HARD to understand for some of us, and I get that. Our vantage points as white Americans are so skewed by privilege that we often simply cannot see beyond it. But that's not an adequate excuse anymore, if it ever was. Given what's coming up for so many people right now, if we want to be decent human beings, we have to dig in and get our hands dirty and maybe even get our feelings hurt in order to even BEGIN to really understand what's happening and why it matters so much.
Before you dismiss me as suggesting it's "just that easy", I will say that I get that I have an advantage here over most of you. I have the benefit of having been raised by liberal, well-educated parents who didn't teach me bigotry, so I didn't have any unhelpful or narrow attitudes to unlearn. I have a Masters degree in Social Work, so my educational context is different than many of yours. I have the added personal, real life benefit of having been able to safely navigate meaningful dialogues about race with black people who love me and know my heart. But I am still a privileged white female from an all-white small town in Illinois. I still came from what many of you came from. There was literally not A SINGLE BLACK PERSON IN MY HIGH SCHOOL. Really. 
My point is that I wasn't just born knowing about race and class and privilege and being comfortable challenging people on it. I was, however, born caring about other humans, and so I made dismantling racism an intentional, brick-by-brick process of asking questions, listening, reading, thinking, talking. I had to do the work. You can do that too. I have faith in you.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Racism 102

Dear fellow white people, 

Now that you've had a chance to absorb Racism 101, let's move on to some slightly more difficult concepts. We can call it Racism 102: Next Level. 

1. Please note that it is generally not considered a compliment when a white person tells a black person how "articulate" they are. That's because it is often perceived as a thinly veiled way of saying, "Thank you for speaking in away that makes me comfortable." Regardless of your intent, it runs the risk of being interpreted as condescending, as though you are pleasantly surprised by the fact that this black person communicates clearly. At best, it falls under the category of "racially insensitive". I would recommend you just avoid this altogether.

2. Reverse racism is not a thing. I repeat: REVERSE RACISM IS NOT A THING. I've heard so much about this lately. In the simplest terms: racism is about power and oppression. Specifically, the power to oppress. Black people can certainly have biases and race-based prejudices, and can dislike or even hate you (or me) just for being white. And no, of course that doesn't feel good, because I'm a good person and it's not my fault I'm white and how could you hate me just for the color of my skin? …. (!!) Okay, now take the indignation you feel at the idea of that and recognize that it represents just the tiniest little tip of the giant ugly racist iceberg of what it's been like historically for black Americans, and remember that everybody knows white people did all of that. So, once again: black people can do any number of things to white people, but what they cannot do is be racist. Please stop referring to reverse racism, as it reflects a fundamental lack of understanding of what racism even means.

3. Being an ally is not the same thing as being a savior. No matter how well-intended, white folks approaching matters of race from the "savior" place is probably going to be interpreted as paternalistic, condescending, and distinctly unhelpful. Being an ally is about listening and responding to what the people you are endeavoring to advocate for actually want and need from you.

4. You should absolutely be present and protest alongside the people of Ferguson if that is what you feel called to do, but be open to the knowledge that it both is and isn't your fight. I know that's kind of confusing, but I just mean: be respectful. Don't make a spectacle of being there. Just be yourself. Nobody needs to you be anything else. You don't have to change the way you speak or dress or behave to be an effective ally. In fact, I'd venture a guess that it minimizes your credibility. If you don't normally use urban slang, for example, please don't start now. It's awkward for everybody.

5. You don't have to apologize or feel bad for being white. You didn't choose it any more than anyone else chose their skin color. Presumably none of us are directly responsible for the terrible, violent, and/or oppressive actions of any past or present fellow white-skinned humans. But we ARE responsible for doing what we can to dismantle racism when and where we can. Every day, not just in the wake of these recent events.

6. Active anti-racism includes addressing what I call the "tiny racisms" or "micro-aggressions" of other white people, and not just saving your activism for the more obviously offensive remarks or actions. It includes addressing - and not excusing- the well-meaning but ignorant. Please note: this can and should be done with compassion and understanding. Feel free to revisit Jay Smooth's instructional video on this topic, which I posted a couple of days ago to my page. Remember to make it about what the person DID, and not about what they ARE. Don't go around accusing people of "being racist". I can tell you now that that's never going to go well, because once someone goes to the defensive place, they can no longer hear you and the conversation becomes futile. **Message me if you need tips on how to navigate these sorts of conversations. (Seriously, I don't mind. I like talking about this stuff.)

7. Being actively anti-racist does not suggest that you hate white people or that you assume the perpetrators of racially insensitive actions are white supremacists in any intentional way. Much of the time, people really just don't know, and that has to be okay or we won't be able to have these important conversations. As active allies, we are uniquely positioned, and to some extent obligated, to interrupt racism where we see and hear it because we move so easily among other white people. Similarly, if someone tells you that something you've said or done was racially insensitive, instead of immediately getting defensive, please consider hearing them out. Holding each other accountable in a respectful way is the key.

Racism 101

Dear white people, 

Here is a lesson called "Racism 101" that I have created, because despite this being 2014, some of it bears repeating in light of recent events.

1. Please note this is my own opinion and perspective, and is not representative of any group or demographic.

2. Please note that because I'm white, probably nobody would assume or expect that I'm actually speaking for all white people, so #1 probably goes without saying.

3. Please note that that #1 & #2 are functions of a phenomenon known as White Privilege.

4. If you don't know what that means, that's okay. Lots of white people don't! That is also a function of white privilege. Because most of the people we are around are also white, we often don't even have to think about the fact that we are. We often simply equate being white with "normal". And when another white person does something we don't agree with, it is just a person doing something we don't agree with. It never reflects on or informs our attitudes about white people in general. This, too, is a function of white privilege.

5. If you'd like to better understand what that means, please read Peggy McIntosh's seminal piece "Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack", linked for your convenience here: 
White Privilege

6. If you begin a statement with the words, "I'm not racist, but ______", please note that anything following the word "but" is pretty much guaranteed to be racist or at the very least, racially insensitive. If you're truly not saying anything offensive, you don't have to qualify it as such. Please think carefully when making statements you feel necessary to justify preemptively.

7. Having a black friend does not automatically exempt you from being racist. It's nice that you have a black friend, and you might also actually not be racist. But those things are not mutually exclusive. It is not a way to justify whatever you might have said. See #6.

8. Being friends with a black person, or even a whole lot of black people, does not give you carte blanche to casually (in conversation, when addressing a person, or even when singing/rapping along to a song) use the N word. White men seem more likely to feel entitled to this terminology when addressing their black (or even white) male friends than women do. Regardless, I don't advise it. It simply isn't our word. In my personal opinion, there are no circumstances under which it is ever appropriate for white people to use it, and that includes the reappropriated version that ends in an "a" sound rather than an "er". Regardless of pronunciation, that word has an ugly historical context that should prohibit it from ever crossing your lips as a white person.

9. "Why can black people say it and I can't?" is not a sound question. The answer is: because everything. Please revisit all of the above, and also history.

10. When you accuse a person of color of "playing the race card", the presumed intent is to discredit their self-report of their lived experience, (which you will never share) and to let yourself off the hook for understanding it. If that is not your intention, please stop using this phrase. It's rude and lazy. Come up with another way to say, "I don't understand how this relates to race or could be perceived as racist." Nobody is going to be surprised to learn that you don't understand it, because white people never really have to wonder whether x or y outcome/treatment/action was racially-motivated. Because white privilege. 

11. I don't think you're stupid if any of this is new to you, or even if you disagree with some of it. Again, I am merely stating my opinions in the hopes that it will help ease some of the tension that's been spilling over due to the events in Ferguson of late. Please note that I am not an expert on race nor am I exempt from grappling with my own conscious and unconscious biases. I have had to ask a lot of questions and feel pretty uncomfortable, over many years, in order to even come to the rudimentary understanding I have of what some of this is really about. There are all kinds of things I don't know, and like anyone, I always have something more to learn. It is okay to not know something. It is okay to ask questions. It is okay to be ignorant, so long as you are making a sincere effort to understand and be educated. I hope this helps.