Friday, September 28, 2012

Ally School III: Privilege, Theory and Action

Responding on Facebook, Lisa Chavez said.
[I]t is not terribly productive in a discussion about race, especially when people of color may be talking about racism they have encountered, for white people to suddenly disrupt the conversation and start to talk about how difficult it is to be white and how horrible it is to be called a racist.  Often, no one has actually called anyone racist, but as referred to acts or speech that were racist, but someone has taken the conversation, somehow, as a label.   Then the conversation is effectively derailed.  I can't tell you how many times I've seen this happen in person and online.  It is often the point were the person of color--or put in any other person who is marginalized and is trying to discuss marginalization and privilege--checks out of the conversation.   I was speaking of this out of years of frustration at the ways these conversations go, rather than commenting on anything as an educational tool, which is why I think Kenaz approach here--showing people how not to appear racist--is so important.
For most white people, "racist" is a grievous insult.  Racism is seen as a horrible and a hurtful thing. And so when white people hear people of color -- especially people of color they like -- talking about racism, they feel insecure.  They want to reassure their friends (and themselves) that they aren't like Those People.  And when they don't get that affirmation, they start to feel that maybe the conversation is personal and they are being targeted.  This means they have to defend themselves, and thus yet another discussion goes tits-up...

This is a problem, but it's also a window for opportunity and a teachable moment for white people who find themselves in this situation.  Unless you have been specifically called out, don't assume the conversation is aimed at you.  If you are guilty of some of the behaviors they mention, make a note. You now know that at least some people find those acts or words troubling.  An apology and acknowledgement might be in order, depending on the discussion: if so, make it brief.  (Hijacking a thread for self-flagellation and confession is less offensive than hijacking it to declare everyone politically correct race pimps and feminazis, but it's still hijacking).

If you are not guilty, then you're not part of the problem and there's no reason for justifications.  It's wonderful that your coven has three Mexicans, a Jew, two blacks and a paraplegic in its membership rolls. But that has nothing to do with the experience of Pagans of color who have encountered racism elsewhere in the community.  Bringing it into the discussion does nothing toward finding potential solutions or acknowledging their problems.  At best it's a distraction: at worst it will be seen as a way of minimizing or denying their experience.
Luckily, much of the anti-racist material I have read and tend to use, does not in fact fall into the "original sin" form or racism, though it does ask everyone to examine ways in which they are privileged and not.  That is also an important conversation (and another one that often gets derailed as people elide their lack of privilege in one area with privilege in another).  These ideas are very important for people who want to be real allies, and again, this goes beyond race and encompasses a lot of areas in which one can be an ally to someone else.
Looking back, I should have been more clear.  I don't know if it is the material which is the problem so much as the way it is treated. (I'm going to go into this in more detail later).  And I agree completely that it's worthwhile to talk about privilege. But I've also seen so many discussions on privilege degenerate into "Oppression Bingo," wherein people sought to list the various ways in which they weren't privileged instead of addressing the ways they were.

A lot of white people don't get privilege -- by its very nature it's invisible to the people who have it, so that's hardly surprising. It's an important idea, but for most white people it's an abstraction.  And before I get into theory, no matter how important, I wanted to introduce some practice.  You don't have to understand privilege to know that it's rude to ask random Haitians if they practice Vodou or to touch a black woman's hair just because you're curious about the texture.  (Besides, there are already plenty of excellent pieces on the subject: I particularly like Peggy McIntosh's "White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack").

Responding to my earlier post, whatsername (Jaded Hippy?) said:
I get where you're coming from with this post as a whole but this part concerns me: "Instead of arguing about who is or is not a bigot, I'd rather spend some time teaching people how not to look like bigots." One of the major issues I've personally had with trying to talk with other white people about racism (or with men about sexism, etc.) is a MAJOR preoccupation with how they APPEAR TO OTHERS, instead of paying attention to the actual affect of their actions/words. And this comes up a lot in particular in my neck of the woods (SF Bay Area), where people seem to think the worst thing in the world is that they have been called, or their action has been called, racist. It's like the stain to their reputation or something is worse than the fact that they did something fucked up to someone else, like a whole middle-class/upper-class thing about what counts is the surface/how one is perceived to be and not what's actually going on inside.
I think it'd be obvious what a skewed sense of priorities this is, but these same people often use a lot of social justice language to cover up the fact that they simply have NOT interrogated their Whiteness or their internalized racist attitudes and that because they're aren't part of the Klan and because they can talk some talk about social justice, they believe they haven't internalized ANY white supremacy from the white supremacist world around them.
I have seen this among many liberals on both coasts, although it does seem to be particularly endemic to the Bay Area.  They read the right books, attend the right workshops, give lip service to the right causes, and say all the right words about privilege, oppression and racism.  Yet in their daily lives they still treat  every person of color they meet as an exotic other, a potential criminal or the hired help.  They are concerned that their peers see them as not-racist: they're far less worried about how people of color outside their circle feel.

Because I've written a few books on Haitian Vodou and African spirituality, I meet a lot of white people who are genuinely interested in African and Spanish Caribbean culture.  Sure, they have unchallenged prejudices they should address but by and large their hearts are in the right place.  They don't want to be hurtful, offensive or clueless: they really do care about what people of color think of them.  Instead of teaching them the lingo which would make them appear sufficiently enlightened to other white liberals, I wanted to give them some pointers on actions which might be seen as hurtful or offensive despite their best intentions.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Ally School II: You're Not a Racist

Responding to my earlier post on Facebook, Lisa Chavez said:
Well, the problem is that most of the time people of color talk about an action as "racist" and start to discuss privilege, someone will 1) assume that they are being called racist whether they are or not and then 2) turn the entire conversation to how hurt they are by being called racist, which 3) effectively derails the conversation and makes it all about white people. Again. In my book, doing racist things/saying racist things makes someone a racist. I hope, however, that they can change and become an ally with education, though that is not always possible. And it certainly isn't possible if the entire conversation is about "no! don't call me a racist!"
I take people at their word.  If they say they aren't racists, then at the very least they don't believe themselves to be racists.  Which means, presumably, that they don't want to be perceived as racists.  Instead of arguing about who is or is not a bigot, I'd rather spend some time teaching people how not to look like bigots.

This is neither a confessional or a courtroom: I'm not here to grant absolution or to declare individuals guilty.  Thus, there's no reason to beg forgiveness or to defend yourself. I have no reason to believe that anybody participating in these discussions is a Nazi, Klansman, White Power skinhead or any other flavor of violent racist.  (I doubt someone with swastika tattoos and a Hitler poster would find much of value in conversations about being a better ally to people of color... ).  So you need not spend time declaring you're not one of Those White People, because nobody here thinks that you are.

The comment James made about "original sin racism" points to a real problem with a lot of anti-racist material: it follows a Christian model of redemption through repentance.  Readers are taken to task for their sins and shortcomings.  By accepting their failings they hope to be forgiven and to separate themselves from the inherently corrupt society despite their own inescapable taint.  And all too often breast-beating becomes a substitute for actually doing something.

Don't get me wrong, I think there's definitely a time and a place for recognition of one's privilege and of the part one plays in upholding an unjust social order.  But I think you can make change happen from without just as quickly as from within - and arguably a good deal more effectively.  I don't need to challenge all my preconceptions before I can treat people with respect and show concern for their feelings.  And once we get past some of the more common pitfalls and establish communication a lot of those prejudices might just take care of themselves.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Ally School Ia: Responses and Clarifications

In the comments to my earlier post, heckthecat wrote:
This reminds me of a book I read, it seems like a long time ago now, called "The Death of the Great Spirit: An Elegy for the American Indian". I don't remember much of it now, but one part that had a great impact on me was the way the Native American author described the "loving kindness" of the well-meaning white american activists as a sort of slow, suffocating, endlessly kind way of killing his people; from the missionaries running schools where children were plucked from their tribes and reformed of their "heathen" ways to modern activists pushing to preserve those same ways, nobody asks for or listens to the opinions of the people whose lives they are butting in to. It's a hard truth to face, but I don't think there's a person on the planet who hasn't been guilty of well-meaning but ultimately unnecessary and unwanted 'helping' at some point or another, while the person or people they are trying to 'help' protest that what they are doing is REALLY unneeded and it's "REALLY" ok to stop now.... I know I have, and I am ashamed.
This can be a hard lesson to learn. As you become aware of injustice and inequity, you feel compelled to do something about it.  But often the best thing you can do is step out of the way.  Gene Roddenberry was on to something when he gave Starfleet a Prime Directive to "refrain from interfering in the natural, unassisted development of societies, even if such interference was well-intentioned." Sometimes it really is best to limit your involvement no matter how strongly you feel about a topic. Consider how relief agencies regularly expend precious resources on volunteers who travel to disaster sites to "help."

And in a Facebook comment, James Jones said:
For me, at least, the extreme discomfort around this type of discussion centers around the word "racist". 
For a lot of people who do work with anti-racism, racist seems to have an extremely broad definition, broad enough that every single white person on Earth is racist.  
In my case, on the other hand, the word "racist" is very, very specific. A "racist" is someone that is so much of a violent loser that they have to be proud of their race because they have nothing else to be proud of(Nazi skinheads, klansmen, that type of person). 
Because of this and a few other things I very rarely participate in that type of dialog and even when I do it is on the outskirts(like now).
I see where you're coming from.  But I also see where you're buying into a very common false dichotomy on the subject. We all agree that WP Skinheads, Klansmen, white supremacists & c. are racists.  But is that the only form of racism?  A black man's chance of getting beat up by Confederate Hammerskins is far lower than his chance of being hassled by police for "driving while black." He is much less likely to find a cross burning on his lawn than to encounter redlining from his mortgage lender. When we concentrate overmuch on the behavior of a few mental midgets, we run the risk of minimizing more pressing and important concerns.

It is definitely worthwhile, even necessary, to explore and deal with ingrained prejudices and preconceptions. But that's really not what I'm trying to do with these posts.  I'm assuming that my readers don't see themselves as racists and don't wish to be perceived as racists.  And so I'm trying to help them avoid behaviors which might get them pegged (fairly or not) as bigoted or clueless.  How they think or feel is up to them: all I offer are suggestions on how they might want to act.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Ally School I: The Healing Power of Silence or, Shut Up and Listen

The only drug I'm on is Wade Long...
My blogging time has largely been taken up of late by diaper detail, and so I missed this comment on the blog of the lovely and talented Fern Miller.  It seems that Wade Long feels neglected because  I (and every other commenter) refused to acknowledge that there is no such thing as black culture. To assuage his wounded feelings, let it be known that when it comes to debates on race Wade (like another American Warlock) is officially "Winning."

But as I looked back through that lengthy conversation, I realized there were still many things that needed to be said.  I had talked about a problem I saw within the community but hadn't offered any constructive solutions.  Plenty of white liberals talk about racism, classism and other social issues as penance and absolution. Acknowledging problems frees them of responsibility for doing something about them. I didn't want to fall into that trap.  I think the issues I discussed need to be met with deeds, not words.

Nor do I think the situation is hopeless.  I would also note that the majority of white people (and people in general) who have written to me about Vodou are well-meaning and sincere. Of course good intentions do not mitigate the pain caused by bad behavior. But sincere, well-meaning people can be educated.  If you point out their mistakes and suggest better approaches they may just change their ways.  To that end, I thought I would offer some suggestions based on my life experiences.  Comments, observations and constructive criticism are welcome.

The first thing we need to get out of the way is this: nobody is "colorblind." You may think you are unaffected by race, class and other social signifiers. You, like everybody else, are far too intelligent to be tripped up by stereotypes and biases. The truth is that we are pack primates: we are wired to distinguish between those in our group and those outside.  And for centuries one of the most important dividing lines has been race.  Race may be an imaginary social construct but it is has a very real impact on people's lives.  One's perceived race can shape their interactions with others as much as their perceived gender or social class. It's foolish to think you have managed to rise above this construct and its effects. It is presumptuous and rude in the extreme to assume everyone else has.

This is not meant to say we cannot build bridges between our divisions.  But we must first acknowledge that those divisions exist.  We have made great strides in 21st century America: we are moving toward a culture where African-Americans have overcome prejudices like Irish-Americans and Italian-Americans before them.  But that doesn't mean that we've reached Martin Luther King's promised land, or that there are not still significant differences between the black American and white American experiences.  Like it or not, we still see things across a racial divide.

Consider antiracism activist and educator Tim Wise. Wise is effective in reaching white audiences largely because he's also white.  Were they to hear the same thing from a black speaker, they would be far more likely to get defensive.  They would see him as thin-skinned and overly sensitive; they would claim he was seeing prejudice where none existed; they would be affronted by the idea that he might see them as racist. ("I came to this anti-racism lecture! Doesn't that count for anything?!?!?!") When they hear the same speech from Wise, those defense mechanisms are no longer available.  For better or for worse, he reaches people who might not otherwise get the message.

When white commenters start talking about problems they see among blacks, or members of other minority groups, they frequently run into a similar problem.  Their intentions are good and they mean well. They sincerely think they are doing the right thing.  Yet their suggestions are dismissed and even mocked: they are accused of all sorts of nefarious motives and shut out of discussions just because they are white.  It's easy enough to take this as proof of "antiwhite bigotry," especially if you are more interested in justifying racism than dealing with it. But what is really happening here is the same thing we see with Tim Wise.  Black audiences tend to hear solutions and observations proffered by white people as patronizing, arrogant and clueless.

If you're feeling defensive, you may want to examine what makes you uncomfortable. You probably wouldn't demand the podium at a mathematician's convention so you could present your paper on high school algebra.  You wouldn't claim you know as much about legal issues as an attorney or that your opinion on a medical question is as informed and valuable as that of a physician. So why would you presume to speak authoritatively about someone else's community? Why would you not defer to those who have lived as black Americans and who can speak from their direct experience?

More to the point, why do you feel the need to speak up? Covered in Light, a recent Pagan initiative in support of veiled women, inspired many comments about the tyranny of the hijab and the horrors endured by women in Islamic countries. Few bothered to read or acknowledge commentary from Islamic women who veiled by choice - or, for that matter, from Muslim women opposed to the veil.  Like evangelists using pictures of malnourished children to solicit donations, they reduced the disempowered to sentimental images for their own purposes.  This kind of behavior is racist and patronizing and don't be surprised when you get called on it.

(I speak from experience here.  I was a long-time participant in the ever-popular Vodou flame wars across several battlefields.  I finally disengaged after a Haitian-American pointed out that the online Vodou scene looked like Survivor: a bunch of white people fighting over who gets to control the island.  The comment stung, but it was accurate.  I thought I was defending a tradition and a culture, but to those born and raised in the culture I was just being an annoying git).

I am sure that sooner or later I will get a comment here about freedom of speech and how I am a racist because I am asking white people to "censor" themselves.  This has nothing to do with freedom or with rights. This is about getting along with people. If you are not a clueless bigot, you presumably want to avoid being seen as clueless and bigoted. This is intended to help you avoid those pitfalls. If you feel it impinges on your right to say whatever you want whenever you want to with no concern for how others might react, you are free to ignore it.