Thursday, April 29, 2010

take credit for being ‘tolerant’ when pocs do a bulk of the work to assimilate

This is a guest post for swpd by fromthetropics, who writes of herself, "I am mixed cultured, and always feel in-between -- both here and there, but neither fully here nor there."

In Australia, I often hear people say, “(White) Australia is a very tolerant society. It’s more tolerant than most places.” I hear it from both whites and (assimilated) people of color alike. I'm sure you hear this too about other white-majority countries. When people say this, I sometimes wonder who they’re comparing white culture to. Are they comparing Australia to developing countries and the like, where social upheavals often result in whole ethnic groups targeting other ethnic groups for killings, or to countries which have a high level of ethnic homogeneity, like Japan or Korea? I feel as though they are saying, “At least those things don’t happen here, because we are a tolerant and multiracial/ethnic/cultural society.”

Either way, the underlying message is that white-majority countries are superior because they are more 'tolerant' than countries populated by poc. Those who claim that their country is more 'tolerant' seem to be saying that white-majority groups are open to having pocs joining them, but poc groups like to self-segregate and be homogenous. Either way, it looks as though white culture is superior because its members are more tolerant (i.e. less racist/prejudiced), and poc culture is inferior because its members are less tolerant (i.e. more racist/prejudiced).

I struggled with this idea. I look around, and on the surface white people making this claim seemed to be right. But, something about it bugged me.

You see, I try very hard to understand white culture in Australia in order to integrate. I have to. I live in a white majority country, so I can’t escape it. I go into white spaces and feel uncomfortable. So I’ve spent years trying to overcome this discomfort. I have read race blogs for months on end, gotten my head straight about race issues, dealt with my own internalized racism, learnt how to identify and deflect ignorant questions/statements, and so on and so forth. To say that I have expended a lot of effort on all of this is probably an understatement.

These days, my efforts are finally paying off. Lately, I feel as though I have finally learnt how to ‘code-switch’ into white Australian culture (though mainly middle class, as that’s the people I associate with, mostly through work). By this I mean, I am now better at talking and acting like a white Australian. My code-switching skills are far from perfect, but they’ve significantly decreased my discomfort in white spaces. It actually feels very weird to consciously notice yourself go through the process of ‘assimilation’ by learning to code-switch. Suddenly things are so much easier.

And I am such a great learner (/sarcasm) that I’ve even caught myself looking at another Asian who looked uncomfortable in a white space and thinking, “She really needs to just go get some confidence and get over herself.” Of course, a second after, I said to those thoughts: “Shut the eff up. You remember how it felt don’t ya? How uncomfortable it was? Now go talk to her and help her feel at ease. That’s your job as someone who has integrated and can now play ‘host’, not hers.” But it’s hard not to forget that she’s there. It takes conscious effort.

Now, what about when white people go into poc spaces or poc-populated countries? Do they expend this much effort into integrating? As far as I know, most of them just feel uncomfortable and avoid it. Recently I heard one white friend who was living in an Asian country say, “It’s really hard at the workplace because they speak in their own language a lot instead of in English. And I just can’t get used to the culture.”

“Yeah, it would be,” I said. “It’s fine for the short term, but you might not want to do it for the long term. Integrating into the culture there is indeed difficult.”

It was as though I was trying to assure him that, yes, I understand that the people and place are not as multicultural as white-majority countries which take in many immigrants. That’s why white people don’t feel comfortable there. It’s hard.

Then I heard a record scratch.

Scraaaaaaaaaaaaaaaatch! Wait a sec. I speak English. I’ve spent my entire life learning how to code-switch cultures at a highly-skilled, sophisticated level to integrate. In fact, it’s expected of me to do this. And yet, only now do I feel more integrated. (This is not to say that there aren’t white people who have tried to reach out to me. There have been and I am grateful to them. But I’m sure it’s the same with the Asians who know my white friend.) But this white guy hasn’t learnt the local language. He’s only spent a short period of time in the country compared to the time I spent trying to integrate into Australia…Well, no wonder he can’t integrate. What was I thinking?

Did I then turn around and tell the guy off? Of course not. He’s a friend who is having a hard time. I know what he’s going through. So, okay, I didn’t tell him off, but I must confess that I couldn’t resist pointing out that I have a hard time too in Australia.

So, I’m thinking -- white culture appears ‘open’ and ‘tolerant’ not because white people are naturally more open, tolerant, and therefore superior, but because poc are doing a bulk of the work trying to assimilate and code-switch, thus making it easier for white people to accept us and mingle with us.

It's similar to when Western men say that they are less sexist compared to men in Asian countries because they don’t hoot at women or harass them as they walk down the street. They say this as though Western men are inherently less sexist. They like taking credit for this. However, they forget that they have come to this point thanks to the work of many feminists who have fought to force men to be less sexist. Women did a bulk of the work to make men act less sexist.

Likewise, white people for the most part are not doing all that much to help pocs assimilate. And then, some of those who go to other, non-white countries complain when their relatively minimal efforts to fit in don’t pay off quickly. In both cases, white people seem unaware of what pocs go through in the assimilation process, while poc are relatively aware of white people -- aware of both what they go through in the ‘assimilation’ process, and of the pressures they put on us when we’re going through that process. So, maybe white people seem more tolerant because a lot of poc work hard to assimilate, which then makes it easier for white people to think that they're more tolerant.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

disrespect a black president in racist ways

A reader sent in a link to a product that will go on sale later this year, a doll that looks like Barack Obama. The thing is -- and the reason I haven't reproduced a photo of the doll here -- it's being sold naked, and I'm guessing that like me, other bloggers will be blogging about it for that reason. Here's a link, for instance, to a Jezebel post about this upcoming Obama doll.

So what's up with advertising and selling this doll naked? And further, what's up with so few commenters at Jezebel who see that as a problem? And what are the implications, in terms of race, of the Jezebel post's title, "Meet Barbie's New Boyfriend: Naked Barack Obama"?

The Jezebel writer, Margaret Hartmann, who only had the following to say about the product, doesn't seem bothered by a naked Obama doll either -- just a little hot and bothered, in a sexual way, which I guess is supposed to be a "good" way:

For just $55 you can pre-order your own Barack Obama action figure, complete with two pairs of hands, two heads, 38 points of articulation... and no clothing. He can wear Ken's suits, if Barbie doesn't hide them.

I had to do some Googling around to find a site that sells this doll, or rather will sell it, later this year. I found out that it's manufactured by TrueType, which makes a line of such dolls for "adult collectors" (which I gather does not mean, given their Barbie-doll size, that they're sex toys; and if they are supposed to be sex toys, well, I just don't want to think about that). TrueType promotes a line of these dolls as either "Caucasian" or "African American"; here's a link to this product line.

As far as I can tell, none of these male dolls immediately resembles a celebrity, except for the new one, which is a dead ringer for Barack Obama. Which, I'm sure, will make it sell like proverbial hot cakes, compared to the other dolls in the series.

I remember George Bush dolls, and also dolls that looked like other presidents, and I've never seen a naked one. And even if naked-white-president dolls were available, given the stereotypes that still impinge on the lives of black men -- about their supposed, heightened sexual drive, and the supposedly accompanying threat of them as sexual predators -- selling a doll based on the current president naked, and advertising it that way, is worse than selling a naked doll representing a white president would be. The latter could well be construed as excessively disrespectful, but the former is also racist.

I'm reminded of various images that depict either Bush or Obama as primates -- Bush because some think he looks like one, and Obama simply because he's black. When people objected that ape-like depictions of Obama are racist (in part because in many white minds, all black people resemble primates), supporters of Bush, as well as other, usually white people, insisted that depicting Obama as a primate was no more disrespectful than depicting Bush that way -- since they're both presidents, and they're both being depicted as primates, then both types of images are supposedly the same.

However, as with this line of dolls, sometimes depicting a black president in a questionable way is different, and worse, because of the stereotypes that racially clueless (or sometimes, intentionally racist) depictions can evoke.

Racism in such cases can arise from contextual elements as well. Take that Jezebel post title, for instance: "Meet Barbie's New Boyfriend: Naked Barack Obama," which places an unavoidably black Barack in a sexually and racially charged relation to an unavoidably white Barbie. As the person who sent me an email about that Jezebel post wrote,

A naked Barack Obama, made specially "for" white Barbie -- the proverbial "Mandingo," so eager for white female flesh that he doesn't even come with clothes -- brings up issues of ownership, human ownership. His sole purpose is to serve at the pleasure of Barbie. Ken was Barbie's (notably clothed) companion, but Barack is her sex slave. His nakedness leaves no room for doubt as to his limited role.

Barack Obama is arguably the most powerful person of the so-called "free world," and what has he been reduced to? An object that can be purchased, at the right price ($55+), by anyone who so desires. Rather than trying to address the myriad issues plaguing our country, apparently, first and foremost in our President's mind is ... sex with Barbie -- the embodiment of white femininity and physical perfection, no? Black male sexuality is hot, appealing, when manipulated by the purchaser. Black male sexuality controlled by the black male? Significantly absent from this scenario. Although Barbie is woman and B.O. doll is a man, the racial hierarchy, untrumped by gender, remains intact: white controls, black obeys.

Even if you're a highly-educated, faithfully-married, law-abiding, church-going, biracial father of two daughters... you're still a white-flesh-lusting black buck at heart (there goes that "POC are sneaky" assumption again). The scenario also disrespects his marriage to a black woman, Michelle, which also involves a racial hierarchy of desirability and aesthetics, clearly placing black at the bottom and white Barbie at the top.

It shows how black males' humanity is reduced by the over-sexualized stereotype (an odd parallel to the dehumanizing sexual objectification that women of all ethnicities experience, i.e., “that’s all they’re good for”). Rather than a celebration of sexuality, as Jezebel and Random Good Stuff pretend, this doll is used to trivialize and demean the President: you may think you have authority as the President but you will never "rise" "above" your "place," boy* (that place, evidently, being essentially a sexual servicer and nothing more). I am skeptical as to whether any naked dolls of Bill Clinton, that infamous luster of white female flesh, were made. Its probable absence is telling -- and even if it did exist, its existence can be explained by Clinton's real-life predicaments, as opposed to a racist stereotype.

So, if the post on the popular blog Jezebel does spawn other posts, I think we should watch for how the doll is written about, and how commenters react to it. I suspect that if the bloggers and commenters are white, they by and large won't see what's wrong with the image -- some will instead think it's cute, or "hot."

It is of course okay and (to my mind) good to be disrespectful of political leaders, humorously and otherwise. But when that disrespect is also racist, that's just not okay.


*”boy” is exactly right, since adults are presumably in control of their sexuality but children remain at the mercy of whomever takes care of them.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

condemn illegal workers instead of illegal employers

As a televisual satirist, Stephen Colbert dances along a fine line; by provoking laughter over serious subject matter, he runs the risk of trivializing his chosen topics, as well as other people's pain.

In the following episode of his regular segment, "The Word," Colbert takes on Arizona's new, draconian, and blatantly racist anti-immigrant law. I appreciate the points that Colbert gets across here to his mainstream audience, but there's one factor in this decades-long immigration "debate" that I wish he'd also covered -- the persistent focus on workers, rather than on those who illegally employ them.

The Colbert ReportMon - Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
The Word - No Problemo

Amidst the laughter he provokes, Colbert makes several excellent points. He also provides a phrase that I think deserves the meme-like status of his earlier linguistic creation (the word "truthiness"). By which I mean: with a great national debate on immigration coming up soon (or maybe not so soon?), I hope the term "Juan Crow" catches on to describe not only Arizona's new law, but also the misguided, vitriolic and commonly white sentiments behind it. Unless, that is, the term perpetuates the stereotype that most Mexican men are named Juan?

However, one important point Colbert leaves out is that discussion of immigration is almost always focused on the workers, instead of on the (mostly white) employers. After all, by hiring these border-crossing workers, aren't they also doing something illegal? If so, why is there so much focus on the workers, and so little on the employers?

As Joe Feagin points out at Racism Review,

One critical part of the “immigration debates” is just how powerful the conservative framing of these issues is. Conservatives frame it as “illegal immigrants” or “illegal aliens,” while even liberals are focusing on “undocumented immigrants” and “immigration problems.” This is yet another example of how we get trapped in deep unreflective frames.

How about reframing the entire debate as about “lawless employers,” “illegal employers,” and “illegal employment”? Mostly white employers are certainly at the center of this national “problem.”

Yes, that's an answer right there, isn't it -- conservatives manage to frame most national debates, thanks in no small part to the ubiquity of corporate media outlets, which naturally promote and enact business-friendly conservative policies. And so, in turn, most Americans, conservative and liberal/progressive alike, tend to play along.

Thank goodness for the Internet, eh? Or maybe . . . not? Are the grassroots possibilities of the online revolution managing to shift the corporate media's framing of such debates? Can anything be done, for instance, to get most people thinking about illegal employers, instead of workers?

At the very least, we can find out online about forms of action we can take that the corporate media fail to mention. Here, for instance, is an online petition you can sign -- "Shame on Arizona" allows you to sign the following pledge to boycott the state: "As long as racial profiling is legal in Arizona, I will do what I can to not visit the state and to avoid spending dollars there."

I've never actually been to Arizona, which I gather is beautiful; needless to say, but I'll say it anyway, supporting the state's (soon-to-be ironically flagging) economy by "paying" a visit no longer interests me.

h/t for the video: Irene's Daughters

Friday, April 23, 2010

quotation of the week (noam chomsky)

From "Noam Chomsky Has 'Never Seen Anything Like This,'" by Chris Hedges (@ truthdig):

Noam Chomsky is America’s greatest intellectual. His massive body of work, which includes nearly 100 books, has for decades deflated and exposed the lies of the power elite and the myths they perpetrate. Chomsky has done this despite being blacklisted by the commercial media, turned into a pariah by the academy and, by his own admission, being a pedantic and at times slightly boring speaker. He combines moral autonomy with rigorous scholarship, a remarkable grasp of detail and a searing intellect. He curtly dismisses our two-party system as a mirage orchestrated by the corporate state, excoriates the liberal intelligentsia for being fops and courtiers and describes the drivel of the commercial media as a form of “brainwashing.” And as our nation’s most prescient critic of unregulated capitalism, globalization and the poison of empire, he enters his 81st year warning us that we have little time left to save our anemic democracy.

“It is very similar to late Weimar Germany,” Chomsky told me when I called him at his office in Cambridge, Mass. “The parallels are striking. There was also tremendous disillusionment with the parliamentary system. The most striking fact about Weimar was not that the Nazis managed to destroy the Social Democrats and the Communists but that the traditional parties, the Conservative and Liberal parties, were hated and disappeared. It left a vacuum which the Nazis very cleverly and intelligently managed to take over.”

"The United States is extremely lucky that no honest, charismatic figure has arisen," Chomsky went on. "Every charismatic figure is such an obvious crook that he destroys himself, like McCarthy or Nixon or the evangelist preachers. If somebody comes along who is charismatic and honest this country is in real trouble because of the frustration, disillusionment, the justified anger and the absence of any coherent response.

"What are people supposed to think if someone says ‘I have got an answer, we have an enemy’? There it was the Jews. Here it will be the illegal immigrants and the blacks. We will be told that white males are a persecuted minority. We will be told we have to defend ourselves and the honor of the nation. Military force will be exalted. People will be beaten up. This could become an overwhelming force. And if it happens it will be more dangerous than Germany. The United States is the world power. Germany was powerful but had more powerful antagonists. I don’t think all this is very far away. If the polls are accurate it is not the Republicans but the right-wing Republicans, the crazed Republicans, who will sweep the next election."

"I have never seen anything like this in my lifetime," Chomsky added. "I am old enough to remember the 1930s. My whole family was unemployed. There were far more desperate conditions than today. But it was hopeful. People had hope. The CIO was organizing. No one wants to say it anymore but the Communist Party was the spearhead for labor and civil rights organizing. Even things like giving my unemployed seamstress aunt a week in the country. It was a life. There is nothing like that now. The mood of the country is frightening. The level of anger, frustration and hatred of institutions is not organized in a constructive way. It is going off into self-destructive fantasies."

"I listen to talk radio," Chomsky said. "I don't want to hear Rush Limbaugh. I want to hear the people calling in. They are like [suicide pilot] Joe Stack. 'What is happening to me? I have done all the right things. I am a God-fearing Christian. I work hard for my family. I have a gun. I believe in the values of the country and my life is collapsing.'"

You can read the rest of this article here

Thursday, April 22, 2010

try to learn about racism from PoC who haven't volunteered to educate them, while ignoring the vast amount of literature PoC have voluntarily written on the subject

This is a guest post by Belinda, who writes of herself, "I'm a white, early-20s person from Australia, working, studying, and moving between Sydney, Melbourne and London. I lurk around swpd without saying too much, but I'd like to be able to say more."

I nominate my own behaviour here. Repeatedly on this blog, and all too often in real life, PoC are requested to, or feel compelled to, school ignorant WP on topics of racism and privilege. Just how obnoxious and exhausting that kind of work can be has been discussed a lot on this blog, and on others.

It seems to me the irony and insult of that dynamic is that so many PoC, now and throughout history, have already written and published extensively on the topic. These writers have effectively volunteered to educate white people, or to share their experiences of racism, or to further the ideas, language, and dialogue needed to combat racial privilege and disadvantage. These authors are academics, activists, historians, journalists, artists, etc, etc. There is a vast body of work out there. (macon has covered a related topic here -- about PoC who understand and write on whiteness, but don't get much credit for it).

How many white people here have bothered to read any books written about racism and privilege by non-white authors? Or even by white authors?

I know I haven't read many at all. While I think swpd and other blogs about race are invaluable for learning, as they allow communication between people who otherwise would never interact, I feel they are best used in addition to other resources (including real-life communication and conversation). I can only speak for myself, but I feel much more confident when speaking up or acting about something when I feel I have a strong understanding of it.

I'd love to know if anyone can suggest authors or books they have read that are relevant to topics discussed on this blog. While I am building up a long, long reading list of my own that I'm slowly getting through (before anyone says it, yes, I know how to use Google -- and my local library ), I guess I'm asking for anything that anyone has read that has had a profound or changing effect on them, or that any PoC have felt a strong identification with. Or that are just illuminating or educating. Anything from university subject readers to poetry.

I know a lot of people in general like to read books that family, friends, or others recommend to them, not out of laziness I think, but out of a sense of sharing. I like reading things that I know have touched others.

I'd love to hear any suggestions, especially as this is an international collective of people (I'm from Australia). Perhaps it could end up being a good newbie resource too?

Monday, April 19, 2010

wonder what swpd is for

I received the following email today -- my response follows. Since I gathered (justifiably or not) that my response would be traveling into a rather closed mind, I kept it brief.

Do you have anything useful to add to my response? What do you think is this blog's purpose? And what do you yourself use swpd for?

Also, would you find this blog any more useful if it were somehow different?

Finally, if this blog included a Statement of Purpose of some sort, what do you think it should say or include?

Hi Macon,

What is the point of your blog? To give POC a place to vent?
It seems to me, after reading lots and lots of post and links, that WP are not really "needed" there. For lack of a better word.
Just thought I'd ask the host.

[name redacted]

Hi Name Redacted,

The blog's purpose is to delineate and understand how de facto white supremacy works, especially as manifested in the common feelings, thoughts, and behaviors of white people. Both white and non-white people have found that useful, though of course, many haven't.

No, it's not meant to give POC a place to "vent," and to describe the efforts of those who contribute comments and guest posts that way is dismissive, condescending, and frankly, racist.

White people are more than welcome to contribute, if they do so in ways that are not dismissive, off topic, condescending, or racist -- and many do just that,


Saturday, April 17, 2010

assume that black graduates must have attended an hbcu, instead of an hwcu

This is a guest post for swpd by A. Smith, who writes of herself, "I write a blog that is hard to explain except to say I write what's on my mind. In the real world, I'm a recent college graduate who's had enough of DC and its politics and is ready to go back to school, for a different, albeit familiar, kind of politics. I'm also a black woman with 23 years of experience in this race thing..."

I attended undergrad in Nashville, Tennessee. I wouldn't normally disclose that, but Nashville is often called the Athens of the South because of all the colleges and universities there. Nashville has 20 of them, ranging from an auto diesel college to one of the premiere private universities in the nation. Therefore, it would reason that if I tell you I went to school in Nashville, you would ask me which one -- there are so many possibilities, the odds of you guessing correctly are clearly not in your favor.

My current job requires that I frequently meet with people, mostly white, from the great state of Tennessee. They're often a little surprised (I can see it in their faces) when they meet me. Between my race-neutral name, race-neutral pattern of speaking (of course, we know that while I say "race-neutral," both my name and the way I often speak are characterized as "white"), people often show up expecting to see someone of a far lighter hue than me. I also lack a noticeable southern accent, though I was born and raised there, so people will often question me about where I'm from. I always say, "I was born and raised in Chattanooga and went to school in Nashville."

A handful of people will nod and move on, but the vast majority of them follow that question up with, "where did you go to school?" and far too many of those people continue by answering for me, "TSU?"

Tennessee State University is a Historically Black University and is well known-throughout the state. Unfortunately, part of the reason it's well-known is because the local media in Nashville has gone out of its way (especially recently) to villianize and stereotype TSU as a dangerous place. I have to be honest and say that while first attending Vanderbilt, I too fell prey to believing the unfortunate stereotypes of violence, danger and subpar academics that plagues TSU. It wasn't until my school held a roundtable event and invited TSU among other schools to participate that I actually realized how much of a stereotype it was and how I'd allowed the media to color my view.

Not only do these white (and they are always white; the black people I come in contact with never answer the question for me, though I don't doubt they also make assumptions) people assume they already know where I must have gone to school, but they choose the most stereotyped university of all of them.

I've actually never had someone guess my school and guess it correctly. I went on a twitter rant once and said, "believe it or not, Vandy does accept black people..."

This was something I began encountering long before I was out of undergrad. My friends and I would constantly relay stories of being questioned about where we attended school while wearing clothing items with our school's name on it, and having people respond in a shocked manner when we would tell them we attended Vanderbilt University.

Two recent incidents have me thinking about both why this happens and exactly how it makes me feel. The first happened recently when, in a room full of people from across the state of Tennessee, a man asked me where I attended school. He paused for a second, only long enough for me to open my mouth to take in air, and then he said, "TSU or Fisk."

I laughed. Then I looked around the room and noted that the 4 other black people there were either smirking or laughing, and that the other white people had no expression at all. That is, until I answered his question. The smirk disappeared and his face reddened. Some of the other white people also laughed nervously.

It's usually enough to just say the name of my school; I typically don't have to follow up with too much of "you know, that's really presumptive and borderline racist to assume I must have gone to an HBCU." The "oh" and subsequent look of stupidity and sheepish grin suggest they get it, on some level at least. However, this man pissed me off. He gave me 2 choices, out of 20 options, and he only chose the 2 HBCUs in the city. So I added, "you know, Nashville has a lot of schools beside TSU and Fisk."

The second incident happened when I had the "pleasure" of meeting with a dean from a school that's in a city right outside of Nashville. He found out early on where I went to school and spent the rest of our meeting comparing his school with mine. Either pointing out where they excelled ("we graduate more students" -- of course they do, they're larger) or pointing out where my alma mater excelled, but also distinguishing why we have an advantage ("of course we'll never do the research Vandy does. We don't have the money").

I also struggled to read him. Reading the people I meet with is integral to things going smoothly. Knowing how much to tell them without telling them too much is important, and reading them correctly helps put them at ease and is necessary to ensure that I do my job well. Typically, I excel at it. I'm very even and friendly with skeptical people; I usually succeed in winning them over with my humor and excellent grasp of the issues that they come to meet with me about. This man, however, maintained either a disturbed or shocked look on his face. I don't think he ever got over the fact that I was black and a graduate of such an academically rigorous school. This was particularly disturbing because he's a dean of the largest university in the state and surely has come across a smart POC or two in his life. At the end of our meeting he began asking me questions like when I graduated, what my major was, and then the kicker: "How long did it take you to get your degree?"

I've told this story to black and white friends. My black friends always gasp at the question while my white friends wait for the punch line, or the part where they're supposed to be upset. For anyone missing it, he didn't need to ask me how long it took me to get my degree, and there was an interesting assertion there that it would've taken me longer than 4 years to get it. Why else do you ask someone how long it took them to get their degree?

Before anyone chimes in that it took them 5-6+ years to get their degree, let me point out that my alma mater BOASTS its ability to graduate students in 4 years. Anyone who knows anything about it (as a dean of another local school would) knows that Vanderbilt goes out of its way to make sure students have the access to what they need to get a degree in 4 years. Trust me, if it takes you longer than 4 years, you either took time off, switched majors too many times, or made some other major snafu (like failing a class). In any case, why else do you ask someone how long it took them to get their degree? I mean have you ever asked someone that before? Does it really add to your knowledge of that person? Outside of the type of advice-seeking conversations that individuals headed to college often have with college graduates, I don't see a place for the question.

By the way, my answer to his question did little to assuage his concern -- whatever the concern was. In fact, I think it made it worse.

And really, that's the issue behind all of this. Why is it shocking for someone to find out that a POC attends a school like Vanderbilt?

I'll have to be honest, this one has been tough for me to analyze and assess. It could be because I give some people too much credit and struggle to understand why someone wouldn't think I could've gone to Vanderbilt simply because of my race. What's worse is that these people walk into my office and can clearly see that I've accomplished a lot and are still surprised at my academic background.

We've had discussions in the past at swpd about HBCUs and schools that are commonly referred to as PWIs (Predominantly White Institutions). In this post, macon said,

Personally, I prefer to call higher ed PWI's "historically white colleges and universities." It helps to foreground their racially exclusionary pasts, and the de facto white supremacy that still pervades them. It's not a perfect term, though, as it could imply (unlike "PWI") that their pervasiveness [sic] whiteness is in the past.

In a later comment, I agreed with macon, and as I ponder his point now, wonder whether or not it's that same thing -- that pervasion of racial exclusivity and de facto white supremacy -- that causes the white people I come into contact with on my job to always assume that I went to an HBCU. In other words, as usual, good = white and bad = black. The shock isn't that I went to a white school, the shock is that I went to a "good" school, in their minds. But if we explore what that means, we realize that they're shocked that I went to a white school AND that I went to a good school.

So again, I ask: Why is it shocking for someone to find out that a POC attends a school like Vanderbilt? Have you ever asked (or been asked) someone how long it took them to finish their degree? And, a final question: What is it about the university setting that still encourages the white = good, black = bad assumption?

Author's note: I've asked macon, for the purposes of this post, not to prioritize responding to problematic comments, but rather to prioritize keeping absolutely ridiculous, derailing or otherwise offensive comments out. This will mean that some such comments will go through without a macon response. I hope this encourages more WP who comment frequently and say they're in this anti-racism fight to step up and speak out on what they see as problematic in other commenter's posts, rather than waiting on a POC commenter or macon to do it.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

go through stages of anti-racism awareness

This is a guest post by Lady Instructor, who blogs at Seeing Race. She writes of herself, "I am a teacher who works primarily with Associate's Degree students. I teach 'Multiculturalism' and my blog is designed to be a venue to explore the issues I have encountered with teaching race in greater detail."

How I Got Here

As part of a meditation on being white, white guilt, white pride (or the absence thereof), and the practice of being an ally, I decided to write a little about the path by which I arrived at this point in my education and anti-racism. I intend to write more about the general experience of being white and white guilt at a later date, but for now I'd like to indulge in some navel gazing.

I was inspired by this post by the totally awesome and hilarious feminist blogger Sady Doyle of Tiger Beatdown, particularly this part:

A particularly irritating brand of privileged semi-feminism...[comprises] a certain variety of white, ... fairly well-to-do heterosexual cisgendered woman, a woman with a comfortable white-collar job that is so very comfortable and so very white-collar that she is free to spend her spare time yearning for, and semi-believing that she could attain, something with more “meaning.” This woman doesn’t do ... posts about sex workers’ rights, but she does do complaining about “raunch culture”; she doesn’t do anti-racism, disability activism, or trans ally work to any huge extent, but she does do “body image” (and oh, does she ever do body image, without taking much note of the fact that as a white, abled, cis person she conforms to the “beauty standard,” and benefits from conforming to it, in more ways than she will ever let on).

And yes, I butchered it. Go read the original. It's about Liz Lemon. Anyway, Doyle's point is that this type of feminist is inadequate because she doesn't 1) admit her own (vast) privilege and 2) include POC (people of color) in her feminism. She focuses on what oppresses her (body image) without acknowledging where she is the oppressor (white-centric standards of beauty, etc).

Doyle also explains how she has used the experience of her own oppression as a woman as a gateway to step into a larger community where she can explore and educate herself about other areas of oppression that she does not have experience in.

This is almost exactly where I find myself coming from. I clearly remember at some point in college realizing that we do not live in anything approaching a "Post-Race" society, and that to claim so was incredibly ignorant. I remember having thoughts like, "Wait, we're still screwing over the Indians?" I remember realizing that just as every woman has a few stories about sexism that has happened to her, so too does every POC have a few stories of racism that has happened to them. This floored me.

POC, I can hear your knowing, bitter laughter from here.

In the same way that we now claim to not see race, the dominant culture pushes the idea that there is no longer any such thing as racism -- or that the racism that exists is aberrant and extreme (like a KKK member). It can be a difficult journey for a sheltered little white girl to come to grips with the idea of institutional racism, nevertheless the idea that she benefits from this system.

I reacted to this news the way that many of my students do - I- was defensive. B-b-but, I've never done anything to capitalize on my privilege, right? I didn't create this system, it wasn't my fault, I am not a bad person and I never asked for this...

Let's take a second to tally my identities into two columns -- area of privilege vs. area of oppression.

  • White
  • In a heterosexual relationship
  • Conventionally attractive (or at any rate, not entirely hideous)
  • Cis-gendered
  • Average body size
  • Able-bodied
  • Middle class
And I've probably missed a few.

  • Female
Sexism is nothing to sneeze at, but clearly the balance is weighted in my favor.

Yet, despite this fact, when I first began to explore issues of privilege, I wasn't ready to explore the ways in which I benefited in this system. I was more comfortable getting angry and exploring a system in which I did not benefit. And I think that's ok. Because I had had the experience of sexism, I could relate to at first low-level feminist complaint (a girl in a short skirt is not asking to be raped) and I could gradually work into more complex ideas (our culture supports and makes light of rape and sexual assault in numerous common ways).

But still I shied away from or skimmed thoughts on how sexism interacts with other "isms", particularly racism. I had begun to read activist blogs and although I occasionally read something in Racialicious or Stuff White People Do, these ideas still confronted and scared me.

For the first time I was confronted with an environment that was not for me. I had sort of encountered this before with traditionally male-dominated environments, but our culture rewards women who can be "one of the guys" (while remaining feminine, of course), and I had always been fairly fearless at walking that line. I certainly wasn't afraid of male-oriented environments (naively perhaps), and was powered by a feminist "anything you can do I can do better" attitude.

In environments like Stuff White People Do, I realized that my participation wasn't required and wasn't welcome (at least, wasn't welcome in my current deluded mindset that had no appreciation for race theory or an understanding of racial inequality in our society). I was used to putting in my two cents, but here I felt -- silenced, I guess. It was my first clue at how many POC feel all the time. If I wasn't too self-absorbed to realize that, anyway.

At first I couldn't handle that and I fell back on many of the same arguments that my students make with me now. These people are over-reacting, I would think. It can't all be about race -- can it?

Then I crossed my own personal Rubicon. I began paying more attention to what I was watching on TV -- specifically, the commercials. Who was in them? What races were represented and how? Who had speaking lines? Who was in the front, and who was in the back? Who was stereotyped? What actions were individuals performing, what attitudes did they represent, what were they wearing? This was revolutionary.

Holy crap! White people everywhere! POC confined to the margins, the token "friend" or "Magic Negro", representing exoticism and stereotypical conceptions of tribalism. How had I never noticed this before?

With this wedge opening the door, I was able to return to the blogs and writings that challenged me before, and realized that I didn't need to comment here, all I had to do was listen and learn. I didn't need to express my ignorant opinions, but rather to just shut up and let others school me on a wide variety of subjects.

After months of listening and delving deeper into race theory, I gingerly submitted my first comment, and I still comment very rarely. That environment -- and ones where activists discuss other "isms" -- is still a place where it is best for me to shut up and pay attention.

And then I was offered the opportunity to teach a class on Multiculturalism, realizing every day with my students' questions how much I still need to learn. But now that the gate is open, I'm no longer afraid of confronting my own privilege.

And that's how I got here.

Does this mesh with your personal experiences or those you have seen friends taking? Or, perhaps, your understanding of your own privilege, wherever it might spring from? Why is it so difficult for us to accept this idea? And can we do anything to help others discover their privilege, or is this something that we must let them find for themselves -- while accepting that they may never make that discovery?

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

argue that we can't judge people from the past by today's standards

This is a guest post by plastiknoise, who writes by way of introduction,

I am a freshman in college, and although I'm originally from Pakistan, I have lived in the United States for more than 16 years, and in Texas for more than 10. I have also mostly lived around minorities for my entire life. My academic and social justice interests center around anti-colonialism, anti-imperialism, and neo-Marxist theory, as well as resistance to globalization, and domestic efforts to promote peace, tolerance, awareness of privilege, and combating racism. I have a blog, where I post about left-leaning critical theories and high fashion. I'm a lot more fun than this description sounds.

With this post, I'd like to ask swpd readers for tips on dealing with situations such as this, and for advice on how we can foster dialogue about race relations within communities that may be resistant or apathetic to it (for example, college students in a Southern university).

The other day, one of my teachers messaged everyone and linked an editorial on the Virginia governor’s effort to promote a holiday for the Confederacy, or whatever it is that he wants to do. Roland S. Martin, an African American journalist, was defending himself after a lot of backlash for an initial piece that he wrote, in which he equated people who celebrate the legacy of the Confederacy with people who celebrate Nazis.

In this new piece, Martin argues that we cannot turn a blind eye to the action of the Confederates -- who so many are defending as just "doing what they thought was right, and defending their homeland, which is noble. Slavery was not the point of the Civil War, it was not the only issue at hand" -- and yet also maintain that Islamic extremists are terrorists. He says that both parties justify their opinion the same way, and use violence to extend political and moral goals.

Read the article here
, if you’d like.

In class, we discussed whether or not we thought Martin was accurate. As soon as I saw this message, I really dreaded this topic. I attend university in Texas, but in a minority-majority city and college. That specific class is about half minorities and half whites. I was dreading this topic because I knew that all the pocs would be sitting there thinking, "ok, this is kinda wrong. I have XYZ personal experience with racism, and some of it is due to slavery and how we treat foreigners in this country."

But I also knew that few would say anything, and that the white folk in the room would talk about how the Confederates were also defending their state and their interpretation of how a government should work, that they were fighting for their land, and that that is honorable.

I further sensed that I would say something using my background in critical race discourse, and it would go over everyone’s heads. And that of course, I’d get frustrated that people can gloss over the whole, owning HUMAN BEINGS thing, and focus on, "oh they were just doing what they thought was right."

And that’s exactly what happened.

Many of the white folks emphasized cultural relativism, maintaining that although slavery was a horrible thing, the Southerners didn’t know any better, and that we cannot judge them. They were just trying to protect their economy -- look at how the Southern states plummeted when slaves were taken away. They were also defending themselves against invaders, against pillagers, and defending their land. Wouldn’t you do that?

There was a student, who was black, sitting there and waiting to speak. It seemed like the discussion was making him uncomfortable. When he spoke up, he addressed how you could never justify slavery and that states’ rights were well and good, but how come everyone keeps forgetting these Southern folks had slaves?

One white kid said, well racism doesn’t really exist anymore. Neither does slavery. So it’s ok if we honor Confederates. They can’t do any more harm. Another guy said, oh well, you know General Lee was anti-slavery, but he did what he did because that’s what his people wanted.

The professor herself (a real nice gal, and white), started out the discussion on what I thought was a loaded statement. She talked about how anthropologists would study native populations or hunter-gatherer societies, and how if a child was born disabled they would kill it, and how the WHITE EUROPEAN anthropologists thought this was really terrible. She talked about the Nazis, and how some people thought Hitler was doing what was good for Germany. How far, she asked, should we take cultural relativism?

This was a horrible place to start the discussion, I thought. First of all, in regards to the hunter-gatherer societies, she did not even explain why they would kill people who were old, disabled, or unproductive. Many of these communities are acutely aware of the carrying capacity of their land. If every member cannot contribute, or if some member must be taken care of and will consume resources and not output anything, then the entire community is at risk. This is logical, for those societies, because they understand how fragile and scarce resources are for them.

Of course this doesn’t mean Americans should do this, or anyone else, but she didn’t even try to explain these claims. Even though she’s lovely, she once described a process where certain urban populations leave and certain others move in -- she was talking about gentrification. When I asked her, "Is gentrification what you mean?" she answered that gentrification isn’t all bad. Maybe those people don’t want to live there anymore. That’s why they move, not because rich whites come in and mess with the property values because they think poor pocs are "urban blights."

When I spoke up a few times and said, well I think you guys are forgetting that POCs are still really oppressed and face systemic discrimination all the time, and celebrating the folks responsible for promoting this discrimination will not help matters at all -- no one spoke to that. The white folks especially would jump around the issue of race. They did not acknowledge that the South is still facing de facto segregation, or that injustice still exists. They did not acknowledge that ending slavery was a major outcome of the Civil War.

I told them, if it was only about their economy, if they didn’t care about the slaves at all, then why did blacks have to deal with Jim Crow laws? Why are there still segregated proms in Mississippi? Why do people of color still face discrimination if the origins of this country had nothing to do with race?

I also mentioned, and this did indeed go over their heads, that the pattern of European and American conquest, the process of colonization, the idea of slavery, is not just, hey let’s force some people to do our work for us. These things are all about preserving a racial order and hierarchy. The South was operating on an economy that completely depended on Africans being exploited, not just anyone, but Africans specifically. This doesn’t change things, this doesn’t make the oppression any less real. Just because maybe you think white people in the South didn’t know any better doesn’t mean it didn’t hurt people.

Someone mentioned, we cannot judge people from history based on our values. And I said, sure. Morality evolves as humans evolve. But you know what? The subject at hand is, do we celebrate these folks NOW, in states that have large and marginalized populations of POCs? How are they going to feel? What are they going to think? Can I start celebrating Bin Laden because he’s a great event planner, and just say, "oh, those three thousand people that died, that’s pretty bad, but that’s not all that happened!"

But no one spoke to this, or even mentioned that yeah, I guess it is true that whenever Europeans take over, they place themselves at the top, that oh yeah, there are POCs in these areas -- wonder how they feel?

The last thing the professor did was point to a black girl who had not spoken, and was sitting there looking kind of depressed. “What do you think?”

The girl looked a little shocked that the professor had called on her. I don’t know if she was thinking about how the professor was probably only doing this because she's black, and she wants all these white people to know how a real live black person feels.

The girl just muttered the same thing, "no I don’t think its right. We can’t celebrate them…"

While I disagreed that the Confederates should be considered ‘terrorists’ as defined in the status quo, I said there's absolutely no way should they be celebrated, even if they were stupid ignorant folk who don’t know better. This suggested celebration is offensive to the millions of people who worked and still work against white supremacy and the mess that white imperialism has left behind, and to the millions who died and suffered because their exploitation was justified on some political level by whites.

To say that is not to make a personal judgment on the people who were caught up in things they couldn’t control, which is what many white people dwelled on. Instead, it's a judgment against the claims that we should promote things that normalize racism, that we should promote the idea that oppression is acceptable on some level, and that we should promote the idea that colonial powers do not conquer others and establish racial hierarchies.

I don’t think any of the white people understood this. When whites fail to understand how emotional and real oppression is, they cannot blame POCs for always looking at them suspiciously, or for being "radical" in thinking that major change needs to take place, and that whites need to be knocked off their pedestal.

If they don’t understand that we suffer, even if the causes are unintentional at times, if they don’t realize the implications and effects of their legacy on non-whites, then how are we supposed to not feel resentful?

Thursday, April 8, 2010

push non-white people to assimilate

Gloria, an swpd reader sent the following email:

I’m a sophomore at a very white university. I’m a Mexican American female, and I speak with a bit of an “accent.” I’m also a little dark, so people don’t generally see me as white.

I’m thinking of transferring to another, more diverse university, because I’m just not comfortable here. A big reason is that although I’m clearly Mexican American, and that means certain definite things to me, including who and what I am, I often feel a friendly pressure to assimilate. Other students, especially, push me to do “normal” things sometimes that just don’t fit my background or who I am, even sometimes physically.

Last week I was in my room, for example, and a white student who knows me through other white students popped in. She had something in her hand, and she held it up while she was smiling.

“I think this would fit you!” she said. I saw that it was a dress.

Now, I just don’t wear dresses. That goes back to my conservative background; my parents, for instance, never would have let me wear dresses. I knew enough not to even ask, but anyway, I never wanted to.

So what could I say to this friendly smiling person? Should I say that I don’t wear dresses? Should I explain why I’m not comfortable in them? And on top of that, was she implying, as other girls here have, that I should wear dresses, because that’s “normal,” or better, than what I wear?

“Um, thank you,” I said. “Where. . . where did it come from?”

Was this a used dress that she was like, handing down to me? If so, what would THAT really mean?

“Oh, my mom had it sent to me. It’s really pretty! It’s brand new, but it doesn’t quite fit me. Do you want to try it on?”

“Um, okay . . . “ And as she walked into my room, I said, “Wait, I mean, I’m sorry, but no. I’m okay, thanks. Thank you anyway, very much.”

She stopped and dropped her arm that was holding out the dress, and she dropped her smile too.

“Well, okay,” she said, turning around quickly to leave. “That’s okay. I just thought it would look nice on you.”

She sounded almost hurt, and then she was gone. I felt confused. And then I felt frustrated.

I notice that white women as students here often push me to join in their ways. Their “fun” or “pretty” or “attractive” ways. I have dark, wavy hair, and they've asked several times if I’ve ever considered straightening it. Other women make suggestions about my makeup that fit lighter features and hair then mine. It’s hard not to think of them as seeing these things as connected to their whiteness, but in ways they really don’t see about themselves, and about what they're doing to me in those moments.

The professors don’t seem all that sensitive to my ethnicity either. One knew that I’m not white and called me on it in class, by asking me to speak to how I felt about a topic (race and prisons) “as an Hispanic person.” As far as I knew, I was the only one in class. In that case, I didn’t feel like I was being pressured to try to be white—I suppose it was the opposite. But in either case, I didn’t feel right.

Most of the time, my ethnicity is not acknowledged in class, but then that doesn’t quite feel right either. It’s like, again, I’m expected to be white somehow—talk white (I’m aware of my “accent,” and always trying to curb it), act white-feminine (nice, smiley, polite, not loud, doesn’t interrupt—I think even my body language might change on campus), be “like a normal person,” which here means a white person.

So, I’m hoping to transfer to a more diverse campus near the city I came from.

But I wonder, do others feel these things, badly enough to want out like I do? Or am I overeacting?

I’d love to hear from any interested swpd readers.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

sit back and watch while non-white people get abused

This is a guest post for swpd by DivineLioness, who writes, “I work with financially historically marginalized youth at a Seattle nonprofit, and had an extremely painful experience last Sunday upon visiting my hometown of Bellingham, WA. Below is the letter I wrote to help me move forward, and process what had happened to me. I apologize for its length and only want some understanding and clarity from it being posted here.

“What makes someone watch as another is hurt and do nothing? What, besides concern for one’s physical safety, makes a person afraid to speak out? Under what circumstances do we all allow malicious and unkind, even cruel things to be said out loud about another, and why?”

Bellingham, you have broken my heart. As an alumni of both Fairhaven Middle School and Sehome High School (never forgot you Ms. Carey and Mr. Kerr!), you have literally raised me to be the woman I have become. I did my (seemingly mandatory) teen stint at Macy's in Bellis Fair, and spent my idyllic summers at Whatcom Falls. I have spoken at your MLK celebrations at Whatcom Community College, received commendations from you for my non-profit work. I have competed to be Miss Whatcom County, representing you. When I went to build houses in New Orleans with Americorps, and got picked out of thousands to be interviewed by Anderson Cooper, I was proud to have him announce that I hailed from beautiful Bellingham, the sleepily progressive college town with the great gourmet ice cream. Now, as your daughter, Bellingham, it pains me: I don't know if I'll ever go back to loving you in the same way again.

When I came up this past weekend, I was looking forward to spending time with my good friend, a professors’ daughter I have known since the seventh grade. She’s a senior now at Western, and since I moved to Seattle, we haven't had a lot of time together. We laughed, reminisced, and drove past my old house. I was so happy to walk past some of the old haunts with her, catching up with her parents at their house in Fairhaven that I haven’t visited since high school.

As she dropped me off at the Greyhound station, I was filled with the gratitude that only a long term friendship provides. I chatted with a few of those who waited with me, including a grandmother from Lynden who was picking up a friend from Vancouver. I also talked a bit to a couple headed to Seattle as well, the wife wearing a gorgeous pink sari, and the husband with amicable smiles and tightly wound turban. It was a quiet Sunday afternoon, I had arrived early, but the bus, as it often is, was late. The ticket teller shrugged as we asked after it from time to time, the braids in his beard moving with his frown. Sometimes the border delayed the bus. He couldn’t be sure of the time that it would arrive.

As we waited and made polite chit chat, a diminutive, shabby man came in from outside. I judged him to be homeless, and in his late forties, but to this day I am not sure. I do know, however, that he seemed to get a kick out of making the other Greyhound passengers uncomfortable. He whistled and sang loudly, imitated the ringtones of other’s cell phones, and insistently asked increasingly impertinent questions to the people situated around him.

“Where are you from?” He asked repeatedly to the woman in her sari, who ignored him. “You aren’t American.” When he elicited no response, he turned to her husband. “Where are you going, anyway?” The husband decided to humor him. “Seattle.” He then asked each one of us where we were going, and we all (in my case, reluctantly) answered. He then went back to the married woman in pink. “You’re an Arab, aren’t you?” When she wouldn’t answer him he went on and on, eventually moving past where the couple was from and onto describing his ideal woman, who he stated “Would be bigger, so I can slap her around a bit.”

I had been turned around in my seat, but couldn’t ignore the man any longer.

“Excuse me sir, your comments are making me feel uncomfortable. Are you able to stop your conversation, move it, or do I have to leave?” I used my politest, but firmest tone.

“You’re hair is HUGE.” I was wearing my hair out naturally that day, in a medium-sized afro.

“Thank you.” I was undeterred. “Sir, your comments are making me feel uncomfortable. Are you able to stop your conversation, move it, or do I have to leave?”

“Well, I guess you need to leave, ‘cause I’m not stopping anything. Sorry,” the man smirked.

I shrugged, packed up my bag, and went outside to wait out the bus to Seattle, which, by now, was over thirty minutes late.

After awhile, the older grandmother from Lynden ambled out to wait with me.

“I think that man is crazy,” she said by way of opening. I explained that I didn’t believe so; the man could and did engage in conversation, responded to questions posed to him, and seemed to be aware of the effect of his words on other people. “Maybe a bit drunk,” I giggled with her.

We went on, talking about our past, and why we were waiting at Greyhound that day. The woman went on to tell me about working as a nurse in a mental hospital in the 60’s, and mentioned that her Christianity was the bedrock of her compassion. We had something in common; now I work with youth who sometimes suffer from a variety of behavioral "problems."

Eventually the diminutive and talkative man reappeared, coming outside for what I assumed was some sort of attention. We ignored him and chattered on. Eventually, the sky darkened with rain and we walked past the man to go inside and ask about the bus, which still hadn’t arrived.

The man followed us in, along with a group of around six other people. He resumed his humming and imitating of cell phone rings, and I continued to ignore him. At one point I asked him out loud to please be quiet.

Eventually, in front of the now packed waiting room, as I waited at the ticket counter, he began calling out to individuals.

“I guess Seattle should have a welcome sign: All niggers and Arabs allowed!” He smilingly announced to the room.

No response. I turned my back on him and faced the ticket counter.

“Hey, do you want to hear a nigger joke? It’s really funny!” He chuckled to himself as he took a seat in the corner, facing us all.

No response.

At this, I murmured to the ticket teller. “I have been called nigger once today, and if I am called it again, I want that man removed.” The ticket seller chewed his lip and pulled on his beard, braided in three. I couldn’t help but have the fleeting thought and smiled to myself. “That is so Bellingham…”

By this time the small man in the corner was warmed up.

“What is the difference between a nigger and a parrot?” He smiled warmly at the sitting group. “Do you want to know?”

He proceeded to tell multiple jokes with nigger punch lines, rail on the state of niggers in the oval office, all the while stopping to make sure that everyone could hear him. He repeatedly called out individuals in the group, always in a friendly and engaging manner. “Those crazy niggers, right?” “You know, don’t you….” “Three Jews and a nigger went into a market…” He laughed and nodded at the people around him as I turned to the Greyhound ticket seller once more.

“I have been called nigger again. I am a paying customer, and would like to think that I deserve to be have a humane experience here.”

As the ticket seller steeled himself and looked around for protocols on calling the police, I looked around at the group of people who had previously been waiting with me, chatting with me, exchanging pleasantries. I realized that not one of them was going to say, “No, I don’t know about ‘crazy niggers’.” Or “No, I don’t want to hear your joke.” I realized that I was completely alone, that no one was going to stand up for me, a girl less than half this man’s age, who had paid for a ticket and was now tearing up at the ticket seller’s desk.

I began to openly cry as I realized that my belief was wrong that, in the absence of fear for one’s own physical safety, all people would not tolerate injustice. I, as a brown girl, was not worth even one word of dissent from people that had nothing to lose. By saying nothing, these people were implying consent. I had no allies, and apparently no right to be in a public space free of racial epithets.

The ticket seller, seeing my tears, came out of his booth.

“I’m kicking you out.” His voice rang loud in the pregnant guilty silence. “I want to you to apologize to this lady and then leave.”

“Why?” The man in the corner looked bewildered and amused.

“Because you’re using the N word, and making her uncomfortable, and now she’s crying.” Not, ‘you’re using the N-word and that is NOT appropriate,’ or ‘You’re using the N-word and making US uncomfortable.” The implication (which I’m sure was unconscious) was, “This black person doesn’t like you talking about niggers, so we’re kicking you out.”

I felt even more alone in that moment, as, still, NOT ONE PERSON spoke up and said “I feel uncomfortable.” It also made me wonder that, had I not said anything at all, would anyone request the man’s removal from the bus station?

The man shook his head in seeming disbelief, then walked closer to me, as he had no idea of my tears, because my back was turned away.

“I didn’t mean to make you cry. Sorry.” His voice was loud and seemed saccharine. I wiped the wetness away and managed a small, defiant, “I don’t want your apology.”

I didn’t. Why would I want a bigot to pretend to feel sorry for something he clearly was not sorry for? What would be the point? I wasn’t crying about anything the man had said, I was crying that I was fast losing the belief in the general decency of human beings. That, in the place I had long considered home (which prided itself on its progressive politics) old and young, parents, couples, and single people, would sit in the face of blatant racism with nothing to lose, and do nothing.

At my low, sad statement, the man lost his good-natured smile.

“Well, then I guess a nigger is always a fucking nigger then!” He laughed, spun on his heel and left.

I looked over and caught the guilty eye of a man seated to my left, who had been at a vantage point to see my tears. As he opened his mouth to speak to me, I assumed he was going to utter an apology.

“Don’t be upset, miss….Uh, we, I mean, I was….uh, bothered….as, don’t cry…”

Even now, I tremble as I recall. Don’t be upset that we allowed someone to single you out and ridicule you based on your race, miss. Don’t be upset that none of us said a single thing to stop it. Don’t be upset that you now can’t feel safe in your hometown. Don’t cry, because we feel guilty when you cry. Don’t cry that someone used that word systematically to elicit a reaction from you, a word with deep ties to murder, fear, slavery, hopelessness. Don’t cry because you just wanted to wait for your bus, dared voice that you were uncomfortable with offensive remarks, and someone wanted to punish you the worst way they knew how without hitting you.

No one, at any time during or after apologized to me. No one said “Wow, that must have really hurt your feelings,” or “Are you ok, miss?” No one offered me a hug, or commented “Whoa, that guy is crazy/out of line.” No one said anything at all, except the poor Greyhound ticket man, who apologized profusely for not really knowing what to do. Even at that I was a tad bewildered. Isn’t it normal to kick out people harassing patrons at any establishment? Perhaps that man had never experienced someone harassing the customers before. I am more able to forgive him for at least acknowledging that something was NOT okay was happening to me. Even so, his phrasing in the moment was telling. Only I was bothered by racism. Only me.

Even now, I think to myself. What if that man had decided to hit me? Would anyone have said or done something then? What if he had singled out someone else and kept saying “Cunt,” or “faggot”? Because I know in that situation I would (and have) said something. But would anyone else? And doesn’t that mean that I then would be sticking up for people that couldn’t have seemingly cared less about me? What happened to the woman with all of her Christian compassion? What about me made me not worthy of that compassion, of even a hug, after what was obviously a traumatic event?

I rode on the bus for over two hours with three of the people who witnessed the entire episode at the bus station. At no time did anyone mention anything to me.

I have a hard time having faith in the basic goodness of the human race now. I work with youth at a nonprofit and shudder to think that the best I can hope for them is sending them out into a world that does not openly and violently harm them physically.

The only thing I know for sure is that I will never look at the world the same way again. I have never experienced this deep, cavernous heartache before in my life. I had no idea of the concept of a ‘broken heart’ until this experience happened to me.

I have now lost the naive belief that empathy triumphs over fear, that progress will silence intolerance, that I am not alone, that although my race might be different than someone else’s, people will assume me just as deserving to feel secure in the knowledge that I do not deserve to be harassed. I now understand that people who say they believe in justice and equality often only mean it when it is convenient to them, and those that stand up, speak out for justice, for equality are the outlier, not the average. I now know that when push comes to shove, Bellingham is not a safe place for me, that although I am its daughter, it has no love for my face. I suppose I should thank the man with his plethora of race jokes. He was the catalyst for stripping me of my false idealism. I just don’t know if I can forgive him, or you, Bellingham, for it.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

mess with the identities of their adopted non-white children

This is a guest post by eponymous blogger Asian American Movement. It first appeared here.

"78% of Asian TRAs Consider Themselves White"

Last year, the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute issued an interesting report on transracial Asian adoptees (TRAs) in America. One finding that was most provocative addressed the racial identification of TRAs…

As this New York Times article notes, 78% of TRAs considered themselves to be White or wished they were White when they were children.

While shocking, this percentage is also somewhat understandable given that TRAs are deracinated from their countries of origin and are often raised in a predominantly White milieu.

To me, the experience of TRAs is in some ways a metaphor for the experience of many Asian Americans in general, regardless of whether or not they were adopted.

In particular, the sense of cultural dislocation and identity issues that are sometimes experienced by TRAs are also felt keenly by Asian Americans.

Moreover, not a few Asian Americans either tacitly or directly think of themselves as ”Honorary White” people, or they are perceived as such by society in general.

This Honorary White status in part is what the Asian American Model Minority stereotype is about: Asian Americans are a ”house negro” class between the White majority and minorities such as Blacks and Latinos.

In his seminal essay "Racist Love," Frank Chin talks about the lack of a distinctive Asian American identity and culture, and the consequent embrace of White values by many Asian Americans.

This self-destructive identification with Whiteness is expressed at many different levels, from the cultural to the political, and it's an important tendency within the Asian American community, which itself is highly fragmented and weak.

The fact that certain Asian Americans (cough, Michelle Malkin) wholeheartedly embrace this Honorary White identity of their own volition says a lot about them as individuals and about the sorry state of the Asian American community in general.

People like Michelle Malkin more openly and nakedly exemplify this racial identification in everything but name.

This identification with Whiteness is even expressed in one’s choice of romantic partners. As the Times article notes, one TRA named Kim Eun Mi Young said that when she was younger she “would date only white teenagers, even when Asian boys were around.”

Young explains that: “At no time did I consider myself anything other than white…. I had no sense of any identity as a Korean woman. Dating an Asian man would have forced me to accept who I was.”
This is reminiscent of Frank Chin’s comments about the deeper significance of the high outmarriage rates among Asian Americans.

Questioning the idea that “love is colorblind,” Asian American outmarriage rates, Chin suggested, are reflective of  “a people who failed to generate an identity and culture attractive and compulsive enough to make our people attractive to each other and survive as a people and grow as a culture” (Letter to Y’bird, 1977).

In other words, without a distinctive Asian American culture, there really is nothing that holds “Asian America” together as a people.

Indeed, what would really be interesting to find out is what percentage of non-adoptee Asian Americans either consider themselves White or wished they were White as children.

More about the findings of the Evan Donaldson report can be found on the TRA blog Harlow’s Monkey.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

claim that the new tax on tanning salons is racist

Here's a clip from a radio show hosted by someone I usually ignore, Glenn Beck. The speaker is a fill-in host, Doc Thompson. Listen (or read the transcript below) and see if you can catch any common white tendencies:


DOC THOMPSON: I now know the pain of racism, and I'm curious if you do too, if you are now feeling the pain of racism. For years I've suggested that racism was in decline and yeah, there are some, you know, incidents that still happen with regards to racism, but most of the claims, [as] I've said for years, well, they're not really real.

But I realize now that I was wrong. For I now too feel the pain of racism. Racism has been dropped at my front door and the front door of all lighter-skinned Americans. The health care bill the president just singed into law includes a 10 percent tax on all indoor tanning sessions starting July 1st, and I say, who uses tanning? Is it dark-skinned people? I don't think so. I would guess that most tanning sessions are from light-skinned Americans. Why would the President of the United States of America -- a man who says he understands racism, a man who has been confronted with racism -- why would he sign such a racist law? Why would he agree to do that? Well now I feel the pain of racism.

Is Thompson being satirical here? Whether he is or not, a problem with that approach in this context is that a lot of people -- millions, perhaps -- take Glenn Beck's show seriously. They take it, that is, literally.

On his own station's web site (WRVA), Thompson's bio includes this bit:

Laughing and making people laugh are important. His medium of choice is of course radio. He dabbles in many styles with sarcasm and satire always present. Although he is candid and forthright he loves good spirited practical jokes which prompted a former co-worker to say “If only Doc would use his powers for good instead of evil.”

Thompson apparently updates that page himself, and he wrote the following there about his comment on Beck's show (the ellipses are his, not mine):

The media world and internet was abuzz with my comments on Glenn Beck and it illustrates Liberal hypocrisy beautifully! -- There are two main reasons my commentary on the tanning tax was so effective at stirring up the Liberals...

First the way I positioned it... “I know the pain of racism!” Liberals like to segregate for political gain and have promoted the idea that minorities have an exclusive on being the victim of discrimination.

It was also affective [
sic] because...there is an element of truth to it. There is a double standard and I pointed it out with the very law they, at least partially, claimed was about leveling the racial playing field.

During all this they, of course, missed the bigger point. The satire on CLAIMS of racism...

So Thompson is claiming that his comment was satire, and that its object was "liberals" who, what was it? Oh yeah, liberals who "like to segregate for political gain and have promoted the idea that minorities have an exclusive on being the victim of discrimination."

I don't actually self-identify as a "liberal," but still, there's so much wrong there. For one thing, what "liberal" ever said that minorities are the only victims of discrimination? What liberal would disagree, for instance, that working class whites are victimized by classist discrimination?

But that's a bit off the topic of Thompson's comment, isn't it? He's making a point about racial discrimination against whites in general, and part of what he's saying is that although his cries of reverse discrimination in the "tanning tax" remarks were satiric, the "truth" is that whites really do suffer from racial discrimination.

Whether or not any of Glenn Beck's (no-doubt very white) listening audience understood Thompson's satire, he was fanning the flames of white racial resentment. Which is, of course, a longstanding common white tendency, at least among right-wing pundits and politicians. Aside from diverting attention from the real dangers of tanning salons, Thompson threw some red meat to misguided white people, the kind of white people who think that dark people are more of a problem for them than rich people.

H/T: Andy Kroll @ Mother Jones

Thursday, April 1, 2010

think that in terms of race, things are getting gradually better

In response to the science girl's recent post here and its many testimonial comments -- about the all-too common white tendency to see a potential criminal in every black person -- a commenter name Mr. Byte provided an example of another common white tendency:

It ain't right. It will change, because it has changed. Slower than molasses pouring in winter, but not so many years ago, "Driving while Black" would likely be punished with a severe beating followed with a "Resisting Arrest" charge a lot more often than I believe it happens today.

Things will change, you see. So just have some patience -- such white-talk usually implies -- and while you're at it, how about you stop complaining too?

I talk to white people about racism frequently, especially when they say or do something racist, and also when race is related to what we're talking about, whether the other white person realizes that or not (and usually they don't, which is why I bring it up).

I think I'm a pain in the ass this way for many of the white people I know. But they rarely say so; most of them are too polite. Most bear with me, and some actually listen, and even help with my efforts to delineate this or that example of racism or de facto white supremacy.

However, one tendency that I've been getting more frustrated with, and a tendency that I know a lot of white people almost reflexively feel or think in response to examples of racism in our times, is to embrace the belief that "things are getting better."

I've come to think of this as "white racial gradualism." It's a belief, even a feeling, that racism was really awful back in the day, when whites treated Indians badly and enslaved black people, and then there was like, you know, Jim Crow segregation, which was also bad, but it wasn't as bad as the stuff before. As for today -- the white racial gradualist is thinking while hearing about racism -- white racists do still exist, but they're dying out. This person might even admit that most or all of today's white people still have some racist tendencies.

But, none of that is as bad as it used to be, right? As Mr. Byte wrote -- way down in a comment thread that's full of examples of blatant, stressful, hurtful, and life-threatening racism -- "It will change, because it has changed."

As I said, I find expressions of this belief, that racism is gradually, inevitably declining, more and more frustrating lately. My awareness of this white racial gradualism is also frustrating because I know that even more white people think it than say it.

It seems to me that a common consequence of this belief is that when most well-meaning white people witness or hear about a new act of racism, or encounter new evidence of institutional racism, it doesn't stick with them. It's not a big deal in the grand scheme of things, because things are getting better, so why remember it? And so, the example doesn't get added to the many earlier examples that they've witnessed or heard that also didn't stick with them. The evidence doesn't accumulate into an understanding that racism is nowhere near going away, because in response to the latest example, something inside of us often says, "Well, that's sad, but hey, things are getting better. Eventually, that kind of racism won't happen much at all anymore. Just like racism in general."

So when I try to talk about racism with white people, one thing that's blocking their reception is this sense that it's not as important as I'm trying to say it is. Because, you see, things are just not as bad as they used to be, and they're certainly going to be better in the future.

This kind of thinking sort of short-circuits serious consideration of today's racism; it also lets white individuals who are willing to at least acknowledge racism off the hook in terms of actually doing anything about it.

And, of course, in many ways, things are not getting better; they're actually as bad or worse than they used to be. Fifty or sixty years ago, for instance, the overwhelming majority of prisoners in the U.S. were white; now the percentages are reversed. In many American cities, neighborhoods are more racially segregated than ever before. Rates of unemployment, wealth disparities, health care disparities, educational funding and the lack thereof, a myriad of microaggressions . . . When I'm talking to a white racial gradualist, I could go on and on like that, and come up with a wealth of evidence that in many ways, things are the same or worse than at this or that before.

But then, something inside that person is saying, "Yeah, in some ways it may be worse. But, overall, things are getting better."

Why do white people so often feel this way?

I'm not a racial statistician, so I can't say for sure that in terms of racism, things in general are not getting gradually better. But even if they are, they're still bad, and again, in some ways they are worse than before. Racism still causes a hell of lot of pain; it also still endows white people with countless forms of unearned access and privilege. Why not acknowledge that more fully, deal with it, fight against it?

"Because that's not my job," many white people seem to think. "And one reason it's not my job is that things are already getting better without me. Things don't need my help. So have patience, you complainers -- things will get better because they have before, and so they will again."

This sunny disposition about the supposedly imminent demise of racism is the result of not having to suffer the debilitating trauma that it causes for people of color. It's also the result of a long history of white subjugation and dehumanization of other people, which continues to make it difficult, and perhaps impossible, for white people to empathize with people of color.

Do you encounter this white gradualist belief? (And by the way, by labeling it white, I don't mean that people of color never believe it as well; I'm writing about stuff white people do.)

Even if white people don't express this blithe racial gradualism, do you still sometimes sense that they're thinking or feeling it? And that those gradualist thoughts are preventing them from taking racism all that seriously? All that, personally?
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