Tuesday, September 30, 2008

struggle with workplace diversity

White folks who work in predominantly white workplaces are rarely bothered to any great degree by a lack of non-white colleagues. Sometimes, though, they do become concerned enough to confront the lack of "diversity" in their workplace. This concern can lead to various efforts to "address" said lack of diversity, such as mildly altered hiring practices. Another common workplace effort is the "diversity seminar."

In my experience, these sessions focus mostly on teaching white folks how to better understand non-white coworkers, clients, and/or customers, and very little on whatever it is that's "white" about white folks--in fact, the word "white" rarely even gets mentioned. White workers commonly resent being told that they don't already know how to work alongside non-white workers, and they often roll their eyes at the mere mention of "diversity training."

Since white people as a group are still in power, and since most of them have been socialized into largely unconscious modes of racist thought and behavior, you might think that "diversity training" would include some direct, intensive untraining of common white tendencies. It seems, however, that in most diversity sessions, if whiteness ever does receive direct attention, white folks often get offended at how they're being portrayed, instead of educated about their own tendencies and habits.

Take the case of Dennis Supple, a heating and air-conditioning mechanic working for the city of Denver. During a diversity training session, Supple's hackles were raised by the portrayal of a white, blue-collar worker like himself, in a video entitled "Laughing Matters — Think About It."

As the following clip from the video illustrates, its producers' method for teaching workers that racist jokes are hurtful to others was to show a character named Billy cracking such jokes in the workplace.

The eight-minute anti-racism video is itself racist, Dennis Supple said, because all it does is "hammer the white guy." By portraying "Billy" as the sole racist joke-cracker, the video supposedly does the opposite of what it claims to be doing, because it perpetuates a racist stereotype, that of the white, blue-collar ignoramus. Supple also said that the city of Denver's diversity program as a whole is "racially motivated against white males."

Supple threatened to use the equity in his house to sue the city into halting its use of the video. This threat, and the publicity it generated, were apparently enough to prompt city officials into pulling the video. Whether Supple was really motivated by the perceived insult of a resemblance between himself and "Billy," or instead by his more general resentment over the very idea of "diversity training," remains for me an open question.

As the case of Dennis vs. "Billy" illustrates, getting white folks to reconsider their actions in a racially diverse workplace is usually awkward, at best. White workers often feel that such "training" talks down to them, and they usually don't see a race-related problem that requires training in the first place (and if they do see such a problem, it's usually something they consider racist against whites, such as "affirmative action").

It seems to me that another problem with such sessions is that whiteness mostly goes unnamed. As a result, white people can feel left out in a way, and yet, vaguely uncomfortable, as if they, the unnamed yet targeted "white people," are being blamed for all of the problems that brought about diversity training in the first place.

Would naming and discussing whiteness more directly in such sessions make them more effective? Or would confronting the socially induced proclivities of white people take too much time and unlearning (or untraining) by white workers, and make them even more resentful of the whole process?

YouTube has tons of clips from "diversity training" videos; some are advertisements for training providers, while others satirize such efforts. The actors in the video below poke especially effective fun at clueless white producers of diversity training materials, highlighting as they do so several common forms of white oblivion.

Have you participated in workplace diversity training efforts? Did they directly address whiteness somehow? Did any methods or parts of this training strike you as especially successful, or unsuccessful? And does it seem any better or worse for non-white people to sit through these sessions?

Saturday, September 27, 2008

white weekend links

  • "What If Whiteness Vanished?" (The Professor @ Professor, What if . . . ?)

    What if, as the movie A Day without a Mexican ponders in regards to the Latino population of California, we woke up one morning and whiteness had vanished?

    Well, there would be an uproar of course. It would be unfair to have all those non-white faces representing everything from government to toothpaste. Can you imagine the loud outcry from most whites? Yet, somehow, the near invisibility of other-than-whiteness in our world is a-ok, no problem there. It’s enough to make you scream.

  • "Judging the Homeless"(The Girl Detective @ Alas! A Blog)

    [W]henever I hear a leftist with privilege talking about that one time they tried to give someone a loaf of bread, I always detect a note of satisfaction in their voice. If this were truly a problem for people - if people with homes truly cared about the homeless and wanted to help them - we would scramble for other ways to accomplish that. We would engage with them, let them tell us what they need. We would give our money to shelters and programs. We would work harder to create safety nets. But we don’t. The people who moan about the futility of giving don’t really want to give. Instead, they go through the motions so they can get to that punch line: “There’s no point in trying, because they’re lazy and weak and thus belong where they are.”

  • "Obama Effigy Found Hanging from Ore. Campus Tree" (Mary Hudetz [AP] @ seattlepi.com)

    Officials of a small Christian university say a life-size cardboard reproduction of Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama was hung from a tree on the campus, an act that outraged students and school leaders alike.

    George Fox University President Robin Baker said a custodian discovered the effigy early Tuesday and removed it. University spokesman Rob Felton said Wednesday that the commercially produced reproduction had been suspended from the branch of a tree with fishing line around the neck.

    Taped to the cardboard cutout of the black senator from Illinois was a message targeting participants in Act Six, a scholarship program geared toward increasing the number of minority and low-income students at several Christian colleges, mostly in the Northwest.

    The message read, "Act Six reject."

  • "Harlem: The Last Frontier" (Shannon Joyce Prince @ Black Agenda Report; h/t: redcatbiker)

    White flight, city planning, disinvestment, highway building, tax laws and encouraging the movement of businesses to the suburbs, and housing loans and equity historically given only to whites creates non-white neighborhoods. But such neighborhoods have flourished against all odds, creating artistic treasures and special traditions. To black Harlem in particular we owe the Harlem Renaissance, the development of jazz and swing, countless theatre groups, the Harlem Boys Choir, the Apollo Theatre, the Cotton Club, and the Savoy Ballroom. It was white power and non-white disenfranchisement that created non-white neighborhoods and it is white power that allows whites to return, drawn by low rents or pleasing aesthetics without concern for those they displace or the consequences of rising rents and loss of non-white havens. But white might doesn't make white right.

  • "I Found My Gut Reason for Voting for Obama" (David Sirota @ Open Left, via Stop Dog Whistle Racism)

    I found my gut reason - the reason why I'm going to go into that voting booth and slam my vote through that ballot box with real umph: I'm voting for Barack Obama to reject the people and the views I met head on earlier this week in a debate with fringe-conservative radio host Dennis Prager. . . .

    I've felt sick to my stomach since the debate. I can't really get it out of my head, not because I think I did poorly (on the contrary, most of the objective observers who were there said I held my own), but because I'm nauseated by the number of selfish, hateful and ignorant people that - even in the face of an intensifying war on the middle class - don't care about anyone other than themselves, adamantly refuse to verify their beliefs with empirical facts on the principle that they don't need facts to know "what's right," and cannot see the world from any one else's perspective.

    You cannot even meet them on the supposedly "conservative" issues like civil liberties that we should all agree on - many conservatives today are blind authoritarian partisans, people who truly think it is outrageous to say America was misled into the Iraq War, and that that war has something to do with oil. They can only see the world from the gilded gates of their own wealthy white suburbia, and they self-righteously believe that privileged existence is the way every American lives - and if they don't, it's their fault for not trying harder.

  • "Eulogy for Mammy" (Renee @ Womanist Musings)

    White people love Mammy, that fact cannot be denied. As long as she existed in their imagination, black women could indeed be understood to embrace our status at the bottom of the race and class hierarchy. As long as Mammy's booming laugh could be heard in the wind, black women could be said to love their precious white folk. Love is the most wonderful of human emotions, but in this case, it amounts to nothing but a perversion, a symbol of internalized racism, because it allows white people to signify all that is good and pure in this world. Mammy's love of whiteness necessitated a complete denial, and hatred of all things black.

Also, Dave Chappelle and John Mayer prove that white people, when properly stimulated, just can't resist the urge to dance.

Friday, September 26, 2008

seek "adventure"

Is there something especially white about the pursuit of adventure? Could it be that being white makes people feel more entitled to go wherever they like, using whatever kind of risky, crazy-ass ways of propelling their bodies around they can afford to buy? As if the world really is their oyster?

Consider, for instance, Yves Rossy, the "Jet Man" who recently flirted with death in a flight over the English Channel. Is it any surprise at all that he's a white guy?

LONDON, England -- Swiss adventurer Yves Rossy successfully crossed the English Channel using his homemade jet-propelled wing Friday, the first man to perform the feat.

Rossy leapt from a plane more than 8,800 feet or a mile and a half from the ground, before firing up his jets.

He made the 22-mile trip from Calais in France to Dover in England in a little under 15 minutes.

He began the Friday flight just before 1207 GMT; by 12:15 GMT, Rossy was above British soil and looped over onlookers before opening his parachute, with his wings still strapped to his back.

He touched down in a field near the famous white cliffs of Dover.

"It's not so safe to fly across water if you can't see," Rossy told National Geographic Channel in a live television interview Thursday. "I don't have any instruments, and I need to be able to see the landing site."

The trip across the Channel is meant to trace the route of French aviator Louis Bleriot, the first person to cross the narrow body of water in an airplane 99 years ago.

The "white cliffs of Dover"! Sometimes satire just writes itself.

In the brief clip below, comedian Steve Harvey contributes some additional thoughts on white adventure-seekers.

Here's hoping that in between the bouts of worrying about money -- your money, America's money, the world's money -- here's hoping you can still find ways to have a "wonderful weekend."

Update: Comedian Paul Mooney has a lot more to say on this topic (NSFW).

Thursday, September 25, 2008

use a virtually innumerable array of euphemisms instead of the word "white"

Guest post by Lady Zora, Chauncey DeVega, and Gordon Gartrelle; originally published at
We Are Respectable Negroes

How Many Ways Can the Mainstream Media
Avoid Using the Word 'White'?
Or Alternatively Entitled:
Euphemisms for Naming White Folk

Let us count the ways...

One of the most striking features of the 2008 Presidential Campaign has been the way that pundits, critics, and many in the public have avoided speaking truth to power, of naming the obvious: This election is about White America and its role in an increasingly "post-racial" world. Perhaps, it is the result of a myopic and twisted understanding of "colorblindness" where the very act of naming race as a social fact is itself considered "racist." Maybe, it is a result of an anxiety wherein actually talking about White America, and how White racial identity will influence voting decisions, is dangerous because it destroys the myth of a colorblind America (a myth which should have been shattered to this point by the pathetic pandering of the Democratic Convention, and the unapologetic White Nationalism on display at the Republic Convention).

This fear of saying "White," and/or of naming "whiteness" in our public discourse is a type of mental illness. Naming race, or more appropriately the fear of doing so, is like the elephant sitting in the corner of the room taking a crap on the carpet while you are trying to have a dinner party: this is the absurdity, everyone knows the elephant is there, but they are desperately trying to ignore it. So let's call a spade a spade--do you like that Oscar Wildesque wordplay?--and name what we are seeing. Wow! Sometimes I am so easily impressed with myself.

As a humanitarian act, we respectable negroes are going to conduct an intervention where we help to cure White America of this problem. In this treatment, taken right out of the DSM-IV, we are going to list of all the ways to say "White" or to signal "whiteness" without actually using those words. To that end we are going to keep a running list of these terms and phrases and update it each week.

That whose name cannot be spoken can now we confronted. With your help, we will take the first steps towards curing America's racial id and its inability to say "White." Say it with me again, White people; White politics; White interests, White voters; White McCain voters; White Sarah Palin female voters; White Democrats; White Hillary Clinton female voters...don't forget, say White at least three times a day, everyday and your teeth will stay white and healthy.

Do you think we will reach the truly impossible, the magical number of 75? We have shattered the proverbial 3-minute mile and are boldly going where no one has gone before. Where will we finally stop?

The tally so far:

1. Values voter
2. Heartland
3. Mainstream voter
4. Hard-working Americans
5. Lunch pail voters
6. Soccer moms
7. Walmart Moms
8. Nascar Dads
9. Blue collar
10. Regular Americans
11. Real Americans
12. The Base
13. Culture War voters
15. Palin's Army
16. Joe Six Pack
17. Joe Lunch Pail
18. Hockey Mom/Hockey moms
19. American Workers
20. Work Force
21. Regular Folks
22. Ma and Pa Kettle
23. My (or your) neighbors
24. Average American Voter
25. Rural Voters
26. Non-elitists
27. My accountant
28. Small Town Voters
29. The Woman Vote
30. Middle America
31. Americans
32. American People
33. Good hard-working people
34. Working Class voter
35. The Nascar Vote
36. Midwestern Voters
37. Suburban Voters
38. White Collar Voters
39. Main Street
40. Wall Street
41. New Englanders
42. Southerners
43. All-American Girls/Boys/All-American
44. The latte voters
45. Dogwalking voters
46. The Recycling bloc
47. Folks in the heartland
48. Decent, hard-working people
49. Christians
50. God-fearing Americans
51. The people who want to have a beer with the sort of candidate who might like to have a beer with them
52. Reagan Democrats
53. One of us
54. Undecideds
55. Scrappy
56. Bubba Voters
57. Gun enthusiasts
58. People who are just worried about paying the bills on time
59. Non-elitists
60. Voters in fly-over states
61. Scranton Voters
62. Kitchen table voters
63. Independents
64. Evangelical Voters
65. Pro-lifers
66. My friends
67. Honest Workers
68. Ordinary people

Monday, September 22, 2008

associate non-white people with pollution

I went to high school in a very white suburb outside of a medium-sized American city. I’ve stayed in touch with a few friends from those days, including a woman I’ll call Susie. She currently lives alone in a house in that city's “inner city.” Susie’s move there about six years ago was a reversal of “white flight,” which initially brought both of our families from somewhere in the city out to the suburbs.

That city is a Midwestern one, and so it’s very segregated. Susie doesn’t live in the “black” part of town, which the people I know call “the ghetto.” She lives in a “mixed” neighborhood, with a population that she says is comprised in more or less equal parts of Latinos, African Americans, and whites.

Susie lives there alone, in a house that she’s fixed up a lot, including an elaborate rock garden in a tiny, high-fenced backyard. Her backyard lawn is so small that she cuts it with a pair of scissors.

I’ve asked Susie several times if she feels safe living in that part of town, and she always laughs.

“Of course! It’s a great neighborhood. A little noisy sometimes, but that’s okay. I love being able to walk to everything.”

Recently, I ran into a guy both Susie and I knew in high school, Bill. When I told him the names of the two streets that form the intersection where Susie’s corner house is, a certain look appeared on Bill’s face.

“Really? Is she okay there? Does she feel safe?”

When I assured him that she did, he asked if she’d been robbed. Robbed “yet,” is what he said.

“No. Not that I’ve heard of.”

“Hmm. Doesn’t seem safe.”

As we went on to talk of other things, I wondered about that expression that appeared on Bill’s face. I also wondered if we’d both be less concerned for her “safety” if she were a man instead of a woman. Was our concern sexist?

But now I wonder, was our concern even real? Or were we instead talking about that, but feeling something else?

What Bill’s face had registered when he asked if Susie felt “safe” in that neighborhood wasn’t a look of alarm, or concern. It was actually a look of disdain. Almost disgust.

Disgust is a feeling, really. As people speak, they sometimes don’t spell out what they’re feeling. But they often do indicate that in other ways. And again, what Bill said he felt—concern—wasn’t what his face said he felt. That was something much closer to disgust.

Bill’s reaction to the largely non-white area that Susie lives in reminds me of reactions to such places expressed by Kyle, another friend of mine (these aren’t real names, by the way). I met Kyle in college, but he dropped out before I graduated. Kyle wound up working as a UPS driver in the same city that Susie lives in, a job that takes him to businesses and residences all over the city.

I realize now that Kyle has a similar way of talking about mixed and largely non-white areas of the city. He hasn’t been all that worried about his safety—in six years, he’s never felt threatened or endangered. Rather, he expresses a kind of disdain for those areas, and for the people in them, when he talks about working in them. His disgust is a little more open than Bill’s was.

“They don’t take care of their own neighborhoods,” he sometimes says, curling his lips, and looking like he wants to spit. “They throw trash everywhere! Right out their car windows, I’ve seen that happen so many times. McDonald’s bags, paper coffee cups, you name it. And you should see the inside of some of their apartments! Not that I ever actually step inside. I’m glad I don’t have to do that—I wouldn’t want to do that.”

I’ve heard other white people talk about non-white places and gatherings this way. They don’t SAY that they feel sort of disgusted; they say something else. But I can often see that other feeling—disdain. Disgust. A disgust for something that they're projecting onto other people from somewhere inside themselves.

This common white reaction was recently clarified for me as a kind of unspoken (and even unthought) feeling by Kristen Myers’ book, Racetalk: Racism Hiding in Plain Sight. Working at various times with a total of sixty-three undergraduate student researchers, Myers compiled over six hundred examples of “racetalk,” which she defines as spoken language that contains “the vocabulary and conceptual frameworks that we use to denigrate different races and ethnicities in our everyday lives.”

Myers’ larger point is that instances of such talk are not mere acts of individual racism; rather, they help form a larger societal network or structure. The racism expressed in "racetalk" consists of feelings, thought, and language that help to maintain both divisive boundaries between groups of people, and the various institutions that oppress non-white people.

In a section of her book called “Pollution,” Myers provides numerous examples, gathered by her small army of student researchers, of language that indicates “how people believed that the contaminating effect of ‘otherness’ was contagious, and [how] they avoided being associated with it.”

Contamination. That’s another thing about Susie, I think, that seemed wrong to my friend Bill. He may not have been thinking this, exactly, but I think some part of him found it almost bizarre that she would want to get that close to the people in that neighborhood. Why, he probably wondered, or maybe felt at some level, would she want to contaminate herself like that?

Some examples from the field notes of Myers’ team help to spell out how common this feeling is—how an association between non-white people and “pollution” underlies a lot of what white people say about spaces that have a lot of non-white people:

My friend Joey’s (white) father said, “I used to work in a job for minimum wage in a grain plant. All these black people started taking the jobs. Since then, the place has gone to shit.”

At a bar with a bunch of white friends, one of them asked if it would be OK to go to another bar. She explained that it was not as classy anymore because black people go there now.

The Mexicans in my town are like flies on horse shit. There are 70 to one house. That’s the only way they can live.

My (dorm) roommate and I frequently have our door open. One time when an Indian passed by she said, “Why does he always look in here?” She doesn’t have that problem normally when other people pass by.

Marilyn (white) said that she would not register for a certain class because it had “a lot of stupid Mexicans in it.”

Now, Susie, Bill, Kyle and I grew up in a Midwestern white suburb. That means that our talk didn’t indicate this overtly the connection we felt between non-white people and pollution. But we did feel it, and I could still see it on Bill’s face when he talked about Susie’s “safety,” and I can still hear it in Kyle’s descriptions of “those people.” I also plan to call Susie sometime soon and congratulate her for getting over such feelings, and to ask her how she did it.

Kristen Myers explains that these feelings have a history. “White” and “black,” for instance, have long been matched up in Western society with “good” and “evil”: “In contrast with the positive concepts associated with whiteness, highly negative concepts are associated with blackness, such as dirty, uncivilized, savage, evil, and ugly.” Another ongoing result is that even many people of color feel and express disdain for darker skin.

So Myers’ work clarifies for me something that lurks within the depths of the general white mindset. As I’ve written before, most white people are quite all right with all-white spaces (even though they often take umbrage when non-white people sometimes want to be in other sorts of non-white spaces, such as meetings, or parties, or beauty contests, or organizations). I now see that one reason all-white spaces are quite all right for most white people is because in a way, such spaces feel clean.

Here’s one more example. As the “owner” of this blog, I can see what path readers took to reach it. If they use Google or another search engine, I can also see what search terms brought them to this blog. Just today, someone arrived here by entering this phrase into Google: “why do white people say dirty mexican”?

Basically, this post is my effort to answer that same question. And many others that are just like it. With the help of Kristen Myers, I can answer that white people say things like that because of a feeling they have. This feeling is a common, subdued revulsion at the thought of non-white people. Especially the thought of large numbers of them (such the “hordes” of “Mexicans” who are supposedly “streaming across the border”). It’s an instilled, fearful conception of supposedly dirty people with supposedly dirty habits, who threaten to contaminate cleaner, “whiter” spaces, as well as the white people in them.

And then there’s Myers’ larger point, about how such “racetalk” and the feelings that provoke it help to maintain structures of power in society. I can just imagine how this contaminating part of the collective white psyche is going to manifest itself for a lot of people in November. That's when American voters will be asked who belongs in another fantasized, highly symbolic space of abstract cleanliness—the White House.

consider white privilege a trivial matter

In the video below (which is the fifth episode of "This Week in Blackness"), Elon James White analyzes John Stossel's recent article in the New York Sun on white privilege.

In that article, Stossel (co-anchor of "20/20" on ABC News) writes:

White privilege does still exist, but Mr. Obama's success is more evidence that it's not the whole story. There are plenty of people in America who want to vote for someone because he is black. Or female. . . .

There is black privilege — and white privilege. It's time to stop complaining about past discrimination and to treat people as individuals, not as members of a certain race.

Episode Six of "This Week in Blackness" is good too--actually, they're all good, probably because the Brooklyn Comedy Company puts them together.

Go. See. Laugh. Get smarter. Share your knowledge.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

white weekend links

  • "Explaining White Privilege to the Deniers and the Haters" (Tim Wise @ Red Room)

    I guess I should have expected it, seeing as how it's nothing new. I write a piece on racism and white privilege (namely, the recently viral This is Your Nation on White Privilege), lots of folks read it, many of them like it, and others e-mail me in fits of apoplexy, or post scathing critiques on message boards in which they invite me to die, to perform various sexual acts upon myself that I feel confident are impossible, or, best of all, to "go live in the ghetto," whereupon I will come to "truly appreciate the animals" for whom I have so much affection (the phrase they use for me and that affection, of course, sounds a bit different, and I'll leave it to your imagination to conjure the quip yourself).

    Though I have no desire to debate the points made in the original piece, I would like to address some of the more glaring, and yet reasonable, misunderstandings that many seem to have about the subject of white privilege.

  • "What's the Rush?" (Bob Herbert @ The New York Times; log-in required)

    Troy Davis, who was convicted of shooting a police officer to death in the parking lot of a Burger King in Savannah, Ga., is scheduled to be executed on Tuesday. There is some question as to his guilt (even the pope has weighed in on this case), but the odds of Mr. Davis escaping the death penalty are very slim. Putting someone to death whose guilt is uncertain is always perverted, but there’s an extra dose of perversion in this case.

    The United States Supreme Court is scheduled to make a decision on whether to hear a last-ditch appeal by Mr. Davis on Sept. 29. That’s six days after the state of Georgia plans to kill him.

  • "Race for Survival" (Review of the Lakeview Terrace by Katherine Monk @ The Vancouver Sun; see also Thea Lim's thoughts @ Racialicious)

    [As this movie] lays flopping on the deck of urgent times for the better part of two hours, this odd and altogether unsettling film is hard to turn away from because, for all its contrived conflict, LaBute exposes more than just racial prejudice.

    He lays bare the well-intended political correctness of an entitled white world desperate to prove enlightenment in attempt to regain the moral high ground. White people, at least in LaBute's reckoning, have a deep desire to play hero to the world. It's how white people define themselves in the world at large, so if they can't ride in with a white horse and a shining sword, they feel emasculated.

Lakeview Terrace Trailer

  • "The New Rhetoric of Racism: Why Won't Obama Call It Out?" (Keeanga-Yamatta Taylor @ Counterpunch)

    Obama's tepid response to campaign racism, combined with his generally nebulous political message, which has moved to the right since he locked up the nomination, is blunting the momentum that carried him through the early primary season last winter.

    If Obama were to devote even a small amount of time and energy to challenging racism--rather than Sarah Palin's governing experience or whether McCain knows how to send an e-mail--he would stand a better chance of sending the Republicans back under the rocks they skulked out from. As it is, his failure to make a stand leaves opportunities for the Republicans to exploit--and shows that his promise to bring change is about rhetoric, not reality.

  • "Whites Playing the Racist Card" (Joe Feagin @ Racism Review)

    I suspect that much of this white support is there because these whites, implicitly or explicitly, view Senator Obama as “an exception to his race,” at least to some degree. That is the old racist notion that certain African Americans are acceptable to whites if they do not press against the racist system openly and fit in well with certain white expectations and assumptions.

    These Republican ads seem to be designed, and aggressively so, to link Senator Obama ever more clearly to what that white racial frame considers the “dangerous black man.” We see that expressly in Bill Hobbs comment, which mentions Dr. Wright and even two “corrupt” and “dangerous” white men.

Another racist anti-Obama ad

  • "Stereotyping the Working Class" (Sherry Linkon @ Working-Class Perspectives)

    I have two problems with the way some are equating “working class” and “racist.” The first is that, like any stereotype, it implies that a quality that fits some working-class people applies to all working-class people. Perhaps some white working-class voters will not vote for Obama because he’s black, but others will support him because of his plans for creating new jobs and because he has experience helping working-class communities respond to economic struggles.

    The second problem is that the stereotype suggests that only working-class people are racist. But racism doesn’t recognize class borders. Some middle-class and elite people won’t vote for Obama because of his race, but nearly all of the commentary focuses on working-class racism. It may be that working-class people, who value directness, are more willing to admit that race matters, while people with college degrees have been trained to hide their racism. But racism doesn’t automatically disappear with education, income, and social status.

  • "John McCain Is White; Talk About THAT, Rep. Westmoreland" (Renee Martin @ GlobalComment)

    McCain's whiteness is normalized and invisible because white hegemony thrives on invisibility. The fact that his body is just as problematic as Obama’s black body will not be acknowledged, because to do so would force a conversation about the ways in which white power is maintained.

    Discursively there is the proposition that we live in a post racial world but this is an impossibility because we continue to fail to discuss whiteness. We react to statements like, “Just from what little I’ve seen of her and Mr. Obama, Sen. Obama, they’re a member of an elitist-class individual that thinks that they’re uppity.” which has been attributed to Rep. Westmoreland by The Hill as racist against blacks. But what does it say about whiteness?

  • "DuBois: What I Learned" (Meredith Aska McBride @ The Daily Pennsylvanian)

    Like most people, I don't think I'm a racist. And until recently, I believed that the racism our country struggles with came from somewhere else - where, I didn't know, but certainly not from my own actions.

    I was wrong.

    Just under a year ago, I wrote a column about DuBois College House and what I then termed its false diversity: a column that was written essentially from the perspective of the dumb white Penn student, a perspective that too many of us white kids share. I've learned a lot since that column went to print last October.

    First, I've learned that having a sanctuary is not necessarily segregation.

  • Also, a recommended news site: Stop Dog Whistle Racism

    Dog-Whistle Racism is political campaigning or policy-making that uses coded words and themes to appeal to conscious or subconscious racist concepts and frames. For example, the concepts ‘welfare queen,’ ’states’ rights,’ ‘Islamic terrorist,’ ‘uppity,’ 'thug,' 'tough on crime,' and ‘illegal alien’ all activate racist concepts that that have already been planted in the public consciousness and now are being activated by purposeful or accidental campaign activities, media coverage, public policy and cultural traditions. So, what’s dog whistle racism? It’s pure political theater to push buttons to win elections and policies. We’re here to identify, expose and respond to it. Join us.

And finally, a video on whiteness, posted at YouTube with the title, "How White People See Rap Battles"

Friday, September 19, 2008

start conversations

So it turns out that on this blog called "Stuff White People Do," I'm the one pointing out most of the stuff that I've often seen or heard white people do. That's my fault, and it doesn't have to be that way.

You can describe stuff white people do here too, whether or not you're white.

So how about we try this in an Open Thread in the Comments--what have you seen white people repeatedly do, or say, or eat, or drink, or ? Don't hold back now. . .

Any other white topics are welcome in this Open Thread too.

How's this for starters--"white people often buy pets to keep their kids occupied." Is that a "white thing"?

turn non-white events into white events

Hollywood gives Oscars to non-white people these days, but it's still a very, very white space. Its movies are mostly very, very white too. Even when they're not about white people, it seems like white people almost always have to be inserted into the picture. Preferably on center stage.

From Just Like White People, by the comedy troupe 18 Mighty Mountain Warriors.

h/t: Angry Asian Man

PS--if you don't remember 21: The Movie, let alone why people boycotted it for being racist, here's a guy who briefly explains the problem on YouTube:

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

white quotation of the week (Sigrid Nunez)

In Sigrid Nunez's novel The Last of Her Kind, Ann Drayton and Georgette George meet as freshman roommates at Barnard College, in 1968. They're both white and they're both fleeing their backgrounds, but they're opposites in nearly every other way. While Georgette comes from an impoverished family with an abusive mother and absent father, Ann aggressively pursues everything that represents the opposite of her privileged, wealthy background. As they settle into college life, Ann throws herself into every anti-establishment cause she can find, while Georgette has all she can do just to fit into such an unfamiliar environment.

In the following excerpt from the novel, the narrator, Georgette, describes some of Ann's interests and activities:

Though she had lost none of her political passion, Ann had grown disenchanted with the student movement. Students for a Democratic Society, with its commitment to civil rights, helping the poor, "letting the people decide," and ending the war had seemed, at least when she joined as a freshman, the obvious happy home for her.

But partly because of the escalation of the war in Southeast Asia, SDS itself was at war. In June there had been the organization's tumultuous national convention and the splitting of groups such as the Weathermen with their ominous cry: "The violence of Amerika must be answered with violence." That fall brought the raucous trial of the Chicago Seven and the riotous Days of Rage; within months the Weathermen would have moved underground, and by the time the school year was finished, so, more or less, was SDS. . . .

Before she had given up trying to make a radical of me, she had dragged me to some meetings, and I did not remember anything so lively as the brouhaha she now described. All I remembered was talk. Talk interminable and impenetrable, at least to me. A crowded and invariably stale-aired room, a microphone, often malfunctioning, and each and every person queuing up to have his (and it was almost always his) say.

Once again I had the sense of a language beyond my grasp. I had to ask Ann later to explain what things such as "the bourgeoisie dictating consciousness" meant. And though she was as fluent in that language as anyone, and knowledgeable about political theory, what Ann herself stepped up to say was that she was far less interested in sitting around discussing the differences between Leninism and Marxism with a bunch of college students than in tutoring ghetto children.

In fact, she never would come to terms with this: virtually every political activist and radical she knew came from a privileged background. "We're all haves," she said ruefully. But of course. In the words--the very first words-- of the first official document of the SDS: "We are people of this generation, bred in at least modest comfort, housed now in universities . . ."

Ann thought the Huron Statement was a beautiful thing. She knew many in the movement who, bred like herself in something closer to luxury than modest comfort, were now striving to make up for that. Good, brave, serious, responsible haves, dedicated to improving the lives of the have-nots. And she did not wish to take that away from them.

Still, she could not escape the belief that the attempt to create a new social order by any group made up almost entirely of children of the elite was doomed. Those born into the ruling class were corrupted by its stain; they had the blood of millions on their hands. How could they now expect the children of their victims to join hands with their bloodied ones? Wasn't this why black militants preached that any black man who called any white man "brother" was a Tom and a traitor to his race? Not even civil rights martyrs Goodman and Schwerner could escape this rule.

"You cant steal nothing from a white man, he's already stole it he owes you anything you want, even his life." --LeRoi Jones.

Everyone in the movement talked about the need for stronger ties with the working class. Ann, who regularly gave to strike funds, was all for strong trade unions and for any measure that resulted in increased power or protection for workers. But unlike most of her comrades, she did not romanticize the working class.

Corrupted by the culture of the bourgeoisie, workers were if anything more fiercely attached to bourgeois values than the bourgeois themselves. Most were hostile to the civil rights movement and even to the peace movement that was trying to save their sons from destruction in an unjust war. About the people of Vietnam, one of the poorest people on earth, whose death toll from the war was climbing into the millions, they cared not at all. Activists who had gone in after white proletarian and slum-dwelling youth discovered that the building of a more equitable society was the furthest thing from their minds.

For Ann, American blue-collar workers could not seriously be considered have-not; however hard, their lives must not be compared to the lives of those trapped in ghettos, say, or Third World peasants. And so, though it mattered not to her how they were treated, though she could--and did--fight on their side, she could never feel for them the same unconditional love she felt for the truly deprived. She could never embrace them.

She said, "I wish I had been born poor." ("I wish I'd been born an Indian." --Robert Kennedy.) The ideal would have been to be born poor and black. But the counterculture was full of people in the grip of the same fantasy, with some--from street fighters to rock stars to flower children--even starting to believe they were black.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

let their whiteness get in the way of their love

I agree that love matters in the world, but I don't think white people should love their whiteness. Better for everyone, I think, that we take a shot first at hating it.

I don't mean that people should hate themselves for their pale skin, for something we were born with. I think we white people should sometimes hate ourselves for what we do, or don't do, in the world, for the choices we make about that white skin. In other words, we should hate whiteness and be accountable for our own complicity with whiteness. We live in a white supremacist society and benefit from white privilege. We should hate that fact, and if we haven't done enough to change that world, well . . . .

When we acknowledge that we don't--or shouldn't--like some aspect of ourselves, it can be the liberation that ends with a more authentic loving of ourselves and others.

--Robert Jensen,

Regina Frank
"Whiteness in Decay" (2003)

Sunday, September 14, 2008

fail to see what's wrong with racist jokes

Have you heard about "Obama Waffles" yet? Unfortunately, I think you're going to hear a lot about them in the next few days. Here's the straight poop, right from the mouths of the waffle creators.

Just TRY to count the ways these two guys don't have a damn clue. I dare you to try--because I know you'll lose count.

[hat-tip to SWPD reader redcatbiker; good commentary at What About Our Daughters]

UPPATE: I told you you'd be hearing a lot about these stupid-ass waffles. Here's a CNN report on them, cluelessly linked from their site's front page with the words, "Some find Obama waffles offensive."

Oh really, CNN, "some" do? Well hey, who are these offended folks anyway, and just why are they so mildly upset? I know! How about we "hit the streets" and find out?

"Controversial, offensive, ridiculous, unfair," reporter Erin Holt says in the following clip, shying away from the word that first came to mind for me--the images and words on this waffle-mix box are flat-out racist.

Reporting for News 2 (that's WKRN, in Nashville), Holt does indeed "hit the streets" to find out what some ordinary folks think of these waffles. Maybe News 2 only gave her time to interview two people, because all she finds is two white people, who also don't identify anything racist about the waffle box.

This is your hardworking "liberal media" at work, folks. Using your public airwaves. The message: "Nothing much to get 'offended' about here. In fact, those Obama Waffles, like the goofy guys who came up with them, they're really kinda fun!"

Maybe the best way to address this "satire" is with more satire? The Brooklyn Comedy Company seems to think so.

fail to take action

UPDATE (9/23/08): The U.S. Supreme Court has stayed the execution of
Troy Davis,
less than two hours before his scheduled death

Place de la Concorde, in Paris

[Update: As Cara at Feministe points out, you can still take action for Troy Davis.]

As a white American, I regret not saying something earlier on this blog about the imminent execution of Troy Davis. He's an African American man sentenced to die on September 23, on the basis of little if any evidence, and on largely recanted testimony. I'll explain below what I consider significant about how Davis' race is different from mine. I'll also ask you, dear readers, what anyone can still do for Troy Davis, given that his most recent effort in the appeals process was just denied two days ago.

Davis was convicted for the 1989 murder of a white police officer in Georgia. Amnesty International provides this summary of his case:

Troy Davis came within 24 hours of execution in July, 2007 before receiving a temporary stay of execution. But the Georgia Supreme Court denied Mr. Davis’ motion for a new trial and now he faces execution on September 23. Troy Davis was sentenced to death for the murder of Police Officer Mark MacPhail in Georgia. The case against him consisted entirely of witness testimony which contained inconsistencies even during the trial. Since then, all but two of the state's nine non-police witnesses from the trial have recanted or contradicted their testimony. Many of these witnesses have stated in sworn affidavits that they were pressured or coerced by police into testifying or signing statements against Troy Davis.

As Time magazine points out, in one of the few nods of attention to Davis's case by the corporate media, "two of the jurors who sentenced Davis to death signed sworn affidavits saying that based on recanted testimony, he should not be executed. 'In light of this new evidence,' wrote one juror, 'I have genuine concerns about the fairness of Mr. Davis' death sentence.'"

Davis himself writes,

Because of the Anti-Terrorism Bill, [and] the blatant racism and bias in the U.S. Court System, I remain on death row in spite of a compelling case of my innocence. I have a private law firm trying to help save my life in the court system, but it is like no one wants to admit the system made another grave mistake. Am I to be made an example of to save face? Does anyone care about my family who has been victimized by this death sentence for over 16 years? Does anyone care that my family has the fate of knowing the time and manner by which I may be killed by the state of Georgia?

I truly understand a life has been lost and I have prayed for that family just as I pray for mine, but I am Innocent and all I ask for is a True Day in a Just Court. If I am so guilty why do the courts deny me that? The truth is that they have no real case; the truth is I am Innocent.

Where is the Justice for me?

I wish there was more of that justice in me, Mr. Davis. But I'm a white American, so if there's much of any sense of justice in me for you, it's mostly there because I've worked against my white training to put it there. To the extent that I've been trained against empathizing with you because of our racial differences, and to the extent that I've been trained to trust that the justice system works, I'm that much more discouraged by my culture and upbringing from trying to save your life.

I'm pointing out that I'm white and Davis is black in order to emphasize how my becoming white has trained me to be morally lazy in such cases.

I usually think that I'm using my particular skills and talents in writing this blog in order to take action--anti-racist action. My general intent has been to encourage other white people to untrain themselves from their instilled racist tendencies, and then to act in whatever particular non-racist or anti-racist ways they can in their own lives.

However, I could write more posts here that encourage specific, direct action, and I didn't do so soon enough in this case. I did individually sign a petition, make phone calls, and send a letter (PDF) for a man convicted by the white supremacist "justice" system. This is a system that I've come to feel responsible for acting against because it unjustly enhances my white life while it degrades and destroys non-white lives.

But I have a voice and something of an audience here, however limited, and I didn't use that voice soon enough. American men in general aren't supposed to admit to feeling ashamed, but I'll certainly admit to it in this case.

A lot of people also took their bodies out in public and protested for Davis' life. Even in Europe. But I didn't. Did you?

The most the recent activism for Davis has been aimed at the Georgia State Board of Pardons & Appeals. However, they decided two days ago to deny Davis' latest appeal. The next step, as I understand it, would be a review of the case by the U.S. Supreme Court, but that court

In the case of Troy Davis, a young black man facing imminent execution after an absurdly unfair trial, white people have a stronger responsibility to fight for his life. That's because the same white supremacist judicial system that makes their lives easier, just because they're white, also makes it more likely that black men like Davis will have their lives destroyed. Destroyed for crimes they didn't commit, or for crimes that are grossly outweighed by the penalties handed down for them.

If the American judicial system succeeds in killing Davis, millions of people around the world will rightly consider it another example of the disregard that white Americans in general have for black Americans.

I think all Americans who know about Davis's situation and are able to take action should have done so by now. However, if we're white, this has been a chance to take direct action against an institutionally entrenched form of the ongoing white supremacy that unfairly enriches our lives, while tearing down and destroying the lives of others.

So where do we go from here? What can we do for Troy Davis now?

If you know of ways people can act in this case, please let us know in a comment.

In the meantime, you can also watch these action-oriented sites for updates:

Saturday, September 13, 2008

white weekend links

  • The Niggaro Universe Proclaims: "Sarah Palin Is a Welfare Queen Who Is Out of Touch with Mainstream America" & "'Quota Queen' Sarah Palin's ABC Interview Is More Proof that Affirmative Action has Failed All Americans" (Chauncey DeVega and Zora @ We Are Respectable Negroes)

    Palin’s oldest son and daughter carry the sins of their mother – Hezekiah is addicted to crack and La’Shawnda is unmarried and pregnant. Not surprisingly, Palin has expressed not an ounce of shame about her children’s difficulties. Instead, she is parading her daughter’s “baby daddy” on the national stage with claims that marriage is imminent. (Insiders report that the “baby daddy” was actually threatened with physical violence by elders within Palin’s religious sect if he refused to participate in the current sham.) Unwilling to help her son through his addiction, Palin has made Hezekiah the government’s problem by forcing him to join the military. The saddest and most shameful of all is Palin’s neglect of her youngest child, Pooty.

  • "This Is Your Nation on White Privilege" (Tim Wise @ Red Room) UPDATE: Tim's revised version

    For those who still can’t grasp the concept of white privilege, or who are constantly looking for some easy-to-understand examples of it, perhaps this list will help.

    White privilege is when you can get pregnant at seventeen like Bristol Palin and everyone is quick to insist that your life and that of your family is a personal matter, and that no one has a right to judge you or your parents, because “every family has challenges,” even as black and Latino families with similar “challenges” are regularly typified as irresponsible, pathological and arbiters of social decay.

    White privilege is when you can call yourself a “fuckin’ redneck,” like Bristol Palin’s boyfriend does, and talk about how if anyone messes with you, you'll “kick their fuckin' ass,” and talk about how you like to “shoot shit” for fun, and still be viewed as a responsible, all-American boy (and a great son-in-law to be) rather than a thug.

  • "on 'white'" (peter li'ir key @ Debunking White/Beyond White Guilt)

    white as a socially constructed racial characteristic is culturally normative. that is to say there are cultural norms around white. these are cultural norms that whites buy into without much examination, and that not whites also buy into, but with some resistance and friction. while it is tempting to call these cultural norms "white culture", that isn't correct or useful. this collection of cultural norms is a kind of "meta culture" - a "culture" that is shared by/included in many cultures.

    these cultural norms are what define white.

  • "Burning Man 2008: The American Dream" (Samhita @ Feministing)

    What does a feminist woman of color see at Burning Man?. . . I looked around at all the naked bodies slinking around everywhere. Noting that there weren't many people of color or really many different kinds of bodies. What i saw was thin, white bodies. Most of them weren't totally naked. Usually they were wearing something, like hot pants, or a cowboy hat, showing the rest of their body. I immediately realized that I wouldn't feel comfortable naked. I would stick out, because I was curvy and brown. That didn't feel very feminist.

  • "T.O.T.: Animal Planet and Race" (Fair Weather Vegan)

    A few months ago I posted a link about Food Network and its annoyingly blatant whiteness. Since I moved to San Francisco and relaxed my channel restrictions, I have rarely watched it. Perhaps because I feel even more acutely that I am not allowed to have a pet in this dog-mad city, I am turning frequently to Animal Planet. As is typical for someone who expects to see persons of her race depicted with regularity on television (see: privilege, white), it took me a long time to notice that something was wrong.

  • "Just Keep Drawing that Circle Smaller and Smaller" (Aunt B. @ Tiny Cat Pants)

    We don’t have to pretend like Pat Buchanan is not an unrepentant white supremacist, do we?. . . "We” live our Christian beliefs. We have a lot of kids. We are small town conservatives. We are reformers who aren’t afraid of taking on large, faceless, powerful entities. We are fighters. We’re good looking. We hate abortion. We love guns. We go to public schools and state universities. We kill our own food. We’re in unions and we work two jobs. We’re very normal (in the churches we go to and the lives we lead). We’re rebels, though, too.

    Now, ask yourself. How many people do you know that fit all that?

  • "Is it FAIR to hate?" (Nezua @ The Unapologetic Mexican)

    The truth is, despite their uncontested status as an extremist group, FAIR remains a powerful lobbying group. . . . In addition, FAIR is considered an extremist group and even a “hate group” by the Southern Poverty Law Center. FAIR shares this distinction with groups like the Ku Klux Klan, the American Nazi Party, and the Aryan Nations organization.

    FAIR is holding an extensive Capital Hill lobbying campaign this week in which participants will visit their legislators and urge them to oppose “Illegal Alien Amnesty” and support even more intense border and workforce crackdown. My goal in this post is simply to educate or inform any who were not aware of these facts.

  • "Hate Group Holds Own Feet to Fire" (America's Voice)

    Yesterday a Coalition of concerned organizations, including America's Voice and SEIU, launched a campaign to call attention to what FAIR is really about. They unveiled full-page ads in newspapers on the Hill, which were written up in the Washington Post and circulated on the internet to spur action. The ads present disturbing quotes from the hate group's founders and leaders and ask a very simple question: "When Did Extreme Become Mainstream?"

    Well, FAIR responded immediately with one of its signature, grammar-impaired press releases, in which it vaguely but categorically denies any ties to racism or extremism. Next FAIR attempts to brand the organizations who dare to question its motivations as constituting an "open-border lobby" (we've yet to encounter this open-border lobby, but we're sure it exists- really, they swear!)

  • And finally, Nina Simone doing some Randy Newman, via Siditty, who's in my thoughts because she lives in Texas.

Friday, September 12, 2008

allow reality to overcome their prejudices

The following video was posted on YouTube a week or so ago by the Obama Campaign. Their title for the video is "Virginia Republicans for Obama," and it presents a series of Republican voters, mostly white, who explain how their fears of McCain have pushed them into voting against their usual party affiliation.

It's their fears of McCain, you see, that have pushed them into being traitors to their party--any countervailing fears that they might have of electing a black president stay submerged throughout this video.

It's interesting that one of the border-crossing Republicans chosen to testify here is black. That choice seems to steer the video away from an issue that remains unspoken throughout the rest of the testimonials, and indeed, pretty much throughout the Obama campaign's entire presentation of its presidential candidate. That issue is this--if these border-crossing Republicans are really going to vote this new way, one of the things that at least some of them will have to overcome about themselves is their racial prejudice. Which is also true, of course, for a lot of white people who normally vote for Democrats.

This racial subtext, which Obama just cannot avoid or "transcend" no matter how much he tries (or rather, I would say, HAS to try), is brought to the surface by the name of another blog that's re-posted this video: "Bitter White Folks for Obama." That blog's author, who writes under the name of A Bitter, Bitter Man, writes this about the video:

These testimonies are very telling; from what I've been hearing from relatives and friends, the polls are totally skewed--most people aren't fooled, and it's only a matter of time before McCain and Palin will be undeniably on their way out...

What this sardonically named white blogger hopes for is that the possibility of McCain's continuation of Bush's disastrous policies will scare a lot of white people who normally wouldn't vote for a black candidate into doing so. Personally, I hope he's right, and that the polls showing a very close election are indeed totally screwed, er, "skewed." I've been thinking, though, that they're skewed the other way, with many white voters telling pollsters that they'll vote for Obama when they actually don't want to admit they have racist misgivings that will prevent them from doing so.

I also hear that these polls are almost always conducted over the phone, and that the pollsters almost never call people with cell phones. My only phone is a cell, and I imagine that's true for a lot of people, so this may be another way the polls are skewed (or, it may not be). What do you all think--are the polls correctly gauging the tightness of this election? And will the people voting for Obama because they fear the war-mongering McCain outweigh those voting for McCain because they fear the black Muslim Obama?

For me, this video raises another race-related problem. I know that my approach on this blog to "whiteness" can seem unrelentingly critical, especially to some white folks (I also know that on the other hand, some readers don't find my approach critical enough). In fact, I've had regular white readers up and leave because they find my approach too anti-white--one even called me the "Uncle Ruckus of the white race":

I also imagine that what might seem like an unrelentingly anti-white approach here prevents some white readers who discover "Stuff White People Do" from ever coming back.

So I'd just like to say upfront that I don't have anything against white people as people. It's the idea of whiteness itself that I'm writing against, especially because of the misery that it's been inflicting for centuries on people not labeled white, but also for the ways that it dehumanizes white folks themselves.

I do think that white people can escape or undo some of that dehumanization. For instance, they can allow the frightening realities of what a McCain/Palin Administration would be like to overcome the absurd reluctance that some of them have to vote for a candidate just because he's black.

Basically, I wouldn't be writing this blog if I believed that white people can't untrain themselves.

Hat-tip: Acting White

Thursday, September 11, 2008

quotation of the week (Suheir Hammad)

Suheir Hammad
"First Writing Since"

Suheir Hammad is a Palestinian-American poet, author and political activist who was born on October 1973 in Amman, Jordan to Palestinian refugee parents and immigrated with her family to Brooklyn, New York City when she was five years old. An earlier version of this poem was published in Motion Magazine on November 7, 2001.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

get tasered less often

The Associated Press reported the following today on the use of Tasers by police in Houston:

Houston police officers have used Tasers more on black suspects than any other group of individuals, according to a city study released Monday.

Of 1,417 Taser deployments by officers between December 2004 and June 2007, nearly 67 percent were used on black suspects, according to an audit conducted for the city by a team of criminology, statistics and mathematics experts. About 25 percent of Houston's population is black.

The audit was requested by Houston Mayor Bill White in 2006, after several high-profile incidents. That year, Houston Texans offensive lineman Fred Weary was shocked during a traffic stop [for more on this incident, see the blog Tasered while Black], and an officer called to quiet a noisy music club shocked musicians and concertgoers. The latter incident was videotaped and widely viewed on YouTube.

A common white response to such race-related statistics would be to question them, and/or ask for more statistics, instead of seeing them as further evidence of racist tendencies among police. For instance, I've heard white folks say things like this: "Well, how many of the people that the Houston police deal with are black, compared to how many are white? If they deal with more crime-committing black people, then of course they're going to Taser more blacks than whites."

Such responses exhibit a common white reluctance to see the police from a different perspective--to see, that is, that others often have good reasons not to trust the police as much as most white folks do. In addition, the immediate assumption that those being Tasered are committing crimes, rather than being subjected to unwarranted harassment, is another common white tendency in regards to the police.

On the other hand, non-white responses to such police matters often come from a more experienced understanding of the following facts: America is still a racist society, and one that particularly demonizes and targets black men; the police are rarely exempt from common racist feelings, thought, and behavior; and the police therefore abuse non-white suspects more often than they do white ones. A common non-white response also often comes from more contact with police--and not necessarily contact that they've brought on themselves, given common racist police tendencies aside from higher incidents of Tasering, such as the myriad forms of racial profiling.

As I've written before, white people are more likely than members of other racial groups to trust the police. Study after study shows that the common police motto, "Protect and Serve," tends to apply much more readily to members of white communities than to those of non-white ones. It simply follows that if white people are abused less often by police, they're also less likely to suffer the common and easily abused control method of Tasering.

It may come as no surprise, though, that in response to the Taser study released yesterday, Houston police contend otherwise. As the AP story continues,

Houston police said their use of Tasers was not tied to race, but to a person's behavior.

"It's not a racial issue. A Taser device is no different from a radar gun. It's race neutral," Executive Assistant Police Chief Charles McClelland said after the Houston City Council meeting during which the report was released.

While this "executive assistant police chief" seems to recognize some sort of problem with the higher incidence of Taser use for black suspects, he also seems almost oblivious to the possibility (let alone the reality) that police officers themselves act in racist ways. Notice how instead, his emphasis is on, bizarrely enough, the "race neutral" character of the Taser device itself.

Nevertheless, another statistic cited in the AP article suggests quite strongly, to me at least, that racism within the minds of the police is indeed a causal factor here: "The study found that black officers were less likely than white or Hispanic officers to use Tasers on a black suspect."

While America's demonization of black men can instill racist feelings, thoughts, and reactions in black minds as well, the fact that black officers use Tasers less often on black suspects likely stems from a tendency to see more of oneself in a black person who's about to be subjected to the dance of 50,000-volts. A black police officer is likely to empathize more readily, that is, with someone who seems more like him or herself. And is thus likely to not suffer from the lack of empathy for black people that's instilled in non-black people by white supremacist America.

I should also add that Tasering is no mere inconvenience. Aside from feeling like, as one recipient put it, "the most profound pain I have ever felt," it can also kill you. That's what it did to twenty-year-old Jarrel Gray.

Jarrel died after being Tasered last year; his family's lawsuit over his wrongful death was recently dismissed by a judge. On the same weekend that Jarrel died, two other Taser victims also died in the United States--Christian Allen, in Florida, and Jesse Saenz, in New Mexico. I don't know if the fact that none of these three men was white is statistically significant, but it does seem bitterly symbolic.*

In response to the Houston study's evidence of racial disparities in Taser "deployment," City Controller Annise Parker, "whose office oversaw the audit," said this to the Associated Press: "We have to spend more time in determining why these racial and ethnic differences exist. . . Simply ignoring them or saying they are not significant is not going to make them go away."

Yes, by all means, Ms. Parker, let's arrange for yet another study. Let's appoint yet another "commission" to determine why these supposedly mysterious differences exist.

This all makes me wonder--is it so difficult to see, and to say, that the pervasive racism that makes life easier for white people also accounts for racial disparities in this common and often deadly form of police abuse?

*According to Amnesty International, "More than 150 people in the USA have now died after being struck by tasers since June 2001, 61 in 2005 alone." Over 11,500 law enforcement agencies use Tasers.

Saturday, September 6, 2008

abuse their children

I think we all will agree that probably the most damaging effect of segregation has been what it has done to the soul of the segregated as well as the segregator.

When I was about eight years old, I lived with my parents and sister in a small house that we “owned” instead of rented. The house was located in a city, but actually on the outskirts of a part of town that we always called “the inner city.” Our own neighborhood was racially mixed, and the most distinguishing feature of the inner city for me was that it was less mixed—the inner city was where “black people” lived. That part of town was also different from “downtown,” which was where my Dad worked, at a job that was good enough so that Mom didn’t have to work at all. We did not think of all the effort she put into our home as “work,” because it didn’t bring money into the house.

When I look back at that time, I realize that I had an awful lot of freedom for an eight year old. I remember wandering wherever I wanted to, often far away from home, and sometimes for an entire day. I once returned and provoked oddly startled looks on my parents’ faces, by telling them about the man who’d invited me into a bar and told me all sorts of interesting stories, while I drank the many sodas that he’d so very nicely paid for.

Usually, my only time and space obligations were to be at school, and to be home at 5:30 for dinner, and then in bed by some reasonable time at night. My favorite place was a “creek,” which was actually an extensive series of concrete channels and tunnels that city planners had built for storm runoff. I think it took me until the age of nine to work up the guts to go far enough into the tunnels to emerge on the other side. When I finally did, I discovered that the field full of abandoned houses my older friends always raved about really did exist. Most of the houses still had broken doors and a few windows left, with decaying furniture, torn-up clothes, cigarette butts and empty beer bottles inside. My friends and I felt a little nervous about getting caught as we poked around in them, but we never encountered any adults there.

In school, though, adults were everywhere, telling us exactly where to go and precisely when to be there. Even gym class offered little real room to move. The playground was better, since the one teacher out there mostly left us alone. On the hottest days, my friends and I would put our feet together, raise the inside edges of our shoes, and then push the outer edges down into the softened tar. I don’t remember any adults blaming us for the long rows of paired divots we made.

All the friends I had at that time were white, except for one black kid named Dwayne. He and I were only friends for a short time, and I don’t remember going to his house, nor him coming to mine.

When I was in fourth grade, groups of black kids came to our elementary school in buses. We’d been told that their school was in bad shape, and since ours had some free space, our principal had offered it to them. These groups were, if I’m remembering right, completely black. At our school they stayed that way too; they had their own classroom, and they all sat together in the cafeteria (it didn’t occur to me that us white kids were sitting “together” too). When the black kids arrived, the adults who monitored the halls and lunchroom became more serious. They crossed their arms and moved around more watchfully, and they smiled a lot less. I felt no opening or inclination to cross over to the black kids’ side of things.

Then one day I was walking around on the playground, and I had a bunch of stickers in my back pocket. Like most of my friends, I collected plastic, name-brand stickers, which all advertised car-related products. Cars were important to boys, and we were obsessive about those colorful stickers. We checked in every day after school at the car parts store, where we pestered the clerk for samples from the latest batch. He always gave us a few stickers, and for some reason, the most prized ones were those for STP oil. They came in many different sizes—some were huge—and they seemed thicker, and softer, than those for other products.

I remember being happy that day on the playground because I had several of the medium-sized STP stickers in my back pocket. They probably made my friends jealous. As I wandered around, in the sort of dazed daydream that I sometimes fell into, I felt someone pull the stickers out of my pocket. When I spun around, a black girl was in front of me, and as soon as I realized that, I saw that her hand was raised. She slapped me across the face. Hard.

I was too stunned to get mad, or cry, or do much of anything but stand there with my mouth open. Nobody I knew ever slapped anyone like that. She smiled at me, with her hands on her hips, like she was waiting to see what I would do. When I didn’t do anything, she looked at the stickers in her hand, then plucked out the biggest and best STP, and then peeled the paper away from the back of it. As the paper fluttered to the ground, she held my eyes in a dare, and her smile grew wider as she smoothed the STP logo across her chest.

She didn’t say anything, at least not with words. I looked around and suddenly realized that I’d wandered into the black part of the playground, so I turned around and walked back. I was too baffled by the whole encounter to even rub my stinging cheek. Afterward, I saw no reason to tell anyone about my lost STP sticker.

My friends and I used to tell each other jokes, the more “bad” the better. We told “polack jokes,” about how many of them it took to screw in a light bulb and so on. “STP,” we said constantly, really meant “Stop Teasing Polacks.” It took me awhile to realize that “polack” referred to a person from Poland. I thought it just meant an especially stupid person. It was the same with the word “white” in that phrase I heard sometimes, “Hey, thanks, that’s mighty white of you!” It took awhile to connect that expression with white people.

We traded jokes about black people too, and like the “polack” jokes, we knew better than to share them with adults, especially our parents. I don’t remember if I found most of the black jokes funny, but one seemed especially clever to me. So much so that I decided to tell it to my dad.

We were shooting hoops in the driveway after dinner, as we always did when the weather allowed, and since the joke was about basketball, that’s when I told it to him.

“You know that basketball team in New York?” I said.

“Yeah? Which one?”

“The one with a new name.”

"New name?" my father said, pretending to guard me.

“Yeah. Their new name is . . . the New York Niggerbockers!”*

Instead of the laugh I expected, my father grabbed the ball from me, then gave me one of his hard, long stares.

“We. Do. NOT. Use. That. Word. GOT IT?”

“Okay, yeah, got it. Sorry.” I knew which word he meant, but I didn’t know yet the word was THAT bad.

As we went back to our mismatched game, I felt surprised. My friends (all white at that time) had found that joke so funny, and they’d been saying it for days. The chance it gave me to impress my dad, who always appreciated cleverness otherwise, had fallen worse than flat. In fact, I felt lucky I hadn’t been punished.

A year or so later, when I was ten, I came home to the complete surprise of a “For Sale” sign on our front lawn. My father tells me now that he doesn’t remember race having anything at all to do with the decision to buy a bigger house outside of the city. It’s become obvious to me, though, that if we hadn’t been white, there would have been very little likelihood, or even possibility, that we would have moved into “the suburbs,” no matter what my parents may or may not have thought or felt about the nearby “inner city.”

I made it through my years as a teenager in a place that seemed really boring (and then as I got older, “stifling” and “sterile”). I paid for some of my own clothes and other things, first as a paper boy, then as a bus boy, and even as a “salad boy.” I didn’t think much at all about race anymore, except when topics involving the “inner city” arose. That was certainly a place my friends and I still never went to, even when we had our own cars. The empty suburban streets provided plenty of room for chasing and racing each other, and for doing “donuts” on the lawns of unfortunate neighbors. If we ever got caught, boredom was our excuse.

My high school had something like 1500 students, and as I look at my dusty senior year book, I can see that only eight or nine were not white. Which seems incredible to me now. I never thought to wonder back then, at least not coherently--how did that suburban space get that way? Had it always been like that?

I remember talking in a school hallway with a friend one day, when he suddenly revealed a side of himself that I didn’t realize was there. It happened when one of the black guys walked by.

“Look at THAT,” he said, suddenly snide and cold. “Damn niggers. High asses, cocky attitude. I HATE them!”

“What? What the hell are you talking about?”

He fell into a silent smirk, and I didn’t know what to say. I did know that was the easy thing to do, and so I did it—I kept saying nothing. And no matter where I wanted to be, which at that moment was away from this friend, it was clear to me which side I was on. Not that I wanted to be, but there I was.

Later, when I was about to graduate from high school, I didn’t feel like a boy anymore. My classmates had a “senior banquet,” a grand finale at a downtown hotel. This was a workplace, I now realize, where a lot of the staff must have come from the “inner city.”

At one point that night, I was sitting at a big round table with about ten other seniors. I don’t know if it was before or after all the silly awards had been announced by our class president. We were being served “banquet” style, with whole plates of food gently placed in front of us, by servers who were friendly enough, but mostly silent, and mostly black.

My table might have been louder and more mischievous than some others, because we had a certain guy named Rich sitting with us. Rich was something else, kind of famous actually. He was really loud, for one thing, and he’d been suspended many times from school, and almost expelled too, for ultra-smartass things that the rest of us would never do. He swore at teachers. He let greased piglets loose in the school one night. After feeding them Ex-Lax.

I’ve often thought that what Rich did that night in that place further demonstrated his fundamental separation from the rest of his classmates. But now I’m not so sure.

The server for our table was a middle-aged black woman. She gradually moved around our circle, silently placing full plates in front of us. When she reached Rich, he stood up, pulled out his wallet, and said, “Hey girl! I got something to show you!”

The woman paused, like the rest of us, to see what he had in his wallet. It was a card.

Instead of handing her the card, or even showing it to her, he shouted, “I, my girl, am a card-carrying member of the KKK! That’s right, the KKK, and you need to know that! See that, this official membership card has KKK printed right across the front of it, with my name below it!”

I remembered then that I’d heard this before about him. That it was really true, crazy Rich had somehow found out how to join the Ku Klux Klan.

Aside from the daring, extreme nature of this latest stunt, Rich’s demand that the woman look at the card was strange, because he never did actually show it to her closely enough so that she could read it. He just kept waving and shaking it over her head, telling her again and again what it said.

I didn’t know what to think. I looked around, and the rest of the table was laughing. I wasn’t, and I couldn’t, especially when I looked at the woman, who tried to ignore Rich and go back to passing out plates.

Rich finally sat down, fully satisfied with himself, and another guy slapped him on the back as he roared with laughter. Everyone else was either laughing or smiling, a bit shocked by Rich's antics. I didn’t laugh or smile as I watched the woman shake her head and go on to the next table.

My food tasted terrible. But I didn’t get up and leave.

I saw which side I was on.

*For those who may not know, a professional American basketball team, the New York Knicks, used to be called the New York Knickerbockers.

[This post is dedicated to my father, who only THINKS he’s a “conservative.” Thank you, dad.]
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