Archives For racism

Given the appropriate outpouring of condemnation that’s overflowed my social media newsfeeds since White Nationalists, Nazis, Far Right, and other all-White racist hate groups converged on Charlottesville, VA last weekend, I wanted to highlight two maneuvers of mental gymnastics which help White people protect themselves.

Racists are Evil

I saw this image on FaceBook a lot Saturday and Sunday:

It reinforces what I read and heard repeatedly about the White people featured in it and their peers—“Racists are evil.”

So. Robin DiAngelo calls this mental gymnastics maneuver the “Racist/Not Racist” binary. It reinforces that the “people who commit these acts are considered racists; the rest of us are not racists.” Here’s the way Robin breaks it down in her book What does it mean to be White?

I like to shorthand this the “Good/Bad” binary. Because being associated with racism brings up all sorts of uncomfortable feelings for White people, and makes us feel like we’re associated with those hate mongering wack-jobs and no one wants to feel like that!

But friends, all White people are racist. This is the face of racism in the United States too:

And the sooner we start confronting that directly—which involves working through the endless swamp of discomfort—the sooner our life-long journey toward being a White Anti-Racist begins.

White Supremacists vs White Supremacy

Not gonna lie, I had a strong distasted for the word “supremacy” and the term “White Supremacy” for years. I avoided it completely. I used White Privilege, acknowledging my own. I would say White people in America are the dominant or majority group in a systemically racist country, and acknowledge I was White. But I would not say ever that I was part of White Supremacy.

Over time, I recognized I was holding my personal anti-racism development back because of it. Even though I was “woke” (as the kids say) I was still deeply rooted in the Racist|Not-Racist or Good|Bad binary. Supremacists and supremacy are the same when you’re stuck in the binary. “Supremacists” were bad. “I” was not one of “THEM.” I didn’t really categorize most White people as one of “THEM” either. And therefore, that phrase “White Supremacy” couldn’t be true.

It’s hard to admit that only a year and half ago did I realize the complex gymnastics I was engaged in to avoid confronting my own racism. I was othering “White Supremacists,” making them “bad,” differentiating them from me so that I could be “not racist” and “good.” It was a sign of my White Fragility.

To this day and for the rest of my life I’ll remain entangled in the “racist = bad | not racist = good” binary. But I know that I can see systemic racism more clearly after having accepted that there is White Supremacy in the United States. It means I see the dynamics for what they are: a legacy established by White people at the expense of People of Color that is still active to this day. That’s White Supremacy.

So let’s circle back to that “appropriate outpouring of condemnation” filling my social media newsfeeds. Please condemn the abusive and violent behavior that occurred this past weekend. But what actions can we balance our declarations with? Let’s make sure that we are not tolerating the open and obvious demonstrations of racism and race-motivated hate crimes in Charlottesville, as well as not tolerating the camouflaged or obscured demonstrations of racism in our workplaces and homes.

My dear fellow White people, we too are the face of racism.

We too are White Supremacy Culture.

Now let’s do something about it.


Get yourself started:

Code of Ethics for Antiracist White Allies

By JLove Calderon and Tim Wise

Sponsored by SURJ-Showing Up For Racial Justice

Excerpted from Occupying Privilege; Conversations on Love, Race, and Liberation

watchman-train

Looking back, it was hardly coincidental that I picked up Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman shortly after DJT was elected to office. It was clearly the catalyst for my first steps of in-the-home activism.

atticus-finch

Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch in the 1962 film of To Kill a Mockingbird

Watchman takes place in the 1950s, 20 years after To Kill a Mockingbird. Scout—now called Jean Louise—returns to her hometown of Maycomb, GA from New York City where she’s been living and working. She discovers [SPOILER ALERT] that her father, Atticus Finch, is not the morally upstanding, liberal-leaning, “everyone is equal” touting man she thought he was. Instead we learn that Atticus is in fact a more complex person, a more realistic character; we learn Atticus is a White man in a position of power attempting to maintain the status quo of White Supremacy in Maycomb.

(Slight divergence: Jean Louise’s recognition of Atticus’ true and full self instantly reminded me of my various “awakening” moments to systemic racism and other forms of oppression over the course of my life this far.)

It’s revealed in Watchman that Jean Louise escaped to New York City. She fled the tight confines of Maycomb and the South: those confines that she could see or feel directly. Despite being reared in the Deep South, Jean Louise was raised “color blind” (and thought her father was as well). She was “woke” to gender, race, and class prejudice and would bluntly call it out, but she was “blind” to structural oppression and participated in upholding it—as most citizens did and do on a daily basis. Other than railing against Maycomb citizens (royally pissing them off) and family members (hurting their feelings) Jean Louise takes little action to effect change. She kicks up dirt and runs away, again and again.

Finally, at the end of the novel her Uncle Jack asks

“Jean Louise, have you ever thought about coming home?….You may not know it, but there’s room for you down here.”…. You’d be amazed if you knew how many people are on your side, if side’s the right word. You’re no special case. The woods are full of people like you, but we need some more of you.”

She started the car and backed down the driveway. She said, “What on earth could I do? I can’t fight them. There’s no fight in me any more…”

“I don’t mean fighting; I mean by going to work every morning, coming home at night, seeing your friends.”

“Uncle Jack, I can’t live in a place that I don’t agree with and that doesn’t agree with me.”

It’s the next part that got me:

“…the time your friends need you is when they’re wrong, Jean Louise. They don’t need you when they’re right—”

“I mean it takes a certain maturity to live in the South these days. You don’t have it yet, but you have a shadow of the beginnings of it. You haven’t the humbleness of mind—”

“I thought fear of the Lord was the beginning of wisdom.”

“It’s the same thing. Humility.”

I came to understand that the rail-and-run technique was personally and professionally ineffectual about a year and a half ago. I paid a price for it, and have worked against feelings of self-righteous motivated activist since. But what I hadn’t done was gone home and sought to engage my family members. I had not yet tried to humbly interact with their true and full selves around the topic of race and our Whiteness.

Luckily, I these conversations were happening with my husband. So I asked if he would be open to gifting ) Robin DiAngelo’s book What does it mean to be White? to the four households in our immediate family (my parents; my sister and her partner; my mother-in-law; my brother- and sister-in-law). He agreed.

When holiday time came, each book was accompanied by a letter (the text of which I included at the bottom of this post). We asked that family members “exchange with us the gift of conversation around [the book’s] contents in the coming months.”

I can report that the books were received well and some family members have started reading them. I’ve already had more nuanced conversations with my parents—one of which hasn’t started the book—about race and Whiteness in 2017 than I have in my life. My husband reported having at least one reflective conversation with his mother, who I believe hadn’t started the book at that time but has as of today.

There are many action steps I’m being encouraged to follow and public places I can convene in to demonstrate my dissent with the current administration, its actions thus far, and what I/we assume will be its actions moving forward. I propose, like Uncle Jack, considering dialogue in the home as well. The Powers That Be run strong, deep, and silent. Examining them openly as a family might be one of the cornerstones of change for the future.


Dear ____name____:

This holiday season, we want to share with you the gift of the book What does it mean to be White? and ask that you exchange with us the gift of conversation around its contents in the coming months.

Our lives are gifted with abundance. We have loving parents, siblings, siblings-in-law, a beautiful niece, and cuddly pets. All of us have places to live. We are all employed and/or have the means to eat, be clean and clothed, transport ourselves places, and maintain our health. We have strong support networks.

It is because our lives are gifted with abundance, with privilege, that we don’t want to take this for granted. We want to actively be responsible citizens at the national level, local level, and family level.

We’re all White and we live in an increasingly multi-racial, multi-ethnic, multi-cultural country. This past year, we’ve clearly seen how deeply racism still runs in this country. And this past year has forced us to confront the reality that we (personally) aren’t addressing racism, our White identity, and Whiteness in all the ways we could be.

We want to talk with you about these highly important topics. We see this book as a way to begin to have the conversation. And maybe, this way, we can work toward effecting positive change in our country (and the world) by starting in our homes.

We love you all very much.

A scene from late summer 2016:

Kevin Lamarque/Reuters

Kevin Lamarque/Reuters

I enter a Metro train at the rear and take a seat. I can see the entire car. It’s partially full, populated with the typical diversity of people that ride that line in the middle of the day–a mix of ages and races, suits and casual wear, obvious tourists and those who seem more like locals.

There are two female teenagers talking and laughing in the bank of seats directly in front of me. For two station stops they remain in their own world, focused on cracking each other up. But then their attention turns to a couple, an early-20s woman and man, sitting in the bank of seats immediately to their left.

“Hey. Hey!  HEY!”

One of the teens repeatedly tries to get the young woman’s attention.

After numerous “heys,” she switches to: “Is that your boyfriend? Hey! Is that your boyfriend? Hey, HEY! Are you two together? Are you dating? Is that your boyfriend?”

The male in the couple appears to realize the teen is addressing them. He nudges his female companion, they confer, and she looks at the teen. “Is that your boyfriend?” The woman shakes her head and he says “No.”

“Oh, you’re just friends,” says the teen.

“Yes. Just friends.”

The teens burst into laughter.

They start again: “Hey. Hey. Hey, do you speak English?” The young woman and man attempt to ignore, but it’s difficult. Impossible. The teens’ volume increases and they were already loud enough to draw all of us in at the start. Most everyone on the train was listening, watching. After repeating “do you speak English” five or so more times, the woman responds “no.”

The teens crack up again.

Then they start in a new direction: postulating how the couple must talk.  It’s basically unintelligible except for phrases like “ching-chong-china.” A middle-aged woman a few rows away whips her head around and stares coldly at the backs of two teens’ heads; she rises and moves further away on the train.

Finally, a woman in her mid-50s who had been sitting to my immediate right the entire time approaches the teens and says something in a low voice just before exiting the train. The two are quiet for a moment, but then laugh and continue with their mockery of the way people of Asian heritage speak.

I exit the train two stops later having said nothing.

The teens were African American. The young couple was of Asian heritage; possibly Southeast Asia. The older woman, who spoke to the teens, was African American. I am White.

While I want to analyze the other racial dynamics at play, the only one that matters is the big one, the one I recognized immediately and then ignored: White Fragility.

I witnessed this entire scene play out some four months ago and did nothing. I recognized immediately my inaction was the result of White Fragility and I tampered the urge to overcome it. In the moment, I actually assumed that no one on the train was expecting me to do anything because I am White and everyone else involved were People of Color. I feared becoming the object of the teens’ focus; I didn’t want to be teased and harassed. I just wanted it all to go away or for my stop to arrive as soon as possible so I could get off the train. So I burrowed into myself and took no action.

This was a Huge Fail.

Let me say that again.

A. Huge. Fail.

But what it doesn’t mean is I am a Failure or a Bad Person.

I learned a lesson that day about how vigilant I needed to be, to hold myself accountable in the moment. I cannot allow me to talk myself out of taking a just course of action. Interrupting behavior(s) can be done gently, with strangers. If I end up in an uncomfortable/undesirable position as a result, I will survive it. It will be nothing compared to what People of Color encounter and endure on a daily basis. But I know if the White person on the train doesn’t say something next time, she won’t the next time, or the next time, or the next time, or ever.

And I also know if I didn’t share this story, it would allow me to hide it instead of learn from it.

My first encounter with Peggy McIntosh‘s concept of “the invisible knapsack” was in 1999. I was 23 years old. I had just moved to Washington, DC a few months prior to work at Arena Stage in the education department (a two person plus an intern office at that time). We were to work closely with Living Stage Theatre Company, seek alignment between the “two organizations” (not really separate since Living Stage was a part of Arena but that’s another story). The entire staff at Living Stage and the education department went through an intensive, multi-day anti-racism/anti-oppression training with the great Rebecca Rice and Erika Thorne. I contextualize because it was a gift I thank the universe for every day.

It was the first time I became aware of the reality of systemic racism, White supremacy, and the backpack of privilege I carry with me everywhere.

walking-backpacks-canvas-rucksack-backpack-for-school.jpgW.E.B. Du Bois described the concept of “psychological wage”in his 1935 essay Black Reconstruction in America. It was a mindset, a status boost, that allowed White laborers to feel superior, to feel better-than Black ones in the workplace despite being on the same employment level. Du Bois would go on to identify the colonial activity of Europeans and subsequent “White supremacy” across the world. While the term “white-skin privilege” was used during the Civil Rights era by activities, it wasn’t until Peggy McIntosh, a Women’s Studies scholar at Wellesley, wrote her essay “White Privilege and Male Privilege: A Personal Account of Coming to See Correspondences Through Work in Women’s Studies” in 1988 that the term gained traction.

McIntosh, a White woman like me, was “taught to see racism only in individual acts of meanness, not in invisible systems conferring dominance on my group.” But in methodically going through and identifying the daily, seemingly mundane effects of her White Privilege–her mind was blown.

My mind was also blown when my knapsack was pointed out in 1999… and I journeyed through a series of extremely typical responses people of privilege do when confronted for the first time (in this case White people confronted with White privilege and systemic racism):

  • What?!? No!
  • Sure, but not me? I’m not like that.
  • All White people!?!?
  • But I’ve had friends who are not White. I’ve dated non-Whites. I’ve….
  • Does this mean [enter Black friend’s name] won’t be my friend anymore?
  • Not me.
  • Oh my, me? Me? 

And this was not a five-minute journey. And there was crying. Because of course there was. There was a lot of guilt. There were long periods of knapsack removal and ignoring attempts. There was a long stretch of extreme over-compensation in which I was the most obnoxious “righteous not-listening person because ‘I am a person in-the-know’.”

At this point, I think I’m in a phase of perpetual “working on it.” But that’s a wobbly phase. The knapsack, it is invisible and therefore so easy to forget. There’s no ridding myself of it. There’s no emptying it. Somedays I am back in my “not-listening person” state and bless the patience of everyone around me as I swing my knapsack around and point screaming at all the knapsacks on everyone around me. [shudders at self with embarrassment, then gets over it]

The point: privilege is a knapsack society packed for us and slapped on our backs. The first step on the journey is acknowledging it’s there.

Is that your bag? Yup.


Not familiar with McIntosh’s article? Follow this link for a commonly excerpted version.