Sunday, August 20, 2006

For White Folks: How To Be An Ally (Part 2)

Part 1 of this series (Ohmygosh! Is it going to be a series?) was intended to cultivate the ground, as it were. To turn the brain-earth so that the air and the light could warm and brighten it. To let the mind breathe and prepare for the next set of ideas. Part 1b clarified some questions about how I see the issue of European-American self-identity. And the reason I'm linking to these here is that, despite the fact that you could easily scroll down and find them, I would strongly suggest that you read them before you read the rest of this, if you haven't already done so. What I write now will build on my earlier statements in ways that won't make as much sense without having read them first.

Also, before I proceed, I'd like to make a couple of points about the word "ally," which derives from the Latin for alligare meaning "to bind to." First of all, Ally Work has a quote on their masthead I've seen attributed elsewhere to a First Nation woman: "If you have come to help me, please go home. But if you have come because your liberation is somehow bound with mine, then we may work together." So, for me, being an ally is not about saving somebody else. It's about saving myself (I closed with this point in Part 1, but it was not always caught). I see my liberation as indelibly bound with that of every other human on the face of this planet. All the oppressed and even, God/dess help us, the oppressors (who, let's face it, are in the stranglehold of their own insanity, even if they do ride around on chartered jets). Nobody's free (as we used to say back in the sixties) until we're all free. This is not a platitude to me. This is a reality. And I want to be free. Not that I think I'm necessarily gonna get there in my lifetime. And I realize it's not a sprint, it's a marathon. But I'm going for it. With others. By myself. Whatever. Like the Steve McQueen character in "Papillon."

The second point I'd like to make about the word "ally" is that it isn't a one-way street. There is no such thing as a one-sided coin and there are some states-of-being that require more than an individual. You can't be "married" (in the truest sense of the word) by yourself, for example. You can't be a one-person "team." And allies are individuals or groups or nations bound together through mutual interests--such as survival. The two (or more) parties don't have to be equally powered to be allies. But there has to be mutual respect predicated on the basis of mutual need on some level. Crocodiles don't eat the birds that live on what they pick out of the crocodile's teeth. There's a reason for that. Maybe they're smarter than most humans.

In any case, European-Americans who imagine that they are or present themselves as "allies," seeing themselves as "helpers" need to go back to Part 1 and Part 1b to review. People of color don't need "help." They need "allies." Just as all other humans--including Europeans and European-Americans--do. People of color know things I don't know. They have experienced things I have not experienced and developed a culture that is very particularly their own. They have benefitted from a long and rich history that has not similarly imbued me with their perspectives. They have ties to each other that could teach me how to better form alliances. They have the spiritual depth and wisdom of people who have suffered and thrive anyway. I need them. So I approach with great respect for what they bring to the table. I ask to be taught and I honor that teaching. I stand corrected when appropriate and do not see myself as reduced by the correction. I need allies and I need to be an ally. Not just for people of color, but for all the manifestations of life on Earth. And crashing a people of color think tank wearing a "Free Africa!" t-shirt will not increase the likelihood of that happening. With me so far?

Under the right circumstances, people of color have always welcomed allies who look like me, when those allies operate in the manner in which I have been discussing. I just purchased a poster of W.E.B. DuBois for my new office bearing a quote from his work as a sociologist (genuflect): "There can be no perfect democracy curtailed by color, race, or poverty. But with all, we accomplish all, even peace." His statement was not an academic one. In fact, he tried to recognize the contributions of John Brown by placing a tablet on the grounds of historically Black Storer College in Harper's Ferry, Virginia, in 1932. Brown, a European-American executed in 1859 for leading a band of 21 men, including several of his own sons to occupy the arsenal in Harper's Ferry in the attempt to kick off a "war of emancipation," was deemed "too militant" by the Storer College officials.

Just before the NAACP Convention this year, however, Julian Bond and NAACP President Bruce Gordon followed their predecessor's example and dedicated in Harper's Ferry a new tablet, having the same design and layout of the original and including the same language: "With him, fought seven slaves and sons of slaves. Over his crucified corpse marched 200,000 Black soldiers and 4,000,000 freedmen singing 'John Brown's body lies a mouldering in the grave, but his soul goes marching on!" DuBois, Bond, and Gordon joined those earlier African-Americans in acknowledging Brown as an ally.

Now, obviously, I am hardly calling on "White" folks to die for "the cause" in the interests of being deemed "allies." I am beginning with Brown to remind us that he and his family and many others in the history of the United States were, in fact, boldly and unapologetically allies with their brothers and sisters of color--and accepted by many as such. An earlier post of mine on William Lloyd Garrison describes another of them. But there were enough European-Americans who less spectacularly allied themselves with people of color for a range of reasons (business, love, or logic) that laws were enacted to punish those errant "White" folks and deter others from casually following in their footsteps.

Still, whether it was a bi-racial couple marrying and moving West, European-Americans collecting money to buy Africans and African-Americans for the express purpose of setting them free, or entire families of European-Americans committing themselves for decades to harboring fugitives as part of the Underground Railroad (an activity that could be worthy of death), people who looked--and thought--like me have always existed. Socialization teaching that skin tone and heritage determines worth didn't take for everyone. So the idea that "well, that's just the way it was back then" is no more true than that racism is a thing of the past now. It has always been a choice for people who look like me to develop whatever attitude they please toward the socially-constructed, political notion of "race." And it still is, regardless of how pervasive institutionalized oppression in the name of racism remains.

Having said all that, let me tell some stories about what being an ally has sometimes looked like in my own life.

Back when I was in middle school in northern Illinois in the late 1950's and early 1960's, we used to plug in the juke box and dance in the cafeteria after lunch. Now, I wasn't supposed to dance at all, being that dancing was an activity of the devil and all, but I just couldn't help myself. I love to dance. Always have. So when one of the African-American students went to Baltimore and brought back "The Continental," a very smooth dance similar to "The Electric Slide" today, characterized by a small group all facing the same direction and executing the same moves in lock-step precision, I was instantly hooked. As quickly as I could master it, I was on the floor with the "Black" kids (and one other tiny "White" girl wearing harlequin glasses), honestly oblivious for some reason to the fact that others might not understand.

It didn't take long before Dupree, one of the African-American boys--short and high yella--asked me to hand-dance or jitterbug or whatever we were calling it at the time to "Stagger Lee" or "Alley Oop" and I said yes without hesitation. Clearly, he had great nerve and he could really dance, unlike the "White" boys who tended to let the girls dance with each other. So I enjoyed it, in spite of the fact that we did not speak to each other while dancing and did not fraternize at any other time inside or outside of school.

Still, my best friend (a Colonel's daughter who had pink shag carpeting in her bedroom) soon mentioned with obvious discomfort that "people are talking about you because you dance with negroes during lunch." I didn't even answer her because I had not considered this, did not understand why they were talking about me, and didn't intend to quit dancing with whomever I wanted regardless. Heck! I wasn't supposed to be dancing in the first place. I might as well have a good partner. Besides, it's not like we were going steady or something. Anyway, my point is that an ally actively participates in the creation of a world wherein they and their allies co-exist as equals without apology. If the other students saw me as "above" Dupree, he apparently did not, even in 1959. Nor did I. We were partners. Allies. Modeling for everyone in sight a new world of social acceptance. Ready or not.

In the interest of trying to keep this focused and not write some kind of magnum opus, I'm going to jump ahead now to an incident a couple of decades later, when I walked up to a photo processing counter in a discount store to pick up the pictures I had brought in for developing. A tall African-American man was standing at the counter already, waiting for a salesperson to appear. The minute I approached, a "White" woman came out of nowhere and directed her attention immediately to me. "May I help you?" she asked brightly.

"Well," I replied, nodding in the man's direction, "he was here first."

"Oh, I'm sure it would only take me a minute to take care of you," she countered, still smiling, never taking her eyes off me.

"You don't understand," I said pointedly, "HE...was here first..."

At which point she finally turned to him as if noticing him for the first time and, without missing a hitch or changing her tone, she simply went on, "Oh! Well, in that case, may I help you?"

The man's eyes caught mine for only a second. Eyeball to eyeball, we stood, complete strangers, never to see other or have anything else to do with each other ever again, to my knowledge. But recognizing and acknowledging each other. I didn't do what I did to make a point or to be "kind" or because I was trying to be "politically correct" (this was long before the PC movement). I did it the same way I would have done it for anyone else who was there first, because it was the right thing to do. There was no "gratitude" in his eyes. There was no "patronizing" in mine. We were allies, that's all. Allies rise to the occasion at hand--as needful--and require nothing but the knowledge that they are acting appropriately as a healthy and responsible human and a member of the greater human race.

Sometime years later, I was going over my mail in the departmental office of whichever school was employing me at the time, when I overheard the "White" department secretary telling another "White" woman an anecdote about being in traffic behind a car that was being driven in a way she was apparently attributing to some stereotypical characteristic of its driver's subculture. I wasn't paying very close attention, but clearly caught the "you know how they do" and the rolling of the eyes. And while I can't positively identify the group to which she was referring, there's a certain tone of voice and set of facial expressions many "White" folks are quick to use when speaking of other racial and ethnic groups.

I was caught in a dilemma. First of all, I couldn't be absolutely sure what she had meant. Secondly, as the department secretary, she could have made my life difficult as an adjunct--from not getting my copied exams on time to not getting subsequent teaching appointments. So I certainly did not want to step in uninvited with a political statement that might affect my well-being, even my income. And lastly, I was in a hurry. I left the office bustling off to wherever I was due, but with my thoughts in an uproar.

"I can't fix everything," I reasoned. "There's no point in my shooting myself in the foot when I'm not even sure what she meant."

But it was no good. I walked back to the office, poked my head in the door, and said calmly to the secretary in front of the other woman, who was still present, "I'd appreciate it if you wouldn't talk like that in front of me again. I don't feel the same way you do about people of other groups and it makes me very uncomfortable to hear stereotypes used in that way."

"Oh," she responded, "you mean what I said about the driver?"

"Yes," I agreed.

"Okay," she replied. And I went off down the hall again.

Allies are allies even when their allies are not present. Or when in the presence of others who may not be allies. That is to say, some European-Americans speak great political rhetoric around people of color when other European-Americans--particularly those who might not agree with them--are not present. But it's not lost on the people of color when they hear a "White" person back-pedal, however subtly, when another "Whitey" happens by. I was offered an excellent position once to join an Afri-centric social service agency once they had been able over a period of nearly a year to ascertain that I was what they called "consistent" in all venues. And I never knew I was being observed.

Over the years, I have mentored students of color as graduates and undergraduates, I have reached out to African-Americans in locations we share regularly and where they might be the only person of color, I have taught and trained and read and participated in settings calculated to raise my own and other's consciousness about "race," and I have sought myriads of opportunities to make tiny connections and infinitessimal differences. Supporting a new organization of African-American students by remembering to participate in their events. Reminding a Puerto Rican mother by the pool that it's okay for her son to play outside, even if it means he'll get "darker" ("Have you looked at the stars in the entertainment field lately?") Giving a young European-American woman a safe place to discuss her concerns that her bi-cultural lifestyle is somehow not appropriate. Learning our shared history and casually telling the truth of it whenever possible. Listening. Appreciating. Growing.

There is also something not to do. European-Americans who want to be allies for people of color don't be "down." That is to say, they don't try to "act" Black or "be" Black or impress Black folks, really, in any way (which is very difficult to do, in any case, given the state of affairs between the "races" in this country just now). European-Americans who want to be allies for people of color just "be." And then, eventually, they may find themselves being invited to "get in where you fit in."

It was my son who first modeled this for me back in 1993. He was sixteen at the time and playing spades across the street with a table of young African-American men at a family barbeque to which we'd been invited--slapping cards, talking smack, and generally just part of the milieu. But he was winning. The other men were drinking alcohol and, as the afternoon went on, I became edgy that Eli was going to wind up with a problem of some sort.

Following him back home at one point, I expressed my concern, only to have him "straighten" me. "I know what I'm doing, Mom," he said as if he was reassuring a child. "Look at my clothes. I'm wearing a Metallica t-shirt and Jenko jeans. Am I trying to be something I'm not? No. If I was trying to 'be Black' or prove something to these guys, they'd have already taught me a lesson. But I'm just being who I am and they can respect that." And he was right.

So there is much a European-American can do as an ally for people of color, but not until the "inside work" is done. The "inside work" (in Part 1 and Part 1b) is "ally work" (if there is such a thing). Some people who look like me come to me urgent with their "need" to "help," to "make a difference," "now." But that's not how it is. If you're not willing, ready, and able to change the universe inside you, then how would you expect to make a difference in the greater society? If you won't even listen to yourself, who would listen to you? And besides, since being an ally is a two (or more) member job, then why would a person of color be willing to trust you before you've at least made a dent in your own personal racial renaissance? You can't be an ally without another ally on the other side of the stream to help you build your bridge and you must prepare yourself with sacred diligence to be worthy of the name.

Just A Quickie Mention...

I'm working on a post that should be up by noon today, but want to steer you in the direction of a post by Eric on his frustration about holding African-Americans responsible for reflecting the overall culture in the U.S. as if it was all about them. Maybe I've just missed it, but the discussions involving Bill Cosby and Juan Williams, et al, always seems to revolve around whether or not they're right, rather than why their comments focus only on Black folks to the exclusion of the broader consideration. Go, Eric!

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

For White Folks: How To Be An Ally (Part 1b)

In view of the fact that I won't be able to post Part 2 of How To Be An Ally until Saturday (sigh), I thought it might be a good idea to post this little addendum to Part 1. In response to my statement (not very well explained, I'm afraid) that I don't tell people I'm "White," Yami McMoots over at Green Gabbro raised some important points:

"The shop clerk who doesn’t follow me around the store, the cop who lets me off with just a warning, and other notional tools of white supremacy are not responding to my ethnic identity as a North-European-Mutt-American (which is also a social construct), but to my race; they could care less about my self-identification.

"There are two ways to get them to not respond to me as White: engage in racial drag; or wave the wand of magic anti-racist enlightenment every time I meet someone new. Not practical answers. Since my assigned race influences my life whether I want it to or not, I don’t think it makes any sense to run around telling people 'oh, I’m not White, I’m Euro-American'.

"I doubt Changeseeker would deny that the way one is racially categorized has significant impacts on one’s experience in society, regardless of one’s personal level of antiracism/internalized white supremacy/etc., or that she thinks we can change the way we are identified by others (though obviously she’s welcome to correct me on this) - I think we just have different concepts of identity. She appears to see identity statements as claims about the speaker’s desire or affinity, while I usually interpret them as claims about the speaker’s interactions with the world, including the way other people respond. These aren’t mutually exclusive metaphors, and neither of us is wrong, but when there’s significant tension between personal desire and social response the distinction becomes important.

"If identity is a claim about my interactions with the world, saying that I’m not White is a lie, and all kinds of un-PC as it means I am denying my own privilege. If identity is a statement of desire and affinity, saying that I’m not White is a perfectly sensible and progressive statement whose truth value cannot be determined without a detailed, intimate examination of my antiracist commitments. Conclusion: when making statements about racial identity, it is important to be clear about what 'identity' actually means."

And this was my response:

What I was getting at in the paragraph you cite (and you are so right that I needed to be clearer about what I mean by identity) is that I am calling for a paradigm shift by reminding us that “race” is a socially-constructed, political notion while privilege is a system of practices. I can seek to reject privilege when it is apparent to me. (I will address this idea in Part 2.) What I was shooting for here, though, was to suggest that in order for privilege to be apparent to me so that I can reject it, I have to be able to recognize it as a response to a socially-constructed, political notion based on no actual deserved quality. Whiteness perceives itself as deserving. European-American individuals, on the other hand, have no basis upon which to perceive themselves as any more deserving than any other ethnic group on the planet.

Now, obviously, I know that daily practice at every level in U.S. society privileges European-Americans as “White” with or without their conscious awareness, admission, or acknowledgment, let alone any embarrassment or guilt. And yes, the first step is an ever-increasing awareness of this functional reality.

But this functional reality is based on (according to the famous UNESCO study reported in the early 1950's) a “social myth.” The realization of “race” as a myth in no way mitigates the damage done by its perpetuation as a concept. It just makes it that much more unconscionable or even heinous, while being totally ridiculous. How can a person think they deserve privilege because of their skin tone? If there was any sense to this, I would lose privilege in direct proportion to the sun tan I’ve been getting.

I don’t tell people “I’m not White”--for exactly the reason you brought up, Yami. It’s not immediately understandable as a statement given where most people in the U.S. (on all sides of the issue) reside. What I do is tell people that “Whiteness” is a meaningless social construction devised for the purpose of exploiting people of color for the enrichment of people that look like me. (Again, I might have and probably do have African heritage–as many people who look like me do–but I still get the benefit of “White” privilege, as long as I don’t tell people “I’m Black.”)

There is no need to abandon group identity. Each of us belongs to many groups and group identity is short hand (a code) for understanding another individual’s experience, reality, and/or self-determined claim. The difficulty has never been “difference” per se. The difficulty is the fact that we declare difference and then socially impose an entirely arbitrary hierarchy on it (men over women, “White” people over people of color, etc.). Then, those who find themselves privileged by this hierarchy begin to imagine that they are indeed better than those “beneath” them on the ladder. And therein lies the problem.

When I use the term “people that look like me,” I am challenging listeners to remember that they can’t make simple sense of “racial” difference without my complicity. So I don’t say: “I’m not White.” I just choose not to identify myself using that term, but rather create a series of teachable moments related to “race.”

I know that most European-Americans are not prepared to do this at this time. Nevertheless, what I was nudging them towards in my post was the possibility of considering that their “race” is a “social myth” deserving no privilege and that keeping that idea foremost in their minds at all times will move mountains in their psyches, as well as their own and others' lives.

Sunday, August 13, 2006

Generation Her

Blackamazon took the varnish off the woodwork over at her blog with this post. It's her response as a young woman of color to all the "data" and analysis on how Generation Me lies, cheats, and doesn't care about anything. She folds race, class, and gender into a most ferocious pudding and the comments thread (featuring primarily a dialogue between BitchLab and Blackamazon) just keeps the party going. Sometimes, I border on hopefulness...

Saturday, August 12, 2006

Feeding The Soul

One of the many sources I tap more or less regularly in an attempt to broaden my perspective is SeeingBlack.com. This week, they ran an article by William Jelani Cobb entitled "The Devil and Dave Chappelle". It typifies the combination of culture, politics, and analysis that always deepens my understanding of African-American reality. The piece is so righteous, I felt as if I'd been to church. For real.

Kiri Davis: "A Girl Like Me"

This afternoon, I watched a 7-minute film entitled "A Girl Like Me". It was directed by Kiri Davis, a teenaged filmmaker, and won the diversity award at the 6th Annual Media That Matters Film Festival. I would challenge anyone who thinks racism is just a matter of language to watch this film. It's a very powerful use of seven minutes and Davis deserves to have our attention.

If I'd been making the rounds of my usual blogs this week, I would have seen Nubian's post on "A Girl Like Me" and watched the film last Monday. Ah, well. Better late than never I guess. In any case, do watch the film and read Nubian's thoughts about it, as well. This is a must-not-miss.

Sunday, August 06, 2006

Required Reading For Beginner Allies

After Granny posted this on the defensiveness of White folks in discussions about racism, Professor Zero reposted some of it with clarification of her own, creating a context for a truly interesting thread of comments involving Toasted Suzy, the G Bitch, and the Professor here. Definitely worth reading, especially if you're a European-American trying to learn how to learn about the dynamics of the socially-constructed, political notion of race and how it positions us all in a racially-obsessive and oppressive society.

Tagged With The Book List

To clear the brain palate, as it were, before plunging into How To Become An Ally (Part 2), I'm going to post my answers to a series of book questions with which I was recently "tagged" by Professor Zero. Please keep in mind that I've been a book person since I was a tiny girl and I would probably answer these questions differently every day for the rest of my life, depending on my mindset at the moment. Anyway, understanding all this and giving myself permission to just create "a" list, not, for goodness' sake, "the" list, here goes:

(1) One book that changed your life? Killing the Angel in the House by Virginia Wolfe

The idea that a woman would have to kill some part of her socialization to be her full-tilt self was somewhat shocking, but very meaningful to me coming when it did in my thirties. I don't think that I would have considered going to college/grad school (dragging my poor children through the ordeal) had I not read this book.

(2) One book you have read more than once? That Hideous Strength by C. S. Lewis

I'm almost embarrassed about this one. Nothing deep here and yet, I swear, I took notes and copied quotes out of it on one read-through. Then one time, I read the whole thing out loud to my daughter. It's kind of a fantasy/myth/science fiction book about the struggle between good and evil. Gosh, I wonder why that fascinates me so?

(3) One book you would want on a desert island? Memory of Fire by Eduardo Galleano (I know, I know--this is really three books, but it's a trilogy and everybody knows that's really one big, fat book in three volumes.)

I know I probably should have chosen a survival book, but this is the entire saga of the Americas: history, poetry, mystery, social commentary, you name it, it's here. People don't live by bread alone.

(4) One book that made you laugh? Running With Scissors by Augusten Burroughs

I had a very weird childhood myself, though not nearly as weird as Burroughs. Maybe that's why I laughed so much. If he could live through all that and still be marvelously humorous, then maybe there's hope for all of us.

(5) One book that made you cry? Iron House by Jerome Washington

A beautifully written book about prison and the human spirit. I've read a lot of books about prison and prisoners, but this one seems to capture the deepest, most quintessentially and painfully personal nature of the experience as gauged by the people I've known and the stories they tell.

(6) One book you wish you had written? (I am so over-complicating this question. I have written the book I most wanted to write--as yet unpublished Argggh!--and am working on two others, way too slowly. So I'm not wishing. I'm doing it. Interpreted differently, I can't imagine wishing I had written someone else's book, because to my mind, that would mean being that person. How could I write Presenting Sister Noblues by Hattie Gossett, for example, without being Hattie Gossett? Oh, dear. Oh, dear. What to do? What to do?) So my answer is (drum roll, please): a novel about my father's mother, a beautiful and wild thing who ran off and left her rigid, patriarchal husband and three children in the 1920's and who died after supposedly shooting herself in the chest in Cincinnati at the age of 28. At the time of her death, in the wee hours of the morning on June 2nd, 1932, the only other person present was a police officer who had the hots for her uncontrollable self and whose service revolver killed her.

(7) One book you wish had never been written? Wealth of Nations by Adam Smith

Self explanatory.

(8) One book you are currently reading? Never Drank The Kool-Aid by Toure

There's supposed to be an accent over the "e" in his name. Toure is one of the best writers out there, in my estimation, and judging from the number and range of his awards, I'm hardly the only one who thinks so. I first read his short story collection (which is stunning), but this is a series of in-depth non-fiction pieces about people Toure has interviewed or known, most of which I would never have read about, if not for Toure. Amazing list. Fabulous writer.

(9) One book you've been meaning to read? Why Read Marx Today? by Jonathan Wolfe

This will probably stay on my "should read" list forever, but every time I try to return it, I open it, read a paragraph and think, "I really must read this..." Sigh.

(10) And tag five bloggers to do this, too. This thing has gotten pretty wide, so I'm not sure if my five have already been tagged, but they are: Nubian, Another Conflict Theorist, Piscean Princess, Shannon, and Glenda.

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

For White Folks: How To Become An Ally (Part 1)

During the past month, while Israel has been busy pounding Lebanon and the U.S. has continued to occupy both Iraq and Afghanistan, I've been watching the castigation of several bloggers of color by "White" folks who purport to be seeking information, but often use a bludgeon of words to ask for it. Now, on the surface, these things would not appear immediately to be connected, but I would argue that, in fact, they are. And in any case, I have experienced them as being current manifestations of the paradigm in which we still find ourselves enmeshed, a paradigm predicated on the idea that "White" is "right." Period. No matter what. A paradigm that, in the end, serves no one well (not even White folks) since it weakens any possible future social stability that might develop otherwise.

While all the ugliness was unfolding against Nubian, among others, there have been some excellent responses. Despite her own struggles, for example, Granny has unleashed several remarkable volleys here and here and here. And Shannon had already drafted a walloping list of frequently asked questions about racism here. So there couldn't possibly be anything left to say, could there? Well, let's see what I can add to the process.

First of all, I'd like to begin by saying that there is no twelve-step program for White folks. More's the pity, really. But there isn't. This means that a European-American can't just read a few pointers or one article or one book or even take one workshop or a whole class and have the matter of "race" down pat. It doesn't work like that. Which is one reason why so many of us wind up with our feet (both of them, shoes and all) half-way down our throats on a regular basis, typically without a clue and without realizing it. I mean, it would seem obvious, wouldn't it, that a person would come to recognize the taste of shoe leather? But apparently this is not the case for many who really, really, really don't want to face reality. And, as I love to say, you can't wake up a person pretending to be asleep.

So if you find yourself arguing with Nubian, Granny, Shannon or me, or any of the other folks who sound like us or any person of color, in general, as a matter or fact, who happens to be making you uncomfortable, I would suggest that you spit out your feet and just shut up until you no longer feel like arguing. It may be a long, slow process, but there will be progress. And believe me, we're not making this up as we go along. If you're scared, say you're scared. But reality is never going to become something different than it is just so you can feel more comfortable--even if you're "White."

Now, this brings us to a second point. I believe that there is a distinct difference between being European-American (an ethnicity) and being "White" (a "racial" category). Most European-Americans don't realize that "race" is a socially-constructed, political notion. It was created as a concept out of thin air by Europeans a few hundred years ago for the express purpose of rationalizing and legitimating the rampant exploitation and even genocide of people of color around the world to make Europe and Europeans rich. And it didn't work because Europeans were the superior group or because God had mandated that Europeans should be in the catbird seat. It worked because enough Europeans were willing to be viciously brutal themselves or to condone the vicious brutality of others who looked like them to make it work. Obviously, this is nothing to be proud of.

Some European-Americans counter their own history by claiming that their ancestors didn't own any slaves, captain any slave ships, or whatever. But the wealth that bankrolled the Industrial Revolution and the establishment of the United States as the richest nation in the world came directly out of the ruinous rampage Europeans visited on people of color for several hundred years. We would not be the nation we are if this had not occurred. Moreover, every social institution in the U.S. was built to benefit European-Americans and has since the beginning to the present continued to be controlled by the group that they were built to benefit. You don't have to know it's there for you. It's not personal. It's a system. And it's working just like it's supposed to.

What I'm attempting to help you see here is that Europeans created the concept of "race," created "Black" people (who were actually Africans or African-Americans) and "White" people (who were actually Europeans or European-Americans) and then an entire system of social "rules" to determine how "Black" people and "White" people should or would be allowed to live their lives. For this reason, I don't call myself "White." I don't choose to identify myself with the socially-constructed, political notion of "Whiteness." I'm not ashamed of my ethnic heritage, per se, or of being myself as a European-American. But, since the category of "White" was created only for the purpose of oppressing people who are not "White," I don't identify myself with it. You could make the same decision, if you wanted to. Not to deny "Whiteness" as a system of privilege and power that is destroying our nation, but simply to disavow your desire to participate in the maintenance of that system while knowing that you are doing so. Which would be a beginning, a move in the direction of becoming an ally.

Having already said that no single presentation is going to be a down-and-dirty moment of truth for anybody, I'm not expecting any European-American reader to slap his or her forehead at this point and exclaim, "I get it!" So, if you just did that, or you find yourself wanting to do that sometime as a result of a single conversation, book, etc., try--hard--to refrain from slapping your head because you'll be fooling yourself. It's not possible to suddenly understand. Baby steps. Baby steps. If you try to prove you're ready to climb the mountain before you can walk, you're gonna fall and nobody is expecting you to climb yet anyway. There is no easier, softer way. Take your time, but remember, mouth shut until you know a little something and that won't be for a long, long time. Capisce?

Am I trying to be rude here or hurt your feelings or something? After all, you're reading this because you want to be an ally for people of color, right? Shouldn't I be a little kinder, a little more thoughtful, perhaps, of your good intentions? The answer is: no. You don't deserve special kindness for making some tiny effort to face reality. It may not be your personal fault that institutionalized oppression in the name of racism against people of color has made sure that people who look like you and I have the most of the best and the least of the worst. But since you have benefitted from birth because of it--whether you realized it or not--you've already gotten all the special treatment you should expect. And given the fact that this system is not going to disappear any time soon, you're going to continue to get benefits anyway, even if you don't want them. (And let's be real about that, shall we? Are you sure you're ready to give up all that privilege when you've never experienced life any other way so far? Hmmm...?)

The fact is that it's almost impossible to make a dent in most "White" people's social armor. We've lived in the ritualized norms of our lives for several hundred years. It was already in place when we were born, so we think and tell ourselves and teach our children and make damn sure people of color know that this system we've got is just, well, natural. It's the way things are. And after all, it's worked pretty well so far, right? And things have changed, haven't they? I mean, we've got a "Black" secretary of state and a "Black" supreme court justice and a few thousand "Black" athletes making serious money. Doesn't that count for something?

Yeah. It counts for a relatively small percentage of African-Americans doing very well and a somewhat larger percentage of African-Americans who have fought their way up-hill to make a decent life for themselves--as long as they play by the rules--while one out of every two African-American children are living in abject poverty. I know, I know, it's not your fault. You sent ten bucks to the United Negro College Fund. And even got passed over for a promotion one time that was ultimately given to an African-American--and you didn't even protest (though you were absolutely certain that you were better qualified)...

So, what am I trying to say here? If the whole mindset of "Whiteness" is so hard to buck, then why try? Right? I mean, African-Americans are already so angry they don't even want to let you ask your questions or touch their hair or anything, right? How are you to change if they won't "help" you? All right. You asked. Just remember that. And here's a little list to help you get started.

(1) Read! Read The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison, Notes of a Native Son by James Baldwin, Coming of Age in Mississippi by Anne Moody, Racist America by Joe Feagin, and White Like Me: Reflections on Race by a Privileged Son by Tim Wise. And after you read all those, start checking out the sites on my blog roll. Then, you read blogs. Not to comment. Not to question. Just to read and learn. And then read the comments and find more blogs to read. All while just in a receiving mode. Believe me, if you really want to learn and you read long enough, you will begin to get a glimmer of understanding. Trying to "state your case" will set you back light years. Trying to "clarify (defend) your perspective" is a giant flag screaming "Whiteness forever!" Don't go to these blogs and tell them I sent you and then act the fool. They know me better than that.

(2) Face the fact that the system and other "White" folks are going to try to keep you operating out of your "Whiteness" and this is going to make it harder for you to become an ally for people of color. European-Americans can be allies. "White" folks are just "White." They can't help it. That's the way it is. If you really want to be an ally, then you're going to have to learn how "White" you already are. You're going to have to allow yourself to begin seeing "Whiteness" for what it is--an ugly, mean-spirited, frightened, greedy, social-construction that borders on some form of insanity. And you're going to have to be vigilent all the time to resist its subtle and not so subtle manifestations. If you're serious about being an ally, though, you'll get the help you need to learn how.

And finally, (3) look African-Americans in the eye without challenge. Even if they don't dress like you or look like they're in the same socio-economic class as you (whether better or worse) or speak exactly the same way you do and even if you get the distinct impression that they don't like you. See them. Recognize them as humans just like you--no better, no worse--with issues and disappointments and intelligence and capabilities and rights, for God's sake! Accept them straight out as people--just like you. And then show some respect. Respect gets respect, you know. And if you're not getting it, you're not giving it, even if you think you are.

Now, if you think this just puts too much of the onus on you--the "White" person--keep in mind that the issue at hand is becoming an ally for people of color. African-Americans don't expect European-Americans to be anything but "White." They've been surviving and even rising above with little outside support for hundreds of years. But that doesn't make it reasonable or just or decent or healthy for European-Americans to leave it like that. Being an ally for people of color is what we need to do for us. And for our nation. And for our world. And for any hope of a future for ourselves or our children. Truly, isn't that worth the effort?

Arundhati Roy on Israel and Palestine

I know I've been hiding out for more than a week now, but I'm finally working on a post--on what European-Americans need to know to be allies of people of color. In the meantime, while you're waiting, you can watch this 10-minute video of Arundhati Roy talking about the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. Then, while it's fresh in your mind, put the current war against Lebanon (and U.S. involvement in it by providing weapons to Israel) into the context of what you've seen in the film.

You might want to particularly note Winston Churchill's historic statements on how he felt about what the Europeans did to people of color as they imperialistically spread their various empires...