Sunday, December 31, 2006

Should New Acquaintances Be Discovered

I guess everybody's got their thing, huh? I spent my whole new year's eve so far reading the new Erase Racism Blog Carnival. And it's the best one yet. There's a few old favorites and a bunch of great folks I hadn't read before. Christina did a terrific job of putting it all together and deserves many readers.

Being as you won't probably see this until 2007 (snicker), I suggest you do yourself a huge favor and read it as your first act of the new year. It'll take a minute because there's more than a couple, but it'll be kind of like visiting folks on a holiday, going from house to house, shaking hands and sipping egg nog and bonding with those who wish us all well.

As for me? Well, while you're going from blog to blog, feasting on the hearty fare of speaking truth to power, I'll be dutifully posting a new blog entry for the new year--a year in which I wish us all the joy of growing, the satisfaction of knowing, and the blessing of peace.

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Happy Holidays From The Big Apple

Happy holidays to all my regular readers. I am in New York City trying to eat myself into a larger size jeans, while I walk so much there's not much likelihood of that happening. I would love to do a real blog post from here, but I'm moving too fast to develop a real topic as yet. Still, checking my emails in a computer cafe across the street from Tompkins Square Park, I just had to say hi and wish you well and know that when I get home, I'll look at this post and remember everything...with great joy.

I did have coffee in Greenwich Village with another blogger. We talked about other stuff. Like ordinary people. Come to think of it, why am I not surprised? (Hey, Judd! It was swell to meet you.)


Sunday, December 10, 2006

Any Questions?

"If we believe in the rebirth of our civilization...then clearly this renaissance must begin in the chambers of our own hearts...We cannot wait for society to change, or for our institutions to be renewed. We, as individuals, must assume responsibility for our own personal transformation."

~Georg Feuerstein

Friday, December 08, 2006

Why Am I Not Surprised?

Remember last summer, when I wrote here and here about racist practices of some fans at European soccer matches?

Well, here's the latest. At the time I wrote my earlier pieces, some suggested that the problem doesn't really exist. Apparently, they were wrong.

Saturday, December 02, 2006

For White Folks: How To Be An Ally (Part 3)

Some years ago--quite a few, I think--I faced the fact that I like to talk. Rather a lot, actually. The issue was raised the first time soon after I started first grade (as in "Is a joy to have in class, but likes to talk to her neighbors"). It popped up again more painfully in the form of my own personal hazing as an incoming freshman during the hot minute I was in nurse's training when I was instructed to stand in the hospital cafeteria for a half-hour talking to a statue.

Anyway, through the years, my talking got me something of a reputation, but since I was good at it and often clever or funny or impassioned, I was tolerated and even encouraged, by and large. Particularly since I could really use the skill in front of the press or at a demonstration or when speaking before a mass audience or whatever.

Then my daughter came along and as she aged, she would shut the door between me as a talker and her as a listener sometimes. "Inner monologue, Mom," she would cue me in a flat voice on occasion when I was talking to myself while under the mistaken impression that I was speaking to her.

"You're doing it again, Mom," she would mention casually over dinner at a restaurant, "You're holding a conversation for which I'm not necessary--posing questions and then answering them yourself." (And yes, she really does talk that way. She did, after all, grow up with me and her also highly verbal older brother. We often sounded like a Neil Simon script, much to the amazement of outsiders.)

And over time, my training under her tutelage helped me to hone, I think (I hope?), my tendency to monopolize conversation too ruthlessly. I learned to rest a finger or two on my lips to remind myself not to blurt out my thoughts while someone else is speaking. And I started listening so intently that sometimes a speaker in front of a smallish group will wind up speaking almost entirely to me alone.

In any case, "voice"--verbal or written (and at one time, sung)--is crucial to me. It is breath. It is imperative. I can spend ridiculous amounts of time alone, and even in silence. But I must, absolutely must, be able to express myself somehow.

So maybe that's why I understood almost immediately when I was exposed some years ago to the idea that, as a person who looks like I do, it is my responsibility to serve sometimes as a bridge between African-Americans and my counterparts in the European-American community. For one thing, White people will sometimes listen to me when they won't listen to people of color. And if I can express even something of the exact nature of institutionalized oppression in the name of racism, then the listeners may find themselves more willing--and able--to listen to a person of color speak for themselves at some point.

In fact, I have been told through the years by a number of my African-American students that I caused them to see the realities of "the system" much more clearly than they had ever imagined them--even as people of color. And I am, frankly, thrilled by this, when it occurs. I imagine that it empowers them, even if it does come from me.

But decades ago, I was taught that part of serving as a bridge is to introduce my fellow-speakers of color. To share the stage, if you will. To prepare the minds of listeners and then, when I have their attention, to give up the lectern to one who might otherwise not have access to it. That this is part of my job as one who has a clue. As one who wants to make a difference. As an ally. And the process of doing this, of course, sometimes means that I have to shut up (saying this to myself, of course, in the nicest possible way).

Sometimes, however, I hear stories from African-Americans who are struggling with the ramifications of not being allowed to find--or use--their voice under circumstances over which I can exert no control. And it saddens me greatly. Feeling the way I do about self-expression, I can't even imagine what it must be like to live in skin attached to lips that are forever expected to be sealed. Or worse, are always expected to make White folks feel good or safe or superior.

What a nightmare it must be, as an African-American, to have your White boss say jovially with an eager look, "You didn't take that the wrong way, did ya? You know we don't see color around here!" Or to have somebody lean toward you warmly at a church function and say, "Now, if all the Blacks were like you, we wouldn't have the problems we have in this country, you know what I mean?" Or to have the mother of your new friend (who just happens to be White) reach over at a bar-b-que and ask curiously, "Would you mind if I touched your hair? It looks so soft..." All the time knowing that your response must be measured and controlled and a lie.

And from what I can gather, these situations are made worse by the fact that you can't always see them coming. And while being constantly vigilant can give you ulcers, if you let your guard down, you're sure to get spiked eventually. And if you respond too quickly--because your guard was down--the repercussions can be severe. A lost job. A lost friend. A lost opportunity. Exclusion. The look.

Now, I don't mean "the look" that White people use when an African-American comes unexpectedly through the door to apply for a particular job or shows up at a party where everyone else is White or walks into the restaurant with a White date and his or her White child. I'm talking about "the look," however imperceptible, that says, "Hold up there--you just crossed the line." The color line. Into the space that's reserved for grown folks. The space of respect. As demonstrated by African-American deference to White people. And that's a dangerous look. It can be just a warning. But it can also mean that you--or your spirit--is about to get lynched.

So, African-Americans learn early to avoid "the look." They second guess themselves. They be quiet unless spoken to. They learn to smile a tight little smile and nod or grunt or "Hmmm" to avoid actually having to tell a bold-faced lie to a White person who really believes that they are well-meaning, but will get their feelings hurt in a New York minute and react--either now or at some unexpected future moment--in a way intended to "put you in your place" whether they admit it, or even know it, or not.

One young African-American I know (I'll call him "A."), who's been running things by me for years now, dropped by with his baby son last week and, while I was wallowing on the floor with the youngster, told me about winding up in the trick bag (yet again) at his new job this time, which he had loved until last week. Basically, as the story went, a new White social worker had been hired and had made it clear within days that she will not go into "certain" neighborhoods (despite the fact that she's from New York City and, duh, is a social worker), that she considers her African-American co-workers "them" (as opposed to she and the boss who are White), and that, while she reserves the right to make thinly-veiled racist comments in the office to specific individuals, she will run to the boss in tears if she is confronted on it. The other workers of color just shut down in the face of the situation, but A. had called her on her behaviors, only to have her "rescued" by the boss who literally threatened A.'s job all of a sudden, since A. is now a "high-maintenance employee."

A. is disappointed and frustrated. He wants to love his job. He wants to do it well. He's a highly competent, highly educated, deeply caring man who would be a wonderful asset to any social work team. But now--instead of being able to focus on his work like the professional he is--if he wants to continue to pay his rent, he's going to have to buck and shuffle. He has to accept the gibes of a White woman and say nothing in return or suffer for it. And that's what I mean by loss of voice.

A day or two after I spoke with A., I got an email from another African-American--a woman, this time--who I'll call "B." B. wrote me because she had been attacked for her comments on a blog (not her own) and she was tired of always having to defend herself for calling it the way she sees it as a person of color. She's expected to be intellectual, reasonable, and understanding in her statements to White people whose gentle sensibilities are wounded by her attempts to protect herself--from their attacks. Excuse me? At the end of her email, having expressed her frustration, she even went so far as to ask me not to tell anyone that she expressed to me how painful it is for her to be stuck in this space of having to be a literary punching bag. She, too, is being prevented from using her voice.

Later that same week, an African-American student came to me to discuss entering a prestigious essay competition. The young man ("C.") is not one of my students, but he's bright and mature enough to know what's going on with him. Plus, he wrote me an email one time that was electric with his passionate commitment to social change. Nevertheless, it became quickly apparent that he had lost his voice somewhere along the line.

I spent two hours with C. the first night and two more the night after that, cajoling, encouraging, reminding, challenging. And finally he admitted that the only reason he was using the essay in question (on Latino immigration) was that he didn't want to appear to be "just another Black man whining about race."

"Who better to express the African-American reality?" I countered. "Who better to plead the case for racial fairness?"

The next day, a Saturday, I got another email from C.

"Thanks for opening my mind..." he began. "From adolescence to this moment, I have been so uptight...Today, I am letting go! Yes, for a change, I will allow myself to enjoy an EXPERIENCE...As you've encouraged, 'My stars shall all come out to show their sparkling glimmer.' I am aware that trials and criticism shall follow, but that's all part of the process, right? This is so awesome, and the train is moving and, finally, I'm a passenger on board. Your words have not fallen on deaf ears..."

I wept great sobs in joy for this young man. And for the incredible honor of being allowed to help him find his voice. And for the millions of other people of color--old and young, male and female, rich and poor--whose voices may never be heard or even used.

But let's face it, I have a peculiar place in society in which to operate. And a particular skill, perhaps, in operating there. How can others help people of color to find their voices?

Well, for one thing, you can listen--really listen. It's hard to find a voice you've never been allowed to use. And it's hard to hear with ears that have never practiced listening. But we can help each other, if we bring honest hearts to the task.

Then, you can validate the truth you hear by accepting its legitimacy, no matter now difficult it is to face, no matter how sad it is to look at, no matter how formidable the wall it seems to illumine, no matter how deep the chasm it seems to produce. You can say, "Yes. I hear you. Yes. It must be painful. Yes. It is immoral. Yes. Yes. Yes. Yes."

And finally, you can sit beside the wounded.

I saw a quote years ago by a woman back in the sixties, a SNCC-member, I think, who said something about, "What it all comes down to in the end is one person saying 'I will sit next to you.'" A commitment so simple it can be made by anyone. Without training. Without education. Without planning. Without agenda. "I will sit next to you." When the tempers blaze and the tears come. "I will sit next to you." In the rain. In the sun. In the darkness of night. "I will sit next to you." We can share a sandwich. We can pass the dipper down the row. We can breathe the air of a planet that has waited five hundred years for these words: "I will sit next to you."

In 1963, Anne Moody, the author of Coming of Age in Mississippi, probably one of the single most important books ever written by a U.S. citizen, having already spent years of her youth risking and losing everything but her life, walked into a Woolworth's in Jackson, Mississippi, and sat quietly down at the segregated lunch counter with two friends, one European-American and one Native American. It was the beginning of the end of racial segregation in America.

As angry White men pushed, struck, poured catsup, mustard and sugar over the heads of, and spit on Anne and her two allies, John Salter and Joan Trumpauer, they sat--together--and unleashed a power that could not be denied. They sat, silent, and were heard around the world. Eventually, we, too, may find our collective voice. But it will only be when everyone gets to speak.

Monday, November 20, 2006

As "The Twig" Is Bent

When the University of California Southern Branch was established in the 1920's, it wasn't immediately apparent that it was going to have problems dealing with the socially-constructed political notion of "race." In fact, Kappa Alpha Psi fraternity and Delta Sigma Theta sorority chapters appeared on the campus the very same year "the twig," as it was nicknamed, conferred its first undergraduate degrees. Four years later, in 1927, Ralph Bunche (the renowned African-American who eventually won the Nobel Peace Prize) was valedictorian of his graduating class there. So what happened at this school--now known as U.C.L.A.--to result in an incoming freshman class of 4800 students in 2006 with only ninety-nine African-Americans? That amounts to just a hair above two per cent. Out of all the potential students in the United States. Two per cent of the incoming class. Every time I say it or write it or even think it, my head shakes automatically, as if I'm trying to jar the math cells in my brain, which have never been overly proficient and must surely have finally dimmed out unexpectedly and entirely now. Hmmmph.

I might have missed this information in that I don't get around the blogosphere much any more and that used to be where I got my news, by and large. But Friday, one of my colleagues mentioned it casually in passing and I've been gasping ever since. What?! I keep saying like the poor befuddled student in "Pulp Fiction" just before he gets shot by the hit man because he keeps saying "What?"

What?! Ninety-nine out of 4800? What?! Does not compute. Does not compute...

Not surprisingly, the chancellor of the university, along with the faculty, the administration, the students, and the alumni are all calling the situation a "crisis." Well, no kidding. Garbage stinks, even fresh garbage, and this blatant manifestation of institutionalized oppression in the name of racism is far from fresh. I remember one time in my childhood how shocked we all were, standing around the kitchen in the giant old house we had just moved into, when several sizable rats leapt out from under the sink all at once as the cupboard door was opened. Looking back, there's no way a house that big and that old wouldn't have rats, but we were all still shocked.

The situation is being blamed on Proposition 209, the constitutional amendment passed nine years ago in California to prohibit public institutions from discriminating on the basis of race, sex, or ethnicity. It's so obviously racist as to be embarrassing even to generally oblivious White folks. But it passed with 54% of the vote. Ain't power grand? And here we are with exactly the kind of result that was intended: shutting African-Americans off from the benefits privileged people have always been able to take for granted.

Well, gosh, say those who support Proposition 209 (which has been doggedly ignored by many private institutions and employers and the subject of a number of lawsuits), what could be more fair than letting quantifiable merit decide everything--right? Yeeeeaahh...on the surface...but there are several glaring problems with this practice.

First of all, quantifiable merit is not in and of itself all it's cracked up to be as a performance predictor, which is well recognized by college decision-makers. I mean, I've got a fairly good brain (for example) and handily dispatched most of my Ph.D. level courses, but I only scored 500-something on the math section of the GRE (the graduate-level standardized exam typically used to determine admittance to grad school). Was that good enough to get me into FSU? Apparently. Because my verbal score was pretty high. But let's face it now, there are people who manage to hit 1400 with their combined scores. So if FSU hadn't taken into consideration my straight A's at the Master's level, my maturity (simply for being born earlier than others), and what they called my "creativity" (a very non-quantitative commodity), I would have never made the cut.

So, what's wrong with that? If we're only going to be educating the creme de la creme (oui?), then other folks--of whatever skin tone--will simply not be educated...or employed...or whatever.

But wait. How did the creme de la creme get to be that? Are they all just born geniuses? Actually, even a genius who doesn't get a good solid preparatory education is not going to fare well when the die is cast.

When I transferred from one middle school to another, for example, I told my school advisor that I didn't like math (even though I had been taking advanced math at my old school). The advisor, probably in view of the fact that I was a girl and therefore, of course, not a "math mind," said, "Okay. Just take chorus instead." I never took another math course until I faced statistics in graduate school. And while I passed it--somehow--I couldn't understand it because I had no context into which to put the information. I was taking third year Spanish, as it were, after skipping the first two years. Memorizing the syllables might get me through the course, but I wasn't learning the language and wouldn't use it after the fact.

How does this story relate to Proposition 209? Well, if I'd been a boy back there in middle school, the advisor would more than likely have said, "Look, you don't have to like math. Just learn it. You're going to want to go to college one day and you won't be able to pass the SAT if you don't know math." And I would have taken it and been prepared when the time came years later for me to ante up in grad school. But I wasn't, all because I was born with one set of genitalia instead of another. And sex, if you'll recall, is one of the factors they can't discriminate against any longer in California.

Still, I didn't start out talking about gender, did I? No, but it's the same dynamic. Public elementary, middle, and high schools in poor neighborhoods tend pretty graphically to be so underfunded and loaded with social problems of all kinds due to poverty and its attendant miseries that even a genius might be hard put to wind up well enough educated to compete with those who don't live in poor neighborhoods. And this would be only a class issue, rather than a race issue, except that African-Americans and Latinos are far and away more likely to live in abjectly poverty-stricken locations and be "educated" in settings that would drive White folks into the suburbs, which is exactly where they have gone.

So little Jamal and little Maria reach college age, but not necessarily college capability. And, because they haven't been prepared to compete, they are summarily excluded, no matter how bright they may actually be, given half a chance and a modicum of assistance. How handy for the White kids who have not only had the necessary educational preparation, but have a clearer path since they're virtually the only ones on it.

Of course, Proposition 209 doesn't seem to keep the star African-American athletes out of U.C.L.A., even though only 27% of them manage to graduate (a rate even lower than Louisiana State). And one can only be glad that young White men like George Bush will still get into Harvard and Yale, just as he did (even with his C+ grade point average), because they sure as hell wouldn't get into a school where quantified merit made the decision. And then where would we get our future leaders?

Sunday, November 05, 2006

It's An Honor And A Privilege...

Now that I'm on a roll, I can't seem to slow down. Yay! And as I revel in my return to the blogosphere, I'd like to present for your continued enjoyment, a triad on privilege:

The Angry Black Woman offers Things You Need To Understand #4.

Kendall Clark's Defining White Privilege on, which is apparently defunct now, is still pertinent, so pertinent.

And bringing the noise for a resounding finish, BlackAmazon nails it (once again) with her Cover the Basics.

God, it's good to be back!

Let's Have Some Fun

If you're looking for something from me as to why I haven't been here for five weeks, I'm afraid you've come to the wrong place. Of course, I'm busy. Of my 79 students, I've had in-depth sessions with a third of them. I started a Sociology Club on campus in the attempt to get the pot off the floor and back onto the stove with a fire under it. I'm kicking off a Sociological Film Series (for the same reason) and did my homework to host a series of sociological speakers for the spring (myself included, of course). I'm on campus five days a week and doing a new prep for a course I'm making up as I go along (which means lots and lots of reading). I'm already working on my courses for next semester (choosing books and such). And I've started learning Spanish in my spare moments so I'll be ready to visit Mexico in the spring. But it wasn't being busy that shut me up. And I wasn't sure what it was.

That is, I wasn't sure until I got a hint on Friday when I met a man named Pat button-holing people outside the library on campus. With the energy of a big city street hawker, the face of a grandad, and the attitude of a circus clown, he only let go of the couple he was talking to before me once he had taken me hostage. And you know it ain't easy to take me hostage. I have a way of either extricating myself or returning the favor. I latched on.

It turned out that Pat had once been a monk--for considerably more than a decade--and he lives somewhere off campus now and just putzes around getting into mischief. He serves as a liaison between two schools ("I represent each to the other, so I wind up talking to myself.") He quickly beguiled me (and when you're being beguiled by an Irishman, you're being beguiled) with tales of successfully picketing with migrants to win union concessions, organizing students into doing loving acts for no pay-off (my favorite!), and founding orphanages for boys in trouble. "I had fun doing this for a while," he would say, "and then I had fun doing that for a while..." And everything he does is fun. A lot of it.

I found myself pausing ruefully to admit that I had begun to see everything I was doing as work. And I was reaching a point that I didn't like any of it any more.

"You gotta have fun!" he bubbled (the man bubbles, I tell you--it crossed my mind when he first captured me that, angel or not, he must be manic or something, but after awhile, I no longer cared--if that's manic, I need me some). By the time he let me go, some thirty or forty minutes later, I felt different.

And here I am. I've read. I've watched videos (on capitalism, for classes). I've studied Spanish. I've sniffed the internet for a position at a new school next year (oh, yeah! I wanna do this again!) And here I am. Swilling coffee so late, it's probably gonna keep me up all night long. But here just the same. Writing. Re-connecting. Dancing, as it were. Having some fuckin' fun. Yes, indeedy.

See, the thing is: when I came to this new campus, I was under the impression that I had to prove something to somebody. That I was somehow inadequate to the task. That I had to make up for lost time. That I had to "figure it all out." Yesterday. And it was not fun.

Then, a few students that I wouldn't have liked at any school showed up in one of my classes and since I was busy trying to "figure it all out," I thought I had to "reach" them. I know damned well you can't teach a pig to sing. But I thought I had to. Somehow. What a bummer. And so unnecessary.

Anyway, the students won for a while. I let them steal my joy. I mean, I've seen these self-righteous, little over-incomed/super-entitled/madras-wearing lacrosse players before. But normally, I just tune 'em out. That is to say, normally, I manage to tune them out. This time, they were so in-my-face, so bitter, and so unapologetically closed-minded, that I let them become every establishment authority figure I had ever been cowed by. (I know, I know. It doesn't seem as if I'd be easily cowed. And I'm not. I've faced down some real scary people. But that was always fighting for somebody else. When it came to fighting for myself, I didn't always--or even necessarily usually--have what it took.)

I knew I had the ultimate upper hand. Eventually, the ring-leader humbled himself to the point of admitting that he was willing to "do whatever it takes" to pass the class and even mentioned, by way of explanation, that he doesn't agree with the things I say, so he blocks out what he needs to be learning. I told him I could work with that, but it didn't make me feel any better.

Then, that afternoon, walking across the campus, which is beautiful, wearing my red and black argyle sweater in the sunshine, it occurred to me. Of course, they buck. I'm flying in the face of everything they think their future is founded on. And they could be right. They've never been forced to really consider this kind of stuff before, let alone forced to be graded on whether or not they got it, and here they are. If I think I'm miserable, just imagine how they feel, I thought.

Then, I remembered the juvenile delinquents I used to work with down in Miami and the way I used to train others to work with them. "Watch their feet," I used to say. "They'll grumble and mumble and call you names, but in the end, if they head generally--however slowly--in the direction you've indicated, then let 'em grouse. What difference does it make? They have to save face. They're giving up their power. You're winning, so can't you afford to let the silliness slide?"

All I have to do, I thought, walking toward the library in the sunshine, is just lighten up on the rein a little and ride the bull the way I know how. And then Pat reached out and grabbed my hand and said, "Hi, how are you today? I hope you're having a wonderful day." And by the time we parted, I was. And I have been all week-end. And I expect to be tomorrow. And I can hardly wait until Thanksgiving when I have a whole nine days to call my own. You better look out. I'm back. ;^)

Sunday, October 01, 2006

Is Sociology Part Of The Problem?

As my faithful readers know so well by now, I am slow, slow, slow to post these days and only flit in and out occasionally to comment on this or another blog. I graded papers week-end before last and fully intended last week-end to pick up where Ms White left off with A European-American Sets Me Straight (3), which I will surely get to shortly, I hope. But in the meantime, coming on-line with the best of intentions, I dropped by Clampett's blog and found first, a very funny, if typically outrageous, Chris Rock film clip on how African-Americans can avoid getting beaten by the police, and then, second, a link to an article by one Patrick L. Cooney, Ph.D., on racism.

The back story, of course--and there often is one, I guess--is that my Ph.D. dissertation which I worked on in 1993 and 1994 and which has gone the way of all uncompleted treatises, was entitled "On Rationalizing Racism: Institutionalized Oppression in Sociological Writings on African-American/European-American Relations." So, I was an instant sucker for Dr. Cooney's piece, subtitled "What if Black Muslim Kahlid Mohammed earned a PhD in sociology?". He almost instantly threw a couple of lobs at sociology as a perpetuater of racist thought processes and generalized practices, so even though it was long and sometimes arduous, especially at first, I couldn't help myself. I had to read it. And then I started making notes and now here I am--four days later--and Ms White is back on the back, back burner, as it were, once more.

Now, I'm fully aware that many of you will not read the article, especially when you wade through its opening paragraphs, but for those of you who can, I recommend slogging through it till you get to the good parts, which get better and better as he goes along, I thought. And in any case, he raises some issues I think are important, though I will also criticize the piece, as well (surprise!). But before I begin, please remember that I am not, repeat not, repeat (for goodness' sake) not! a scholar. You can talk bad about me behind my back or disregard what I have to say or put rabbit ears behind my head just before my picture gets taken. I don't care. I'm not trying to convince anybody of anything (hel-lo!). I'm just saying my piece. Those who sputter about my lack of credentials or scholarly publications can, well, suck an egg, for all I care. Including Cooney, who apparently feels that we should all talk nice to each other. I tried that. Nobody listened. Nothing changed. And I got a rash. Now I'm a fatmouth. Several people listen. And, at least, while I'm still waiting for change, my rash has disappeared, so as far as I'm concerned, I'm ahead of the game.

I agree with a number of Cooney's points, as I already said, but right at the outset, I wasn't sure I would. For example, he began by calling old guard racists racist. Then, he called "neo-racists" (those who come at it more "subtly") racist. Then, he called "racial separatists" (those who think the only way for ethnic groups to be okay is for all groups to be separate) racist. And finally, he called even "multicultural separatists" (those who think all ethnic groups are okay, but need to be free to establish themselves on their own terms) racist. In other words, pretty much everybody's racist, in his opinion. Except him? It's a little hard to tell. But regardless, this has everything to do with what one means by racism. It's like bandying about any other label. It all depends on what you mean by the term.

If I hand you a can of something and the label on the outside says that it's "sliced peaches," how do you know it's peaches? You assume the label is correct. But when you open the can, you're gonna know, right? Because you know what sliced peaches look like and you know what they taste like. It's a no-brainer. Unless, of course, you open it and it's beans or applesauce and the label wasn't correct.

And what if the outside of the can has no label? Then what? It could be anything. And I could put any label I want on it and, if I'm adept enough, I can convince you that it is what I say it is. Unless you open it and identify it as something other than what I labeled it.

What makes a "peach" a "peach" anyway? Social consensus. We all agree that a juicy fruit with sweet, yellowish flesh, a fuzzy skin, and a big hard crinkly pit in the middle is a peach. Or a melocoton. Or a peche. Or a pfirsich. Depending on what language we're using. Get my point? It all depends on where you're coming from. I, for example, posit that your own personal prejudices are not particularly relevant unless you have the power to do something with them--from a position of dominance. Using that definition, an African-American--who can certainly be prejudiced against or even hateful toward "Whites"--cannot be "racist." They don't have the power.

Toward the end of his article, however, Cooney discusses how some African-Americans internalize the values of the racist paradigm in the United States and then develop a racist orientation, even participating in the racist agenda (a la Condi Rice, for example?). He calls this being racist, and on this, we agree, though I had never considered it in this light before. I refer to internalized oppression often, but I had not called it "racist" because of the confusion this would undoubtedly create for people who would not choose to understand the nuances involved. Still, to put the racism of "White" people who appear to benefit from racist attitudes and practices in the same pot with the internalized racism of "Black" people who appear to benefit from them because they are rewarded for doing so by the "Whites" would seem to ignore the complexities and the dangers in how this discussion might be used. Also, the "racism" absorbed and manifested by African-Americans requires them to see themselves as inferior and I would argue that a great number of those who have found it necessary to "work within the system" (as Cooney calls it) may have absorbed some very self-destructive perceptions and perspectives, but nonetheless, at the base, know Whitey's not superior and White supremacy is a lie.

Another early point Cooney makes is that "liberals" (whoever they are, because he doesn't define the term) are racist without meaning to be because they're busy trying to be "politically correct" and miss what racism really is. Actually, I don't disagree with this except that Cooney sometimes seems to be calling all sociologists "liberals" or all those who push "political correctness" "liberals". And that leaves out more than a few folks. That is to say, I'm a sociologist, but I'm far left of anything he could rightly label "liberal" (and possibly far left of him, though he likes to refer to his politics). And I'm unconcerned with being "politically correct." Particularly when you consider what the politics in this country are these days.

I believe in respect. I don't just believe in "talking nice." Those two things are not mutually exclusive, but they are not necessarily interchangable either. The term "politically correct," in fact, has been used (as is typical) to create a buzz-word backlash, as if calling someone a pejorative term as a means of robbing their personhood is the same as ridiculing somebody's ideas when they have had plenty of opportunities to change them and rather choose to still see others as beneath them--whether they admit it, understand it, consciously compute it or not.

So I see Cooney as making a mistake when he appears to lump "sociologists," "liberals," and "multiculturalists" into one big amorphous ball of contradictions and then proceeds to talk bad about them, saying they try to censor those they oppose. He writes that "...they believe in enforcing what has become known as politically correct multicultural ideas and speech. They are so biased that they do not realize they are often engaging in emotionally abusive language and behavior..."

But who is he talking about here? Sociologists? Liberals? Multiculturalists? All of them? Just the ones who say or write things that make someone uncomfortable? Dr. Cooney says much by the end of his article that would make some folks apoplectic. Does that make him emotionally abusive? You can't have it both ways. One has to assume that he has no bone to pick with sociologists who agree with him. And nobody on the left has wanted to be called a liberal since 1968. And what, precisely is the problem with letting folks decide for themselves where they want to sit? Is that racist because it hurts White folks' feelings? Later, he emphatically holds that it's appropriate for White folks to be afraid of African-Americans because of what continues to be perpetrated against people of color in the best interests of the White power structure, even if poor European-Americans get short shrift, too. But, at least in his opening, he seems to suggest that none of that matters. What matters is that everybody ought to be forced to hang together right this minute whether they feel ready to do that or not. Excuse me?

Sometimes Cooney makes statements I find problematic. For example, he refers at one point to Nathan Glazer's idea that "we have moved to the situation where the government ha[s] taken on a commitment to facilitate the maintenance of the ethnic heritage and a commitment that requires that school authorities take into account ethnic and linguistic differences in education..." and he attributes this to the influence of the multiculturalists. But the government is nothing more than a tool for those who have the power to define, in the strictest structural sense (and Cooney is into structure), so how does that become something we should fault multiculturalists for? I hope he's not calling the White power structure and its governmental appendages multiculturalist. It does its damnedest to prove otherwise.

Almost immediately after this, he mentions in passing that " terms of culture, [B]lacks were pretty assimilated...", and while you do see African-Americans everywhere in the U.S., I wonder what most African-Americans would say about how "assimilated" they feel on most days.

Then, when he flatly states that "Afrocentrist writings are just the silliest of the poor quality of the new research parading as scholarship," I am left wondering yet again: would this be all Afrocentrist writings all over the world for all time--even the Afrocentrist writings that are hailed as brilliant or win awards or whatever? There must surely be some Afrocentrist writings he doesn't find "silly." And if that's not true, if all Afrocentrist writings are, in fact, "silly" to him, I would suggest that he's missing an ability to get outside his Eurocentric paradigm far enough to know the difference.

And speaking of paradigms, what passes for "scholarship" is typically determined by the social scientific era in which it appears--and who's in the catbird seat in that field and in that era. The work of the "criminologist" Caesare Lombroso (who believed he could predict criminality based on body characteristics) was touted as "scholarly" for one hundred years until it was de-bunked as unscientific mumbo jumbo. And Galileo spent his whole life in house arrest for holding the "unscholarly" view that the world was not flat...?

I would hasten to add, here, that I am not trying to censor Dr. Cooney, a concern he has when strong statements about paradigm get made and appear to shut down what he apparently sees as the process of dialogue. (He particularly criticizes, for example, academics ridiculing in front of other academics statements of some of their respondents that demonstrated the racist warp and woof of our society.) But I would argue that what we are seeing is not censorship, but a collapse of one set of paradigms and the introduction of another.

According to Kuhn's theory of scientific revolution (which, as far as I know, has not been thrown out with either the baby or the bathwater, as yet) no one inside the proverbial box is ever comfortable with the noises made by those who, through whatever accident of thought or history, wind up placed outside it and still conversant. Did Galileo have a responsibility to "rationally" argue with his "colleagues" when they had him locked away? Would they have listened? Their action in sequestering him suggests even at this late date that they didn't choose to know what he was saying. Do you suppose that he might have cracked jokes about them to the few who would drop by to talk? According to both Lyford Edwards (in The Natural History of Revolution) and Alberto Melucci (in Nomads of the Present), ridicule of those in power and of those who support that power is not only typical in a pre-revolutionary society (or social science?), but is actually one of the techniques of "making the power visible" so that, as Foucault would say, a strategy of struggle can be developed and espoused among those who are listening.

I found particularly well presented the section entitled "White Racism Ignores Sociological Racism." It discusses how the mainstream U.S. "White" population came to see the socially-constructed, political notion of "race" and African-Americans as a people the way they do today, outlining quite nicely the effects of Moynihan et al in this process. Nevertheless, he himself in one sentence refers to "political scientist Edward Banfield and black sociologist Thomas Sowell" as if mentioning Sowell's skin tone was germane to Cooney's point. And therein lies the rub. Cooney and I and everybody else in the social science universe function within the context of our training, our mindset, and our paradigm. Much as we fight to see ourselves as outside it or able to observe it from a vantage point of some kind, our inability to stand apart, to avoid the very personal effects of our evolution during a particular period of history and in a particular culture will out. There is no moral high ground. We are all brothers (and sisters) under the skin.

But after this point, Cooney begins pulling out the stops, if you will. "Racism in America," he writes, "is more important than capitalist inequality in damaging the American system, although both factors work hand-in-hand and reinforce each other to cause the damage." "...[I]nstitutional racism is a way of avoiding putting the blame where it belongs: on the real, deliberate and active racism of white middle class people," he continues. "It would be a great redistribution of income from whites to blacks in order to equalize the races. And there would be very little willlingness on the part of whites to sacrifice economically to make these changes." Well, no shit.

"...[R]acism affects every part of American society and politics. The disciplines of all social sciences are involved, and these cannot possibly be found in a survey of a group of American citizens," Cooney suggests flatly. And he holds that the idea to which Moynihan gave birth that African-Americans have the same opportunities (today) as any other U.S. citizens, but are just broken people and cannot rise to the occasion is used to "absolve whites of any guilt over possible white immorality."

But then he'll add something like "the perspective of white racism creates unnecessary paranoia among minorities." I must be misunderstanding the man, since I don't see any level of paranoia among people of color as "unnecessary" the way things are. Unfortunate, maybe; crippling, certainly; but unnecessary? Talk to the surgeon from Florida who went to L.A. to present at a medical conference, but who was arrested for some specious reason and placed in hand-cuffs so tight, he'll never do surgery again. Paranoia is reasonable among African-Americans. Statements by social scientists are not irresponsibly whipping up an inappropriate response in people who would otherwise feel safe.

But when he calls racism a "social destroyer," he's right up my alley again. "Whites," Cooney claims, "are...actively engaged in pretense, lying, dissembling, hiding their real racist feelings, etc." And I would add: ashamed of this, as well, because they know it. They just don't want to say so.

"Racism," he continues, "is not just a part of U.S. culture. It is the main cause and primary ingredient of America's puritanical and moralistic culture. Racism is not as American as apple pie and motherhood. Rather America is racism. The American stress on puritanism is the result of racism, not vice-versa...Whites want to be racists. It is in their interests in the short run (which is the only time frame they are concerned about) to be racists." Here, I was with him hook, line and sinker until he reached the last sentence, which I disagree with because I think racism only appears to be in the best interests of "White" people. How can doing damage to other humans with which one has to live one's entire life possibly be in one's best interests--even in the short term? Making enemies among one's housemates is patently stupid. Which is one reason I'm so aggressive with those European-Americans who whine about how harsh I am. They're agitating people I live with and I, for one, don't like the fall-out.

Which brings me to yet another bone of contention. As he winds down his treatis, Cooney uses Huey P. Newton (one of the founders of the Black Panther Party who ultimately marked himself as an abuser of women and drugs) as an example of the "type of people" that "liberals" of yesteryear (who are the multiculturalists of today, he says) supported. And he suggests that this is what is wrong with sociology. My response to that would be, yes, and who would you have supported, Dr. Cooney, since you don't sound old enough to have been there?

Huey P. Newton was the product of everything Cooney outlines in his article. The expectation that African-Americans could and should live under the kind of nightmare Cooney describes so well, but not respond to it accordingly, was--and is, I might add--exactly why some European-Americans who were there in the sixties supported the Panthers, and even Newton. Not because he was a "homocidal psychopath," as Cooney puts it, but because of why he was one.

Some of those who were active in one way or another in the 1960's and 1970's became so precisely because they felt that it was time to face the true repercussions of oppression against people of color (and others) even though many had no idea how to "be for real" about it all. We were scared, but we were not ready to try to tell somebody how we thought they had a right to defend their lives. It was not our pain. It was his (and theirs). And if he was crazy (and he was), we had made him so. Not just the system, as Cooney says, but us. "White" people. Some of whom still wanted to tell Newton, in particular, and African-Americans in general, how to present their case. By now, racism may be relatively easy to analyze for someone who has a clue, but the remedies will be complicated indeed, and will not, I suspect, be drafted by people that look like me, however intellectual, well-meaning or not.

When he castigates those who try to find their identity and personhood through loving their ethnicity, Cooney misses the point entirely. And calling this effort, which is never entered lightly because it is a often a painful process in many ways, "ethnocentric" suggests he doesn't even understand the term. Ethnocentrism doesn't mean I have pride in my heritage or that I love myself as a product of my history. Ethnocentrism means that I think my ethnic group is superior to others. People of African (and Latino and Asian and Native American) descent aren't claiming superiority or supremacy. Just White folks do that. And I would have to say, that even if a Native American (for example) did claim superiority, at least over the "White" race, I would understand where they were coming from. Nobody has tried to do (and done) what Europeans and their descendents have done around the world in terms of pure unmitigated self-serving brutality under the guise of racial supremacy. The damage that has been done to the earth and all the life thereon, including human, by people that looked or look like me is such that we could, in fact, be seen as inferior to any group that has not so behaved.

Nevertheless, that is not what the other groups suggest. They are simply trying to regain the joy in being that has been so viciously robbed from them for so long in the name of White power. And they will not stop just because their oppressors feel put upon or misunderstood. It's time for White people to stop expecting people of color to make them feel better about themselves. It's time for White people to start looking inside and behaving in ways they can feel good about without pretense.

As Cooney finishes up, he calls Martin Luther King, Jr., a "person of the left" which is arguable. He sought inclusion was all, not a highly radical concept actually. He spoke out against war and against White supremacy, but he didn't seek to change the system of capitalist exploitation per se. Still, I think it's much more telling that Cooney makes it a point that he considers himself a leftist in the King tradition, and one who opposes multicultural separatism. Why this really concerns him so might make a interesting night's conversation one on one. Because nobody thinks we can actually live separately in this world any more. Hell, I can be read in Africa as soon as I push "enter." But as long as White people make everyone else's life a hell on earth, why would they want to live with us? That's the question. And Cooney knows it.

"The discrimination against blacks reinforced by stereotypes and prejudice," he writes in one of his last paragraphs, "actually creates a reality for blacks so ugly the whites are scared of their own creation. This then reinforces stereotypes, prejudice, and discrimination. But that is the way racist whites designed and want the system to work. (Except that it is working too damn well and creating too much crime even for them.)"

And with that, he closes, referring finally to Andrew Hacker's "elevator test" for racism. Hacker asks his audiences sometimes which elevator they would get in if they were presented with two cars arriving at the same time, one filled with young White males and the other with young Black males. Apparently, Hacker suggests that, if you choose the one with the White males, you are racist. Cooney claims, instead, that "we" would choose the car with the White males "every time not because we are racists, but because we, unlike Hacker, understand fully the cruel and devastating nature of America's racist system."

But Cooney is not right about all of us. I, for example, would get on the elevator with the young African-American males because, despite all the craziness of our shared history, I know they're still Africans in their hearts. And Africans have a deep sense of community.

When I was doing my research for my Master's thesis on social distance between Africans and African-Americans and the attitudes of White Americans toward both groups, I asked individuals from each of the three groups to choose adjectives to describe their own and the other groups. The Africans most commonly chose adjectives to describe themselves as community-oriented or good members of a community (such as "family-oriented," "tribal," "very religious," "friendly," "industrious," etc.). The European-Americans chose adjectives that marked them as "rugged individualists" ("career-oriented," "materialistic," "goal-oriented," "self-centered," "power-hungry" and so forth). But though the African-Americans chose some of the same adjectives as their fellow country men with lighter skin, they also chose adjectives such as "hard working," "family-oriented," and "very religious." So its still in there. Which is probably why they haven't burned this country down long ago.

So, precisely because I know "White" boys aren't always "nice" either, and because I know that African-American youth frequently are made to feel the burden of White racist fear--most of the time unfairly, I would march onto the elevator with the young Black men, looking them in the eye, speaking my greeting as I entered, and they would make space and speak to me back. The problem, Dr. Cooney, is a social constuction and will be resolved when White people change.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

5th Erase Racism Blog Carnival Now Up

The 5th Erase Racism Blog Carnival is up over at Black Looks. This is the first time the carnival has been hosted outside of the United States. Huzzah! And a nod to those who were in a position to make this choice. Greetings to our African sisters and all the new voices who are heard at this excellent presentation. Long live the international blogosphere!!

Thursday, September 14, 2006

A European-American Sets Me Straight (2)

"I find it very sad," Ms White went on in an email to which I began responding in an earlier post, "that you, as a white person, have chosen the path of self-loathing and self-hatred in order to sacrifice yourself at the altar of an ill-fated agenda."

Now, as those of you who read this blog regularly know, I choose to avoid referring to myself as a "White" person. I find the construct of "Whiteness" to be misleading. It implies that "Whiteness" is natural and acceptable, rather than socially-constructed and ignominious. So as soon as she addresses me as a "White" person, we're already talking two completely different languages.

Then, of course, she asserts that I am suffering from "self-loathing" and "self-hatred." This is rather like a German Nazi in 1941 castigating a German who doesn't believe in using death camps for not loving their "race." Excuse me? It would appear that Ms White is saying that I need to hate and persecute others in order to love myself. Which sounds really, really sick. In fact, it seems to me that if I can't love myself fully, embracing all that is me, while celebrating all that is represented by all other life on earth (including other humans), then perhaps I've missed the point about being alive period. Those who must destroy and degenerate others to feel acceptable manifest in a most obvious way their own sense of inadequacy. This is why they really must attack. They know no other way to feel beautiful. Even though they are. Which is a shame, particularly considering what has had to happen to them to bring them to that conclusion and especially since no one but they themselves can break the chains of their mental slavery.

One can only imagine what she means by "an ill-fated agenda." What might she possibly think my "agenda" could be? To place people of color in domination over European-Americans (as if I wanted to go from one system of oppression to another)? To take away all her goodies and give them to people living in storm drains in Haiti (not a bad idea, really, but hardly my "agenda")? Why do I have to have an "agenda" at all? What if I just hold these truths to be self-evident: that all humans have the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness? What if I just value truth, peace, and freedom for all peoples? What if I just espouse principles such as "honesty," "openmindedness" to reality (as opposed to mindlessly following the party line), and "willingness" to grow spiritually and be useful? What if I really believe that what goes around, comes around? Lots of people say they believe that, but you can tell by examining their lives, attitudes, and behaviors that they do not. Ms White, for example, who continues:

"To offer one self (sic) up in this manner is not only tragic but humiliating. Those who advocate this line of thinking for white people are not only self-serving but truly racist."

Here I become befuddled. "To offer oneself up" would seem to me to be the antithesis of anything "self-serving." Admittedly, a bank robber seeking 15 minutes of fame by engaging in a police shoot-out might be said to be simultaneously "offering herself up" and "self-serving." But how would I be typifying that kind of go-for-broke insanity? I am writing about what's in the best interests of the human race rather than what appears superficially to be in the best interests of one minority group (European-Americans and "White" people in general being a distinct minority in the overall world population). And, certainly, the human race does, in fact, include me, yes. But Ms White calls what I'm doing "tragic" and "humiliating." She appears to see my assumption that all humans are ipso facto deserving of basic human rights and considerations somehow degrading to herself as a "White" person. If I follow her thinking, she would seem to suggest that seeing "White" as superior and more deserving of privilege is not only appropriate, but altruistic (the opposite of "self-serving"). "Huh...?" you might grunt. That's right. According to Ms White, "White" people who see and treat people of color as inferior must be actually just accepting them as they are and looking out for them.

This is not a new idea. Europeans who first constructed the concept of "race" did so for capitalistic reasons--they smelled money and they wanted it. But they understood that in order to stand the test of time, the concept would have to be couched in protective coloration, if you will. Such as religious acceptability (people of color would be better off as "Christians" than as anything else). Or "scientific" "research" (in publications supported by and provided to those with the power to define, "finding" people of color to have smaller brains or a "culture of poverty"). Or morality (people of color need "White" people to "take care of" them, just as women need men to "take care of" them--skip that people of color have been taking care of "White" folks for centuries and women have been taking care of men for milennia).

Since I fly in the face of this type of reasoning, Ms White sees me as a threat to the paradigm into which we've all been born, a world view that people who look like me are superior and therefore should rightly dominate everyone else. If this is a tragic and humiliating stance for me to take, in her opinion, then I stand tragically and humiliated with all those others she would reduce summarily as being less deserving of life's joys than she is herself. The unfortunate reality, of course, is that people who think like Ms White are typically joyless, rather than happy, and in view of the fact that their money-driven, self-aggrandizing, and bitterly myopic perspectives would drive the human race into mass collective suicide, I can only say that I'll dance on her grave in a red dress before I'll sit idly by and let her and her ilk lead us all into ultimate extinction.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Thank You, Mr. Bush

Duck on over to Poetic Justice and listen to the National Slam Bush Champion, Vanessa German, a bee-yoo-tiful African-American lesbian who says it for all of us. That's the way--uh-huh, uh-huh--I like it (uh-huh, uh-huh)...

Guess Who's Coming To Dinner, As It Were?

Last night, I got an email informing me that "Black.White." came out on DVD yesterday. Apparently, they decided to email every blogger who mentioned the show back when it was on to say that they could get a copy of the DVD set for mentioning it again. Well, hell, yes!

Now, some of you already read what I wrote about this show. I haven't changed my mind and if you didn't catch it the first time around, you can read about it here or here or even here. A whole bunch of you probably saw the show anyway, developing your own opinions about it. And some of you would probably like to know it's now available (see this).'s available. I intend to add it to my collection and show clips in classes to illustrate various points I make in the blog posts. Thanks for reading this so I can get a freebie. Oh, yeah, and you can tell 'em Changeseeker sent you. Won't get you a discount. And they couldn't care less. But I just couldn't resist saying that.

Now, back to our regularly scheduled programming...

Monday, September 04, 2006

A European-American Sets Me Straight (1)

In the middle of all my recent fun, I received an email to which I simply didn't have time to respond instantly. I did answer the writer briefly, noting that she, like many others who cannot receive what I write, didn't sound interested in any response anyway, but rather just wanted to set me straight. I assured her that I would respond eventually on my blog, however. And now that the fog is lifting, that's what I'm going to do. But keep in mind that I'm neither captured by her rhetoric nor trying to convince her of anything. I don't argue with people who don't "get it" because it's a waste of everyone's time--mine and theirs. And it's perfectly okay for her to have any opinion she wants. How could I argue with that?

The point is that what she puts forward, as is so often the case, is based on (in Harlan Ellison's words) "bleached-out baby shit." That is to say, what makes her as a White person, and she is White, whether she means to be or not, so White is that she doesn't have the knowledge, the understanding, the empathy, the sense of perspective, or (apparently) the willingness to acquire any of these things that would make it possible for her to "get it." And again, that is, in fact, her right. Just as it would be her right to refuse medical attention even in the face of a dire illness. Just as it would be her right to turn down lottery winnings. Just as it would be her right to walk out onto a freeway in the middle of the night wearing dark colored clothes. Stupid, maybe. Hard to comprehend, certainly. But her right? Absolutely.

So then, why answer her at all? Well, first of all, because I want to. I mean, I can, right? Her email was a direct response to one or more things I have written on this blog. She sent it to me (signed, actually) and I can, then, of course, use the email however I see fit. How I see fit to use it is to give those who want to be allies some ideas to consider for when they might find themselves being "straightened." Out of concern that this post might run to book length all by itself, however, I'll respond to the email in question in pieces. And, since they'll all be written to would-be allies rather than racists, these "responses" will be installments in the series on how European-Americans can ally themselves with people of color in their own best interests.

And heeeere we go!

While I agree that in utopia there would be no racism..."

(an interesting way to begin a long treatise on why racism is reasonable)

" all fairness it is the non-whites themselves who are now the worst perpetrators of this social malignancy. Case in point, the special interest groups who cater to specific minorities and work exclusively on their behalf rather than the behalf of all human beings. We are all supposed to be equal yet certain minorities segregate themselves out by clinging onto their separate cultures, languages, traditions, frequenting their own institutions and media and supporting only their own kind. I guess that doesn't qualify as racism in your mind. White people don't have large national organizations dedicated to their needs, non-whites do..."

This reference to "self-segregation" is one of the prime indicators of cluelessness. Europeans created the socially-constructed, political notion of "race," in the first place, just before the Industrial Revolution for the express purpose of exploiting people of color and their resources. If one's purpose is to exploit--boldly, brutally, continuously, and without apology--and one manages to set up a system within which this exploitation is acceptable and even supported by the ritualized norms of the societies using it, at what point would those benefitting from the exploitation decide voluntarily that they had benefitted enough? A hundred years? Two hundred? Four hundred years? So far in history, to the best of our knowledge, those who use power (and especially those who use force) to dominate others typically sit on that power until they become convinced that those they dominate are about to successfully unseat them OR until they become so dysfunctional with weakness, they simply collapse under the weight of their own poor choices.

But the writer of this email--let's call her "Ms White" (not to be confused with the character in the parlor game, Clue, which was one of my favorite games as a youth)--would have us believe that White folks set up this fabulous system, sucking the very life out of millions of people for hundreds of years, but giving up all the benefits of that what point exactly? That is to say, all the social institutions in the United States were set up by property-holding White men for the benefit of property-holding White men and these same social institutions have continued to be maintained and controlled by property-holding White men throughout the duration to the present moment.

So at what point exactly could Ms White possibly believe that people of color, and African-Americans in particular, suddenly became the recipients of equal access to all that power? And if they did have equal access to all that power (and all the goodies that accompany it), wouldn't they, of all people, know it? And if they had equal access to all the power and all the goodies, why would they need to or want to "self-segregate"? Why in the world would they form "national organizations" outside the mainstream if they had equal access to everything in the society?

As for the assertion that "White people don't have large national organizations dedicated to their needs," the fact is that White people have almost all large national organizations dedicated to their needs. Virtually everything in the society is calculated to meet the needs of White people, even poor White people, either overtly or covertly, while people of color are forced to organize to keep from drowning or watching others drown in the backwater. White folks have the most of the best and the least of the worst throughout the society. African-American men are four times more likely than European-American men to be unemployed at every educational level and only receive 68-76% of the wages of a White man when they do pull off getting hired. For example. What would Ms White have people of color do? Sit quietly? I'll bet.

I wish I had a nickel for every time I've heard an African-American say in an overly polite voice, "No, that's all right, go ahead..." when acquiescing to a bullish White person who has taken over a situation in one way or another, whether it's to get waited on first or listened to first or even through the door first. White folks are so used to being...well..."White" and, God knows, treated as "White," (with all the attendant accompaniments), they don't even realize (or admit) it's going on. Consequently, I will do everything but lay my coat over a mud puddle to show respect for African-Americans, even strangers (and maybe especially strangers). Do I catch myself "acting White" sometimes anyway, or worse yet, get caught occasionally by a person of color doing so? Of course. I look "White." I was socialized as "White." I am approached in hundreds of ways daily as "White." And I have to be stringently vigilent to avoid the default positions.

There are organizations where European-Americans and people of color are fully represented and equal, but they are notable for their infrequency. When I enter a conference or a meeting where there are few, if any, African-Americans, I know I'm coming into a space that is not safe or welcoming to people of color. People of color have to enter such spaces on a regular basis in the United States--out of necessity. If they want a job. If they want to know what's going on in their field. If they live in the suburbs. If they attend (or send their kids to) a public university. They can't take their clothes to the cleaners, go to the grocery, walk into a major department store, visit a mainstream museum, or even walk down the street without having to steel themselves against possible rejection, insult, or ignorance. The most rudimentary activities of daily life hold multiple opportunities for European-Americans to be validated and people of color to be made to feel reduced. Organizations--national or otherwise--are just one arena in which these validations and reductions are carried out. To cast aspersions on African-Americans and other people of color for bonding together in the interest of making a safe space for themselves is to be so mean-spirited that one wants them not only to suffer, but to be unable to exhale for even a minute. Tsk, tsk, Ms White. Tsk, tsk.

Sunday, September 03, 2006

Is Anybody Out There?

Well, yes. I am somewhat the worse for wear (thanks for asking), though probably not nearly as visibly marked as I feel. At least, no one has been unkind enough to tell me so.

I do repeatedly say things like, "Have a nice holiday. I'll see you all on Wednesday" only to have one of the students mumble quietly on the way out the door, "Just for the record: today is only Wednesday and we'll be back on Friday for another class before the holiday..."

And then there was the problem I had crafting syllabi for three different courses where I just skipped the first week of classes entirely, as if they were all scheduled to start a week later (wishful thinking?). And I can't seem to recall what I've already said. And I take the long route to almost everywhere I walk on campus. And my feet are killing me. And my lower back thinks I hate it for some reason and it's starting to hate me back.

I'm driving thirty miles each way to and from my university now five days a week (at three dollars per gallon) and it doesn't seem to matter when I get in the car, it's invariably pouring the rain by the time I drive two blocks. Which means I almost slid into the back or side of something large twice last week, misjudging the slick pavement on the exit ramps.

My body-clock is so stunned by the radical shift of forty hours of intensive orientation on my new campus (and the 8:30 a.m. classes) that it wakes up at 4:00 a.m. with my mind already running, mostly into the sides of my brain cavity. And my eyes have settled into a constant glassy, if questioning, stare.

If I wasn't a "pro," I'd be buckling. Or maybe this is buckling and I just don't realize it. Anyway, between all this and the fact that my pc crashed (that's all I can say about that, but many of you know what that did to me), I am walking wounded these days. And I have missed you more than I like to admit. Apparently, somewhere along the route, I became a blogger who does other things on the side. I don't know when it happened exactly, but I'm now being required to behave as if this is not true. And if I'm ever to write anything again other than a post, I must also make room for that. Somehow.

Nevertheless, here I am, struggling along on the brand new IBM Thinkpad my new employer delivered to my office on Thursday. I've never had a laptop before, couldn't even figure out how to open it at first, but desperation is the mother of do-not-get-between-me-and-the-internet, and I'm getting the hang of it. I have appropriately loaded it with some of my must-haves (like Napster and email addresses and the writer's almanac, not to mention my network favorites, of course, with the blogs I no longer have time to read...but will again, if there's a god/dess in heaven).

And the word is already out, according to some of the other professors who have been overhearing students talk, that there's this outrageous new professor on campus who's "awesome" (so maybe they like it when I don't know what day it is because nothing I'm doing feels "awesome," that's for sure).

Bottom line, I'll be back with a real post :^) tomorrow morning. So don't give me up for dead yet...

*squints into the sunlight as she peers out of the mouth of her cave before shuffling back into the darkness*

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.