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Form Follows Function

The 11th Hour: reflection on racial justice work with white folks

When I read the post my stomach dropped. I could feel my chest tighten, forcing me back in my chair. I must have read it three times before my next breath.

Maybe it was the precision with which it cut to the heart of the matter. Maybe it was the fact that somebody else—somebody who had experienced, as he calls it, the worst of my people—was asking the question that has been haunting me. Probably, though, it was the fact that I didn’t have an answer.

When Kiese Laymon posted: Nearly two thirds of white folks support Trump. 40% of white women ride with this dude. He got way more college educated white support than we think. I have no hope for white men. None. Not an ounce. So my questions are: can white folks be fixed by white folks and why are white women doing this. These questions may be rhetorical. I wanted to hear a call to action, and in many ways I did. Mainly, though, I needed an answer. I needed to know that white folks can save themselves. I also felt fear. Fear that any action is going to be too little and too late. Fear that we are too far gone, that we are beyond saving, too disconnected. Fear that we are too in love with too much pain.

That idea, the idea that we are in pain, is essential to understand. The work of racial justice is fundamentally healing work. Many of us, though, don’t understand it in those terms. We see this work as sacrifice, as something we do for people of color evidence of our moral fiber. We frame it as the ultimate selflessness. And that is fucked up. We have a stake in this. Racial justice is in our interest. White supremacy is eroding our souls, and we need to heal with a quickness.

***

When I logged in they were already started. I had been looking forward to this webinar, Healing Toxic Whiteness, for a couple weeks. I really thought it was important whiteness was being named as toxic. It was exactly what I needed to ease my own uncertainty. But, as I listened and followed the chat anxiety started to grip my throat. What I was seeing was beautiful –people, my people, acknowledging their pain and wanting to heal– but it was nowhere near enough. It was reformation. This, like most of the conversations I’ve had around justice, fell short of the simple truth: there is no other form of whiteness than toxic. I know why it was framed that way: the belief that we, by and large, are not ready to hear that whiteness is nothing but evil. But we have to be. If white folks are going to save ourselves, if it isn’t too late, I believe we need to begin by talking about whiteness. More than that, I think it is the most effective approach to take.

Too often the logic around talking about racial justice is: 1) introduce race and racism as systemic 2) jump into talking about privilege and then, if you haven’t lost everybody 3) you talk about whiteness. The rationale behind this is that if you start by talking about whiteness it will turn to defensiveness and you won’t get anybody. I don’t believe that is true. In fact, I think it will be more effective if we turn that logic on its head. I believe that we should start by talking about whiteness and use that to illustrate the complex and sophisticated system within which it operates. Race and racism were invented to protect whiteness. Highlighting that fact illuminates the systemic nature of racism and the fiction of race in a way that can’t happen by skipping over whiteness. Starting with an analysis of whiteness will make it easier to highlight intersections. Perhaps most importantly, understanding whiteness is the only way we will actually deconstruct white supremacy and begin healing. Why not start there? There are two major critiques to this approach 1) people will get too defensive and 2) it is simply too devastating to our sense of selves to hear the truth about whiteness. I reject both of these.

First, let me address the defensiveness argument: yup people will be defensive. Those will be the same people that are defensive about the systemic nature of racism so we aren’t really losing anybody there. We can, however, gain people. When we start with whiteness we are beginning by validating the connection that we all, at one point, shared: our humanity. A common distractor in conversations about racial justice is “well aren’t we all human.” As it stands now the answer often does not sufficiently deal with this question, it says “yes, but…” and goes on to imply things about whiteness, but avoids just diving in. When we start with whiteness, when we start with “yes we are and then we became white” we kick the door open for reconnection. We open space to heal. We name the problem from the start and then everything else  orients towards solving that problem. It becomes easier to see how systems worked and evolved to protect whiteness, this made up thing. It becomes harder to conflate prejudice with racism because whiteness is explicitly positioned as a social construct from the beginning. This is a major difference from racial justice work that positions race as a social construct and waits to tackle the issue of whiteness, allowing whiteness to remain de-raced.

Another common critique I’ve heard about starting with whiteness is that it strips people of their identity. To that I say, yes. All the yeses. And ain’t that the point? If we truly believe that whiteness and white supremacy are hurting our people shouldn’t we want it stripped? While that is a scary thought to wrap our minds around it can also be exhilarating. It gives us endless opportunity. We will then have the space and freedom to craft a healthy identity that works to honor and respect the humanity and dignity of all people, ourselves included. It opens the door to reimagine an economy not build on competition, exploitation and consumption. It opens the door to honor the love people share regardless of their gender. It paves the way to rethink what gender even is and how it (if it is even a thing) informs our everyday practices. All the things racial justice work is supposed to be about become much more attainable when we begin by naming whiteness. The fact of the matter is by positioning the conversation around whiteness as somehow too sophisticated for the average white person we are catering to our fragility. The truth is we all know, instinctively, that whiteness is a thing and that we have a group consciousness and interest, Donald Trump’s candidacy is exhibit. We need to stop acting like that consciousness and interest has ever been, or could ever be, healthy and just abandon it completely. We can then get to work on developing a healthy identity to replace it. Anything short of naming that reality is itself an injustice.

I still don’t have an answer for Kiese. I don’t know if white folks can save ourselves or not. I do, though, know I am going to live everyday trying to do just that: save myself. Every day I am going to try to save myself from this thing called whiteness. This thing which is so toxic to my humanity. My hope is that others join me in encouraging others to  start here as well, before it’s truly too late.

The Trojan Horse of Unity: how the Seahawks betrayed justice.

Sunday the Seattle Seahawks locked arms in a sign of unity during the National Anthem. Leading up to their demonstration (if you can even call it that) many leaders of the team took to social media and implored folks to #BuildABridge. This was all in response to Colin Kaepernick and the handful of players such as Brandon Marshall, Arian Foster and others who have chosen not to stand during the National Anthem. The Seattle demonstration has been much more palatable than the others because it was ostensibly a call for unity. The truth, though, is that these calls for unity are nothing more than a Trojan Horse  meant to protect the social order and reassure well-intentioned whites that nothing too radical is on the horizon.

Unity is the perfect Trojan Horse; it reinforces the rhetorical contortionism of American exceptionalism and the myth of E Pluribus Unum while erasing the rot at the foundation of our social system. Unity is the rose colored glasses that eases our collective conscious while shinning a spotlight on the real problems: those that point out systemic oppression. Calls for unity in our current situation suggest that such things like the disproportionate killing of Black people by police, or the underfunding of inner city schools, or the ever growing wealth gap would all be remedied if we could “all just get along.” Calls for unity suggest that slavery and segregation have no lasting effect other than hurt feelings. Calls for unity now, before justice, are bullshit.

Real unity requires real connection. And, this is the issue many have when it comes to understanding Kaepernick’s protest, Black Lives Matter, and racial justice in general: a lack of connection. stereotypingWe have been conditioned to accept our hyper-segregated lives through the consumption of the gross stereotypes the media is constantly producing.
In this environment we are encouraged to stay with those most like us. This is the real division. This is the real enemy of unity. Instead of truth-telling and listening to understand across lines of differences, which builds relationships and community, we retreat to our silos and the dominant narrative which reinforces our disconnection.

So, to those who want unity, who want to #BuildABridge, I’m with you. Let’s start by organizing a campaign demanding reparations and a redistribution of the wealth accumulated from slavery. Let’s put an end to the destruction of Earth and stand with our Native brothers and sisters in demanding an end to the Dakota Access Pipeline. Let’s (begin) to put an end to the exploitation of workers both here in America and around the world and put people over profits by supporting $15 Now . Let’s demand an end to predatory lending. Let’s demand an end to militarism and drone strikes. Let’s demand a massive education budget the size of our defense one. Let’s demand everybody has a home and healthcare. This would be unity.

Real unity will only happen when those with power –those who have been systemically advantaged — turn their backs on those systems and rediscover their humanity. Anything short of this is a Trojan Horse not to be trusted. I know its tiring to be so diligent when the allure of this fake unity shines so brightly. Arian foster.jpgIt feels good to hear about people coming together. And we all want to feel good. I get that. I want that. And that is precisely why we must reject the mirage. American society is set up to pillage, and there can be no unity in that. However, there can and must be unity towards a fundamental restructuring of American society. A restructuring that includes all voices, especially the ones left out of the original vision: women, people of color, poor folks, immigrants, Muslims, the LGBTQ communities. Until that time there must continue to be protests and disruption. We must heed the words of Frederick Douglass, “power concedes nothing without a demand.” The Seahawks had a chance to make a major statement, they had a chance to make a demand, and instead they locked arms and rode a Trojan Horse into the heart of far too many Americans.

What Colin Kaepernick reminds us about Patriotism.

When Colin Kaepernick, with the country still high off Olympic hyper-patriotism, refused to stand for the National Anthem he struck a cord with many Americans. Some felt pride in his actions and unapologetic explanations. Others felt outrage and disgust conflating Kaepernick’s stance into an anti-military and veterans protest  (even though Kaepernick has repeatedly articulated why he is doing it which has nothing to do with the military, and many veterans have spoken out in support of him). There are all kinds of think pieces out there that dive deeper into all that. Most of these pieces are framed in a sort of 1st Amendment-protesting is the highest form of patriotism- he loves the country so much he wants it to be great rhetoric. I get that, it certainly is his right to protest. It’s also true that, some people believe, wars have been fought to secure that right. But none of that is why I support Kaepernick’s stance.

I don’t feel protest is the highest form of patriotism. I don’t feel a deep love for the country and want it to be as great as I know it can be. It’s actually quite the opposite for me. I ain’t patriotic at all. I don’t love this country. I don’t find any pride in saying I’m American. I know the blood that the flag has soaked up. I know the crimes that the flag has spun into tales of honor and glory. I know the way this country has interwoven patriotism and poverty in order to manipulate folks into killing and dying for it. I know how my uncles, my friends, people from my neighborhood, and my students come back after serving. I’ve seen the un(der)treated PTSD. I’ve seen the bogus recruitment promises. I watched a senior in high school sign up for the Guard while this country deported her family. I’ve seen the abandoned and foreclosed family homes, some of which had lived there for generations, as politicians and bankers got rich.

I don’t hate this country either. It’s not that simple.

I understand the desire to want to be a part of something bigger and better than yourself. I understand wanting to be part of a community, and to be proud of that community. I think, at its core, that is what patriotism is about. Still, the reality of patriotism is, ironically, the exact opposite of unity: division.

colin-kaepernick-kneels_bujmrw

Patriotism consistently urges people to silo themselves with others who are defined by increasingly rigid and narrow definitions of their countrymen. The resulting archetypes are labeled exceptional and we are expected to strive to be more like them. Of course, those with power define the archetypes and set the parameters for who gets to be patriotic –who is on the inside– and who is left out, who is other. Nothing illustrates this dynamic better than Donald Trump’s reaction to Kaepernick’s protest. Trump said Kaepernick should find a “country that works better for him.” This from a man whose campaign slogan of “Make America Great Again” implies that America’s increasing diversity and any of the gains made by movements such as the Civil Rights, Women’s Rights and Gay Rights Movements have somehow weakened America as opposed to moving it closer to its ideal. Tragically, this is much more than a different construction of who is or who isn’t American. If it were simply that Kaepernick’s protest wouldn’t be necessary: we could just vote for the candidate that conceptualized a more inclusive definition. No, the problem is much deeper. The problem is systemic. The problem is Trump is right, America is far from the “greatness” the founders envisioned. It is far from the imagined America which is the root for so much of our patriotism.

When the founders conceptualized America they did not imagine a beacon of freedom. They imagined a slave holding aristocracy that would hierarchialize humanity in order to rationalize amassing incredible amounts of wealth through genocide, slavery and class oppression. James Madison, the architect of the Constitution, warned his fellow WASP’s of the danger of too much democracy. The Constitution was designed as a system of checks and balances against not only government tyranny but a “tyranny of the majority.” The founders, those wealthy, white, men –many of them slaveholders, none of them workers– were cognizant of how to systemically protect their position. The brilliance of the Constitution, then, is not its egalitarian vision, but rather how folks bought into that vision when the reality is the exact opposite. The answer to that, of course, is patriotism. And, we must never remove our conversations about patriotism from that context. s-l300America is built on a foundation of heinous acts and crimes against humanity. Any conversations about patriotism that ignore this history are merely attempts at protecting the position of white males who feel threatened by movements for justice. Furthermore, any conversations that redress and attempt to heal this history fall outside the parameters of American patriotism which leaves patriotism as we know it an empty gesture at best, and a hateful, violent one at worst.

When Kaepernick refuses to stand for the National Anthem he is refusing to forget our history. He is refusing to look away as this history is played out in the present with the same outcomes: death and oppression. He is reminding us that patriotism is largely a tool of social control and distraction. He is reminding us that we must love people. All people. These imagined and false borders we continue to place on maps and on people only serve to keep us from each other. Rather that build the community that so many are earning for when they embrace patriotism and nationalism, borders isolate and disconnect. Kaepernick is pointing out that “patriots” are chanting “Build that wall” while burning bridges. Bridges we so badly need.

A Matter of Our Souls

Growing up Irish-Catholic and going to Catholic schools from kindergarten through 12th grade I couldn’t help but think about my soul, often. I remember Sister Bev leading sex ed class in 8th grade. It was essentially her telling us to leave each other and ourselves alone or we would go blind. I remember confessing everything from swearing to premarital sex and feeling so relieved while saying my ten Hail Mary’s. I thought about my soul often. And, while I am no longer Christian, I still find myself thinking about my soul. Thinking about our soul.

***

I was leading a workshop on white privilege a while back as part of Poetic Assassins. I had read Tim Wise and some others and was pretty confident I was prepared to lead this workshop. I did the workshop and felt pretty good about it. After, one of the the participants asked me what whiteness was. I was taken aback by the question. Not because it is a bad question. I was taken aback because I realized I did not have an answer. At least not one that was good enough. I don’t remember my exact answer to him, but I remember leaving there with an understanding of the work I needed to immerse myself in: understanding whiteness.

As I read about whiteness a familiar feeling came over me: concern for my soul. It became clear to me that this work was, at its core, work that was spiritual. Not in the hippy, new age, spacey kind of way; this work was and is spiritual in the most concrete and real ways I had ever known.

Disconnection.

Whiteness can be summed up with that one word: disconnection. The initial disconnection being from the creator and creation. As whiteness has matriculated and evolved into the global system of oppression we currently find ourselves subsumed by we must understand that it is disconnection. While humans have been bickering and fighting with one another and separating themselves into hierarchies for millennia never before has the disconnection been so complete and so thorough as the creation of whiteness.

Whiteness is a uniquely American invention. Yes, people with white skin have existed for centuries, but whiteness is relatively new. I should be clear it didn’t just happen out of nowhere, there was build up and warning signs i.e. colonization of Ireland which Ronald Takaki calls practice for the genocidal colonization of the Western Hemisphere. But in Virginia and Maryland and the other colonies, whiteness is born.

The need to rationalize slavery and maintain the economic social order led our ancestors down a path of disconnection from which we have yet to recover. And, I fear we may never recover. We are just now experiencing the slightest collective consciousness around the way the police kill brown and black folks with impunity. That ain’t new, just the cameras are. We are so disconnected from our brothers and sisters that collectively we have ignored, or blatantly refused to acknowledge, the reality they have been telling us about. We talk about the wealth gaps, crooked politicians and corrupt CEO’s and bankers as if they are natural phenomenon that must be tolerated as opposed to the logical outcome of a system built on genocide and slavery which murders and steals to protect its interests everyday. Still, the clearest example of how utterly disconnected from humanity and creation whiteness has pushed us comes in how we are treating the earth.

The earth must be sacred. Whiteness, though, has commodified and exploited it with no regard for the consequences. Our disconnection is so thorough we are actually killing ourselves and resisting the calls to stop. While I am certainly talking climate change, which has real and immediate effects hurting us all right now, I am also talking about the lead in our water from Flint to my hometown Minneapolis (and everywhere else).  I am talking about the daily destruction of the rainforests, the historic drought in California, and the islands of trash in our oceans. Most presently, I am talking about oil pipelines and cutting off water to Native Tribes protesting the Dakota Access Pipeline.

***

“The past is never dead.It’s not even past.”

I’m sitting here at 4:45am thinking about my ancestors. I’m thinking about the Standing Rock Sioux and the other tribes protecting what is left of their land from the insatiable appetite for destruction of whiteness. I’m thinking about the disconnection and legacy necessary for the Army Corps of Engineers to actually say the Standing Rock Sioux “failed to describe specific cultural sites” that would be damaged by the pipeline. As if the water and land is not a “specific cultural site.” I am thinking about our soul.

How did we get to this place? How do we return?

As a kid, I always appreciated the relief I felt after going to confession. I think we need something like that. We need to begin with truth-telling and then work at reconnecting. We need to understand if the earth isn’t sacred, nothing is. It will be a journey, this reconnection, but it is one we must pursue with urgency. Jack Forbes calls whiteness an illness: the Wetiko Disease of Exploitation. I do believe whiteness is a sickness. I believe this is first and foremost a spiritual sickness. I also believe there is a cure. Go out with an open mind and heart to learn and love others. Ask questions and listen to the answer. Be in community. Find out what matters to others and why, then have it matter to you. Reject the individualism of whiteness. Reject the disconnection. Our souls depend on it.

 

The Cowardice of Minneapolis: how race and class undermine justice

Growing up, Saturday nights were spent watching a movie, eating a frozen pizza and waiting for my Mom to come home from her shift at Gasthofs. My Pops would take us to the movie spot where we would find a movie in the .99 cent section, stop by the .25  cent Shasta pop machine that was outside the grocery store, and then pick up a Tony’s pizza (if we were really balling we got a Tombstone). When my Mom got home we would pause the movie, and I would go count her tips with her. I have vivid memories of seeing the thick knot and thinking we were rich. She was always quick to say “they are all ones sweat pea.”

I grew up much more conscious of class than I ever was of race. I knew who the system protected, and who it didn’t. Who it benefited, and who it screwed. When I was doing work study to supplement the financial aid my parents got from my private high school, I knew it. When I walked on my college campus, I knew it. When I filled out my private student loan promissory note, I knew it.

What took me a little longer was understanding how that system, which I knew intimately through class, leveraged race as a way to fundamentally maintain itself.

The dance between race and class is a complex one. Sometimes class leads, but at others race is running the show.RACE_POVERTY_CLASS[1]Without understanding how both are weaved into the fabric of our society’s systems of domination it will be impossible to build an effective movement for justice, let alone establish alternative systems rooted in justice. There is no clearer example of how crucial this intersectional worldview is than what took place in Minneapolis this last week.

Minneapolis has a certain reputation. It is solidly Democrat, and embraces its liberal identity. Last year The Atlantic published an article called “The Miracle of Minneapolis” which sings Minneapolis’ praises. Sadly, this utopian vision of Minneapolis  doesn’t stand up to the slightest scrutiny. With only a Google search you find that Minneapolis is a much different place for people of color which The Washington Post and The Atlantic detail. The reality is that the chasms between whites and people of color that exist in Minneapolis are the largest in the country.

In the face of this overwhelming  white supremacy  Minneapolis rolled out its One Minneapolis plan. The overwhelmingly white lawmakers adopted racial justice language and ostensibly began to do the serious work of building “One” reality.

Between then and now organizations and individuals have been organizing and building power in order to hold the city accountable. Unfortunately, there is nothing better for maintaining white supremacy than class interests.

Maybe the most visible manifestations of this accountability came in the form of the $15 Dollar Now and Insure the police campaigns. Organizers across the city worked tirelessly to collect the necessary signatures to put the issues on the ballot, to give the people a voice. Sadly, when presented with the signatures, the City Council sided with lawyers representing the city and voted against placing the issues on the ballot.1024x1024 Many so called “progressives,” in true liberal fashion, hid behind the legality of adapting the city charter. Only two members of the council, Alondra Cano and Cam Gordon, voted to prioritize  the people (Cano cast the only vote to insure the police). And this is what we mean when we talk about systemic oppression.

By citing legality the City Council did what good liberals always do: count on the system to maintain their own privileges. This is how systems work. Systems ignore the fact that the law has always been a tool of the powerful. They forget that at one point, not so long ago, it was legal to own another human being. Another, shamefully recent, period of our history embraced legal segregation and system of apartheid. The idea that legality and morality are one in the same simply does not carry water. The City Council knows this. However, by stating, as Council Member Andrew Johnson did (he wasn’t the only one), that they are all for the $15 dollar wage but that it wasn’t appropriate for the city charter they deflect the reality of oppression while maintaining the veneer of a racial justice advocate.

The reality is they are scared. Justice is scary to oppressors. Their class and racial allegiances prohibit their ever actually becoming even a portion of the people they want us to believe they are. The $15 Now campaign, while still below a livable wage, is a threat to the material wealth of the middle and upper classes. White liberals are fine with racial justice until it means actually redistributing wealth and power. They know this. They know they need to protect their positions, and those serving to protect them: the police. Even in the light of Jamar Clark and Philando Castile middle class liberals side with the foot soldiers protecting the status quo. They know that voting to insure the police will be seen by the Union and larger law enforcement community as a sign of disrespect, and they can’t afford to send that message. They are invested in this system regardless of what they tell the newspapers and cameras.

I’m still mesmerized by my mother. She lets nothing get in her way. She ain’t the only one. Last night I saw hundreds of people celebrating the historic victory of Ilhan Omar over Phyllis Khan. Fue Lee also won his primary, unseating Joe Mullery. There is a shift happening. Folks are beginning to understand the need for systemic change. Working class white folks, like my family, are beginning to understand the need for a paradigm shift. We are rejecting the social order and building something new. There is power in that. And, there is hope in that power.

 

 

 

Electoral Politics in 2016, I wanted to Believe

I remember telling one of my best friends that two Democrats: Barack Obama and Keith Ellison were going to change the world. I was canvasing for Alliance for a Better Minnesota and, for the first time in my life, was energized around politics. As I knocked on hundreds of doors and talked to people all over Minneapolis and St. Paul I felt good about my work and about the future of the country. I wanted to believe, and I did.

That year was 2006. By 2008 I had lost my faith in electoral politics. I didn’t vote for Obama in 2008. By 2008 I had come to the conclusion that no person, no matter how well-intentioned, could enter into the machine of American electoral politics and come out the other end. I was studying relentlessly and after every book I finished, after every interview, and podcast, and YouTube lecture I watched I couldn’t come to a different conclusion. Whether it was Malcolm X, Howard Zinn, Noam Chomsky, or Rosa Clemente the message was the same: Republicans may be more blatant in their oppression but Democrats had the same ends in mind.quote-the-republican-and-democratic-parties-are-only-factions-of-the-government-party-noam-chomsky-143-3-0365  I cast my vote in 2008 for the McKinney-Clemente ticket, and watched as the country elected the first black president. I smiled when Obama won, it was undoubtedly a major moment. I wanted to believe.

It is now 2016. Donald Trump is the Republican nominee for president. His blatantly xenophobic, racist, sexist, homophobic and fascist rhetoric has resulted in him surging in the polls. I want to believe so badly that the Democrats have an alternative. But, I’m watching the opening night of the Democratic National Convention and it is more about Donald Trump than it is about Hillary Clinton. It seems the Democratic strategy is to simply scare people into voting against Trump instead of for Clinton. The phrase “lesser of two evils” is so common in our  political discourse that folks don’t even bash an eyelash at its implications.  We accept the overwhelming ineptitude and inadequacies of our efforts around climate change. In fact, we prefer silence on that issue. But when we do talk it’s not much better. We talk about drone bombings, military budgets large enough to conquer the universe, homelessness, healthcare for profit, education for profit and CIA trained black ops leading coups in sovereign nations like they are a given, a force of nature. We shrug our shoulders and fall in line when wealth disparities and systemic inequality remind us that Democrats have done just as much harm as Republicans. We turn to one of the architects of mass-incarceration  for its solution knowing full well there is nothing there. We watch real immigrants facing real deportation being ran out on stage to talk about how evil Trump is but remain silent about the record setting deportations carried out under our current Democratic President. We shake our heads as folks continue to act like the threat to police officers is somehow on par with how the police brutalize communities of color and poor communities. Still, though, I want to believe.

It is now 2016 and the lies of both major political parties are so shallow and see through that fear is our greatest motivator. I want to believe we are better than this. I want to believe that we are better than empty political rhetoric. I want to believe we are better than catering to American exceptionalism. I want to believe we can tell the truth– good, bad or otherwise– about this country. I want to believe we, the citizens, are not being manipulated, but are, instead, being trusted. I want to believe… but I know better.

We need something else. We need a different field. We need a different game. This isn’t about any individual. I’m sure many Democrats are good people. I’m also sure the rules of the game will buffer their impact. rosa_clemente_maThese folks talking tonight: Corey Booker, Michelle Obama, Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders know they are selling woof tickets. They know the real deal, and so do we. Yes, we may be able to push Democrats a bit and that is something, for sure, but it is not the long game. The long game comes between elections cycles (why you think they want us in perpetual elections). The long game comes at the dinner tables, and the street corners, and clubs and the classrooms. It comes in the protests. It comes in the Zines and Indy media. It comes in the barbershops and the church pews. It comes with base-building outside of the Democrats. It comes outside of electoral politics as we now know it. It comes with you and me. The long game is the people and we are the people.  I still believe.

 

Shedding Whiteness: an introductory guide

Somebody I respect and look up to greatly, who also happens to be a writer, once told me to write the article you wish you could have read when you first started your journey. This is my attempt at doing just that.

As the country once again reels from our collective inability to address issues of race and racism, more white folks are becoming aware that their identities (how they identify socially and politically) are not neutral and benign but are actually  very problematic and rooted in a history of violence (of course we all know this at some level that’s why we have yet to embrace truth-telling in any meaningful way). There is a growing desire and willingness to embrace transformation. It is incredibly important, then, to support folks who are just beginning the process of shedding whiteness. I have often said the first step in this process is being able to identify and name whiteness in order to work against it. That is easy to say and very hard to do. What follows is my best attempt at articulating  what I am calling the pillars of whiteness. By beginning to understand these pillars those of us with white skin will be able to more readily identify and work against whiteness.

Pillar One: Whiteness is Ideological 

The most common misunderstanding of whiteness is that it is biological. Many of us with white skin observe this biological fact and automatically begin identifying as white. We embrace things such as rugged individuality, an obsession with private property and punctuality. We shame open displays of sexuality and sensuality while internalizing shame and guilt around a great many aspects of the human experience. This is because whiteness is a coalescing of White Anglo-Saxon Protestant (WASP)  ideals, values and norms. The fact is that people we now label white would not have been considered white for most of history. Which brings us to the second pillar.

Further Readings: The Racial Contract by Charles Mills.  The Myth of Race The Reality of Racism byMahmoud El Kati 

Pillar Two: Whiteness is Fluid 

Because whiteness is ideology it can be shaped to fit specific needs. When whiteness was first codified it was meant to protect the planting class in the colonies from the multiracial rebellions that threatened their profits. All that was necessary to guard the status quo was to extend certain rights and privileges to poor English. But as America grew and more immigrants came to the country from various cultures across Europe the threat to the elite once again posed too great a risk. As a result whiteness was expanded. Groups that were previously not considered white where now granted membership into the club given that they shed their cultures and assimilate into the dominant WASP culture. The Irish were one group who quite explicitly demanded rights in exchange for accepting whiteness. As more and more European groups acquiesced to whiteness the divide and conquer nature of whiteness was further entrenched.

Further Readings: Working Towards Whiteness by David Roediger, How the Irish Became White by Noel Ignatiev, A Different Mirror by Ronald Takaki, The History of White People by Nell Irvin Painter

Pillar Three: Whiteness is divisive

Whiteness can not survive unity. It’s entire purpose is to maintain a chasm between those it labels white and those that fall outside its purview. It requires isolation. In order to maintain the division it nurtures discontent and hatred towards those that fall outside its borders. Because we all know this (at some level), and nobody openly chooses oppression, marginalization and dehumanization those of us with white skin invest in the ideology and the division. Also, our institutions are built on a foundation of whiteness which further perpetuate its destructive impact. When we blindly accept the label of white because it “matches” our skin tone we are also accepting the division, the disease. We must push back against this. We must reach for connection and struggle for community. We must unlearn whiteness.

Further Readings: Wages of Whiteness by David Roediger, Possessive Investment of Whiteness by George Lipsitz.

Pillar Four: Invisibility

Growing up I was taught not to “see color.” I know so many good people who were taught the same thing. The problem is that when we don’t see color we are defaulting to the norm i.e. whiteness. We are requiring people to give up their cultures, religions, languages, customs… themselves and become, in this country, white. This colorblind approach has been the dominant frame for liberals since the Civil Rights movement and has become especially prevalent in the age of Obama and the rise of post-racial rhetoric. However, without dealing with the other pillars of whiteness this invisibility only serves to protect whiteness. It creates an environment where the privileged actually believe they got where they are by themselves and resent efforts to rectify the systemic inequity that facilitated their position in society. Ironically this resentment is also eating away at their own humanity. Whiteness is cannibalistic. We must begin talking explicitly about whiteness and how to heal from its effects.

Further Readings: Racism Without Racism by Eduardo Bonilla-Silva, White Like Me by Tim Wise.

I am hopeful that more and more people who look like me will begin to do this deeply important and sacred work so that they can join the struggle. A new world is possible and it is up to us to path the way.

 

 

Overwhelming* Silence: White Silence and Alton Sterling

I want to start by being very specific about who I am talking to; this post is meant for people who look like me, those of us with white skin.

Many of you woke up this morning and heard the news about Alton Sterling, the 37 year old man who was shot and killed by the police in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. The sickening feeling in your stomach probably hit you hard as you watched the cell phone footage of a police officer charging and tackling Sterling to the ground. You knew what was coming next. And, within seconds you saw it: the police officer mounts Sterling like a UFC fighter. There is no confrontation. No struggle. Sterling is subdued and then another officer yells “Gun. Gun.” The officer on top of Sterling pulls his gun and within seconds fires multiple rounds killing Alton Sterling.

This morning my Facebook feed is full of yet another hashtag, #AltonSterling. So many of the Black and Brown people I’m connected to have no need to see the video. They say as much. They already know what happened, and, sadly, how this will play out. There is outrage; there is disgust; there will be calls for patience and to let the system work; what there won’t be is justice. And this is where I find myself this morning. Pondering my role in justice. What I’ve come to is overwhelming in its simplicity and crushing in it’s complexity. We are responsible for justice.

I don’t mean we in the vague and generalized sense that it is often used. I mean we, me and you, people with white skin. The reason this genocide against people of color continues is because far too many of us remain complicit in our silence. I thought about not writing this this morning. I thought about just retreating in my feelings of disgust, outrage, and grief. But that is not my job. Every time I, or anyone of you, retreats into silence we breath life into the killing machine. downloadEvery time we urge restraint or make apologies, or rationalize this brutality we are degrading our own spirit. And make no mistake this is a spiritual endeavor. Our souls are being crushed under the weight of whiteness. How much longer can we take it? How much longer can we acknowledge how broken our world is and ignore the weapon used to break it?

I also don’t mean justice as in jail time for the police. Though that would be something, I think. I mean justice as in creating a world that truly values the lives of Black, Brown, Asian, and Native people. I mean a justice that leaves no need for an Ethnic studies curriculum because truth-telling is already the curriculum. I mean a world where #BlackLivesMatter and Native Lives and Latinx Lives and Asian Lives. I mean a world where Donald Trump would be embarrassed to show his face, and my students wouldn’t chuckle at the idea of not having to struggle. I mean that kind of justice. We are responsible for ushering that world into existence.

The first step to creating this justice is to understand how it was sidelined in the first place. We must understand the way that whiteness — fitting into the Anglo-Saxon archetype –has been valued historically via formal avenues such as legislation and school curriculum as well as informal ones such as social customs,traditions and practices. Because much of this is passed down through generations, or happens away from public scrutiny, or is largely implicit it is necessary to learn and then unlearn this sordid history and way of being. Once we can come to grips with the ways whiteness keeps us from our own humanity and strangles our souls there is no other choice then to struggle for this justice. We won’t struggle because we are trying to help anyone else, or feel bad for them; we will struggle because our own freedom, our own humanity, is tied up with everyone else’s. As we continue to bear witness to whiteness destroying communities of color while cannibalistically devouring those of us with white skin this unlearning is the only choice we have if we ever hope for peace.

This last week a petition went around calling for the firing of Jesse Williams because his speech at the BET Awards was “racist.” When Shonda Rhimes heard about it she shut it down quickly, this is positional power, and it’s a real thing. Well, white folks have positional power in society. Once we have unlearned whiteness (and even before that) we need to be using this power not to simply name our privilege and then cower behind guilt, that is about as weak as weak gets; we need to use it to stand up and demand fundamental, radical, structural changes. To fail to do this is to betray humanity, it is to betray ourselves. There must be no compromise here. There is no compromise with the humanity of our brethren. This is especially true on days like today, days when whiteness has taken another life. Left another family fatherless. Left another community in mourning trying to survive loss. These are the days when our voices need to be the loudest, they must be clarion voices calling for the dismantling of whiteness.

The silence is deafening and it must be broken. Lives, ours included, depend on it.

*The title of this piece was initially “Deafening Silence” but if was brought to my attention this was abelist in casting being deaf as a negative. I have changed it to be more inclusive.

#Inspired… Now what?

I am not caping for Justin Timberlake, I have never been a fan; I do, though, understand him a little bit, I think.

I know what it feels like to be inspired by unfiltered and unapologetic truth-telling. I know what it feels like to have your soul spoken to. I also know what it feels like to feel lost when that happens. I know the despair of realizing how seldom that feeling comes. I also know the confusion, and anger, and guilt, and eventually the dissonance that comes with trying to figure out what it means when people of color inspire you but you are white in a white supremacist society.

I imagine Justin Timberlake was feeling many of those same feelings while he was watching Jesse Williams’ speech at the BET Awards. I imagine a lot of folks who look like me, folks with white skin, felt themselves coming alive. images (2)Sadly,  when called out on their collusion with Whiteness (for Timberlake in the exact ways Jesse Williams had just broken down) many will fall back on the classic “we are all human” liberal deflection.
I know I’ve done that. And it’s not that it’s wrong (we all are human) it’s that it misses the point: our lived reality is very different. But this ain’t new, there are so many eloquent break downs of this lived difference a Google search can easily put the curious on game. This is not a breakdown of that difference. This is, I hope, a call to begin thinking about the solution.

****

When I first enrolled in grad school I was beyond excited to be studying Hip-Hop. I love Hip-Hop and felt myself a part of the community. I had been performing spoken word for some years and responded with indignation when folks even hinted at questioning my authenticity. I could run down the laundry list of reasons why I was Hip-Hop despite my white skin. And I still don’t back away from that. What I have learned, though, is that my relationship to Hip-Hop and the community is not the same as a Black or Brown person’s relationship to Hip-Hop. Looking back I realize that for an embarrassingly long time I treated Hip-Hop as an equalizer, as a way of saying “we are the same.” I was violating. It wasn’t until I started studying culture and whiteness that I began to understand why I was drawn to Hip-Hop in the first place and how to genuinely engage and be a part of the culture. This is what, I think, Timberlake and others are missing: a critical frame.

Whiteness is a destructive and divisive force. This is not opinion, or analysis, it is objective fact. The first time White appears in legislation is in anti-miscegenation laws. It’s only function has been to delineate which people were considered fully human and which ones would be relegated to subhuman status. That is not pretty stuff.Texas textbooksWhite people have worked incredibly hard at scrubbing all remnants of this history from our collective memories and storytelling. This is especially true in the post-civil rights era where overt racism is ostensibly unacceptable. While this erasure is quite obviously a violence to people of color it is also a violence to those of us with white skin. It is at the intersection of this violence and ignorance that cultural appropriation finds life.

Despite the attempts at scrubbing the bloody foundation which whiteness is built upon the stain remains. Our souls know and carry the weight of whiteness. We feel the isolation and disconnection which comes from ignoring our history. We crave a return to community. We need connection. We need our humanity back. We also inherently know it is whiteness which has robbed us of these things, and we push back against it whether we know it or not. But without culture, without a clear understanding of how whiteness works our pushing back is simply a leveraging of the privileges granted us by our white skin. We must do better.

When I learned the truth about my people, Celtic people, I immediately lost any insecurities around my role in liberation, or my place in culture. I carry with me a beautiful history of resistance. Of course I was drawn to the most salient form of resistance in my own generation. But I also learned how whiteness has duped my people into exchanging their culture for access to the American Dream, forever cementing their place as the torchbearers for American racism.your humanity too
I was able to see with the clearest of vision how my need for community was as legitimate as anyone else’s. That there was indeed a place for me and people who look like me at the table of liberation. I was also able to see, with astounding clarity, that before that was
possible I needed to study whiteness and unlearn its ways of being.

In doing just that I have never felt more alive, more free.

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When Justin Timberlake was getting dragged on Twitter it wasn’t because people were mad he was “inspired.” People were upset because it is not clear what Timberlake was inspired to do. Because Timberlake lacks the cultural knowledge and historical lens necessary to understand whiteness, his response to the criticism confirmed the righteousness of peoples suspicion and anger. What Timberlake should have said in the first place could have gone something like this: @iJesseWilliams tho… #Inspired #UnlearningWhiteness #GoingtoDoBetter

And we can do better. I know that. There is a place at the Cultural table for people who look like me. We simply have very specific work to do before we ain’t crashing the party.

 

 

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