Friday, August 28, 2015

We Need to Talk

I was recently part of a particularly long thread on the Facebook page Are UU Awake, a group that is intended to function as "a Racial Justice PAC (Political Action Committee) within the Unitarian Universalist faith. We were formed for the purpose of addressing issues related to racial injustice and privilege within the Unitarian Universalist faith. "  It's a closed group, but one which it is not hard to join.  For Unitarian Universalists reading this blog, I encourage you to join ... if only to listen to the conversations.

This particular thread followed on a video that had been posted.  Here it is:

The gist of the poster's comment was, "White parents of Black children -- do your kids a favor and teach them about they way(s) that the racism in our culture will impact their lives."  Sound advice, it seems to me.  I found a great many of the comments that followed, however, so disheartening.  White respondents were often attacking Black respondents who responded in kind.  Unkind, and downright nasty, things were said back and forth.  And it seemed to me that there was very little listening going on and a whole lot of generalizations being drawn from particulars.  (In other words, someone would make a comment about a particular thing and someone else would respond as if there'd been a sweeping generalization.)  I was, eventually unable to read any more.  That didn't stop me, however, from offering my own observations.  Slightly edited, here they are:
As the white father of two adopted kids of color I find this thread so sad. So much personalized animosity. Personalized yet then generalized as well.  So little person-to-person connection; such knee-jerk judgement.  
I'm also surprised at how focused this has been on "individual acts of meanness."  There are absolutely consciously, intentionally racist people whose actions come out of that racist worldview. Yet there are countless more examples of racist behavior being perpetrated by people who truly do not have a single consciously racist thought.  That's because racism is systemic as well as personal. I know many of you know this, but few here are naming it. Racism is in the air we all breathe, and the water we drink, and the land we stand on. Even if we were able to get rid of all the people who consciously act out of racial animus, racism would still exist as long as the fundamentals of our society remain unchanged. 
One of the hurdles is this ideal of "color blindness."  The intent is beautiful -- "judge not by the color of the skin but by the content of the character."  Yet because the dominant culture here takes white experience as normative, as the model of what it means to be "just a person," this vision devolves into an unspoken, even unconscious, "let's not focus on differences but, instead, pretend that everyone is white,"  Or, in practice, the demand that non-white folks "act white" in order to be deemed "acceptable" by the self-appointed arbiters of what is and is not acceptable -- white folks. 
All of this, though, goes far beyond "individual acts of racial animus," no matter how heinous those might be. We must stop those, of course, yet should never delude ourselves that that's all it'll take.

Let me expand on this for a moment.  One of the ways meaningful and productive conversations on race get derailed is the ease with which the folks in the conversation can be talking about two different things while believing they're talking about the same thing.  As an example, one person can be talking about how systems of oppression operate, creating an unlevel playing field from the begining.  The other is talking about individual acts of oppression directed toward specific people.  Both, however, think that they're talking about "racism," so it is confusing to them that they seem to be talking past one another.  In fact, they are ... that's what they feel that way.  That's why neither one of them feels that the other one is really listening, because they are actually talking about two different things.

Another has to do with what's being called, "White Fragility."  This stems from a multitude of roots, and manifests in myriad ways, but I'll lift up just one of each.  Whites, by virtue of the culture we live in, are trained to see the world through White eyes.  That doesn't seem to be too radical of an observation -- we all see things through the lens of our own experience.  The problem comes in when it is taken for granted that one way of looking at the world, one lens, one perspective is the way to see things.  In the dominant culture in the United States -- and, perhaps, the Western world -- it is the experience of Whites that is taken as normative.  It's been noted again and again that the history books that have been used, and which still are to a great extent, overwhelming tell the history of the country and the history of the world from the perspective of White experiences.  This has the, for Whites at least, subliminal effect of telling us that our story is the story.  To be a little more specific (and accurate) -- the history of straight, white, heterosexual, cis-gender, relatively well-educated and affluent people has been presented, and is largely accepted and internalized, as the history of the world.  And that leads to the assumption that other expereinces, other ways of looking at and living in the world, are merely somehow less effective version of this norm.  So the experiences of women, or people of color, or undocumented immigrants are seen as variations of this presumed norm rather than fully and completely their own realities. 

A fruit of this is that, generally speaking, Whites feel challenged -- even attacked -- when people with other perspectives assert their right to have their own histories and experiences recognized as being as fully "real" as the White norm.  This White-as-normative perspective has saturated the consciousness of Whites, as well as the dominant culture in which we all live, so fully that recognizing and giving credence to anything else is, quite literally, world-shaking.  It doesn't help that for White liberals, in particular, our conscious attitude is one of respecting and appreciating diversity, so it is painful to see that even our good intentions are riddled with the cancer of White priviledge and White oppression.  It is, as I wrote on Facebook, "in the air we all breathe, and the water we drink, and the land we stand on," and that can be an incredibly painful thing to realize.  The natural response -- at least a natural response -- to realizing something painful is to not realize it, to defend one's earlier views.  And, so, often when issues of racism are raised Whites become almost blindly defensive.

That's why so much anti-racism work is focused on helping Whites recognize the subliminal and subversive ways systemic racism infects ... well ... everything.  It aims to open our eyes to the truth that, as Wade Davis so succintly put it, "The world in which you were born is just one model of reality. Other cultures are not failed attempts at being you; they are unique manifestations of the human spirit.”  Realizing this can be difficult, it is very often painful, yet it is absolutely essential if any real progress is to be made in undoing, or dismantling, racism.  The reason for this is simple.  People of color cannot dismantle the systems of oppression which systematically disempower them.  Only those who are priviledged by the system can effect lasting change in that system.

I recently read an interesting piece titled, "White Priviledge Weariness."  The author, Austin Channing, reflects on the many anti-racism workshops she has led and participated in.  She wonders this aloud:

Is it possible for us to talk about race, even white privilege, without making white people the center?  I wonder if it's possible to bring the narratives of people of color to the center, to hold them for their own sake.  I'm trying to recall if I've ever experienced a worskshop/training that sought healing for people of color rather than education for white people.  Isn't it weird that white people would expreience such privilege even when trying to make them aware of that same privilege?

Weird, possibly, but really not too surprising.  That's the insidious thing about racism -- it permates everything.  Even our attempts at erasing it.

Pax tecum,


PS -- When I finished writing the post I checked out the preview and saw that quite a number of lines had a white background.  More than a little distracting, so I had to go into the code and find all of the places where for some reason the background had been set to "white" and delete them.  As I did so I started to laugh.  Even in this blog post about the perniciousness of the structures built on and supporting white supremacy, I still had to go through and take out all the unrecognized instances of white presence.

Print this post

No comments: