Category Archives: identity
What does “unbiased” actually mean? I’ve been thinking about this when liberals defend the gold standard of mainstream news outlets in the era of “fake news” accusations, and while I obviously think the Trump cronies are full of shit, I also wonder what the staunch defense of traditional news organizations might leave out.
Growing up, I never really questioned the standard that journalists must be objective and unbiased. That seemed like a reasonable enough idea, and I expected it of those working at large news organizations. But in order to be “objective” and “unbiased” according to the definitions of a news organization, you need to have an academic background and specific skills that are especially valued by white folks. You need to reference credible sources–and “credible” sources are often written by white people. You need to have that gold standard “objective” point-of-view that is invisibly white.
I think this expectation of unbiased journalism really means “journalism steeped firmly in white culture.” The idea that anyone could really be “unbiased” is a racist notion, because it relies on the invisibility and supremacy of the white perspective. Everyone has a point of view. Everyone’s perspective is rooted in culture, it’s just that white culture tends to be so pervasive as to go undetected. Rather than expecting objectivity, I think we should acknowledge and embrace the cultural grounding of our journalists, and rely on news sources that come from a range of perspectives.
Did your elementary school ever celebrate those “culture days” where kids were encouraged to dress up in some native costume, do traditional dances, sing traditional songs, and eat foods associated with a given culture? Maybe this is a 90s artifact, but I read something recently that mentioned them and cringed remembering my own school days. I used to love learning words of a foreign language and trying new foods, but I was never encouraged to consider the implications of those days that painted other cultures as strange and foreign. It certainly never occurred to me, as a white kid, whether the children who were from those cultures wanted to experience a day where they were so visibly othered, asked questions they might not have known the answers to or might not have wanted to answer for inquisitive white kids and teachers.
What if, instead of these awkward “culture days,” schools actually covered white dominant culture as a topic? Never in my school days was white culture acknowledged with any specificity, it was just background noise. But I now know that there’s plenty that could be covered, if schools wanted to be thorough. I’m not sure that it would necessarily be possible to avoid children of color and immigrant children again feeling othered in this unit, but with training it might be possible for teachers to normalize discussion of whiteness as something to consider, and to frame culture as something we all have. If such a unit were offered alongside history and literature lessons that fully incorporated cultures outside North America and Europe, I’d imagine that white kids would grow up to both be much more conscious of their privilege and much less freaked out when discussing race. And maybe kids of color would get to avoid at least a few of the awkward moments.
Usually when I hear discussions around the concept of white guilt, they’re about how inappropriate it is to air or focus on. This of course makes total sense in mixed-race spaces. Often when white people express their guilt around race, it’s in a mixed-race space and they’re derailing conversations to center their own emotions rather than the priorities of folks of color. It’s never right to center white guilt and white experiences in a general anti-racist space, and in that context white guilt can be just as bad as white pride.
One thing I have been frustrated about, though, is the way white folks handle white guilt in white anti-racist spaces that are designed for white people to work together without burdening people of color with their emotions or education. I haven’t heard much productive conversation about how to address this within white spaces so that we can then do effective work to dismantle racist systems in solidarity with people of color. What follows below the cut is a sharing of experiences and some thoughts that I’d love other white folks to engage with around strategy.
Note: I actually wrote this post a couple of years ago, but it felt too personal at the time to release.
I’m in my kitchen, slicing fresh corn off the cob, swaying my hips and stamping my feet to a Carolina Chocolate Drops cover of “Hit Em’ Up Style.” Body memory integrates — a rare occurrence — with the present moment, and I am brought back to my Southern childhood by the scents of fresh vegetables and the familiar rhythm of a solo dance. I am not my own audience — I prefer not to observe my movements as an outsider would — but dancing with no focus on form or appearance is its own satisfaction. I am briefly grateful for this body, the one wrapped in an old sundress with a scarf around the waist that sways as I do, the one that appreciates the taste of fresh food and the sultry song of a tuned-up fiddle. In this moment, I’m not thinking about dance-class rejections or the pain of my trans experience. For a few minutes, I’m just experiencing my own self, and the joy of creating something — both dance and meal — that can never be precisely duplicated.
In recent months, I’ve struggled to locate myself as a creative, living with an amazing writer and artist who pours creativity into everything they do. I feel outside of that world, too logical and focused on organization to claim creativity. The meal I’m eating as I write this piece, the one I’ve just created, was guided by a Blue Apron recipe, and as much as dance has guided my life, I have to face the fact that I essentially failed as a choreographer. The innocence of my mom’s always-available garden and a childish form that was constantly in motion feel remote as an adult who knows the price of organic vegetables and the pain of living in a trans body. Typically I distance myself from that body, because it’s too complicated, and because I trust my mind. Trusting my body is much harder.
In education, the voice of the educator is important. The lessons we learn are shaped by those who pass them on to us, just as they are shaped by the writers chosen for curricula. It’s telling, then, that as an undergraduate, I never had a single professor of color–but also telling that I didn’t realize that until recently.
I was thinking about my undergraduate education, and how I didn’t really start reading many works by people of color until law school, and didn’t start to tip the balance of my reading more towards a 50/50 split between white authors and authors of color until much later. This was my own fault, but I also noticed when thinking about the books I read at that time that I couldn’t think of a single undergraduate professor of color. When I went systemically through all the classes I took, I realized that there wasn’t one.
My university (UMBC) was a medium-sized public school in Maryland that emphasized diversity in the sciences, in particular. Our university president was a brilliant black man who was a frequent guest on NPR. But in the humanities and dance, all my professors were white. I never took an “ethnic studies” course, but I also never had a professor of color for any “mainstream” subject. In law school, I had three professors of color out of maybe twenty.
I wonder how common this experience is for white folks, and how many of us don’t even notice. I’m certain my classmates of color were noticing. So if you get a chance, white folks who attended an undergraduate institution, think back and see if you can recall how many professors of color you had. Let me know in the comments.
Just a quick thought from me today: does the whole “Protect [identity here] Lives” meme bother anyone else? I keep seeing these great graphics focused on a particular subset — black trans lives, queer Deaf lives, queer sex worker lives, etc. — of people that I care about, and want to support. But the “protect” message feels super paternalistic and condescending. Particularly on lines of difference where I have privilege, I don’t want to be the creepy protector or savior, I want to tear down the institutions and conditions that are harming people that don’t have privilege. Why not celebrate lives or honor lives? Even support lives feels slightly better than “protect,” with its connotations of parental authority or a paternalistic possessive boyfriend. The only place where I really feel comfortable with that word is when we’re explicitly talking about younger people that legitimately need protection, as in “Protect Trans Youth,” and even then I think there’s value in using “support” to recognize the fact that youth can also act for themselves. Then again, I suppose “Dismantle the Conditions That Contribute Systemic Racism and Transmisogyny and Therefore Interfere with Black Trans Lives” doesn’t really fit on a graphic.
How many “minor health aggravations” do you need before you become an official Person with Disabilities?
I’ve been identifying as such for a few years, but I always feel like a total impostor. Not because of the reactions of other PWD: everyone I’ve met in the disability justice community has been amazing about inclusion, and folks within the community tend to be aware of invisible disabilities. But I still wonder to myself: do they assume I’m sicker than I am? Do I really have a right to be here?
Health care is so broken in this country, but so is culture. I’m only now, in my early thirties, starting to realize that there are a number of health problems I have that I shouldn’t “just accept.” At first, it was the looming spectre of the pre-existing condition (I can’t even bring myself to acknowledge that said spectre is back, I just can’t). Then it was the feeling of “hey, I’ve been ‘fine’ with this for years, it’s no big deal.”
My turning point was an issue with energy that sometimes put me in the position of sleeping 14 hours at night, then needing a 4-hour nap in the middle of the day. In other words, I wasn’t able to convince myself to seek medical help until I reached the point of a serious threat to my function, something “disabling” enough to affect my work hours. Once I hit that point, I realized that I couldn’t just keep “dealing with it.”
Whenever I’m talking with other white millennials about race, I’ve noticed that a key (and probably the most personal) anxiety that comes up is around gentrification. A lot of young white folks living in urban areas with limited funds end up in historically black and brown communities, and those who are aware of their role in the systemic force of gentrification tend to be uncomfortable about that and at something of a loss for what to do about it.
In a lot of ways, I get that anxiety. If you’re priced out of other neighborhoods, and you need to be in the city to work, then it’s understandable to move into an affordable apartment in an area that’s either largely non-white or in the process of gentrifying. But what does make me want to call my peers in is a tendency to want to make their new neighborhood more like where they came from, to blame black and brown residents for being “unfriendly,” or to use racially coded language when talking about urban geography.
I’m sure there are good arguments for white people not moving into these neighborhoods at all, but most of what I’ve seen is not telling white folks not to move in–a lot of residents just want these folks to respect the history and culture of the community and tamp down on that white entitlement instinct. It’s not just about physical movement, it’s about who gets to own a community’s character, and who has the right to change that character. So if you’re a white person concerned or unsure about gentrification, here are a few pieces of unsolicited advice:
All right, y’all, it’s confession time. While I’ve never found it super easy to be consistent in my writing and activism, the past year has been especially hard. I’ve struggled with extremely low energy, sometimes sleeping as many as 16 out of 24 hours in a day, and rarely fewer than 11-12. I was always a big sleeper, but this is getting ridiculous. One day, my roommate said to me “God, if I slept as much as you do, I’d never get anything done!” and a lightbulb clicked. Not only is low energy a legit medical issue, but it’s also pretty disabling.
Even when I’m in a healthier place, I have trouble getting everything done. I live a fairly typical millennial existence of FOMO, decision fatigue, and constantly rebooting my productivity processes to optimize, optimize, optimize. I came to terms a few years ago with the fact that activism was never going to be my full-time gig, but I’m still holding on to a lot of guilt when promises come in late or not at all, e-mails go unanswered, and my TBR shelf remains very solidly TBR.
This week my labs came back and I found out that I am very B-12 deficient and also a little D deficient. I don’t know yet if supplements will be the magical pill that cures everything, but of course I quickly started dreaming about what it would be like to have more time in my day. Time to check items off my to-do list, but also time to do silly things, to watch TV, to read books. That said, even if I get a few hours back in my life, it doesn’t change the underlying fact that I feel guilty when I don’t do things. And why, really?
Yesterday, I nearly had a breakdown when I realized that I’d let my feed reader go unchecked long enough that some items are gone and unrecoverable. Noooo! What if that blog post held the meaning of the universe, life, and everything? (Say it with me now.) But then today, I looked at my much-shorter unread count and actually read the articles. And I was done. And while there’s still a lingering desire to punish myself for losing something forever due to slacking off, it’s also nice to see that empty queue. And maybe it’s okay, just like every time I e-mail someone apologetically after radio silence, they tell me that it’s perfectly okay. Okay? Is it okay to be okay? I think it might be. So this isn’t an apology for the sporadic nature of my contributions of the Internet, but more some thoughts and feelings to put out there about spoons, disability, and the nature of communication. If you’re feeling the same way? I give you permission to release as much as that guilt as you can. You’re okay too.
The other day, a white friend reached out asking if I had ideas around how to acknowledge as a presenter that a particular course’s content might be especially loaded for Black folks in the room. I certainly don’t consider myself an expert in the topic, but I have been experimenting over the years with different ways to acknowledge my whiteness and position of power as a presenter, facilitator, or speaker. Some of the things I normally do include:
- Regardless of course content, mention that the course is taking place on occupied Native land, acknowledge my privilege as a white presenter, and call attention to the number of white people in the room if it seems to be a majority white space. This is mostly for the white people in the room, to draw their attention to whiteness since whiteness is often invisible or the assumed default. I also hope to signal to POC that I’m aware of these things, though I know that doesn’t make me a “safe” presenter.
- Acknowledge where a particular topic may have loaded or just different meanings depending on cultural context and give examples. I hope that doing this again is a flag both for white folks and for POC, and makes space for bringing up cultural specificity where participants feel comfortable doing so.
- Explicitly say that as a white person, I can’t comment on some things, beyond offering perspectives I’ve read or heard from POC, because I don’t have that experience. Acknowledge that the course content is less rich because of this. I’m just trying to offer some honesty here, and avoid falling into the “well X culture practices X way…” trap.