Category Archives: identity
Recently, I worked with a coach who helped me to realize that I have a pretty messed up relationship with time. Namely, there’s some part of me that thinks I can “win” at time. Well, good luck with that, self. Working with her, I noticed that I’ve got a lot of personal baggage around time, but it’s also thoroughly wrapped up in white dominant culture and capitalism.
Plenty has been said about how white people view time as linear, and that’s sort of weird, but I hadn’t fully grasped it until I started thinking about how I view my long-term goals and values. I realized that I was thinking about most things in life as something I would build upon gradually, but ultimately max out towards the end of my life. In other words, there’s some ultimate goal that you’re trying to achieve on a more or less straight path. But in fact, that doesn’t make much sense. What I really want is to be able to live with my values and reach goals throughout my life, with a certain amount of flux expected for prioritizing and re-prioritizing alongside life circumstances.
Over the past couple of weeks, I read a couple of critical autobiographies–those of Malcolm X and Assata Shakur. Reading them together, I was struck by a lot of things, but perhaps especially how enduring false narratives of this country are and how those narratives are perpetuated by white people. We hear this time and again from folks of color, how white people are often surprised by actions of the state or the actions of their fellow white folks, rather than recognizing these as enduring historical patterns that folks of color are plenty used to. Why are we so surprised? Why does our ignorance persist so doggedly?
Well, racism, obviously. But part of that racism is the way we reproduce stories amongst ourselves, as white folks. This probably starts before we arrive in school, but it is heavily reinforced by curricula, both formal and informal. School isn’t just about the whitewashed lessons we learn about literature and history, but it’s also a civic education in how to be a Good White American. School teaches us that America is a democracy, that voting is a civic duty, that the cops are the good guys, that prisons are necessary, that participation is important. We learn all these insidious little lessons and then we learn not to listen when black folks and other folks of color are shouting the opposite from the rooftops. School teaches us to turn a blind eye at best, to argue loudly against the truth at worst.
So what can we do about it? Yep, it’s that simple piece of advice yet again. Talk to other white folks. But a layer I’d add is not to assume that the white folks you know, your fellow liberals etc., are as aware as you think they are about race and particularly about the lie Amerika represents. I’ve often found in conversation that folks are surprised by the degree of deception they’ve been living under, once the historical facts are presented. A lot of white folks think of themselves as anti-racist, but read very few books by people of color. So drop some of those facts into the conversation. Recommend relevant books by authors of color to your friends. Challenge civic participation. Keep on grinding on those little bits of resistance and education within your white circles, so that we can make some space as folks of color are doing the revolutionary work.
What is “wealth?” Money you’ve accumulated over time, right? Well, not necessarily. Nikki Giovanni says that “black love is black wealth,” and this simple statement shines a light not only on how rich the black community is, but also on how fucked up white ideas around wealth and poverty really are.
As white folks, we often think of people of color as “impoverished” because as a group, they don’t have the generational economic wealth that we do. Of course, the reason for this is centuries of racism, genocide, and enslavement, but I’d also argue that the focus on economic wealth is a desperate move on behalf of white folks to cover our own poverty.
When we talk about the poverty of people of color, especially black folks, but also those of all colors in the “developing world,” we use pity as a mask to cover our own longing and poverty. I believe that we constantly need to reaffirm that we are “normal,” that we are on top of the pyramid, because we know in our heart of hearts that we are not–that in fact we are generators of disease, engaging in deeply perverse racist practices, and are as a culture so removed from any ancestral worth that we wouldn’t recognize it if it bit us in the face.
So you’re a white person, working in a non-profit or some other kind of organization, and you want to do diversity, equity, and inclusion work. Obviously, there are plenty of landmines you might hit, and questions you might ask yourself about what your role is in this work. Should I engage full throttle or step back given my privilege? How do I engage without stealing (or stealing the spotlight) from colleagues of color? I’ve compiled a list of five suggestions from my own experience, acknowledging that all of these learnings come from the collective work of many people of color and that I’m in no way an expert on this, but rather a peer looking to partner with other white folks around how we can be accountable for our role in systemic oppression and our privilege within organizations.
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.