Category Archives: race
In this post, I’m addressing my peers: white folks who are marginalized along some axis other than race. Poor and working class white folks, queer and trans white folks, white folks with disabilities, etc.—we need to be honest about whether we’re leaning into the identities under which we’re oppressed, at the expense of doing honest work around our whiteness, racism, and anti-Blackness.
I don’t think it’s an uncommon experience to focus on how we’re oppressed and marginalized, nor is it blameworthy on its own. Of course we notice those identities more—that’s what white privilege is. It makes whiteness the invisible norm, whereas our other identities are what make us targets of slurs, violence, economic disparity, and other injustices. But at some point in our journeys, once we get through our excitement of consuming all the literature about queerness/class/disability/etc. and sharing in righteous anger with our comrades (or ideally, even before then), we need to also address the fact that we are white and therefore in a position of extreme privilege. We need to read what people of color have to say, to listen to what people of color have to say in our communities and workplaces. We need to sit with the discomfort of our racism and fucking do something about it.
If your reaction to reading the words of people of color on racism (and particularly black people, as anti-Blackness is its own thing in this culture), is guilt and a desire to run back to the safe enclave of writing about your own people, good. Keep reading.
Confession time: I’ve actually had the book reviewed below for quite a while, and with apologies to the Arsenal Pulp folks. I spent so much time thinking about it and how to write about it that this blog has been stalled out for a while as I go through that process. But hopefully, better late than never, as it’s a volume I think many of you should absolutely pick up.
One of my favorite poets, Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha, recently released a memoir that is somehow both a gut punch and a sweet femme-of-color lullaby, telling a story that is neither completely linear nor what you might expect from what frames itself as a survivor’s tale, but bursting with sense memory and relevance—particular for QPOC and migrant readers. Dirty River (published by Arsenal Pulp Press) focuses mainly on a period of Piepzna-Samarasinha’s life in the late 90s where she lived in Toronto struggling with both poverty and relationship abuse, but it is neither a sob story nor a clichéd “overcoming adversity” narrative. The complexities of the story are conveyed with a tight relationship to geography, the confusing nature of memory, and a sense of celebration for queer brown crip femme survival.
Like many great books, particularly those by women of color, this memoir made me think about the nature of storytelling. The path to healing is often not very simple, and this story wrestles with that. It’s a narrative complement to all the great radical books on violence in the context of racism and colonialism published in recent years — with all the references to Courage to Heal in the text, I actually found myself thinking much more about how Piepzna-Samarasinha’s story lines up with the lessons of The Revolution Starts at Home.
It’s time for another post in the “dear fellow white people” vein. There’s been a lot of cultural appropriation showing up in my feed reader lately, and while the white culprits may have been well-meaning when they embarked upon the appropriative act, it shows a remarkable degree of “wow, we really just don’t get it, do we?” Even while I was writing the first draft of this post, for example, one of my favorite bloggers, Spectra, published a post you have to read to believe on a white woman my age who went to Kenya and claims to be a Massai warrior princess. Big surprise, she’s now writing a book to profit on her experiences.
I suspect the common practice of cultural appropriation has roots in both colonialism and capitalism, though you don’t have to be a self-avowed capitalist or aware of your colonialism to do it. There’s simply a tendency among white people to see that something is good, and then have a reaction of “I want to have that” without seeing the problem with that attitude. Capitalism sees things as property, and people as beings that should want more property, always, while colonialism ignores the concept that land, practices, symbols, and goods might be sacred or collectively held in favor of declaring the white European’s value system superior and rushing to lay “first white claim” on that land, practice, symbol, or good. When we don’t try to make an exclusive claim on something, we still tend to feel that it’s okay to share (appropriate) in the name of equal access. (Yep, because white people as a collective totally believe in equal access to resources.)
Here’s the thing about equality: it’s not equality when you run around taking things from less privileged, systemically oppressed folks and then make a profit from your New Age bookshop or power yoga studio or whatever. Nor is it equality when you use cultural values for parody or humor. Nor is it equality when you mark up cultural resources, turn them into a fad, and limit the access those of the origin culture have to a resource. That’s called stealing.
Now, is there ever a case in which cultural exchange is valid and appropriate? Sure! My recommendation (one that I’m trying to follow myself) is simply that we as white people be sensitive to where things come from, and aware of the violent history of colonialism and current state of systemic oppression that might make those of non-white cultures a little wary about our interest. (This, by the way, applies regardless of the situations of our personal ancestors and other axes of privilege along which we may fall further down). There are plenty of tools out there that we can use to educate ourselves on cultural origins and the perspectives of people of color. We can also respectfully ask questions to our friends who come from the culture in question (keeping in mind that there is no duty to educate) or to those who publicly offer themselves as resources. We can proceed slowly when it comes to our appreciation, rather than immediately asking “how can I have that/be a part of that/become an expert in that?” When seeking education on a subject that has its origins in a particular culture, we can take our money to teachers from that culture rather than approaching white teachers. We can avoid supporting white folks who profit from another culture’s resources.
Some white people are inevitably going to say “but wait, my situation is different, I only care about other cultures.” I suggest that those folks at least make an effort to think critically about how that statement sounds while they’re say, enjoying a beer at the DC football team’s game. What seems harmless to one person may in fact me a reminder of colonialism, cultural theft, and genocide to another.
As a white person, I don’t want to use #SolidarityIsForWhiteWomen and the Schwyzer debacle as a platform for my own thoughts, but I do want to lead my readers to just a few amazing women of color speaking for themselves. Please take a look at the following bloggers and authors, as well as the #SolidarityIsForWhiteWomen hashtag on Twitter and Mikki Kendall’s article explaining the subject.
Andrea Smith, Conquest
Adrien Wing, ed., Critical Race Feminism
INCITE! Women of Color Collective, Color of Violence and The Revolution Will Not Be Funded
Jessica Danforth, ed., Feminism for Real
Gloria Anzaldua & Cherrie Moraga, eds., This Bridge Called My Back
Ching-In Chen, Jai Dulani, & Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha, eds., The Revolution Starts at Home
bell hooks, Feminist Theory from Margin to Center
Listen up, white feminists.
We have a problem. I’m including myself because none of us are immune from this problem. We all fuck up. And you can say “fucking up is natural,” and that’s true, but it’s time for us to start identifying our fuck ups, and not just learning from them, but acknowledging the hurt they cause other people.
We need to acknowledge that we cannot know what it’s like to be an oppressed racial minority. Cannot. The end. Period. We don’t know because we’re queer, because we’re disabled, because we’re Jewish, because we were the nerdy kid in school. These things may have hurt us severely, but we need to stop playing Oppression Olympics and acknowledge that when we’re talking about race we Do. Not. Know. No more metaphors.
In my review of Sister Citizen by Melissa Harris-Perry, I noted how much I appreciated Harris-Perry’s coverage of misrecognition of the “strong black woman.” It seems that Gene Lyons and the editors of Salon could stand to read Dr. Harris-Perry’s book.
In a piece entitled Obama’s bridge too far, Lyons launches an out-of-the-blue attack on Harris-Perry, using language to suggest that she is a race traitor, a Jezebel, and a kind of reverse-Klansman. Shame on Salon for publishing the piece. My hope is that the inevitable backlash will open some more eyes to the intolerable misrecognition of black women in American society, and to the function of shame around black women in the political sphere.
It is almost laughable how Lyons follows Harris-Perry’s script for the shaming of black women in public life to a T. Rather than attacking her argument alone on its face, he suggests Harris-Perry doesn’t belong in politics–that she is “whining,” a PhD “trained to find racist symbols in the passing clouds,” and hyper-focused on race to the point that she can’t be taken seriously. Lyons dangerously frames race as a topic that is not matter for serious discussion, reminding the reader of conservative pleas to “colorblindness” in 2008.
“Furthermore, unless you’re black, you can’t possibly understand. Yada, yada, yada. This unfortunate obsession increasingly resembles a photo negative of KKK racial thought.” Black solidarity becomes an object of derision, a reverse racism in a colorblind (read, white-by-default) world. Harris-Perry’s legitimate substantive critiques of Obama, her nuanced way of looking at his administration, are ignored.
I find it particularly funny that Lyons calls Harris-Perry “a left-wing Michele Bachmann, an attractive woman seeking fame and fortune by saying silly things on cable TV,” in light of Harris-Perry’s comments at a recent Center for American Progress book discussion. She pointed out (to paraphrase) that despite derision, mocking, and the fact that nothing positive is ever said by the majority about it, black women continue to do amazing, beautiful, remarkable, creative things with their hair. There’s a parallel here–Lyons tries to shame Harris-Perry about her attractive looks, as if being attractive and intelligent were a mortal sin for a black woman, automatically reducing her words to silliness on a Bachmann scale, but I bet you anything Harris-Perry is going to go on being vocal about politics and being a snappy dresser despite Lyons’ attempts to shame her.
We cannot accept identity-based attacks like this in a supposedly progressive publication. As a long-time reader, I demand an apology from Salon–and suggest that its editors crack open a copy of Sister Citizen post haste.
I’ve been thinking lately about cultural appropriation and how to avoid it. My principle concern comes from the fact that I am fascinated by indigenous cultures and indigenous activism. I’ve read some really interesting accounts in my study of human rights on indigenous movements and creative solutions to common activist problems. But I’ve wondered if identifying with and being interested in these movements is a bad thing, especially when I’m thinking about how to apply indigenous ideas to activist movements in the United States as a white, middle class individual.
There was a post on cultural appropriation at Bitch Magazine that presented a really helpful guiding line for this problem. Basically, it’s about attribution. White people tend to appropriate the ideas of nonwhite people and of marginalized groups in general, whether queer, disabled, indigenous, or something else, and then claim them as their own–directly or through silence. What this says to me (and correct me if I’m wrong), is that it’s good to recognize the creativity of solutions presented by marginalized people, and to incorporate them into, or use them as the basis for, an activist movement. But it is essential to attribute those ideas to that group, and to the individuals that have expressed them. It is not okay to take the ideas out of context, to strip away their origins, and to exclude those who presented the ideas in the first place.