Category Archives: race

Is It Possible to De-Center Whiteness as a White Presenter?

name badge reading "Hello I'm White (and privileged)"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.

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How Travel Has Made Me Uncomfortably Aware of My Racism

sticker held over a map of Asia and Africa reading "MINORITY. A term applied to the majority of the world's population."Recently, I wrote up a travel bucket list, and in the list of places I want to go, found my own racism staring me directly in the face.

But before I get to the contents of list, first some context. When I started traveling abroad, I set a personal policy that I would not go anywhere where I couldn’t at least speak enough of the language to have a logistical conversation about travel-relevant topics. I think that policy initially came from a good place–I was frustrated with the xenophobia I saw in American travelers who complained about how terrible Paris is because the French are super rude, but didn’t bother to learn a word of the French language. “Everybody speaks English!” always struck me as deeply wrong, and I was struggling a lot as a teenager with the meaning of American empire and my complicity in it.

In high school, I was drawn to the study of French because it had always seemed like a rather sophisticated, romantic language, and I already had some exposure to it. I picked German pretty much out of a hat because I needed another elective and it worked for my schedule. So I’m not going to blame myself too hard for starting with European languages, but I do think it had a role in how Eurocentric my perspective skewed over time.

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Pacifism in the Context of White Privilege

three brown individuals approach a police officer in riot gear, one kicking the officer's shieldI’m a pretty extreme pacifist. Beyond not believing in violence as a general solution, I practice non-violence to the extent that I don’t plan to defend myself (beyond running away!) if I’m ever violently attacked. I’m on a slow but steady trajectory, as well, towards veganism for this reason.

But that said, I don’t advocate pacifism to others. Please, please punch Nazis. And if you are black or brown and your means of resistance is violent, then I fully support your right to use violence as a part of your resistance strategy. White people have systemically engaged in horrific and unconscionable violence against black and brown people for hundreds, and I assume thousands, of years. So any white person who suggests that black and brown folks must resist using non-violent means is frankly full of shit.

I think it’s important for white pacifists to acknowledge that we’re coming from a place of enormous privilege. Many of us have never actually been in a violent situation, or in a situation where our only means of resistance was violence. We don’t have any lived experience of structural oppression and violence of the kind that black, brown, and Native folks face on the regular. So while I still believe in pacifism as a philosophy, my belief has shifted from something universal to something situational and specific. I want to avoid, as an individual, perpetrating violence, while at the same time being aware that I will spend the rest of my life complicit in extreme structural violence and genocide. Pacifism doesn’t wipe my slate clean of that fact, and it’s a choice made in context.

How Ingrained Biases Show Up in Data Management

colored squares arranged to read "DATA"One of the little ways I try to apply an equity lens to my work is by being very aware of my own biases, especially around race. This comes up as a practical matter more than you might expect in data management, especially if you’re working with data sets focused on individual people.

I’m sure there are more egregious examples, but one thing I’ve seen and found particularly jarring is the abbreviation “BG” in front of an ethnicity. What does BG stand for? Best Guess. In other words, whoever collected the data or set up the database structure to include these value options decided that having ethnicity data on a person was more important than their own racial/ethnic identity. This insidious little practice takes away individual autonomy and conflates ethnicity with skin color, erasing actual identity in favor of having more complete statistics.

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No End State: Thoughts for Otherwise Marginalized White Folks

raised fist on a red background with the word "solidarity"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.

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Radical Reading: Dirty River

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.

cover of Dirty River, drawing of a brown femme with a flower in her hair, leaning on a cane next to train tracks with industrial buildings in the background and a river flowing from themOne 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. 

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Taking a Break From Whiteness: My 50 Books Challenge

Last March, I decided to try something a bit different with my reading. This wasn’t for any particular online challenge, but just an exercise for myself to clean out the constant din of white voices for a while. I decided that for the next 50 books, excepting those required for work or reviews, I would not read any white authors. A couple of months ago, I somewhat anti-climatically finished the fiftieth book, and I thought I’d do a little write-up about the experience to end the year.

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Taking a Literary White People Break: First Ten #50POCBooks

After a somewhat abortive start when I realized I just wasn’t reading anything at all, I re-started a plan to just not read white authors for the next fifty books I read starting in March. The only exception to the rule is for books I’m reading for review: otherwise, I thought it would be a good idea to take a break from white people for a while. Let’s face it; our ideas are pretty easy to come by. If you’d like to do a similar thing, tag your posts or Tweets with #50POCBooks so we can share recs with each other.

The first ten books I read, not really by any plan, included nine books by women, and all the books were by black authors/contributors. Five of the authors/contributors were some flavor of queer. Some of the books I started with were classics I’ve been meaning to read for a million years, including I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings and Tar Baby. I also finally read my first bell hooks book (Communion) and my first June Jordan and Audre Lorde essay collections (Some of Us Did Not Die and Sister Outsider, respectively). I also read a couple of Nikki Giovanni poetry collections, a collection of writing by black gay men, and my second Octavia Butler novel (Parable of the Talents).

Most of the books I read, I loved. I was particularly struck personally by Communion, and will likely come back to some thoughts on love and what love is in a separate post inspired by that book. I want to read more of all of these authors, and this challenge seems like a good time to do so. I found it particularly powerful to read fiction and poetry by black women as I’ve read so much non-fiction about black femininity, intersectionality, and womanism but less “creative work” by black female authors. I’m also kind of on a nerdy linguistic tear after reading a fair bit of prose and poetry written in AAVE and other dialects. Sometimes I get a bit nostalgic, because I grew up in the South and went to a minority-white elementary school, so there’s this weird brain connection between Southern AAVE and childhood for me.

In the name of honestly, I’ll also note that it’s hard for me to write about literature and poetry written by POC because the last thing I want is to sound like the white anthropologist or professor: “See how the exotic other speaks!” Thus these posts may be less analytic or attendant to racial issues raised in the books, and more generally about my impressions reading. Of course much of what I read in this first batch addressed issues of black resilience, civil rights, oppression, and power, but I don’t feel that I’m the right person to comment on those themes. I will generally say that I am both struck and unsurprised by the talent of the authors I read for these first ten books, and their facility with addressing both the bullshit black communities face and the power and grace within those communities.

You can find full titles and authors to the books I read on Goodreads here.

Why Do White People Feel a Need to Claim Everything Good in the World?

meme of Regina George, a snobby white woman from the movie Meme Girls, reading 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.

Women of Color and #SolidarityIsForWhiteWomen

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.

Mikki Kendall (@karnythia): Esoterica on Tumblr, also writes for sites such as xoJane

Flavia Dozdan (@redlightvoices): Red Light Politics, also writes for Tiger Beatdown and The Guardian

T.F. Charlton (@graceishuman): Are Women Human?, also on Storify

Sydette Harry (@blackamazon): on Tumblr

Janet Mock (@janetmock): JanetMock.com and on Tumblr, also writes for sites such as The Huffington Post

Shanelle Matthews (@freedom_Writer): ShanelleMatthews.com, contributes to sites such as The Frisky (the most recent post there is on the Schwyzer situation) and Racialicious

Spectra (@spectraspeaks): Spectra Speaks and on Tumblr, founded QWOC Media Wire

Biyuti: Biyuti and The Biyuti Collective

Kendra James (@wriglied): writes for Racialicious

Jamilah King (@jamilahking): news editor for Colorlines

Andrea Plaid (@andreaplaid): writes for Racialicious

Renee Martin (@womanistmusings): Womanist Musings

The entire Crunk Feminist Collective (@crunkfeminists), also on Tumblr

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