Category Archives: race
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
I’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.
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.
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.