The Burden Of Being A Black Women

The Burden Of Being A Black Women

During the week of the Ford/Kavanaugh hearing, I heard a black male comedian joke, “This was one of those few weeks when it was better to be black than a woman.”  The crowd laughed, but I didn’t.  His comment was more emblematic of a problem than it was a mockery of one.  I wondered if he and his crowd were aware of the misogyny and racism hidden in his remark.

The categories of his joke – unstated, but clearly implied – were black men and white women.  According to his quip, it was better during that week to be a black man like himself than a white woman like Dr. Ford. Though I am not sure the diminishment of one marginalized group ever makes things better for another, that his joke excluded people who inhabit both of his categories suggests a blind spot on the part of our society. We too often ignore black women.

Don’t think black women aren’t aware of this common slight.  I follow enough women of color to know last week was especially difficult for them.  The seriousness in which the Democrats responded to Dr. Ford was in striking contrast to how Democrats treated a black woman, Anita Hill.  While black women were mostly sympathetic to Dr. Ford, they were also aware of the privilege she brought to her testimony.  They had to wonder how much of her credibility was connected to the color of her skin.  One woman of color noted that many of the white women who were most enraged often tone police black women when they voice their anger about racism.

Though we are beginning to talk about intersectionality and the need to recognize various types and kinds of discrimination and oppression, we seldom acknowledge that two of the deepest blights on our society – racism and misogyny – intersect in women of color.  Heaven forbid a black woman should be a lesbian – the trifecta of intersectionality.  This is why I am especially impressed with black women like Dana Black.

My wife and I recently hosted a small gathering in support of the efforts of Dana Black to make her name and way within the Democratic Party.  Dana, a black lesbian, most recently ran against a long time and powerful Indiana Republican State Representative in a district where the Democratic Party had allowed his election to go uncontested. Eternally optimistic, Dana ran even though the Party offered little support and people mocked her naivete.  Dana says, “Did I lose?  Yes.  Did I fail?  No. I gave 38% of the people in that District another option, a vision of what could be.  That so many in that district voted for a black female lesbian is nearly miraculous.”

I am amazed by that kind of thinking, of those who understand racism and misogyny will not be quickly routed, that defeating them is trench warfare where the deeply dug lines are moved slowly and with many losses. This is why my wife and I became monthly donors to The 10/100 Committee, an organization with the goal of seeing 10 US Senators of color and 100 US Representatives of color in the Congress in 2050.  Notice the target date.  I am supporting an organization with a goal that I will never see, but perhaps my black daughters will.  Indeed, my hope is that when we meet that goal that at least 5 of those Senators and 50 of those Representatives will be women of color.

This generational shift is what I hope for in my writing, my giving and my advocacy.  I understand many of my white peers will die with their hearts permanently hardened by the racism and misogyny in which we were immersed. A few of us will change, but most will not.  The death of systemic racism and misogyny will be a lingering death.  Old white men will cling to the reins of power with their dying breath.  If the arc of the universe bends toward justice, those climbing that arc know how steep the incline.  Like Sisyphus, they push the great rock of white male privilege up that hill, knowing full well that they are always at risk of being crushed by it.

Certainly, white women and black men share this danger, but it is the blood, sweat and tears of black women like Vivian Malone Jones that most oil those efforts, making it possible for us to inch the rock upward.  The lead picture of this blog is of a 21 year old Vivian Malone Jones being escorted into registration at the University of Alabama in 1961.  Her family was threatened with violence and the governor of Alabama – George Wallace – stood in her way on her first attempt to register.  What is often forgotten is that once the federal marshals left, Vivian had to endure blatant and systemic racism every day of her education.  Every day she persevered, she inched the rock forward.

She did what black women before and after her have done – women like Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth, Ida Wells, Mary McLeod Bethune, Rosa Parks, Shirley Chisholm, Alicia Garza, Opal Tometi and Patrisse Cullors.  If you don’t know of them, you should.  They are the ones who have shouldered so much of the burden of changing our society for the better.  Black women like these women continue that legacy.  I have the honor of knowing and sometimes working with incredible women of color.

Today I celebrate black women like Dana Black.  I marvel at Teena and her incredible strength.  I appreciate Nichelle and her work to highlight black literature and culture.  I’m thankful for LaShawnda, who has worked so tirelessly to remind us of the horror of lynching.  I respect Patrice and her perseverance in community development.  I remember Val and all her many community organizing workshops.  I honor Alyson who spends her “free time” advocating for the ethical treatment of orphans.  I treasure the friendship of Cherie and her work on cross racial dialogue.  I am in awe of Mashariki and understand why many call her “Queen Mother.” Each of these women has accomplished great things despite the many ways our society diminishes their value and ignores their efforts.

For me, they are the canary in the mine.  They are uniquely positioned to experience and know whether we are making any progress in our struggle to end misogyny and racism in America.  When they tell us the work is done – then and only then – can we rest.

Advertisements

In Support of White History Month

In Support of White History Month

I once scoffed at white people who complained about Black History Month, who demanded white people have their own month.  I’d respond that every month was White History Month, a celebration of white culture and people.  I’d point out how American history, as we teach it today, centers on white heroes and heroics, seldom mentioning people of color or acknowledging the long history of white savagery and oppression.  While I still think all of that is true, I’ve begun to think white people do need a month focusing on their whiteness.

Recently, a woman of color asked me, “What do you know about whiteness?” I stumbled through a response, offering some abstract thoughts about white supremacy and privilege.  She was not impressed.  While she could quickly articulate the black experience in America, detailing significant moments and people in the history of the black resistance to slavery, racism and discrimination, I was mostly ignorant of the other side of that story, specific moments when white people oppressed and terrorized people of color.

The history I’d been taught in school, while mentioning the Civil War and the Civil Rights Movement, was largely an account of white accomplishment and nobility.  We were taught the first Thanksgiving rather than Wounded Knee, the Revolutionary War rather than Nat Turner’s Rebellion and the Oregon Trail rather than the Trail of Tears.  Any story that cast white people in a poor light was a footnote – at best – in most history books.  The racism so foundational to our nation and its history was whitewashed away, hidden in the margins and written between the lines.

Equally problematic, white history ignored or misrepresented moments and white people who were truly heroic, who spoke out and stood up against racism at nearly every point of American history.  This omission allowed white people to think of slavery and Jim Crow as unfortunate but understandable; the accepted practices of a less enlightened day.  While our history books reluctantly acknowledged people of color like Frederick Douglas, Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth, Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King, Jr., they seldom mentioned the white people who were their accomplices or allies.  In so doing, our history lessons reinforced the idea that racial justice was never a white concern.

James Loewen, in his book Lies My Teacher Told Me, details one such glaring example of this tendency to ignore, diminish and even demonize moments in history when white people stood up against slavery and racial discrimination.  Most white people know very little of one of the most significant historic figures of the 19th century.

On October 16th, 1859, John Brown led a small group of abolitionist white men and freed slaves in seizing the federal armory in Harper’s Ferry, Virginia.  With control of the 100,000 weapons stored at the armory, they hoped to create an army of enslaved men who would use these weapons to defend their right to freedom.  While they successfully seized the armory and did arm a small group of enslaved men, the US Army under Robert E. Lee soon surrounded the armory, attacked and forced Brown and his allies to surrender.  While his rebellion was unsuccessful, most historians acknowledge his raid and subsequent execution as the event that galvanized both opponents and defenders of slavery and sparked the Civil War.

In 1859, every person in America – black or white – knew of John Brown.  He was loved or hated, but taken seriously by all.  Today, if Brown is mentioned in history books, his heroic attempt to free millions from slavery is misrepresented and his character diminished.  In 1859, luminaries like Henry Thoreau wrote admirably of his actions and principles.  Union soldiers marched off to war singing “his truth was marching on.” Frederick Douglas called Brown, “one of the greatest heroes known to American fame.”  Today, as Loewen details, Brown is often represented in history books as crazy.  He is portrayed as fanatical, deranged, gaunt, grim and terrible.  One textbook – without any support – stated, “thirteen of his near relatives were thought insane.”  None reference his deep religious convictions, his articulate writings and the admiration and respect with which he was held in 1859.  Indeed, in his day, Brown was considered a rational and articulate opponent to slavery.

John Brown was not crazy.  He was anti racist.  It is for this reason, and this reason alone, that most modern white histories ignore or demonize him.  Make no mistake, the equating of anti racism and insanity is intentional.  Most history books imply and teach that slavery and racism were rational, defensible institutions and those who opposed them were unhinged outliers rather than moral champions.

This is why we need White History Month.  The history we are taught the eleven other months is really an admiring history of white supremacy; excusing, diminishing and sustaining racial injustice.  We need a month that documents the Middle PassageNat Turner’s Rebellion, the Trail of Tears, Wounded Knee, Jim Crow, Rosewood, the Tulsa Race Riot, the MOVE bombing and countless other significant events in racial terror. That most white people know little to nothing about these events is inexcusable. You cannot understand whiteness until you understand the events that have sustained it.

The history we are taught the eleven other months does not extol resistance to racism. We need a month when white people learn about Benjamin Lay, John Woolman, Lucretia Mott, Willian Lloyd Garrison, Graceanna Lewis, John Brown, Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwerner and Will Campbell.  That most white people don’t know who they are is damning. You cannot dismantle white supremacy without examples of resistance. That most of the white heroes of our history books ignored racism, teaches our children to do the same.

As one person of color recently told me, “John Brown is so important because he was our first accomplice; someone willing to shed his own blood for our freedom.”  That making such a sacrifice has been represented as crazy is racist.  It allows many white people to justify their apathy and inaction, to see those who stand with Black Lives Matter as suspect. We need a month to challenge this indoctrination, when white people can focus on both the ugliness of racism and examples of white people who stood against that ugliness.  We need to understand whiteness – the good, the bad and the ugly.

Next time someone advocates for White History Month, I’m going to agree with them.  I’ll ask them to tell me what moments in white history they think have been ignored.  What historic white people have been neglected? Since nearly every significant white moment and person has already been highlighted, I suspect they won’t have much to suggest, but I will.  I’ll begin by telling them of a white man named John Brown.

The Invention and Protection of Whiteness

The Invention and Protection of Whiteness

Let me be perfectly clear.

A white person complaining about identity politics is like the CEO of McDonald’s complaining about the presence of fast food restaurants on every corner.  In both cases, what they’re really complaining about is not the presence of identity politics or of fast food restaurants, but the loss of a monopoly they once enjoyed.  When it comes to fast food, Ray Kroc invented the concept.  When it comes to identity politics, Benjamin Franklin can probably add it to his resume.

The founding fathers of the United States were some of the first to advocate for a category of people defined by their whiteness.  Benjamin Franklin, famously said, “In Europe, the Spaniards, Italians, French, Russian and Swedes are generally of what we call a swarthy complexion; as are the Germans also, the Saxons only excepted, who, with the English, make the principal body of white people on the face of the earth.  I could wish that their numbers were increased.”   To be clear, in 18th century usage, swarthy essentially meant “dark-skinned.”  Franklin was arguing for the superiority and exceptionalism of Anglo-Saxons – the white people – as the primary citizens of the United States.  More importantly, what he expressed as a wish very quickly became the law of the land.

Ironically, the same Congress that passed the Bills of Rights with all of its noble sentiments on freedom and liberty also passed the Naturalization Act of 1790 which established that United States citizenship was reserved for “free white people of good character.”  That this definition of whiteness initially excluded so many who would today consider themselves as white should expose whiteness for what it has always been – an arbitrary invention intended to reserve certain rights and privileges to a limited number of easily identified people.

Initially, whiteness was largely reserved for people of English descent. Franklin and his peers were as suspicious of non-English speaking immigrants as many white supremacists are today. Only gradually were people of non-Anglo-Saxon origin assimilated into whiteness.  Countless Jews, Irish, Italians, Slavs and other European groups were rejected as immigrants and citizens for not being sufficiently white.  Repeatedly, the US courts defended narrow definitions of white exclusivity.  A single drop of non-white blood was damning.  Congress consistently passed immigration and citizenship laws designed to protect whiteness.  Below are the most blatant examples…

  • The Immigration Act of 1882 excluded all people of Chinese descent as non-white.
  • The Naturalization Act of 1906 made it illegal for anyone who “does not speak English” to become a US citizen.
  • The Immigration Act of 1924 set quotas for different countries and ethnicities, allowing significant numbers of immigrants from England and the Nordic countries and small numbers from Eastern and Southern European countries. It also classified Asians, Indians and Arabs as non-white.

It was not until the passage of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952 that racial determinations for immigration and naturalization were eliminated.  Even then, President Truman, initially vetoed the act with words reminiscent of Benjamin Franklin, “I believe that this nation is the last hope of Western civilization and if this oasis of the world shall be overrun, perverted, contaminated or destroyed, then the last flickering light of humanity will be extinguished.”  Non-whites were the perversion and contamination to be feared.

For most of US history, there has been only one kind of identity politics – the white kind.  Understanding this is vital to understanding the racial tensions we’re experiencing in 2018.  The strong response by whites to the identity politics of ethnic, cultural and racial groups – though often presented as a defense of unity and justice – is usually a complaint about a loss of exclusive power.  It is not an objection to promoting or defending the rights of an identified group of people, but of having to compete with those groups for rights that have so long been exclusively or primarily white.  Once we understand this complaint for what it is, we can also see the racism upon which this politic was founded.

The identity politics that Benjamin Franklin and the founding fathers invented, institutionalized and protected was built on certain assumptions that any modern moral person should reject…

  1. That race is a biological reality with white skin pigment as an indicator of superior intelligence and character. WHITE IS BEST.
  2. As superior, white people have a right and responsibility to subjugate and rule those of “swarthy” complexion.  WHITES SHOULD RULE.
  3. As the purest form of humanity, intermarriage and integration with people of color is degrading, lowering the strength and cohesiveness of an elite society. DIVERSITY IS EVIL.

Essentially, Benjamin Franklin and the founding fathers would have seen little wrong in the ugliest expressions of white supremacy today.  Indeed, white supremacy was the foundation on which this nation was formed.  While the David Dukes of today may find this gratifying, for most of us this should be embarrassing and reprehensible.  It should be a reminder that what was invented can be abandoned, especially when we know better.

Today we know these things to be true…

  1. Race is a political construct created, promoted and sustained by white people in order to subjugate and oppress others. The genetic differences between people with different skin pigments are infinitesimal and irrelevant.
  2. The dominance of white people in government, religion, business and society has nothing to do with superiority or character and everything to do with systems that continue to unjustly favor and reward white people.
  3. Diversity, rather than homogeneity, makes for a more vibrant society. Excluding vast numbers of people based on arbitrary characteristics like skin pigment is indefensible and counterproductive.

Whenever we hear politicians and pundits arguing against diversity, for inherent racial distinctions and for protecting Western Civilization, we need to hear it for what it is – a call to protect white identity politics and white supremacy.

One of the more recent manifestations of this defense is the RAISE Act being promoted by the Trump administration.  The Reforming American Immigration for Strong Employment (RAISE) Act prioritizes wealthy, highly-educated, English-speaking applicants.  While it does not specifically exclude non-white applicants, its proposed requirements would essentially restore an immigration and naturalization system that rewards those of Anglo-Saxon heritage.  Making America Great Again looks suspiciously like a return to 1924 and some of the most racist immigration policies in American history.

If the CEO of McDonald’s really hated the presence of fast food restaurants on every corner, he could go a long way toward ending that problem by closing all of the McDonald’s restaurants.  If white people hate identity politics, we too have the power to end its ascendancy. We should stop complaining about the MeToo movement, Black Lives Matter and Pride Parades.  We should refocus our energies on the greatest obstacle to national unity – the concept of whiteness.  Until we do, we’re not all that different than Benjamin Franklin and David Duke.

Racism Sweet Racism

Racism Sweet Racism

True or false?

Property values usually decrease as a neighborhood becomes more racially diverse.

If you’re white like me and you answered with true, you and I are with the vast majority of white respondents.  We’re also wrong.  The statement, as written, is false.  Changes in racial demographics can both decrease and increase property values.  In cases where white people are gentrifying traditionally minority neighborhoods, property values usually rise.  Of course, if you’re like me, you didn’t read it that way.  Your judgement was clouded by certain racist assumptions.

The statement is only true if we, like most white respondents, assume whiteness as normative.  Most white people subconsciously read, “White property values usually decrease as a white neighborhood becomes more racially diverse.”  This misreading is sadly true.  Today, after decades of anti-discriminatory housing policy, the United States still remains highly segregated.  This is not difficult to explain.  It is not the result of “people wanting to live with their kind.”  Rather, it is one of the clearest signs of the continued power of white privilege.

Jane Hill, in her book “The Everyday Language of White Racism,” highlights this and many other linguistic signals of systemic racism.  While racial slurs are the most visible manifestations of white dominance, they are hardly the most important. Hill makes a compelling argument for how racism is sustained and re-codified in the seemingly innocent assertions of white culture.  Indeed, how white people discuss and justify the places we choose to live abounds with racist assumptions and justifications.

Hill points out that, when it comes to property values, it is always the property values of white people that are of concern and deserving of protection.  White flight, though almost always racially motivated, is justified as a wise economic decision rather than a racist act.  Most white people ignore the obvious – it is not the color of our neighbor’s skin that reduces our property values, but the latent racism of us and our neighbors.  If we were not racist, property values would remain static.

While many of us would find it detestable if someone said, “I’m moving because I dislike black people,” we find it perfectly acceptable to use economic justifications – better schools, more amenities, greater security, and higher property values – for seeking segregated neighborhoods.  Most white people ignore the obvious – white neighborhoods have better schools, more amenities, greater security and higher property values because our culture has systematically funneled an unequal amount of resources to predominantly white neighborhoods.  While moving to or protecting one of these white enclaves may seem innocent enough, it is one of the most insidious ways for us to sustain white privilege.

Indeed, we have designed a system that rewards whites for living together in newly constructed communities with all of the modern amenities and forces people of color to live in formally white neighborhoods with declining housing stock, obsolete school buildings and crumbling infrastructure.  Additionally, we give businesses, factories and football stadiums – that primarily benefit and employ suburban whites – tax exemptions and reductions that inhibit the ability of these older neighborhoods to address these deficiencies.

Adding insult to injury, we negatively compare the quality of these minority neighborhoods with our white enclaves and imply the difference is a matter of white virtue rather than inequity.  Our neighborhoods are beautiful and clean because we’re more responsible rather than because we have more resources.  We argue people of color don’t take care of their property, even when what they own is what we abandoned.  These racist rationalizations perpetuate our justifications for continued segregation.  Even when our racist stereotypes are challenged, we resist any change in thinking. When a person of color moves into our neighborhood and keeps their property pristine, they are the exception to our rule.

Sadly, this segregation in housing – which even progressive white people generally obey and tolerate – is one of the primary pillars of systemic racism.  It keeps us separate and unequal, removed from the stereotype breaking influence of integration, of living side by side.  Our neighbors remain people who look and act like us.  People of color are alien.  Our judgments of them are based on racist stereotypes rather than lived experience.

Housing segregation also keeps people of color down economically.  When people of color attain some level of affluence and buy homes in our neighborhoods, we sabotage this attempt at wealth accumulation by moving away and leaving them financially upside down.  When we decide we want to live closer to the center city, we buy up their homes at basement prices and push them out, often into the very suburban neighborhoods we once desired and protected.  Whites can live wherever we desire.  Our property gains value simply because we’re white.

Unfortunately, deconstructing this mechanism of systemic racism will not be easy.  It will require white people to choose to live in integrated neighborhoods, even when this is not economically wise.  It will require us to welcome new neighbors of color and intentionally incorporate them into our neighborhoods.  It will require us to abandon the coded language of “good neighborhoods, good schools, and good communities” when the subtext is really “white neighborhoods, white schools and white communities.” Finally, it will require us to identify and deconstruct tax policies that continue to funnel unequal resources into white neighborhoods and communities.

This is our responsibility and not theirs.  They can never end segregation.  Only white people can.  Only we can change the system.  Only we can abandon the language and the assumptions that under gird that language.  And we will know when we have succeeded.  The end of systemic racism will come when property values are no longer correlated with the color of our skin.  Our homes will no longer testify to our privilege.

Until then, when it comes to racism, where we live will always speak louder than what we say.

Using the “N” Word

Using the “N” Word

This past week, former White House staffer and reality TV star Omarosa Manigault claimed to have heard President Trump say the “N” word.  Indeed, she said she had heard him do so on a tape.  Political pundits suggested that, if this tape existed, it could seriously damage the President’s reputation.

Really?  With whom?

When it comes to the use of the “N” word, you can roughly divide white Americans into three distinct groups: those who regularly use the word, those who think of their abstention as a gift and those who find the word offensive and dehumanizing.  For the sake of clarity, let me briefly discuss each of these groups and their probable response to a tape of the President using the “N” word.

In 2006, a poll found 8% of white people thought the use of the “N” word justifiable.  While that small percentage may sound encouraging, the same poll also found that 46% of whites knew another white person who used the “N” word.  So either that 8% really gets around or more people are using the “N” word than polling suggests.  More damning, a 2012 poll found that 31% of all whites admitted to using the “N” word at least once in the past five years.  A recent survey found that 39% of white Americans would support a candidate who used the “N” word.  Based on these polls, about a third of the white population finds nothing objectionable about the “N” word.

Let’s face it.  For many of Trump’s staunchest supporters, his use of the “N” word would bolster, rather than damage, his reputation.  Such a tape would justify their own use of the word.  More importantly, it would validate their worldview.  Clearly, there is one group with whom the President’s popularity is nearly unanimous – white supremacists. For them, the use of the “N” word is a philosophical commitment to the dehumanization of people of color.  They use this term precisely because they believe people of color are less human.  Any thoughtful American should be deeply disturbed that the people who advocate white supremacy consider Trump an ally.  Unfortunately, many Americans are not very thoughtful.

Those who tolerate this incongruity represent the second group of white Americans.  While these people do not generally use the “N” word, they freely associate with those who do.  They excuse the behavior of those who use the “N” word as uncouth or politically incorrect rather than for what it is – the dehumanization of another person.  They are unlikely to challenge the use of the word or question the worldview of those who do.  They may feign disgust with the President using the “N” word, but they will not find it disqualifying.

Sadly, they represent a large swath of white Americans who – though they avoid the word – have probably used it in a moment of anger or passion.  Which means, under stress, they expose their true colors.  The only significant difference between them and those who use the “N” word is their vocabulary.  When it comes to worldview, they share a low opinion of people of color.  They are polite racists.  For them, not using the “N” word is a benevolence.  They could have, but they didn’t.  These are the people who complain, “If black people can say it, why can’t I?”  To which, the proper response is simply, “Why would you want to?”

This brings us to the final group of white Americans – people who have no desire to diminish the value of people of color in any way.  For these white people, the use of the “N” word is deeply offensive.  We do not use it, even when angry or impassioned, and quickly challenge those who do.  We understand that not using the “N’ word is not a noble sacrifice or act of kindness.  It is the behavior of a mature human being.  For a mature white American, the use of the “N” word disqualifies a person from any position of leadership, be it of a pizza company or our government.

Regrettably, the possibility that the President used the “N” word only confirms what we have known about his character.  We have long ago recognized his many dog whistles.  We know that terms like “ignorant, low IQ, dog, animal, sons of bitches” are simply surrogates for what the President calls people of color privately.  We know that, should the tape be revealed, many white Americans will ignore, justify or diminish its significance.  They will avoid the common response to many of Trump’s more outrageous claims, that “he is simply saying what many people think.”

Unfortunately, as in those other circumstances, they’re right.

In using the “N” word, Trump is simply saying what far too many white Americans think.

Progressive Racism

Progressive Racism

Note to my white self…

Don’t give up.

I know you’re frustrated. You’re surprised by how insidious racism can be, how it permeates our culture so completely that even many of your white progressive friends and acquaintances repeatedly express racist opinions.  Don’t give up on them.  Not so long ago, the racist themes they so casually propagate tripped off of your tongue. They are reciting what white people were taught. Diminishing the role and impact of racism is standard fare in our culture.

I know you’re exhausted. You’re tired of defending NFL football players, Black Lives Matter protestors, reparations advocates and Maxine Waters, of having to justify the behavior of people of color to many of your white progressive friends and acquaintances.  Don’t stop defending people of color. Think about how exhausting this constant critique must be for them. Blaming the victim for their response to their oppression is a common distraction from addressing the underlying abuse.

Keep in mind that many of your progressive friends and acquaintances diminish and distract because – at some deep level – they understand that ending racism in our society is their responsibility. White supremacists and racist conservatives are not the primary obstacles to ending systemic racism in the United States.  For most of those people, racism will only die when they do. If racism is to end in America, it will require white progressives to finally and completely abandon their complacency and subtle support of systemic racism.

Your task is twofold.  First, you must continually monitor your biases, attitudes and opinions with the goal of eliminating your own tendencies to diminish and distract.  Second, you must patiently challenge this tendency in your white progressive friends and acquaintances.  Ironically, calling out the blatant racist expressions of white supremacists and racist conservatives is a distraction.  It may make you feel enlightened, but it accomplishes little.  Your responsibility is to call out the far more subtle racism of many of your white progressive friends and acquaintances.

Systemic racism in the United States is not sustained by rabid white supremacists, but by a whole system of subtle racist opinions and critiques.  Here is a short list of the racist opinions you once expressed and commonly encounter within progressive circles:

Critique the approach to racism rather than racism

“I just wish (the NFL football players, the Black Lives Matter protestors, the reparations advocates or Maxine Waters) would use a less combative approach to addressing racism” 

You’ve made such critiques. Recognize them for the distractions that they are.  White progressives often flee to the moral high ground to escape from the rushing and fetid waters of racism.  Rather than dive into those waters, we stand idly by while people of color try not to drown.  Telling them to stop thrashing around – though technically correct – does little to help them survive.  Our criticisms imply our role is not to end racism, but to define the rules under which people of color can oppose it.  Too often, this defense of civility or critique of strategy distances us from our responsibility to ally with those who are oppressed.

Diminish racism by focusing on other social ills

“I think the best way to address racism is to focus on more basic social problems like broken families, unemployment, inadequate education, gun violence, drug abuse or poverty.  By addressing these social ills, people of color will also benefit.”

You’ve made such arguments.  Hear them as the diminishment of racism that they are. White progressives often imply that progress can only be made if we address universal societal issues rather than racism itself.  We suggest that addressing the poverty of all people will result in prosperity for people of color.  We offer this as a strategy to “trick” other white people in helping people of color.  After all, the Democrats allegedly lost the presidential election because they ignored the plight of white working class people.  These arguments ignore what every person of color knows – people of color have been at the back of the line for every single social or economic initiative in American history.  Rosa Parks taught them it isn’t good enough to be allowed on the bus.

Respond to present racism with reminders of past progress

“Don’t you think our society is less racist than it was in the past?  I wish (the NFL football players, the Black Lives Matter protestors, the reparations advocates or Maxine Waters) would focus on all the progress we’ve made.”

You’ve offered such optimism.  Understand how ridiculous that sounds to people of color. They know the terrible cost of that progress “we’ve” made.  They see – in our present administration – how fragile that “progress” can be.  They also know the Civil Rights movement was opposed by about 75% of the white population, with even higher levels of resistance in the South.  The system only changed when some white progressives became accomplices with people of color, risking life and liberty to protest against injustice.  It changed when – unlike today – politicians like JFK and LBJ risked their careers and alienated portions of their party in order to challenge racism. Those white people who stood on the sidelines criticizing Dr. King are no different than those who criticize Black Lives Matter.  If we want to take credit for the progress of the past, we must be part of challenging injustice today.

Encourage the racist trope of the violent person of color

“When people of color advocate for or resort to violence, their behavior is counterproductive, making it more difficult for me to support their cause.”

You’ve reinforced negative stereotypes about people of color.  Whenever you give credence to claims of black violence, you encourage an age old racist device.  Historically, the incidents and levels of violence perpetrated on people of color by whites far exceed the incidents and levels of violence perpetrated by people of color.  When people of color resort to violence, it is usually when they have abandoned hope in any other option.  They act violently knowing that their actions will be brutally suppressed by white culture.  Yet, repeatedly, at the slightest aggressiveness by people of color, many of their progressive white supporters fade into the ranks of the white mobs that beat, lynch and kill.  People of color are not the race of people most deserving of a violent characterization.  When progressives pretend this isn’t the case, they actually justify continued white violence.

These are the common white progressive complaints you must abandon and challenge. This will be frustrating and exhausting.  Many of your white progressive friends and acquaintances will resist your pushback.  They will not like your continual reminders that white progressives – and not those crazy Trump supporters – are the chief impediment to racial reconciliation and equity in the United States.  Only when white progressives abandon these supports to systemic racism, will the pillars of racism in America finally crumble.

Stop complaining of your frustration and exhaustion.  Come down off your moral high ground.  End you attempts at diminishing racism. Give up your theories of inevitable progress.  Support those who are defending themselves – sometimes violently – against abuse.

Get off your ass and back to work.

Why I’m Afraid Of White People

Why I’m Afraid Of White People

Note to my white self…

I am afraid of white people.

This is not easy for me, as a white person, to admit.  Nor has it always been the case. For most of my life, I felt safest and most comfortable in the presence of other white people. While I occasionally encountered a distasteful white person, most white people treated me with kindness and respect. They were my family and friends. They were my tribe. It was when I encountered people of color that I felt fear.

That is no longer the case. Increasingly, it is white people who cause me the most concern and discomfort. Much of this growing fear comes from watching my eleven year old black daughter navigate and explore the world without her white parents looking over her shoulder. Last week, when she rode her bike to the local ice cream shop, her mother and I worried until she came home. What if some white person, seeing her as a threat, called the police to complain? What if some white person, emboldened by the present political climate, chose to target her for racial harassment?

I wish those were irrational fears, but I know they are not. I’ve read too many stories of black people targeted for harassment or abuse simply for being black. In the past, my daughter benefited from the protection of our umbrella of white privilege. As a cute child, she was endearing. But that is all shifting as she becomes a black teenager. She has become a potential threat in a culture uncomfortable with assertive young black women.

When my daughter was a child, white people irritated me with their assumptions and bias, but I found it generally harmless. Not any longer. When I am with my daughter, I find myself looking at other white people with caution, even suspicion. I notice the ones who don’t acknowledge her existence, looking straight through her. I see those who stare at her with hostility.  I recognize the fear in their eyes. It is the same discomfort I once had in the presence of people of color.  Occasionally, I see something more sinister – a hatred for this child they do no know.

But, even when I am not with my daughter, I find myself less and less comfortable in large groups of white people. I’m aware of the absence of people of color. I miss them and the perspectives they bring. I wonder if the white people I’m with have that same sense of loss.  Or are they like I used to be, happy to be together as a tribe and free from the discomfort of sharing the world with other tribes.

I’ve read enough by people of color to know what my tribe is capable of, the ugliness and violence we’ve so easily inflicted on those we identify as different or less.  I’ve moved beyond the whitewashed history of my childhood to understand the racism built into American culture. I recall all the racist and bigoted statements I’ve heard or expressed in my many years with white people. Even today, many in my tribe, assuming I think as they do, expose their potential to harm or tolerate the harm of non-whites. They frighten me.

Indeed, the more another white person revels in their whiteness, the more they frighten me. Their obsession with whiteness usually involves diminishing or denigrating people of other colors. When people of color revel in their identity, it feels different. They’re declaring the value of what they can contribute and not the deficiency of all others. Black, Native American and Latino power demand a place at the table. White power demands the seat at the head of the table.

My recognition of this difference reveals how I’ve changed. I no longer belong to the white tribe. I belong to a rainbow tribe, of people comfortable in diversity, thrilled by exploring differences, committed to sharing the world equitably. People of color are no longer threatening to me. They are interesting and exciting.  Many of them are part of my new tribe. While I will always be white, I am no longer proud of that identity.  Indeed, I am increasingly aware of how dangerous the white tribe can be to my daughter, to my friends of color, and to the society I seek to create and protect.

This fear isn’t completely negative. It makes me a better ally to people of color. I better understand and appreciate what they’ve always experienced. I am more aware of the world as it is rather than the world as I assumed. My fear of white people makes me a better citizen of this nation. I am more likely to work passionately for justice and equity, to oppose those asserting white supremacy.  After all, those being brutalized by police, separated from their children or threatened with the loss of civil or voting rights belong to my tribe. Their pain is my pain. Their dreams are my dreams.

In the end, my fear of white people is a sign of hope.  The more white people share this fear, the less our society will have to fear from white people.  As more and more white people abandon their tribe, the less power white people will have to perpetuate a racially divisive society. As more white people join the rainbow tribe, white people will become less and less frightening to everyone. Finally, people of every color can focus their efforts on building a society where no one need be afraid.