Practicing gratitude for that one student who likes Trump among us

Lately, I’m having a thought that surprises me.  It keeps replaying through my head.  “I am grateful for that one student who likes Trump in every classroom.” Teachers keep saying to me, “I wish I could talk about this in my classroom.  But I have one kid whose parents supported Trump, and I don’t want to alienate them.”

If we play this out to its logical conclusion, then we would only talk about politics when everyone in the room is in agreement.  And while there is plenty of refinement of ideas and policies to be done by like-minded people—as well as a wide range of opinions within a whole group of people who voted for—or more accurately voted against—one particular candidate, that is the stuff of election season.  Election season is over.  We have one president.  We have a congress.  They are passing laws and policies.  As citizens of a democracy, it is our job to pay attention to what they are doing, to debate the merits, to talk about the ideas and the policies.  School is where we go to learn how to think, not what to think.  But if we are unable to talk about politics because we don’t all think the same thing, then we are not able to learn how to construct an argument, hear opposing views, deconstruct an argument, hear how our different views impact one another, brainstorm together from a place of common interest, and then go eat together in the cafeteria afterwards.

Teaching a class in which students have differing opinions, or different identities, is a skill to be developed.  I’m grateful for that one kid because that child will make us better at this skill, which ultimately will serve everyone we teach.  The skill here is teaching our classes in a way that honors the margins, doesn’t further marginalize the margins, doesn’t try to change the margins, but doesn’t exclude them either—that is the skill we all need to get better at a society and in schools.

I don’t think I do this very well. I easily fall into the assumption that everyone in my class is on the same page, so we can take the conversation deeper and farther than we would if there was opposition.  But I am sure that there are people who disagree, and who feel too outnumbered to say where they stand.  And because we (Americans) generally don’t have great skills for civil disagreement, they don’t say anything.  Maybe they feel unskilled at disagreeing, at being the minority, at justifying their opinion or expressing it without rage.  Maybe they know they’d be speaking to people who, also, are unskilled, might not take their dissent as an opportunity to dialogue, who might attack instead, who might also respond from rage rather than from a place of inquiry and possibility.

How do we do this?  How could I do this better?  I could have taken time in my class to give everyone 1 min to speak, to share how they are feeling, to express their views without being challenged.  I could give everyone time to write their views on a piece of paper and share it out anonymously.  I could have paused to affirm that there are voices we aren’t hearing, either because they’re not speaking or because they’re not in the room, but that we want to hear from those voices whenever we can because we will not be understanding the whole picture.  We could take time to imagine what those voices might say and where they might be coming from.  I could set up a debate and let people choose sides.  Then I could ask them to argue the other side.  I could set up a debate and assign sides.  I could ask them for opinion papers.  I could tell them that any opinions are okay as long as they are able to back them up with facts.

I hope that teachers across the country are able to be grateful for the one and only of whoever they have—whether it’s the child of Trump voters in a room full of the offspring of progressives, or a  kid that hails from hippy liberals in a school full of pro-Trump families. Take their presence as an opportunity to hone the skills that are required to teach children how to live in a democracy.  Before it’s too late.

 

Is Anti-Racism Partisan?

Two teachers have written to me to say, “I used your words.  I said that I would support my students whether they are Muslim, gay, Black, White, Asian American, Hindu, Sikh, lesbian, disabled, straight, transgender, Latino, Christian, Native American, female, male, undocumented, Republican, Democrat, Independent or Green.  And I got in trouble.”  Teachers and principals are asking, “Can we still promote anti-racism without being partisan?”

Superintendent Dallas Dance in Baltimore was under fire from a school board member just after the election for retweeting Josh Starr, who wrote: “Educators: tomorrow pls show your muslim, black, latino, jewish, disabled, or just non-white St’s, that you love them and will protect them!”

It is unclear how it could be problematic for a school superintendent to offer love and support to students who are part of groups that are currently being targeted by hate crimes on a national scale. There is a very fine line to walk here, and we have to walk it.  Anti-racism is not a political stance.  It is not partisan.  It is a foundational democratic value.  Giving a voice and a vote to every human being is what democracy is all about. Non-discrimination and the right to free speech are also constitutionally protected democratic values that belong to each of us.   There is a reason that racial discrimination has been made illegal and anti-racism has not.  Anti-racism leads towards equity, opportunity, community and possibility.  Racism leads to the underdevelopment and underachievement of our society as a whole.

When people like Ann Miller on the school board of Baltimore County Public Schools, who has been harassing Superintendent Dance since he became the superintendent, says that his statement is partisan, the community needs to challenge her: , “How so?  Are you saying that all Republicans believe that we should not support Black students and Muslim students and gay students and female students?”  The alternative is to say that protecting a child’s right to learn—without fearing for their life or safety—is a partisan issue.

Racism is not a partisan issue—it really never has been.  There are extremes of racism and bigotry, but the spectrum of bigoted policy crosses political lines.  Trump has pledged to deport 3 million undocumented immigrants.  In Obama’s 8 years as president, he deported 2 million undocumented immigrants. This does not justify Trump’s pledge, his speech or his action.  But it does show us that bigoted policies are not the province of Republicans.  Racism and bigotry have been a part of the United States since its founding, as have ignorance and apathy.  And so too have anti-racism and anti-bigotry always been here—in many political stripes and shapes.

This is a critical fact in this moment. 10 years from now, 50 years from now, 100 years from now, we will look back at the choices we made in this historical moment and we will see clearly the legacy that we chose to build together.  We have the choice—in this moment—to leave a legacy of resistance and anti-bigotry that our children will be proud of. And we have other choices too.  But whatever we choose, by virtue of being American, we will share the burden of our choices.  We will carry this legacy together.

 

Missed connections: What wasn’t said in Washington this weekend

Our train pulled into Union Station on the day before the Women’s March and I emerged onto the platform with hundreds of women who were united with a common purpose.  The female conductor bid us farewell us saying, “Good luck, ladies!  Be careful out there.” Women—mostly White women, but not entirely—packed the platform with their signs and suitcases and pink knitted pussy hats.  We walked the 200 feet into Union Station, where our giddy chatter stopped.  The station was full of Trump supporters in blue Trump inauguration hats, red “Make America Great” hats, and inaugural scarves (all of which were made in China).

While we were 90% women, they were probably 90% men, but not entirely; there were families too, with a man, a woman, a son.  But not many.  I didn’t see any large groups of women there to support Trump, which is interesting given that 54% of White women voted for him.  It was so surprising to find them there, even though of course we should have expected it.  Somehow I had imagined that in taking Washington by storm, we’d have it all to ourselves.  But the instant I saw them it occurred to me that this moment had been pre-ordained.  We were bound to meet. We actually live among one another.  We share one country.  But that day, 5:30pm on Inauguration Day, our paths were bound to cross in explicit ways.  They were headed home and we were here to protest.  They seemed just as surprised to see us as we were to see them.

I walked past them, not angrily, but with curiosity.  I longed to stop and talk.  I wanted to know why they were here, what they were about, what they thought of all of us.  I wanted to connect.  It seemed like a massive missed opportunity for all of us to be in one place, so literally wearing our political orientations, if not exactly our affiliations, on our sleeves.  I wanted a StoryCorps booth that I could duck into with one outgoing stranger who I could share my story with, and who could share their story with me.

I mentioned this desire later, to some of the White women in line for metro cards with me, to friends I met along the way at the march, to everyone I saw while in Washington, really.  And more than half the time, my suggestion was met with general outrage at the mere proposition.  The women I spoke with were so angry with Trump supporters, have felt so violated by his election, that they could not imagine talking to someone who supported him—and still supports him.  One woman, who identifies as White, bisexual, Jewish, feminist, progressive, said to me, “The only thing I would be able to think to say is, “Why do you hate me so much?””

The rage—which is really hurt—is so real.  I can remember on the day of the election, women were coming out of the woodwork to post on Facebook stories of their sexual assaults that they had never shared publicly.  And they were doing so because they felt their vote for Hillary Clinton—and Hillary’s expected victory—was a direct counterattack to Donald Trump and all men everywhere who felt they could touch a woman without her consent.  And the announcement of his bizarre alignment of electoral votes that added up to just enough for a victory, felt like a victory for all those men whose vile actions were being exposed via Facebook on that day.  And these White women in Washington weren’t just angry about the sexism.  They were angry about the Islamaphobia, the transphobia, the homophobia, the racism, the xenophobia.  They were angry at all the hate that seemed to win that day, that seemed to be laughing at us while we lay on the floor, vulnerable and hurt.

I don’t feel this rage at Trump supporters.  I don’t know why.  You feel what you feel, and my rage does not come out with people on the street.  Almost all of my rage is directed at Trump and the people around him who could be calling his bluff, and who aren’t. My rage is with politicians who are siding with him, or who aren’t standing up to him.  The way I see it, his supporters have been conned by the greatest conman alive.  I feel sorry for them.  I feel affinity with them—as one of the American people who has been manipulated and conned and lied to. I feel sorry for them because they are barely surviving on a subsistence diet of “alternative facts,” one that makes it so much harder to see the world clearly.  And were it not for the education my race and class privilege afforded me in high school and beyond, I’d be in the same place.  And it’s a lonely place they occupy—one of fear, defensiveness, and hate.

But my desire to connect with them doesn’t come from pity or empathy.  It is almost entirely a by-product of paranoid self-interest.  To be perfectly honest, I’m afraid of civil war.  I’m aware that we live with an extremely well-armed radical right that believes so fervently in its rightness (you would too if you had access to the same “alternative facts” they consume) they would be willing to use violence to defend their cause.  This is what civil war looked like in the former Yugoslavia.  There are accounts of neighbors who had lived side by side peacefully for more than 20 years, who were raped and executed by their neighbors.  That is the kind of thing that happens during civil war.

Let’s say we experience a major trauma event as a nation. Perhaps something akin to 9/11 or a major weather disaster.  If you look at the numbers of protestors we had on Saturday, it’s clear there will not be popular support for whatever Trump does in response to anything, basically—not just because we don’t like him, but because his go-to response is one that is usually guided by transparent self-interest, and those of us who are disinclined to believe him will not go along with it. Those who are already on his side will go along with it.  And they will feel righteous indignation that we do not.  And in the meantime, they are well-armed (generally).  We have pussy hats.

I’m not saying that I want to be well-armed.  I’m saying I want to be better understood when the time comes.  I do not feel safe.  It does not make me feel safe to march in the streets with like-minded people.  It makes me feel powerful. It makes me feel less alone. It makes me feel momentarily happy and hopeful.  But I will not feel safe until I feel like there is a common basis for understanding between “us” and “them.”  I will not feel safe until we begin to bridge this divide.

Part of what was so devastating about the election results, was that I was so sure Trump would be demolished.  I was sure that his followers were a tiny minority of the overall country (and in reality they were, but they were in just the right places at just the right time to just barely outnumber us).  It seemed SO OBVIOUS to me that he was a conman, a liar, narcissist, that he literally had no capacity for empathy or connection. I just assumed he was losing votes left and right, and that his defeat would be so humiliating he would be devastated.  On November 9th, I was faced with the question of, “What don’t I understand about my country that this could happen?”

I struggled internally with the realization of this gulf of understanding, and I took to heart the need to reach out to people who are different from me to try to understand them.  I even started a listening project with a Trump supporter who had written to me to appreciate my blog.  He would talk for 15 min, then I would talk for 15 min.  We didn’t try to convince one another; we just wanted to understand each other.  And it was cathartic, in the same bizarre way that sharing your feelings can feel cathartic, even though it doesn’t fix the problem.  Trump supporters suddenly had a name—Bill.  And they had a face, or at least a voice.  And it was a human voice.  Our conversations began to humanize the “them” I had been so afraid of.

In the weeks since that time, as we watch Trump roll back on his promises, admit that many aspects of his campaign agenda (“Lock her up”) were just for show, that most of the things he accused Hillary of are things that he has done too, to a much more severe degree, I have gone back to my pre-election stance of believing that it is SO OBVIOUS that he is not to be trusted, that public opinion will inevitably be stacked against him.  But I think this is a delusion, just as I was deluded about the circumstances that enabled him to get here in the first place.

He still has an approval rating of 35%.  And as low as that is, that is 35% of our country who does not think this is SO OBVIOUS.  And there are entire cultural norms coalescing around “pro-Trump” vs. “anti-Trump” stances.  It has reached the point where it doesn’t even matter what Trump does, if he’s your guy, you’re sticking with him through and through.  And seeing the other side rage against it likely only foments one’s commitment.  It’s like watching football.  Seeing the other guy’s team lose, rage against the ump, accuse the league of being rigged, etc., doesn’t make the winning team feel remorse.  It makes them gloat.  We are on opposite teams.

We cannot continue to be on opposite teams.  I think we need to listen to each other.  And to be honest, I’m not exactly sure what happens after that.  First, you listen.  Then, you share your own story and why you stand where you stand. I don’t think the goal is to change each other’s views.  No one will be open to being changed by someone with whom they have no connection.  The first step is to connect.  Let’s face it, Trump or not-Trump is not much of a vision. “Not Trump” is frankly, not the hill I want to die on.  We need to be able to think beyond these limited categories that dehumanize and minimize all of us, and to do so requires understanding each other better.

I’m not going to say that I think people of color should do this.  Or Muslims.  Or immigrants.  Or gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people.  Or people living with a disability.  I don’t even think White women should have to do this with White men who supported Trump.  It’s a lot to ask people to confront—and understand—people who, by virtue of giving so much power to someone who represents their aggressor, start to become their aggressor.  But White straight men against Trump need to be bold enough to have conversations with White straight men for Trump.  And White women against Trump, we’ve got 54% of White women who supported Trump.  That’s a little more than a one to one ratio of against vs. for.  We all need to take one White woman Trump supporter and start to build a bridge.

That’s not to say that people from targeted groups can’t do this.  Most oppressed people already do this—they are forced to do this—because they don’t have to write their identity on a sign to make it clear who they are; they wear it on their bodies every day as they move about the world, in Union Station and elsewhere. But White straight women and White straight men who are “anti-Trump” blend into this giant mass of White people until we write our hearts on our signs and pull our pussy hats over our heads.  And for that reason it is not okay for us to allow this gap to widen.  It is an abuse of privilege–and the safety that comes with it–to allow our rage to keep us from building this bridge.

After the Women’s March, I walked back to Union Station with a like-minded compatriot—a 60 something Black woman from D.C. who I had just met.  We agreed on everything we talked about, and had a great conversation.  When I expressed my views to her, I felt so righteous, so supported, so clear.  Within minutes of saying good bye to her, I took my seat on the train in front of a White man and White woman who had clearly attended inaugural balls the night before.  I listened to them talk about the ball and the inauguration, and criticize the immaturity of the marchers.  I wanted to channel all of my righteousness that I had access to only moments before, and say something.  I wanted to turn around and tell them why I marched.  I wanted to throttle them.  I was sitting there in my Amtrak seat full of rage—at Trump supporters—or so I thought. But I said nothing.

As I look back on that moment, I can see that my rage wasn’t at them.  It was at me.  It was at my inability to do something that would start a conversation.  Rage against a stranger is not a place to start a conversation, which is why I stayed silent.  And because I could do nothing but rage, I did not connect.  If I had, perhaps, they might think differently  about the marchers going forward–and when they thought about all those people and groups who we were marching for–they would have a name—Ali.  And a face.  And a voice.

 

 

 

What kind of White person would I have been?

I was honored to get to speak at Kimberton Waldorf School’s Martin Luther King Day Celebration this year.  Honored and daunted–it may have been my first speech to an audience that ranged from age 5 to age 65.  I’m sharing the text of the speech here.

When I was growing up, we learned about the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in school.  And I always wondered which side I would have been on if I had lived in his time.  I imagined I would have been one of the White people who marched in his marches, and befriended Black children in the newly integrated schools.  I was sure that I would not be one of the mean people who resisted integration, who thought that White people were better than people of color because of the color of their skin.

But that was all I knew—that there were two sides.  There were White people who supported what Dr. King was doing and White people who fought against what he was doing.

I didn’t realize at the time that there was a third kind of White person.  And in fact, I’m sorry to say, it’s much more likely that I would have fallen into the third group.  The third kind of White people was White people who didn’t pay attention to what was going on.  They didn’t fight it, and they didn’t support it.  Sometimes they didn’t even know about it.  They didn’t care.  They were bystanders.  And believe it or not, most of the White people from Dr. King’s time period, were bystanders.  They did not see how the Civil Rights Movement had anything to do with them.

What evidence do I have from my life that if I had lived at the time of Dr. King, I would have been a bystander with regard to fighting racism?

1. I didn’t know how to talk about race. I grew up in Pittsburgh in a community not so different from this one.  But my community was almost all White people.  And I thought we weren’t prejudiced, but in reality, we were just all White.  We didn’t have the chance to be racially prejudiced against each other.  Any time a community is all White or almost all White, you can be sure that racism played a part in making it that way.  In my community there were formal laws, informal policies and individual acts of discrimination, meanness and apathy that led to an almost all White community just 10 miles away from a community that was almost all Black.

And we never talked about race. There wasn’t a rule against it, it just didn’t come up.  I thought I was supposed to be colorblind.  I was supposed to believe that everyone was not just equal, but everyone was the same.  But in reality, we’re not all the same.  We have different skin colors, and we also have different histories, different cultures, different ethnicities, different family stories.  And our differences are beautiful, they make each of us special and unique.  If we are colorblind, we can’t see racial difference, and we can’t talk about it.  If we can’t talk about race, we can’t talk about racism.  So then how are we going to do anything about it?

2. The second reason I was more likely to have been a bystander than an activist is that I thought racism was in the past. I thought it was over.  I knew that racism caused slavery, for example, and I thought that when slavery ended, racism ended.  But if not then, then certainly racism ended with the Civil Rights Movement.  Or if not then, it must have ended in 2008, when we elected our first Black president.  Whichever way you cut it, we have ended racism multiple times in the US. But here’s what I’ve learned since then: racism actually never ended—it’s still alive today.  But I always thought that racism was individual acts of meanness, like the KKK, or overt discrimination like segregation on busses.  I didn’t realize that racism could be a part of our systems that makes it harder for people of color to get a quality education or to vote.  We still have systems that do that today, but it’s subtle, it’s disguised, it’s part of the law and part of housing patterns, so it’s hard to see. If we can’t see it, we can’t talk about it, and we are likely to be bystanders to it.  That’s the second reason I likely would have been a bystander.

3. The final reason I probably would have been a bystander, is that I thought racism didn’t affect me. This was probably the biggest reason I would have been a bystander. I dreamed of being in all those marches because I wanted to help Black people. I thought racism was wrong and I wanted to help others.  But I never once stopped to consider that racism impacts me too.  Racism will never negatively impact me as much as it negatively impacts people of color—never.  But one thing I’ve learned is that it’s very hard to work for justice if you are doing it on behalf of others.  It’s hard to help others if you don’t see the ways that their oppression—and their liberation—are connected to your own. How does racism impact me as a White person?  It dehumanizes me.  It makes me less human.  It makes it harder for me to build relationships with people of different races.  It makes it harder to see people and situations clearly—racism turns everyone into a stereotype, including me.  Racism minimizes my humanity.  Racism limits human potential, as well as our communal potential.  If you want to fight something, you can’t do it on the behalf of other people, you have to know why it impacts you.

I was at a school recently where I met with the Boys of Color Club in grades 5-8.  And a fifth grade boy, who was Black, asked me, “Why have we had 43 White presidents, and only one Black one? It seems like they don’t like us.”

I was stumped.  I said, “I don’t know why that is.  I’m sure there are many complicated reasons.  But I do know this: I know that it’s more about racism than it is about Black people’s capacity to lead.  It’s not because Black people aren’t qualified to be president or because they can’t be leaders.  In fact we’ve now seen that one of our most successful presidents on almost every measure was a Black man.  Dr. King was a great leader.  Throughout U.S. history there have been hundreds and thousands of incredible Black leaders who were never given the opportunity to lead our whole society, who were segregated to leadership within the Black community.  But think how many more amazing presidents we might have had if Black people had been able to run for president since 1776.  Think how much the country has lost out by limiting the opportunities of Black people and other people of color for so long.  Think of how much we’ve lost out on as a country because we’ve never had a woman president of any race, that’s 50% of the population that we miss out on.  How much have we lost because –for so long—most of our leaders could come from just a tiny proportion of our population, who were White and male, Christian and wealthy.  Those individuals whose opportunities were limited by racism and discrimination have lost out, but so has the country as a whole.”  This is one of the ways that racism hurts all of us.

So I want to leave you with a few tips for not being a bystander to racism, for figuring out how to be engaged now.  These are tips that I wish somebody had given me when I was growing up.

  1. Talking about race is not racist. There are ways to talk about race that contribute to racism, and there are ways to talk about race that actually work against racism.  We have to be able to discern the difference, because if we can’t talk about race and racism, how can we change it?
  2. Know that racism still exists. Be willing and open to learning about how racism—both systemic and interpersonal—affects people around you.  Learn about how certain laws disproportionately disadvantage people of color and advantage White people.  Notice when a space that you live in, work in, go to school in, vacation in or shop in is all White.  Ask questions about all White spaces. When someone tells you that something racist happened to them, listen to understand.
  3. Racism negatively effects everyone, and therefore anti-racist action is relevant to all of us. If something is racist, you can do something about it. You can be offended by racism on your own behalf.  You don’t have to wait for the person who is targeted by it to say they are offended.  You don’t have to speak on the behalf of others.  You can say, “That offends me.”  “Why would you think I would find that funny?”  “Is that how little you think of me?”
  4. Care. Whatever else you do, bystanders are created by a lack of caring. Find out what’s going on.  Pay attention. Care.

They say that the best way to know how you would have acted during the time of Dr. King is to look at what you are doing right now.  On this MLK day, I invite you to consider where you stand right now, where you want to stand, and how to get there.

 

 

What should we tell the children?

“What should I say to my students after the election, if Trump wins?” a principal asked me recently.  Good question.  What should we tell our children?

Tell them, first, that we will protect them.  Tell them that we have democratic processes in the U.S. which make it impossible for one mean person to do too much damage. Tell them that we will protect those democratic processes–and we will use them–so that Trump is unable to act on many of the false promises he made during his campaign.

Tell them, second, that you will honor the outcome of the election, but that you will fight bigotry. Tell them bigotry is not a democratic value, and that it will not be tolerated at your school.  Tell them you stand by your Muslim families.  Your same sex parent families.  Your gay students.  Your Black families.  Your female students.  Your Mexican families.  Your disabled students.  Your immigrant families.  Your trans students.  Your Native students.  Tell them you won’t let anyone hurt them or deport them or threaten them without having to contend with you first.  Say that you will stand united as a school community, and that you will protect one another.  Say that silence is dangerous, and teach them how to speak up when something is wrong.  Then teach them how to speak up, how to love one another, how to understand each other, how to solve conflicts, how to live with diverse and sometimes conflicting ideologies, and give them the skills to enter a world that doesn’t know how to do this.

Teach them, third, how to be responsible members of a civic society.  Teach them how to engage in discussion—not for the sake of winning—but for the sake of understanding and being understood.  Students need to learn how to check facts, to weigh news sources, to question taken for granted assumptions, to see their own biases, to take feedback, to challenge one another.  We need to teach students how to disagree—with love and respect.  These skills will be priceless in the coming months and years as we work to build a democratic society that protects the rights of all people–regardless of the cooperation or resistance those efforts face from the Executive Branch.

Finally, remind them–to ease their minds–that not everyone who voted for Donald Trump did so because they believe the bigoted things that he has said this year.  Many of them voted for him because they feel frustrated with the economy, they feel socially left behind, and they are exercising the one power they have.  We need to challenge Trump and his supporters to differentiate between their fears and the bigotry catalyzed by those fears.

In the aftermath of this traumatic election, I hesitate to even exercise my voice in this way.  In the past year, I received hate mail and a death threat from White supremacists for blog posts like this–blog posts that are, let’s be honest, fairly insignificant expressions of personal opinion from a person with very little power.  I am not a threat.  And yet people have threatened me–and my family–for expressing my view that we should build a world in which all human beings can live freely in the wholeness of their identities.  I fear that this kind of intimidation will only increase in the event of a Trump victory.  I fear that it will worsen tomorrow–as soon as I hit send–if Trump supporters are emboldened in their aggression towards people with whom they disagree.  And yet the only thing that makes me feel safe in this moment–as I stare into the face of a possible of a Trump victory–is to speak up and speak out, and to invite others to do the same.

More resources:

The Frightening Effect of “Trump Talk” on America’s Schools by Valerie Strauss and Mica Pollock in the Washington Post

‘It really does get into your head.’ The Election.  Through the Eyes of Teenage Girls by Claire Cain Miller in the New York Times

Activities for Teaching Tolerance and Teaching the Election from… Teaching Tolerance

Pale Fear

 

This week the Center for the Study of Race and Equity in Education (where I work) released a report on disproportionality. It showed that in most Southern states, Black students make up less than a quarter of the population, but make up more than half of the expulsions and suspensions. Given the robust correlation between expulsion and prison, these statistics are like a hidden blueprint—suddenly unearthed—of a part of the school-to-prison pipeline that has been buried underneath the Natchez Trace in Mississippi and burrowing through the Smokey Mountains in Tennessee. Those of us who aren’t local, whose lives don’t intersect with the pipeline, don’t even know it’s there. But for those Black children whose homes are built atop the line, its presence couldn’t be more real.

The report was on 13 southern states, but we know that disproportionality exists in the North too—not only in suspensions and expulsions, but disproportionality in the precursors to suspension: disproportionality in playful joking being misinterpreted as disrespect, clever misread as smart assed, depression mistreated as aggression, disconnection miscoded as apathy. Black students who are seen as Black first, and therefore inferior. Often they never get seen as individuals.

I go into schools to support teachers to build skills for racial competence, to recognize microaggressions, to start to see bias. I give them ground rules to support the conversation and I ask them why it’s hard to talk about race. It invites people into the conversation. It gets us talking. It matters. But then I leave, and I realize that I haven’t said the most important thing. I haven’t said that Whiteness gets defined in opposition to Blackness, and always has. That we are set up to fail because we have been taught not to see each other clearly. I haven’t said that the communities we are trying to build together are thriving (when they thrive) against all historical odds. That White people are taught not to see Black people clearly. That that is the part of the reason for disproporationality—and for the school to prison pipeline. I haven’t said these things. And in those moments, I feel that I have failed.

I need to say that I, as a White person, do not see Black people clearly. And I don’t always see myself and my place in the world clearly. I often feel unsafe in spite of the fact that I live in a world that was designed to guarantee my safety; a world with intricate systems of police, courts, a justice system designed to guarantee my safety, to the extent that any guarantee is possible. The fear in my life—often of the mythological Black thief or carjacker or psychopath—is a figment of America’s imagination. The amount of actual danger in my life—from anything—is dwarfed by the structures that have been built up around me to protect me, a white woman, from those figments of the collective imagination. It pales in comparison to actual danger, which is what Black people face—and have always faced—in America.

Ta-Nehisi Coates writes, in a letter to his son, “…And I am afraid. I feel the fear most acutely whenever you leave me. But I was afraid long before you, and in this I was unoriginal. When I was your age the only people I knew were black, and all of them were powerfully, adamantly, dangerously afraid. I had seen this fear all my young life, though I had not always recognized it as such…. It was always right in front of me. The fear was there in the extravagant boys of my neighborhood, in their large rings and medallions, their big puffy coats and full-length fur-collared leathers, which was their armor against the world….”

How do we as White people start to see Black children (including 16 year old, 17 year old, 18 year old children) as our own children—children who are afraid of a world that has not been designed for their protection, but rather for their destruction? How do we begin to disarm ourselves of our misperceptions, our defensiveness, our anxiety, our stereotypes of the violent, basketball playing, apathetic, smart assed, athletic, unintelligent, poorly spoken… How do we start to hear the words, see the kindness, feel the effort, honor the spirit, support the vulnerability, soothe the fear, engage the intellect, meet the desire, challenge the uncertainty and rewrite the narratives of our Black children?

I don’t believe that undoing racism is a matter of education alone. It is a matter of deep psychological undoing. It takes time, commitment and support. It requires retracing our steps along neural pathways in our minds, and along dirt, cement and brick pathways in our lives that we have been travelling on—some of us—for decades, and charting new ones. It requires a willingness to start to see everything differently—our relationships, our families, our places where we feel most comfortable and safe—and the questioning feels scary.

That fear is real. And yet I know I need to learn how to wrap my anxiety around the disproportionality of fear. The fear I feel is of things that are not actually dangerous. It is a fear of conflict, of disagreement, of mythological Blackness and White resistance. It will not hurt me. In real terms, I am safe. It is the psychological undoing that scares us. But it is a fear that pales in comparison.

 

Rachel Dolezal Syndrome

Rachel Dolezal is a fascinating case study in White racial identity development.* She is stuck in the immersion/emersion stage, in which White people, having learned extensively about the realities of racism, and the ugly history of White supremacy in the U.S., “immerse” themselves in trying to figure out how to be White in our society, and “emerge” with a new relationship to Whiteness. Only in the case of Dolezal, her way of dealing with the pain of the reality of racism, was to deny her own Whiteness and to become Black.

She is an extreme example of a common phenomenon. The “immersion” stage is typified by White people taking more responsibility for racism and privilege and often experiencing high levels of anger and embarrassment for racism and privilege, which they sometimes direct towards other Whites. They sometimes try to immerse themselves in communities of color, as Dolezal did. She’s not alone.

I definitely experienced this. There was a time in my 20s when everything I learned about the history of racism made me hate myself, my Whiteness, my ancestors… and my descendants. I remember deciding that I couldn’t have biological children because I didn’t want to propagate my privilege biologically. If I was going to pass on my privilege, I wanted to pass it on to someone who doesn’t have racial privilege; so I planned to adopt. I disliked my Whiteness, but I disliked the Whiteness of other White people more. I felt like the way to really end racism was to feel guilty for it, and to make other White people feel guilty for it too. And then, like Dolezal, I wanted to take on Africanness. Living in South Africa during my junior year abroad, I lived with a Black family, wore my hair in head wraps, shaved my head. I didn’t want to be White, but if I had to be, I wanted to be White in a way that was different from other White people I knew. I wanted to be a special, different White person. The one and only. How very White of me…

Beverly Daniel Tatum has written that White people don’t choose to identify as White because the categories to choose from are loaded from the start. Traditionally one can identify as a colorblind White person, a racist White person or an ignorant White person: those are the three ways White people get talked about as White. If those are the options, who would choose to identify as White? And so White people identify as “normal” and “Irish” and “just American” and do not self-identify racially. And that leaves us with a society in which only people of color have a race, where only people of color seem to be responsible for racialized problems. It makes it hard for all of us to know and tell our racial stories—because White people think we don’t have any. And it makes it hard for us to own our history, because we don’t see it as ours.

Many White people also feel like we don’t have culture, and this isn’t a coincidence. Throughout the 20th century, countless immigrant groups abandoned the artifacts of cultures that racialized them as immigrants (language, religion, food, styles of speaking, gesticulations, family structures, traditions, etc.) in order to become White. And this was not just a matter of fitting in; it was about accessing rights that were reserved for White people: citizenship, land ownership, police protection, legal rights, etc.. The more one could cast off the markers of otherness, the more likely it was that one could become White. And so while the desire to become White is really the opposite of what Rachel Dolezal had, the process of becoming White that her ancestors undoubtedly went through in the great American star-off machine, may be connected to her desire to un-become White, to lose that feeling of being cultureless, of being part of an unidentified group, and to leave behind that identity that has no positive way to be. And lots of White people—myself included—do this in thousands of tiny ways as we appropriate the cultures of others (from Africa, India, Compton, Guatemala, Harlem, Mexico…) to fill in the blanks in our own.

Daniel Tatum said we need to change this. We need to give White people new ways to identify as White. Because at the end of the day, we need White people to see that we are White. When we recognize and own our Whiteness, we can account for our own portion, our one 1/billionth of responsibility for what White people have done throughout history. We can work with other White people to begin to challenge bias, ignorance and colorblindness. We can use our privilege to confront the sources of that unfair favoring.

I was lucky. The Black family I embedded myself in during my “Rachel Dolezal phase” insisted on my inherent goodness, and that of my family and even—I thought this was a stretch—of my ancestors. They helped me focus on my capacity to make change as a White person. They appreciated my desire to be Black, they teased me, they let me know in no uncertain terms that I would never be Black. I read James Baldwin, Toni Morrison, Steve Biko. I swore off White authors. But the Black authors I read saw the immersion stage coming, and they reminded me that Black people don’t need White people to help them pursue liberation, that the job of White people lies with teaching other White people, seeing ourselves clearly, owning our role in oppression.

I’m not sure what happened with Rachel Dolezal. Maybe it was mental illness. Maybe it was a desire to connect to her adopted brothers. Maybe she felt safer and more loved in Black communities. Maybe it felt good to distance herself from the overwhelming oppressiveness of Whiteness—her own and that of her country and of her ancestors. But the lesson for me is remembering how deep the pain is, the pain of realizing I’m White, and that I and my ancestors are responsible for the incredible racialized mess we find ourselves in today. The pain of facing that honestly is blinding. It’s not worse than being on the receiving end of that oppression. Being White—even with the feeling of culturelessness and responsibility for racism—is nothing compared to not being White. But being White—and facing the truth of what that means historically and systemically—can drive you to do the weird and unthinkable that we see in Dolezal today.

It seems like a good warning. The “Rachel Dolezal Syndrome” is a potential pitfall for any White people on the journey towards recognizing the truth of what it means to be White and accepting responsibility for it. But we cannot not be White. And we cannot undo what Whiteness has done. We can only start from where we are and who we are.

*White racial identity development was first theorized and written about by Dr. Janet Helms.

I failed the implicit bias test

A few weeks ago I took the implicit bias test on race and failed. I didn’t fail exactly—it’s not a test you can actually fail—but I wasn’t proud of my results. The test indicated that I have an implicit, unconscious bias (they called it a “strong preference”) in favor of European Americans. At first I was shocked. For the past 10 years I have been studying and writing—and teaching—about race! How can I still have an implicit bias that favors White people? And how can I keep doing this work if that is the case? To make matters worse, I was taking the test because I had asked my graduate students to take it. What would I tell them?

A few minutes later, I recalibrated that initial shock. Of course I have implicit bias in favor of White people—I already know that about myself. I grew up in an almost all-White community and I knew very few people of color when I was growing up. I knew hundreds, maybe thousands of White people. I had intimate friendships with at least 50 White people. I spent time in the homes of White people and knew their parents and drove in their cars. I went to summer camp with White people. I knew three Black people before I went to college—and not well. And even still, I didn’t go into the home of a Black friend or colleague until much later.

I know White people and I get them. I can read their signals. I recognize slight small differences in White faces and body types. I know this is not true for my friends of color. Sometimes I have a hard time recognizing friends or acquaintances of color from a distance—and I feel uncomfortably aware that I would probably be able to recognize them more quickly and accurately if they were White. Sometimes I have trouble remembering what my friends’ partners look like when they are people of color and I’ve only met them once or twice. I don’t have this problem with White friends.

This is not something I’m proud of. But it’s something I’m aware of. What I realized after sitting with the shame of my “test results” is that it’s not hard to be believe I am biased in favor of White people. Given my background, it would be hard to believe if I wasn’t. And the point of being racially aware, I believe, is not to fix the bias, not to change the bias. If I could, I would—I’ve been trying for years to do so! But clearly thinking about this stuff everyday for 10 years is still not enough to undo 18 years of racial conditioning in an all-White community. The point, rather, is to recognize that I have the bias.

Recognizing that I have bias will influence how I respond if a friend or a student thinks I’ve done something racist. It will influence my consciousness about my interactions with students. It will lead me to second guess negative and consequential judgments that I make. It is incredibly valuable to KNOW that I have this implicit bias because it is at work, regardless of whether or not I recognize it. But it gets its power from me not recognizing it.

Shortly after learning this diagnosis of my racial bias, this map came out in the Washington Post of implicit attitudes about race among Whites across the country. I wasn’t surprised to find that a lot of White folks are like me—we have implicit bias that favors White people—either a lot or a little of it. But the average is above zero in every state in the union. Implicit bias is widespread. And I started to think about my own revelation, that it’s not about not having bias, it’s about recognizing we have it.

How might we change things in this country if White people were aware and honest about the fact that our racial socialization has conditioned us to have an implicit bias in favor of White people? How might our courts, cops and schools look different if we recognized that bias is part of who we are? And instead of refuting, denying, defending or even changing, what if we acted with the knowledge that the bias is part of us, built into the very fabric of our segregated neighborhoods in which we first make friends and visit one another’s homes? What might change if we assumed that cops and teachers are biased towards White people, and we required them to do trainings to recognize this bias, to think twice when teaching or patrolling across race, to know and recognize that their initial judgments are very likely inaccurate–and not to be trusted?

Mourning the losses of Black men killed by police

So many Black men have been killed by police this summer that I’m losing count. Unbelievably, and in a dishonor to their memories, I don’t know their names off the top of my head. But there was the father and grandfather from New York who was strangled to death in broad daylight by the NYPD. Michael Brown, whose murder sparked protests met with violent police repression not seen since the Civil Rights Movement. A few days ago another young man, mentally disabled, killed while lying face down on the pavement by the LAPD. These are just ordinary folks living ordinary lives and ending up dead with no warning. I know there are even more in the last year, but again, shamefully, their names are escaping me.

What I’m left with is a deep sadness for all that we lose as a world with each death. All the blessings and laughter and love that each man would have continued to bring into the world had he lived. But also all the energy and love and laughter that other Black men might bring into this world were they not preoccupied with the fear and anxiety of living in a police state that fires at will upon people who look like them. Even if it’s only for one minute a day, they live with the stress of vicarious trauma of being members of a group targeted by the legal violence of the state. And then I also just mourn for the country I was taught to believe in, which is a fiction. The country that guaranteed freedom and justice for all but developed a well-armed militia called police that gives smiles to White children and harasses, abuses and kills Black children.

Police are not the only legitimate weapon holders in our country—so bizarre are our laws about gun use—but they are one. When one of the groups legally sanctioned to use violence also has a fear and disregard for a whole group of people, this kind of destruction is what results. And make no mistake, these events may not touch you personally, but they destroy us all eventually. At the end of this road lies danger and death. Nobody is safe when police can do what they’ve done to Black men and get away with it. And the truth is it’s nothing new. It’s been happening for the past 400 years.

Anti-racism to do list

“Whereas non-racists merely profess tolerant attitudes and think everyone should be treated equally, anti-racists not only acknowledge that not everyone is treated equally but work “daily [and] vigilantly” (hooks 1995:158) to combat this inequality.”

-Eileen O’Brien

On the last day of the White Privilege Conference last spring (Albuquerque, 2012), a participant in one of my workshops approached me to ask what three things she should be doing as a white person to be anti-racist. She said, “I know it’s life-long and that you can’t just narrow it down to a bulleted list. But… if you could… what would you say are the top three things I should be doing to try to be anti-racist?”

Though I experience the journey to anti-racism as much messier and more complicated than a bulleted list, I could see that she felt overwhelmed and needed some guidelines.  I thought about the most important things I have done to support my own attempts to be anti-racist and came up with three things that seemed useful.  I thought I’d share here to see what others think – what would be on your list of three?

Here’s mine:

1. Personal development – learn about racism and what it means to be white in a racist society

2. Build relationships with people of color

3. Join movements that are successfully multiracial and learn about how they work

 

1. Personal development

When I work in collaboration with people of color, I constantly bump up against my own internalized sense of superiority, which comes from my socialization as a White person.  I once told an Asian American colleague, “I’m not sure why you think I don’t get it.  Do you know how many books I’ve read on this topic?”  She looked at me and said, “If you had really read so many books on this topic, you would not have just said that to me.”  Her response, which stung at the time, was a very generous way of letting me know that I still had a lot to learn.  Learning to humble myself, take advice from People of Color and integrate what I read with how I act have been critical forms of action for me to take as I learn what it means to be anti-racist.

There are many White people who so badly want to interrupt the racist status quo that we don’t take time to look at how our own beliefs and actions support that status quo. Reflection as action means learning to use ourselves and our whiteness as fine tools, rather than lugging it around like unwieldy baggage.  In order to hear what my Asian American colleague was saying, I needed to be in touch with the ways that I had been taught (through media, family socialization, school, etc.) to value the input of Asian Americans less than other People of Color and less than White people (particularly my own).  If I could not consciously recognize that bias, then I would never be able to hear what she had to say. Personal learning and reflection helped me to do that.

There are ways to commit oneself to reflection as action through reading, writing and workshop participation. I often recommend that people form a race reading group or a film group with some white friends and spend time building their knowledge together and reflecting on what the readings mean for their lives. This is a pre-requisite for the second suggestion I gave her.

2. Build relationships with People of Color

I advised the woman at WPC that she go home to her community and workplace and begin to build personal relationships with People of Color.  Just like with all friendships, she will connect with some people and not with others and the connections will grow over time.  But the first step is simply putting in the extra effort to meet people and find ways to connect.  Cross-racial relationships take work, but if we opt out of that work, we perpetuate the cycle of segregation.  Below are two tensions that I have encountered in trying to build cross-racial friendships.  There are plenty more than I could share, but I will save those for future posts….

Tension #1 – Being so worried about offending we don’t connect

I once admitted to my friend Chonika that the first time she came to my house I was nervous because we had to eat in my kitchen.  Nevermind that the kitchen is where my table is and where I serve all the guests that come to my home.  But knowing that racist Whites once made Black acquaintances and servants eat in the kitchen, I didn’t want her to think I was disrespecting her with my choice of rooms.  She laughed at me and we joked about the perils of racially conscious friendships – sometimes everyone is so worried about offending that we forget to connect.

Tension #2 – Finding each other

Sometimes we don’t even get to the point of worrying where to serve lunch because we don’t know how to meet People of Color who might want to be friends.  I often hear people say, “I like this one woman at my workplace, but I don’t want to just starting hanging around her BECAUSE she’s Black!”

This used to tie me in knots too: I want to be friends with People of Color, but I don’t want to befriend them BECAUSE they are People of Color.

Why couldn’t I “just sit down” with People of Color?  I often befriend people I don’t know—not BECAUSE they are white people—but because I don’t have anyone to sit with and I figure we could get to know each other… and that would be objectifying and wrong.  But in reality, I wasn’t really used to People of Color, having grown up in a predominantly White suburb.  As a result, I wasn’t as comfortable striking up a conversation with an unfamiliar Person of Color as I was with a White person.

It was a self-perpetuating segregation. Racist policies and practices in the U.S. have engineered our social worlds so that I was never likely to run into People of Color and therefore felt ill-equipped when I did.  How could I be anti-racist if I couldn’t feel comfortable around people of color?

I realized that if I wanted to meet people of color in the context of my segregated environment, I would have to start “just sitting down” with people of color who I didn’t know as often as I did with White people, if not more. Crossing the lines of segregation at my college meant leaving my comfort zones of the crew team and political science classes so that I would have time to take more classes in Africana studies and join a group on social responsibility.  Putting myself into contexts where White people were not a majority helped too.

Striving to be anti-racist has to include countering the racial engineering that goes shapes our social and political worlds.

3. Join a successfully multi-racial movement and see how it works.

This is probably the most unclear of all the tips I gave her, but I think it is just as important as the first two. Most of what I (as a white person) know about how things work in this country is shaped by how White people and middle class people do things – and it is just as true about political organizing as it is about everything else. My assumptions about how to be in contact with a base of supporters, who should speak, how they should speak, what qualities are necessary for leadership, what the timeline should be, what the agenda should look like, etc., are shaped by my White and middle-class perspective.  When social change movements (or schools or NGOs) are composed entirely (or even mostly) White people the agenda is shaped by the priorities of White people, often at the expense of People of Color.  If I want to work for racial justice, I need to be able to be a part of organizations that disrupt the racial status quo in the very practices of the organization itself.

There was a campaign over the past few years in Philadelphia called RAGE: Riders Against Gender Exclusion. The campaign called for the end of gendered stickers on (ironically named) “trans passes” for public transportation. Many trans people had been harassed by drivers because the “F” or the “M” on their pass did not match the gender that the driver ascribed to the rider standing in front of them. The movement was made up of many trans and queer folks, as well as allies of all races. From what I observed of the campaign, it drew large numbers of people of all races and this coalition ultimately helped dismantle the gendered sticker policy of SEPTA (South Eastern PA Transportation Authority).

I recommended that she find organizations like this, join them, and start to learn how they make decisions, mobilize their base and strategize.  To find a healthy multiracial movement or organization, ask around and then go to meetings – take notice of racial dynamics when you’re there.  Healthy multiracial spaces are rare, but they do exist.

Conclusion

Obviously this list of three recommendations is not a recipe for ending racism. However, if one engages these ideas, they will certainly come away with a clear idea of what one possible path to anti-racist engagement might look like for themselves personally.