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.

Why does the bad kid have to be black?

My friend is disappointed because the only black child in her daughter’s pre-kindergarten class is bad. She said she wants to have him over to her house because she wants her daughter to have black friends, but she doesn’t trust him. He doesn’t seem to follow directions. The teacher doesn’t seem to think he can be left alone with the smaller children – can she have him in the house with her one year old? She asked, “Why does the bad kid have to be black?”

She explained that he has two dads and they’re both white and middle class; he’s been with them since he was born. So she ruled out any kind of cultural difference as the explanation for why he just didn’t seem to fit in with the other kids. What else could it be?

I’m not sure why the bad kid has to be black, but I think my friend is not the first person to ask this question. Most notably, I imagine that everyone who has ever been that “bad black kid” is asking it as well.

I have heard from black parents that their children do not get invited to the birthday parties of other children in their class. That they get left out of play groups at school. That they get positioned by the teacher as violent, angry or untrustworthy. This does not happen to all black boys, but it happens much more frequently to black boys than for any other racial or gender group. According to the Yale University Child Study Center, more black boys are expelled from school in pre-kindergarten than at any other grade level.

Why is this happening? Is it because they imitate what they see around them and the adults around them live highly segregated lives? Or is it because the teachers interpret the behaviors of black boys differently from the other students and marginalize them? Is it because being left out actually makes black boys act up in ways that they wouldn’t under more accepting circumstances?

I don’t know why. But I encouraged my friend to talk to the bad black boy in her daughter’s class, to invite him to her daughter’s birthday party and work to make sure he is included when he gets there, to go on a play date with him and his dads, to spread rumors about how funny and sweet and responsible he is (particularly to the teacher) and to wait and see if she can’t begin to change the dynamic.

Is homework in kindergarten bad for kids?

I went to a meeting last night for parents who are considering sending their children to the local public elementary school. We live in a community that prides itself on being diverse (racially, economically and in terms of sexuality). Yet most of the middle class parents in our community send their kids to private schools. A group of four middle class families who are sending their kids to the Henry school host a monthly forum for people to come and learn about the school. Because they are competing with private schools for students, they have realized that they actually need to advertise the school as an option.

Most of the parents there who were considering the Henry school have 4 or 5 year olds and they’re starting to think about kindergarten choices. When I said my daughter is 4 and a half months old, they all said, “Wow – you’re starting early!” Indeed.

The school is a Philadelphia public school and although it has some of the poor funding and overbearing test regimens that all Philly public schools must deal with, it is apparently well led by a competent principal, it is a strong community where children thrive and it is well supported by many active parents.

We like the school because it is so diverse. It is predominantly black and there are many other races represented, including a sprinkling of white children in each grade. There are many adopted children there, as well as children with parents of the same sex. It is all of what we love of Mt. Airy in one place. And although so many of us move to Mt. Airy because it is a multiracial community, we often continue to lead segregated social lives. I like to think that going to Henry might change that.

One thing that turned a lot of parents off was the homework. Starting in kindergarten. A few years ago, this might have appalled me as well. Why does a kindergartner need homework?

During the meeting, my mind flashed to the kindergartens I’ve seen at private schools where kids are constantly doing creative projects and have no homework at night. I thought of what fun and exciting learning environments those classrooms would be for me or my child. And how so many black families have left those schools because they felt they weren’t rigorous enough, because parental involvement wasn’t made explicit, and because their children weren’t happy there.

As my sister says, homework is an equity issue. It is extremely important to have homework because then everyone is on the same page. Everyone is doing the same thing at night.

At the Henry School, the assignments are given on Mondays and they’re due by Friday. They generally involve the instructions to read with your child for 10 minutes a day and do two worksheets (usually practicing writing numbers and letters). As one middle class white mother said, they always read with their children. And the worksheets are similar to the kinds of workbooks that they already buy for their children to take on vacation for fun. For her (as it will be for us), homework will likely be no more than we’re already doing at home.

As one of the women said in the meeting, it’s a trade off – there may be some things you don’t like about the school, but usually there are positives that make up for it. In this case, I thought, maybe the price for a diverse school in which black families are actually happy with the school, is homework in kindergarten.

My sister also reminded me that our kindergarten wasn’t particularly liberal or creative. That our education was actually quite traditional. And we’re actually quite creative, thoughtful, critical – and happy – adults. And, of all the adults I know, the ones who went to really creative elementary schools do not seem to be more creative or successful or happy – as adults – than those who went to more traditional schools.

New Orleans

We’re in New Orleans for a conference. Our first big trip since Sweet T was born. We’re staying in a hotel a few blocks from the conference hotel on Canal Street. This morning we got up to walk to the French Quarter for beignets and coffee. On the way we passed a hotel where we stayed in 2002, before Katrina, for two nights as we drove across the country.

This is hard to write, because I don’t know quite how to say it. The thing about raising race questions is that it means verbalizing things we don’t have the words for. Or things we have words for that we think might be inappropriate. So I’ll just write it.

Essentially, I looked around at all the black people on Canal Street and thought that something had changed. That it seemed safer than it had seemed when I was there in 2002. That it wasn’t as scary.

And then I realized – it was not “less scary” but rather that I was less scared. I had changed.

Since 2002, I had read multiple books about racism and stereotyping and the many ways that white people (me included) misinterpret black people (all people of color really, but black people in particular).

Since 2002, I had lived in multiracial neighborhoods where I stopped seeing people of color as threatening, stopped having automatic physical fear reactions to people of color – and started actually seeing individuals.

Since 2002, I had been analyzing movies critically as I watched them, and being careful to reject the subtle messages they tried to send about black men being dangerous, being drug dealers; about black women being sexually promiscuous, being irresponsible.

I had been doing the personal work of anti-racism and it was paying off.

When I walked down Canal Street this time, with Sweet T and M, I noticed people smiling at us, wanting to talk to the baby. Some people ignored us. Some people glared. But nobody frightened me. And I realized that fear is a subjective thing. Any given neighborhood is not objectively scary – it is only scary to those who are scared.

It reminds me of the house guest we had, who drove through East Mt. Airy (a predominantly black neighborhood) on his way to our house in West Mt. Airy. He mentioned that it was “sketchy,” a word that I would never use to describe East Mt. Airy, which is a healthy, vibrant middle class community. “Why do you say it was sketchy?” I asked him. “Oh, you know. Checking cashing joint…Dunkin Donuts…” He was fishing for reasons. There was not much that was objectively “sketchy” except that it was full of black people. And I knew that’s what he was thinking because it was the same thing I might have thought 10 years ago, driving through the same neighborhood. I may have even described Canal Street that way once upon a time.

I didn’t call him on it. I just told him that I wouldn’t describe East Mt. Airy as sketchy. I told him that it’s a vibrant middle-class Black community. And it’s perfectly safe.

On this trip to New Orleans, just like the last, I ended up on Bourbon Street on a Friday night. And unlike last time, IT was scary. M was not with me this time – he had taken Sweet T back to the hotel to go to sleep. And as I walked through the street, navigating between large groups of drunk white men (5, 6, 7, 8 to a group), my eyes flashing on pornographic pictures of women openly displayed, advertisements for gambling and cheap booze and drugs, I felt clear about who and what is dangerous.

The Culture of Privilege

For the longest time, I have had trouble with the concepts of race and culture. I understood that white people and black people have broad cultural differences, but the idea that being on time is cultural felt demeaning to black people (maybe because I’m white and timeliness is something I value, sort of). The joke about “Colored People’s time (CP)” is funny to people of color, but it’s not one I feel I can engage in.

A black friend of mine tells me “Black people dress their kids warmly – we think white people are crazy when their children don’t wear hats and it’s less than 70 degrees out.”She’ll ask me, “Why do white people have dogs?” I think it’s funny and it’s a statement about white values or white culture and then I’ll see a black person with a dog and it will throw me off . Thinking in terms of culture can be useful – we ARE different. But knowing someone’s race doesn’t mean we necessarily know something about them.

I asked my friend who is Indian American if I was crazy for trying think about broad cultural differences. What does it mean to be white, culturally? She said, “Are you kidding me? Culturally white is summer camp. It’s Turkey on Thanksgiving. It’s eating with a knife and fork. It’s thinking your co-worker’s little brown Indian children are cute because they eat with their hands. It’s hugging people you don’t know well because they came to your house for dinner. I have spent my entire life trying to learn white culture – no it’s not ridiculous.”

Sometimes I talk about white culture in public. The last time I did, a black woman told me that I was essentializing people. She’s right. I don’t know how to get around that. I tell my students that there are broad cultural differences between races, but we can’t assume that any given person will act a particular way because of their race. We have no idea how that child relates to their culture or what their culture is.

Some of “white culture” seems difficult to apply broadly – there are lots of white people who show up late, who tolerate ambiguity, who eat something other than Turkey on Thanksgiving. But there are ways of being, particularly in public (what Erving Goffman calls micro-interactions) that white people consistently demonstrate because of their privilege. When I walk down the street and a black man steps off the sidewalk as I pass because I am, as my grandfather says, “taking my half right out of the middle,” my actions are being shaped by my privilege. It doesn’t even occur to me that what’s happening is a black man is stepping into the gutter so that I, a white woman, can have more than my fair share of the sidewalk. The micro-action that comes from privilege is that of taking up space. Sometimes it’s not so micro. And when you’re the one with privilege (as I usually am), it can be hard to recognize.

Ironically, I have noticed the use of sidewalk space when I am the one getting run into the gutter. When a large group of white men in suits and ties leaves a restaurant and come toward me on the sidewalk finishing their conversations as they are still wiping their mouths, paying very little attention to anybody coming towards them, I look them right in the eye and hold my ground, walking straight so that they have to step to one side, or run into me – but I will not yield to them. They don’t know it’s a power game – they are just confused about why I won’t get out of their way… because people who look like me usually do… and because they don’t mean to hurt or offend. They are just trying to walk down the sidewalk. But I know it’s a power game because I know that they rarely yield and don’t think about yielding because most people get out of their way when they come down the street. I know it’s a power game when I’m in the gutter – but I didn’t see it from the other side.

Not only that, but black people don’t walk around in groups of four or five – or thirty or forty. This summer I was sitting on my front porch and a group of 35 white people came around the corner laughing and joking in pairs and trios. They were clearly all together, coming from a restaurant on nearby Germantown Ave. and going to who knows where.But they were young people – in their early 20s – and they were having a great time.Some were kissing, some were shouting; all were casually dressed. I said to my partner, if that was a group of black people, they would never stay together like that. They would have left the restaurant in smaller chunks. Or had they left in a big group like that, the police would have been called before they got to our corner. Black people don’t travel in big groups because it scares white people. White people do because it doesn’t matter who we scare.

In 2009, black students in Philadelphia started holding flash mobs, where they would all text one another to go to a certain place (such as South Street) at a certain time and they would walk through the streets, being present, showing up. Hunderds of black kids just walking down the sidewalks and the middle of the street. They were generally peaceful, although one white delivery man did get beaten up by some of the youths. People driving down the street would lock their doors and look with fear at the groups of kids around them. Black kids, especially in large numbers, scare white people.

When The Phillies won the World Series in 2008, hundreds of drunk people (mostly white men) rioted on Broad Street, jumping on bus stops, swinging from signs, turning over cars and setting fires. This wild revelry was reported in the news as a “celebration” or “fans congregating.” Though property was destroyed and fires were set, this did not terrify white people in Philadelphia the way the flash mobs sent streaks of fear up their backs (as they did mine before I had a few hours to contemplate it).

The flash mobs were peaceful and relatively quiet. They were conducted by children. The Phillies riots were loud and violent. They were conducted late at night by grown men. Why did the former inspire so much more fear in the general public? Why aren’t we afraid of drunk white men who are out of control? And what does it mean that our black children are walking through the streets, asking us to see them?

I don’t know how different our cultures are. Frankly, I don’t know enough about black culture to say. I know a lot about white culture, but I’m so close to it, it’s hard for me to differentiate between what is white culture and what is just how I do things. But I do know that many of the ways that I act in this world are shaped by the fact that I don’t feel like I have to make room for people. I’m busy getting my piece of the sidewalk from white men who don’t pay attention to me. I’m not paying attention to who’s stepping off when I come barreling through. White culture includes the ways that white people act in public, as it is shaped by their privilege, and the fact that they don’t have to pay attention to anybody else.

Pirate Party

We took Sweet T to the Pirate Party at the library tonight. Since she was born (almost 8 weeks ago), we have called her the “milk pirate.” When she’s hungry, she comes at me, crying with one eye closed, looking to raid the milk supply. And when she’s done we swab the poop deck, if you know what I mean… Milk Pirate.

So when we heard the library was having a Pirate Party, we thought it would only be fair for us to take her to be with her people. A friend in the neighborhood was there with his two year old (the next youngest child there) and he looked at our newborn and then at us – “You know you guys don’t have to start doing this stuff until she knows what’s going on, right?”

We spent the next hour watching two white librarians dressed up like pirates leading a multiracial group of about 25 children (about 80% black and 20% white) in reading pirate stories, playing hot potato (with a parrot, instead of a potato), decorating pirate hooks and looting the trunk full of booty at the front of the room (plastic beads and candy).

And we watched as five white parents stood in one corner smiling while five black parents stood in another corner shaking their heads. And two black dads did their best to help bring order to what was, a chaotic situation.

A number of things were wrong with this situation:

First, the child:librarian ratio was too high.

Second, as is common with middle class white professionals who work with children (myself included unfortunately… old habits are hard to break… but I’m working on it…), the librarians only used indirect instructions to direct the children (ex. “No, we’re not throwing the parrot, we’re passing it). Direct instruction would mean explicitly telling the children what not to do and what to do (ex. “Pass the parrot. Don’t throw the parrot. If you throw the parrot, you’re out.” Lisa Delpit writes about how white middle class parents tend to use indirect instruction while black middle class and working class parents tend to use direct instruction. Since most librarians and teachers in this country are white and middle class, their form of instruction is sometimes hard to decipher for black children who are used to a more direct style.

Third, the librarians gave no instruction about the booty raid. The booty was made available and the pirates raided it. Once they realized what was going on, they shouted, “Take one of each only. Take one of each.” The dads intervened and enforced the one-of-each rule.

So what’s the big deal? A little chaos, a little confusion. The librarians were tired afterwards, but they’ll probably do it again. Why be so critical?

I think this was a huge deal. Because the librarians were not using appropriate direct instruction, the kids weren’t sure how to behave. It wasn’t clear to them that they should pass, not throw, the parrot because “we don’t pass the parrot” is not an instruction – it’s a statement.

Because there were no rules around the booty raid, the kids really did approximate little pirates – ruthlessly diving for treasure. And the black parents were left shaking their heads because once again, the white librarians were going to perceive their children as being out of control and greedy. In actuality, they are just kids, acting as kids do when they are given unclear instructions.

The white parents and the white librarians are left seeing the black children as misbehaved and rude, maybe as taking the library’s generosity for granted. The black parents are left knowing that this impression has formed, and yet knowing that it was the instruction, not some innate characteristic of their children, that led to their behavior.

The black parents probably also saw their children’s behavior as rude and are then left to have to deal with that when they get home. The white parents, whose children were just as raucous, likely did not think much of it. They are likely 1) used to their children behaving that way 2) used to giving their children indirect instruction and 3) not as concerned about how people, particularly authorities, interpret their children’s behavior.

If the point of the Pirate Party is to provide fun educational opportunities for kids in the neighborhood, then I believe this event only succeeded for the white families. The black families left more frustrated than enamored with the library. And the black children left with a vague sense that they are bad and that the library is a place where they are made to feel bad, but unsure why.

Sweet T left with a plastic hook to complement her pirate outfit – a white onesie, black pants and red/white striped socks.