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Archive for November, 2009

First off, a big thank you to Nikki, Kate, and Cayce for the opportunity to guest blog at Irene’s Daughters.  I hope I can contribute something to the excellent posts and discussions thus far!

Last week I came across this CNN article about a group of seniors who grew up in Macon, GA during the Jim Crow Era, and recently held a racially integrated 50th high school reunion.   The article is well worth reading, not only as encouraging stories about race seem so rare these days, but also because it’s a good starting point for a number of different discussions about race.   In particular, the article got me thinking about the invisibility of white privilege, and the importance of concrete action to racial reconciliation and anti-racist activism.

I got to thinking about white privilege after reading comments from seniors – black and white – interviewed in the article who recalled that as children, they perceived segregation as normal.  It wasn’t something to be challenged or questioned, and for some it wasn’t even understood as discriminatory.  It was simply a “way of life,” taken for granted as the way the world was and had to be:

Listening to his mother and her childhood friends, Cordell said, he was struck by how segregation was “was so transparent to them at the time they were living through it. It was a way of life, so they didn’t acknowledge its existence.”

“I find it interesting how human nature teaches you to accept things that are — and some people question the reality, and other people don’t.”

Institutionalized racism and white privilege work in much the same way in the present day.  We are accustomed to the many effects of racism and white privilege in our society: the disproportionate dominance of white males in almost every sector of business and culture, de facto segregation in schools, churches, and workplaces; racial gaps in hiring, income, and school performance, to name just a few.  Many Americans have become so inured to these realities that they see them as just The Way Things Are – or worse, just the way “those people” are.

This is part of how privilege of any kind works – by presenting an uneven playing field as anything but what it is.  People who benefit from privilege don’t generally believe that they have been given a leg up on those who don’t; rather, they tend to believe that everyone has an equal opportunity to get ahead in life, and they just happen to be ahead because they have worked hard, made good choices, and otherwise made good use of the same opportunities everyone else has.  By this logic, social and economic racial disparities can only be explained by failure to take full advantage of these opportunities.  Privilege thrives on the assumption that a system of unfair advantages is really a system based on pure merit.  This mythology ignores the ongoing effects of past racial injustice, denies the reality of present-day racism, and presents white privilege and racial disparities as natural byproducts of the way things are, the way people are.  This naturalization of racial injustice is a major obstacle to candid discussions about white privilege.  It is very difficult to have a discussion about something that we are taught to believe doesn’t exist.

So the question is, what can we as people committed to anti-racism and racial reconciliation do to challenge white privilege and make it more visible?  We need to ask ourselves how we have bought into white privilege as a way of life.  White allies have a particular responsibility to check and question their own privilege, but those of us who are POC can also play a part.   We may not have access to white privilege, but we often participate in it and buy into it.  With that in mind, here are some of the ways I am working to resist the tendency to naturalize white privilege (and other forms of privilege) in my own life:
– I am working to become more conscious of the ways I buy into white privilege:  making positive assumptions about white people (well-off, intelligent, safe) and negative assumptions about POC (poor, uneducated, dangerous).  Assuming I have a right to information about POC that I wouldn’t dream of asking a white person (where are you “really from?,” etc.)
– I share my perspective as a POC with my white friends and family members.  It’s not that it’s my job to educate them, but that it’s important to be open to have conversations about privilege with people who might be more disposed to hear where I’m coming from.
– I am working to become more conscious of my own privilege in other areas, and to recognize that privilege and prejudice are intersectional.  I have access to privilege because of my socioeconomic status, my sexuality and gender identity, and my religious upbringing, and I have a responsibility to check and question myself on those counts.

What are your thoughts on how we can work to expose and challenge white privilege?  Please share your ideas in the comments.

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I’ve often struggled personally with how to reconcile my education as a budding anti-racist with the realities of my family life.  Inevitably at this time of year, when prayers of thanksgiving are offered in my church and in the homes of various family members, we tend to gloss over or flat out ignore the significance of this day in our nation’s history.

As kids, we’re taught all kinds of wrong things about the first Thanksgiving.  Fortunately, things are improving from the time when I was a child parading around in a paper-feathered headdress in a school play.  Scholastic even has some advice for educators who still haven’t gotten the story right.  As Resist Racism points out, this is often the only time of year that non-native people even think about Native Americans, and sadly, our thinking is usually caricature.

While in my own little piece of the world, I’m reading and blogging about racial injustice, white privilege, and the life, what happens when I go home with my head full of this stuff and encounter challenges at the dinner table?  How can I present what I’ve learned in a gracious way but still remain committed to my ideals?

Love Isn’t Enough has a great guide for alternative activities that would be helpful if I were teaching elementary school, but inviting my family over for a day of mourning in solidarity with my native brothers and sisters wouldn’t exactly fly at Thanksgiving with the in-laws.  The mere mental image of that scene reminds me of the passage that says,

And they took offense at him. But Jesus said to them, ‘A prophet is not without honor except in his hometown and in his own household.’ -Matthew 13:57

I’m not looking to get run out of town, or stoned, but I know that often times those are the breaks for doing the right thing. I’ve taken my fair-share of attempts at insult, bearing up under the labels of “bleeding-heart” (which doesn’t really hurt my feelings) or hearing, “lighten up, you’re so sensitive.”

For me, it’s not just limited to participating in activities where people will remember to thank God for the bounty of America, while ignoring the past and present pain our riches have cost others.  We never neglect to give thanks for the troops, but often forget all those civilians killed in the crossfighting.

It’s also the fact that in many of these family gatherings, there will be open use of racial slurs, or stereotypes.  Because ours is a white family, we are a meeting of “us” that can launch into conversations about “them.”  Do I confront these things?  Make passive-aggressive sarcastic comments (as I’m prone to do)?  Should I make a scene or let these things pass knowing that this will be my children’s only exposure to most of the folks for a whole year, and my husband and I can clean up the mess later?

I’ve done it all, and rarely gotten any of it right.  Anyone out there have similar experiences?  How (if at all) do you handle it when you go home with this for the holidays?

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derailment [n]: a defensive argument, statement, or question that dismisses or seeks to undermine anti-racist arguments in an effort to preserve privilege or the status quo

When faced with evidence that racism is still alive and well in our society, many white people will try to avoid responsibility for promoting racial justice and reconciliation by attempting to dismiss or undermine the evidence with derailment techniques.

Today’s derailment is a little bit different: it’s about white people who try to defend actions that should be considered overtly racist by appealing to supposedly “similar” actions by people of color.

“But they call each other the n-word, so why can’t we say it?”

“But they call white people ‘cracker’—isn’t that just as bad?”

Just flip the script, the argument suggests, and you’ll see that forbidding white people to use racial slurs is a just a double standard. Like most “flip the script” arguments, which generally require ignoring history and context, it’s wrong.

“But they call each other the n-word, so why can’t we say it?”

First of all, not all people of color do use slurs in reference to people within their own racial group(s). In fact, some are actively opposed to it. To choose but one example, please visit the website I Never Use the Word Nigger.

But when people of color do use slurs in reference to people within their own racial group(s), it’s most often an ironic appropriation: The marginalized group steals a term of oppression from their oppressors and reverses its meaning within the marginalized group, for example by turning it into a term of endearment. Through ironic use within the marginalized group, the term becomes an assertion of humanity and unity against the oppressor’s use of the term to degrade.

In any case, when members of a marginalized group use an oppressor’s slurs in reference to people within the group the term almost inevitably means something different than it does on the lips of oppressors (as above) and/or it is understood to self-apply. Within the group, it is more difficult for the term to coexist with racial stereotypes and dehumanization, and it is not being used to impose or enforce systemic oppression on a racial basis. The only exception I can think of is when it involves self-contempt, adopting the oppressor’s view of oneself.

Because we are not members of the marginalized group and there can be no self-application, ironic co-option of racial slurs directed at people of color is simply not open to white people.

“But they call white people ‘cracker’—isn’t that just as bad?”

Many people of color would never use a slur against white people, just as many white people refuse to use racial and ethnic slurs. But if people of color ever do use such terms and it is wrong for them to do so, that use does not excuse white people to use slurs in return. Two wrongs, as the saying goes, wouldn’t make a right.

That being said, I think it is valuable to point out that no term for white people coined and used in our society actually carries the weight of true racism. People of color do not impose or enforce a system of racial privilege against white people by the use of slurs. Any person, of any race, may harbor racial prejudice, consciously or unconsciously. Any person, of any race, can view or treat people differently based on race, consciously or unconsciously, deliberately or not. All of us do this to some degree, and it can be hurtful no matter who does it. Not all people are capable, however, of racism in the broader, systemic sense. In the United States, racism is something imposed and perpetuated by white people to the advantage of white people. (For more information, please visit the Beginner’s Guide and Do White Americans Experience Racism?)

When I ask white people to tell me about the slurs supposedly used against white people by people of color, I find they rarely come up with many. And the ones they do come up with are not nearly so inflammatory as the slurs used against people of color, partially because they do not carry the weight of true racism (as mentioned above) and partially because of their history, use, and/or meaning.

The most common one I hear from white people is “honky.” I doubt this is frequently thrown at them, since it’s not a term I’ve heard since watching reruns of The Jeffersons. How insulted ought we to be? According to most etymological accounts, white people have only ourselves to blame for this one. It’s probably derived from “bohunk” and “hunky,” ethnic slurs white people used against Bohemian, Hungarian, and Polish immigrants. (The only alternative etymology I’ve uncovered is the suggestion that it comes from the Wolof word honq meaning “red or pink,” colors used to describe white men in Africa.)

The same goes for “cracker.” Most etymologies trace it back to an older English term for a braggart. An 18th century letter to the Earl of Dartmouth applies it to Scots-Irish settlers in the American South: “I should explain to your Lordship what is meant by Crackers; a name they have got from being great boasters; they are a lawless set of rascalls on the frontiers of Virginia, Maryland, the Carolinas, and Georgia, who often change their places of abode.” As with “honky,” we probably have white folks to thank for this term.

An alternative folk-etymology for “cracker” suggests that it refers to slave overseers cracking whips. If so, it is intended to refer to white people who act as oppressors (often at the service of someone else’s interests, so it can also imply that the “cracker” is a dupe). In this usage, it is primarily used to identify and oppose racism, which is not remotely comparable to use of a term like the n-word. The purpose of slurs like the n-word is to dehumanize, the purpose of a word like “cracker,” according to its folk etymology, is to point out a moral failure.

Regardless, people of color do not and cannot impose or enforce a system of racial privilege against white people in our society through the use of slurs. If people of color ever do use them, and if it is wrong for them to do so, it will not excuse white people doing so in return.

Short version: We’re not going to promote racial justice and reconciliation by calling each other names. We need to develop respect for the people around us.

“As you wish that others would do to you, do so to them.”

“You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

Do you have any thoughts on these topics? Please feel free to share.

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Sharing a little Sunday video action to hold y’all until tomorrow’s Derailment Monday.  For the transcript of Chimamanda Adichie’s talk, visit Restructure! here.

Vodpod videos no longer available.

 

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In my earlier Kung Fu Publishing post I reported on the appropriation and exploitation of Asian culture in the marketing of the book Deadly Viper Character Assassins: A Kung Fu Survival Guide for Life and Leadership, published by the Christian publishing house Zondervan. I also posted the apologies of the authors. Now Zondervan has repented.

Zondervan Statement Regarding Concerns Voiced About “Deadly Viper: Character Assassins”

From Moe Girkins, President and CEO

Hello and thanks for your patience.

On behalf of Zondervan, I apologize for publishing Deadly Viper: Character Assassins.  It is our mission to offer products that glorify Jesus Christ.  This book’s characterizations and visual representations are offensive to many people despite its otherwise solid message.

There is no need for debate on this subject.  We are pulling the book and the curriculum in their current forms from stores permanently.

We have taken the criticism and advice we have received to heart.  In order to avoid similar episodes in the future, last week I named Stan Gundry as our Editor-in-Chief of all Zondervan products.  He will be responsible for making the necessary changes at Zondervan to prevent editorial mistakes like this going forward.  We already have begun a dialogue with Christian colleagues in the Asian-American community to deepen our cultural awareness and sensitivity.

Zondervan is committed to publishing Christian content and resources that uplift God and see humanity in its proper perspective in relation to God.  We take seriously our call to provide resources that encourage spiritual growth.  And, we know there is more to learn by always listening to our critics as well as our advocates.

It would be unfair to take these actions without expressing our love and support for the authors of this book, Mike Foster and Jud Wilhite.  Both gentlemen are gifted writers and passionate about their ministry. We do believe their message is valuable and plan to work with the authors to come up with a better presentation of that message.  We will jointly ensure we do our due diligence on the appropriateness of the creative side.  This will include reaching out to a broad spectrum of cultural experts.

Finally, I want to personally thank Professor Rah, Ken Fong, Eugene Cho and Kathy Khang for their input and prayers during this discussion.   We appreciate everyone’s concern and effort and look forward to working together for God’s kingdom.

Warmly,

Moe

Found at Professor Soong-Chan Rah’s blog. Prof. Rah writes:

It reflects a genunine repentant spirit and a deep willingness to hear and to act.  I am moved by Zondervan’s willingness to act in this decisive and dramatic manner.  Many thanks to the authors Mike Foster and Jud Wilhite and to Moe Girkins, Zondervan’s CEO and the team at Zondervan that have spoken in a decisive manner with a high level of integrity.

“We are pulling the book and the curriculum in their current forms from stores permanently…. We already have begun a dialogue with Christian colleagues in the Asian-American community to deepen our cultural awareness and sensitivity.” This exhibits true Christian contrition and repentance: Instead of wallowing in guilt, they are turning from wrongdoing, striving to put things right, and starting fresh. Good work! :)

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Apparently, some local officials are concerned that New Orleans, of all places, is a little too black.  Builders in St. Bernard Parish have been blocked from renovating existing and building new rental properties because of fears that crime will increase if the area continues to attract renters.  Coincidentally, the increase in renting has accompanied a drop in the white population of the parish (down to 77 percent from 84 percent, pre-Katrina). Thankfully, federal court Judge Helen Berrigan has overruled these local decisions identifying them as “camouflaged racial expressions.”

But, St. Bernard Parish councilman Wayne Landry says:

‘I’m absolutely sick and tired of being called a racist!’  Landry admits that in the rush to rebuild, mistakes were made, especially with the blood-relative ordinance. But he says the intent was not racist—it was to bring back the people who lived there before the storm.

‘We had a bedroom community. Everybody knew everybody. Houses got passed down from generation to generation. They were trying to preserve that. Nothing wrong with that,’ he says…

…’We should have the God-given and government-given right to govern this parish to protect the property values and the people for their life, and for all of the values of their community,’ he says. ‘It has nothing to do with race. It has to do with the economic stability of the people of this parish.’

Gotta love it when “protecting our values” means keeping it all-white.  One resident so eloquently states:

‘It’s not discrimination,” Buras says. “It’s called self-preservation.’ Buras says he doesn’t want the kind of crime problems that have plagued housing projects in New Orleans. ‘You see what’s going on in those,’ he says, ‘not just in the black community. I mean, there’s good and bad. Some of them could be Nobel Peace prizewinners. With any low income, you have bad element: You got your prostitution moves in, you got your drug gangs come in.’

Self-preservation?  Hmm.  I wonder what kind of “threat” you’re facing there, bud.  Nobel Peace prizewinners?  Like, ahem, a certain sitting U.S. President?  I guess we’ve narrowed our stereotypes down to two options now.  Black folks can be criminals or they can be president.  Either way, they wouldn’t be allowed to rent a house in St. Bernard Parish, New Orleans.

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About a year ago, my husband and I were out with a white acquaintance and somewhere in our extensive conversation about real estate, the man made a racial joke.  There was that inevitable uncomfortable moment where neither my husband nor I were laughing, so the man quickly covered his tracks by saying, “well, I can say that because my wife is black.”

derailment (n): a defensive argument, statement, or question that dismisses or seeks to undermine anti-racist arguments in an effort to preserve privilege or the status quo

We’ve all either done this or heard this in discussions about race.  An errant comment is dismissed by a disclaimer: “I’m not a racist.  I have black/Asian/Latino friends/coworkers/or in this guy’s case, a spouse.”  Because we know or have affection for a person of color, somehow that makes it okay to make a racial slur. [This is the point where I would express a certain amount of ?!@#$%$^$??]

What struck me about the situation at the top of this post was that the man’s black wife was not present for our conversation.  I often wonder if our “black friends” were around, would we say the same things?  Perhaps.  But often, we have better judgment when we are among a more diverse group.  Even if we say such things in that context, do we ever really consider how that makes our “friends” feel?

Occasionally, I’ve seen conversations among a diverse group of colleagues or friends go like this:  a white person utters a regrettable remark and then asks the representative person of color if the comment offended him/her.  “You know I’m joking, right?” or “No offense, k?”  At which point the person of color is faced with these choices: 1) call even more attention to himself/herself by rebuking their colleague, 2) laugh and ignore it like it wasn’t a big deal, but it really might be a big deal or 3) laugh because they, too decide to embrace the stereotype in order to be accepted in the group.  In any of these options, the imposed-upon person is being asked to pardon the offender without any condemnation of the act itself.  Is this something we really want to do to “friends”?  Create awkward situations where they cannot voice the hurt we’ve caused them? Or worse, compel them to accept and adopt our prejudices in order to fit in?

The whole idea makes me question the nature of our friendships with people of color.  At least two of my grandmothers regularly referred to all black people as “colored” but had befriended their black neighbors or nurses.  At least one of them still used the n-word from time to time.  In their minds, these women were “exceptions” to the “rules” they had accepted about black folks.  Even while my white grandmothers accepted these women into their lives and homes, the invisible social dynamics of our country, reinforced by the language and behavior of my grandmas, kept them from ever really knowing and loving one another as friends.  They were still unflinchingly attached to a system of prejudice that made egalitarian friendship impossible.  With this attitude, were my grandmas truly acting as friends to their black “friends”?

In a more contemporary example, I’ve heard younger relations make racial slurs against black folks, Native American folks, and Latino folks all with the disclaimer that they have friends of those races.  Again, those “friends” are never around when those things are said because all of us know that those hurtful words would never be spoken in their presence.  If it would hurt our friends to say these things in front of them, do we not think it would be as injurious if not more so to say these things when they aren’t around and evoke their names and friendships in defense of our bad behavior?

In my experience, when I become friends with a person different from me, I become more defensive of them or their cause, whatever that might be.  Having friends of color makes me more sensitive to the things that threaten and injure them, not less. Having Republican friends makes me more likely to stop one of my liberal friends from ranting about the collective idiocy of conservatives.  Having a cousin with intellectual and physical disabilities makes me more likely to call someone out for making offensive comments about “short buses”, etc.  I would think that if we really care about our friends of color, we’d be quick to correct false stereotypes.

If we were really a friend to those folks, we’d certainly not be perpetuating prejudice and using our friendships to prop up our wrongful behavior.  To those who say, “I’m not racist [despite the racist comment I just made], I have black friends,” I have to ask, which part then is the lie?  The comment you just made, or the affection you claim you have for your friends?  Let us not betray our friends of color by participating in conversations, ideas or ideologies that tear them down.

From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers,these things ought not to be so. Does a spring pour forth from the same opening both fresh and salt water? Can a fig tree, my brothers, bear olives, or a grapevine produce figs? Neither can a salt pond yield fresh water.   -James 3:10-12

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