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Archive for September, 2010

Washington, D.C.

Inspired by Bill Rankin’s map of Chicago and using U.S. Census data from 2000, Eric Fischer created city maps on which each dot represents 25 people. The dots are color-coded by race/ethnicity: Red means white, blue means black, orange represents Hispanics, and green means Asian. Read an article about it here or visit Fischer’s Flickr to see 102 different city maps.

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A couple weeks ago, African American boxer Floyd Mayweather posted a video rant full of ignorant, racist stereotypes against Manny Pacquiao, a Filipino boxer.  Mayweather posted a fake apology (“I don’t have a racist bone in my body”) in response to criticism of these comments, along with another video intended to show his, ahem, “acceptance” of Asian people which is, unsurprisingly, full of even more racist nonsense (Racialicious).

Mayweather’s comments have been largely overlooked by mainstream news outlets, and the response even from anti-racist organizations has been tepid.  Last week an Asian American friend of mine shared a column by ESPN’s Floyd Granderson, who is African American, questioning why there has been so little outcry over this, and specifically calling out the NAACP, Al Sharpton, and Jesse Jackson for what he calls their “muted response,” suggesting that they are judging Mayweather ‘by the color of his skin” rather than by the content of his comments.

The truth is Mayweather’s being given a pass because he’s black . . . . he is being treated differently because he’s black.

Period.

And if he were being treated honestly, black man or not, we would be hearing denunciations from Jackson, Sharpton and the NAACP . . . I’m not playing devil’s advocate; I’m advocating for equality — but in the true sense of the word. Whites don’t hold the patent on being racially insensitive, just as blacks are not the only group of people to be discriminated against in this country . . . .

If we truly believe in the words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. that “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,” then it is only fair that the boxing world punish Mayweather. I understand he’s the industry’s cash cow. But this kind of hypocrisy only fertilizes racial tension while simultaneously lining the pockets of people who make their living manipulating that tension [I’m not clear on who Granderson is talking about here. Does he mean Jackson and Sharpton?  If so, FAIL.].

My reaction to Granderson’s argument was that it’s hugely problematic in a number of ways, not least because it’s an argument from total silence.  And I found it unfortunate that Granderson chose Mayweather’s blackness as the angle for his article rather than the reality that anti-Asian bigotry is still widely accepted as “humor” in our society.  It’s seriously problematic to argue that black leaders or the NAACP are required to comment on the situation just because Mayweather is black.

I left a comment to this effect on my friend’s post sharing this article; this started a discussion about the article and the degree to which the NAACP, etc., are obligated to comment on a situation like this.  In my opinion, the way Granderson made his argument was racist, and actually detrimental to anti-racist work.  My friend, on the other hand, saw the article as holding anti-racist activists accountable to do a better job, and thought Granderson was identifying a potential blind spot in the NAACP, Jackson, and Sharpton.

I emailed Nikki to get her thoughts on the situation and ask if my reaction to the article was off-base.  We ended up having a really productive discussion about anti-Asian racism and what it means for anti-racist activists to be good allies to Asian-Americans.  Parts of our conversation are posted below the jump, edited and cleaned up to make it easier to follow dialogue. (more…)

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The following is a re-blog from Claudia over at My fascinating life.  Claudia is an Aussie mom living in the UK who adopted Ethopian children.   She’s testament to the fact that if you provide us with insightful commentary on our posts, we might go over to your blog and find things we’d like to bring home with us.

I’ve made a decision – the next person to ask me whether I need to put suncream on the babies is getting a punch in the mouth. I’m not quite sure why this is every white person’s ‘go-to’ question about raising black children, but that seems to be the case. Like if they suddenly found themselves in my shoes, it wouldn’t matter if the child grew up totally unsure about their identity, where to fit in, lacking any positive black role models and looking down the barrel of casual racism every day; that would be fine, but heaven forfend the baby should get sunburned.

I know I’m overreacting about that particular question, and if anybody I know in real life is reading this then they are definitely going to be offended, because I’m pretty sure that every single white person I know has asked me this question since the sun came out here, about two weeks ago. And I do take sun safety very seriously. And on one level, it’s fine that people ask me this. It’s sunny, we’re at the park, they’re slapping the suncream on their kids, it’s a reasonable question. And I prefer curiosity to someone saying ‘oh, seriously, your child isn’t white? I didn’t notice! Because we’re all the same on the inside!’ But sometimes, this question, and others like it, (‘what do you do with their hair?‘) can make me feel really uncomfortable, and I don’t quite know what to do.

I think I’ve almost figured out how to deal with conversations that are openly racist, or, more commonly, just plain ignorant. No matter who, no matter where, don’t let it slide, ever. Challenge. Disagree. Not just when it’s a conversation about people who share the same colour skin as my children, but anything racist, all the time. Zero tolerance. There’s a lot of stuff that I used to let slip by me, but now – no way. I’m acutely aware that many adult adoptees say their parents weren’t active enough as their anti-racist advocates, particularly with extended family, and those of us who have had the opportunity to learn from their experience have NO excuse if the same is said about us.

But I find this kind of thing much harder. It’s not a racist question. It’s not even a particularly stupid question. But it makes me prickle. I think that what upsets me is this. I get the distinct impression that some of my white friends ask me questions about my black babies that they would never ask if I was a black mother. Or at least, ask them in a way that they wouldn’t ask a black mother. This is difficult to articulate, but I feel like there is an unspoken assumption that we belong to the same club, they and I, a club to which my children do not belong. And that our sameness means that it’s okay – indeed, expected – for us to share information and experiences about our encounters with those who are not the same. Even, in my case, if those who aren’t the same are also my children. We all know that the first rule of White Club is YOU DO NOT TALK ABOUT WHITE CLUB, so none of this would ever be said out loud. But honestly, in some conversations it is palpable.

It feels similar to what I experienced when I moved to the UK from Australia. When I came across other Australians, we would always form a huddle and complain about the same things – usually the price of food, how cold it was, how long it was since we’d seen the sun and the impossibility of really getting to know anyone properly. Then we would tell stories about Rude English People I Have Met, and What They Said To Me. It was comforting. But time went on, and something changed. I began to feel at home here. I worked out how to navigate the supermarket, bought a decent coat, resigned myself to a lifetime of Seasonal Affective Disorder and made some friends. My accent was Australian (and it still is) but I didn’t feel quite so partisan anymore. I began to feel that at least part of me was becoming British. And then the moaning sessions weren’t quite so welcome. When people would hear my voice, and then want to talk about what was wrong with the UK, I kept finding myself thinking ‘what makes you think I’m on YOUR side in this conversation?’

And that’s how I keep feeling now. White people see my skin, and I think it makes them think that I’m on their side. I’m not going to go down the ‘now that I have Ethiopian children, I consider myself to be Ethiopian too’, road, because I think that’s a pile of horse manure. I’m still white, I’ll always be white, and there’s nothing I can do about that. But that doesn’t mean I’m on their side.

It does feel, sometimes, like people view my children as educational toys. They’re a safe, easy way to learn about black people. You know, without actually having to talk to a black person. And I get frustrated, because my children are not a bridge. They do not have a responsibility to my friends to link all the colours of the world into a complacent little circle. And they are not objects; curiosities to be examined. They are their own selves, with their own complicated histories, and neither they nor I owe my friends any information about their skincare regime. I think that sometimes people are wanting some kind of inside scoop – for me to go into detail about how hard it is to care for such ‘difficult’ hair or skin, but it’s just not going to happen. They aren’t entitled to that information, even if it was the case. I am not on their side.

But sometimes it’s a hard balance. Because sometimes I ask myself – are these the opportunities I’ve been waiting for? Is the problem not too many questions about their skin, but too few? I think most of us can agree that a fake-o ‘colourblind’ approach to life doesn’t do our children any favours. And I wish that I could have more frank discussions with my white friends about race, not fewer. But I want them to be real. Surely the really important issues around skin are privilege and prejudice, not, well, skin. I want to talk about how we approach our own whiteness, before talking about anybody else’s blackness. I don’t really know how those conversations would sound, but I’m sure they wouldn’t just be about sun safety or hair products. I hate that I am still so bad at making those conversations happen.

So, back to the sun cream. Mostly, when sun cream comes up, I say ‘Well! The babies take longer to burn than a very pale baby, but they will still burn. I do put sun cream on them, but we don’t need it if they’re only going to be outside for a little while. We have suncream that smells like coconut. Doesn’t their skin smell delicious? What type of suncream do YOU use?’ And questions about hair get ‘isn’t their hair BEAUTIFUL? I just can’t wait until her hair is long enough to braid. Do you think your little Susie’s hair is going to stay blonde?’ And none of this is going to set the world on fire, and sometimes I wish I could have the courage to be a lot ruder, but for now, for questions that aren’t outright impolite, I’ve decided to stick with simple answers that affirm my children and then move swiftly on.

All of this feels almost impossible to write about, because I’m so painfully aware of how little I know. And maybe my approach is wrong – maybe I’m reading too much into comments that are totally innocent, or maybe the reverse is happening and I’m ignoring something really big, and I should be… well, I don’t know. And of course some of my friends don’t do anything like this, and I need to remember that I never used to care about race until I realised that it was going to affect my family. So I’d better not climb too high onto my high horse, or I’m liable to fall off. This is all really hard. I know I’m making mistakes. I hope I’ll be willing to learn from them. But whatever happens, I hope the babies always know that I am on their side.

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There is an ostensibly positive stereotype of Asian Americans so ubiquitous that I do not question whether American (and many other) readers have heard or seen some version of it:

Asians are intelligent, studious and hardworking, family-oriented, polite and law-abiding and, through the diligent practice of these virtues in the face of challenges and obstacles, successful. They’ve pulled themselves up by their own bootstraps and attained the American Dream.

Major media outlets, sociologists, and politicians have lauded Asian Americans as a “model minority” or “superminority,” a “trophy population” that has moved “from pariahs to paragons” to become “exemplars of hope.” Television shows and movies feature Asian nerds; even portrayals of Asian criminals tend to be unusually intelligent and disciplined.

Who wouldn’t want to be considered intelligent, hardworking, and successful? Isn’t this stereotype complimentary? So what’s the problem? In reality, this “model minority” myth misrepresents the truth, and it’s harmful to both Asians and non-Asians.

For the sake of brevity, I will focus on one of the many ways this racial stereotype misrepresents the truth: income. Those who tout Asian Americans’ “success” often cite, for example, comparable average household incomes of Asian and non-Hispanic white Americans. Frank Wu has pointed out that upon further examination, however, the appearance of parity falls apart. Asian Americans live, on average, in larger households than white Americans, so household income is often shared among more people in an Asian household than a white one. There’s a difference between $45K shared among 3 people and the same amount shared among 4 or 5 people. An Asian American household is also more likely than a white one to include more people capable of and actually contributing to household income—a higher percentage of Asian American women work, a higher percentage of Asian households include non-nuclear family members over the age of 15. The life of a family that earns $45K by pooling the incomes of 3 people is not really comparable to a family that receives the same amount through a single breadwinner. Asian Americans are also more likely than whites to be self-employed, which usually means working longer hours with fewer benefits and greater risk of setbacks like bankruptcy. $45K eked from the family shop is not like $45K with benefits from the corporate job. Asian Americans are also more urbanized than any other racial group, geographically concentrated in states with higher-than-average costs of living. The Smiths’ $45K goes much further in Smallville than the Kims’ $45K does in Metropolis. Wu further points out that “the figures for Asian Americans are rendered unreliable by the careless inclusion of [upper-management] Asians who reside in the United States [for a few years] but who are not Asian American at all.” The income of a Japanese executive living in the United States is counted in the Asian American average even though the transnational executive is not representative of Asian Americans.

Despite the stereotype, Asian Americans have not attained economic parity with white Americans. Asian Americans are still more likely to live in poverty than whites. Some ethnic groups, like Cambodians and Hmong, have poverty rates 3 or 4 times higher. Racial inequalities persist.

And this apparently “positive” stereotype has negative uses and consequences. For a white person who wants to defend the status quo, this popular and widely-believed stereotype is a handy weapon. In conversations about racism, he throws out “Asians have overcome racism through hard work” and the stereotype allows him to achieve, among any who buy into it, three goals at once: he denies that Asians are still harmed by racism, he suggests that any person of color who has not attained similar success just isn’t working hard enough, and he absolves white people like himself of responsibility to work for racial justice. In a stroke, he’s shifted all the work necessary to overcome racism to those who suffer white racism.

A committed white supremacist might deliberately play on this stereotype not to praise Asians but to use them as a tool to denigrate other people of color, promoting his racist agenda and attempting to sow disunity among the marginalized. This has been done in the past, as Wu documents.

But a white person who believes this stereotype need not be mean-spirited to harm people. I recently read a study showing that non-Hispanic white people who believe Asians are smarter than other minorities (70%) and harder working than other minorities (more than 40%) are also more likely to believe that Asian Americans experience no racial discrimination in the job market. Believing that Asians don’t face such discrimination, whites are unlikely to make any effort to remedy it. This is a problem, of course, because Asian Americans do experience job discrimination. They are underrepresented in management, for example, and when they do receive management positions they are paid less than whites in comparable positions. This is not due to their own preference. Research has shown that Asian Americans do not differ from whites in desiring career advancement and management positions. And as I was writing this, Tim Wise called attention to the fact that when Asian Americans lose their jobs, they have a harder time finding work than whites, so their unemployment lasts longer. Yes, Asian Americans experience racial discrimination, and “positive” stereotypes are part of the problem.

We need become more conscious of the racial stereotypes and prejudices we harbor and take the time to examine them more carefully. It’s not just the obviously negative ones that help perpetuate racism and injustice.

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A week or two ago, I had what we Southerners call a “hissy fit.”  I had been watching the news on several networks and read many different outlets all reporting on how Glenn Beck and his flock were descending upon the Capitol in droves.  A friend sent me a video of interviews with folks who came to D.C. to “call the nation back to God.”  Most faces I saw in the crowd were white.  Every interview I saw or read was with a white person.  Many of them were decrying the political agenda of our sitting President.  Some of them were calling him a racist and saying it was time to take “our” country back.

In my fit, I sat down on several occasions to write a blog post about this phenomenon.  I considered it from many angles.  I started writing about how I’m not one of those white people.  I started writing that those people don’t really get what my God is all about.  I started writing about the Pharisees and the Sadducees and thinking up all kinds of Bible verses that I would hurl back in an effort to halt the parade of hatred and ignorance on TV that whole weekend.  I started to write any number of those things and then deleted it, choking on my own anger about it all.

Then one day, last week in the car as I was fuming about everything I’d seen, with no one to call and vent, one of my favorite musicians, a contemporary Christian music artist named Sara Groves, intervened right there in the middle of my minivan.  She sang:

Redemption comes in strange place, small spaces
Calling out the best of who we are
I want to add to the beauty
To tell a better story

I want to shine with the light
That’s burning up inside

And that’s where I decided to write this post.  You see, I could write those other things—about how white people suck; how, collectively, we don’t get “it”;  how as much as I want to not be one of them, sometimes, I am them.  I know that story and many of our readers here at the blog know that story.  It’s familiar and it usually ends badly.

But I want to “add to the beauty,” not just recount the ugly.  So how does one “tell a better story”?  Well, while I believe in the power of shining a spotlight on horrible things, it can’t be all we do.  I believe we’re right to curse the darkness; but, sometimes we get so used to seeing in the dark, we need to adjust our vision.  Rather than focusing on a very vocal and seemingly prominent group of haters, I need to remember that great cloud of witnesses—past and present—who can encourage me forward and who tell me to not lose heart in fighting against racism as a white person.  I need to look at those success stories of white people who turned things around or made some small difference.

I need a redemption story.

I need a story like that of William Wilberforce—who took on a nation of generational slaveholders using his position of power and privilege as a white man to end the British slave trade.  I need a story like that of Lucretia Mott, a Quaker minister, abolitionist and feminist.  I need to read about Father Bartolomé de las Casas—who Kate featured in a Columbus Day post—a man who got it wrong in many ways but came to oppose the torture committed against Native people during colonial conquest.  I need to meditate on the life of Corrie Ten Boom, a Dutch Christian who was interned for aiding Jews in escaping Nazi persecution during the Holocaust.  I need to know about and remember the sacrifices made by Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwarner, two Jewish men martyred in Mississippi for helping to register black voters during Freedom Summer.

I need to hear from teachers like Peggy McIntosh and Tim Wise who make our privilege visible and call us to a better white identity.

I need to get my hands on and my head around stories like those of Chris Rice and Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove—men who forsook their own privilege and the comfort of a homogeneous faith community to live out integration in the all-too-rare situation where white people act as integrators.  Both men explore how their faith in Christ informed and guided their decisions toward anti-racist activism and communal living in their autobiographies: Rice’s story focused on his life as a young man living in the 1980s and Wilson-Hartgrove’s is a more contemporary example from the last 10 years.

Rice’s story is particularly compelling for anti-racist Christian novices as it is almost a primer on the efforts and leaders of the evangelical-side of movement since the days of the Civil Rights era.  Rice describes how he and Spenser Perkins formed a hard-fought friendship and took up the second-generation mantle handed them by John Perkins.  He also shares with painful honesty his struggles to come to terms with his own sense of privilege, entitlement and authority in the midst of a strong black community.  Wilson-Hartgrove is an affirming example of what those of us just now getting involved in anti-racist work can do and how far we can come if we let God transform our thinking and our lifestyles to make us agents of reconciliation.

That day in the car, as the CD moved on, I was still stuck thinking about what Sara Groves had said.  I thought about Glenn Beck and those like him who enjoy derision and division.  I kept coming back to my anger over these things even while I had decided that I want to tell a better story with my life.  Groves had an answer for that, too.  In her song, Kingdom Comes she says:

When anger fills your heart
When in your pain and hurt
You find the strength to stop
You bless instead of curse

When doubting floods your soul
Though all things feel unjust
You open up your heart
You find a way to trust…

When fear engulfs your mind
Says you protect your own
You still extend your hand
You open up your home

When sorrow fills your life
When in your grief and pain
You choose again to rise
You choose to bless the name…

In the mundane tasks of living
In the pouring out and giving
In the waking up and trying
In the laying down and dying

That’s a little stone that’s a little mortar
That’s a little seed that’s a little water
In the hearts of the sons and the daughters
The kingdom’s coming

None of this is easy, friends.  I haven’t been at all this anti-racist stuff for long, but I’ve been at it long enough to know some things get easier, but that’s when God sometimes presses in to challenge us and call us to do even harder things.  In those moments, if all I can offer is a little obedience, sweat and mortar, I’m doing my job.  I’ll remember our white anti-racist heroes, like my white friend Ashleigh, who has in the last year, been awakened to anti-racism and is cultivating a deep passion for justice and reconciliation in her own life.

I’m hoping that over time, I’ll be able to look on angry scenes like the one I saw on the news the other week and say as Christ did from the cross, “Forgive them, they know not what they do.”  Until that day comes, I pray that when I look upon the horror stories our world has to offer, that even as I rail against them, I’ll be mindful that all of it is only the prelude to a better story: a kingdom coming.

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