Roots of Justice, Inc., a small nonprofit specializing in anti-oppression training and consulting, is seeking a part-time executive director. Applicants should send a resume with three references to roots@RootsOfJusticeTraining.org. An accompanying cover letter or separate sheet should include a brief description of the applicant’s analysis of oppression. Phone or video interviews will begin the week of November 15. Applications will be received until the position is filled.
If you consider yourself a supporter or constituent of Roots of Justice, please take a minute to cast your vote for two new members to our Accountability Council (board). (The poll closes on September 17.)
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A phrase I dislike: ‘giving voice to the voiceless.’ I don’t like this because no one is voiceless. Everyone has a voice. When students write that phrase in their papers, I flag it, and comment ‘everyone has a voice’. It may be very quiet, it may speak in a language that you don’t understand, it may stammer and stutter and use words in a way that the hearer is not used to, but the voice is there. And, let’s be real: the ‘voiceless’ are people who are not listened to, not seen, people who are ignored, discounted and pushed away.
Using multiple, diverse voices as part of an organizing strategy is a useful tactic. I believe it is critically important for men to talk about sexism, for straight people to talk about heterosexism, for white people to talk about white supremacy and racism. It makes sense for those with more social power, those who have access to the halls of power, as it were, to take advantage of their placement in the hierarchy and use it for the purpose of dismantling it. This best happens in the context of community and under the leadership of the marginalized because we know best what sexism/heterosexism/white supremacy is doing to us. It is a matter of urgency. It is life or death. The problem with the notion of ‘giving voice to the voiceless’ is that the one who is giving mediates, talks over and often changes the message of the so-called voiceless.
When so-called allies (I prefer the term ‘currently operating in solidarity with’ see Mia McKenzie/Black Girl Dangerous post ‘No More Allies‘) are more interested in policing tone and tactics than dismantling systems of oppression, it’s easy to see why giving voice to the voiceless is so attractive. It’s easier to shout down and/or distance yourself from the people society has already decided are a problem. It’s much harder work to figure out what being in solidarity means by actually being in community and conversation (you know, speaking and listening) with marginalized folk. Insisting that dissent be polite, withdrawing support for a movement because you don’t understand and/or agree with tactics sends a message – deep, substantial change not desired.
Although I’m mostly talking about organizing strategy here, I’m also talking about everyday life… the days when you decide you are not going to go out of your way to appease whiteness, maleness, straightness.
And yes, we know it can get us killed. “Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose.”
by Conrad Moore
Ignorance is bliss. White people can decide if and when they want to enter the discussion about systemic racism, or not. We need to go much farther than just conversations about race. It is time to get to the hard work of dismantling institutional racism. The YWCA’s Race Against Racism is merely a first step. The most recent national manifestations are around police misconduct — highlighting the ways they behave toward people of color when they think no one is watching. I am really tired of even trying to keep up with what seems to be a daily installment in the news about some unarmed African American, or Latin American man or woman being beaten or killed by police.
The unfortunate reality is that where there are police patrolling people of color communities there is rampant police misconduct. If you want the real stories all you have to do is ask the right people the right questions. As disturbing as it sounds there is evidence that police protect one another often to the point of helping to hide each other’s bad behavior. TV and movies show us actors projecting this fake hatred for the dreaded Internal Affairs Division. I.A.D. is responsible to investigate police. On one long running popular show, uniformed officers and detectives call Internal Affairs the “Rat Squad.” The implication is that IAD is seriously investigating police misconduct and they will bring consequences to bear on the wrongdoers. However, police in the real world know they rarely have to fear the Internal Affairs Division. Convictions are rare and charges even more so. Check out the stats in your state. I say with confidence you will find the same is true. How can that be?
The Bad Apple Myth
There is the proverbial Bad Apple Myth. They claim there are always a few bad apples and they want to find and get rid of them just as badly as we do. However, if you pay attention to these cases you will see that the so called ninety-nine percent good apples protect the bad apples. It happens in every municipality. Remember the Abner Louima case: The bad apples took Mr. Louima to the the safety of the 70th police district precinct, sodomized him with a broken broom handle and beat him almost to death. They took him there because they knew the so called good apples would protect them. Their brothers in blue did not disappoint. They did protect them.
We don’t know of anything that extreme happening in Lancaster City (Pennsylvania) but, there have been over-aggressive, rude, violent interactions between police and people of color in this community. There are public officials who claim they are unaware of the police misconduct in our community. Can it be that while every predominantly black and Latino community in the nation has problems with over-aggressive, rude, violent, local policing, Lancaster, Pennsylvania, is immune? Preposterous. It seems nearly every public official in almost every community wants to pretend this misconduct doesn’t happen in their community until they wind up on CNN giving a press conference about police misconduct.
Recent comments by public officials imply that they do not see a problem here in Lancaster. Even worse, if they acknowledge the disconnect between people of color and local police they blame the community not the police. What is equally unfortunate is that there are many stories in Lancaster of police behaving badly when nobody is watching. Yes change needs to happen even right here in Lancaster. However, change starts with acknowledgement of the problem.
Healing, hope and deciding where the story starts
There is not enough room in this post to list the thousands of cases from all around the nation. Stories of police misconduct are not new. The stories do not start with the unfortunate murder of Michael Brown in 2014, the 2009 beating of Cassandra Fuller, the heinous assault on Abner Louima in 1997, or the 1946 beating and blinding of Army Sgt. Isaac Woodard for that matter. These stories are not as rare as the general public is led to believe. This systemic racist misconduct will not end until we end it. We can begin a new chapter here in Lancaster. People of color and white people working together will write it. Let’s get to work.
Last week, PBS premiered a new documentary on racism as part of the Independent Lens program. The one-hour film, American Denial, uses the 1944 investigation of Swedish intellectual Gunnar Myrdal into “America’s race problem” as a way to highlight the disconnection between the stated values of US society (it’s citizens as well as its founding documents) and the lived reality of people of color.
It provides a succinct, non-jargon-y entry into some key points of antiracist analysis, including internalized inferiority and superiority.
It is available to view in full at the above link until May 24, 2015.
There is an important conversation going on regarding the hashtag #MuslimLivesMatter. The central questions are:
- Is this a misappropriation of #BlackLivesMatter, because the Black experience of violence in the U.S. is very particular?
- Or is this a recognition that Muslims are also treated with violence born of white supremacy?
- Is the very controversy of #MuslimLivesMatter part of the “divide and rule” aspect of white supremacy, keeping people of color groups pitted against themselves rather than fighting white supremacy collaboratively?
- Where do Black muslims fit in?
- If American Muslims had been more centrally involved in the #BlackLivesMatter movement, would the appropriation of #MuslimLivesMatter be different.
I certainly don’t have answers to these, but you can read more about it at these links. I’d also love to hear what others think in the comments.
MuslimGirl.net – Some of the comments are also worth reading.
If you are on social media and want to talk about the Chapel Hill murders, consider using #OurThreeWinners, the hashtag chosen by the family of the victims.
The other week I was visiting family in the St. Louis area and drove by a billboard showing two hands, one white and one black, making a heart. The only words were “Hands Together.” I don’t know what group created the billboard, but it seems pretty clearly in response to “Hands up, don’t shoot,” a prominent slogan in the anti-police-brutality movement that has grown since the shooting of Michael Brown.
I expect that the organization putting up this billboard wants to see people of all races living together peacefully. I do too. “Hands together” laudably implies that there is work that we need to do together. But it ignores the current gulf created by unchecked white privilege and supremacy. Until white people can acknowledge the privileges and power that come to them because of racist systems, work through the guilt that comes with that acknowledgement, and begin to take seriously the stories of people of color, there can be no “hands together.” Suggesting that our communities are ready to work together demonstrates a weak analysis of the pervasive system of white supremacy.
But I think an even more insidious problem with “Hands Together” is that it takes a slogan from a movement framed by People of Color (“Hands Up”) and turns it around — “corrects” it. This isn’t even the first time that white people have “corrected” a slogan within this same movement. Plenty has been written about “All Lives Matter,” like this tweet from one of my favorites, Brittney Cooper, a.k.a. @professorCrunk: “That all lives matter goes without saying. That Black lives matter must be said. Without equivocation, apology or addenda. #BlackLivesMatter.”
By “correcting” slogans, the new slogans become part of the system enforcing white supremacy. White people feel left out of “Hands Up,” because we don’t feel threatened by police for the most part, and we aren’t sufficiently connected to communities of color to join in their movement with empathy. People of color remain the Other. And white people hate to feel excluded, so we seek out slogans that counter the exclusion that we feel when people of color create something important without us. God forbid that white people not be a part of something important!
White people are not excluded from movements created by communities that we have excluded from our own communities! If we feel excluded from a movement, it is because we have excluded ourselves by building walls of white supremacy and privilege. If we stay behind those walls, we are making a choice for our own exclusion.
(Addendum: It is possible, even likely, that a multiracial group created the “Hands Together” billboard. I don’t believe that would negate this analysis, however.)
“The kingdom of God for which the true prophets are now in the streets crying out, demanding, will upend our white world no matter how much we believe ourselves to be allies. Perhaps we can participate in that coming kingdom, but we do so in a confessional posture…not a prophetic stance.”
Variations of the trope have existed for years beyond count. The myth that the “Middle Passage” had the effect of selecting only the strongest African captives, while the weaker ones died. Then, those who survived were further selected for strength through generations of enslavement. Which leads us to the persistent belief that Black people are athletically superior.
Hollywood’s version is the magical Negro, that secondary character who selflessly assists the white hero with extraordinary wisdom, power, spirituality, strength, and other superhuman characteristics that white people cannot approach.
One might think that this is progress. Certainly applying positive traits to African Americans should be a good thing, right? It’s better than a long list of negative stereotypes, isn’t it?
Actually, it’s too complicated to say one is better than the other. They are both dangerous, and when negative stereotypes are combined with the myth of superhuman traits, we get Darren Wilson’s testimony: “I felt like a five-year-old holding onto Hulk Hogan,” … “That’s just how big he felt and how small I felt.” Brown had an “intense aggressive face” that looked like “a demon.” Strength, huge size, aggressive, demonic. (Read more at NPR’s Code Switch blog.)
Now, a study by scholars at Northwestern University and the University of Virginia puts some data behind White perceptions of Black superhuman traits. (“A Superhumanization Bias in Whites’ Perceptions of Blacks,” Social Psychological and Personality Science, October 8, 2014.) Here’s the abstract:
The present research provides the first systematic empirical investigation into superhumanization, the attribution of supernatural, extrasensory, and magical mental and physical qualities to humans. Five studies test and support the hypothesis that White Americans superhumanize Black people relative to White people. Studies 1–2b demonstrate this phenomenon at an implicit level, showing that Whites preferentially associate Blacks versus Whites with superhuman versus human words on an implicit association test and on a categorization task. Studies 3–4 demonstrate this phenomenon at an explicit level, showing that Whites preferentially attribute superhuman capacities to Blacks versus Whites, and Study 4 specifically shows that superhumanization of Blacks predicts denial of pain to Black versus White targets. Together, these studies demonstrate a novel and potentially detrimental process through which Whites perceive Blacks.
The dangers of attributing superhuman traits to African Americans doesn’t stop with Darren Wilson. It has wide-spread, devastating real-world consequences.
- If Black people have a superhuman ability to withstand pain, doctors will treat them with less pain medication.
- If Black people have superhuman strength, then perhaps we’d better send forth the riot police pre-emptively so they don’t get out of hand.
- If Black people have superhuman spiritual natures, then perhaps the rest of us can look to them to assuage our guilt and take care of us and our children.
- If Black people have superhuman power, then Black people who go “bad” – even juveniles – should probably be locked up for a very long time.
No comic book hero ending here. Just more excuses for repression.
The other month, I found myself in a conversation with a long-time family friend from the church I grew up in. She’s a teacher in a public school and she began telling me about some of her frustrations when I mentioned that I do antiracism training.
She’s white, and her school has seen a dramatic increase in racial diversity over the last decade or so, after being primarily white. She told me about a time when she said in class, “Why do we celebrate Black History Month? Shouldn’t we be remembering the contributions of African Americans all year?” (I don’t remember the precise issue: it may have been related to Martin Luther King, Jr., rather than Black History Month, but this is the gist.) Unfortunately, one of her African American students reported to her parents that Ms. ____ said that there shouldn’t be a Black History Month, missing the context that Ms. ____ was wanting to encourage a more robust celebration of African American history. The student’s upset mother came in for a meeting, and, as my friend tells it, was unable to hear or believe that Ms. ____ wasn’t actually discounting African American heritage.
Understandably, this really troubled my friend who truly wants to do right by all of her students. She felt that this student and parent treated her unfairly. And I can empathize with this.
In our conversation, I mostly listened and offered some comments about the ongoing impacts of racial discrimination and white privilege, but we didn’t have time to let the conversation play out on its own as my children were needing to move on. Here’s what I wish I would have had the time and words to say….
____, I know that you are a well-meaning and decent person who wants to treat all of you students fairly and help them succeed. I know that it hurts to have your words taken out of context and then be accused of “being racist.” I’ve been there.
Both of us want to be seen as well-meaning and decent people. I’ve learned, however, that sometimes my desire to be seen as a decent person can make me less empathetic toward people whom I’ve unintentionally hurt. When I’m defensive, I don’t have room to be empathetic because I’m focusing on myself.
If I can be empathetic at those moments (or, more likely, after the moment has passed), I stop and think about all the discrimination that People of Color have experienced. They know their experience better than I do, but knowing what I do know about racial discrimination, I would find it really hard to trust that White people have my and my children’s best interests at heart. Especially White people who are in positions of authority and influence.
As a teacher, you represent not yourself as an individual, but the education system. I’m sure you know some of the realities yourself: the achievement gap, underfunding of minority schools, harsher punishments for students of color, etc. Not to mention the place that access to good public education has within the African American struggle against discrimination. No matter how decent and fair you are as an individual, you will always represent the education system which has a long and continuing history of serving Black children more poorly than White children.
I wish that every parent could treat every teacher as an individual rather than as part of the institution, but I can understand why African American parents might sometimes have a hard time trusting even good, decent White teachers. Their experience has taught them that it is often safer for them and their children if they don’t trust White people and institutions. And when I say “safer,” I don’t just mean that they might get their feelings hurt. People of Color can be relegated to low-earning job tracks, get or remain sick, and be killed when they trust institutions (schools, hospitals, law enforcement) set up by White people.
It may seem like I am just resigning myself to being treated unfairly by angry Black people. But my experience is that I am treated unfairly by angry and/or entitled White people at as great a rate as I am by People of Color. So, yes, people of all races will treat me unfairly sometimes. And when that happens across racial lines, it helps me to remember that I personally may only be the unlucky representative of a larger system, so I don’t have to take the response personally. I can try to empathize with the person’s experience within a society that is set up to benefit White people and offer crumbs to everyone else: “I bet you have to deal with this kind of thing a lot. I’m sorry that what I said gave you one more thing to confront. What I can do to make it right?”
That’s hard to do in the moment, and it isn’t a magic phrase that will automatically sooth everyone’s hurt feelings. And empathy itself won’t do away with institutional racism, but it can help strengthen the relationships that are essential to organizing for institutional change.
Though I can’t hold myself up as a shining example of empathy, it’s something I aspire to.