New Independent Lens Documentary

Doll_StudyLast 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.

Is #MuslimLivesMatter a misappropriation?

MuslimKillingsThere 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. – Some of the comments are also worth reading.

Muslim Anti-Racism Collective

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.

“Hands Together” and slogans of white supremacy

“Hands Together”?

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.)

It’s Official: Black People are Now Superhuman

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.

The Green Lantern
John Stewart, a.k.a. The Green Lantern (DC Comics)

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.

On Empathy and Being Treated Unfairly

unfairThe 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.

What’s Up With 68% of White People?

Graphic representing responses to the Pew poll.Pew Research has released a new poll showing that merely 37% of White people believe that the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, raises important issues about race. (Compare to 80% of African Americans.) I know that there will always be some who “don’t see race” (supposedly), but a full two-thirds in what seems like such a clear case to me…. I’m not sure what to do with this. What is going on?

Since the poll doesn’t get into the reasons why people chose their answers, I’ve been trying to imagine why so many people say that Michael Brown’s killing doesn’t “raise important issues about race.” Maybe it’s these arguments:

  • The officer, Darren Wilson, didn’t use a racial expletive, therefore it didn’t have anything to do with race, or at least we don’t really know what was in his heart. (My response: For race to be an aspect of a situation, what is in anybody’s “heart” or intention is really superficial. Do the results of Wilson’s, or the Ferguson PD’s, actions reinforce white power and privilege? Is it even possible that Wilson’s racial socialization helped shape his actions? If so, then “Yes, the situation raises important issues about race.”)
  • Michael Brown was breaking the law (jaywalking) and the officer was only trying to enforce the law, but then things got out of hand, and Wilson made some poor decisions. But it’s a law enforcement issue, not a race issue. (My response: Do officers treat all jaywalkers the same? Why are you so sure that Wilson’s “poor decisions” (drawing his gun on a jaywalker) weren’t especially “poor” because of race?)
  • Michael Brown was a thief and a thug and had it coming, regardless of his race. (My response: It isn’t even true that he stole some smokes. Anyone who can’t bother to get simple facts correct can’t be expected to analyze racial dynamics with reason.)

If there is anything hopeful in the Pew poll, it’s that the 37% is higher than the 28% of White people who responded similarly regarding Trayvon Martin’s killing in a poll last summer. I guess that’s progress.

Favoritism (Privilege) is a Form of Discrimination

I came across an interesting article summarizing a study that found that “Favoritism, not hostility, causes most discrimination.” The main point of the findings is that social scientists have studied discrimination as hostility towards out-groups (negative discrimination) and have not spent much time studying the effects of favoritism towards in-groups (positive discrimination).

I find this helpful in bringing to light that the driving force of oppressions is usually not hostility toward other groups, but to favoritism one’s own group – i.e. white privilege, male privilege, heterosexual privilege, etc.

A co-author of the study, University of Washington psychologist Tony Greenwald, also made this point about the good intentions of decent people: “We can produce discrimination without having any intent to discriminate or any dislike for those who end up being disadvantaged by our behavior.”

However, as write-ups of very targeted studies do, one could be left with the notion that oppression is simply about individuals being extra-nice to people they feel affinity with, and occasionally mean people being hostile toward those they see as Others. The next piece of oppression is how those favoritisms and hostilities get encoded into policies and practices of governments and institutions. Institutions can continue discriminatory effects on people’s lives regardless of which individuals are involved. See our short video about the Iceberg of Racism for a quick explanation of white privilege and how it plays out in institutions.

The good news is that institutions can change and contribute life-giving, equitable effects among all communities.

Round Up: The Rodger Murders, Misogyny, and White Supremacy

A lot is being written about the mass killing spree of Elliot Rodger. I though I’d just post a quick summary and link to some articles, but the more I read, the more wished articles took on a more rounded, intersectional analysis. Rodger’s complex story includes male entitlement and misogyny, internalized racism/white supremacy, heteronormativity, mental illness, and adolescent angst.

Rodger’s misogyny — well-documented through his YouTube videos and manifesto — has been covered pretty well. He intended to kill women because they were women. He said as much.

Rodger’s internalized racism has not been covered as thoroughly. Some articles drawing lines between Rodger’s whiteness and the preponderance of mass murders committed by white men fall flat because they miss the complexity of Rodger’s mixed racial background (his father comes from a white background, his mother has Malasian Chinese heritage). But Rodger had internalized messages of white supremacy, as demonstrated in these quotes:

“Full Asian men are disgustingly ugly and white girls would never go for you. You’re just butthurt that you were born as an Asian piece of shit….” (from a post Rodger made in an on-line community)

“How could an inferior, ugly black boy be able to get a white girl and not me? I am beautiful, and I am half white myself. I am descended from British aristocracy. He is descended from slaves. I deserve it more.” (from his manifesto)

It would be inappropriate for me, a middle-aged white man, to analyze his struggles as a white/Asian mixed-race young man, but he was clearly struggling with his racial identity. His first three victims were all young men of Asian descent. He killed them with a knife, a brutal and intimate weapon. Were they proxies for his own Asian heritage? Did he attribute his own lack of girlfriends to his “Asian-ness”?

None of this, of course, lessens the fact that that Rodger was a perpetrator of violence and made choices to act as he did. 


So, as you read about Elliot Rodger, keep in mind that he was a complex human being, saturated with society’s messages of misogyny and white supremacy. The facts that he was only “half-white” and that he killed more men than women, do not negate that he was acting out those messages. And those same messages that each of us experience daily and pass on in subtle and not-so-subtle ways.

Here are some quotes from a few worthwhile articles about Rodger, misogyny, and masculinity:

Twitter hashtag #YesAllWomen. If you read nothing else coming out of this, pay attention to these stories from actual women.

8 Things You May Not Know About Elliot Rodger’s Killing Spree. AlterNet

[V]ery little attention has been given to the overwhelming message of society that for heterosexual men—if you are not attracting women, if you are not getting laid—you are an utter failure.

Misogyny Is Poison, And You’re Drinking It. Jess Zimmerman

Killing women because women reject you is the act of a monster, but that monster isn’t Elliot Rodger. The monster was whispering in his ear that women owe men sex, and that those who don’t comply should be punished (along, let’s be clear here, with those who do). It told him women did not have the right to make choices about their bodies, that for them to withhold access to those bodies is cruel and unjust. It told him that winning, or wresting, attention and service from a woman is the way to prove you are a man. But it told you that too, and your sons and brothers and fathers and teachers.

Your Princess Is in Another Castle: Misogyny, Entitlement, and Nerds. Arthur Chu

But the overall problem is one of a culture where instead of seeing women as, you know, people, protagonists of their own stories just like we are of ours, men are taught that women are things to “earn,” to “win.” That if we try hard enough and persist long enough, we’ll get the girl in the end. Like life is a video game and women, like money and status, are just part of the reward we get for doing well.




[T]he killer [left] a 140-page rant and several YouTube videos describing exactly why he did it. No he-said-she-said, no muffled sounds through the dorm ceiling, no “Maybe he has other issues.” The fruits of our culture’s ingrained misogyny laid bare for all to see.


And yet. When this story broke, the initial mainstream coverage only talked about “mental illness,” not misogyny….

It’s Not All Men. But It’s Men. Kate Harding

It’s not all men. Of course it’s not all men. The idea that anyone might be talking about all men when talking about those who commit violence against women is ludicrous on its face. Pointing it out serves absolutely no purpose except to derail a conversation that might have been lurching toward productivity.

It’s not all men. It’s not all men. It’s not all men.

But listen, you guys, it’s men.

Easy Racism: Donald Sterling, Cliven Bundy, and a lot of other people

It’s been a good week for those who like to be incensed. Two aging white men said some very offensive and racist things on tape and the media has showered us all with righteous anger. Donald Sterling, owner of the LA Clippers pro basketball team, has been banned from pro ball and fined as much as possible by the NBA commissioner and he may lose ownership of his team. That’s all great. Seriously, I’m glad he’s paying a hefty price.

But this is easy stuff, tip-of-the-iceberg racism.

Bomani Jones, ESPN host, says it way better than I could. On a sports radio program he called out the easy racism of Sterlings comments and connected it to actual, lethal violence against African Americans and housing discrimination in Chicago. Sterling has been a housing discriminating landlord for years, and when Jones exposed this in a 2003 article, no one paid attention to him. But when he speaks his impolite and racist mind out loud instead of just maintaining one of the most racially segregated housing patterns in the world, people pay attention.

Listen to Bomani Jones’s skillful analysis. It gets good at about 2:45. Some key quotes are below. Also read Ta-Nehisi Coates’s article, This Town Needs a Better Class of Racists, in which he writes, “The elegant racist knows how to injure non-white people while never summoning the specter of white guilt.”

We hear all this stuff that goes on in Chicago and all these people who die, who lose their lives. All that stuff that’s happening in Chicago is a byproduct of housing discrimination. … Housing discrimination is the biggest reason that we can point to historically for why we’ve got all these dead kids in Chicago fighting for turf, fighting for real estate with poor accommodations and facilities and everything that you’re supposed to have in a city, poor education, all of this because the tax dollars and everything else decided to move away.

So when all these guys get up here and stand on their soapbox and wag their fingers and start talking about ‘we won’t tolerate this racism, we won’t tolerate what Donald Sterling says’ what they’re not tolerating about what Donald Sterling said is the fact that it was impolite and what he said was gauche. That’s what their problem is, but when Donald Sterling was out here toying with people’s lives on matters of life and death, the media, the NBA, the sponsors and all these people now who want to get patted on the back for what good people they are didn’t say a mumbling word.

Linguistic Racism

ImageOn Saturday I was shopping at the farmer’s market, and for the entertainment of children, a magician was putting on a brief show. During the classic Cup Trick, he had everyone count the cups – “one, two, three” – and then in Spanish, French, and German. Then, “In Japanese, ….” and he added three nonsense words that ended in “-i” to imitate Japanese – turning it into a joke language. The audience laughs, knowing this isn’t really how you count in Japanese, but none of us know know Japanese anyway so… ha ha. Rather than insider knowledge, this is insider ignorance: a chance for people from the dominant culture to bond over shared ignorance of another culture.

Lingistic Racism describes when language is used to empower white dominant culture over against another racial group. In a more nuanced definition, from the wikipedia entry on Linguistic Discrimination (broader than Linguistic Racism):

In the mid-1980s, Linguist Tove Skutnabb-Kangas, captured this idea of discrimination based on language as the concept of linguicism. Kangas defined linguicism as the “ideologies and structures which are used to legitimate, effectuate, and reproduce unequal division of power and resources (both material and non-material) between groups which are defined on the basis of language.” (my emphasis)

Linguistic racism takes a lot of forms, such as mocking another language (see the children’s picture books in the Skippy-Jon Jones series) or the way non-native English speakers pronounce English words (such as an inability to pronounce “L”). The connotations of certain English words (“white” as pure and good; “black” as evil and bad) also fall into linguistic racism. The classic, but dated, article by Robert B. Moore, Racism in the English Language, describes many examples of how racism is encoded into our language. Here are his categories:

Obvious Bigotry – Racist slurs, which I won’t repeat here, and using terms to demean, such as calling a grown Black man “boy.”

Color Symbolism – White = Good, etc.

Ethnocentrism – Also could use the term, white racial framing. There is a huge difference between saying “The family owned thirty slaves” and “The family enslaved thirty Africans.”

Passive Tense – “The continental railroad was built” effectively erases the labor of thousands of Chinese immigrants, and countless others.

Political Terminology – “Developing countries” or “economically exploited countries”? 

Loaded Words – Columbus “discovered” North America? “Massacre” or “victory in defense of land”? “Village” and “hut” or “town” and “house.” And after a natural disaster, “looting a store” vs. “finding bread and clean water.”

Qualifying Adjectives – “Articulate” is the classic example. People from the dominant culture are assumed to articulate, so it isn’t mentioned.

Speaking English – Portraying people of other races and cultures as unable to speak English “properly” and therefore as less intelligent or capable: Broken English, mispronunciation, stereotypical phrases (“many moons,” “How!”)

Linguistic racism isn’t just words that hurt feelings. It is a technique that the dominant group uses to enforce the racial hierarchy in order to maintain access and control over resources and institutions.