Costume Flow Charts and Analysis

Each of the last couple of years, Halloween time sees a number of flow charts getting passed around through social media helping people answer the question, “Is this costume racist?” These are helpful to an extent, and usually add enough humor to help them spread. But their medium limits their analysis.

Jenée Desmond-Harris has contributed some great analysis on The Root, last year and this year. In addition to pointing out that one needs to consider a costume’s effects on others and not only the wearer’s intent, she also comments on the “I’m-just-having-fun” response.

That kind of defensiveness is a symptom of the very attitude that stifles productive conversation about race for the other, noncostumed 364 days out of the year, says David J. Leonard, associate professor in and chair of the department of critical culture, gender and race studies at Washington State University, Pullam. “It just reflects how we talk about race in contemporary society,” he says. “It reflects the overall belief that race doesn’t matter, or that it only matters when people of color — who are accused of being overly sensitive, or ‘playing the race card’ — bring it up.”

Adding more from her interview with Dr. Leonard:

The important question, … Leonard says, is, “Why are ‘the other’ and ‘the exotic’ such sources of enjoyment and pleasure” that they’ve become Halloween staples? “What does it tell us,” he asks, “that amid all these scary things of ghosts and witches, we also have all these racialized costumes?” Plus, Leonard says, these choices “normalize whiteness” as the soccer mom or businessman in everyday clothes, thereby reinforcing inaccurate ideas about totally distinct racial and cultural communities.

… The “culture” costumes “tend to refer to very one-dimensional caricatures that are not at all authentic,” says Leslie Picca Houts, associate professor at the University of Dayton.

When it comes down to it, if you find yourself in a conversation with someone who just doesn’t get why they shouldn’t wear a certain costume, ask them, “Why would you be willing to even potentially offend even a few people just to wear a certain costume that some people would find racist?”

On Not Being Defensive

In an Open Letter to the Evangelical Church, Asian American evangelicals say that racism must stop. They lay out some examples in recent years of particularly offensive and publicized racial stereotyping of Asian cultures, and add 

“Although it is beyond unfortunate that these incidents happened at all, in many cases the reactions from the parties responsible towards the Asian Americans who have challenged them have been even worse than the initial stereotyping and ignorance.”

And so, after being explicitly told that the reactions toward those who challenge racism have been more damaging than the original racism, what response did these leaders receive? Anne Joh, one of the signers, describes at NYTimes.com’s Room For Debate, that 

In yet another sign of callousness, Asian-Americans were initially told, in effect, to “get over it.” Instead, it is U.S. white Christians who must “get over” their whiteness and their failure to see the already changed face of Christian faith.

I am no stranger to defensiveness; I am a white, male, straight, cisgendered, educated, middle-class liberal, after all. But those who receive privilege must learn to receive criticism without immediately going into self-protection mode. When someone calls us out on something racist or otherwise oppressive, the first thing we must do is listen, assuming for a moment that the person is right. Even if we really don’t think so, we can at least engage it as a thought experiment. Clearly, someone else has been hurt; whether or not we are personally to blame is way less important than the other person’s injury. What would you call someone who, after being involved in a traffic accident where another person was injured, stands around describing all the reasons he is not to blame and explaining that the injured party really isn’t hurt all that bad? This term applies to us, every time we respond defensively when someone has the grace to trust us enough to say that we have hurt them.

Malala Yousafzai and the White Saviour Complex

Here’s an analysis of Western media coverage of the Pakistani teenager who was shot in the face for speaking out in favor of girls’ education. Is the West’s interest in Ms. Yousafzai (who is definitely an incredible young woman) largely because she is a “helpless,” young, brown girl whom Western governments can “save” from the “evil,” brown, native men of her country? Notice: intersectional analysis of race and gender required!

Dispelling Myths About Columbus

Dispelling Myths About Columbus

Here’s a nice run through of the atrocities committed by colonial terrorist Christopher Columbus. Not totally on-board with the author’s renaming Columbus Day after Bartoleme de las Casas (who is a model of redemption), when others have already chosen “Indigenous People’s Day.” From http://theoatmeal.com/comics/columbus_day

Kids Know Gender Stereotypes – and Can Make Change

A couple things making the rounds of the Interweb these days have to do with gender stereotypes in children’s books marketed for boys and girls separately. Such as:

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(see Constance Cooper, who includes a list of the revealing table of contents of each) and

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(see @CratesNRibbons).

There’s nothing new about this. There are dozens of pink Bibles for girls and blue or sports- or adventure-themed Bibles for boys, not to mention non-Sciptural offerings. Anyone who has been to a store that sells toys, knows that there are pink aisles and blue aisles. (Smithsonian.com has a good article on the history of pink and blue as gendered colors.)

As Constance Cooper pointed out to her daughter when she found the above “survival” books in their favorite bookstore, these stereotypes hurt both boys and girls – who will, eventually, be men or women or genderqueer. This is gender essentialism: the belief that there are certain traits that the essence of being masculine or feminine. Girls/women don’t enjoy camping and do like to bake tiny cakes to share with others. Boys are exactly the opposite. That’s what makes them boys. If they dislike sports or think pink is a cool color, they are not “real” boys.

I have two sons, and gender essentialism hurts them every day, and as they approach junior high, I expect it will only get worse. They even live in a house where we regularly deconstruct gender and point out stereotypes. But that’s not enough to keep the social and capitalist forces that benefit from gender essentialism and the strict binary construction of gender from influencing their identities.

What also influences their identities is how their parents/caregivers help them respond to these stereotypes. Cooper and her daughter confronted the bookstore staff, who removed the books to a less prominent location. Children have a lot of power to make change. Not in the future. Now. Tell a child today.

 

 

Language, Allies and Privilege

Welcome to the Roots of Justice Blog.  Here we will be posting information about trainings and other events, resources, and news of interest to people who are engaged dismantling systems of oppression.  I’m Regina, and I’ll be blogging here with a couple of other people in the Roots of Justice collective. 

A bit about me: I was one of the co-founders of the Damascus Road Anti-Racism Training process.  I currently teach at a small Christian liberal arts college in northern Indiana.  

 

This week I am thinking about the language of anti-racism strategizing and organizing. As we near the middle of the semester, classroom readings and discussions are at the point where we have (hopefully) successfully gained a common understanding of the ways in which social identities are socially constructed. We are talking about the ways that this social construction of identities, and the meanings attached to them also structure inequality and oppression. We see how the system is broken, and the inevitable question, or perhaps, more accurately, we see how the system is structured to provide power, resources and tangible benefits to one group at the expense of others. We know how it happened, and how it keeps happening. How do we change it?

In the reading journals, on the discussion boards, and in the classroom there is a marked impatience at the prospect of creating long term, sustainable changes in oppressive structures and systems. What are the tools? How do we use them? For me, a primary tool has to be narrative. The way we tell the truth of what has happened, what is happening. We wrest the power of naming reality away from only a few voices. We name ourselves. And then we begin to speak into a new reality. Only in this way can we begin to live into one. This is, of course, messy work, especially when privileged people and marginalized people attempt to do this naming and reshaping together.

This week I’ve read or reread three different articles on the role of white allies in the task of dismantling structures that support and uphold white racist oppression. They illustrate the importance and limitations of the way we use language, the way we do naming, in the work of dismantling oppression. The first – Paul Kivel’s Guidelines for Being Strong White Allies. Whenever I read this, I’m nodding my head: Yes, notice how racism is denied, minimized, and justified. Yes, notice where the centers of power are. Yes, listen to people of color as we describe our experiences.

Not a day later, I come across Mia McKenzie’s excellent “No More Allies.” My head nods even more furiously as McKenzie illustrates the ways in which those who are supposed to be allies often recode and reinforce white supremacy by making it all about them:

It’s not supposed to be about you. It’s not supposed to be about your feelings. It’s not supposed to be a way of glorifying yourself at the expense of the folks you claim to be an ally to. It’s not supposed to be a performance. It’s supposed to be a way of living your life that doesn’t reinforce the same oppressive behaviors you’re claiming to be against.  (Mia McKenzie, Black Girl Dangerous, “No More Allies”)

 

I also read Andrea Smith’s “The Problem with Privilege” in which she examines the language of privilege and the practice of confessing one’s privilege. In the context of anti-racism training, these confessions, Smith asserts, allow participants to think themselves into a new subject position, but these individual confessions are just that – individual and on its own unable to respond to structural oppression. Once again, whiteness is the focus.

“Although the confessing of privilege is understood to be an anti-racist practice, it is ultimately a project premised on white supremacy. Thus, organizing and intellectual projects that are questioning these politics of privilege are shifting the question from what privileges does a particular subject have to what is the nature of the subject that claims to have privilege in the first place.”  Andrea Smith, Andrea 366, The Problem with Privilege

For those of us who work within religious spaces, the language of confession is particularly seductive. It can be very individual and private. It is the acknowledgement of our failures and our frailties. It is the claiming of a force more powerful than ourselves to hold us together.

Confession can feel (and is) significant, but it is one movement. Strategies for change must be collective, long term, and sustainable. Collectives that work together across boundaries of difference must be clear about naming themselves and identifying their respective positions and then go on live in the world they dream of creating. We must act as if the future we want to build is already here.

How do we fix it? Where are the tools? How do we use them? I still believe in the necessity of multiracial coalitions working together to dismantle oppressive structures. I am also more and more convinced of the necessity of being skilled at naming, and then de-centering whiteness.