“Hands Together” and slogans of white supremacy

black-white-hands-heart
“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.)

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.

“I would have said that even if he was white.”

 

You’ve probably heard it before: “I would have said that even if [fill in the person’s name] was white.” It’s a tried and true method of distancing oneself from actions that are based on white superiority. I know this, because I’ve used it, and hear others use it. Typically, it is white people who employ this technique, and I’d like to apply some analysis to the dynamic. (I won’t claim that people of color never use this distancing method, though if they do, there is a different dynamic going on and it’s not appropriate for me, as a white person, to analyze that dynamic.)

ImageHere’s how I’ve seen it play out. A person of color, let’s call him Fred, says something that a white person, William, strongly disagrees with. William confronts Fred and says with great force of tone, “You are wrong. You need to change what you said, and I won’t be content until you do.” Most often, the confrontation interrupts the normal flow of whatever is happening.

Fred, taken aback that William would confront him in this particular manner, responds, “How can you confront me like this? I’ve said nothing wrong.”

There may be some back-and-forth about who is right, but at some point Fred or a third party witnessing the exchange, says, “William, do you see how you confronted Fred in a totally racist way?”

“No. It has nothing to do with race. I would have said the same thing if Fred was white.”

The implication is that the dynamics of race have everything to do with the race of the Other. So, if William would have said the same thing, regardless of the Fred’s racial identity, then race is not a factor.

The problem is, that’s not how racial dynamics work. Fred is not the only person with a race in this exchange. Would William have said the same thing if he himself had NOT been white? I expect he would answer, “Of course! Because I am right, and truth is important and beyond race. Stop playing the race card!!”

Theoretical William’s assertion notwithstanding, it’s still an important question to ponder: How does his whiteness, his socialization into a racially “superior” group, affect his approach to disagreement? I’m not interested for now in the racial identity of the Other, but in William’s own racial self-understanding. After all, you can’t really argue with William’s hypothetical, “If everything about this situation were exactly the same except that Fred was white, I would have responded exactly the same way,” except to say, “No you wouldn’t have.” “Yes I would.” “Nuh-uh.” It get’s nowhere, and it distracts from William’s own racial identity.

White people have been socialized to believe that we are superior. Of course, it’s more complicated than just that, often with a mix of guilt, shame and self-loathing, but I have yet to meet a person who receives systemic white racial privilege who has not internalized that privilege into a form of superiority. And I’ve met a lot of white people. That doesn’t make white people bad or evil or blameworthy. But it means that we have a lot of work to do to uncover how these internalized messages play out in our lives.

For William, myself, and other white people, we are socialized to believe that

  • We are usually right on matters of consequence.
  • We have access to Truth, and Truth is really, really important.
  • We already know what the Other’s perspective is.
  • So we don’t need to listen.
  • And they’re wrong.
  • We have a duty to point out to others why they are wrong. (White man’s burden?)
  • We expect that people will listen and take us seriously.
  • There are unlikely to be substantial repercussions if we confront people.
  • We will bear no social costs if we interrupt the normal flow of events.

All of these, and more, manifestations of white supremacy are at play in every interaction a white person has with anyone else, regardless of the other person’s racial identity. This is how we have learned to interact with other people because this is what we believe about ourselves. We don’t have to keep believing these messages, or acting them out, but if we ignore the reality of our socialization it is at our peril.

This doesn’t mean that every time William disagrees with a person of color or another white person, that he shouldn’t say anything. White people are right sometimes — even about very important things. But we must develop patterns of reflection that allow us to expose the internalized superiority that props up our assertions and assertiveness in all of our interactions. This will make us healthier people and allow us to enter into more authentic relationship with people of all racial identities.

Stand Your Ground: A conversation on the Michael Dunn verdict

[Roots of Justice Trainers and Accountability Council (board) members share thoughts and analysis about the Michael Dunn verdict and Stand Your Ground laws.]jordan-davis

Tina LopesTina Lopes: As the mother of two sons, I begin with the dreadful recognition that you, the mothers and fathers, the sisters and brothers, the aunts and uncles, the grandparents, the lovers, partners and dear friends of young Black men, must now be even more afraid that the young man you love will not return home safely. And for all the fears that haunt me as the mother of two South Asian boys, this is not one that I have to carry in the same way.

I am shaken by the outcome of this case. As I think of the jurors, I am reminded of the need to be vigilant: I need to notice when I am being tempted into a similar default position. I must ensure that I constantly listen to alternative sources of history, news and analysis of our society. I need to check the reactions I have in tense situations for my unexamined assumptions and stereotypes. Most of all, I have a responsibility to ask questions of myself and of others when a system fails as dismally as the justice system failed in the trial of Michael Dunn.

Conrad Moore

Conrad Moore: If we define racism as race prejudice plus power, Stand Your Ground laws are classic racism unmasked. As usual, white people’s prejudice and fear is STILL our problem. It is no secret that white men have been afraid of African American men for centuries. White people have expressed that fear by attempting to enslave us, control us through mass incarceration and other attempts to annihilate us. We still rise. Yet while they act out their FEAR through violence against us, they get to pretend that they are in fear for their lives from us. We don’t have to be doing anything but playing our music too loud or simply walking home with some Skittles and an iced tea. They get to pretend that our very presence on the street, day or night, is reason to be afraid. And fear translates to a threat. And a threat MUST be met with deadly force. This is an example of how racism changes it’s shape. While actual lynching is no longer legal, this law gives white people permission to lynch (shoot) us when they feel afraid, even when their fear is their own imagination, as is the case with these two unarmed black male children whose only crime was their age and race.

Rick DerksenRick Derksen: The pattern of this irrational white fear that Conrad has named is accompanied by a narrative of imagined/perceived threats throughout the history of this country. This narrative has been used to justify genocide, the enslavement of people of African descent, the stealing of land from First Nations and Mexico, the waging of countless wars (of which the invasion of Iraq and the imagined threats used to justify that action is just a recent example), the rise of the Prison Industrial Complex as a response to the Civil Rights movement (see Michelle Alexander), and the murder of young African American men like Trayvon Martin and Jordan Davis. This narrative has also been constantly repeated and reinforced by white-owned and controlled media. This narrative, in spite of abundant evidence to the contrary, has almost always managed to create an alternative universe where the white man or the United States is the victim under threat.

This irrational white fear played itself out in our neighborhood in Seattle in December when our local police department swooped in to forcibly remove a coalition of African American parents and educators called Africatown from a building owned by the school district while they were in the middle of negotiating a lease. This police action was justified by a “report” that there were snipers and explosives in the building, a report that was very obviously false to anyone with any knowledge of the people involved in Africatown, but was somehow seen as credible by most of the local media outlets, which basically regurgitated the police department version of events.

Yvonne PlattsYvonne Platts: My heart screams for something to be said. Some young people are believing that black men have created this problem themselves.

Tina: I’ve also felt speechless in the face of the enormity of all that the Michael Dunn verdict makes evident, but don’t want to remain so. As a South Asian in North America, I don’t want to be silent and collude in reducing this to an issue that implicates only White and African-descent/Black people/communities. Those of us who are neither White nor Black are often expected to join the White perspective in order to belong, to be viewed as reasonable and trustworthy, and we are fed a steady diet of television shows and news articles that reinforce images of dangerous Black men. I’ve never had cause to fear Black men, young or old. When I arrived here as a young South Asian teen, the greatest threats to me were posed by White teenagers, both boys and girls. They were terrifying, yelling racial slurs, spitting and threatening to beat me up as I ran from them. I took their threats seriously because people who looked like me had been thrown in front of subways or beaten to death. As these teens threatened me, no one intervened – not the White bus driver who steered the bus where the taunts began, and not the other mostly White adult passengers. To this day, some forty years later, I don’t cross a dark or deserted street when there is a Black man walking there, but I do when I see a White man or a group of White teenagers. I actually breathe a sigh of relief when I see a group of Black teenagers, feeling less alone in an otherwise brutish world of racism. So as a rational and thoughtful human being of mature age, I do not agree that this is a reasonable way for Michael Dunn to have behaved, and I hope other racialized people will not condone his behaviour either.

Pam NathPam Nath: Conrad’s and Yvonne’s comments specifically about white and African American men makes me wonder “What about white women? And what about Black women?” I’ve been learning about ways that white supremacist heteropatriarchy has been propped up by the portrayal of white women as people who are vulnerable and need protected. And its not just Black men who are threatened by white people’s fear as evidenced in the murder of Renisha McBride.

Tina: In the court proceedings and the media coverage, we are made to believe that “most people” would have acted as Michael Dunn did. We are asked to share the assumption that these are people who are credible, reasonable and worth listening to because they can be counted on to offer a rational and objective position. It’s clear in the way this case has unfolded that White people get immediate admittance into this group, regardless of class, occupation, country of origin, etc. There is perhaps a minor qualification for White women who are not always seen as rational, but nothing that would usher them out of this particular tent. I wonder if the shadowy sub-text of this case is that it is also on their behalf – the safety of White women – that this question of threat is being posed (just as it has been throughout the history of racism in this society). Was Michael Dunn acting to protect not just himself but the companion he was waiting for? Was he protecting her not only from the potential physical threat but also the discomfort and harsh presence of Black men being loud in a way that is frightening to White women? And wouldn’t every White man want to ensure that White women can walk the streets without such an affront?

Rick: There is the rather glaring contrast between the trials of George Zimmerman and Michael Dunn (white men [see here for discussion about Zimmerman’s compliracial identity]) on the one hand and the trial of Marissa Alexander (an African American woman) on the other hand. Even though a Florida appeals court has now called for a new trial for Marissa Alexander (no doubt in response to the Free Marissa national organizing campaign), the same system that exonerated Zimmerman and Dunn on “stand your ground” was quick to convict her of aggravated assault and give her the mandatory minimum of 20 years.

Conrad: And manifestations of this fear happen everywhere, but not always to the same extremes. I had an incident on the job where one of my colleagues and I had some tense words between us. He was one of those white guys who everyone seemed to be afraid of and tried to placate. We were at the same level of management. I had only been on the job a few weeks. We had a departmental misunderstanding of some kind. His response was to barge into my office and attempt to chew on me, figuratively. I wasn’t having it. I stood up and in no uncertain terms let him know that he will not barge into my office and he does not have permission to talk to me using that particular tone. Simple and direct.

Next thing I know I’m getting a call from HR. He is asking for a meeting. Trying to get me fired I suspect. Long story short, he said he felt threatened and intimidated. I reminded him that I never verbally threatened him or lunged at him in any way. “Well not exactly Conrad. Not in so many words.” Then where did those feelings of intimidation actually come from? I asked rhetorically. Why exactly are we here? If you are just afraid of black men you should see a therapist. Your sense of fear and intimidation in the presence of black men is not my problem. Bottom line. This law has now made his fear, real or imagined, my problem.

Pam: I’m not convinced Michael Dunn even felt fear. The facts of the case seem to suggest to me that he felt rage rooted in entitlement, but he can claim fear and use it to justify his behavior and juries seem to accept that. Like you, Conrad, I’ve been thinking a lot about “less extreme” expressions of the logic that underlies these verdicts and Stand Your Ground laws. I think its important for all of us to think about the ways in which we are implicated, rather than distancing ourselves from the injustice that they represent, as if it has nothing to do with us. As I’ve observed interactions across race lines, I’ve been noticing how white woman are not socialized in ways that make it acceptable to assert our power in direct ways. In fact, I think its quite the opposite – white women often exert their power through vulnerability and expressions of weakness or need. So in groups where white women are in the majority, folks who communicate directly especially about conflict are often seen as dominating or even as threatening. The “Angry Black Woman” stereotype is still alive and well.

When it comes to feelings in interpersonal interactions, its not uncommon these days to hear things like “feelings are not right or wrong, they just are.” Does this mean that its not appropriate to question what relationship the feeling has to what actually occurred? Does this mean that if a person “feels attacked” in an interaction, that is somehow the responsibility of the other person no matter what actually occurred in the interaction? If so, this does seem to be a logic parallel to the Stand Your Ground laws and these jury verdicts.

The Stand Your Ground laws use the language of “reasonable” perception of threat. If our understanding of “reasonable” is based on what “most people” would feel, in a white supremacist society, our understanding of that is going to be biased to what “white folks raised with racial stereotypes” are likely to feel.

I think we need to have a way to understand or define threat that is not so subjective, not so feelings-based, and that attempts to discern more concrete evidence of threat. This is a tall order, and to do this, we are certainly going to need to pay better attention to the ways that our subjective experiences of threat are rooted in pervasive and often unconscious racial stereotypes.

Rick: One of the biggest challenges I face as a white person working with other white folks and in multi-racial coalitions is to find effective ways to counter the irrational white fear/imagined threat/white victimhood narrative and not allow myself to feel paralyzed by what Tina describes as “the enormity of all that this makes evident.” Another challenge we have been discussing and organizing around in European Dissent (a white antiracist group here in Seattle) is to identify and articulate why it is urgent for us as white people to address and work at dismantling the Prison Industrial Complex. What is in it for us?

Tina: As I ran from the group of teenagers who threatened me all those years ago, I remember wishing in my impotent rage and fear that I had a gun to defend myself. I am deeply thankful that I never did, and never will have a gun. But it begs the question: Would I have garnered the same sympathy that the jurors gave to Michael Dunn if I had shot one of these White teenagers? It’s highly unlikely. Those White passengers who were silent on the bus would likely have become outraged, would have insisted that those teenagers were “just being kids,” and that they did not deserve to die for their bad behaviour. That’s because our society teaches us to have empathy for the White person in the scenario, to see the White person in her or his full humanity, to give her or him the benefit of the doubt, to think the best of her or his motives, to identify with him or her as we would our own children – it’s the default position that is the product of a society where White people are always presented as the norm for being human.

Where is that same concern, identification with and profound care for the child who is Black and just as vulnerable, just as prone to play loud music, stay up late, drive over the speed limit and do all the things we do as youth because we are pushing the boundaries that adults impose in this phase of our development? How can these common teenage infractions be deemed punishable by death?