Sunday, May 24, 2009

Ending anti-racism?

J-truly is not going to get into this right now, but all should go read this post by Guerrilla Mama (h/t Quin on PunkAssBlog h/t Field Negro h/t Daktari II) on how she's decided she's not teaching anti-racism workshops any more. Her basic point(s) seem to be that, from her point of view, "anti-racism" education isn't achieving its goals, because those who seek to take it are either seeking to avoid a pending racial lawsuit or to build radical/racial cred without changing, acknowledging, or challenging white privilege. That many in her experience learn the language of anti-racism and use the language more towards being hip than towards changing their way of being -- understandable because of how hard it is to challenge yourself on a deep level, but completely antithetical towards the actual content and message of anti-racism. The commenters are fantastic and explore a lot of expansions, variations, and critiques on her point, with a discussion of how/whether normative white culture encourages/allows for a separation of words and deeds, intent and action, such that it matters more that you say your consciousness is changed or raised to understand racial issues than whether or not you change your behavior and how you conduct yourself day-to-day to reflect such a thing. And beyond that, how, in the G-Mama's mind, those who do earnestly wish to learn and challenge have such a wealth of material written about race, racism, privilege, anti-racism, etc. that a workshop is not just unnecessary but a crutch to avoid doing the hard work it does and will require to make changes to oneself and the world, and how all that material anyway is secondary to what someone on there calls radical honesty, and the ability to be aware of and try to address other people's perspectives. The point is, she says, everyone gets it wrong, but so many (white) people with no "training" achieve a more or less radical understanding by learning and only making new mistakes. When you find out a certain term or tone or approach is alienating or preserving systematic racism, you try a new term, tone, or approach, and also, you talk to those affected, learning from them and with them, with an openness and desire for understanding and change that is an important pre-condition for effectively learning what she might teach in anti-racism, but is a prereq that is (apparently) only rarely met in her experiences for such training.

So apparently, I actually am going to comment on this.

My quick dois centavos is that during my brief time at a Fortune 500 company making consumer products, we had Diversity Training, and its been one of the single most useful things I've experienced. Prime among the important lessons is something referred to obliquely, and in a different manner, on G-Mama's comment board: The Golden Rule is wrong. That is, don't treat others as you want to be treated, because that assumes everyone is like you, and they aren't -- whether they share your race, gender, religion, culture, or not. (But it especially may be true if they don't.) Treat others, get this, as THEY want to be treated. And how do you know how that is? Only through dialogue, by asking and by understanding and learning, through trial and error, will you know how that is -- but it is more likely to work and generate a good and healthy relationship than assuming they want to be treated as you do. (I've found this IN.VAL.U.ABLE. in personal relationships.)

Speaking of healthy relationships, G-Mama has a rather good post highlighting and praising this excellent entry on IllDoctrine, the Hip-Hop video blog (which I believe in turn I found a while back via EpicFu, meant to start following, and never did). I have no idea who this "Aster Roth" kid is, but J Smooth's smoothly produced vlog is a fantastic commentary (Aster Roth apparently played at Rutgers and joked "ironically" that he was hanging with "nappy headed hos", apparently not with malice but as a joke that, um, didn't work.) J Smooth:
[This] illustrates where a lot of us are at right now with race in america. We're in a new place right now. We're not in The Promised Land, but we're a few steps further down that road than we've ever been before. And as we make progress, we get more comfortable. And as we get more comfortable some of us get a little... extra comfortable. We start acting as if coming closer together means not having to care how our words affect each other. We start assuming we can make any kinda joke or use any kind of epithet without any kind of second thought because now that we've made all this progress - everyone's always gonna know we don't mean it like that.


Nooooooooo! That is not how this thing is gonna work!

...In any healthy relationship, the closer you get, the more you care about how you affect each other...and yet, somehow, in our racial interactions, we tend to forget that. And start thinking coming closer together means we can care less about how we affect each other.

See the whole thing here.

J Smooth couldn't be more right about relationships, racial or otherwise. Something we've said in my family is that being close to someone doesn't mean you get to treat them however you want because they already know that you love them; it means taking *extra* care to treat them right. It does mean that they will see you at your best and worst, and sometimes, it's all you can do to behave decently, or even sub-decently. But all the more because those times are going to happen, whenever you can, you should put out the extra effort, not the lower or below-average one. You appreciate them because you love them, you don't love them so you can depreciate them. J-Smooth:
The whole process of getting closer is becoming more aware of [the] constantly evolving boundaries [in the relationship], and getting better at respecting them... In any healthy relationship, the closer you get the more you care about how you affect each other... somehow in our racial interactions we tend to forget that, and tend to think that as we get closer to together, we can care LESS about each other's boundaries... 'Respecting each other's humanity is such a PAIN in the ASS, do we really have to do this FOREVER? Can't you guys just lighten up so I don't have to respect you anymore? Isn't the whole process of Coming Together As One so that I don't have to care what YOU think?

Anyway. J Smooth's points are good ones, and echoes something I posted before by Ta-Nehisi Coates:
"I never thought the fact that there was a magazine called Heeb gave me the right to address my Jewish buddies as such. More to the point--I never wanted to. ...What's the big beef? ...I don't get white people who have a hard time with this--you call your mother "Mom," I call her Ms. Phillips--same deal here. Nigger means one thing when used amongst a group of people with similar experiences, and something else when used by people outside of that experience.

So yeah. Go read, learn, see this good shit that I found by going down the rabbit whole of following the damn links on people's damn blogs. (How DARE they be so good, make me spend all this time reading them? =p

D-Constructing-D (General goodness)

Quin on PunkAssBlog (wherein the author, a white male, decides he needs to reconsider and start to take seriously the issue of "white male privilege", including the privilege he previously exercised of avoiding all discussions of gender or race)

Field Negro

Guerrilla Mama Medicine

Ill Doctrine


Daktari said...

Ok, I read Guerilla Mama and on the one hand, I agree with her. White folks do think that their intentions should matter mightily. (I didn't hire the black guy because he's black, I didn't hire him because he would be a distraction in the lab.) I also agree with her about how we believe that success is a function of discipline and personal initiative. White women have known for almost three generations that isn't true, and yet somehow we (white women) don't give credence to it being true for other groups. It's funny, J. I credit YOU with helping me pull my white head out of my punk white ass. It's actually not amusing that I considered myself anti-racist, was motivated to change my thinking and to raise the bar in my organization, and yet I couldn't see the problem. Trust me, if an intelligent, educated, well read, and motivated white person can go through life never encountering the phrase "white privilege", this movement doesn't need less light shone on it; it needs more.

I remember once, a long time ago, probably in one of my first few comments on your blog, talking in exactly the euro-centric vein that Guerilla Mama deplores. I was all about the opportunities are there for the taking and you just have to work your ass off, pull yourself up by your bootstraps and get on with it. And then you ever so gently moved my thinking. And like one of those fantastic commenters noted, a light bulb went off over my head.

Now, I'm not going to deny that lots of white folks twist anti-racism rhetoric to their own ends. My brother is the king of using anti-racist social efforts (affirmative action primary among them) as evidence that the playing field is unbalanced. Only he believes it favors minorities. And I have heard him say that "with all these special accommodations, they STILL can't pull themselves out of poverty". Honestly, I think what pisses off my brother the most is that there is a distinct and separate black culture and it doesn't want to be white. Not uncommon white thinking, I think, that black folks should strive to be more white-like in their actions, dress, thinking, approach to work, voting, etc.

And I'm not going to lie to you. In all my interactions over the years with black people, the most comfortable interactions have been with those who were raised in white communities. Why? Because there is less disparity in our cultural norms. I think there is nothing quite so disturbing to the uptight, euro-white community than a black urban culture going mainstream. They panic at the idea that they might have to view THAT as part of the American experience.

Think about immigrants and the English language proponents. The ridiculous idea that Europeans came to America and assimilated is preposterous. We came to America and established European culture as American culture. The only difference between the two today is the result of the natural evolution of culture over time. We expected everyone who didn't look like us to assimilate. We praise and admire those who do. *cough* Asians *cough*

I've come a long way in a short time and I credit you with being my light at the end of the tunnel. I figure if the two of us, despite our differences, can help one another through this thicket, maybe there is hope for others. Presumably, we will both be educators of some sort one day. And we can bring this to a new generation. It's the best I can offer.

J said...

D -- As always, you flatter me. I don't mean that in a patronizing way; I'm flattered to have played and continue to play the role you credit me with in the Daktarevolution.

I do remember your earlier writings being more "by the bootstraps"; I always assumed you were having an off day. Heh. I'm glad if I in any way influenced a more nuanced view o' it.

Interestingly enough, I too am more comfortable talking to black folks that were raised in white suburbia -- because that's where I was raised. And being raised there, the main challenges to my identity were by other black kids, threatening me, telling me to stop being so smart, etc. I wasn't *like* them (this being elementary school, and them being mostly recent "immigrants" from Chicago into the 'burbs). There's a whole can of worms here for another time, but be that as it may -- in college, I was often consulted as an "interpreter" by my black friends from Detroit who'd never been around a majority of whites, and whites from various places, in Michigan and out, that had never had to work, live, etc. extensively with black people.

Ok, funny quick story: there was an annual fashion/talent show put on by the minority group in my dorm, and one of my white friends composed and played a piece for a string quartet, I think (guitar, cello, violin -- hm, and maybe flute? Not so stringy). (When someone told him it was "tight", he asked me if that meant "good". Sigh.) He said he appreciated being part of the show, everyone was very nice, but it was weird being the only white person, he didn't really feel comfortable hanging around rehearsals outside of his part and was slightly put-off, not upset but bemused, when the group might talk with the assumption that everyone there was black and shared a certain perspective.

"J-friend", said I, "I get what you're saying, that can be off-putting, but you gotta realize, that's what it's like being us all the time." His reflection on this led to a pretty good conversation, he was (and is) a deeply thoughtful person. But yeah, it hadn't occurred to him that that was so, that his experience was not unique, not only not unique to him but not unique to an entire race.


You're quite right that we need more light shone, not less, so I agree with the spirit of Mama's comments and many of the details, but not all. But I've never taught anti-racism training on a formal level. And all the "diversity training" I attended usually had a number of people of color (poc) and thus didn't quite have the dynamic she talked about -- plus, the company I worked for that did the big ol' training did make a number of substantive changes. They didn't alter the institution top-to-bottom, but changes in evaluations, attitudes, and behavior did seem to follow from my observations.

Anyway, what can I say? It's the old saw about absolutes and never saying never. I can see Mama's point, and obviously she hasn't felt progress from her specific efforts in anti-racism. And the situation between you & me is EXACTLY what she IS advocating, that those who are willing to Do The Work will Find a Way to learn and change. When you learn and change from interactions with a friend, they aren't your "teacher" per se, any more than I'm your teacher on the University of Michigan per se. Sure, you have learned, and so have I, but I think the dichotomy of teacher/student versus friend-to-friend is one of the things she was drawing attention to.

Anyway. Thanks for your comment, it raises a LOT of fantastic and thoughtful points, more than I can respond to, and I look forward to more learning all around =] (I may even repost your comment as a post.)