Wednesday, May 02, 2007

why do this work? - Part I

From the day I made a commitment to leading an anti-racist life, I knew I would have to continually evaluate my thinking, motivations, and actions. I also knew that by writing about my journey on a blog and talking about it in my circles, I would be opening myself up to public scrutiny. And that’s fine. That comes with the territory. In fact, I long for and need feedback to keep myself on track. I am a person that learns from interactions more than from other sources. Criticism and support are both helpful if honest and coming from the heart. I have gotten both so far. But there are other types of feedback I’ve gotten. At this point, I don’t know what scares me more – being met with hostility or with silence.

I guess both responses scare me in different ways. Silence, unfortunately, has been more common than I had expected. And believe me; I have been far from confrontational. It’s enough to just mention anything related to racism out of the blue or in response to “What have you been up to?” and the reaction I’ve seen more often than I would’ve imagined is white people getting paler and more uncomfortable, turning away or changing the subject.

Silence from white people I talk to scares me because it feels like a door shut. When silence is the reply I get from my white friends and acquaintances when I broach the subject of racism or anti-racist parenting, despair sets in rather quickly. What is a good strategy for pulling fellow white people into the dialog? Isn’t there a deep longing in most people to heal from racism? If so, and I hope there is, how do we tap into that with people who haven’t yet begun the journey?

Hostile comments – well, those have begun too. But I have vowed to keep doing the work and keep finding better and more effective ways to move forward towards affecting change.

Why do I, as a white person who does not experience racism directly, do the work? I’ve already been accused of writing about racism just to pat myself on the back. What to say to that? I am a person who secondguesses every decision I make and every action I take. With anti-racist work, I quintupleguess all I do, to say the least. I think about race, racism, the discussions I have around those and my relationship to all of this so much that I often can't sleep at night. I am well aware of the trap that exists for people with privilege, in this case white privilege, in doing any kind of social justice work. Our privilege allows us to disassociate ourselves from the "ism" we're fighting. We can easily think we are doing something positive but actually get in the way instead. I try to be alert to my ego getting in the way.

Right now I'm in the self-awareness phase - learning about racism and simultaneously unlearning oppressive things I've learned. Occasionally I have branched out to talk to others and to take anti-racist action out in the world. But in the largely self-awareness stage, it's easy to get caught up in thinking about me: "This is scary. I could get hurt." or the woe-is-me "I feel so alone. Where are all the other anti-racist white people?" or the condescending "I'm so much more aware than some other people." I catch myself sometimes and have to redirect my thinking after beating myself up some, of course. The work, ultimately, obviously isn't about me at all. It's about working with other allies on eliminating racism in people's heads (my own too!), actions, and institutions.

I was just reading the Report from the Third White Antiracist Summit put on by the White Anti-racist Community Action Network (WACAN). The summit, which I was unfortunately unable to attend, took place last month in Colorado. Some of the concerns raised in the discussions at the summit around building a white anti-racist movement echoed my concerns. Others I found enlightening (like the last one).

For example, some of the workshop attendees worried about the following obstacles to anti-racist action - these are just a few selections: (Note that I look at these as either external or internal behavior that could sabotage individual actions or the whole movement)

- White folks beating up on and being righteous with one another
- Whites considering selves "experts"
- Internalized racial superiority
- Unresolved pain and anger being acted out and being divisive
- Taking an individualistic and competitive approach, which many whites are taught, rather than a collective one

Anyways, I am being open with my process here. Ultimately, it's not my intentions or internal dialog, but my actions that matter.



sadie said...

HI there, I've been watching your blog with itnerest though I ahven't commented yet. I haven't commented because I usually just have a couple minutes and eerything here is so BIG to talk about. anyway though, I was struck by this:

"Isn’t there a deep longing in most people to heal from racism? "

Because I don't think so, actually, not among white people. I don't think most white people have any idea that we are actually harmed by racism and white supremacy.

I think most white people feel threatened by any discussion of racism. threatened because no one wants to acknowledge their own racism, and also because, well, in spite of the ways white peopel are harmed by racism,the fact is we benefit greatly from it and to lose that huge advantage is threatening.

anyway, I hope to return for more dialogue.

Tereza said...

Sadie, I so appreciate you taking the time to comment on this blog. Maybe going along with what you are saying about white people feeling threatened by confronting racism, the key is to awaken that moment in them - maybe in childhood- when they felt the pain of racism; a loss or conflict they experienced as a result of racism. That could be a place to begin. I think most people have experienced something like that and recalling it would make fighting racism more of an imperative for them. More immediate. I think we have to find a soft place from which to start. What do you think?

Scott said...

Hi tereza...I'm also new to commenting here, but I really like the way you are taking the risk to chronicle your journey like this and I'm definitely going to keep reading, and commenting when I can.

I have to say I had a similar reaction to Sadie to that particular sentence. Starting from concrete experiences is definitely something worth trying, but I still can't help but wonder whether the kind of damage caused by the experience of privilege is really as amenable to that approach to teaching and learning as the kind of damage caused by being on the oppressed side of the relationship. But I'd be interested in hearing about experiences you've had taking that approach. Far too often, I know I personally have not been as willing as I should be to take risks in "pulling fellow white people into the dialog" when hostility might result, so I'm always interested in strategies.

It definitely hasn't eliminated my own quintupleguessing, but one thing that has been at least a little bit grounding for me -- in navigating those difficult thinking-about-me moments, in contemplating "Why do it?", and in other ways -- has been a gradually deepening internalization of the idea that racist relations of power permeate every aspect of my everyday life and contribute to organizing my experience in profound ways. Rather than being something outside of my experience that I can choose to address or not, those social relations from the micro on up to the macro have become more visible as things in which I am immersed in very material ways whether I want to be or not, so the question is not whether to act in any instant, but how to act. Which may sound kind of like a semantic difference, but like I said there is something kind of freeing about it, if that makes any sense.

Anyway...great blog!

Tereza said...

Scott, thank you for your thoughts. I would love to know how you got to the point you describe in your post, when you realized and internalized "the idea that racist relations of power permeate every aspect of my everyday life and contribute to organizing my experience in profound ways." What led you to the recognition that, as a white person, racism is "something in which I am immersed in very material ways?"

I talked in another post about some of the approximating moments in my life; moments, which, according to Rachel of Rachel's Tavern, are "a way Whites can develop more empathetic orientations. . . that help Whites grasp what it is like to be the victim of racial discrimination."

What were some of yours? How can we help white people access these? Again, thanks for engaging in a dialog here. I look forward to hearing more from both, you and Sadie.

Scott said...

That's a lot of questions for a comment thread... :)

I'm not sure I can quickly give answers that wouldn't sound either trite and superficial, or (very undeservedly) self-glorifying. As all of us who are on this journey would probably say, it has involved a lot of listening, a lot of reading, a lot of stupid mistakes, a lot of feeling bad, and a lot of patience.

I guess one point I would make is that as crucial as empathy is, and the kinds of moments that Rachel talks about, I think it is easy to allow that importance to obscure for us the way experiences of oppression and privilege get socially produced. Part of what has been important for me beyond listening and empathy is putting effort into understanding how my own experiences have been socially organized, especially in comparison to experiences of racialized people that I know or whose words I read. Keeping a focus at an intellectual level on the fact that it is not just some horrible experience happening over there, but that horrible experience compared to my different experience, and that the two are connected in some way, is kind of helping it seep in at a gut level.

I think one important feature of my own process has been that it began in the context of a larger personal process of politicization in which racism was not originally on the radar. But that overall politicization created in me a situation in which my certainties about the world and about myself were being destabilized and I was already open to questioning when I first had to confront ideas around racism. On a practical level, I think the use of a pedagogy based in empathy and "approximating moments" is meant to create a similar kind of suspension of certainty about the world and self by that imaginative modelling of experience not our own, and thereby create a willingness to consider questions previously avoided. But given the particular context in which those first challenges to the blindness of white privilege happened for me, I'm not sure that I can draw upon that experience to suggest much about how to use those moments in our engagement with other white people who are not already actively politicizing. But you are definitely right that figuring out how best to do that is crucial.

Does that make any sense?

Tereza said...

Scott, if I understand you correctly, what you are saying is that while personal connections to the whole racism thing are important, it is equally important, if not more so, for white people to develop an understanding and sensitivity to the systemic nature of racism. I totally see that. And that can be a daunting task, because it inevitably leads many white people to feeling like accomplices or colluders. I've been trying to pay attention to both, my internal/interpersonal experience and the larger picture or how institutional racism works and how I'm connected to it - supporting it or challenging it. I want to get better at challenging racism out in the world. I have already made a committment to doing so, and so now there is no turning back.

Also, you said in your post that you're not sure how to reach people who haven't started the journey themselves. Hmmm...

I plan to do a pilot workshop for white peers and friends on how white people can work towards racial justice. I have never done anything like that and am quite anxious about this - I will blog about this.... We'll see what happens......... Yikes!

Karin Leak said...

Well, I see I'm a few days behind in this conversation, but I'll throw in my 2 cents anyway.

Tereza, it's interesting that the same line that caught the attention of Sadie and Scott has caught my attention, too.

"Isn’t there a deep longing in most people to heal from racism? "

I think there would be more of a longing if we, the collective We, weren't lulled into complacency by our busy lives. This complacency, I believe, is planned, by the way, by the government and the media: Weapons of Mass Distraction. Okay, this sounds all very conspiracy theory, but our daily lives confirm it. Perhaps not yours, per se, but the vast majority of Americans organize their lives around television programming and the resultant shopping that commercials promise will bring freedom.

What messages are we getting from TV programs and commercials? White people are good, rich, sexy, healthy clean home-owners, vacation-takers. People of color, if they appear at all and even then in the background or in the periphery, are bad, poor, unattractive, dirty, fast-food eating, drug-using, weapon-wielding apartment renters and service workers. Obviously, there are shows that break this television stereotype, which is refreshing and good for them. Generally speaking, though, what incentive does the TV-watching white individual, who doesn't normally think of themselves as racist, have to break out of their busy yet complacent lives to befriend a person of color?

It's easy to think that someone who looks different and maybe sounds different from us is someone we can't relate to, someone who's perspective we can't understand. But in my experience, the differences, usually superficial, are fascinating to discover in conversation, when going for a walk, when sharing a meal and the similarities, usually deep and integral, are comforting to recognize.

People don't know what they're missing. When we close our minds and our lives to entire groups of people, we deprive ourselves of the richness and joy of getting to know and making friends with different kinds of people. Having a variety of perspectives in our lives makes life far more interesting and meaningful.

Perhaps once white people warm up to the idea that having people of color in their lives is good, then they will begin to see the need for doing the difficult self-exploratory work of white anti-racism.