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(Politics) What I Want From White People

Politics 150When I write about contentious subjects here at The Writing Desk, I try to make sure that I use a tone that comes across as collaborative and inclusive. I know what a minefield sociopolitical topics are — especially on the Internet — and you can find someone shouting another person down anywhere you can find a comments section. But in order to engage in an actual dialogue, where people actually listen to one another, you have to find a way to show there’s no need for defenses; things that are hard to talk about get easier when you’re talking about it with someone on your side.

It’s important to me to talk about the political situation we find ourselves in because it directly affects me. It’s important to me to be heard because my background and community are far too often ignored. I’m black, I’m gay, I’m Buddhist, and there are a lot of things I see from outside the dominant culture that needs to be talked about. It’s hard for me to speak up because I abhor conflict; but it’s necessary because I want to help make the world a better place and that won’t happen by staying silent.

Over the past year, I’ve had a number of contentious conversations with friends, acquaintances and strangers about all kinds of things — but mostly about race. I’ve learned a lot through those conversations, even though it’s been hard for me to absorb and apply those lessons. Race is still a hard thing for people to talk about, especially white people, because there’s a misunderstanding about the goals we ascribe to each other when we talk about it. I think — and correct me if I’m wrong — white people feel guilty when the subject comes up and you think that we want you to feel guilty. As a black man, I’d like to tell you now that’s just not the case.

So…what do people of color actually want when we bring up race in a conversation? I can’t speak for everyone, but I can tell you what I want when I bring up race. I’m hoping that this is a good starting point for a conversation about conversation. We need to step back and take a look at how we think about discourse so we can jump into the hard stuff secure that we’re trying to hash things out in good faith. I know that a good deal of my white friends are paralyzed by fear of making a mistake and having someone take offense, and I get that. The Internet be scary! But here are a few things that might help make sense of my perspective — and others’ as well.

A couple of caveats first: I’m speaking from my experience of a cis black gay man, but that doesn’t mean I speak for ALL cis black gay men. Black culture is not a monolith, and what I say here may not apply to every black guy you see. If you have friends of color, talk to them about what you read here if you have questions to get their perspective. It’ll likely be different, and that’s a good thing. Having a broader range of perspectives allows you to find what’s consistent and what’s different.

Just as I expect you to know that not all black people are the same, I also know that not all white people are the same. I’m going to use the term ‘white people’ here to categorize a small subset of the white people I’ve interacted with — I know not all white people think a certain way or do things as described here. But I’ve had enough experience with white people to feel pretty confident that most do. If this doesn’t describe you, consider this a pre-emptive acknowledgement alright? Don’t come into my comments with anecdotal counterexamples, because I’m just going to point you to this paragraph.

Cool? Cool.

One of the hardest things for white people to do is to simply admit that racism as an institution exists and it still affects the lives of people of color to this day. But guys, I’m going to need you to acknowledge this is reality. Here in the United States, racism has been a huge part of our social fabric since before the founding of the country. European settlers decimated the Native American population, took the land, and brought over my ancestors from Africa to till the soil and grow the crops that made the US rich in those early days. That history of exploited labor has touched just about every other ethnicity, too — Chinese immigrants worked to build infrastructure for trains to bring people and supplies to the West; Mexican and Latin American immigrants are an essential part of our food production right down to this day; people in Asia, South America, and Africa work on poverty wages to build our clothes, technology, and baubles.

Even though slavery has ended, institutions designed to disenfranchise black Americans, Native Americans, and immigrants have been in place ever since. In the south during Reconstruction and the Jim Crow era (and right now), barriers have been in place to make sure people of color either can’t vote or have an incredibly hard time doing so. The justice system targets people of color much more often for infractions and punishes them far more harshly when they’re convicted, and this has been the case for decades. Banks and businesses are far less likely to hire people of color — especially in positions of power — or give them loans that might help them build successful businesses. The historical redlining of America’s cities have segregated communities of color into the worst neighborhoods with the lowest property values, which means that children of color are forced into underfunded, overcrowded schools where they receive substandard education. It’s harder to learn the skills needed to pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps; it’s harder to build successful businesses or influence industry; it’s harder to exert political will to actually change the policies that make this so.

Racism affects almost every aspect of civic life for black Americans. Harmful stereotypes are perpetuated by politicians and media; our attempts to correct these problems are dismissed and deflected; our increasing anger is used as justification to keep ignoring us. It’s not OK to be forced to present proof of our own oppression in a manner that white people find acceptable, especially when the goalposts keep moving.

So white people, the very first thing you can do for me is to just admit that racism isn’t over, it’s never been over, and a lot will need to change before it CAN be over. Trust me, I’d LOVE to stop talking about race and I’m pretty sure other black people would love it too. But we didn’t make everything about race in the first place; white people did, and still do, and won’t even acknowledge it happening so we can move on to dismantling racism.

One of the reasons white people have such a hard time even acknowledging racism is a lack of perspective. So many of the conversations I’ve had went nowhere because white friends have not been able to step outside themselves to see what the world looks like to someone who isn’t them. It can feel like you’re saying “I’m not racist, so therefore racism can’t be a problem” or perhaps “If it’s not a big deal to/for me, it really shouldn’t be a big deal to/for you”.

But racism, especially as an institution, actually has object permanence. It exists even when you can’t see it. Racism isn’t just a white person using slurs against a person of color in a hateful or demeaning way; it’s not just burning crosses or beating up or killing us. Racism is having a double standard for how white and black people behave; it’s taking aspects of different cultures while marginalizing the people in those cultures; it’s a complex network of attitudes and policies that keep us from being treated as equal even though those same policies were built in a framework supposed to promote equality.

Racism is bigger than any one person, and if you have never been exposed to its effects that doesn’t mean those effects aren’t there. It just means that your social position insulates you from them. White experience in America is a fundamentally different thing from black experience; it’s not an accusation, or a judgement, it’s a fact. That’s what we mean when we bring up the dreaded ‘white privilege’. The term doesn’t mean that white people get $100,000 a year automatically and their own team of servants; it means that the system we all live under gives you a different experience than it gives me.

If you’re white, you don’t have to be terrified of the police. I do. If you’re white, you don’t have to watch talking heads on TV argue about whether ideology painting you as inherently inferior or sub-human should be allowed in the public square. I do. If you’re white, you don’t have to keep up with a list of code words and symbols that might mean you’re dealing with someone who subscribes to that ideology. I do. I could go on, but there are many MANY different aspects of the black experience that are virtually invisible to white people and are never thought of. That’s the privilege.

Understanding this means decentering yourself and trying to see the same situation from a different point of view. As hard as it can be to grasp, a lot of the problems we’re talking about are literally not about you. They’re about us, and what we go through, and why that is. So, unless I’m specifically referring to something you said or did, please try to check the impulse to defend your words and actions and heart. This isn’t about that.

So once you acknowledge that racism is still an active institution, and put aside your experience to engage with someone else’s, there’s one last thing I’d love to see: empathy. Note I didn’t say pity, or guilt, or even anger at the thing I’m angry about. I’m specifically stating that I would like white people to have more empathy for black people and the things they must go through.

Imagine getting up in the morning and having it reinforced — in so many ways large and small — that this culture doesn’t fully accept you because of your background. When you take a shower, shampoo and conditioner might work differently on your hair; if you’re a woman, finding makeup or skin care products for your skin tone is harder. On the news, the President talks about how crime is ‘out of control’ in the ‘inner cities’ and you know the image he’s conjuring — one of young black men in the streets of Chicago or Detroit or Atlanta shooting each other. The crowd cheers when he says he’s going to ‘take care of it’. Meanwhile, family in New Orleans or southeast Texas or Puerto Rico is still struggling to recover from hurricanes.

At work, you find out you make less than a colleague of another race and you have to wonder if it’s your skillset or your skin color that’s caused that. Throughout the day there are dozens of interactions — with coworkers, service folks, customers and strangers — that might have been peppered with racially-coded comments ranging from innocuous to offensive, but you’re not sure. Instead of talking about it, you decide to let it slide but it still rankles you and you can’t stop thinking about it. After work there’s more news and commentary about your race, mostly from people who are of a different one. The TV shows, movies, books and games you use to have fun or feel better mostly feature people who aren’t like you; on a forum for one of your favorite sci-fi universes, a debate rages on why there needs to be a reason to make a main character someone of your race or else it’s just political correctness being shoved down the collective throat of the community.

Despite all of this, you love your life and you feel lucky to have it. You’re in a stable relationship, you make enough money to live comfortably, you have great friends and so many things you’re excited about. You love the country you were born in, even though there are no authorities you can expect to be friendly or helpful, even though your race hasn’t been treated kindly — let alone equally — by your country in the entirety of its history, even though protests and successes by members of your race are almost always dismissed or rejected or destroyed. You love your country, but you wish your country loved you back, and that your friends understood it doesn’t, it never did, it likely won’t for a long time.

You have a good life, but it’s complicated and painful in ways that most don’t see. And it’s hard to know what to do with that — because illuminating it might just blow it all up. It makes your friends more distant and nervous; it invites hostile and ignorant demands from others; it just makes you feel more alienated, frustrated, sad.

Imagine being that person. Imagine what that’s like. Sit with that feeling; hold it, remember it. Access that feeling the next time a person of color talks to you about race, white people. Treat that person the way you would want to be treated if you felt that way. Can you do that? Because it’s really all I want. Not guilt, or shame, or even an apology; just acknowledgement, perspective, empathy. That’s it.

 
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Posted by on January 10, 2018 in Politics, Pop Culture, Self-Reflection

 

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When I Talk About Bigotry

Politics 150There’s a big disconnect in our society when we talk about bigotry. I think a lot of people in privileged groups believe that bigotry means something like “active discrimination and disrespect of a minority group” or maybe “active/vocal hate directed towards every single member of a minority group”. There are a lot of people out there who believe that they aren’t bigoted (or even behave in bigoted ways or have bigoted thoughts) because hey, they’re not being Nazis or anything — they really just have good times with people, without “seeing” the race, orientation, religion or gender identity that makes them different.

It’s difficult to describe why that definition of bigotry is a misunderstanding, simply because our deepening ideas about what bigotry is don’t neatly fit within the space of 140 characters. There isn’t a good way to sum it up in a sound bite, or a metaphor that nails it perfectly. The fact of the matter is, an understanding of what I mean when I talk about bigotry requires an understanding of how I understand our society works, how bigotry is baked into the fabric of it in fundamental ways, and how we internalize and repeat those ideas.

OK, first, a definition of terms. Who is a bigot? The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines a bigot as “a person who is obstinately or intolerantly devoted to his or her own prejudices and opinions; especially one who regards or treats the members of a group (as a racial or ethnic group) with hatred and intolerance.” Intolerance is defined as “a quality of being unable or unwilling to grant equal freedom of expression or grant or share social, political or professional rights”.

So, a bigot is someone who treats members of a group as socially, politically or professionally inequal. A bigot is unwilling to allow members of a group equal expression or rights. A bigot is someone who is so devoted to their own ideas about the way the world works that they are unwilling to entertain the notion that it may work differently, that reality isn’t the way they think it is. They have the truth; that truth is immutable, and anyone who doesn’t believe the way they do is wrong and most importantly, intolerable.

The reason that the label of bigotry is such a hot one is it comes across as a value judgement. The subtext being spoken when you call someone a bigot is that “they are fixed to a particular way of thinking so firmly that they are unable to rethink it; they’re uncritical, inflexible, intolerant and unchanging.” And that you are, by definition, not any of those things. It often feels like two things are happening here. One, that the person designated as “bigot” is someone who is incapable of changing their beliefs. Two, that because this person is bigoted, anything they have to say can be completely ignored and there’s no reason to engage with them at all.

Being accused of being a bigot really hurts. It means that someone out there thinks you are a dinosaur, incapable of change; stupid; part of a generation that will die out to make way for a new, more enlightened generation. Too often, the accusation of bigotry is used as a wall that divides one person from another, and gives both parties a reason to never attempt a connection again.

I think there might be cause to “soften” that label. I think that bigotry is taught to all of us on a subtle and societal level, and that each and every one of us internalizes those bigoted ideas. That internalization causes us to act on bigoted assumptions — and by definition those actions are bigoted. Most of the time, we don’t even think about it. We simply act on what we’ve been taught is true and have no reason to question.

Part of dismantling bigotry within ourselves and on a societal level is understanding how these are ideas are part of the dominant institutions within our societies, how they are transmitted to the people within those societies, how we accept and absorb them as members of those societies, and how we can rethink these basic ideas, test them to see if something feels right or it doesn’t. It’s a lot of work, but it’s essential to understand not only how we work but how deeply these assumptions can be held. Once we’re able to recognize the capacity within ourselves to hold these thoughts, we can more easily recognize why other people believe and behave the way that they do, and why it can be so extraordinarily difficult for them to change.

There are so many assumptions about various groups that are hard-baked into our society — especially minority groups who tend to be under-privileged and don’t have access to the kind of massive reach that the powerful use on a daily basis. This of course includes mass media — not just news, but entertainment, marketing, education and more. All of it, either implicitly or explicitly, promotes and reinforces biases that need to be re-examined.

I don’t think this is a situation that’s necessarily borne from maliciousness, though malicious behavior has served to stifle and discourage attempts to change the status quo. Let’s take an example to see how institutional bias contributes to personal bigotry, at least from my perspective.

I’m a black man, and if you look through mass media throughout history our culture doesn’t have many positive examples for me. When we were brought to the United States, we were viewed as barely human, little more than savages who could understand basic commands and endure back-breaking labor that more genteel and enlightened races could not stomach. This myth of superhuman strength and physicality has been woven into the narrative of black men from that time on: in so many of our stories, black men fill the role of the “gentle giant” or a subset of the “noble savage”. In our entertainment, we’re presented as street-savvy toughs who are intimidating and dangerous. We join gangs, deal drugs, kill people. We go to prison (justly or unjustly), we father children and either die, abandon them or are taken from them. Three centuries of narrative on black men can be traced from slave owners selling their goods in the late-1700s to what policemen and news anchors say about Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown and Freddie Gray.

We’re often seen as people who are prone to violence, have poor impulse control and limited (at best) intelligence — when we are seen as smart, it’s more of a cunning than an actual ability to learn complex concepts and make connections between them. There are, of course, exceptions to this — especially recently. But the monolithic image of the black male as someone with a dangerous and animal strength, as someone unpredictable and tough, prevails. It informs how we’re reflected in news reports and movies, TV shows and books. That image is disseminated in a hundred different ways, subtle and unsubtle, and absorbed by those of us who see those news reports and fictional accounts everywhere.

We internalize this idea, and we begin to act on it instinctively. Police officers are quicker to assume that black males have weapons, and more likely to interpret actions as aggressive or hostile. They’re more likely to use deadly force as a result. We, as civilians, instinctively grow more nervous when we see one or more black males on the street. We begin to make assumptions about how they live, what they want, and who they are. Even when it’s tinged with a positive sentiment, there are underlying traits that reflect centuries of basic, bigoted ideas handed down to us from the stories we’ve told ourselves over time.

This doesn’t only happen with black men. This happens with women, other people of color, the disabled, the mentally ill, transgender and gender-fluid people, gay, lesbians, bisexuals, the poor and disadvantaged, the homeless…and the list goes on.

With the rise of the Internet and the resulting democratization of content available in our culture, we’re seeing those minorities push back against these stories. Black men are standing up to say we’re not all hulking athletes, or dangerous toughs, or cunning tricksters. We’re not the stories you’ve heard about that are causing you to cross the street, assume we’re up to no good, shoot us down in our neighborhoods. We’re just people, as widely varied and scared and messed up as anyone else. We don’t fit into these societal narratives.

What we’re finding as we speak up is that there are many, many people who don’t want to examine the stories they’ve been told, the ideas they hold because of them, or the prevalence of this false and in many ways dangerous information. They don’t want to look at how this narrative has lead them to bigoted thoughts and actions — because of it, black men can’t gather in places without being harassed; we can’t interact with the police in the same ways a white man could; we’re far less likely to be considered for white-collar jobs or opportunities in STEM education; we’re much more likely to be suspended and disciplined in schools. The stories we tell ourselves as a culture about black men lead directly to the unequal treatment of us as a group, at all levels of society.

That’s bigotry in action. It’s codified in our culture, repeated over and over again throughout our history until it becomes a sort of background radiation, something we simply accept. Most of us have assumptions about various groups because that’s what we’ve been exposed to from an incredibly young age. Centuries of history and decades of personal absorption are incredibly hard to dislodge.

But it can happen. It does happen. It first takes realizing what’s going on in the first place and challenging our assumptions about basic ideas. What does it mean to be black? What does it mean to be poor? What does it mean to identify with a gender that’s different from your physical sex? What does it mean to believe in a non-Christian view of the universe? Who are all of these people who don’t share your race, religion, orientation, socio-economic status? How do these differences affect their daily lives?

I’m learning an awful lot about this simply by listening to the people speak up about their own experiences. The plight of transgender people and women is something I haven’t been aware of until only recently, but my eyes have been opened in so many ways. It’s shocking to hear the things they’ve been through, the battles they continue to fight because of the ingrained, reflexive bigotry that we reflect unthinkingly.

I’ll admit, I’ve done, said and thought things that were bigoted. I will probably do so in the future; this is not because I’m a bad person, or that I’m intractable. It’s simply because I haven’t gotten to the place where I’m challenging basic, incorrect assumptions I’m still holding on to. But I’m working on that, I’m learning more all the time. That’s the burden we bear, the thing we must do to improve ourselves and the society we live in.

I ask sincerely that people have patience with me through this process. More importantly, have patience with other people who are still learning how to undo the education they’ve received; we’re all members of a flawed society we didn’t opt-in to, and some of us are going to have a more difficult time learning about those flaws, accepting the ways we’ve internalized them, and undoing that. Some people will be able to do this on their own; some people will need significant help that they may or may not ask for; some of us will never be able to do it. But I believe we’re all in the same boat with this, and it would be a great thing to help each other make progress however we’re able to do so.

Does this make sense? Do you agree, disagree? I look forward to the discussion in the comments.

 
 

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What Ferguson Means to Me

Politics 150On Monday evening, a grand jury decided not to indict Officer Darren Wilson on charges for the shooting death of Michael Brown, a black teenager who lived and died in Ferguson, MO. This was the result of a three-month process, in which the grand jury heard from witnesses of the shooting, the medical examiner who performed the autopsy for Brown, and Officer Wilson himself. Despite the fact that there were numerous facts in dispute about the whole affair, and that both Wilson and the Ferguson Police Department had changed their account of what happened during and after the altercation, it was decided that there was no reason to bring the matter to a trial. I was gutted.

I watched as Ferguson exploded right around the same time as my Twitter feed. Brown’s family had pleaded for loud and forceful — but peaceful — voices, but instead a lot of businesses were vandalized, looted, burned. The next morning people people were talking about the riots as much as what’s caused them, chastising the residents of Ferguson for burning down the stores and buildings in their own neighborhood.

Here’s the thing: I completely understand why the black community in Ferguson responded the way it did. They are a people who have tried to hold their head up through the this long line of injustices — from the Governor of Missouri declaring a state of emergency ahead of the indictment results, to the condescending manner in which the prosecuting attorney read those results, to the fact that it took three months for a jury to decide that Officer Wilson was not guilty of any at LEAST questionable actions, to the reaction of the police during the first round of protests, to the fact that Michael Brown’s body was left on the street for 4.5 hours, to the fact that he was killed at all. Each action and reaction by the system around them has told them that they are not being looked out for, not even being considered, that they will be treated as hostile forces just for speaking up. Why work within a system that had already decided it will treat you like criminals?

This is what Ferguson means to me, and what the results of the grand jury investigation tells me. From my understanding, the grand jury is only there to decide if something was off about the way Officer Wilson handled the shooting of Michael Brown. There have been numerous inconsistencies among the stories of the police department, the witnesses, and most of the people involved. I’m not going to go into the particulars of it — there are so many places online you can find them. But there’s more than enough of a reasonable doubt about it that there should be further investigation.

But the grand jury says that “No, we see nothing wrong with this. A police officer shooting an unarmed teenager in the back five times is not suspicious at all. The system is working as designed.” And that tells me that a police officer can use excessive force against me just because he sees me as more threatening to him based on the color of my skin. I can be targeted, harassed, brutalized, and killed, and that’s supported by the system in place. I can expect to be treated much more harshly by police if they even THINK I might be a threat, in contrast to many white perpetrators who have shown a willingness to use deadly force and yet have been taken into custody alive.

The reaction of Ferguson residents and so many people around the country is not just built around Michael Brown. He’s the final straw. But police targeting of people of color is nothing new. Remember stop-and-frisk in New York? Remember Oscar Grant III, shot by a BART officer in Oakland? Since Michael Brown, there have been so many other reports of police brutality. A black man was shot inside of an Ohio Wal-Mart for holding a pellet gun. A black boy was shot on a playground for holding a toy gun. A black man holding a sword as part of a cosplay costume was shot in Utah. The list goes on, and on, and on. In many of these cases, the police officers aren’t convicted — they aren’t even charged.

Police will often say that they use the force they did because they felt threatened. Why are they so drastically threatened by people of color that “shoot first, above all” is the only acceptable response? What does that mean to someone like me, or any other geeky black guy who might want to dress up like — I don’t know, a pirate, or a fantasy warrior, or Morpheus from The Matrix? Can we not carry swords now? Can we not even touch the fake guns on the shelves of a store for fear of an off-duty police officer killing us right there in the aisle? Are we being allowed to die because the color of our skin makes other people uncomfortable?

Whenever I see open-carry advocates sitting in Chipotle with assault rifles and yet not being shot to death by police officers, what I’m seeing is an unequivocal “YES”. When I see police officers being paid $400,000 for killing a black man and not even being charged for it, I see that the system is against me. That there is no legal recourse for being treated unfairly by an authority figure. That the system is indeed working as designed.

So when the people of Ferguson riot over Darren Wilson not being brought up on charges, it’s not because they’re animals. It’s because they’re angry. They’re being told that they are not going to be treated the same as other Americans because they’re black and poor. They’re being told that engaging with the system will get you nothing but further harassment. They’re being told that the oppression and disenfranchisement they feel is not important. That any one of their number can be shot, at any time, and then be criminalized after the fact….and that’s just the way the system works.

Over the past eight years I’ve seen the undercurrent of racism still alive in America rise up and become an unacceptable part of our national conversation. What Ferguson means to me is that for all the strides we’ve taken towards racial and social equality, there is still a lot of work to be done. It means that there are still people in positions of power who are comfortable with abusing that power to target people like me, and that the system can (and will) support it. It means that I can’t put my faith in the law and trust it will support my rights to life and liberty.

The riots are a forceful, angry, immediate rejection of those realities. I believe in more measured and channeled ways of rejecting them. But I also believe in action. I can’t trust that things will sort themselves out any more; I have to get involved to make sure they do. I can’t live and let live, because the system simply won’t let me. Ferguson means I need to take action, and support those who are taking action to demand their rights. Ferguson means that I need to fight for my place in this country.

 
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Posted by on November 26, 2014 in Politics

 

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