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Counter White Supremacy With Black & Brown Supremacy (For A While)

"Black Lives Matter" by 5chw4r7z.

“Black Lives Matter” by 5chw4r7z.

Did you know that white supremacy reigned even before dooms day November 8th, 2016?  Yes, even with a (half) Black man in the White House, our country continued its legacy of white supremacy — one of many things that remain constant no matter the political party or race (or gender) of the sitting president.  The election of a known racist, sexual predator, xenophobe with the same level of political experience as a newborn baby was, in many ways, the inevitable conclusion of a supposed threat to the white supremacist order delivered by the election and re-election of Barack Hussein Obama.  My gut told me that Clinton should have waited another election cycle because this one might get ugly; and, it was so much uglier than I could anticipate.  Jesus herself, if she were to run as a Democrat, could not have won up against a candidate who promised to leave white supremacy intact (or, perhaps, advance its return — “Make American Great Again”).

I have Black feminist women in my life to thank for my relative calm about what a Trump presidency will mean.  While I’ve witnessed white liberals openly weeping over the election outcome, I’m surrounded by many more Black women who have all but asked, “why would you expect otherwise?”  Certainly not pessimism or resignation, as these women, like nearly every Black woman who voted, had hopes for a Clinton win (albeit with a more subdued, “child, I guess I’m with her…”); their slight lack of enthusiasm does not reflect a lack of commitment to gender equality or feminism, as research overwhelmingly suggests that Black women are more committed to it than are white women.  Rather, a(nother) Clinton presidency would be Diet White Supremacy (sweetened with stuff you know might kill you ultimately); but, her often centrist platform (and the inevitability of working within the deeply racist system) left no illusion that she would be much of a white savior for us folks of color.

But, some white liberals are afraid now. Have y’all been sleeping as Black cis and trans women have been murdered at historic rates — while Obama has been president???  White women jumped to plan a Million Woman March, staying true to a history of co-opting the work of Black people while excluding them.  (Where were y’all in 1997?)  Others are are wearing safety pins to publicly (albeit subtly) signal their solidarity for various oppressed groups.  I’m afraid I won’t notice because I’m looking to see which white folks (cops included) may be armed.  (Will your safety pin stop a bullet?)  Stop weeping and start organizing with people of color.

Did you know that real change requires sacrifice, risk, maybe even pain and getting a little dirty?  The residual pinhole in your shirt from a safety pin pales in comparison to the bullet holes that too frequently pierce Black and Brown bodies.  Taking a day off of work for a march is cute, assuming you have a job that allows time off for a political cause.  But, these initial efforts to return America to the pre-Nov. 8th days (you know, the ones in which white supremacy still ruled, just under a Black president) are not enough to bring down systemic, institionalized racism.  Real change needs to be more than a warm smile, a good intention, or a minor inconvenience.

White supremacy isn’t just the spike in racist hate crimes the week since election day, or graffiti displaying racist messages on public buildings, or putting known racists into powerful political positions.  It is also the mundane, everyday-ness of whiteness, the treatment of white as the default.  You are complicit in white supremacy to the extent that you are complacent about whiteness operating as the default, that you are too lazy or afraid to go against the grain, and that you are too ignorant to realize other possibilities exist.  Efforts to “see past color” or treat everyone equally help to maintain the racial hierarchy, whereas ignoring the ongoing legacy of racism does anything but create a level playing field.  (Why do you think most whites oppose Affirmative Action?)

My suggestion to counter whiteness-as-default is to make Blackness and Brownness the default starting now.  To the extent that you have a choice or power to shape something, prioritize the inclusion of people of color, our voices and contributions, and our herstory.  I’ll use academic examples, as that is my own profession.  If you are selecting scholars for a panel, speaker series, or edited volume, start by looking for scholars of color (especially cis and trans women and trans men).  Prioritize the hiring of candidates of color for job searches.  Nominate students and scholars of color for awards.  Assign readings in your classes by writers of color.  Cite researchers of color in your own research, and consider collaborating with colleagues of color.  Tenure and promote faculty of color.  Develop and generously support racial and ethnic studies programs.  If you use images of people in your Powerpoint presentations, take the time to find images of people of color.  Yes, much of this takes some extra time, but consistently going the easy route (who do you already know?  who is recognized as the “best” in your field?) will consistently yield white face after white face, white voice after white voice, white idea after white idea.  Concern about your time and energy are innocent enough, but they contribute to the treatment of whiteness as the default; and, to the extent that most white academics do this, it’s a systemic problem.  Who ever said racial justice was convenient?  It’s not.

I believe the easiest way to make racial justice, rather than whiteness, the default is make self-reflection about it a standard act.  I consistently draw from a racial justice frame from the Virginia Anti-Violence Project:

How does this decision/action/policy humanize, liberate, and intentionally include Black people?

This is something you can use in your own life, but also ask that others with whom you live and work make this a standard reflexive act.  Imagine, if you will, that American voters asked themselves this question last Tuesday; I wonder if fewer would have voted for the racist-rapist.

I know some may take issue with the language of Black supremacy or Brown supremacy — implying that people of color are superior to whites isn’t helpful either.  (How would we know since we’ve never been given a fair shot?)  I use such strong language to emphasize just how intense your efforts will need to be to make any sort of real impact.  We need something infinitely more powerful than safety pins and a one-day march to overcome white supremacy.  Think of the possible impact of even just a year of treating people of color as the default — only nominating and electing people of color (the reverse of what happens now), only featuring actors of color on film and TV (reverse of today), only hiring talented and qualified people of color (the reverse, still), only teaching Black/American Indian/Latinx/Asian American/Muslim history (not [white] US history).  What about regularly taking the time to seek out and amplify the voices of people of color rather than other whites (you might be surprised that we have important things to say!).  Getting involved with the Black Lives Matter movement and/or other racial justice movements.  If you give to charities, donating exclusively to those that promote racial justice (especially those with inclusive leadership — meaning cis and trans women of color and trans men). Consistently and generously compensating people of color for their labor and contributions to the community.

In 2017, the year of Black and Brown supremacy, children of color would see themselves, the employment rate for people of color would go up, perhaps the racial wage gap would shrink (or at least stop growing); maybe skeptical whites would finally see the potential of people of color and begin investing in us and partnering with us.  Of course, on year won’t be enough to counter centuries of white supremacy and whites’ efforts to exterminate and decimate communities of color; but, we’ve got to do something grander than safety pins.

Here’s a tissue.  Wipe up your white liberal tears and get to work.  You’ll know you’re actually making a difference when you need that tissue to wipe sweat from your brow, dirt off of your hands, and blood from injuries you’ve sustained.  Your people elected Trump — what are you going to do about it?

Can We Celebrate Queer Lives And Activism, Too?

James Franco

I’m (not) sorry, but can we hold up on celebrating every white straight cisgender man who does anything minimally non-homophobic/biphobic/transphobic?  I appreciate these efforts.  And, I recognize the work of some as anti-homophobic, anti-biphobic, and/or anti-transphobic activism (you know, because not being a bigot is not the same thing as being an ally or advocate).  In my opinion, they should be doing this, and giving a cookie to every self-proclaimed ally reinforces the message that bigotry is just a few bad apples and justice can be achieved through a few noteworthy, but infrequent acts.

Beyond that, I find that queer people do not get enough credit for existing, daring to be visible, authentic, happy.  Coming out.  Refusing to hide.  Refusing to conform.  Refusing to resign themselves to a miserable, invisible, inauthentic existence.  Refusing to tolerate the status quo.  Refusing to be excluded from important social and political institutions. Who could ever imagine a day that lawsuits are filed in the country’s most conservative states to force them to get up to speed with federal recognition of same-gender couples?  Even in the face of opposition that has demonized queer people as promiscuous, drug-abusers, pedophiles, non-monogamous, and perverts, queer people have demanded to have their relationships recognized and celebrated.

We’re here, we’re queer, get used to it.  Straight, cisgender people, get used to it!  That is some brave, bold shit.

Oh, but it takes a lot to be so brave.  Individual queer people are worn out from the daily toll of being out (or not) or making that negotiation minute by minute.  Our relationships are tested as we navigate another, unexpected layer of the closet: queer love and sex.  Do we embark on the war with our intolerant families?  How do we navigate our communities?  How do we navigate the law and institutions?  All while not really seeing ourselves, seeing others like us, in public and the media.  All while, at best, being tolerated but never fully accepted.

Sometimes, the well runs dry.  Sometimes, it is easier to give it up — accept our second-class citizenship.  The opposition can be so fierce that you begin to wonder why you fight — maybe you are asking for too much, too soon.  Maybe you are naive to hope for better.  Maybe you are even greedy for wanting equality in an unequal world.  Maybe you should concede to the world’s desire to make you disappear.

Fuck.  That.  Noise.

My activism is not radical unless staying alive is radical.  It is radical if equality is radical.  We have got to fight — all of the time — so we can stop fighting.  When one of us gets weary, another one should step up to carry on, and another to support the both of them.  By continuously fighting, we carry on the legacy of those who fought before us, and improve the opportunities for future generations.  It is not a war we started, but it is one we will have to win in order to survive.

So, I am celebrating queer warriors — all of them.  And, I am honoring the fallen.  Fight on.  Thanks to our heterosexual and cisgender supporters and allies; keep fighting on, but celebrate the victories for queer justice — not yourselves.

A Call For Bystander Intervention To End Racism

In the recent sociological blog debate on racism versus the supposed dawn of “post-racism” in America, we often touched on problems that make talking about racism difficult, if not entirely impossible.  In addition to institutional constraints, there are interpersonal factors that can derail meaningful conversations about race and racism.  In addition to calling attention to these barriers, it is important to make explicit that too few people take on this difficult task.

Responsibility For (Anti-)Racism

In general, too few people consistently assume responsibility for talking about race and racism, and fighting racism more broadly.  That kind of work is presumed to be taken on by activists and leaders of social movements.  But, in particular, the responsibility generally falls in the laps of those victimized by it — in this case, people of color.  As Jason noted in his contribution to the “post-racism” blog debate, racial and ethnic minorities generally face this burden alone.

But, people of color are neither alone in this racist society nor the creators of this system of oppression.  Whites are implicated by virtue of the benefits they receive (i.e., white privilege) from the historical legacy of racism, as well as today.  Eliminating racism, then, is just as much their responsibility, if not more, as it is for people of color.

As I re-watched a few of ABC’s “What Would You Do” social experiments regarding race and racism, I was reminded just how problematic America’s sense of responsibility for racism and anti-racism are.  While too few whites intervene when they witness racist discrimination in stores against (innocent) people of color, many seem quick to intervene to sanction Black people’s criminal behavior but not that of whites (see part 1 and part 2).  (Three young Black men sleeping in their own car got more calls to 911 than did three young white men vandalizing and breaking into someone else’s car.)

A Personal Anecdote

Racist events are plentiful, from small slights to extreme forms of violence.  So, there are too many missed opportunities to confront racism, or at least learn from these events to do things differently in the future.  One such event stands out in my own life.

At the start of my second semester of graduate school, my cohort and I sat through the beginning of our training and preparation to carry out a telephone survey on social attitudes that summer.  In talking through concerns for the project, whether we as  interviewers “talk black” was posed as a potential bias in our interviews.  It felt as though as though a grenade had gone off right in the middle of class, but we continued on ignoring it.  I thought, “was I the only one who heard that?”

This event only became an issue when my colleagues of color and I were overheard joking about the racist comment the following week.  That was brought to the attention of the professor who, out of concern, asked us whether and how to “handle” this.  Three weeks later, we finally devoted an entire two-hour class to discussing the comment about “talking black” — a phrase the professor wrote explicitly on the board to facilitate our conversation.

Of course, five minutes that felt like an eternity passed before anyone broke the thick silence that suffocated the room — it was me, naturally, in which I called attention to that deafening silence.  As the tense conversation carried on, my cohort was divided, with the students of color and anti-racist white students taking issue with the concern about “talking black,” and the rest remaining silent, or speaking up to say they did not see a problem or even recast the comment in their head so that it was not problematic.

The conversation boiled down to whether the commenter said “talking black” or talking black, where the quotation marks became the symbolic boundary between belief that there is a(n inferior) style of English unique to Black Americans and the knowledge that others believe that (but not believing it oneself).  Only a racist person would forgo the quotation marks, for this would reflect their own beliefs.

With the conversation ending with a half-ass apology from the commenter, that one’s upbringing in the Midwest should suffice as an excuse for one’s racist prejudice, we left the room more divided than ever before.  The rest of our department remained curious bystanders, but nothing more came of these events outside of the efforts of students of color to challenge racism in the department and university.

To add insult to injury, later in the semester, my colleagues of color and I overheard some of our classmates complain about the ongoing divisiveness, placing blame on us for not having gotten “over it” yet.  Their simultaneous lack of understanding and lack of sympathy only further fueled the division.  I am happy to say that a great deal has been forgiven, but one can never forget such events.  But, sadly, because little came of it, we saw yet another racist event occur years later.

A Call For Bystander Intervention

I, as others before me, call for a bystander intervention approach to ending racism.  Too often, individuals not directly involved in a dangerous or difficult scenario — or bystanders — simply stand-by and watch without intervening to provide help.  As such, in the case of the prevention of sexual violence (since this “bystander effect” was coined after no one intervened in the brutal rape and murder of Kitty Genovese), advocates have strongly emphasized the need to turn bystanders into potential interveners – “bystander intervention.”  Applied to racism, this means that individuals are called to action to intervene if they witness racist discrimination, bullying, or violence.

However, I push this anti-racist bystander intervention one step further beyond intervening in difficult situations.  Similar to my calls for bystander intervention to prevent sexual violence (i.e., rape, sexual assault, sexual harassment), I stress that our anti-racist work must include a sense that racism is a community issue and, as such, anti-racism is a community responsibility.

Ways To Intervene

A related aspect is noting that racism exists at multiple levels and, as such, there are an infinite number of ways in which we can fight it:

  1. One can intervene when they witness racist discrimination or harassment.  Of course, this depends upon a number of factors that make this easier said than done.  And, no one should intervene in ways that place them at risk for getting hurt.  If it is a scenario of extreme violence, like a racially-motivated hate crime, a safe means of intervening may be to call the police.  If it is an instance of the unfair firing of a Latina coworker, you could approach your supervisor to note that you feel your coworker deserves a second chance.
  2. Challenge racist prejudice.  This can entail calling people out who appear to harbor prejudice toward people of color, or hold misguided stereotypes.  It also means calling out offensive comments that others’ may make about racial and ethnic minorities.
  3. Challenge yourself.  No matter one’s racial or ethnic background, and one’s racial ideology, no one is immune to the pervasive poison of racism.  It is important to also check your own biases and actions.  Do you seek out friends of the same race?  Do you avoid “that part of town”?  Do you do certain things, at least in part, to avoid appearing racist?
  4. Educate yourself.  Unfortunately, most Americans leave formal education knowing little about racism and the history and experiences of people of color beyond obligatory coverage during Black History Month.  To push beyond this, one can take the time to learn more (even from March to January).  Read books about and by people of color.  Go see films on historical and contemporary accounts of the lives of racial and ethnic minorities.  Visit museums that feature exhibits on race and ethnicity.  Become comfortable talking about race and racism with the people around you, no matter their race and ethnicity.
  5. Support victims of racist prejudice, discrimination, and violence.  As I wrote the first suggestion, I realized that there are so many concerns that one may have in directly challenging racist actions.  But, there are fewer concerns regarding harm in supporting victims of these actions.  Though your supervisor who unfairly fired your Latina coworker very well could threaten you, as well, you are freer to reach out to your coworker.  See if she wants to talk, needs help finding a new job, or even filing a discrimination or EEO complaint.  Even outside of severe instances of racist acts, you can be a supportive ally by really hearing people out when they reveal their experiences to you (rather than blaming them or encouraging them to think of alternative reasons for those acts).
  6. Challenge racist practices of organizations and institutions.  Though the days of overt racist laws and policies are mostly gone, there are still many — albeit neutral in intention and language — that disproportionately harm people of color.  It is important to challenge these, just as it is to challenge racism at the individual-level.  Maybe you can speak up if your workplace implements a dress-code policy that unfairly targets racial and ethnic minorities.  Take action to prevent the efforts to repeal Affirmative Action and other policies that aim to redress racial inequality.  Educate yourself and others about how new policies or policy change can contribute to racial equality, even if they are not targeted solely toward people of color (e.g., Affordable Care Act).

Concluding Thoughts

Obviously, everyone cannot become leaders of social movements like Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. or lead deadly anti-racist efforts like abolitionist John Brown or the slain Mississippi civil rights workers.  Most of us are not lifelong activists.

But, there are many opportunities throughout a given day to make a difference, no matter how small.  For, even small acts add up to a big contribution to challenge prejudice and stereotypes, educate oneself and others, end racist discrimination and violence, and promote racial diversity and equality.  Just as we are all implicated in racism, it will take all of us to end it.