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White People: Yes, It is Difficult For You To Talk About Race — That’s Part Of Racism’s Design

Source: Victoria Pickering, https://www.flickr.com/photos/vpickering/

Preface

This summer, I caused quite a stir on my university’s faculty listserv on the matter of institutionalized racism in higher education. My esteemed colleague, Dr. Bedelia Richards, wrote a terrific essay on the matter: “Is Your University Racist? Five Questions Every Institution Should Ask Itself.”

I subsequently caused another stir on the UR faculty listserv by criticizing my university’s inaction in the face of an law student group’s invitation for Ryan T. Anderson of the Heritage Foundation to speak on campus for the fourth time in recent years — this time, to peddle scientific transphobia thinly disguised as legitimate legal and scientific analysis. (See my blog post on the matter here.)

Several colleagues — mostly white, heterosexual, cisgender women and men — have reached out to commend my bravery, invite me to lunch or coffee, and/or to tell me how they could never speak out so publicly and brazenly. I am grateful, but admittedly annoyed, for a few reasons.

First, I’ve come to recognize that what seems like bravery on my part is actually just efforts to do the work that my university has failed to do. Calling out institutionalized racism and cissexism falls to individual students, staff, and faculty when the university neglects to do so; and, such work looks (and is) brave.

Second, I don’t want to keep having lunches and coffees. These invitations are kind gestures, but they require more and more time and emotional labor, including the back-and-forth of multiple emails just to find a time that works for our schedules. I’m not speaking out to be praised or validated; I’m speaking out because my safety and livelihood depend upon real efforts to challenge racism (mine, as well as yours). Rarely have these one-off meetings turned into long-term friendship or even sustained support/mentorship/sponsorship/advocacy on my behalf.

And, finally, these interactions demand of me that I absolve white, heterosexual, cis people of failing to speak up in the face of injustice. I resent when privileged people confide in me about why they refuse to fight against the systems of oppression that constrain my life chances and quality of life, systems from which they benefit. What’s uncomfortable or inconvenient to you is literally oppressive and violent for me.

So, I took to Twitter once again to speak to white people on challenges (yet importance) of talking about race and racism. You can see the rant in its original Twitter form here. (Also check out my last one, “White People: You’re Racist, But This Isn’t About You.”)

What follows is a slightly revised version in essay form, reorganized to improve clarity and flow.

You Are Afraid To Talk About Race & Racism

White folks: so, you don’t know how to talk about race – but you want to. You feel paralyzed by fear or ignorance, and might decide to defer to someone who is “well-versed” on the subject matter. But, you feel guilty, and you want people of color to whom you are an ally to know that you aren’t racist (just scared).

Whatever the reason for your silence, you’ve made a conscious decision to remain silent about race, perhaps even in the face of racist injustice. White privilege allows you to feel like an individual who made a difficult decision. But, in reality, most white people choose silence. And, those individual decisions to remain silent add up to collective white silence, to white complicity in racist oppression, or even white consent to racist violence.

And, that’s exactly how white silence feels. As a person of color, I cannot discern between your fear-stricken silence and the silence of white people who don’t think that racism exists, who think that race only emerges as a topic or factor when people of color bring it up (i.e., “playing the race card), or who simply do not value the lives of people of color. The impact of your silence is literally the same as that of Klansmen, Nazis, most white Republicans, and other garden-variety racists.

You Lack The Language To Talk About Race & Racism

White folks: of course you feel that you do not know what to say on racial matters, or how to intervene in racist incidents. Very few of us are well-versed on the topics of race and racism. Even as a race scholar (academic expertise) and person of color (personal experience), I struggle to communicate the complex, structural, pervasive nature of racism to other people — even other academics. It may seem like people of color can talk readily, freely, and endlessly about race, but we just have lots of practice given our everyday lived experiences in a racist nation.

Of course you don’t know how to constructively talk about race. You don’t have to (thanks to white privilege). And, you’ve gotten little to no practice with it (thanks to white privilege and racism). It has never been a skill that white families desired to or felt it necessary to teach their children. There is no widely accessible script afforded to white people for talking about race or fighting racism. It’s like learning a new language or skill.

But, worse, racism makes it so that there are risks inherent to white people talking constructively about racism. In the past, anti-racist whites have been called “race traitors” and “nigger-lovers,” etc. The system is designed to protect itself from white individuals attempting to undermine it. So, of course you are clueless about how to talk about racism. And, of course, you are nervous to “go off script.”

Because you feel you lack the “right” language, you may be tempted to defer to someone who is seemingly better equipped to talk about and address racism. In doing so, the responsibility typically falls to whichever people of color are present for that conversation or incident. As usual, it’s those victimized by the system who are burdened with the responsibility of trying to get those who benefit from racism to give a damn, to listen, to learn, to act.

Too often, I see white people defer to others (people of color) to talk about race and act in the face of racial injustice — and, then never make an effort to educate themselves about race and racism. If we think of such knowledge as “racial literacy,” then an equivalent inaction would be realizing you don’t know how to properly use the reply-all feature on a listserv or group email but never bothering learn how. But, while unnecessary replies-to-all are annoying and inconvenient, collective white ignorance about racist oppression literally has dire and deathly consequences for people of color.

You Lack The Right Knowledge About Race & Racism

White folks: if you actually go on to educate yourself when you have been forced to acknowledge ignorance about racism, then please do not hit up the lone person of color you know to educate you. We do not get paid for this labor — and it is labor that is requested often.

Speaking from experience, I can tell you that most white folks (even the most liberal, well-intentioned ones) are not 100% open as students. So, with the labor of educating you about how you benefit from our domination, we risk your anger, frustration, cluelessness, dismissal, co-opting, resentment, etc.

Understand that you are not the only, nor the first or last, white person to ask questions of, to play devil’s advocate with, to process your feelings about racism with a given person of color. That time and energy adds up and, honestly, for too little payoff. You need to note that these conversations may be taxing, upsetting, or even triggering for us because it can feel like our safety and livelihood depend upon the outcome.

There are countless books written, documentaries and films and TV shows produced, and courses offered on race and racism, many by people of color. The widespread existence of academic programs in Racial and Ethnic Studies, Black Studies, Asian American Studies, American Indian Studies, Latina/o/x Studies, etc. tells you that there are a great deal of scholarly and creative works on our lives, and on race and racism. I recommend becoming a student of these fields to minimize the labor tasked to individual people of color to respond to the infinite questions asked by white strangers, friends, relatives, neighbors, students and teachers, medical professionals, law enforcement officers, etc.

You Feel Uncomfortable Talking About Race & Racism

White folks: please stop waiting for talking about race to be comfortable. Racism is a system of oppression. It’s never going to feel like a topic that’s lighthearted enough to absentmindedly bring up at Thanksgiving dinner.  (You’ve seen the hilarious Saturday Night Live skit, “A Thanksgiving Miracle,” right?)

As such, I encourage you to get comfortable with being uncomfortable. Your comfort in the face of the inhumane system of racism is an example of white privilege. Being comfortable with racism (or ignoring it) is not a luxury people of color enjoy. Personally, I don’t need you to tell me how brave I am for speaking up. In reality, I’m petrified every time I speak up! You can bravely speak up in the face of racial injustice and still be afraid or anxious or nervous. It’s not an easy thing to do — for anyone.

Your discomfort is a reasonable feeling. But, I want to caution you against confiding that fear in the few people of color in your life. You will certainly not be the first white person to say “I care, but I am too afraid to speak up.” Please, stop coming to us to absolve you of your fear-induced silence in the face of racism.

People of color have to be brave in the face of racism because our survival literally depends upon it. We don’t have a choice in the matter. But, when you let fear silence you, you’re enjoying the luxury of choosing to speak up (or not) about racism afforded to you by white privilege. The consequence of your silence and inaction is not death; in reality, the main consequence is maintaining your white privilege.

Strategies For Addressing Racism

White folks, if I may offer some strategies to those who genuinely want to challenge racism:

1) Take the time to get educated, for knowledge is power.

2) Build an anti-racist arm. Have a relative or coworker or friend who can echo your concerns when you speak up to minimize the risk of being the lone voice of dissent or concern.

3) Be proactive about developing some relatively easy way of saying “hey, wait! that’s problematic/racist/offensive!” Racism is a given, a daily reality. So, please act accordingly. Stop being surprised when it rears its ugly head — because it will, over and over again.

4) Take some time to find one good, accessible resource to share for further information, especially if you don’t feel equipped to say anything more than “hey, that’s racist!”

5) Wherever you have power, make space for people of color so that you don’t have to speak on our behalf (especially if you’re too afraid to speak about race and racism). Don’t leave it to us to do the work, but I’m noting here that there are infinite spaces in which we aren’t even allowed.

6) Don’t be so concerned with what other white people think of you. To the extent that you are trying to get the approval of other whites, you are only maintaining your white privilege. The beauty of white privilege is that you can piss off other white people by constantly talking about racism, calling other whites on their blindspots and biases, and not lose out or be harmed in the huge ways that we do (violence, termination, exclusion, dismissal, etc.). Remember, white privilege is like a boomerang. You can attempt to relinquish it – for example, by confronting a racist uncle – but, it will always come back to you. You don’t stop being white (and privileged accordingly).

7) If you speak up against racism, then don’t expect people of color to thank you and pat you on the head for being a “good white.” Our validation shouldn’t be your desired goal for fighting racism. In fact, I encourage you to learn to be OK with being called racist by people of color. Besides, “you’re racist” is a pinch compared to being oppressed by racism. So, thicken up that skin, please.

8) Recognize that fighting racism isn’t about you. Take your ego out of it. Do it because it is right.

9) Be patient with yourself (and others). Race relations are inherently tense and fraught — that’s by design. But, that can’t be an excuse to give up, to stop speaking up, to stop learning, to stop asking for assistance and co-conspirators. At the same time, please appreciate that people of color won’t necessarily be patient with you, and probably shouldn’t even grant you patience while you slowly begin addressing racism. Again, don’t get hung up on how we feel about you. We lack enough power for our feelings to be of much consequence for you — but, your silence and inaction makes you complicit in the system that devastates our lives.

10) Get comfortable with being uncomfortable. One big challenge is that you cannot try to retain the comforts of white middle-class life and challenge racism. The former exists because of white privilege.

11) Get comfortable with feeling ignorant, and owning that ignorance in front of others. Remember that your supposed ignorance about racism is yet another manifestation of white privilege — you don’t HAVE to be versed in racism. That is by design. Our social institutions reinforce that luxury: K-12 and college curricula overwhelmingly feature the lives and contributions and histories of white people; mainstream TV, film, pop culture are so, so, so white; and, businesses cater to upper- and middle-class whites tastes.

12) Start talking to other white people about racism. You have access to spaces and relationships to which we are denied full access. Even if you still lack the language and courage to readily engage in, for example, a discussion of mass incarceration as a modern day form of Jim Crow racism, you can at least invite other white people to talk about race, or even call bigoted whites on their racist comments and behaviors. At the very minimum, you can pose seemingly innocent questions in response to problematic comments or behaviors that demand other whites to explain themselves (possibly revealing initially veiled racial biases) or rethink their comments/actions.

Closing Thoughts

White people: confronting racism is hard and scary. I hear you! It entails getting your hands dirty, getting your feelings hurt, maybe alienating your racist uncle, and losing friends who voted for Obama (twice) but keep saying “all lives matter.”

A bit of tough love here — you are naive to assume it would ever be comfortable and easy. (Don’t you think we would have eliminated it by now if that were the case?) I recommend thinking about fighting racism as akin to going to war. Just as you wouldn’t expect to maintain your usual comfortable lifestyle during wartime, you cannot expect it when fighting racism. In fact, if you are comfortable while you are fighting racism, then I suspect you’re doing it wrong.

But, ya gotta do it. Ending racism necessitates real effort by white people to bring the system down. It’s not about you, but we need you.

Being White Does Not Make You An Expert On Race And Racism

Image source: Alex Garland

Image source: Alex Garland

I use and consume water every day, multiple times each day.  But, I would never call myself a water scientist.  (My ignorance shows in even having to look up the term, the profession of researchers who study water.)

I watch television daily, and frequently watch movies either at home or, less often, at the movie theatre.  My strong opinions and preferences aside, I would never call myself a TV or film critic.

I drive almost daily, and have been driving regularly for 17 years now. But, I don’t know the first thing about cars, and certainly wouldn’t call myself a mechanic.

I was assigned a racial identity at birth — two actually, Black and white — and have lived as a raced person in a racist society for 32 years.  I tentatively call myself an expert on race and racism because I study and teach about them, though they are not my primary area of research or teaching.  But, if these topics never appeared in my work as a scholar, I wouldn’t call myself an expert.

“Opinions Are Like Assholes…”

I am certain that most academics and laypeople share my hesitancy to claim expertise on water, the arts, and automobiles if they lack formal training or long-term experience (research, teaching, or performance) in these areas.  Though we may self-diagnose illness and injuries with WebMD, we still end up in a doctor’s office for a “real” diagnosis and treatment. How did we ever survive before there was quick and easy access to internet search engines?  Google is a verb, and Let Me Google That For You exists as a snarky response to idiotic questions that can be answered with a quick Google search.

But, race and racism seem to be the exception.  Everyone, regardless of education level, seems to be an expert on race.  Collectively, white Americans presumed to understand racism well enough to conclude that it no longer existed upon the election of a half-white, half-Black person to US President who likely only had a shot at the office because he was raised by his white mother.  I know from my slowly evolving awareness of the ways in which white privilege — specifically, the white privilege passed on to me by my white heterosexual middle-class cis man currently without disabilities father — that has benefited my own life that Obama’s upbringing is not typical for Black Americans today.  But, that nuance never appeared in mainstream discourse about the election of “the first Black president.”  And, I ask of those quick to declare we live in a post-racial (or even post-racist) society — yes, even some academics… who study race (please, excuse my shade…) — how the hell did we end up here with a known racist as Obama’s successor?

I certainly understand why race and racism are hard to understand for those who do not empirically analyze them for a living.  There is a nifty analogy for gender, that it is like the water that surrounds us as fish.  We take it for granted; it is there from birth — assigned to us, thrust upon us, taught to us, and then policed when we deviate — and thus we come to think of it as natural.  In other words, it is incredibly difficult to step outside of gender to understand it, especially gender as a social structure — a system that organizes the social world from gendered identities and expressions to sexist laws and policies.  Gender seems so everyday, so familiar, and so mundane that it is easy to only see it as something individuals have, thereby missing it as a system of oppression that shapes and constrains our lives and livelihood, interests, interactions with others, and even our organizations and institutions.  Gender is complex and ever-changing; we need women’s and gender studies programs to even begin to grapple with this complicated social system.

Race and racism share the mundaneness that we sense of gender.  We take for granted that race exists, naively assuming that it has always existed, and, by extension, is a universal and essential artifact.  Though the social construction of race has caught on as a more adequate way of conceptualizing of race, there are still spoken and unspoken glimmers of the assumption that race is biological.  There is also the stubborn mentality that racism is solely the explicit expression of prejudice toward others of a different race, which leaves anti-racist activists and scholars stuck with the perpetual burden of having to prove that racism manifests structurally and unconsciously, as well.  That’s why whites’ resentment about “PC culture” — modern social etiquette that demands you simply not say something deemed racist — is misplaced; yes, please stop referring to Black people as monkeys, but, you should also stop killing us, denying us jobs and promotions, withholding affordable loans and excluding us from predominantly white neighborhoods, expelling us from school or even sending us to prison over minor disciplinary problems, and so forth.

Race and racism are complex systems.  That is why there are scholars who devote their careers to their study.  That is why there are academic programs in racial and ethnic studies, Black studies, Africana and African American studies, Latina/o/x studies, Indigenous studies, American Indian and Native American studies, Asian and Asian American studies, Black women’s studies, Muslim and Islamic studies, Judaic studies, cultural studies, American studies, etc. The study of race, racism, and racialized communities also appears in more traditional academic programs like sociology, psychology, English, social psychology, music, theatre, art, and political science.

Race and racism warrant academic inquiry because they are important, but also because they are incredibly complicated and ever-changing.  I’m afraid your uncle Joe’s assessment of who is ISIS and who isn’t fails to constitute expertise.  I’m disinclined to consider your mom as a race scholar just because she (thinks she) has one American Indian friend.  I’d be wary of your boss’s conclusion that “Hispanics will take over America” because he gets nervous around the office’s janitorial staff when they “refuse” to speak in English in his presence.  And, I’m rolling my eyes at your friend’s story that she experienced “reverse racism” because the Black Starbucks barista was “mean” to her (read: didn’t roll out the red carpet to celebrate her existence because she’s white).  Yes, I am intentionally drawing upon examples of racial prejudice here because many everyday whites draw upon their bias and stereotypes as expertise on race and racism.

I Blame Academia (Or, What’s New?)

More frustrating is that whites’ arrogance about their expertise on race and racism exist alongside their dismissal of academic study of these topics.  And even more frustrating is that I have witnessed this not among laypeople — those whom we might dismiss as ignorant or uneducated if we are disinclined to be sympathetic, or inclined to be elitist — but from fellow academics.  Many white PhD educated people, whom I would assume to have an appreciation of other disciplines and be self-reflective about the limits of their own expertise, are quick to devalue research and teaching on race and racism.  Even in my own discipline (sociology), race and ethnicity scholars — specifically those who are scholars of color — are faced with accusations of conducting “me-search“; by virtue of their inability to be “objective” (a privilege reserved for whites, no matter their research area), their work is dismissed.  More generally, the study of communities of color is dismissed (yes, even in sociology).

I suppose we cannot be too hard on uncle Joe, your mom, your boss, and your friend for believing they are experts on race and ethnicity.  The academy itself is complicit in devaluing formal academic study of race and racism.  Though racial and ethnic studies and similar programs exist, they are woefully underfunded, underresourced, understaffed, and are increasingly under threat.  These topics have never been seriously championed in academia, and support for these programs may even be waning (at least in some places).  You can get a PhD in Black studies, but I’m not so sure you can expect to get a tenure-track faculty position (if that is your goal).  You can specialize in race and ethnicity as a sociologist, but publishing in top mainstream sociology journals will be a challenge, as will securing grant funding.  Oh, and get ready to be challenged by your students who think they know as much about race as you do (if not more if you are an instructor of color).  Why should we expect everyday white folks to take seriously “the leading expert on racism” when such scholars are not celebrated and respected as would be “the leading heart surgeon” or, hell, even the worst physician alive who, nonetheless, has the respect afforded to doctors?

The academy’s devaluation of academic study of race and racism makes it complicit in the rampant ignorance about race and ethnicity in the US.  It is partially responsible for the inevitable rise of Trump and fellow white supremacists.  It is responsible for the success of the narrative of angry poor whites who put Trump in office, despite empirical evidence that it was racism and sexism that gave him the election.  It is responsible for the dumb notion that whites can be victims of racism or the more perverse “reverse racism”, that calling attention to racism is “playing the race card” or wallowing in victimhood.  Academia is responsible for the disgusting reality that Black women scholars’ teaching and public writing about racism can successfully be demeaned as racism — this is reflected best by the fact that these scholars actually get in trouble for doing the work they were trained and hired to do!

Concluding Thoughts

The supposed post-racist era is dead, which actually serves as more proof that it never existed to begin with.  We cannot even optimistically say we’ve entered a new era of racism because many of the features of old-school racism have reemerged (including Nazism and a bit of anti-Semitism).

But, racism today is undeniably more complex than ever before.  As such, this moment is a crucial one to turn to experts on race and racism to understand how we got here and how to move closer to the death of racism.  And, by experts, I mean people who have extensive academic training and who study race and ethnicity for a living.  Now is the time to seriously support academic programs devoted to the study of race and racism.  It is the time to hire race and ethnicity scholars to aid in developing new laws, policies, and programs.  It is the time to listen to the experts of race and racism like we would to those who study climate change, or medicine, or biology, or space.  Maybe we wouldn’t be in this mess right now if we had already been seriously listening to the experts.

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?

Transgender People And The Criminal Justice System

Source: GayRVA.com

Source: GayRVA.com

Last week, I participated on a panel, Transgender People in Criminal Justice and Law Enforcement Settings: Recent Research, hosted by the Virginia Anti-Violence Project (VAVP) at University of Richmond’s downtown campus.  Dr. Eugene F. Simopoulos, a forensic psychiatrist, presented a thorough review of gender identity and expression, and the treatment of trans people in the criminal justice system and medical institution.  Responses were offered by Edward Strickler (secretary of the Board of Directors of VAVP), Rebecca Glenberg (Legal Director, ACLU of VA), and me (in my capacity as a sociologist).  Our collective goal was to educate local law enforcement about trans people, particularly their treatment within the criminal justice system, and hopefully offer recommendations for improvements.  Below, I offer the notes from my response to Dr. Simopoulos.  You can see media coverage of the event at GayRVA.

___

As a sociologist, I study discrimination, and its consequences for marginalized groups’ health and well-being. There are two features of my scholarship that I believe will be useful for today’s conversation about trans people generally and in the criminal justice system specifically.  The first is to offer a critical sociological perspective for understanding discrimination.  The way that most people understand discrimination in an everyday sense is fairly narrow.  In particular, discrimination is thought to include specific, rare, and identifiable events of unfair treatment that are committed by specific, identifiable perpetrators who harbor prejudice toward a particular disadvantaged social group.  Thus, the intent of one’s actions are crucial here, regardless of the impact on the victim.

However, as a sociologist, I recognize that discriminatory treatment is much more complex than this, and often occurs in the absence of explicit, conscious bias.  The discriminatory acts perpetrated by a member of a dominant group against a member of a stigmatized group are merely the behavioral component of a system of oppression.  And, these acts are justified by the ideological component of this system of oppression, or what we typically call prejudice.  I suggest, then, that we think about transphobia as a system of oppression.  The discrimination and harassment that transgender people face is neither rare nor random; rather, trans people repeatedly face discrimination, harassment, and violence across multiple contexts, and throughout their lives.

Transphobia Is A System Of Oppression

Transphobia, as a social system, includes the discriminatory acts perpetrated by cisgender (i.e., non-transgender) people against transgender people.  It also operates through important institutions in society – the medical institution, the criminal justice system, education, the military, and so forth.  It shapes the policies and practices of these institutions in ways that disadvantage, harm, and/or exclude transgender people.  Finally, transphobia manifests as laws and policies, particularly at the federal and state levels, that disadvantage, harm, and/or exclude transgender people.  This includes seemingly-neutral laws and policies that are harmful, nonetheless.  One example would be the push for voter identification laws, which places additional burdens on trans people, particularly those whose legal documents do not reflect their current gender identity.

I offer this perspective of transphobia as a system for two reasons.  First, I wish to highlight that the challenges to improve the treatment of transgender people are by no means unique to the criminal justice system.  Second, I want to push our conversation about trans people’s interaction with and experiences in the criminal justice system into the broader context of transphobia.  The challenges that transgender people face in the criminal justice system are both cause and consequence of the challenges they face in other domains of society.  The National Transgender Discrimination Survey notes that trans people are more likely to interact with law enforcement and/or enter the criminal justice system because: 1) they are more likely than cisgender people to be a victim of a crime, particularly anti-trans hate crimes; 2) they are more likely to be homeless, kicked out of their homes by family or due to extreme poverty; and, 3) because of employment discrimination, many transgender people turn to sex work, selling as well as using drugs, or other parts of the underground economy.

Intersections With Racism And Classism

The second feature of my scholarship that I wish to share today is a framework that considers how other systems of oppression intersect with transphobia. Black feminist scholars have developed a concept called intersectionality to understand the interlocking and mutually reinforcing relationships among racism, sexism, classism, and heterosexism. We can add to this list transphobia. Relatedly, they argue that you cannot attend to one of an individual’s multiple social identities to fully capture that individual’s experiences, well-being, and status in society.

In today’s conversation, by thinking of trans people solely in terms of their gender identity and expression, we miss important ways in which transgender people’s experiences are shaped by their race and ethnicity, immigrant status, social class, and other identities. More specifically, we miss that certain segments of transgender communities – namely poor trans people, trans women, trans people of color, and especially trans women of color – are particularly vulnerable to violence, discrimination, harassment, sexual violence, poverty, homelessness, and poor health.

Findings from a few recent reports, including the NTDS Survey, and the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs report for 2013, suggest that these groups bear the greatest burden of the challenges that trans people face in the criminal justice system. And, these disparities exist in every context in the system, from interactions with police, to arrest, to treatment in prisons.

  • While 60% of the transgender people in the NTDS survey report any interaction with law enforcement, the number jumps to 80% for Black and Latina trans women.
  • Trans women of color are more likely to report being targeted, disrespected, and harassed, and assaulted by police than other trans people, and LGBT people in general. For example, under New York City’s practice of “stop-and-frisk,” wherein 90% of individuals who were stopped were Black or Latina/o, LGBT people, especially trans women, were disproportionately represented.
  • Trans women, particularly trans women of color, are often stopped by police because they are assumed to be sex workers – a pattern that the ACLU and other groups has now referred to as “walking while trans,” akin to racial profiling or “driving while Black.”
  • While only 3% of the general population has ever been incarcerated, 16% of trans people have ever been sent to jail or prison. And, that figure is 41% for Black and Latina trans women; almost all report that they were incarcerated due to transphobic bias.
  • Among trans people who have been incarcerated, trans women of color serve longer sentences, and are more likely to be harassed, and physically and sexually assaulted by both fellow inmates and prison staff than other trans people.
  • And, a greater percentage of trans women of color report that either other inmates or prison staff block their access to hormones or regular medical care.

To conclude, I want to reiterate the importance of recognizing the roles that race, ethnicity, immigrant status, and social class play – or, more specifically, how racism and classism intersect with transphobia. We must avoid thinking of and treating trans communities as a monolithic group, as there is a great deal of diversity within these communities.

References And Additional Information

  • Simopoulos, Eugene F. and Khin Khin.  2014.  “Fundamental principles inherent in the comprehensive care of transgender inmates.”  Journal of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law 42: 26-36.
  • Summary of findings [pdf] and full report [pdf] of National Transgender Discrimination Survey.  (And, see my summary here.)
  • Supplementary report [pdf] of Black respondents in the NTDS survey.  (And, see my summary here.)
  • Supplementary report Hispanic and Latina/o respondents [pdf] and Asian and Asian American respondents [pdf] in the NTDS survey.
  • Summary of findings [pdf] and full report [pdf] of the 2013 National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs report.
  • It’s A War In Here: A Report on Transgender People in Men’s Prisons [pdf] by Sylvia Rivera Law Project.
  • The Williams Institute report on Latina trans women’s experiences with law enforcement [pdf].
  • The Unfair Criminalization of Gay and Transgender Youth,” Center for American Progress, June 29, 2012.
  • A Roadmap for Change: Federal Policy Recommendations for Addressing the Criminalization of LGBT People and People with HIV [pdf].
  • Queer (In)Justice book
  • Dealing with Transgender Subjects,Police Magazine, January 4, 2013.
  • Resources from the Transgender Law Center

“Bigger Than A Nigger’s Heart”

I promised myself a little time to vent about the nigger “joke” I heard on Christmas, and then I would forgive and move on.  At the close of the sentence, “bigger than a nigger’s lips,” my mind went spiraling.  I was shocked that I heard what I heard.  Five feet away from me?  In mixed company on many accounts?  How was the joke even relevant to the conversation?  How, in 2013, do whites still make nigger “jokes”?  I felt eyes dart in my direction.  Oh, Eric — the Black guy — the professor — the one who does research on racism — the one who speaks openly about racism — oh, gosh.

I tried to play it cool.  But, that all dissolved in a matter of minutes.  Sitting in the car for the remainder of our time at the party was the only thing keeping me from vomiting.  Or at least it felt as though I would, as nausea built from feeling trapped between politeness and my burning, screaming mind.  I promised I would get over it by the next day, continuing to focus on racism as a system of oppression — not individual acts and attitudes.

But, in just seeing @StandForOurFlag, a defender of the Confederate flag, notify me that many in the US South continue to feel nostalgia for the confederacy (which lasted for four years) 150 years later because of something about liberty (give me a break), I cannot quickly get over the Christmas event.  Two days later, I saw a Confederate flag waving proudly on my way to the mall.  I tweeted about it, which is why I received the aforementioned response about liberty for (whites in) the South.  Liberty?

Source: Kevin WongIn the spirit of one of my my 2013 resolutions (now one for 2014 because it is still a work in progress) — forgiveness — I had hoped to move on from the nigger “joke.”  Black people, from capture, forced removal, enslavement, to Jim Crow, lynching, rape, to a continuing, yet subtler practice of racism today have been forgiving whites for a lot.  Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King and other Civil Rights movement leaders advocated for forgiveness even in the face of vehement racist hatred.  It takes a huge, committed, faith-filled heart to forgive that.  But, I have been trying.  Something akin to “forgive the sinner, but not the sin” because racist individuals are simply a product of their racist society.  It takes an evolved mind and spirit to be better than your upbringing, in my opinion.  People can change — I have, and I have seen others become better, more compassionate, more open-minded, more understanding, and more critical of inequality and injustice.

I can think of something bigger than a nigger’s lips: a nigger’s heart.  Still today, Black people and other people of color fight to make the US a better, more equal place — even with a continued willingness to work with white people where they are.  Despite accusations of “playing the race card” and being hypersensitive, there is a great deal of patience afforded to whites without laying blame for this country’s racist past.  We ask only to address today’s racism, which is a product of past racism.  You cannot eradicate racial inequalities today without addressing the impact of centuries of enslavement, disenfranchisement, violence, and barriers to advancing and succeeding in life.  You cannot tell a group of people who have never experienced full, equal citizenship in this nation to “get over” the very events and treatment that continues to constrain their lives.

So, I admit that alongside my forgiveness is a twinge of resentment.  I have been asked again and again to forgive, even to forget, even to forgo recognizing bigotry when it occurs.  But, I am sometimes automatically damned, accused, found guilty, punished simply because of my racial identity.  I am asked to forgive those who refuse to forgive me for not being like them.  How small is your heart (and your mind) if you automatically punish someone for being something you have decided is inferior or undesirable?  So, we’ve got you beat there, racist white people!  In this vein, we have the more open minds, we have the bigger, more forgiving hearts.  We are able to simultaneously love this country and hate its ugliness in order to make it a better place.

I will keep forging ahead in my work to fight racism as a system, including racist treatment and attitudes.  But, I think I have reached my capacity for forgiveness.  Now approaching 30 years, I am beginning to feel heartache.  I cannot forgive the murder of Trayvon Martin, nor that the State, which unfairly punishes those it should be protecting, that let his murderer free.  I cannot forgive “oh, I didn’t know anyone would be offended,” and then be told celebrating the racist legacy of the South is a matter of liberty.  I do not know that I can forgive the political sabotage driven by racism that has severely hindered President Obama’s important legacy in this nation.

My heart is big, but it would burst if I forgave any more without forgiveness in return.