Which one will you pick? Calling out the fallacy of the Black/White Racial Binary Paradigm, Part I.

A native of Puerto Rico, Jessica identifies as a “1.5 generation Queer ESL Latina of Puerto Rican descent.”  She works as a consultant and core/organizer trainer for Crossroads.  Jessica holds a BA in Criminal Justice and Currently, Jessica holds  Masters degrees in Theological Studies and Divinity.
A native of Puerto Rico, Jessica identifies as a “1.5 generation Queer ESL Latina of Puerto Rican descent.” She works as a consultant and core/organizer trainer for Crossroads. Jessica holds a BA in Criminal Justice and Masters degrees in Theological Studies and Divinity.

I still remember the question: Which one will you pick? It came in the middle of a discussion about history and racism. I had just shared the latest evolution of the race classifications boxes announced by the United States Census Bureau, which eliminated “Latin@s/Hispanic” as a category. I posited to the group the shift was about power consolidation and politics of divide and conquer. Then came the question, which box will you pick? Before I could answer one of the white women said, “The White box.” Immediately an African-American woman said, “Nope, she will pick the Black box.”

I still remember laughing and making a comment about being wanted. And after we all had a laugh, I said I would pick neither. The group stared at me. You could tell they were asking, what does she mean? Were we not just discussing how race is not voluntary? How it is imposed? How can she pick neither? I allowed us to sit in ambiguous silence in part because I needed to find my words; in part because the power of the Black/White racial binary requires I claim allegiance to one side or another in ways that invisibilize me.

This was not the first time I was faced with the black/white binary question. The first time I was 21 and the only Latin@ residential female student at Christian Theological Seminary. I was desperate for friends and filled with socialized messages about who were the “good ones” to know and who were the “people to avoid.” I will give you a hint: the binary maps perfectly on these ideas. I of course lacked the analysis of systemic racism to understand neither the historical context of the question nor the impact of choosing. I failed to see the choice as a participation in the maintenance of White supremacy, to see myself a pawn in a much bigger game of power, and to recognize the binary as a destructive divide-and-conquer strategy. The reality is there is no Black/White binary. There is instead a White/non-White binary, which seeks to turn all people into collaborators of White supremacy.

I hate the idea of being complicit and yet I know how complex racial dynamics and racial politics become when a narrative is woven that obfuscates and confuses the true purpose of race, and which preys upon the vulnerability of people who then crave comfort, material wealth, and access to resources. And yet I know that as a 1.5 generation ESL Queer Latina woman of Puerto Rican descent living in the United States life would be easier, more comfortable if I simply give into the trap the binary sets. How can that be easier? I can join the race toward Whiteness or the American Dream and buy into the lie that says it is the marker of immigrant success. I can convince myself that as a non-Black person of color I have a leg up and as such I have the choice to call out our patterns or racial discrimination as long as the calling out does not compromise my “access.” Life would be more comfortable but it would also mean enslavement to a set of lies that dehumanize me and others. Moreover, this would require ignoring five dynamics the Black/White racial binary paradigm creates for people of color which ensure the continuous re-centering of Whiteness as the dominant and only valid experience of this nation. Tomorrow, I will name and reflect on the first three dynamics.

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Five Reminders and Reflections from the White Privilege Conference

Abbi Heimach has a B.A. from the College of Wooster in Women's, Gender, and Sexuality Studies and Religious Studies. After a year teaching elementary special education, she worked in young adult related ministry at the Presbyterian Mission Agency. Currently, Abbi is working on her Masters of Divinity at McCormick Theological Seminary. She is an intern for Crossroads Antiracism Organizing and Training, a member of the National Committee of the Presbyterian Peace Fellowship, and is pursuing ordination in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). In her free time, you can find her dancing and cooking vegan food.
Abbi Heimach has a B.A. from the College of Wooster in Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies and Religious Studies. After a year teaching elementary special education, she worked in young adult related ministry at the Presbyterian Mission Agency. Currently, Abbi is working on her Masters of Divinity at McCormick Theological Seminary. She is an intern for Crossroads Antiracism Organizing and Training, a member of the National Committee of the Presbyterian Peace Fellowship, and is pursuing ordination in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). In her free time, you can find her dancing and cooking vegan food.

At the end of March, I traveled to Madison, Wisconsin for the White Privilege Conference (WPC). If you’ve never been to WPC before or never heard of it, WPC is an annual conference that promotes racial equity and justice through educational plenaries and workshops, caucusing, and networking. As a first time attendee, it was refreshing to be surrounded by activists, scholars and students learning together for a common cause. I left the experience filled with hope and encouragement from the connections I made and tools I learned, but I also encountered frustrations and challenges. To continue on the journey for racial justice, here are some “reminders and reflections” that I learned from my experiences at WPC—all impacted by my own personal journey to better understand my white privilege and the ways white supremacy works to perpetuate our deeply racist world.

1) Despite our best intentions, white supremacy can still be present. My group arrived a little late, and as we settled in collecting our registration materials, we sat down to figure out which workshops we wanted to attend. There were so many interesting ones! By the time we decided where we wanted to go and walked to the assigned rooms, we discovered that most of the workshops were already filled. WPC had its most attendees yet, which is great, but what resulted was a competition to get to your top workshop choice. People were placing their belongings in rooms and leaving to save spots; people rushed from workshop to workshop with an unnecessary sense of urgency so they could win a limited seat. Even in a workshop, white participants continued to dominate the speaking space. Competition seemed to develop over who could be the most inclusive, or claim to know the most about how oppression works. I witnessed individuals responding harmfully to people who spoke up in the sessions. Although it is inevitable that each of us will make mistakes or find ourselves ignorant to someone’s experiences of oppression, responding with hate will not heal relationships and work for equity. Experiencing discomfort is an important way to learn, but humiliating someone can cause a scar that can prevent that person from learning and improving upon a mistake. Competition prevents us from collaborating. Rushing excessively inhibits our ability to notice who is excluded, and an unhealthy environment as such can contribute to perfectionism, which is unrealistic and over-burdening.

2) Equality is different from Equity. One of the workshops I attended had helpful teaching techniques for learning about individuals’ diverse contexts and identifying power roles. Throughout the 90-minute session, they had us frequently switching groups, sharing stories, finishing sentence prompts, and listening intentionally while not responding to our fellow group members (so as to allow a completely equal sharing atmosphere) all in a strictly calculated timeframe. In any group of people there are those who have a lot to say, and those who take their time to speak or aren’t as comfortable speaking. By setting a timer for an individual’s sharing time, each person can have an equal amount of time to share—stopping those who share too much and encouraging those who don’t speak much to share more. Although good in theory, there are a number of problematic consequences. This process failed to recognize how a community of people contribute to building an environment that helps people feel comfortable enough to share their stories. Also, people process information at different paces. Not everyone can quickly share a story or move on abruptly after someone exposed the depth of her soul. In fact, it can be harmful to force people to speak. What is equal is not always equitable. Because we all work differently and have a variety of experiences, we should prioritize fairness over equality in pursuing racial justice.

3). Brave space instead of safe space. I was in a workshop led by white antiracist activist Shelly Tochluk where a woman of color brought up that she cringes at the thought of creating “safe space”. This was eye-opening for me because I thought this is what we all should be striving for within group settings, educational environments, worship spaces, etc. She explained that “safe” means something different for everyone and often white people are the ones naming whether or not a space is safe. Shelly introduced that Brian Arao and Kristi Clemens write about working towards “brave space.” Whenever we are in environments that require us to build community, share stories, or become vulnerable, it requires courage and bravery. I find this to be an extremely helpful concept and reminder.

4). The importance of race-based caucusing. Since interning with Crossroads Antiracism Organizing and Training, I’ve learned about the importance of caucusing. To caucus is to spend regular time from organizing work to reflect upon internalized racial inferiority and internalized racial superiority in separate groups for people of color and white people. These groups are a way of checking ourselves, reflecting and improving, forgiving and inviting. Later, coming together whole group with people of color and white people and sharing that we did our work is a way of holding each other accountable and moving forward. WPC reminded me how vital caucusing is to the movement. My white caucus exhibited the beautiful and painful journey justice is, how racism scars everyone, and how as white people who benefit from oppression, we have a responsibility to turn the trajectory, to break the pattern, to step up and work towards overturning the white supremacist foundations of our society.

5). And lastly, WPC reminded me that it’s not about me, but us. Caucusing is not just about the internal work that we do, but especially for the group work we need. As a white person I have to remember that even though realizing the ways I contribute to oppression is painful as an individual, working towards racial equity and justice requires me to set aside my personal desire for comfort and perfectionism (manifestations of white supremacy) and join in the collective movement. We all will make mistakes and that is part of the journey—of discerning difficult solutions, of loving each other despite our brokenness, of knowing that the world must not stay the way it is.