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

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  Master 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 Master degrees in Theological Studies and Divinity.

In this final post, I am reflecting on the two remaining 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.

Dynamic 4: The Black/White racial binary paradigm allows white people to simply ignore their own investment in both racist constructs and their participation in them.

There is no example more powerful in recent day than the Donald Sterling debacle. The wealthy lawyer and purported slumlord who owns the L.A. Clippers, an NBA team, was caught on tape asking his biracial girlfriend to not bring African- Americans to his team’s games nor post photos of herself accompanied by them. Immediately, collective outrage took over this nation. White people were coming out of the woodwork to condemn his “racist behavior.”  When NBA commissioner Adam Silver banned Sterling from the NBA for the rest of his life progressive white people everywhere breathed a collective sigh of self-satisfaction.  The good white people have won. But as Ta-Henisi Coates opines it is easy to condemn the oafish, classless, inelegant racism of the likes of Sterling and rancher Cliven Bundy. What is never easy, what is costly for White people is to address what Coates refers to as “elegant racism,” which he describes in this way: “Elegant racism lives at the border of white shame. Elegant racism was the poll tax. Elegant racism is voter ID laws.” It is one thing for white people to express outrage at the overt unapologetic racism of Sterling and rise to the defense of African-Americans. It is another thing entirely for White people to own the ways in which they support, benefit, and leave unchallenged “elegant forms” of racism like stand your ground laws, mass incarceration policies, the privatization of prisons, the continued colonization of native lands, and anti-immigrant laws, just to name a few.

Dynamic 5: The Black/White racial binary paradigm stunts our creativity for visionary organizing and revolutionary collaborations.

I still remember the day one of my supervisors was fired. Over a decade has passed and I can still feel the weight of guilt for the ways in which my silence aided in the process of his dismissal. The situation was complex particularly because we felt no solidarity with each other. As an older African-American man in his sixties working in a profoundly racist liberal White institution he had learned to distrust anyone claimed by the White power structure. That included me. I was a 26-year old Latina claimed by the structure he distrusted as exceptional and set up as an example of what “good” people of color were supposed to be. His upbringing and the crazy-making construct of race had led him to believe that I was not a person of color but an honorary member of the White community. My upbringing in a colony of the United States and the crazy-making construct of race had led me to believe that I needed to stay away from him in order to succeed. I sometimes wonder how our work, our lives would have been different if we had seen each other as colleagues in the same struggle. I wonder how our organizing would have been more effective if we had been able to acknowledge that while the strategies were different, our dehumanization by racism was the same. I wonder how our communities would have been affected if we collaborated in ways that witnessed respect; maybe a revolution?

Among the most damaging effects of the Black/White racial binary paradigm is the way in which it eliminates the possibility of transformative collaboration among people of color groups and between White and people of color communities. When creativity is compromised the ability to formulate strategies to debunk the binary and the White supremacist worldview that produces it is inhibited.

The five dynamics I have reflected upon in this blog series threaten our struggle for human dignity. While alone I cannot stop these, I can join others in the struggle for human liberation. For the last 15-years I have given my time, energy, and creativity to Crossroads Antiracism Organizing and Training because it gifts me with a community of people working out of a shared analysis to strategize and organize cultural and institutional interventions that disrupt the divide-and-conquer strategies which threaten to seduce me away from my liberation and from the struggle for transformed community.

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

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  Master 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 Master degrees in Theological Studies and Divinity.

Today, I am reflecting of the first three 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.

Dynamic 1: The Black/White racial binary paradigm leads to the assumption that the solution to racism and the key to liberation is to invert dynamics of power.

When I started my antiracism journey, I walked around with the belief that racial justice work needed to be focused on ending the oppression of African-Americans by over-turning the power structure which oppressed them and transitioning all social and cultural power to them. There were many factors informing this conviction. Among them was the belief that racism in the United States was exclusively a Black and White issue, and as a documented immigrant with the privilege of citizenship, my job was to help invert power dynamics. With time I came to understand the web of oppression created by systemic racism actively destroys all people including White people and me. I realized that simply being a person of color did not ensure that people would resist the dominant narratives of this nation which normalized and centered Whiteness. In fact if people of color are not actively working to address the ways in which we have internalized racist oppression we can become inadvertent supporters of White supremacy. Thus shifting power from White people to African-Americans specifically or people of color more broadly does not in fact guarantee an end to racial oppression.

Dynamic 2: The Black/White racial binary paradigm seduces people of color who fall outside of the binary into the service of white supremacy.

One of the real dangers of the Black/White racial binary paradigm is that it can trick those of us who fall outside of the binary into believing that racism is not and ought not be our concern. This belief is often accompanied by the illusory conviction that if we work hard enough, if we assimilate quickly and effectively enough, we will achieve the American dream and melt into a pot of Americanness not intended for us. I make this claim because I used to believe this so profoundly that when I turned 18, I voted Republican. I wanted to be American and the GOP represented for me traditional American values I desperately wanted to prove I could embody: hard work, individualism, patriotism, and white picket fences. This is not to say that the Democratic party is not supporting distorting patriotic narratives, but simply to say that as an 18-year old immigrant voting for the first time, the narrative woven by the Republican party came across as truly American in a way the Democrat narrative did not.  It would be years before I would come to fully understand that those values and narrative required I actively participate in the maintenance of a status quo that demanded I nurture self-loathing and contribute to the demonization of people of color communities.

Dynamic 3: The Black/White racial binary paradigm results in dehumanizing Oppression Olympics that obfuscate white supremacy while jeopardizing the possibility of revolutionary collaboration among communities of color.

The most effective way in which the Black/White racial binary paradigm maintains white supremacy is the Oppression Olympics. By this I mean the dehumanizing competition that emerges among people of color communities to prove who is the most oppressed. The competition unfurls often in this way: African-Americans understandably seek to define the conversation of race around the brutal history of chattel slavery while Native-Americans are pushing for an analysis of the problem that departs from colonialism and genocide while Asian-American Pacific Islanders are fighting against a myth that purports they experience no racial discrimination. Into this conversation enter Latin@s, all too often declaring the whole problem of race does not concern us because our countries do not do race and have no racism. This of course is not true. The nations we come from were shaped by European colonialism and infused with racial consciousness, racial ideas, and racial narratives that centered the European experience as normal and best. All one has to do is watch a telenovela to see how racial dynamics are present in Latin America. Moreover, the maintenance of the idea that racism is not our concern falls flat on the face of the active and often violent discrimination our people experience. Finally, at the edges are multi-racial people trying to find a voice. While this is in fact a simplistic articulation of a very complex problem, the result of these dynamics is competition. Instead of building coalitions as people of color, we routinely scapegoat each other and too willingly invisibilize our unique experiences of dehumanization while failing to name white supremacy as our common threat.

An illustration seems fitting. I still remember my first week in Atlanta, GA. I was watching the morning news when they introduced two guests invited to discuss the anti-immigrant legislation the state legislature was considering. The camera panned over to reveal two women of color experts, both lawyers. The lawyer speaking against the racist and xenophobic legislation was South East Asian while the one speaking in support was African-American. As I heard the conversation a knot formed in my stomach. The African-American lawyer convincingly argued that Latin@s represented an economic and cultural threat to African-Americans and society as a whole. I wanted to shake the African-American woman and tell her to stop. I wanted her to see me not as a threat but as someone whose destiny is tied to hers; as someone oppressed by the same system against which she is struggling. After four years in the deep south I am filled with examples of the way both African-Americans and Latin@s participate in the Oppression Olympics.  Consequently, both communities lose the ability to see and name the true culprit dehumanizing us: white supremacy.

Tomorrow, I will reflect on the two remaining dynamics.

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.

The Black-White Binary Obfuscates and Distorts: Why the Antiracism Movement Must Reject It.

Robette has been Executive Co-Director of Crossroads and a Core Organizer/Trainer since 2002. As a Karuk Indian, Robette brings a specifically indigenous perspective to antiracism organizing. She is a founding member and past president of Diverse & Revolutionary UU Multicultural Ministries (DRUUMM), the continental support and advocacy organization for UUA People of Color. She is currently Board President of Oyate, a Native American resource and advocacy organization. Robette has over a decade of experience in antiracism training, technical support and advocacy.

If I could change ONE THING that would have unprecedented impact on racial justice, racial equity and antiracism, I would change the way the United States “thinks” and “talks” about race. Because the way we typically think and talk about race, has no basis in the reality of how this country actually DOES race.

The prevailing discourse and analysis of race and racism focuses on a Black/White Racial Binary Paradigm.  This paradigm is so ubiquitous, so persistent and so contrary to rational thought, historic evidence and lived experience one can’t help but grasp there is something powerful about it that keeps us heavily invested in maintaining it. The Black/White Paradigm is one of the most rigid constructs maintaining white supremacy and systemic racism. And the really diabolical thing about it is one can be whole-heartedly committed and working to dismantle racism, while maintaining it at the same time. And when it’s People of Color who live race in the Black/White Paradigm, it is an effective divide and conquer strategy and a toxic internalized oppression dynamic.

Some definitions are in order. First, what is a paradigm? And then, more specifically, what is the Black/White Racial Binary Paradigm?  A paradigm is a shared set of understandings or premises which permits the definition, elaboration and solution of a set of problems that are defined within the paradigm. Paradigms control fact gathering and investigation focusing only on the facts and circumstances the paradigm teaches are relevant and important.[1]

For a description of the Black/White Racial Binary Paradigm, I again turn to Perea:

“I define this paradigm as the conception that race in America consists, either exclusively or primarily, of only two constituent racial groups, the Black and the White. Many scholars of race reproduce this paradigm when they write and act as though only the Black and the White races matter for purposes of discussing race and social policy with regard to race. The mere recognition that “other people of color” exist, without careful attention to their voices, their histories, and their real presence, is merely a reassertion of the Black/White paradigm. If one conceives of race and racism as primarily of concern only to Blacks and Whites, and understands “other people of color” only through some unclear analogy to the “real” races, this just restates the binary paradigm with a slight concession to demographics. [2]

What this means is, if we only understand race as being Black or White, and we only have a framework for understanding racism as dynamics between Black people and White people, defining the “race problem” as the legacy caused by African enslavement, then the only solutions we can imagine are constrained to rectifying that dynamic. In the real world, this means we could solve the problem of civil rights, full inclusion and control of resources for African-Americans, we could even make reparations but still not have touched American Indian’s racial justice struggle to reclaim land and sovereignty. Nor would we have solved any issues around immigration and civil rights for people from (or whose ancestors were from) parts of the world that the US restricts legal immigration like Latin and South America, Africa, Asia and the Middle East.  The homelands of Puerto Rico, Hawai’i, Alaska and Guam would still not be returned to their people.  And our economy would continue to depend on neo-colonial practices around the world.

The Black/White Binary prevents us from seeing the totality of white supremacy and thus from diagnosing and solving the totality of the problem.  All People of Color are exploited and harmed by racism, but the vehicle of exploitation differs and the differences are important. All People of Color have history and experience with the United States, its often oppressive political, social, economic and cultural systems, but that history and experience are not all the same and the differences are important. They are important for recognizing our individual humanity and important for effective organizing to dismantle white supremacy.

Here is an example of what I am talking about using a report from the US Center on Disease Control  (CDC), National Surveillance of Asthma: United States, 2001–2010.  The way the CDC collects and reports its data is highly problematic, for example: using the Black/White Racial Binary to refer to race while ignoring Asian Americans, Pacific Islanders, American Indians and Alaska Natives; and classifying Latin@s as Hispanic ethnics and not a racialized group. In some regards they are following the pattern established by the US Census, which completely mystifies the way race is actually lived out in the United States (a topic for another day).  Refer to the following chart which summarizes some of the CDC asthma data, Figure 2. Current asthma prevalence, by age group, sex, race and ethnicity, poverty status, geographic region, and urbanicity: United States, average annual 2008–2010, which clearly indicates Puerto Ricans have the highest prevalence of asthma.

chart radias 1

The narrative of the report also confirms Puerto Ricans have the highest prevalence of asthma as follows:

“Race differences in 2008–2010 current asthma prevalence—Current asthma prevalence was higher in black persons (11.2%) than in white persons (7.7%). “

“Ethnicity differences in 2008–2010 current asthma prevalence—Among Hispanic persons, Puerto Rican persons had higher prevalence (16.1%) compared with Mexican persons (5.4%).”

What this tells us is Puerto Ricans have the highest rate of asthma prevalence, but they are not racialized, so the racial group with the highest prevalence are Blacks.

The CDC generates a multitude of reports based on the data it collects presumably intended to communicate the results to a variety of audiences. One such document pertaining to asthma, intended for broad (media for example) distribution is CDC Vital Signs: Asthma in the US which reports, “About 1 in 9 (11%) non-Hispanic blacks of all ages and about 1 in 6 (17%) of non-Hispanic black children had asthma in 2009, the highest rate among racial/ethnic groups.”  That’s not what the data says. Throughout the report Black and White statistic are paired together, usually in contrast to one another, and only occasionally placed in relationship to the “Hispanic” statistics which are typically reported paired as two contrasting ethnicities Mexican and Puerto Rican. As if those two ethnic groups somehow comprise the totality of “Hispanic” ethnic identity.

All this to say, reporting data this way makes sense only within the context of the Black/White Binary. The more appropriate racial term Latin@s would generate more meaningful data than the “ethnic binary” Non-Hispanic or Hispanic (which simply means “Spanish speaking”), and I would also argue it is important to disaggregate the data by ethnicity within all racial groups too. This would better reflect the lived reality of racial differences in the United States. Using statistics gathered according to the rules of the Black/White Binary to monitor progress toward racial equity (or not) is impossible, and yet, we spend inordinate quantities of money and human resources trying to do it. We need to track racial disparities in order to determine progress in eliminating them, but we need to track racial disparities (not the convoluted confusion we current track).

The Black/White Paradigm prevents us from fully understanding the problem of racism and therefore prevents us from finding systemic solutions that are effective. But it also prevents People of Color seeing one another and supporting one another in very human ways.

I recently watched the video “How Does it Feel to be a Black Student at UCLA Law School” on the ColorLines website. The video is intended to “raise the awareness of the disturbing emotional toll placed on students of color due to their alarmingly low representation in the student body. Notice how the video conflates “Black” with “People of Color?”  The video tells us there are 33 Black students out of an approximate total student body of 1100. According to UCLA the law school student body is 35% students of color. Institutions of higher education have a variety of strategies to inflate their diversity grades, counting some foreign students as People of Color for example. The more conservative numbers from the Law School Numbers website, indicate UCLA law school is about 29% students of color. It’s not great (UCLA is in Southern California after all) though statistically it’s a lot better than a lot of law schools. But this is where the Black/White Binary is truly insidious.

My observation watching the video is the Black students feel “isolated” and “unsafe” in their classes and do not feel solidarity with the other 29% of the students of color. And presumably, the other students of color are not feeling solidarity with the Black students. The reality is they share a lot of common ground in relationship to white supremacy and if they would act like it, they would be a force to be reckoned with. I’m not blaming the Black students or the other students of color for this, it’s the set up of the Black/White Binary that keeps them from understanding their racial kinship. I “get” the isolation the Black students feel and my heart goes out to them. As an American Indian in institutional settings, I’m often the ONLY one in the room, I’ve learned building solidarity with other People of Color is survival, literally. (BTW there are 18 American Indian students and 1 Pacific Islander student at UCLA law school—talk about lonely).

Sometimes I feel like Harriet Tubman, I know why Harriet carried a gun. Sometimes the people you are trying to lead to freedom are their own worst enemy. That’s how Internalized Racist Oppression works. People of Color have the power to change the Black/White Paradigm, and yet People of Color are some of the most rigid defenders of it. The discussion often devolves to some version of the “oppression olympics” with each group, trying to assert how they are the “most oppressed.” And then when White folks get involved and say the reason for the Black/White Paradigm is because the race construct was created to justify African enslavement, that’s how it all started. And Black people’s oppression is the worst oppression (and sometimes its not just the White people who say this). History, current social indicators and lived reality do not support ANY of these arguments.

Crossroads is evidence of the power of an alternative paradigm. The paradigm we use is radically inclusive of all People of Color. We understand The Paradigm we are up against is white supremacy that justified colonialism, and a multiplicity of economic and cultural exploitation. If you shift the paradigm there is room for all People of Color, their lives and experiences. It also creates space for people with mixed race ancestry who have been part of the race construct all along too (another topic for another day). If you shift the paradigm it shifts the organizing terrain and opens up a whole lot of possible transformative solutions to systemic racism.


[1] Juan F. Perea, The Black/White Binary Paradigm of Race: The Normal Science of American Racial Thought, 85 CAL. L. Rev. 1213 (1997).

[2] Ibid

 

The Power of Our Shared Stories

Crossroads community gathers each summer at an Advanced Organizers Training to exchange ideas, to learn about new developments in Crossroads’ power analysis and methodology, and to build relationships. In 2013, Crossroads asked some members of its community to prepare 5-10 minute talks in the style of Ignite Talks. Crossroads core organizer and trainer, the Rev. Michael Russell shared this powerful talk about the power of the shared stories of People of Color in the United States. Watch this video and be inspired.

The Rev. Michael Russell is the pastor of the Jubilee Faith Community of the ELCA (Evangelical Lutheran Church in America) in Country Club Hills, IL. Prior to that he did community organizing with Neighborhood Housing Services, Inc in Chicago’s West Englewood community. Michael has a Masters of Divinity from the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago and has completed post graduate studies at the Keller Graduate School of Business Management in Chicago IL. Michael is also an antiracism trainer and organizer with Crossroads. He co-authored “Lazarus at the Gate: Writings and Reflections on Poverty and Wealth,” a resource of the ELCA Poverty Ministries Networking program unit for Church in Society. He currently is vice president of SOUL, a grassroots coalition of faith based organizations focused on economic justice, leadership training and political responsibility in Chicago’s Southland. Most importantly though, he is a child of God, partner of Debra, father to Justin, Chandra, and Evan, and grandfather to Gabriel. They are inspiration for his antiracism work.