Engaging Our Humanity

Lillie Wolff is one of two Co-Executive Directors of ERAC/Ce (Eliminating Racism and Claiming/Celebrating Equality) and a Core Organizer/Trainer for Crossroads Antiracism Organizing and Training. Lillie is bilingual in English and Spanish and prior to working with ERAC/Ce and Crossroads spent seven years organizing around farmworker and immigrant rights and inclusion. Lillie is passionate about the intersections of social justice, ecological justice, and art, and has served on the Board of Directors of the Institute for Sustainable Living, Art, and Natural Design (ISLAND) since 2009. She earned a BA in Human Development and Social Relations from Kalamazoo College in 2004. Lillie enjoys dancing, biking, gardening, spending time in nature, and preparing and eating communal meals with her wonderful anti-oppressive community.
Lillie Wolff is one of two Co-Executive Directors of ERAC/Ce (Eliminating Racism and Claiming/Celebrating Equality) and a Core Organizer/Trainer for Crossroads Antiracism Organizing and Training. Lillie is bilingual in English and Spanish and prior to working with ERAC/Ce and Crossroads spent seven years organizing around farmworker and immigrant rights and inclusion. Lillie is passionate about the intersections of social justice, ecological justice, and art, and has served on the Board of Directors of the Institute for Sustainable Living, Art, and Natural Design (ISLAND) since 2009. She earned a BA in Human Development and Social Relations from Kalamazoo College in 2004. Lillie enjoys dancing, biking, gardening, spending time in nature, and preparing and eating communal meals with her wonderful anti-oppressive community.

As a white antiracist organizer and trainer, I am on a journey toward understanding my relationship with privilege and oppression. Privilege and oppression are two sides of the same coin. In Privilege, Power, and Difference, Allan Johnson explains that the “isms” – sexism, heterosexism, ableism, racism – affect more than women, LGBTQI people, people with disabilities, and people of color.  They affect everyone. It is impossible to live in a world that generates so much injustice and suffering without being inextricably linked to it. Everyone has a race, gender, sexual orientation, and disability status. We all figure in the differences that privilege and oppression are about.

Johnson suggests that the greatest barrier to change is that dominant groups don’t see the trouble of our society as their trouble, and as a result, don’t feel obligated to do something about it. This may be because we don’t even know the trouble exists, we don’t have to see it as our trouble, because we see it as a personal rather than systemic problem, because we’re reluctant to give up privilege, or afraid of what will happen if we acknowledge the reality of privilege and oppression.

Systems of privilege make privilege invisible and those who are part of the dominant white culture in the U.S. are taught to deny and minimize oppression. White people are taught to be “colorblind,” to believe that since Barak Obama is president we must be “post-racial.” Those of us who are white are socialized to blame the victim, call it something else, assume everyone prefers things the way they are. We mistake intentions with consequences, attribute oppression to others, and balance the oppression of others with our own (note: the goal is not to play the Oppression Olympics).  While it may feel good in an anesthetic kind of way to believe that we are “post-racial,” the truth is that we have all inherited a material reality based on 500 years of shared history.

What if we all started thinking about the trouble of systemic racism as everyone’s responsibility and nobody’s fault? What if we told each other and ourselves that it’s not about blame and that feeling guilty about racism is actually not helpful. It’s easy to fall into the trap of guilt, as many of us have been taught to see the world through an individualistic lens that reduces everything to individual good or bad intentions. We all want to be good people. A powerful and liberating alternative lies, however, in the fact that we’re all always participating in something larger than ourselves — social systems.

To understand our relationship to privilege and oppression, we have to look at what we’re participating in and how we participate in it. For example, if a white male professor takes the students in his class who look like him more seriously, he isn’t necessarily being intentionally sexist or racist, but may be participating in and perpetuating patterns of white and male privilege. He doesn’t have to be a bad person to participate in an education system that produces oppressive outcomes – it’s simply how the system is set up to function.

The only way to change oppressive outcomes is to change our systems and institutions. If we have a vision of what we want the world to be, we have to create paths that lead in that direction. We have to do more than just hope, dream and pray – certainly more than simply take the path of least resistance. We must become aware of our biases, which we all have, and we must understand that racism is about more than just prejudice. It’s about power and privilege – it’s about who gets access to and who has control of the systems and institutions that distribute the resources necessary for life.

If racism is not about individual actions or beliefs, and is about systems and structures, the solution must be systemic and structured. If privilege is rooted in systems like families, schools, places of worship and employment, change isn’t simply a matter of changing people. The solution also has to include entire systems whose paths of least resistance shape how we all feel, think, and behave as individuals, and how we see one another and ourselves.

Thankfully, there is a growing national movement in which people of color and white people are gaining an analysis, a language system, organizing tools, and a more complete understanding of history – the history of oppression and the corresponding acts of resistance.  Since racism isn’t just a trouble of the past, resistance, like that of the Underground Railroad, requires broad base participation here and now. We must resist the path of least resistance. We must find our way to the path of greatest resistance — the path of dismantling racism. It’s a big task, a generational one, which can feel overwhelming. But things can change, they have and will continue to change, and none of us are alone. There is room for everyone in this movement.

Crossroads Antiracism Organizing and Training, along with its regional organizing partners like ERAC/Ce (Eliminating Racism and Claiming/Celebrating Equality) in Southwest Michigan, are facilitating trainings and building transformation teams to help people of color, white people, and entire institutions claim an anti-racist identity.  A growing number of people around the country are learning how to honestly and accurately name our troubles. We are learning new ways of being in relationship with each other and ourselves, which are grounded in anti-oppressive, life-giving values. We are committing to a life-long journey of reclaiming and engaging our full humanity in ways we never dreamed.

Advertisements

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 Black-White Binary and the Model Minority Stereotype

The Reverend Laura Mariko Cheifetz serves as the Executive Director of Church & Public Relations at the Presbyterian Publishing Corporation. She received her M.Div. from McCormick Theological Seminary in Chicago, and her MBA from North Park University in Chicago. She is an ordained Teaching Elder in the Presbyterian Church (USA). She enjoys spending time with friends over food, exploring whichever region in which she happens to live, and still believes The Wire is the greatest television show in history.

The Reverend Laura Mariko Cheifetz serves as the Executive Director of Church & Public Relations at the Presbyterian Publishing Corporation. She received her M.Div. from McCormick Theological Seminary in Chicago, and her MBA from North Park University in Chicago. Laura has a chapter in the book “Streams Running Uphill.” She is an ordained Teaching Elder in the Presbyterian Church (USA). She enjoys spending time with friends over food, exploring whichever region in which she happens to live, and still believes The Wire is the greatest television show in history.

Whenever people who are not Asian American tell me I have lots of privilege, I would like that credit to go into my microaggression account. Thanks to my reality as a biracial Asian American woman in the U.S., the weight of microaggressions can sometimes overpower my usually healthy sense of self and place in the world, and I head into what I call my spiral of despair. I have to go read Asian American or Latin@ or Native American feminists to pull myself out of the emotional quagmire. I have to remind myself that I’m not alone.

I have the spent the past couple of months cycling between rage and indifference at Amy Chua, the co-author of The Triple Package: How Three Unlikely Traits Explain the Rise and Fall of Cultural Groups in America and the author of Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. I’ve been mad because I think her work does not deserve the attention it is getting. I’m mad because I think no amount of cultural gumption will ever overcome systemic discrimination based on race, class, and citizenship, but the latest book by Chua and her husband gives people reasons to overlook discrimination and accuse groups of people of not having the right cultural “stuff.”

But mostly I’m mad because I think what she has done is given more fodder to the model minority myth, driving a wedge between groups who could gain more by working together, but instead play right into the divide and conquer tactics practiced by the system of power and privilege we know as U.S. racism. This latest book just expands and makes more specific the number of groups who get deemed “superior” due to their culture.  And I should be clear I am mad at Amy Chua herself. Yes, AT her. Not at her husband. Because as a woman of color, I think she should know better.

Hello, Model Minority stereotyping. I haven’t been able to escape you since the 1960s.* Have you heard of this? This is one of racism’s finest achievements: the capacity to dupe everyone into thinking that certain minority racial or cultural groups are just inherently superior, regardless of the amount of structural racism facing those groups, and regardless of what the actual data show. This has been so successful that not only do white people often believe it—

“Oh, you Asian Americans are doing just fine. Look at how high your household income is!”

Implication: Racism is over for you!

Implication: You are just so much better than those other people of color, who won’t stop whining about their oppression. Let’s unite against other brown people, even though you’re never getting that promotion.

And the real success? People of color believe it! Too many Asian Americans are totally cool with the Model Minority stereotype:

“At least it’s a positive stereotype.” (I’ve actually had that conversation.)

So do other people of color:

“Asians.” (snort) “Privilege.”

“What we really need to focus on are the needs of African descendants.”

It’s true. When 18millionrising began and hosted a Twitter conversation using the hashtag @NotYourAsianSidekick, it opened the door for other Twitter users to begin posting using the hashtag #AsianPrivilege. Some of the Asian American participants didn’t help, and responded by lashing out against other communities.  While we people of color are in a corner busily accusing each other of having privilege, or being blatantly bigoted, or trying to explain how the data obscure the realities of racism and discrimination, the system of racism that privileges white people is having a party in the middle of the room. This, my friends, is not the Olympics. The only winner is the system.

What the black-white binary does is limit the conversation, narrows our analytical lens, and leads to an incomplete organizing strategy. The Model Minority Myth plays into this binary by marginalizing the fastest-growing racial group from the discussion, and isolates distinct communities of people of color from one another. That’s right: Asian Pacific Americans aren’t black. (I have been accused of not being black. It’s true. I’m not.) And by not being black, we are divided from our African-descent brothers and sisters. The binary and the Myth mean the organizing power of people of color is divided, and we end up primarily relating with white people instead of with one another.

This is exhausting.

I feel exhausted, because now I have the sense that I need to go through an actual data breakdown to prove that Asian Americans should be in this conversation, along with Latin@s and Native Americans. I would like to walk away from this conversation, but I won’t. If I walk away, the system wins again.

So instead of playing into the black-white binary, let’s try something else. Let’s try learning one another’s stories. Instead of comparing our puny pieces of the American story, or the amount of visibility or power or economic influence we have, let’s take a step back to look at the whole picture. Let’s try to determine how we add our collective power and stories together to fight a dehumanizing and bloodthirsty system. Let’s figure out what Native American sovereignty has in common with immigration and criminal justice reform.

* In the 1960s, the narrative emerged that certain immigrant and other minority groups, primarily Asian Americans, were doing great, over and against other distinct communities of people of color.