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.

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Antiracism and the Reparation of Community

Neurobiologists – and others – are suggesting that the human inclination to form relationships is an expression of our neuro-architecture. We have a deep cellular bias for forming relationships. Along with this bias is a capacity for empathy. We are human in the context of complex relationships. This is what makes us human. This deep inclination is the basis of human community. We are a communal species.  One helpful resource in exploring this topic further is a short RSA produced video called Empathic Civilization based on the work of and narrated by Jeremy RifkinAnother is Social Intelligence: the New Science of Human Relationships by Daniel Goleman.

The multigenerational impact of systemic racism in our nation’s history compromises this fundamental bias. Racism distorts our attempts to shape communities. It produces communities that are, in the final analysis, unsustainable. White supremacy (the social architecture that generations of racialization have produced) has not and cannot position us for survival in a time of dramatic climatic, ecological and social transition. It may well be the case that if our species is to make it, we need to be about the work of repairing the fabric of community. We need to shape human communities that are sustainable. We need communal fabric that can serve as our bridge into a dramatically different future. This is the work of antiracism. It is the strategic interventions in the processes of racialization that repair and restore community – whether geographically or institutionally defined.

Many organizers that focus on shaping sustainable communities suggest that the word resilient is a helpful way of thinking about the meaning of sustainable. When we explore the practical meaning of community resilience there are three features that especially stand out for me (there are many features and dimensions of sustainability). Sustainable, resilient communities are diverse, adaptive and regenerative.

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DIVERSE. When the FHA crafted a model restrictive covenant in 1938, it was presumed that racially homogenous communities were more stable and peaceful. This model was one of the tools that guided the shaping of the American suburbs. Such apartheid has always been one of the features of communities in the United States. The architecture of white supremacy requires living spaces divided by walls and barriers: railroad tracks, thoroughfares, canals, rivers and streams, etc. Entire sections are effectively reserved for particular racial, ethnic and income groups. Consequently, racial homogeneity has been our default in neighborhood and community development. This social default setting impedes the development of genuine multicultural/multiracial communities. Our history is a stumbling block! When we pay attention to natural ecosystems it becomes clear that diversity is a fundamental feature – and, is key to eco-resilience. Healthy, self-sustaining ecosystems are diverse. In similar fashion, a healthy, resilient community is diverse in every way we can imagine: demographically, economically, socially – even culturally.  Human communities are not distinct and apart from natural ecosystems. We are part of them. The insights of bio-mimicry suggest that we need to pay attention to the ways communities are constituted in the ecosystems around us.

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ADAPTIVE. Ecosystems that adapt to changes in their environment survive and thrive. Those that do not wither and die and are replaced by others. Similarly, human communities that are adaptive have moved beyond imposed insularity and change in response to their social and environmental context.  New immigrant groups are woven into the fabric of community. Economic distress in the larger society is met with new patterns of sharing and connecting.  Local viability and livability is directly related to a community’s adaptive capabilities. The pillar institutions of a community are key to its adaptive capacities. This includes churches, synagogues, mosques, community organizations, fraternal organizations, sororities, small businesses, etc. They are the connectors that anchor communities to the larger society. They can also gather information and interpret for the community the changes on the horizon that will impact community lifeways. Eventually, adaptive communities have to transcend the historic boundaries of community life and create new rules. White supremacy in all its social and spiritual expressions resists such change. It simply cannot countenance fundamental change.

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REGENERATIVE. Sustainable, resilient communities have inculcated deep regenerative capacities. They are marked by cycles of renewal. They recycle the necessities of life. Writing in the Permaculture Activist, Mark Morey points out that we live in a “broken culture;” “the culture of empire and the culture of the machine can never be regenerative.” “Healthy culture can trump the messages and patterns of modern life.” He envisions local communities as “a place of reclaimed and renewed culture.” [1] “Cultural repair has many aspects, but all involve remembering, restoring and reinventing the invisible fabric …permaculture derives its power from understanding the regenerative capacities and logic of nature.” [2] Like a plant that returns nitrogen to the soil – thus enriching it even as it takes its nourishment from the soil – regenerative communities create patterns of renewal that vitalize individuals, families, local institutions and the surrounding ecosystems. This assumes there can be a deep regenerative logic in human communities and their relation to the living systems around them.  White supremacy subverts this deep logic. These three features are sustained in a community skein of mutual accountability relationships. The synergy among them fosters a dynamic, ever changing equilibrium. The discussion of accountability must wait for another occasion. [1] Mentoring for the Earth, Mark Morey from the Permaculture Activist; reprinted in the Utne Reader, March-April, 2014. [2] Ibid

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About the R. James Addington

R. James Addington is a training and organizational development consultant with Crossroads Antiracism Organizing and Training. Previously, he was the co-director of the Minnesota Collaborative Anti-Racism Initiative (MCARI) – a long-time regional partner of Crossroads. He has 30 years experience in community development, leadership training, organizational development and strategic planning. He also serves as a service-learning consultant with the Institute of Cultural Affairs-USA. James spent ten years in a variety of international local and regional development projects including in Jamaica, Venezuela, India, the Philippines and Nigeria; he directed the Lutheran Coalition for Public Policy in Minnesota (an advocacy and public policy education arm of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America) for nine years; and served as adjunct faculty at Luther Seminary.

Allah Made Me Funny: A Review

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 Currently, Jessica holds Masters degrees in Theological Studies and Divinity.

The terrorist attacks on the Twin Towers in New York City misshaped life in the United States in profound ways. The suspicion, vicious antipathy, and the violence that met Muslims and Arab-Americans after September 11th, 2001 was not surprising given the history of this nation.  One of the developments of our post-9/11 world has been the racialization of those perceived to be Arab Americans and Muslims into the catchall racial category of “Arab/Middle Eastern/Muslim.” Sociologist and professor of Social Welfare and Justice Louis A. Cainkar suggests the 9/11 crisis did not create animosity toward the “Arab/Middle Eastern/Muslim/Other” community as much as it made evident preexistent anti-Arab/Muslim sentiments.[1] While all who are lumped into the “Arab/Middle Eastern/Muslim/Other” category are not Muslim, Middle-Eastern or Arab, the dominant political discourse via the media has created a visualscape in the United States, which “otherizes” all who “appear” to be “Arab/Middle Eastern/Muslim” into this group.  Consider for example the case of Sikh Americans, who are not Muslim or Arab but are routinely profiled as both and are often victims of hate motivated crimes. 

The hypervisibility[2] this racialization bestowed upon previously invisibilized communities elicited a diversity of responses among which is “Arab/Middle Eastern/Muslim” stand-up comedy.  Stand-up comedy in the intervening years since 9/11 has created a space where the racialization of “Arab/Middle Eastern/Muslim/Other” is being contested, explored, and where counter-narratives to dominant culture are being constructed.  Acts like the Axis of Evil Comedy Tour, The Muslims are Coming, and Allah Made Me Funny along with comedians like Ahmed Ahmed, Mohammed Amer, Maz Jobrani, Preacher Moss, Dean Obeidallah, Negin Farsad, and Azhar Usman are just some of the stand out acts that have come to define “Arab/Middle Eastern/Muslim/Other” stand-up comedy in the last 14-years.

Allah Made Me Funny

Allah Made Me Funny

This week I watched and laughed with the stand-up comedians behind “Allah Made Me Funny.”  This documentary/comedy concert centers on three stand-up comedians: Palestinian-American Mohammed Amer, Indian-American Azhar Usman, and African-American Muslim convert Preacher Moss.  Each of the comics is presented as being firmly grounded in their faith.  Additionally, the observance and practice of Islam features prominently in their acts, which appear directed to a mostly Muslim audience.  Each comic takes the stage for 20 minutes in which they share their humorous observations about Muslim women, air travel, stereotyping, racial profiling, generational communication issues, cultural idiosyncrasies and the challenges of being Muslim in a country that is ignorant of Islam and those who practice it.

There are many things that work well in the collective project Usman, Amer, and Moss have put together.  Each of the comics challenges the dominant narrative about Muslim women in the United States.  Through funny accounts about their life as sons and husbands, the comedians present Muslim women as fearless, decisive, strong, and driven.  In one of the funniest moments of the DVD, Preacher Moss shares the story of young men planning to take the headscarf off a Jamaican woman riding a D.C. bus. Preacher says laughing, “I wanted to tell them ‘No, she will kill us all!’”[3] Another strong dimension of their work centers on their discussions about living in a post-9/11 United States as Muslims.  Mo Amer, the funniest of the group but also the least overtly political, shares the reason first generation Palestinians circumvent political conversation is fear: of risking their status, of loosing favor with the government, and of being deported.  Mo delivers the punch line of this story by saying, “But mom, we are Palestinian, we are stateless people, where are they going to deport us to?”[4]  In the end I concur with Hussein Rashid’s Religious Dispatches column about the documentary: “What Allah Made Me Funny has the promise to do is to keep a spark burning that it is not all doom and gloom. To remind us of what else our Muslim and American identities hold.”[5]

Not everything works.  While they reframe the narrative of Muslim women, they go about it in ways that skirt sexism.  Usman, who presents his wife as being independent, professional, and smart, also refers to Muslim women in his stand-up act as the terrorists of the home.  Amer refers to Muslim women as the Queen in a chess game, which can do anything, go anywhere and move in any direction, while men as the King get stuck moving in circles and are the mercy of their women.  Unlike the Axis of Evil comedy troupe whose members selected their name in response to President Bush’s 2002 State of the Union address, the three comedians profiled in Allah Made Me Funny skirt around the edges of the political, often placing the responsibility on the shoulders of the Muslim American community to shift public opinion.  Both Usman and Moss spend segments of their 20-minute sets reviewing the ways Muslims in the United States could afford to shift their image.  From hard to explain holidays to the inability to pronounce certain words; from the lack of a theme song to the prohibition against eating pork; from the absence of infomercials explaining Islamic words that are hard to understand, the consequence of this tactic is that Allah Made Me Funny never fully challenges the dominant narratives about Muslims on the United States. Instead, it suggests if Muslims were more mainstream, less other, and more funny, the racism and xenophobia distorting U.S. opinion about Muslims in the United States would be delegitimized.  I will admit that it is quite possible this is not what the comics intended. In a 2005 interview with NPR, Usman described what made their tour appealing,

“I think part of the reason why the tour has become kind of a phenomenon unto itself is because comedy and humor is really the antidote to fear. You know, we talk to people and through our show, particularly non-Muslims will come out and say, `God, you know, I had no idea that, you know, Muslims could be funny or, you know, that you have a humor tradition within Islam or, you know, that this is what Muslims are all about,’ etc., etc. And it’s because they feared something they didn’t know.”[6]

In the end where Allah Made Me Funny succeeds as a stand-up comedy show is in redefining what it means to be a Muslim in the United States after 9/11.


[1] Louise A. Cainkar, “The Social Construction of the Arab (and Muslim) American,” in Homeland Insecurity: The Arab American and Muslim American Experience After 9/11, First (New York, NY: Russell Sage Foundation Publications, 2011).

[2] Dr. Maureen Reddy in her article, “Invisibility/Hypervisibility: The Paradox of Normative Whiteness” offers this helpful articulation of hypervisibility.  She writes, “Whiteness and heterosexuality seem invisible, transparent, to those who are white and/or heterosexual; they are simply norms. In contrast, whiteness makes itself hypervisible to those who are not white, much as heterosexuality forces itself upon the consciousnesses of gays and lesbians. And one way that these constructs reinforce their invisibility to those who benefit from them is precisely through this hypervisibility to those who do not.”  Source: http://www.questia.com/library/journal/1P3-506047621/invisibility-hypervisibility-the-paradox-of-normative#articleDetails

[3] Andrea Kalin, Allah Made Me Funny – Live in Concert (Unity Productions Foundation, 2009).

[4] Ibid.

[5] Hussein Rashid, “Allah Made Me Funny : Borscht Belt Goes Halal,” ReligionDispatches, October 9, 2008, http://religiondispatches.org/archive/culture/600/allah_made_me_funny__borscht_belt_goes_halal___culture___/.

[6] Jennifer Ludden, “Allah Made Me Funny: Muslim Comedy : NPR,” NPR.org, August 14, 2005, http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=4799868.