Top 5 contributions Antiracism offers the Immigrant Rights and Immigrant Integration movements

For the last year, Crossroads colleagues at ERAC/Ce (Eliminating Racism and Claiming/Celebrating Equality) in Kalamazoo, MI have been intentionally working with folks in the immigrants rights and immigrant integration movements. From this collaboration come these five insights regarding the contribution antiracism offers these movements.

1. The antiracism analysis goes beyond the Black/White binary and aims to build multi-racial coalitions.

Conversations about race and racism in the U.S. are often dichotomous, inclusive only of White dominant and African-American cultural values. An antiracism lens invites those of us who work to welcome immigrants to understand the ways in which all immigrants become racialized when they arrive here according to the U.S. race construct. There are typically six racial groups in the U.S. – Arab, Asian and Pacific Islander, Latino, Native American, African American, and White. Immigrants may or may not understand how they are viewed in the U.S. compared to in their home country, but there are very real ways in which their race affects how they are treated and how much access they get to institutions and the resources necessary for life. An antiracism analysis also reminds many of us that we are not all immigrants, which you often hear within the immigrant rights and integration movement. The founding of the U.S. began with the genocide of Native Indian peoples who originally lived on this land. What’s more, there have been economic and political strategies throughout history that have been designed to steal land and resources from and invisiblize Indian people and Indian country.

2Antiracism teaches White people, including White immigrant allies and advocates, that racism is not about blame.

None of us were around when racism was established in this country over 500 years ago. Many conversations about race and racism go badly because we aren’t taught how to have productive dialogue about these often-painful topics. We need a common language, more complete awareness of history, and an understanding that racism isn’t any one person’s fault (at least not anyone living today). And yet we are all responsible for the dismantling of it. Racism dehumanizes us all and antiracism helps White people as well as People of Color find their self-interest in the work. This analysis can help White U.S.-born immigrant advocates and allies approach their work from a place of solidarity with immigrants and other People of Color instead of paternalism (wanting to “help, fix, and save” immigrants). It also reminds us that racism is more than just individual race prejudice. We must also examine how U.S. systems and institutions were built for White people, by White people, and in large part continue to serve White society better. Instead of focusing narrowly on a particular person’s attitudes and actions about different racial groups, antiracism asks the question: how is a particular White dominant culture value, practice, policy, or law working to maintain the supremacy of Whiteness?

3. Antiracism work is collaborative and always informed by/centered around anti-oppressive values.

Antiracism move us from the White dominant culture values like scarcity, either/or thinking, individualism/competition, and secrecy toward the antiracist/anti-oppressive values like an abundant worldview, both/and thinking, collective action, and transparency. Further, antiracism seeks to dismantle the silo-ing of and competition among social justice movements (aka the “Oppression Olympics”), which has been established through the divide and conquer strategies of our colonial and neo-colonial history.  What if oppressed groups starting working together – sharing knowledge, wisdom, resources, and tools? What if we all knew there is enough to go around and that we truly are stronger together? What if as resisters of oppression we began working cooperatively to co-create a country that welcomes and celebrates all?

4. Antiracism builds upon intersectionality – the understanding that we all have multiple identities.

Antiracism understands that racism is a system of oppression linked to other systems of oppression that robs each of us of our full humanity and impairs our ability to create just and sustainable community with one another both locally and globally. Racism is not the only “ism” and antiracism doesn’t ask us to drop our other identities in order to talk about race and racism. We can use our other experience around privilege and/or oppression as a window, not a wall. While it isn’t helpful to talk exclusively about racism, it is important to talk explicitly about racism. We must ask: how is race compounding upon all other identities (such as national origin and immigration status)?

5. Antiracism sees immigrant rights and immigrant integration (or welcome work) as resistance to oppression and offers a way of changing systems that have historically kept immigrants from being able to successfully integrate into their adopted hometowns.

The focus on creating welcoming receiving communities is approachable by many and can lead into deeper conversations of what it truly means to be welcoming — both in terms of individual and collective attitudes and actions AND how institutions are or aren’t effectively serving immigrants and why. Addressing national origin, culture, language, race, and documentation status-based prejudice is important and antiracism invites us to go deeper and address how immigrants experience systems and institutions (i.e.: hospitals and schools).  Doing the work of building welcoming communities is in itself an act of resistance to the historic realities of racism’s systemic and structural oppression.

Attitude or bias changing work is important and can be life-altering for both immigrants and U.S-born residents. And yet antiracism would posit that prejudice-reducing work can sometimes be masked as immigrant integration work. A school or local municipality can pass a “welcoming resolution” or proclamation, claiming to be a welcoming place to immigrants, but not actually become accountable to what that means on real and tangible levels. For example, how does a documented or undocumented farmworker from Guatemala or a Sudanese refugee experience a hospital or school or city hall when they walk through the door? In addition to changing receiving community members’ hearts and minds about immigrants (i.e.: help people see immigrants as contributors rather than “drainers”), we need an antiracism analysis grounded in the historical context of race and racism in the U.S. These two forms of resistance together can create a more inclusive, equitable, and welcoming country. 

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About the writers:

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. Prior to working with ERAC/Ce and Crossroads, Lillie 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.

Jo Ann Mundy 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, a national partner working collaboratively with ERAC/Ce toward the institutionalization of racial justice in public and private institutions throughout southwest Michigan. Currently Jo Ann serves on the boards of Crossroads and the People’s Food Coop. As a founder mentor of the NIA Project, Jo Ann encourages the celebration of identity, purpose and sisterhood in adolescent women of color. Additionally, Jo Ann is a founding member of the Three Rivers Area Faith Community (TRAFC), an ecumenical faith-based social justice network of churches striving to build a multi-cultural, multi-ethnic, multi-racial, multi-lingual and multi-generational anti-racist faith community in Three Rivers, MI where she completed her doctoral thesis Sacred Actions to Bring Racial Reconciliation. Enjoying over 25 years of pastoral ministry, Jo Ann currently serves as pastor of On Common Ground of Three Rivers Michigan. Jo Ann enjoys reading, music, her guitars and computers and, most of all, the young people in her life.

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.

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.

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

 

Incomplete Analysis: Why the Black White Binary Fails

Derrick Dawson is a member of the AntiRacism Commission of the Episcopal Diocese of Chicago, and served as its Co-Chair for three years.  He is a graduate student and teaching assistant in English Composition at Northeastern Illinois University in Chicago. Derrick was also a broadcaster and journalist in the United States Navy, where he served for eight years on ships in Asia and the Pacific.

Derrick Dawson is a member of the AntiRacism Commission of the Episcopal Diocese of Chicago, and served as its Co-Chair for three years. He is a graduate student and teaching assistant in English Composition at Northeastern Illinois University in Chicago. Derrick was also a broadcaster and journalist in the United States Navy, where he served for eight years on ships in Asia and the Pacific.

Barely a week into Black History Month and I am exhausted. The DVR is already full of black programming, there’s a play, concert or other event every night and two on Saturdays. Someone joked that a cable channel is showing a minstrel marathon in celebration, and a Catholic high school for girls in California has apologized for a Black History Month lunch of fried chicken and watermelon.

The annual debates around the relevancy of Black History Month are emblematic of common discourse around race in the United States; a discourse which is almost exclusively characterized by a black-white binary paradigm. This paradigm is problematic because it masks the connections people of color have to one another and does not address the complexity of American History which has seen the genocide of Native Americans, the genocide and enslavement of African Americans, the systematic deportation of Latinos and the exploitation of Asian Americans and the rounding up of People of Color who threaten the United States.

I confess that I have struggled with the fact that the black-white binary paradigm is problematic in the work antiracism organizing and the work of social justice. This is not an easy admission for me. As an organizer-trainer for Crossroads, as well as its co-chair of the board of directors, I would like to believe that I’d mastered everything there is to know about institutional and systemic racism. I was raised on the far South Side of Chicago in the 1960’s and 1970’s when Martin Luther King moved the civil rights movement to the city to fight segregation. He later referred to this effort, stating ” I have seen many demonstrations in the South, but I have never seen anything so hostile and so hateful as I’ve seen here today,” he said.” As a kid in the South Side’s Burnham neighborhood, I unknowingly played on the steps of the Area 2 police station while John Burge and his corrupt policemen beat confession out of dozens of innocent men in one of the nation’s worst examples of abject institutional racism.

My work as an antiracism organizer trainer has shown me that there is a persistent struggle against this binary as those who are neither black nor white often struggle to have their voices heard in the fight against white supremacy. “The reality is that the exclusion of others is a result of a particular black-white normative vision of the American nation as being properly and primarily black and white. The . . . black-white binary is a nativist idea that aids the continued exclusion of Latinos, Asian Americans, and other nonwhite immigrant groups . . . from full citizenship and equal protection.”[1]

Unknown-6I became aware of my own participation in this nativist phenomenon about 3 years ago when Michelle Alexander published The New Jim Crow. Her book about mass incarceration was better received than even the author anticipated. After reading the book and seeing Ms. Alexander speak at a few readings around Chicago, I began to hear criticisms that she addressed neither the growing presence of women nor Latinos in the conversation of mass incarceration in the United States.  I was surprised when Michelle Alexander acknowledged her own adherence to the black-white binary paradigm on Bill Moyer’s & Company last December, declaring that she had came to realize the need to “change lanes” and see the issue more broadly. It had finally occurred to her that

If I care about a young man serving, you know, 25 years to life for a minor drug crime. If I care about him and care about his humanity, ought I not also care equally about a young woman who’s facing deportation back to a country she hardly knows and had lived in only as a child and can barely speak the language? And ought I not be as equally concerned about her fate as well? Ought I not be equally concerned about a family whose loved ones were just killed by drones in Afghanistan? Ought I not care equally for all? And that really was Dr. King’s insistence at the end of his life. That we ought to care about the Vietnamese as much as we care and love our people at home.”[2]

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And of course she’s right. An illustration is buried in the issue of Mass Incarceration that is the subject of her book even though it has gone largely unnoticed. In 2013, Wall Street Journal journalist Patrick O Connor reported that the harsh immigration laws passed in Arizona last year were written by lobbyists for the Private prison industry, specifically Corrections Corporation of America and the GEO Group.

Here in Chicago, I have attended any number of rallies and meetings about immigration. It is clear at these events that immigration issues are seen as an issue only important to Latinos just as mass incarceration is seen as an issue concerning only African Americans. Ronald R. Sundstrom illustrates this further with an example from Hurricane Katrina.While Arizona citizens believed they were taking a firm stand in favor of “border control,”they were being duped by CCA and GEO who were selling bodies for the profit and the career advancement of local politicians. Arizona Senate Bill 1070 was signed into law by Governor Jan Brewer on April 23, 2010.

As the aftermath of the hurricane developed, the image of African-American urban poverty dominated the news and discourse. The discussions of the hurricane and race did not stray from stories about poor African Americans and worked to exclude the news that the Bush administration had used the disaster as an opportunity to apprehend and deport undocumented Latin American immigrants who ended up in Shelters. This move was, of course, paired with widespread exploitation of Latino labor by contractors who sought to take advantage of federal and state monies for the rebuilding of the Gulf Coast region. Additionally, the binary blocked from public attention the news of the losses of Honduran Americans in New Orleans and Vietnamese American communities of the Gulf Coast. The race story was simply the black story, and the result was that the nation thought of race in its old black-white terms.[3]

I look at my bookmarks and realize that I turn to some of my favorite sites, like Angry Asian Man, Son of Baldwin and Indigenous Peoples Issues and Resources in an attempt to keep up with what’s going on in various communities’ social justice work. While I’m grateful for those resources, I also recognize that those resources exist because of the marginalization of non-Black people of color in the black-white binary paradigm.

The black-white binary paradigm is dangerous because it serves white supremacy by marginalizing, isolating and dividing people of color. Moving beyond the binary might allow us to see more black social justice groups showing up at Reforma Migratoria PRO America rallies and supporting the National Congress of American Indians.

African American demands for justice deserve satisfaction, and those claims do not need the black-white binary for justification.[4] The black-white binary renders invisible the experience of groups that stand outside the binary, makes hyper-visible the experience of African Americans, and diverts attention away from white supremacy. The black-white binary is a fictional representation of race in America and has to be set aside if racial justice work is to be located in a broader human rights context.


[1]                 Ronald R. Sundstrom, The Browning of America and the Evasion of Social Justice, SUNY Press, 2008, 190pp., ISBN 9780791475867

[2]                 “Incarceration Nation” Bill Moyers & Company. PBS. 20 Dec. 2013. Televisio

[3]                 Sundstrom, p82

[4]                 Ronald R. Sundstrom, The Browning of America and the Evasion of Social Justice, SUNY Press, 2008, 190pp., ISBN 9780791475867

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.

Exploring the intersections between Systemic Racism and Food Justice

The Rev. Dr. B. JoAnn Mundy is executive co-director of Eliminating Racism and Claiming/Celebrating Equality (ERAC/CE) in Kalamazoo, MI (which is a Crossroads regional partner) and a core organizer and trainer with Crossroads. Jo Ann was recently interviewed by Chris Mills, a reporter for WOOD TV8 in Grand Rapids, MI  about ERAC/CE’s work in the intersection between food justice and systemic racism. This short clip contains excerpts from the interview in which Jo Ann reminds us, “Every community has the right to determine from where their food comes, what they are gong to eat and how they are going to eat it.”