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.

Advertisements

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.”

Let Us Not Stand Silent

Jessica Vazquez Torres, Core Organizer Trainer

A native of Puerto Rico, Jessica Vazquez Torres identifies as a “1.5 generation Queer ESL Latina of Puerto Rican descent.” She works as a consultant and core/organizer trainer for Crossroads. Jessica holds a BA in Criminal Justice and Masters degrees in Theological Studies and Divinity. She lives in GA with her spouse and two Shih-Tzu’s.

Bearing the weight of truth that challenges human assumptions is something Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. did well.  If the photos and grainy videos show the whole story, he was a man who could stand in the face of great and difficult problems with aplomb, and speak with passionate certainty about grim reality and hope.

In the United States we have done Dr. King a great disservice by imprisoning him to one speech, a marvelous and uplifting speech about a dream, but nonetheless one that obfuscates his evolution as a nonviolent resister and thinker.

Exactly one year before his assassination, April 4, 1967, from the pulpit of Riverside Church in New York, Dr. King spoke at a meeting of Clergy and Laity Concerned about Vietnam calling for an end to the war and articulating the implications of failing to take such a bold step. He titled his remarks, A Time to Break Silence.”

Dr. King’s journey to this powerful speech was a difficult one.  The movement he was leading appeared to be unraveling. There was tension and dissent among the ranks over whether or not the struggle for African-American civil and economic rights should be connected to the struggle to end U.S. military operations in Vietnam.

Close allies like Whitney Young were concerned that to take on Vietnam was to jeopardize all the work they had done on behalf of African-Americans.  Younger movement leaders like Stokely Carmichael were also challenging the core principles of the civil rights movement as articulated by King.  In their frustration at the slow pace of change, significant members of the younger generation of civil right organizers and revolutionaries were abandoning the idea that non-violence could bring change.  While chanting “Black Power,” Carmichael and other emerging civil rights leaders were calling for armed confrontation of racist Whites, the use of violence when necessary, and Black separatism.

Those concerned with preserving the focus of the civil rights movement of issues of race primarily and class secondarily, pleaded with Dr. King to remain silent.  Those concerned with the disproportionate drafting and loss of African-American men in the war and the U.S. efforts to disrupt the movement for self-determination in Vietnam pleaded with Dr. King to speak.

In between these two pulls Dr. King struggled until the harrowing images from Vietnam, the piled bodies of U.S. soldiers and Vietnamese women and children, and the obvious links between war, poverty, and racism could not be avoided anymore. Early in his speech at Riverside Church King offers this confession, “Over the past two years, as I have moved to break the betrayal of my own silences and to speak from the burnings of my own heart.”[1] He then follows this acknowledgment with a powerful and urgent plea for the soul of his nation.

We still have a choice today: nonviolent coexistence or violent co-annihilation. We must move past indecision to action. We must find new ways to speak for peace in Vietnam and justice throughout the developing world, a world that borders on our doors. If we do not act, we shall surely be dragged down the long, dark, and shameful corridors of time reserved for those who possess power without compassion, might without morality, and strength without sight.  Now let us begin. Now let us rededicate ourselves to the long and bitter, but beautiful, struggle for a new world. This is the calling of the sons of God, and our brothers wait eagerly for our response. Shall we say the odds are too great? Shall we tell them the struggle is too hard? Will our message be that the forces of American life militate against their arrival as full men, and we send our deepest regrets? Or will there be another message — of longing, of hope, of solidarity with their yearnings, of commitment to their cause, whatever the cost? The choice is ours, and though we might prefer it otherwise, we must choose in this crucial moment of human history.”[2]

No longer able to ignore the links between war, poverty and racism nor the movement of the Spirit of the God in whom he believed, King begins to push the civil rights movement in a radically different direction.  Resting in his conviction that the Creator desired a reordering of society, King challenged his nation and those gathered at Riverside Church to find the moral courage to make a choice: These are the times for real choices and not false ones. We are at the moment when our lives must be placed on the line if our nation is to survive its own folly. Every man of humane convictions must decide on the protest that best suits his convictions, but we must all protest.”[3]

Dr. King knew that when he linked the struggle for civil rights with the struggles against poverty and war, he would bring discomfort into his life.  He knew that when he began to name the unholy trinity of U.S. materialism, militarism, and systemic racism people would resist.  But he also knew there was no alternative.  He knew that for freedom to ring in every mountain, valley, and corner of his beloved nation, he had to link these social sins.  And so must we.

The dream of Dr. King we love to cite will remain an elusive fantasy until we too link systemic racism with corporate greed, militarism, and the rampant materialism of our times.  In the last month alone our congress has acted not to extend unemployment benefits for millions of Americans while also ensuring corporations can continue to profit as the poor and vulnerable struggle.  Homeless shelters are filled with women, children, and men.  Those seeking jobs have stopped searching, resigning themselves to permanent unemployed status which means they are of no account.  Our public school systems are failing to educate the poorest and criminalizing those who fail to conform to our common core curriculums.  Our prisons are filled to the brim with non-violent offenders who are not being rehabilitated while the companies that own the prisons revive de-facto forms of Jim Crow.   And all along the stock market thrives.

Bringing about, working toward, honoring the dream of Dr. King demands that we see the connections linking systemic forms of oppression.  It demands that we speak out when it is unpopular; that we take stands not just on matters of racial discrimination but against xenophobic and homophobic legislation as well as the military and prison industrial complexes that destroy life.

Do we have it in us to speak? Do we have it in us to protest? Do we have it in us to raise our collective voice to speak out against systemic forms of oppressions like racism, sexism, classism, and heterosexism, just to name a few, especially when part of speaking out is naming our complicity in this social ills and oppressions?

Dr. King said toward the beginning of this powerful speech, “the calling to speak is often a vocation of agony[4] because “the human spirit [moves with] great difficulty against all the apathy of conformist thought within one’s own bosom and in the surrounding world. Moreover, when the issues at hand seem as perplexing as they often do in the case of this dreadful conflict, we are always on the verge of being mesmerized by uncertainty.”[5]

Let us not be mesmerized by the conundrums we face.  At stake is the soul of this nation. Let us not stand silent.

[1] Martin Luther King and James Melvin Washington, I Have a Dream: Writings and Speeches That Changed the World ([San Francisco]: HarperSanFrancisco, 1992), page 136.

[2] Ibid, page 151.

[3] Ibid, page 153.

[4] Ibid, page 136.

[5] Ibid, page 136.