Four ways the Black/White Binary ought to concern White People

This spring in Applying the Analysis, many of our colleagues of color have written poignantly about the impact and implications of the Black/White Binary. They have clearly delineated how the Black/White Binary functions as a divide and conquer strategy among communities of color, how it keeps People of Color from fully understanding each other’s histories, and ultimately how it keeps People of Color from battling the true common enemy of White Supremacy. To continue the conversation, we want to examine the issue of the Black/White Binary from the perspective of those of us who identify as White, how we continue to reap the benefits of a society built on a foundation of White Supremacy, and what we might do to begin to disrupt the Black/White Binary in our own circles.

1. The Black/White Binary Maintains White Supremacy and Unearned Power and Privilege

The true power of the Black/White binary is that it functions to support White Supremacy in our society and institutions.  That is its function and aim, and it has a very successful track record. While White Supremacy remains unexamined, White people continue to reap economic, material, psychological and social benefits we have gleaned for centuries. The Black/White binary’s divide and conquer dynamic among People of Color allows White People to continue to retain and expand societal benefits while People of Color fight over the scraps that fall of the White Supremacy table.  Our goal then as White People is to constantly be aware of how White Supremacy is supported by the Black/White Binary.  If White People truly want to disrupt the historical patterns of White Supremacy, we have to diligently reject the false logic of the Black/White Binary.

Take for instance, Joy’s experience growing up White in North Dakota. The narrative around race in North Dakota at the time, and likely still today, was that “racism” occured when White People mistreat Black people. Because there were so few Black people in North Dakota (the reasons for which could constitute another blog post), North Dakota did not have a problem with racism. The fallacy of the Black/White binary allowed North Dakotans to believe that they had didn’t have to deal with racism because of the small Black population of the state. Consequently, Joy and other North Dakotans could virtually ignore over a hundred years of theft, genocide, and disposition of American Indians. That issue was not even on the radar, even though the predominantly White, Scandinavian and German descendants of the European colonizers, continue to reap the benefits of lands seized under policies like the Dawes and Homestead Acts. Joy and her family continue to financially benefit from the land her ancestors had access to through homesteading, which was only available to White people. This adherence to a a Black/White binary around what constitutes racism maintains unexamined White supremacy and the benefits that come with it.

2. The Black/White binary’s historical myth allows us to deny that our entire society is affected by racism.

As White people growing up in the United States, our framework for understanding what little we do about race is often framed only by Blackness. White people, culture and history are considered normal, whereas Black people, culture, and history are viewed as “racial” and at the other end of a spectrum. This narrative leaves us no room to understand the racial implication of the genocide of millions of Native Americans and the theft of their lands and resources, the exploitation of Asian American labor in agricultural and industrial projects (e.g. the building of the transcontinental railroad), the robbery of lands that once belonged to Mexico and the subsequent mistreatment of the inhabitants of those lands and their descendants, nor our colonial and neo-colonial exploits in the Caribbean, Central and South America, Asia, and other locations around the world. Even the history and experience of Black people is distorted by this simplistic rendering of history.

For example, when Ryan reflects on what he learned about race and racism in his formal education, it went something like this: Once upon a time a group of Europeans fled oppression and moved to a vast, unoccupied continent to create a free society. Some of those Europeans were bad and enslaved Black people, but this was solved by Abraham Lincoln’s “Emancipation Proclamation.” Some of those same bad white people, however, continued to mistreat Black people by creating “Jim Crow” laws, but this was eventually stopped by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and the Civil Rights movement. Now we live in a post racial society where even a Black man can become president. This obviously simplistic and incomplete understanding of race seen through the Black/White binary allows White people to be oblivious to other People of Color’s histories, and to avoid owning our part in the damage that our actions have done both in the past and present. It absolves us of having to work to fix or repair the carnage our ancestors left in their wake because we are ignorant of its very existence. We can even use the myth of the Black/White binary to deny the actual experience of Black people by turning it into something much more simplistic and trite rather than the complex reality that it is.

3. The Black/White Binary keeps us from working against our own dehumanization.

White people are also dehumanized by racism, and the Black/White binary hides this reality. The binary is a simplistic paradigm based on either/ or; good/ bad; wrong/ right; winner/ loser. Instead of recognizing we all regain our humanity and community if White supremacy is dismantled, the Black/White Binary with its either/or logic has White people fearing that if racism is eliminated we lose. We fear that we will lose our privileges and that Black people will oppress us once they are on the top. Take, for example, the recent claims by many White people of “reverse racism.” In these complaints we hear a deep fear of being on the bottom, because, in our heart of hearts, we know that we have created an “either/or” world and that we do not want to lose our position. What a powerful disincentive to work for justice, and those of us working for a more racially equitable society need to combat this falsehood wherever possible.

Moreover, the Black/White binary doesn’t leave room for the full diversity of humankind and thus doesn’t allow for healthy, resilient community. In his blog post, James’ Addington discusses how living in a diverse, interconnected community actually provides strength and resilience for all participants, whether they be humans or micro-organisms. The Black/White binary, however, creates a system in which instead of living in meaningful community, the set-up places White people in the role of oppressors who exploit others for our own gain. This causes broken relationships and isolation which goes against our human need for belonging and connection. Instead of being part of a differentiated, rich community life, we participate in our own dehumanization by robbing from others and weakening the very fabric that should exist to support all people, including ourselves.

4. The Black/White Binary keeps us from standing in solidarity with all People of Color to end racism.

If we don’t understand how we are all harmed by racism, White people will not be able to stand in solidarity with all People of Color to eliminate racism. How many times have we as White people been ignorant of not only our own racialized experiences and histories but also those of the various People of Color groups we seek to partner with? Moreover, remaining stuck in the Black/White binary could tempt us to try and help, save and fix Black people who we perceive to be the sole objects of racial oppression. We can also be tempted to use other People of Color group stereotypes to set some sort of imaginary standard for Black people and how they should comport themselves (See Laura Mariko Cheifetz’s blog on the Black/White Binary and the Model Minority Myth).

Another way we fail to stand in solidarity occurs when we observe the Black/White binary causing a division between Communities of Color and we simply back away and distance ourselves. We throw our hands up and say, “this is a People of Color problem, let them fight amongst themselves.” For example, as Antiracist White people we sometimes have the problematic notion that in order to be accountable to POC we have to listen to, follow and do whatever People of Color say. If the binary has them fighting with one another, however, we may find ourselves in a situation where we do not know who to follow or agree with. In this situation we may be tempted to take sides and align ourselves with one People of Color group as truly being more oppressed (or more to our individual liking). We need to be accountable to an analysis of racism that challenges the Black/White binary and includes all our histories and perspectives. Then accountability and solidarity doesn’t become about aligning ourselves with individual People of Color who we personally like the best.

Moving Forward

For those of us who identify as White and want to engage in the work of dismantling systemic racism we must heed the clarion call of our Colleagues of Color to continually push ourselves past the Black/White Binary. We must see the totality of racism and how we continue to benefit from it.  We need to hear the stolen stories, listen to People of Color from all racialized groups, be accountable to and stand in solidarity with a rich, complex analysis of racism that includes all People of Color (as well as ourselves!), and relentlessly work on our own internal transformation and that of our institutions. Antiracist White People need to be able to name the binary playing out when we see it and be proactive in disrupting it.

If this series of blogs has sparked your interest about understanding and interrupting the Black/White binary, we invite you to join us at Crossroads Leadership and Development Institute this summer in Chicago where we will continue to explore the construct of the Black/White binary and how we can continue to organize to transform our institutions into more racially just organizations.

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ABOUT THE WRITERS

Joy and Ryan Baiey

Joy and Ryan Baiey

Joy Bailey has been the Director of Organizing and Training for Crossroads since 2011 and has been a Core/Organizer Trainer since 2008. She has her Bachelor’s degree in Spanish Education and her Master’s in Socio-cultural Studies in Education, both from Western Michigan University (WMU). Formerly, Joy taught high school Spanish for six years in Kalamazoo Public Schools (KPS) and also taught courses on race and racism in education at WMU. Joy has been doing local antiracism organizing in Kalamazoo Public Schools since 2001. Although originally from North Dakota, Joy currently lives with her spouse in Chicago, IL.

Ryan Bailey received his BA in English Education from Western Michigan University, his MA in Educational Leadership from Michigan State, and is a Nationally Board Certified teacher. He has participated in a variety of professional educational experiences including a Fulbright-Hayes exchange to Senegal and presentations to the National Council of Teacher’s of English. Ryan’s antiracism development began and continues within the context of the organizing work of Crossroads and ERAC/CE. An avid home-brewer, vintner, writer, reader, outdoors man, cook, traveler, and tennis player, Ryan makes his home in Chicago, IL with his partner Joy.

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

A native of Puerto Rico, Jessica identifies as a “1.5 generation Queer ESL Latina of Puerto Rican descent.”  She works as a consultant and core/organizer trainer for Crossroads.  Jessica holds a BA in Criminal Justice and Currently, Jessica holds  Masters degrees in Theological Studies and Divinity.
A native of Puerto Rico, Jessica identifies as a “1.5 generation Queer ESL Latina of Puerto Rican descent.” She works as a consultant and core/organizer trainer for Crossroads. Jessica holds a BA in Criminal Justice and Masters degrees in Theological Studies and Divinity.

I still remember the question: Which one will you pick? It came in the middle of a discussion about history and racism. I had just shared the latest evolution of the race classifications boxes announced by the United States Census Bureau, which eliminated “Latin@s/Hispanic” as a category. I posited to the group the shift was about power consolidation and politics of divide and conquer. Then came the question, which box will you pick? Before I could answer one of the white women said, “The White box.” Immediately an African-American woman said, “Nope, she will pick the Black box.”

I still remember laughing and making a comment about being wanted. And after we all had a laugh, I said I would pick neither. The group stared at me. You could tell they were asking, what does she mean? Were we not just discussing how race is not voluntary? How it is imposed? How can she pick neither? I allowed us to sit in ambiguous silence in part because I needed to find my words; in part because the power of the Black/White racial binary requires I claim allegiance to one side or another in ways that invisibilize me.

This was not the first time I was faced with the black/white binary question. The first time I was 21 and the only Latin@ residential female student at Christian Theological Seminary. I was desperate for friends and filled with socialized messages about who were the “good ones” to know and who were the “people to avoid.” I will give you a hint: the binary maps perfectly on these ideas. I of course lacked the analysis of systemic racism to understand neither the historical context of the question nor the impact of choosing. I failed to see the choice as a participation in the maintenance of White supremacy, to see myself a pawn in a much bigger game of power, and to recognize the binary as a destructive divide-and-conquer strategy. The reality is there is no Black/White binary. There is instead a White/non-White binary, which seeks to turn all people into collaborators of White supremacy.

I hate the idea of being complicit and yet I know how complex racial dynamics and racial politics become when a narrative is woven that obfuscates and confuses the true purpose of race, and which preys upon the vulnerability of people who then crave comfort, material wealth, and access to resources. And yet I know that as a 1.5 generation ESL Queer Latina woman of Puerto Rican descent living in the United States life would be easier, more comfortable if I simply give into the trap the binary sets. How can that be easier? I can join the race toward Whiteness or the American Dream and buy into the lie that says it is the marker of immigrant success. I can convince myself that as a non-Black person of color I have a leg up and as such I have the choice to call out our patterns or racial discrimination as long as the calling out does not compromise my “access.” Life would be more comfortable but it would also mean enslavement to a set of lies that dehumanize me and others. Moreover, this would require ignoring five dynamics the Black/White racial binary paradigm creates for people of color which ensure the continuous re-centering of Whiteness as the dominant and only valid experience of this nation. Tomorrow, I will name and reflect on the first three dynamics.

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.

Power and the Black-White Binary: Forging Authentic Church Identities in the Midst of White Supremacy, Patriarchy, and Being “Other Asian”

The Reverend Laura Mariko Cheifetz serves as the Executive Director of Church & Public Relations at the Presbyterian Publishing Corporation. She received her M.Div. from McCormick Theological Seminary in Chicago, and her MBA from North Park University in Chicago. She is an ordained Teaching Elder in the Presbyterian Church (USA). She enjoys spending time with friends over food, exploring whichever region in which she happens to live, and still believes The Wire is the greatest television show in history.
The Reverend Laura Mariko Cheifetz serves as the Executive Director of Church & Public Relations at the Presbyterian Publishing Corporation. She received her M.Div. from McCormick Theological Seminary in Chicago, and her MBA from North Park University in Chicago. She is an ordained Teaching Elder in the Presbyterian Church (USA). She enjoys spending time with friends over food, exploring whichever region in which she happens to live, and still believes The Wire is the greatest television show in history.
Crossroads is deeply grateful that Laura M. Cheifetz our colleague , supporter, occasional guest blogger of Crossroads agreed to let us repost her insightful speech on the Black-White Binary.  A few words of context. Rev. Cheifetz delivered this speech at Whitworth University in Spokane, WA at the Presbyterian Church (USA) Moderator’s Third Conversation on Unity with Difference on Race, Gender, and Religious Differences. It is also posted in her blog Church Relations. This is a long but very powerful piece on the relationship between power, the black/white racial binary paradigm, racialization, gender, and institutions. While Rev.Cheifetz is obviously speaking from her experience as a Presbyterian Christian to other Presbyterian Christians, there is much in her speech that applies to the dynamics of working for racial justice in any institution. Finally, with the writer’s permission this post was edited for length.

My name is Laura Mariko Cheifetz. Cheifetz is my family name, from my Polish-Ukrainian-Lithuanian Jewish family members who fled persecution in Eastern Europe over 100 years ago. If you know my parents, you know that I pronounce our name differently. I have no tattoos or body piercings and never snuck out at night to joyride or get high. Instead I pronounce our name differently.

My middle name is Mariko, from my Japanese American ancestry. My great-grandmother was the first Japanese American baby born in the town of San Juan Bautista, CA over 100 years ago. My Jewish Polish great-grandmother wanted my parents to call me by my Japanese name, and please know how grateful I am that my parents stuck with Laura. It’s an easier cross-over name for my Spanish-speaking relatives, and explaining my family name is already a lengthy process enough. I’m Hapa Yonsei, multiracial fourth and fifth generation Asian American of Japanese and Jewish descent. I’m also a Presbyterian teaching elder

That is how I see myself. The question that most illuminates how others see me is: “What are you?” For those of you accustomed to navigating multiraciality or multiethnic identity or navigating looking not-quite-what-you-are-enough for others, this is the defining question. This is the question that is asked of me by both people and by institutions. Depending on my energy level, I either find this question annoying, angering, or just another day in the life. I know, I know, I could take the generous route, and think “these people are just curious. At least they ask instead of guess.”

I am generous with my second bedroom if you get stranded at the Atlanta airport. I am generous with food and drink. I am not generous when it comes to indulging the racial imagination of U.S. culture and American churches.

GUIDING ASSUMPTIONS

I believe there is more than one explanation and more than one right answer for pretty much everything, even if that is not how I talk. I have been well-trained by the dominant culture, and I love the fluidity of knowledge and experience – these two things are not always in sync. My own understandings of race and racism, gender and sexism, are always in development, and I look forward to learning more.

Race and gender themselves are not the problems obstructing unity. The problems here are racism and sexism. Who we are isn’t the problem, but how we live into oppressive constructs that separate us from one another is. What I will say this morning is part of a longer conversation we in the church need to have with one another, because even though we have been in this conversation for decades, we have yet to diminish our capacity to sin when it comes to relationship with one another.

Racism and sexism aren’t prejudice or dislike or ignorance. Any one of us can participate in prejudice or dislike or ignorance. “isms” are prejudice, or a belief in the inferiority of a group of people, whether this prejudice is intentional and conscious, or unintentional and unconscious, coupled with the institutional structures and the power to shape the lives of that group of people based on that belief in their inferiority.

A common coping mechanism I share with many of my friends who belong to particular minoritized groups is to make fun of people who operate out of “isms.”  But “-isms” are not primarily about individuals. As the UCLA School of Public Affairs states, “The individual racist need not exist to note that institutional racism is pervasive in the dominant culture.” U.S. law tends to focus on intentional discrimination, because it is based on a dated understanding of what constitutes racism and sexism, such as blatant employment discrimination, and housing covenants that exclude certain named populations. But institutionalized discrimination is simply the consequence of maintaining power and privilege for the groups considered superior.

Another assumption I make is white supremacy and patriarchy are real. I’m not interested in sharing statistics that prove them to be real. I’m not here to convince you. If you do not already acknowledge these huge shaping forces in our culture, then this conversation will not make much sense to you.

You have read the Bible, and I’m not the best person to explain how as Christians we should care about how we interact in the church regarding race and racism, gender and sexism. I have moved beyond needing a theological justification for ending racism, or biblical interpretations for gender equality. Let’s assume that’s a given. I leave that to others who give more time and energy to it than I do.

I depart from the assumption that all of the history of what became the U.S. is important. While forced removal of Native Americans and chattel slavery shaped the south, where I now live, I grew up where Spanish colonialism and its precursors, Native American reservations, anti-Indian policies, alien land laws and Asian disenfranchisement, violence against Mexicans already on the land, and the use of migrant farm labor shaped the racial landscape.

Race and gender are social constructs. We conflate the social construction of gender with biological sex. Sex is about chromosomes. There are many chromosomal variations on the XY and XX combinations into which we assume the world falls. Gender is not a binary. I will probably be dead before the Presbyterian Church is able to come to grips with that fact and starts giving members the ability to classify themselves outside of the male/female binary. Gender expression is how we live out our own gender, and is tightly policed in U.S. society and particularly within the church. Definitions of what is gender and what is acceptable gender expression vary by culture – in some cultures, there are more than two genders. It is men that raise the children. Pink used to be a boy’s color in the U.S. It is only real because we say it is real.

I do not believe race is real. I believe it has no biological foundation. I believe race is real the way money is real – because we have given it value. Race as defined by the U.S. is a social construct. It changes constantly. Just take a look at every single U.S. census – the racial categories are different every ten years.

We as a society have constructed race and gender as real, constricting individual expression, disrupting solidarity, and giving us a series of tiny little boxes into which we might organize our limited understanding of humanity. However, I believe race and ethnicity lend meaning to our own identities both as a result of our rich heritages and as a result of racialization.

The last assumption I will name is that I am not particularly interested in talking everything to death. I want to see change. I’m not what you could call old, but I’m not exactly young, either. I’ve been in these conversations around race and gender in the church for 15 years. I know others have been in it for far longer, but I confess I’m impatient. I can do the long game, but I very much want to be in this conversation with others who can think collectively to organize for structural and cultural change. Other people before us died for this. I think the least we can do to honor them is change this church.

MY CONTEXT

My context in regards to race, ethnicity, and religion is this: in my family there are Asian Americans of Japanese and Chinese descent, Latin@s of Mexican and Puerto Rican descent, white people, African-Americans, white Jewish people, Arab Americans, and so many multiracial people that we could make our own cross-over feel-good commercials. In my family, there are Pentecostals, Presbyterians from More Light to Confessing Church, Episcopalians, atheists, Jews, Muslims, Catholics, Disciples of Christ, Buddhists, and a significant population of “nones.” I grew up behind a Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.  And I am so so Presbyterian, and my remarks today will largely address the context of the Presbyterian Church (USA), because that is what I know best.

I never went through a confirmation class, so I’m the person who has to look up the creeds in the hymnal. I’m the person who feels no need to prioritize visiting the great American Presbyterian pilgrimage site of Iona. I didn’t know we had an ethnic heritage as a Scottish church until I went to seminary and heard that some churches have Sundays where all the men wear kilts. I was horrified. I had grown up feeling so different from Lutherans, who in my hometown sponsored the annual lutefisk-eating contest at Viking Fest, and it turns out my religious people were just as specific.

My context in regards to gender is this: my parents, early on in their relationship, were part of the Christian expression particular to Intervarsity and the First Presbyterian Church of Berkeley in the mid-1970s. My mother once told me, “We went to a workshop on wifely submission. It didn’t stick.” But before our imaginations devolve into some sexist version of the nagging bossy wife and the husband who has to keep her happy, my parents are deliberately partners. They respect each other. My father, the one straight white guy in my home growing up, has never once questioned my version of reality. He trusted me to tell him my reality, and he believed it to be true. I take feminism seriously because my parents raised me to take it seriously, and so did the churches that raised me.

I introduce myself in this way because I think there is more than one way to experience racism and sexism. There are over 300 million ways in this country, and over 1.8 million ways in the Presbyterian Church (USA). Our conversation cannot depend upon a generic experience of racism (usually defined by blackness) or sexism (usually defined by middle-aged white women) imposed upon other experiences. Racism is not just about color. It is also about language, culture, colonialism, national origin, and citizenship status. Sexism is not just about how many women get to be heads of staff of tall steeple churches or directors of church agencies. It is about how we continue to think about gender identity and gender roles, and how those thoughts are embedded in our culture and our policies. It is about earning potential; church policies around work hours, compensation, and family leave; about how well churches minister to the lived realities of women in their employ and women who choose to be part of churches. It is about the culture of church leading change in the culture of this country instead of propping up legal and cultural patriarchy.

I will focus primarily on racism in this time we have together, but know that I approach this, understanding we are not just one thing at a time, not just a person of color at one point and a woman at another point, but our identities are multiple, mutually constitutive, complex.

THE BLACK-WHITE BINARY

We in the U.S. operate out of a black-white binary. We assume the starting point for most of our racial conversations is slavery, and the ending point is either Jim Crow or Trayvon Martin. I prefer the “yes, and” approach. I believe the reason for Native American suppression and cultural genocide, slavery and Jim Crow, Trayvon Martin and the current crisis in incarceration rates is racism, and other reasons are economic. What is racist is that the lives and well-being of people of color are just incidental collateral damage to the power of white supremacy.

What is racist, too, is the ongoing divisions made among people of color. You know of divide and conquer? That’s what happens when we focus only on one thing, on one group. That’s what happens when the church tells us it can only work on one issue at a time. That’s what happens when the church gives us a tiny pot of money to be divided among multiple diverse groups, and we decide to passive-aggressively fight over it instead of work together to make lasting change. That’s what happens when we decide to say that our experience of racism is more real than someone else’s experience of racism, and we base our organizing and our solidarity on that decision.

For the church and our society to focus primarily on the relationship between white and black, there was another group here before both of these groups, and there is a giant growing diverse middle. You do know that by the middle of the century, there will be more of us people of color than there will be of white people. Now, I don’t delude myself into thinking this will mean there will suddenly be racial justice everywhere. “Isms” are about power. Patterns of wealth are racialized, and it will take generations to change any of that. But I do know that if we as people of color would like to organize for change, it would work a heck of a lot better if we tried working together, instead of each of our groups interacting with white people and avoiding each other.

What the “ism” of racism and the black-white binary both serve is white supremacy. I’m not talking about the white supremacy of neo-Nazis moving into Sandpoint, Idaho. I’m not talking about the white supremacy of the KKK in southern Indiana. I’m talking about garden-variety white supremacy, the kind that assumes whiteness is preferable, the kind that allows people to dabble in other cultures without accountability. White people running yoga studios for their own profit, and the daughter of the governor of Oklahoma wearing a Native American headdress, using the excuse that in Oklahoma, one is exposed to Native American culture and feels connected to it (as though there were one Native American generic monoculture).

In this atmosphere of white supremacy and the black-white binary, where is the identity of Asian Pacific American? I have said before that I am Japanese and Jewish. I am multiracial. But for the purposes of demographics, I’m Asian American. I’m the model minority. Right? I got good grades and have two masters degrees and I work in a church agency. I’m a home owner. When I talk, sometimes people listen. So what right do I have to complain when it comes to racism and patriarchy?

The model minority stereotype reared its ugly head in the 1960s, suspiciously timed with widespread social unrest. Some people talk about the “riots” in black neighborhoods, and the Black Power movement. I find this interesting, because not long after, yellow power and brown power and red power movements were in full swing. Asian Americans were set up as the good people of color, the good model minority, even though they were engaged in social change movements.

You might be aware that there is more than one kind of Asian Pacific American. Many, many kinds, with different cultures, languages, ethnicities, foods, and ways of coming to the U.S. We are talking 34 countries in Asia, and within those countries, many more language and cultural groups.  I was taunted as a kid for being Chinese or Hawaiian or whatever people decided what kind of not-white I was (I could be Latina or Native American, too), because in the U.S. all Asians are Chinese. I found that in the realm of the national Presbyterian church, all Asians are Korean.

The first problem with the model minority is that it jams together people whose countries of origin the U.S. invaded, people who worked for the U.S. government during the Vietnam war and who had to leave their countries as a result, and their descendants, and people who came last year on a highly specialized work visa. It includes people whose families have to wait 20 years for a visa to the U.S., and people whose ethnicities and languages show up in approximately zero U.S. government documents as a check box option. Asian Pacific American is not an accurate way to classify people, and if Asian Pacific Americans had our way, all the data would be disaggregated, so you can see how the group I belong to (Japanese Americans) are vastly different from other groups, like Hmong Americans or Iranian Americans.

The second problem with the model minority is that it presumes there are good people of color and people of color who are problems. It tells people in my group to not be like those black people, or, increasingly, those Latin@s. It helps perpetuate the labeling of all black people as the wrong kind of minority, despite all evidence to the contrary. It helps divide people of color from one another, and disrupts our organizing potential.

The third problem with the model minority… I hate to break it to America, but the politics of respectability is a lie. No matter how good you act or how high your household income or how nicely you dress, at some point someone is going to hurl a racial slur at you, or shoot at you, or stop you for questioning because you look like an immigrant or other kind of criminal, or not stop the cab to pick you up, or ask how your English can be so good. You will always belong to a group less likely to experience economic mobility, and more likely to experience higher rates of stress and discrimination than the white population. We as people of color can end up twisting ourselves into caricatures trying to make ourselves into the right people of color, instead of interrogating the very culture and system that demand such dehumanization.

DISLOCATED BY THE BINARY

I felt included in racial conversations much of my growing-up, maybe because there were so few of us people of color. Then I moved to New York. For the first time in my life, I wasn’t special. This is important. It was fantastic. I didn’t stick out. I could just blend in. There were those annoying moments, like when a white guy interning at the UN asked me and another church intern, who was from Tajikistan via Amsterdam, if we were sisters. I said, “You mean in that general Asian way?” But I was also working with the UN World Conference Against Racism, and I ran into the black-white binary so hard that I started walking out of meetings. I had a vague sense that the struggles of Latin@s, indigenous Peoples, Asian Americans, and others didn’t count as much as the struggles of African descendants, but I had no idea that this kind of meeting would bring up everyone’s internalized pain, which would manifest in blatant competition for resources and access to power. The U.S. non-governmental agency community was in constant conflict.

Attending school at McCormick in Chicago was another challenge for me. Even though the student body, just half white, and the city were plenty diverse, the two largest groups were still white people and black people. The primary participants in racial conversations were still black people and white people, and I will always appreciate the audacity of the Latin@ and Asian Pacific American students, and the space given to be part of a larger conversation. Giving into marginalization in that setting would have been giving up, and inserting ourselves into the racial conversation fought against our being relegated to the margins as “cultural others” or what I might call “window dressing.”

Conversations in the PC(USA) are often tied to the racial-ethnic caucuses and ethnic specific congregations. These conversations for people of color mean you’re either black or you belong to an immigrant group. And while I work hard to be in solidarity with immigrants, because we are all stuck in this crazy racialized category together, the most recent immigrant in my family is white and English-speaking. The majority of my family has been here for over 100 years. The issue for me is not language access (although that is important). My issues are not about my culture and the church’s inability to deal with my cultural differences (I know how to navigate whiteness and white culture. My people have been doing it for generations.). My issues are about the racism that has helped make this church what it is. Racism is embedded in our identity. And I think we as a church have the capacity to forge an identity that recognizes our participation in colonialism, racism, and other “isms,” without giving these systemic evils the power they currently hold.

MOVING FORWARD

So how do we do this? Let’s start simply. Let’s allow for complexity of identities. Let’s allow for a multiplicity of expressions. There is no one way or best way to be Presbyterian, or Christian for that matter. Jesus wasn’t white, nor did he speak English only. Let’s also allow for a complexity of understanding how racism and sexism are experienced in the church and in society. How a first-generation immigrant Filipina experiences racism is quite distinct than how a Native American man experiences racism. How a half Japanese half Jewish woman experiences racism is quite distinct than how an African-American man experiences racism.

Let’s quit using one another as props for our own theological or political campaigns. There is nothing more exasperating than white churches holding up “Hispanics” or “Koreans” or “international partners” or “young people” as a rationale for changing our church policies or not changing our church policies. While I believe advocacy is important, I think we tread too far in the direction of other more dangerous and exploitative territory. What was once held as a truism is rapidly shifting. No group is likely to be both theologically and politically liberal or conservative based on the definitions the church has relied on for decades. 63% of Hispanic/Latino Americans support same-sex marriage rights. Asian Pacific Americans as a group overwhelmingly (71%) voted Democrat in the last presidential election. Mexico City and South Africa and Brazil have legalized same-sex marriage. Many of the churches that are our more “conservative” partners around the world are also vehemently anti-free trade and oppose the kind of capitalism practiced by this country and our institutions, the kind of economic system that benefits us. This just goes to show how complex are our belief systems, affiliations, and convictions. If we have a belief, how about we claim it as ours, and find a good way to substantiate our claims, instead of using these monolithic imaginary others who are perfectly capable of speaking for themselves, and often do speak for themselves, given the chance.

Let’s address real inequalities. I have heard many churches, many of them majority-white, wish the Presbyterian Church would stop focusing on so many social issues and focus just on theological ones. Social issues are theological. It is a theological problem if Christians believe employment opportunity for those with varying levels of education, immigration, the criminal justice system, gun control, political gerrymandering, disenfranchisement, voter ID laws, the financial services sector, hunger, poverty, and economic inequality are not the business of the church. These are things that have a disproportionate impact on the lives of people of color. These are the problems that keep us from attaining a shot at racial justice. These are the problems that shape our lives because we’re always negotiating with banks to allow our in-laws to keep their homes, or finding lawyers so our mothers can stay in the country, or finding people to write letters attesting to the character of our wrongfully accused sons, or looking for ways to feed our families. We have to worry about elected officials who don’t look like us or care about our communities. This takes up a lot of time and energy, and it is our faith that keeps us going. These are the circumstances we bring with us to church every single Sunday.

It must be really nice to never have to worry about those things. Never have to worry about discrimination. Never have to worry about getting a loan from a bank. Never have to worry about laws regulating gun sales because you think your son won’t be gunned down in the street. Never have to worry how a police officer will react. What will drive us apart instead of together as the church is if you dismiss my real life as just the “fluff” the church shouldn’t be doing.

This might be weird, coming from the “other Asian” who is employed and has citizenship and all kinds of access, but part of being Asian Pacific American is needing to care about all these things. We are small, even if we are the fastest-growing group in the U.S. We encompass great economic and vocational diversity. And for anyone to care about our issues, we have to care about the issues of other groups. We are not so different from each other. And by building coalitions, by showing up for each other, we are more likely to get things done.

I know that some of the partners in this work are white. In the end, we are all on the same side, yes? Patriarchy and white supremacy serve no one, not even the white men among us, even if white men do (statistically speaking) stand a far better chance than others to benefit. Patriarchy and white supremacy in the United States continue to divide us from one another, disrupt our collective organizing power, compromise our Christian identity, minimize our capacity to act like Christians, and dehumanize each one of us. While I do not feel sorry for white men, I also know that the fullness of what it means to be a man is severely limited by patriarchy, and the fullness of what it means to be human is cut off at the knees in exchange for white privilege.

But people in power are going to have to start believing that oppression and marginalization are real, without putting the burden of proof on those who experience marginalization. And people with power will need to grapple with the realities of the privilege the current structures have afforded them. There’s no need to feel guilty, but there is a need to be honest about it, and to find ways to be good and accountable partners in this work.

Our church has a lot of statements, many policies opposing inequality and injustice. You also know that our church and many churches struggle with allowing both diversity and unity to creatively coexist. How can we be authentically church in the midst of real disagreement about money, theology, sexual orientation, pastoral discretion, Biblical interpretation? How can we be authentically church when we do not like each other?

I’m straying into Biblical territory here, but I have heard we all have spiritual gifts. Some of us do the complex and cutting-edge thinking. Some of us do a great job of raising money. Some of us are activists, creating change by pushing from the edges. Some of us are subversive, making change inside large institutions, incrementally making these institutions more life-affirming for all people. Some of us are great encouragers. Some of us make sure there is food on the table. Some of us pray.

I believe I said something somewhere about showing up for each other. I meant that across racial groups, and I mean it for different genders and religious groups, too. We can’t hope to make change all by ourselves, all the time. Maybe some of us were trapped in schools that taught the whitewashed version of civil rights history, but the civil rights movements have been incredibly diverse. There were many philosophies, change theories, streams of thought. They were white and African-American and Asian Pacific American and Native American and Hispanic/Latin@. Civil rights work was transnational. So if we of varying races, genders, and religious groups show up for each other, and if we of varying spiritual gifts show up for each other, maybe that is a way of finding how to be authentically church and authentically community. Maybe that is how we can create change.

 

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]

images-3

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