Tag Archives: oppression

“Well I Think You Should…” Contemplating Racial Justice in 2015

Today I had a refreshing conversation with my old friend Jared Childress, who happens to be my first ever true Black friend (“Dang, I must not be racist now! …Or something”). We met 6 years ago in one of UC Irvine’s on-campus housing complexes. I remember how he originally struck me as lucid, exceptionally well-dressed, and handsome.

Our friendship wasn’t ever really steady; we only saw each other once in a while and didn’t get too many opportunities to get to know each other. I recall that in those days, I was just scratching the surface of race relations in the U.S. I didn’t understand structural and institutional racism as the root causes of racial injustice in the United States. I didn’t have a very deep grasp on the plight of Black America. And my understanding of my own whiteness and white privilege was pretty weak.

But man are times a-changin’. Having gone through a day-long racial justice training through Race Forward, several anti-oppression workshops, and now a course about whiteness & racism by and for white people, you could say I’m neck-deep in personal racial reconstruction (“Racial rehab?” She thought, though.). And damn, is it an arduous process: identifying and uprooting subconscious prejudices, coming to terms with ugly shit I’ve thought in the past, unlearning latent racism, and putting together a new set of lenses through which to see this truly beleaguered country. Since as white people we’re taught from birth that we’re normal, good, race-less individuals, the point at which we finally see ourselves as having a race – especially one with a history of violently oppressing, enslaving, and destroying other cultures (not to mention ecosystems) – can be, well (Hella easy to deal with! Not a bother! A cakewalk!) fucking painful to bear at times.

The course, not coincidentally titled Beyond the Culture of Separation, is made up of white people exclusively, from participants to facilitators. (The rationale: it’s not the job of people of color (POC) to educate white people on their shit. It’s our job to do our homework. An all-white space gives learners the opportunity to keep it totally real and honest without worrying about causing anymore anguish for POC with our confessions, etc.) A sort of racial justice-oriented group psychotherapy session, it’s been dynamic, thoroughly awkward and uncomfortable at times (as any course wherein white folks attempt to explore the terrifying history of white supremacy, domination and racism must be), and fulfilling. For me, there’s no better way to re-humanize white folx than to undergo such a course…

***

Fast forwarding several years, Jared and I have somehow resurrected our friendship after a long life-induced hiatus. I hold that as an accomplishment for a few reasons. First, we have a lot of potential as friends, and secondly as political allies. That much is for sure.

Among the many notable things about Jared, he is a highly educated Black man with a history of political engagement, from serving as Co-Chair of the Black Student Union at UC Irvine to majoring in African-American Studies. It’s cool because we’ve always had frank conversations about race; none more involved than the recent ones.

DangerEducatedBlackMan

But anyhow, back to Jared and I. The candidness with which we speak about race gives me energy. It reminds me of what I’ve been reading recently, which is that interracial friendships are essential to healing this country. Even better are interracial friendships in which the white person listens to her/his/their friend of color with unconditional compassion, genuinely understands the issues, is unafraid to feel the inevitable discomfort of screwing up in conversations about race, and earnestly owns up to her/his/their mistakes.

I wanted to let you know, y’all, that I in fact made a race-related mistake tonight. Yes indeed.

I caught myself in the act of whitesplaining! Now, mind you: so much of the racist shit that white people say may not be intended to harm people of color, but by virtue of its impact does do harm. This is the difference between intent and impact. I can think of many times I’ve said or done something without intending to hurt someone, but hurt them anyway. In any case, the principle of intent and impact, I’m learning, goes for all situations in life, not just race relations. In any case, back to the whitesplaining part.

Jared was telling me about his trials and tribulations, and of course as his friend the natural impulse arose to offer some advice on his situation. But wait, the way I had worded it was thus: “Well I think you should do x.” Before I even finished the sentence, I stopped myself in disbelief – WHITE BOY FAIL! It turns out that POC are tired as hell of white people offering advice, trying to “help,” and generally meddling in their affairs. So, I retracted my comment, and gave way for Jared to continue telling his part of the story.

So there, I think by catching myself mid-sentence and owning up to my mistake to Jared, that I did the right thing. Just another day in “post-racial” ‘Murica… ha!

Post-racial, my ass.

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Black Lives Matter

For didactic purposes, I use the word “American” below to refer to the United States and its people. I do so in recognition that (1) the original land, more appropriately known as Turtle Island, is under indefinite occupation; and (2) Latin Americans refer to North, Central and South Americas jointly as “America.”

Two weeks ago, I heard that the Ferguson grand jury had decided not to indict the white policeman Darren Wilson for shooting the unarmed Black teenager Michael Brown. I was immediately filled with a seething rage. Eleven shots, including one to the head; the boy’s body left in the street for 4 1/2 hours. Racism and its injustice, if they could be conceived of as a hidden network of mycelial fibers penetrating every last square meter of American society, had produced a poisonous, oozy mushroom cap that night. That cap was the #FergusonDecision.

I had to do something to challenge this <<poisonous mushroom cap.>> 

One thing led to another, and I found myself among the demonstrators in downtown Oakland. We marched through the City, throngs and loads and heaps and a plethora and lots of us – many visibly privileged, but fairly diverse – continuing along the deserted Grand Avenue. I witnessed trash cans being lit on fire.  “No Justice, No Peace! No Racist Police!” I saw broken windows in corporate and local businesses. “Peaceful Protest! Peaceful Protest!” I saw other protesters’ facial expressions, often necessarily cold. For in that kind of social setting, it’s not always evident who’s on your side, who’s not, and worse, who’s deliberately trying to sabotage the action (although the latter typically dress to mask their identities).

The following two points must be said in regards to the burgeoning social movement’s activities:

  1. although there is no excuse for property damage to local businesses, unless I suppose they’re owned by racists, media hype about protester “violence” is almost always misleading because it often conflates peaceful protesters, who usually form the majority of the protest, with the destructive minority responsible for causing damage to city and other property. Moreover, such coverage slanders the movement as ‘rioting,’ as if it isn’t rational for extremely oppressed, socially excluded people with no other recourse to express themselves in such ways. This brings me to another point:
  2. Co-optation of this movement, especially by whites, is probably a grave threat, most of all in predominantly non-white communities. Although we need to be creating as broad-based, multicultural movement as possible, we must not lose sight of reality: the past two weeks have been about about Black people; the emerged movement a challenge to the white supremacist American system that promotes state-sanctioned violence against black and brown people. Therefore, the time is now for white people to steer clear from leadership positions, listen, and ask how we can support leaders of color in this fight. Here’s a good place to start.
  3. attempts to invalidate the struggle as violent are patently absurd. Why? Because the capitalist, patriarchal, racist, white supremacist, ecocidal system we’re challenging – you know, the one responsible for enslaving millions of Africans and annihilating millions of Indigenous peoples;  the one whose police forces kill hundreds of people per year, far surpassing the death toll from the 9/11 attacks; the one that’s killing off dozens of species every single day; the one that has ignored public opinion to allow 1% of Americans to possess 40% of the country’s $54 trillion in wealth; the one that is literally destroying the biosphere‘s ability to sustain human life – is the global Elephant in the Room, the real culprit at play here.
  4. The take-home message here: The system we oppose commits violence on global scales at orders of magnitude greater than any damage, whether collateral or intended, that social movements commit against the aforementioned system. Do I think we need to remain non-violent? Yes! That said, it’s important to keep the above perspective when reading about reports of protester violence/rioting. Violence against police officers should not be condoned, except, as always, in self-defense. In the end, though, I would probably defer to the ethical judgments of Black leaders on organizing matters since this movement is about them.

That said, let us return to Ferguson Decision Day One.

We were on route to the intersection of Lake Shore and Lake Park Avenues. Down Grand Avenue, the trafficless streets became prettier, the orange streetlights imbuing old buildings with a sepia-like glow. No people? No problem! my shameless internal introvert remarked. I appreciated this new aesthetic, the architecture on Grand newly accentuated. It felt old again.

We were headed for the 580 freeway.

*                *               *

A trait linked to immense patience, my tendency not to get angry easily is something I take modest pride in. It takes a lot to anger me, but this night was just too much. My eyes widened, bulging with intensity; my jaw clenched, adrenaline coursing through… the organs do that when I’m hungry, anxious, alert, or otherwise anticipating belligerent law enforcement. Beyond the initial reaction in my head, I felt a deep sense of foreboding. This country is so incredibly fucked up, I couldn’t help but admit to myself.

It was a conclusion I had made already, before I brought my distraught corn-fed self to leave on a leprechaun-laced Hiatus from Life in the Belly of Empire (to – you guessed it! – post-colonial Ireland, no less) some 3.5 years ago.

It was a conclusion whose bitter, strange fruit – a cruel legacy, an aberration – were rearing their rotten skins once again.

*            *             *

Mike Brown and Eric Garner… in that order. Two lives, elided over, curtailed, indignifed, squashed, systemically spat upon, discarded. Racism will stop at nothing to maintain white privilege, snuffing out as many black and brown bodies as it cares too. Power concedes nothing without a demand. American power, still the most sinister, potent type of political poison, will need a hell of a demand to be recalibrated…

To ignore or half-ass this task is to condemn the United States of America to continuing its racist, anti-Black, white supremacist trajectory of stagnation into social oblivion.

The time is now.

#BlackLivesMatter #EricGarner #Ferguson #ShutItDown