Racial Mascotry and the Space for “Enlightening Discussions”

Over the last several years, as students and activists of color have been increasingly organizing around issues of racial (and economic) injustice particularly as affects them, you may have also noticed more than a fair share of pushback from mainstream and liberal publications (whereas previously most of the counter-resistance was from conservative outlets). Washington Post, New York Times, The Atlantic, The Nation, etc, etc, seem to be in need of op-eds and features written by establishment, upper-middle class people about the perils of allowing these protesters too much space in the public imagination.

Their arguments are that the activists are too violent, that they are childish, pouting, not ready for the real world, denying freedom of speech and freedom of expression in the school. They argue that ‘woke’ Milennials seeking safe places are a threat to academic freedom and the classroom, and that they are being coddled and babied.

Most of these arguments are simply dismissed by applying the title of Adam Kotsko’s blog, “What If I Told You that the Whole World Is Your Safe Place?” to the very people complaining about the struggle of these students to find a safe place of their own.

But yet there is a part of me concerned about academic freedom and about workers’ rights (noticeably the right to secure employment that is not threatened by non-work related experiences and ambushes by social media). For me, seeking penal justice gives more ammunition (so to speak) to the very forces of White Supremacy that have criminalized people of color and organized forms of resistance (notice, for example, how in one state resistance to the police is now categorized as a hate crime–  a bill hailed as Blue Lives Matter Law in recognition of its counter to Black Lives Matter activism).

yale_law_school_in_the_sterling_law_building

It was in this frame of mind that I read Conor Friedersdorf’s highly-opinionated-yet-delivered-as-if-rational (which is to say, stripped of its context of racial violence) article “The Perils of Writing a Provocative Email at Yale” in The Atlantic and first came away thinking, “Aw man, that’s fucked up what happened to those professors.”

I had to come back to it later. The language in here made me think that the costumes were merely “offensive”, as if someone was bothered by clown make up. I thought at first glance that the email was largely harmless, certainly not on the order of a firing.

But riding on my bike, I thought about the gentrifiers coming into my neighborhood, Humboldt Park in Chicago, and wanting to tear down the beautiful Puerto Rican flag that has been a symbol of this Boriquen Oasis for decades on the grounds that it is somehow “racist” – despite the fact that it is the White people forcefully displacing Ricans. I thought about how White people had created a Facebook page calling themselves “The Puerto Ricans of Humboldt Park” and employing every racist, classist stereotype they could of my people – thugs, rapists, thieves, car jackers, drug users, lazy, welfare dependents. These are people, they heavily suggested in their caricatures, who deserve to be kicked out and denied access and opportunity. I thought what I would think if White people moving into Humboldt Park and Logan Square walked around in “Jibarito” costumes. I was then flushed with anger and resentment.

And then I was able to re-situate the Atlantic article. Yale, George W Bush’s alma mater, is well-known as one of the Whitest of the Whitest of White institutions. But Friedersdorf and the “provocative email” writers, Nicholas and Erika Christakis, assume that students of color can just have enlightening conversations with White students who wear their faces as if they are trophies on their walls.

Native Mascotry is a term created by American Indian activist Jacqueline Keeler to describe how Natives’ identities are being worn by sports teams and others as a way of cultural genocide. While not wanting to erase her work and what this means as it relates to Native American people and communities (particularly in light of the bullshit campaign by Dan Snyder and the Washington Post to once again pretend that a racist slur is a responsible and respectful honorific to an oppressed people group), I’d like to consider what it means that people of color are being mascot-ed through costume.

This extended mascotry – dressing as “gangsters” or “Chinese” for Halloween, as “Mexican” for Cinco de Mayo, as “Indian” for game day – is not separate from other forms of institutional racism and racial violence. In fact, it’s an integral aspect of racial violence. It is the physical and visual enactment of racist justification played out in the social sphere. “These people are no more than cartoons and thus are not hared by how we treat them.” The implication is that these mascot-ed/costume-d cultures and communities cannot and should not be taken seriously, nor their concerns; that they are not real or normal (read: White people). This mascotry is socially-inhabited psychological warfare.

It is not a simple feat to meet people committing psychological warfare against your very family and culture on any sort of level ground. The power dynamics are off and thus you are not entering a place for dialog.

I still do not know what any sort of proper response is to this. I don’t think the approach is as simple as firing or using the justice system. However, as resident life coordinators, however, it seems that Christakis’ were unsuited to the task that would make Yale hospitable for students of color.

Maybe the solution lies in White people not being so offended when they realize that they and their concerns are not the center of the universe. That would be a start.

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Grace Shake UP

Let’s talk about representation and diversity today, shall we?

To hear many Christians talk, there’s nothing necessarily wrong with being homosexual. For a smaller amount, one can maybe even be both homosexual and Christian. You’d also think listening to how they talk that some black people are Christians. Or some dirt poor “working class” folks. A single mother, struggling with her English, someone crazily suggests, can be reached by grace. Even some indigenous people, say the missional crew. Now, here me out. Hell, there’s even some gay dirt poor indigenous Mexicans who are Christians. I mean, probably, right? God is just that intense he’ll save people that are very different from normalized White American Middle Class Straight Christians.

This is what passes for diversity in elements of the White US Christian Church. See how diverse we are? See our magnanimousness? We *allow* these elements to represent us like the handful of students from the Asian/Asian-American/Pacific Islander and the La Raza clubs represent Midsize University on their brochures.

And so Church in the White contextual experience still largely centers the world upon itself and still considers itself the best hope for humanity. But its nominal head don’t want no part. Jesus:

I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.

–          Matthew 25:42-43

If Jesus identifies directly with the oppressed, why do we consider the Christian experience to be primarily the bodies and minds of white, male, cis-, straight, Anglo, wealthy, educated, able-bodied, housed, normalized people?

But Jesus is a homeless Cuban man we call Carlos. He’s got schizophrenia and a drinking problem, cast out in the cold by a shunning community and a family that can’t deal no more. And he may die of hypothermia tonight. Jesus is a black transwoman who is violently ostracized, threatened, and feared by a people that fail to grasp the mere fact of her humanity and beauty. Jesus has been diagnosed with learning disorders and behavioral problems since he first jumped out of his seat out of boredom, a Hot Cheetos diet, and way too much stress for a five year old. At three in the morning, Jesus rolls out of bed and unwraps five dozen corn husks for tamales she sells this morning and every morning on California Avenue. She hopes to sell them all today just in case her oldest son doesn’t find work today. Jesus is hoping no one will bother him from his spot under the Kennedy by-pass at Logan tonight. Jesus got beat up in high school to the point where he attempted suicide.

"Jesus on Wheels" - Holly Northrup via Flickr

“Jesus on Wheels” – Holly Northrup via Flickr

Jesus’ default setting isn’t White. He’s extremely unlikely to be found in a middle class setting. He probably doesn’t know how to set a proper table and he likely doesn’t speak Proper English.

This isn’t metaphorical. This isn’t some white liberal fairy-tale to make us feel all fuzzy wuzzy for Christmas and then go back home and repeat the same patterns of meaningless, benign exploitation. Let us once and forever replace the false White Middle Class Jesus with Black Prisoner Jesus and reorder our lives accordingly. This colonial, exploitative world is hell and needs heaven.

I don’t think White Christians should be asking in the reaches of the imagination if it is possible that people of color can truly come to grace.

I think White Christians need to ask if it’s possible for grace to break in to a Christianity so limited, so fragile, so cruel.

It’s a miracle that God gives White Christians grace. Because God don’t look like us.

The Struggle with Guilt

I’ve been thinking – and I’m no expert on emotions* so don’t quote me on this – that there are two bad emotions. One being bitterness – not because of what it does to others but because of what it does to ourselves. Oddly, those who have been abused and working through their emotions/feelings/past/hurt/scars/memories/pain are often tone policed about their so-called bitterness, certainly on the internet. And often by those defending the very abusers. That is not our job to identify and parse out another’s, and certainly a virtual stranger’s, bitterness.

In fact, if we truly want to limit bitterness, we should work towards justice. It won’t cure all bitterness (after all, as Al Green asked, who can mend a broken heart?), but it’ll reduce the circumstances of it happening to abused and oppressed people because – and this is key – there will be significantly less abuse and oppression.

Speaking of justice work brings us to the second bad emotion: guilt.

Stop!

Guilt, like any other feeling/emotion, is not necessarily wrong to have. In no way do we blame the person who feels guilty – how do we blame someone for how they feel? If there is blame to be had in guilt, then it is to the systems and methods that make it such an integral part of our vocabulary that it’s hard to parse it out. Many religions (certainly my own Christianity) and cultures rely on guilt as a prime motivator for doing acceptable things that it’s usually the go-to, the loci, the focus of understanding badness, wrong, injustice.

Eat your peas; there’s starving people in China.

I don’t know how to stop it but to change the rules. I don’t know how to eradicate guilt from myself, and even talking about it urges forth feelings and washes of guilt in others. And it can seem like in talking about it, I’m telling them not to struggle through their emotions – including guilt. Yet, I want us to come to more fully appreciate what this feeling is in us and how it affects us. Not to condemn, but to understand.

As a method of comprehending, communicating, and influencing injustice, guilt needs to be called out. Guilt is not the paradigm to speak about justice or injustice, oppression, or any issues having to do with them.

Poor people, people of color, other oppressed people (and most of us are oppressed in one manner or another; additionally, if you’re reading this, you’re also privileged in several ways **) and various justice workers get the “I’m guilty” speech all the time from people who represent the oppressed class. There is nothing really new about Kate Menendez’ article, “Being Privileged Is Not a Choice, So Stop Hating Me for It.”

The title was an apex of chutzpah, but we’ve heard it all before: I’m wealthy; it’s not my fault; I shouldn’t have to hide it; I shouldn’t be looked at funny for not having to struggle or living in a fancy building or for not having to worry about crushing student debt;  I shouldn’t have to feel guilty; assuage me!

But here’s the thing, she assumes that economic justice workers want her to feel guilty. I can assure her that they don’t. Guilt is useless. It incapacitates the wearer. It shifts the focus from the oppression and the struggle to bring justice to the emotions of those who identify with the oppressive classes. It’s a horrible motivator and is incapable of changing the guilted – the guilted only sees the struggle and those struggling through the lens of guilt. The guilted is less likely to recognize the full humanity of the strugglers and every struggle becomes another object through the lens of guilt – blurry, never in focus, clouded by clouds.

I want to eradicate guilt from my vocabulary.

_________________________________________________________

*Just ask my daughter.

**We all have agency, and privilege is understood in many dimensions.

Emancipating Ourselves from Mental Slavery

Being an educator, I get the privilege of hearing some pretty outstanding logic being applied to excuse shoddy or nonexistent work – and sometimes within the work itself. But this is done by students who have not taken a single logic or philosophy course. There are various reasons why they make such time-wasting endeavors, but ultimately the old teacher maxim holds true: They are only hurting themselves.

The most absurd reasoning I witness, however, comes from those who fight for inequality. Not just those who deny that it exists in such horrid and wretched conditions – though that is true as well; it does take a weird sort of intellect to assess that so much evil isn’t really happening to billions of people around the world and here in the West due largely to the sex and color of the recipient of that evil (Glenn Beck, anyone?). But it takes a special kind of mind to conclude that that evil is necessarily targeted towards people of color and women for their own good. An mind enslaved to the concept of necessary enslavement.

In Christian circles (where I would hope that Jesus’ message of liberation and inclusiveness would drive out such demonic forces), this type of logic is propelled by thought-leaders such as Wayne Grudem and John Piper (sex) and Douglas Wilson (sex and race), but also in various forms through many, many a warm and happy Sunday morning church service.

Yesterday, I had the privilege of running across a Christian who argued that feminists and Liberation Theologians both had Hegel and Marx to thank for their existence, for without those privileged old White men, they would never have come to formulate their own selves, their own purpose, their own identity.

IOW, Thank God for the Oppressors because with the Oppressors you wouldn’t have the tools to fight Oppression.

This. This is the kind of absurd person one becomes when fighting so hard against equality and justice.

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Let us not be that person, that person so mired in trying to protect what little we have that we go to great stinginess, and thus not only limit our reach, but ourselves.

In order for white suffering to have a voice, white people must realize the largest and most invisible way in which they benefit from their white privilege, and it’s the same thing that’s causing their frustration being The Default. If Person A is actively supporting and benefiting from a system that oppresses Person B, it is very hard for Person B to hear Person A say, “But I’m hurt too!” However, if Person A is actively working to dismantle the system they benefit from but which oppresses Person B, then Person B is finally seen — and Person A’s pain can be embraced. In order to see a person you must see the truth of their pain. If you deny their pain, you refuse to see them. This is what makes black people invisible. And black invisibility is what makes white pain invisible to black people.

And so we live our lives never seeing each other.

When White Americans see Black and Brown Americans in this way, Brown and Black Americans will accept their pain. It is a cycle that begins with destroying The Default.

The Default here is the idea that White is the center of the universe. We can expand that to any number of factors of being and privilege: Male; Middle Class; USAmerican; Cisgendered; Heterosexual. That any of these identities makes a person “normal” and thus others “not normal.” According to this perspective, injustice is a necessary form of justice, for the unNormals need our protection to navigate the world. They are helpless children or animals without us.

This kind of thought is so prevalent that it’s like air. It must not be disregarded, but must be demonstrated against in such shocking manners that the “Normals” realize that there is nothing at all normal about their privileges.

This May Day, let’s fight for all of our rights – and thus emancipate ourselves from mental slavery.

Won’t you sing with us these songs of freedom?

We All Shine On – Privilege 100

Earlier I wrote a post on the basics of Privilege. Let’s call it “Intro to Privilege.” But the last couple days I found myself having to break it down into even smaller tidbits. And it kind of reminded me of what John Lennon was doing in the 70’s, taking this really radical and revolutionary concepts and turning them into bumper stickers phrases in these immensely catchy songs. I’m no Lennon – or Ringo for that matter, but I hope you find something useful in this smorgasbord, this Prep class…- Being white in America comes with privileges, but being white is not a privilege. Nor is it a burden.- Whites tend to think the solution to race is forgiveness and put the onus on People of Color. The solution is equity and respect.- Privilege allows us to be dismissive and silence other voices in the public forum while patting ourselves on the back for being brave enough to “tell the truth”, which is only a truth according to our privileged perspective.

– People of color need to speak truth-to-power without being accused of being divisive or trouble-making. The trouble-making and the division is happening to them, and it’s not of their accord, and it’s not their fault.

– The constant lie is, “If only Blacks would stop talking about being black, racism would end… If only Mexicans would stop speaking in accents… If only Muslims would stop flaunting their Muslimness… If only women would stop yapping about their ladybits…”

– Privilege allows us to tell others that they shouldn’t bring up their differences, as those differences only divide us. Only in Privilege Land can difference be a negative thing.

– The best that can be said about the claim that color-blindness is a goal is that it’s like claiming that we must strive for ignorance.

– It’s usually white people who claim color-blindness because it’s easier for us than having to acknowledge the problems of racism in the US. Just as it’s often men who declare that women complain too much about their burdens, and middle and upper class who consider the poor to be undeserving.

– White people, like myself, have the privilege of being taken seriously simply because we were born White and male. Yet our roles as neighbors and citizens necessitate that we take the words and perspectives of others who are not like us seriously.

– When you say “color-blind”, what I hear is, “I accept you on MY terms, rather than for who you are.”

– The better position would be to listen to what people of color say and not presume that it means they hate you or that you have to lose your culture.

– We cannot presume to love our neighbors if we’re not willing to walk in their shoes for a bit.

– I come from a mixed-race family, I grew up in multi-cultural/multinational/multi-racial neighborhoods, schools, and churches, but I always assumed that I was right and that Euro-American culture is indisputably best. Not because I was raised to be racist or was an arse. But it’s part of how this country and its racist genes work their way into our schools, education, social conventions, etc.