le plus loin le plus serré

le plus loin le plus serré
mourning art

in memoriam

"yet I tell you, from the sad knowledge of my older experience, that to every one of you a day will most likely come when sunshine, hope, presents and pleasure will be worth nothing to you in comparison with the unattainable gift of your mother's kiss." (Christina Rossetti, "Speaking Likenesses," 1873)

Saturday, November 29, 2014

white privilege has got to go

An article reposting a blog by a local (Pittsburgh) teacher, about engaging with his students about Michael Brown, Ferguson, the grand jury's spectacular failure.  Teacher is white, class is largely "minority."
"One boy asked me, “Why does this keep happening, Mr. Singer?”
It was the question of which I had been most afraid. As a teacher, it’s always uncomfortable to admit the limits of your knowledge. But I tried to be completely honest with him.
“I really don’t know,” I said. “But let’s not forget that question. It’s a really good one.”"
THIS makes me really, really angry. It's nice that this teacher acknowledged michael brown, and ferguson, even if he did write a self-congratulatory post about it. But if you don't even try to answer the question of WHY this keeps happening, you haven't done anything except emote. Which is not necessarily a bad thing, and has its place. But emotion alone doesn't get shit done. It doesn't change anything. The answer to WHY - which is, in a nutshell, centuries of institutionalized racism! - is not comfortable, because it makes every white person complicit. And dodging the answer to "Why" is itself a kind of complicitness. At the very least, it's white privilege of a kind I discussed here.

Because we are. We benefit, every single day, from the oppressions of non-white people in this country. We have since before America was independent. We benefit from the historic oppression - slave labor contributed enormously to the economic development of the US, for starters. We benefit from years of Black people being denied the right to vote (because who gets elected? white people, who make laws and appoint people that serve white people's interests, because they are either outright racist, or are blind to the needs of Black/nonwhite people). All the weird-ass housing laws that kept Black people from owning homes in certain neighborhoods. All the jobs Black people weren't allowed to hold. All the underfunded, subpar schools Black children attended, segregated. It all adds up over time.

Like I said a week ago, I'm really sick of the term "white privilege." I think it obscures what's really happening - because things like being able to walk through a store unaccosted by security guards, like buying a toy gun without being shot and killed, like seeing people who look, talk, and act like you on tv and in books - those things aren't really privileges. They are HOW EVERYONE SHOULD LIVE.
Privilege means you have more than the norm. you are +1. Privilege is that guy with the gold-plated toilet seat or whatever it was.
Privilege is having the manager greet you at the door, escort you through the store, jump you to the head of the line.

One of the reasons stupid white people get all sniffy about "white privilege" (like this jackass from Princeton) is because they don't see themselves as HAVING privileges. And many of them don't, to be honest. They have what all people should have, which is the ability to move through and in the world and be viewed as a fully human, fully normal, member of society. They don't have excessive riches, or important connections, or country club memberships, or summer homes on Martha's Vineyard, or whatever else marks the wealthy elite. A lot of white people have had to work hard, very hard, to get where and what they have. But the thing they - we - don't see or feel is that even in a life full of hardship, we are still benefiting from the color of our skins. And we are benefiting at the expense of very real, very human, non-white people. We always have been.

Thinking of enjoying basic human rights as a form of privilege is a kind of red herring, I think. Rights, by definition, aren't privileges. And yes, when they are distributed or applied to only one segment, then that segment becomes "privileged" over others - but I still don't think privilege is the right word.

White privilege makes it - of course it does - all about us, white people, again. It's about what we have. It's about our stories.

What we need is a term that shows what effect our stories have on non-white people. We need a term that makes us not privileged, but culpable.  We need terms that reveal the effects and stories of Black people without victimizing them all over again - so not calling them victims, or the oppressed, or disadvantaged (though those terms apply).

I don't know what the word is. Or phrase. It isn't that we as white people are committing crimes - though some of us are, murdering police of this country I am looking right at you - against Black people. It isn't even that we need to be made to feel guilty (though we should feel some kind of guilt). We need to be made to see and feel that we are doing and benefiting from something very, very wrong, that was set in place before any of us were born, that we've grown up in, that we are a part of whether we think we are or not.

The only word I can think of that describes the effect white privilege has on non-white people is outrage. I know "outrage" has other connotations, specifically rape, that is problematic. But "outraged" seems accurate, more or less, based on the blogs and posts and tweets and articles I've been reading. Weary, and outraged.

I want a term that shows how our privilege comes at the expense of other people. I want a term that doesn't make it seem like we have something special, just by having basic human rights; I want a term that shows how those basic human rights are denied, again and again and again, to Black people. But I want that term to carry culpability. I want a term the makes really, really clear that the white world isn't the only world, and that it has been constructed, continues to be carried out, in ways that intentionally and otherwise hurt non-white people.

I don't know how to articulate this properly, except to say I don't want the kind of privilege that means black kids can be shot dead for almost literally no reason at all. That I don't want to think of being able to walk across campus unharassed as a privilege - because it's a right. Civil rights movement, you know? But we need a word or phrase that makes explicit not what we're getting, as white people, but what we are denying to nonwhite people. What our society has been denying to nonwhite people.

Because what we've been doing, all these years, is NOT LISTENING. We have not been listening to the stories of Black people and Latino people and Asian people and Native people. We think we have been, but we've been doing that thing where you listen with half your attention, and cherry-pick words and ideas. And we're picking all the wrong words and ideas. We think we know what's up, and we don't. We really, really don't. In my last post, I mentioned a few examples of things I have learned, in the last 18 months or so, from some Black acquaintances and friends. Every new revelation was like a ton of bricks for me - I didn't know! and But that's insane/terrible! and - this is the big one!!! - I've never thought about that before.

We need a word that takes our attention off our own enjoyment of basic rights, and focuses it on the things we've never thought about before. And the way - or a way - we do that is by getting out of our own, earnest, do-gooding way and let Black people speak for themselves. To themselves, and to us. Tell their stories, loudly, often, everywhere. If we're so dense as to need it spelled out, they can include an Aesop-like "and the moral of this story is" at the end of their anecdote about showing IDs, being stopped for driving while black, being followed around stores, being called names, being insulted, being the only one in the room who isn't white, and on and on.

There are lots of stories. So many stories. We know some names right now - Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice - but for each of those boys (and they are boys, 'young men' is stretching it, a distinction I'm sure they would hate if they were alive to hear me make it) --- for each of those boys, there are dozens and hundreds and thousands of people, men, women, old, young, dead for centuries now, or only born since the millennium, who have story after story after story to tell. White people are not the heroes of any of those stories.

But there are so many stories, and we've been allowed, we have allowed ourselves, to ignore them for far too long. We've been allowed to, have allowed ourselves, to make a mess, then close the door on the room the mess is in - because out of sight, out of mind.

We need to mind. We need to be made to mind. I don't know what that will take, but I think it will have to be very loud and very big and very disruptive. It's the only way, I think, that white privilege will start to disappear as a thing of the present, and become a thing of the past, before we started listening -really listening - to other people's stories. Before we learned how we were hurting people, even when we didn't mean to, even when we didn't know we were doing it.

Because we're hurting people. We're hurting a lot of people, and we're killing some of them. And that should not be anyone's privilege.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

it all depends on the skin you're living in

There's been a lot of chatter and anger and confusion and efforts at soothing in the children's lit world lately, after Daniel Handler's racist jokes at the National Book Awards, when he was introducing Jacqueline Woodson, who won for her Brown Girl Dreaming, a memoir, I think, though I have yet to read it (I am very, very far behind and out of the loop with children's & YA books this year). I haven't watched the video or read the complete text of Handler's remarks, because I don't need or want to know specifically what he said, because I can guess, from the dozens or hundreds or thousands of instances of casual racism I've heard over the years.

Over on child_lit, this has been a hot topic of discussion, and I originally meant to stay quiet, to keep out of it, but then I kept seeing people - on list and elsewhere - use the word "mistake" to describe Handler's remarks, and I had to say something, and the something is pasted here.
I've been thinking about this a lot because:
1) I really, really like Lemony Snicket, and when Daniel Handler spoke in Pittsburgh last year, he was phenomenally brilliant and insightful.
2) I think a lot about race, and about all the things white people don't know. The last year and a half, I've learned so many stupid, terrible, hurtful, complicated things - many of them taking the form of what I suppose would be called micro-aggressions - about specifically Black experiences in the US that I am shocked at my ignorance and at the SO. MANY????! ghastly ways white privilege (white power, white advantage - privilege almost sounds too benign) makes itself felt against people who are not white.
3) I'm fascinated by the ways we - and by we I mean white people who study/read/love children's lit - are trying so hard to reconcile those stupid-ass racist jokes with a writer and public figure who, in so many other ways, is fantastically awesome.
4) I keep seeing Handler's remarks referred to as "mistakes." No, a mistake is saying Jacqueline Woodward, instead of Woodson, or something similar. It wasn't a mistake, but I also don't think it was intentional -- I think it was a failure of consciousness that seems to me hugely common and hugely worth thinking about.

To ME what seems most important - or at least most interesting - is that actually the kinds of dumb casually racist jokes Handler made are made ALL THE TIME, and very often by people who are really quite decent, people who probably feel that they are anti-racist, or liberal/progressive, or whatever you want to call it. But white power/advantage/privilege *as a mode of thought* is so, so deeply entrenched in so many small awful ways that, for most white people, it really does not stick out the way more obvious racist *actions* or statements do.

This isn't to let Handler off the hook, but to say: we have A LOT to do. A LOT. It's not enough to be a white ally who knows that "driving while black" is racist, or that just because we have a mixed-race president, racism isn't over, etc.
We need - and by "we" I mean white people who are, or want to be, allies - to sit down and shut up and let the people who feel the effects of white privilege explain to us *exactly* what they're feeling. Like:
Don't share all your good ideas in a meeting, because as the only Black person in the group, you need to have a trick or two up your sleeve in reserve, because you have to do twice as much to be considered just as good as the white people.
Or: Black faculty wearing or displaying prominently their faculty ID, so they don't get stopped by cops and asked what they're doing walking around an Ivy League campus at night.
Or: You have to wear your hair in just the right way, that requires a lot of styling and work, because wearing it natural is "threatening" -- and you might not get hired, or you might not get promoted, if you look "too black."
Or: it's not really a great discovery when a Black person discovers one of their ancestors was a Famous White Man because, hey look, the Famous White Man owned slaves and almost certainly ended up in the family tree via rape.

Maybe other white people think about this stuff all the time, but I kind of doubt it. But Black people live this, experience this, all the time, and we as white people are (mostly unconsciously) MAKING them experience this. That needs to change.

Which, I guess, is an incredibly verbose way of saying #WeNeedDiverseBooks.

But we also need to do more than crank out some Benetton-ad-style books. I think we need to be shown all the things that white privilege has caused, has created, all the things we, as white people, would never think of (wearing my school ID visibly? NEVER ever ever crossed my mind to do such a thing. Never crossed my mind that there could ever be a reason why I'd need to do such a thing, why *anyone* would need to). The diverse books - and films, and tv shows, need to do more than just teach us all that Really, We're All Just People Living in This Crazy World, or Black People: They're Just Like Us! or some gross heartwarming cliche.

Daniel Handler isn't exactly the problem; the problem is the culture and ways of thinking that Daniel Handler is both a product and producer of. And that means that WE are the problem.

I'm tired of calling it white privilege. It's not a privilege, to me, to know that my friend has been stopped for driving while Black. it's not a privilege to be able to walk down the middle of a street at noon unaccosted, when a Black kid who does the same thing ends up with six bullets in his body, dead in a pool of blood on the road for no reason at all. It isn't a privilege to never have to ask myself "Did I get this job/bonus/gift/promotion/award just because I'm white?" While every day, non-white people are accused of "taking" jobs away from white people who were "more qualified" (because of their white skin, presumably), while non-white people have to worry in both directions: Did I get this because I'm black/brown/Asian/Indigenous? as well as: Did I not get this because I'm black/brown/Asian/Indigenous?

One trick therapists use is removing the word "not" from patients' vocabulary. Because when you say "not," your brain - evidently - just erases the 'not' and focuses on the thing. So: I will not eat cake, in your brain, just becomes: I will eat cake. Or simply CAKE!!!!!!!!!! It's the "don't think about a purple hippopotamus" trick.
And I think white privilege, as a phrase AND as a thing we live everyday, has been functioning as a "not."

Calling it white privilege focuses on what we get. It doesn't focus on what non-white people lose, have taken, have stolen; it doesn't focus on the fact that white privilege is actually actively hurting and killing people, and that it is allowed to do so. 

I don't want that kind of privilege. And I don't think that calling the ability to murder black children with impunity a "privilege" comes anywhere close to doing the work that needs to be done, the work of white Americans shutting the hell up, and listening, and feeling, and realizing that we've been benefiting from an almost-invisible (to us) rotten, nasty, system; and that, far more importantly than the benefits we barely see - FAR more important - we are hurting people. Hurting, and killing, real, actual, human beings.

That's not privilege. That's abuse. And it doesn't matter if you are a white person who has never shot a black teenager, if you are a white person who grew up in poverty, a white person who never uses racist phrases or makes racist jokes, a white person who has A Black Friend - you, that is WE, are still causing harm.

post title is a line from "Blink Your Eyes" by Sekou Sundiata. He performs it in this video; watch and listen.