Unflinching.

Photo by Samuel Schneider on Unsplash

James Baldwin wrote in 1968, “You need someone who believes in this country, again, to begin to change it.”

Right now we need a lot of someones who believe in this country.

This week’s news from Kelly Hayes and Maya Schenwar: The Midterms Did Not Stop the March of Fascism, But We Can. “Organizers behind bars show us that it is possible to build movements with who is there.”

Our racism is being used to divide us. What are steps forward that I can take?

“White”, “female”, and “evangelical Christian” are labels you could use to describe me. These labels have issues [1] but they do identify me as part of a problematic group:

white part female of evangelical the Christian problem

Getting A Clue

When did I first realize I was racist? In the eighties, when I read two books from Kitchen Table Women of Color Press, This Bridge Called My Back and Home Girls. My thoughts went something like this:

when women of color are the publishers
they write completely
differently
so there must be a huge thing here that I am missing

My favorite essay from Home Girls is Bernice Johnson Reagon’s “Coalition Politics: Turning The Century.” Every time I re-read it, it seems more prophetic. (Links: aligned copy vs larger print, askew.) Here are two excerpts, one from the beginning and one from the end:

I belong to the group of people who are having a very difficult time being here. I feel as if I’m gonna keel over any minute and die. That is often what it feels like if you’re really doing coalition work. Most of the time you feel threatened to the core and if you don’t, you’re not really doing no coalescing.

The reason we are stumbling is that we are at the point where in order to take the next step we’ve got to do it with some folk we don’t care too much about. And we got to vomit over that for a little while. We must just keep going.

Bernice Johnson Reagon

Thanks to Johnson Reagon, I did not clutch at the nearest Black woman and ask her to fix my racism. The Kitchen Table books made it clear that people of color already had numerous challenges draining their energy and I needed to fix myself. So I began un-learning with Ricky Sherover-Marcuse. [2] Here are excerpts from point #9 of Ricky’s A Working Definition of Racism (1988):

Racism operates as a strategy of divide and conquer …

Racism sets groups of people against each other and makes it difficult for us to perceive our common interests as human beings …

Racism limits our horizons to what presently exists …

Racism distorts our perceptions of the possibilities for change; it makes us abandon our visions of solidarity; it robs us of our dreams of community.

Ricky Sherover-Marcuse

These thirty- and thirty-five year old references show how little has changed over time: we’re still a racist society that encourages “white” people to deny our collective problem, while humans need solidarity and community more than ever before.

Austin Channing Brown’s I’m Still Here: Black Dignity in a World Made for Whiteness (2018) describes how “a world made for whiteness” drains Black people’s energy. Without radical change (from the roots) …

It’s amazing how white supremacy even invades programs aimed at seeking racial reconciliation.

… Without people of color in key positions, influencing topics of conversation, content, direction, and vision, whatever diversity is included is still essentially white — it just adds people of color like sprinkles on top. The cake is still vanilla.

When this happens, people of color in the organization get saddled with the task of constantly fixing the harm done by halfhearted diversity efforts.

Austin Channing Brown

As I struggle with my own racism (and internalized sexism), what are steps forward that I can take? Stop flinching, help without judgment, work for equality under the law, put aside people trying to distract me.

Note on my language in process: I’m using “people of color” to mean “everyone whose energy can be drained when they are not perceived as ‘white’”. I’m using Black (capital letter for respect) when I am referring specifically to African-Americans or “people perceived as black”. I appreciate Professor Flanary’s call for more specific language; errors are mine alone. See also Sam McKenzie Jr. on why the most helpful term is racist discrimination.

Not Flinching

Even though I can’t help my first thoughts, I can control my second thoughts and my first action. As with any change in routine, the trick is to make small changes I can stick with. As of this date I am starting with not flinching.

Advice below (including un-attributed quotes) is paraphrased from Karen Trusty, a white woman who was active with SNCC and does anti-racism work with other white people. She credits the Portland Race Talks with this next piece of advice:

“Black people walking towards a white person tend to be on their guard, ready just in case the white person goes crazy and attacks them.” Or calls the police because they’re barbecuing or driving a car or opening the door of their own home (or participating in any other way in the American Dream; your examples here).

“You can look them in the eye and nod. The nod will say, ‘I’m not going to attack you.’ So they have one fewer person to worry about and they can get on with whatever they’re doing.”

Even before “white people smiles” got big on Instagram: a forced smile uses different muscles from a genuine smile, and people can tell the difference. So I don’t fake a smile, but I nod, instead of flinching.

Helping Not Judging

The second task: wherever people of color are taking the lead in healing our world, I can get behind them and help. Not giving advice. Not saying that they’re doing [whatever] differently from how I would do it. Just, “how can we help” with money, energy, or whatever we have … except judgment.

This idea is not new on Medium. As Shannon Ashley recently wrote, “It’s our time to step back, step aside and ask what needs to get done. Ask how we can help. And then, actually do the work we’re asked to do without complaining we just wanted to chair some bogus committee instead.” For an example of how not to do it, see Mike Su’s 7 Lessons White People Can Learn From Bodega’s Apology.

For the nuances of letting go of judgment, I learn from Miki Kashtan. Here is an excerpt from Privilege, Responsibility, and Nonviolence:

I have come to believe that any time we ask people from marginalized groups to focus on self-responsibility at the very time when they are taking the enormous risk of speaking truthfully of their experience rather than hiding it, we are reinforcing the very power differences that they are inviting us to look at.

We do this by implicitly asserting that we are the “authority” on how people are supposed to speak before we would hear them. We do this by making what’s important to us — how people speak — more important than what’s important to the person speaking to us — the content of what they want us to hear. Overall, we render their act of offering feedback impotent, because we distract attention away from taking in the feedback, regardless of form, and from showing that learning and transformation can happen on our end.

Miki Kashtan

Allowing for other factors, an organization that has people of color in leadership is less likely to be a waste of time. People with (comparative) privilege can seek out those efforts and use their privilege to help make (comparatively) safer spaces for them.

Working for Equality Under The Law

If Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King’s dream of “equality under the law” became real, that would unleash mass quantities of positive energy to solve our collective problems. There are many ways we can push towards equality (without all having to agree with each other about everything — here’s a repeat of advice from organizers behind bars) and much that needs doing.

Looking at my teen-aged goals and dreams, I never expected the ones that I would have to fight the hardest for would be the rule of law and what would equality under the law actually look like? But that is our battle line. Equality is worth dying for, and even more challenging to live for.

Our police theoretically work for us. We can make that real, liberate them to carry out their original missions (instead of cleaning up after the wreck of our mental health systems and amplifying the effects of white fear). The horizon we see now is not the limit of what is possible.

Recognizing Infiltrators (and Egotists)

Until we succeed in supporting law enforcement teams in carrying out their work differently, some of them will be tasked with infiltrating (or weakening or compromising) organizations working for change.

Here is the graduate level advice from Karen, who remembers SNCC’s experience with infiltrators, and learned more from her later activism (paraphrased). “The infiltrators are the ones who keep trying to pull the group off task, distract from its mission, get people fighting about who is more radical and dare them to become violent.”

Oh the memories: Let’s stop everything until we figure out who here is a ‘real’ feminist. So what if that discussion splits our group into tiny splinters.

So: people who try to drag us off task might be infiltrators or they might just be egotists. Either way, if I help my groups stay focused, that deprives them of energy.

What’s at stake? I’ll end with two quotations from James Baldwin, featured recently in Ed Pavlic’s profile of Baldwin in Boston Review:

They have been white, if I may so put it, too long; they have been married to the lie of white supremacy too long; the effect on their personalities, their lives, their grasp of reality, has been as devastating as the lava which so memorably immobilized the citizens of Pompeii. They are unable to conceive that their version of reality, which they want me to accept, is an insult to my history and a parody of theirs. . . . [I]f they think that things are more important than people . . . [l]et them be destroyed by their things.

James Baldwin in the New York Times, 1969

You need someone who believes in this country, again, to begin to change it.

James Baldwin in Esquire, 1968

Notes

These are optional! And long-winded.

[1] “Whiteness” and “race” and “gender” are constructions, and “Christianity” is used to describe a wide variety of behavior and belief.

[2] It was a great privilege to study with Ricky, and her sister Yeshi Sherover Neumann is still working fiercely on related issues.

The hashtag on Ricky’s memorial web site, #NoColourNation, does not describe my goal. Instead I want us to fully see each other in all our beautiful differences. But the workshops gave us great tools, and many of them are still on the site. For example, Working Assumptions For White Activists On Eliminating Racism: Guidelines For Recruiting Other Whites As Allies is the strongest and most nuanced statement of its kind outside of NVC.

One of Ricky’s many insights: with clueless white people, a place to start is with our own pain. It is painful to be a racist. It’s nowhere near as painful as being murdered, assaulted, discriminated against, denied human dignity, so my pain is embarrassing to acknowledge. But as Robert Coles once said, you cannot write about anyone’s “plight” except your own.

My thesis: we are all connected. Some of us suppress this knowledge: “I’m not like them.” But the same ocean water pulses in all our veins. [Philosophical content skipped.] Blocking that connection results in a painful twisted truncated tender area, like the psychic equivalent of an inflamed appendix.

Let’s take the example of people asking other people for money on the street. If I’m aware of my own pain, and sometimes do something positive to ease it, and otherwise carry it with intention, then a person asking me for spare change doesn’t cause issues. Regardless of whether or what I answer, I’m ready for the ask. But if someone just hates to think about that stuff and someone else asks them for money, that will flick the raw painful inflamed bit, and it is out of that sudden pain that people sometimes lash out.

Our system of government has systematically injured Americans “of color” from its founding, using all possible powers, with our police as the shock troops. When police officers shoot or choke an unarmed Black man or let a Black woman die in her cell, that police officer is working for me. [3] There’s my pain.

(I consider myself a friend of law enforcement, a supporter of people in uniform, and a patriot, although not a nationalist. Privileged, unhinged, able to empathize with all sides? Take the quiz and see whether you too might be a prophet!)

So, when I encounter a Black person (whom I don’t know) walking towards me, I face them with the regular pain of disconnection, and also with fear, because I know what we, corporately and collectively, have done and are continuing to do.

I might be thinking, my taxes have paid to injure you. You have the right to reparation and restorative justice, and I’m not offering that, so I flinch.

Or, because of me, someone had to have The Talk with you, and I can barely comprehend the maturity and courage you have had to have, just to survive, and so many Black people have not survived their full span, and I can think of too many of their names right now … it all rushes up.

I used to flinch, but now I’m trying something different.

Admitting the pain of the racists is where healing has to begin for some of us, and it’s work we can do with other “white” people. As long as unpacking our privilege isn’t the end, but the beginning.

That would have been a great ending line for the essay, but as it happens, my footnotes have footnotes.

[3] An early reader asked whether I am letting feelings of guilt cripple me and keep me from acting.

Answer: this is something to keep an eye on. However, my faith tradition has ways of dealing with guilt that let me move forward, and I have also learned from Jacques Ellul’s ideas about collective sin / failure. Together they allow me to hold in my heart what I know, and stay almost sane.

My goal is Ellul’s radical subjectivity, analysis from within the world:

I do not limit myself to describing my feelings with cold objectivity in the manner of a research worker reporting what he sees under a microscope. I am keenly aware that I am myself involved in technological civilization, and that its history is also my own. I may be compared rather with a physician or physicist who is describing a group situation in which he is himself involved. The physician in an epidemic, the physicist exposed to radioactivity: in such situations the mind may remain cold and lucid, and the method objective, but there is inevitably a profound tension of the whole being.

- Jacques Ellul in The Technological Society,
author’s foreword to Revised American Edition

Speaking of guilt, I thought this was funny: the Australian immigration forms ask, “Have you ever been involved in a war crime?” When I had the privilege of filling one out, I was gearing up to write, I’ve been a US taxpayer since 1973 so I will just list the top ten (starting with helping overthrow the government of Chile), when my host family dissuaded me. History was considered an “easy” undergraduate subject (chiefly by those who didn’t choose it as a major) but it did not bring ease; what I learned absolutely changed my brain.

More reader feedback asks me to add nuance to my remark about the police “working for us”:

They are working for the system of white supremacy, which does maintain my white privilege, and also most of all serves the corporations and system that keeps us divided by oppressing people of color and giving crumbs to the whites who are not in the top 5% of the moneyed class.

It is important to distinguish between the whites who really benefit, and keep all these divisions in place, and the rest of us. Too much guilt can eat one alive and make it too painful to step out and risk.

[4] This is part of a series: Enough, Unflinching, and Moving Forward. Thank you for reading!

Jules (Julianne) Chatelain

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Flat flip flies straight. Tilted flip curves. Play catch; invent games!

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