Organizing Against Racism in NC

I recently attended a 2-day workshop facilitated by Organizing Against Racism called The Racial Equity Institute. In a basic sense, the purpose of the workshop is to create a space for a variety of intentionally diverse participants, with the central goal of deliberately naming some of the very real consequences of being a person of color within the larger context of White American society. As an educator who has spent several years working with schools and communities that serve populations of predominantly black and brown students (and a student of history as well), I thought it particularly important that I critically investigate the origins of my own identity as a white American man, as well as the ways in which modern American society came to be the way it is. I think it’s critical we all get more comfortable having honest, open conversations about race; preferably in brave and productive settings like this. Our children — biological, adopted, and proverbial — in no uncertain terms, depend on our willingness to get comfortable with being uncomfortable.

But let me make a few things clear at the outset.

  1. This isn’t about engendering a sense of white guilt (which is largely an empty and unproductive mindset anyway). Rather, it’s about sparking a certain level of awareness of white-dominant-culture because the truth is many of us are too timid when it comes to conversations around race, preferring instead to attribute some of the consequences of being black or brown to a variety of other factors like socioeconomics, class, or personal family history.
  2. For me to recognize and appreciate the different experience of a person of color doesn’t mean I’m ashamed of who I am, where I come from, or that I desire to distance myself from my familial heritage — because I’m not and I don’t. Conversely, I often hear many of my good, well-meaning white friends say things like “I really just don’t see color”, believing that sentiment to indicate some measure of racial transcendence. To that I’d say: good for you, but the system does. It’s important we all recognize that.
  3. A willingness to be humble when approaching difficult conversations around identity and race doesn’t make me a “race baiter” (I’m not even sure what that term means aside from a condescension implying that people of color are unable to recognize injustice unless someone with a microphone points it out to them). Empathy for and acknowledgement of the different experience of a collective, just because it’s different than my own, doesn’t mean that that reality doesn’t exist. It also doesn’t mean I’m “harping on differences” because hey, “we’re all just part of the human race, right?” Science concluded years ago that race has no biological basis, but it most certainly has societal consequences. The sooner we come to terms with the existence of the consequences (and benefits) associated with being a part of a particular race, the sooner we’ll be able to rectify some of the injustices associated with them.

What we’re not talking about is individual peoples’ overt bigotry. Obviously bigotry exists, but as a society, we’ve agreed to condemn that kind of behavior. The mindsets of the folks on the fringe are certainly problematic, but they don’t adequately explain the momentum of this thing that permeates the entirety of American culture. You don’t have to be bigoted to perpetuate or ignore injustice. What we’re talking about is macro and systemic preferential treatment — often in the most subtle of ways — that afford mainstream white society the institutional “benefit of the doubt” that’s often denied to people of color. Put a different way, people of color often experience a level of “otherness” that I’ve never had to think about simply because I’m white. And the worst part? Many intelligent, hard-working, well-meaning people give — and get — that institutional benefit of the doubt every single day without ever realizing it. And being white isn’t necessarily a prerequisite to unknowingly perpetuate prejudicial white-dominant-culture.

That’s why it’s important that organizations like OAR exist: to create an honest space to have open, productive conversations about race. Only by acknowledging the existence of these subversive systems do we even stand a chance to rectify them and reconcile with each other. Our unwillingness at large to see racism as anything other than an either-or scenario, a you-are-or-you’re-not characteristic — that is, if you’re a racist you must be a “bad person”, and if you’re not a racist, you’re clearly a “good person” — cripples us from actually tackling an issue that acts more like a chameleon than a T-Rex. Consider Jay Smooth’s analysis on a recent TED Talk:

Jay Smooth: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Discussing Race — Hampshire College
“The problem with that all-or-nothing binary,” as Jay points out, “is that it causes us to look at racism and prejudice as if they are akin to having tonsils — you either have tonsils or you don’t.”

Here’s the thing: we can all say and do racist things. Just like anybody can say and do stupid things. We don’t immediately draw larger conclusions about a person’s intelligence simply because they made a regrettable remark; the same should be true about how we speak and act on things related to race. We need to own the fact that we might not consider ourselves a racist person, but that doesn’t mean we don’t unknowingly operate under prejudicial mindsets. We need to stop dodging these conversations and become more open to investigating our own biases.

It’s Not Just About You

Something I notice that many people of white European descent try to do in order to diffuse the race topic is to point out their own unique ethnic identity and heritage — and perhaps the legitimate persecution that many of their ancestors faced — as evidence that they don’t actually consider themselves white, but rather __________________ (Irish, Italian, German, Polish, Jewish, etc). Again I’d say: good for you, but this is about how you’re seen, not how you see. When you check the demographics box on an application or government form, you won’t find a box that offers you the choice of one of these historically otherized ethnicities. It’s just white. That’s the point. This isn’t just about you.

US Census Form — 2014

That doesn’t mean that you can’t value where you come from or that your cultural heritage has to become irrelevant to you and your family; it just means that it has largely become irrelevant to mainstream society. Indeed, there are entire books about How the Irish Became White, or how Jews Became White Folks. Whether or not you’d prefer to label yourself as white is largely unimportant. As white people, we benefit from a whole host of things that we probably never even think about — that’s what it means to have that thing called “white privilege”. It’s those subtle benefits-of-the-doubt to which we often give little or no thought.

Race and intersectionality are frequent fodder for conversation in my life. I often reflect on the implications of race, power, and privilege during the course of my workday; my wife (a woman of mixed-race) and I discuss daily what’s at stake for our interracial, cross-cultural family. Such issues we cannot afford to avoid — indeed, nobody can. The two-day session offered by OAR is by no means an exhaustive experience. It’s merely an entry-point. It requires no prerequisite or experience in terms of having race conversations, but it does ask that you come to the table with an open mind and an empathetic heart. In order to combat the residual injustices of racial oppression, it’s not enough that we simply act with kindness towards one another. We must either consciously be anti-racist and work toward actively dismantling the effects of prejudicial mindsets and institutions, or be swept up in the momentum of injustice and oppression while they march steadily on.