The Privilege to Look Away

And the courage to speak up

As a White, Jewish, cis-gendered woman who is committed to equity, inclusion and anti-oppressive work, it is essential that I have critical friends around me who keep me accountable and support me in this critical work for change. We have developed relationships where I seek criticism and gratefully, we have developed the trust where they can challenge me, push me in my thinking, and help me see some of my own bias, privilege and areas for learning. These conversations are challenging, I need to step back, do some serious reflecting, and reframe. It is easy for me to sit in that and say, “But I am different!” The thing is, this work isn’t easy…and there is no quick fix. No matter how evolved I think I am, there is more to learn and unlearn.

The changes that have to happen are not only about individual acts by bigots and racists. We need to examine these acts, question ourselves and change course, but ultimately it is about institutionalized patterns of exploitation and oppression that are racialized” (Chenjurai Kumanyika, Seeing White Episode 1) So what if we are part of the institution? What power do we have to change course? make change? challenge the status quo?

Each of these stories is a moment in a friendship that has been developed over time. Trust has grown through the shared work. When the friendship has started professionally, and in perceived action with integrity it will continue to grow, sometimes in struggle but the struggle brings us to a new space. Our relationships are where any of us learn.

Several months ago, two men were arrested for being in a Starbucks, and the news hit the media hard. Starbucks responded with Anti-Bias training for their staff across the US and in Canada. On This American Life, Ira Glass challenges the training in the episode All the Caffeine in the World Doesn’t Make You Woke and is worth a listen. Anna Maria Tremonti, on the CBC radio show, The Current, responded as well with the episode, Evidence Shows Starbucks’ Anti-Bias Training May Backfire, Expert Says. She interviews different experts about their take on the training and together, they challenge whether this was an effective move for Starbucks.

Only a few weeks before that, I had witnessed an incident on a bus outside my house with a young racialized man and the bus driver but I never published it. The bus I take does a loop in front of my house and the young man got on at my stop, which usually is boarded by people who live in the area. The next stop is at a major intersection and fills up, so some of the students have been walking across into my area to get on and ensure they get a seat. The bus driver was verbally aggressive to the student and told him that he can’t ride the bus in circles and the student had a metropass allowing him unlimited rides for the month of purchase. The exchange was ridiculous. But I stood there and said nothing. I was ashamed of myself. As usual the bus filled up at the next stop and I didn’t see the student again. I looked for him every morning to apologize to him but I never had the chance.

I got to work and wrote into the TTC (Toronto Transit Commission) and let them know the time, the bus driver and what happened. They wrote me back and ensured me that they would respond. Interestingly, over the next couple months more and more students from the high school came to my bus stop and even went on the stop before to ensure their seats. I saw that driver one more time and he was cold. He didn’t look at me where previously we always exchanged polite good mornings. I was sure he knew it was me who wrote in.

I was stuck in my own head on the way to work and my disappointment in myself for not speaking up. When I left the subway, I went into the local Starbucks at Yonge and Wellesley which is near the gay village. It knocked me out of my head and it felt that I had walked into a very different space where the baristas have name tags that indicate which pronouns they identify with. It felt like an inclusive space. But was it? Upon reflection with friends who keep me honest, I was asked, “Were there any racialized people on that staff?” I didn’t think so. I couldn’t remember. So juxtaposed with what happened only a few weeks later in Philadelphia, I felt I had to take a step back and examine my interpretation of the events.

I didn’t step up. I didn’t do enough. So I could sit in my own shame but that accomplishes nothing. I had to reflect on what happened there, talk to some friends and get their perspective, and figure out, when given another opportunity, how I might move forward more effectively.

Stolen from Mark Strong’s Instagram account:

One of my closest friends, Mark Strong, is that person for me. We met when we were in our late teens/early twenties, when we both worked at Roots and have been friends ever since. Early on he began teaching me how the experience of Black people was vastly different from my own lived experience. He would give me movies to watch, share stories from his life and when we would go for lunch together (keep in mind, this was the late 80s) he would say, “Let’s hold hands and see what happens…” My liberal mind was always shocked by the looks we would receive. I was so naive. He, thankfully, educated me to see things differently related to Anti-Black Racism.

Mark is one of the people who edits my writing, challenges me to think deeper about certain ideas, and always, ALWAYS, has my back. Recently, he had a heart-to-heart convo with me. He is a radio host and part of his job is to research the news of the day. He will often send me items that he thinks are of interest to me — related to education, politics, and issues of racism and discrimination. I asked him, when he sent me a video of neo-Nazis in the US, physically assaulting a Black man, not to send me “stuff like that” anymore. I explained that I don’t watch Trump anything or any hateful content like that and he challenged me. He told me it was important that I watch and be aware. As we spoke, I realized that it was another indication of my privilege…the privilege to look away.

In the spring I was also listening to the podcast, Scene On Radio second season, Seeing White. There are fourteen episodes that interrogate the construction of Whiteness and race in America and how this has shaped our current reality. In episode 11, entitled Danger, the host, John Biewen, and his critical friend, Chenjerai Kumanyika, talk about where the idea of the dangerous Black man comes from, how it was constructed, and how it continues today despite the fact that if you were to compare the level of violence perpetrated on Black people by White people, the scale would be quite heavily on the side of White violence against Blacks.

All sketchnotes from the series are available here:

They have the following conversation about Philando Castile:

WARNING: Explicit video. Do you have the privilege to look away? Occurred on July 6, 2016
John Biewen: Chenjerai, have you watched the dash cam video of Philando Castile being shot that came out the other day?
Chenjerai Kumanyika: [Takes deep breath.] I have not. I didn’t watch it, man. You know, I’ve watched these videos, and you know I’ve marched, and I feel like eventually I’m going to have to watch it because I don’t think that as someone who’s alive and has the ability to work against this, I think eventually I do have to face it. But I just couldn’t, when I saw that there was that video. I read descriptions of it, but I was like, I just can’t. I just, I knew I couldn’t, I couldn’t see it.
And actually, I wonder what is the effect of watching so many of these videos and their being shared? I mean, I think it’s important on one level, but there’s something that starts to become unhealthy about that. So I haven’t, I haven’t seen that video yet.”

Around the same time, I was preparing a presentation for a conference that I was co-presenting where we addressed key concepts in the work we did related to systemic oppressions, resistance and allyship. We had considered the different ways that we appropriate terminology created in anti-oppression work. This was one of the quotes we spoke to:

“…we cannot create a revolution by ourselves; we need accomplices (not allies) in this work (Indigenous Action, 2014). That is, we need people who are willing to stand with us, around us, so that those who attack us will need to go through them (first). Having accomplices is different than having allies who support with solidarity, cheer loudly from the sidelines, or who safely stand on the sidewalk with their signs.” Rochelle Gutiérrez, Why Mathematics (Education) was Late to the Backlash Party: The Need for a Revolution, Journal of Urban Mathematics Education Vol. 10, №2 p 16

I needed to get off the sidewalk. I needed to speak up, stand up and strengthen my voice.

I can’t claim myself to be an ally. The group that is oppressed lets me know that I am one. There is risk in allyship. If I claim myself to be an ally, I need to interrogate myself and ask what risk am I taking? I need to make the commitment, every day, to speak up and go beyond allyship towards accomplice into action.

The idea of allyship is beautifully articulated in this very important podcast, A vote for Doug Ford was a vote against reconciliation, says Indigenous activist, Riley Yesno:

She speaks to allyship:

As a voter you vote for whatever party and whatever leader best represents your values and your priorities as an individual. So you can believe Reconciliation in premise and say “that’s a nice idea. I do think Indigenous people should have these things”. But if it comes down to now having to put action to back that up and you vote in the least effective way of harm reduction I can’t consider you an ally because…Allyship is not a self-identified title. It is NOT an identity. It is a lifelong process of accountability and trust building. It has to be given to you by the marginalized people that you seek to ally yourself with.

So the other side of this is, I have to put myself in the line of fire. I have to be willing to be called out. I cannot claim that I am an ally the way colonizers claimed so many lands, people and privilege.

I started writing this post when these events happened and I couldn’t get it right. I didn’t know how to put all of these thoughts together. I spoke to Mark about it and he reassured me, “Deb, don’t worry. Racism will still be here in a couple of months.”

So here it is…my formal commitment to no longer stand on the sidewalk and speak from the sidelines.

In Özlem Sensoy and Robin DiAngelo’s book, Is Everyone Really Equal? — An Introduction to Key Concepts in Social Justice Education, they write about a phenomenon called “willful ignorance” (Dei, Karumanchery and Karumanchery-Luik) which describes how the “dominant group remains ignorant to the overwhelming evidence of injustice in society”. They explain that many dominant group members claim “they just didn’t know” when the access to this information is easily found (pp73–74).

So I leave you with this question…

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