Privilege as Currency

Ijeoma Oluo writes ‘Every time you go through something, and it’s easy for you, look around and say, “Who is it not easy for? And what can I do to dismantle that system?”‘

While I would not classify the last couple of years as “easy,” Jason and I have identified that it’s in large part a function of our privilege that he’s still alive. Privilege doesn’t necessarily mean everything is easy, or everything is handed to you…my friend Robert Caldwell of Answer Poverty gives this definition of privilege which I think is super useful:

Privilege is your access to the resources and opportunities necessary for achieving success in our socio-economic system AND…insulation from the impacts of systemic injustices that work against success in our socio-economic system because of your social location.

Social Location is your place or position in society (and history) as defined by your gender, race, social class, age, ability, religion, sexual orientation, and geographic location.

For my family dealing with heart disease that looks like (among other things):
~Having the time to call doctors over and over until someone listened
~Having good health insurance so they could fight with the hospital about cost of treatment, and so he could receive treatment in the first place
~Having money to pay for medical costs
~Having time to figure out this whole food plant based thing (which is NOT easy at first, no matter what some blogger told you)
~Having money to buy good quality food
~not living in a food desert so we had access to nutritious foods
~other factors I didn’t even think of right now because they were not obstacles for us, and anyhow you get the point

I’ve been advised recently to think of privilege as a currency to spend. The question I keep hearing is “What do I do?”
Critical thinking is needed.
Shortly after the election a friend of mine came over. We sat at the dining room table and ate tacos (remember when everyone was sad there wouldn’t be a taco truck on every street corner?) and he asked me, “What do I do? I want to do racial justice work but I don’t know how to begin.”
“You should find a homeschooling co-op that is run by a black woman, and do the best you can to support her leadership.”
“Crap! I better find some kids to homeschool then!”
The thing is (as the snarky example above shows), I don’t know exactly how every person should engage with the work of dismantling white supremacy. When you have stage 4 metastatic cancer you don’t usually do one thing. You do all the things. You see an oncologist and a radiologist and a primary care doctor and you eat special food and you take care of your mental health however you can. Racial justice work in America is like that. We have to specialize, with the bigger picture in mind.

Critical thinking is needed.

There are common threads for sure, and if someone’s social location is similar to yours you may be able to glean from them. If someone’s social location is different from yours that can and should also inform your work. There are a lot of people writing about this. Try to find and read the work of people whose social location is different from yours (this is especially and incredibly important if you are a dominant paradigm person). Part of the way I’ve chosen to spend my privilege is to help make a way for others to tell their stories and be believed. That won’t fix everything, but it’s a necessary step.

The more privilege we have, the more opportunity we have to spend it to effect a change. Or not.

Critical thinking is needed.

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This IS the America we’ve built.

The work of dismantling white supremacy has been severely hindered by the fact that structural racism has gone unnoticed by most of white America for at least couple of centuries now, but it’s hard to ignore at this point.

But will we find a way to ignore it anyway? White people’s complacency is incredibly hard to disrupt. Today that complacency feels like a vast body of water that’s been disturbed by a rock dropping into it. Well, many rocks. Except by “rocks” I mean “dead people.” People murdered by a system that props dominant paradigm people up at every turn and keeps us just comfortable enough that we don’t challenge it.

I watched us after the election. There was such a swell of liberal aggressive energy. As I watched liberals express continued shock and dismay, I feared the moment when my fellow white people would start to realize they were probably not personally in danger if they chose not to be. I dreaded, for the sake of people I love, the moment when most white people would grow weary of the weight of caring about them and their safety. This work is a cross country run. Liberal aggressive energy, unless it’s carefully channeled, causes people to sprint off in all directions looking for anything that will make us feel less terrified of the realities of our society. Anything to assuage the guilt we feel as bearers of whiteness.

Liberal aggressive energy causes people to say things like, “Not my president” or “This isn’t the America we’ve built.”

Except that it really, really is. This *is* the country we’ve built together. Until we truly reckon with that I’m concerned white supremacists will continue to have the upper hand. Further, to think or say otherwise risks undermining our credibility with people who have borne a weight of violent oppression for centuries.

People are gathering today. My own city, whose citizens often think of it as a “liberal utopia” (that claimed identity sometimes makes me throw up in my mouth a little bit when I think about it too much because of certain discriminations people I care about have faced here) had a gathering Saturday night to show unity and solidarity.  I’m glad people are doing that, even as a part of me is frustrated that it took Facebook until now to finally popularize an “I stand against racism” frame for people’s profile pictures.

As I sat awake in the wee hours, my laptop perched on a breastfeeding pillow and my newborn asleep next to me, I hated the timing. I felt small and powerless. I feared for my children and the world they are inheriting. That sense of hopelessness echoed the feelings of a friend who recently posted on social media to say, “We’re losing. We’re going to keep losing. I’m glad my kids don’t plan to have kids. I’m glad I’m old and will only have to watch the unraveling of America for the first 30 years of it or so.”*

It reminded me of this quote from the Lord of the Rings:

‘”I wish it need not have happened in my time,” said Frodo.
“So do I,” said Gandalf, “and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”‘

The terrible truth that too many white people of good conscience have yet to face is that this is precisely the America we’ve built. What are we going to do about it?

Let us not act out of guilt. Let us not act out of fear. Let us act out of solidarity and allow care for other human beings to give us the courage to do so. Love is not always softspoken and calm. Sometimes love is tenacious and forthright. The kind of love that can “trump hate” sure as hell is going to require some grit.

A question I’ve heard over and over is, “what can we do?” While there are some common first steps for people who want to work to dismantle white supremacy (here’s a great primer from Ijeoma Oluo, if you haven’t seen it yet, and here’s another perspective that may help you), we all have to engage the work differently. It’s OK to specialize even as we necessarily push ourselves out of our comfort zones. The work includes marching in the streets and calling our senators and stopping to overtly watch when black people are surrounded by the police. It includes raising kids who are prepared to participate meaningfully in this work and it includes talking to other adults in our spheres of influence. It includes using our critical thinking skills to find ways we can stop participating in systems of oppression. It includes many, many more things than this short list.

We can’t do everything. But if each of us does one thing at a time, a growing pile of things will get done and then change may become visible.

*reposted with permission

Unfinished Conversation

Even the title’s a little uncomfortable. We like things to be able to be checked off. But what I learned from sitting with Vincent this week is that sometimes a conversation is left incomplete in service to the bigger picture.

Above on the left is a picture I took at the Cleveland Museum of Art of The Large Plane Trees because I am fortunate enough to live in the same city as that piece. On the right is the same section of The Road Menders, which he painted later in the studio, using his earlier painting as a guide. I’ve written before about how much I love The Large Plane Trees because of its passion and very obvious need to capture the moment before it disappeared. He had to catch the colors of the leaves changing and was so desperate to do so that he used a tablecloth rather than wait for canvases to be delivered. There are places where you can see the pattern of the cloth beneath because portions of the painting were left as rough sketches to be returned to later.

And he did. On the right, because he was working from memory and because he had his earlier work as a guide, he was able to flesh out a great many more details. I was especially struck by the two road menders in each iteration of the work. On the left, they look very…unfinished. Because they are. On the right, the lines are clearer and you can see much more clearly what the two figures are doing.

I think certain conversations are like that. When you Just Begin, sometimes you have only a very rough idea and it gets to a point where you have to stop. The light looks how it looks only for a brief time and sometimes you have to direct your attention elsewhere or you’ll miss it. When I have been in a conversation that has stopped (who goes through their whole adult life without having that experience at least a few times?), I work hard not to begrudge a person this. Maybe at some point we will pick it up in a different context to make the lines clearer, but maybe not. Either way, my hope for each of us is that we catch the light in whatever way speaks beauty to us.

On the Rise of Seeker Sensitive Social Justice Work

In case you don’t know: in Evangelical Christianese, there is something called a “seeker sensitive church.” It basically means that the main focus of a church is to get people in the room and keep them there at all costs. A main reasoning behind this is that if you keep people around, you have a chance to effect a change in them. There is some logic in that. You can’t have productive conversation with people who won’t talk to you.

But.

In order to keep people in the room, many times seeker sensitive churches will be super careful not to say anything too challenging, ask too many uncomfortable questions, or push people too far too fast. Therefore a main criticism of seeker sensitive churches is that they tend to produce Christians who never mature in their faith.

I’m seeing this as a trend across several areas of social justice work, especially since the election. Look at all these new people! Caring about All the Things! How can we keep them engaged? The biggest and most obvious example was the often chaotic unfolding of the Million Women March Women’s March. I have been to a handful of white people anti-racism meetings where we spent the first 10 minutes clapping for ourselves simply for being there. Why are we doing that? I don’t go there to feel good about going there. I go there to do the work. Leaders of social justice work, hear me if you have ears to do so. Please, please learn from the fact that seeker sensitive evangelical churches are no small part of what led to a significant number of American Christians who are so disconnected from what the Bible actually teaches that they will vote for Donald Trump.

White people new to thinking about this stuff: we don’t have time to sit around indefinitely theorizing in abstract ways about how racism may or may not be present in our lives. Here’s a spoiler alert. It is present. Racism is all around us. At our dinner tables. In our inner ring suburban schools where middle schoolers are telling concentration camp jokes at the lunch table. In our anti-racism meetings. In our book clubs and passive-aggressive conversations where we all try to be the best at not being the smartest anti-racist in the room. Racism is the toxicity in the water we all swim in. Please swim anyway. People are dying. Asking them to be patient so you can work on your butterfly stroke is….inappropriate.

I’m not saying we as white people shouldn’t analyze or think deeply about how our whiteness affects the way we walk through the world, and how it affects people around us who are not white. We absolutely should be doing that. As we go. In a way that allows us to get rid of our nonsense, not wrap it up in other nonsense and keep carrying it with us. It is essential to this work that we find ways to cultivate a stillness inside us that doesn’t need to disregard the voices of oppressed people in order to exist. We are all bombarded with the false idea that we can only be one thing at a time. We are acting or we are thinking. We are reacting to what happens now or we are considering the long-term implications. If that is the way we understand the world, it is so hard to take the long view in a way that doesn’t erase the people right in front of us. Please try anyway. There is work to do.

I am not without compassion. I get that many people are shocked. The world is a shocking place. Here’s the thing. If your body goes into shock you have to find out why and deal with that. A good first step in most cases of physical shock is to huddle under a blanket and call for help. But most of the time, you have to seek further treatment or your body will go deeper into shock until you die. I repeat: you have to huddle under a blanket and call for help. When help comes, you have to accept it. Very often you have to find the underlying cause and treat that or you will not get better.

Creating a seeker sensitive social justice movement runs a high risk of just putting a blanket around ourselves and never seeking further treatment. I know it’s hard to move when you feel small, scared, and trapped. I spend time feeling that way too. But to quote our favorite misanthropic tv doctor…

Patient: I just want to talk.
House: About nothing. If you talk about nothing, nothing will change.
Patient: It might.
House: How?
Patient: Time. Time changes everything.
House: That’s what people say. It’s not true. Doing things changes things. Not doing things leaves things exactly as they were.

 

 

 

An Invitation to Work

My friend was walking down the street at the college campus where she lives and studies, and, well, this happened.

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I don’t have time to sit around crying indefinitely when this is happening.

There is work to do.

~~~~~

As our kids played at gymnastics yesterday, a friend related to me the story of her relative who went into a liquor store. The man behind the counter sporting a Trump shirt said to him, “We don’t have to serve your kind anymore. Get out.”

I don’t have time to sit around crying indefinitely when this is the reality of people I care deeply about.

There is work to do.

~~~~~

I was able to get to a Black Lives Matter event the other night. I don’t want to report on the details because it wasn’t open to the public in that way. But there were a couple of things that really stuck out to me and weren’t directly about the meeting, so I’ll share some pertinent items I witnessed.

The meeting began with the organizers saying, basically, “White people! Welcome! We noticed there are a lot of you here tonight. That’s great. Welcome to this conversation we have been having! Please know that this meeting is not about you and we will be prioritizing oppressed voices.”

At one point, an angry white HRC liberal lady spoke up and said, “So, do white people have a place in this? Because what I’m hearing you say is that…”

The facilitator was ready, and it was excellent. “I need to stop you right there. There is a place for you and we absolutely need you in this work but this is not the time for that.”

I was very relieved to hear another white person say, “White people’s place in this space is to stand in the back and listen. There is a lot we can learn by doing that here.”

Whiteness is so used to being at the center that it sometimes takes a great deal of work to avoid the impulse to recenter it even when other voices really need our attention before they are snuffed out.

Please try anyway. There is work to do.

~~~~~

Garrison Keillor recently wrote a piece for the Washington Post encouraging the distraught liberal elite with some suggestions for lovely ways to spend their time.

“We liberal elitists are now completely in the clear. The government is in Republican hands. Let them deal with him. Democrats can spend four years raising heirloom tomatoes, meditating, reading Jane Austen, traveling around the country, tasting artisan beers, and let the Republicans build the wall and carry on the trade war with China and deport the undocumented and deal with opioids, and we Democrats can go for a long , brisk walk and smell the roses.”

No, Mr. Keillor. I don’t want to grow heirloom tomatoes and taste artisan beer and ignore what is happening to people I love. And it’s absurd to me that you would even suggest such a thing, let alone say it outright as the thing people should do. It may be that your Minnesota sarcasm doesn’t mix well with Ohio earnestness, but people are getting the wrong idea.

So by all means. Take long walks. Travel around the country (must be nice to be able to afford to do that on a whim!). Heirloom tomatoes and craft beer are delicious! But if that’s all you do, you don’t get to call yourself ‘woke’ or ‘ally’ ever again. You can find joy and beauty in life without saying, “Let them eat cake.”

I understand feeling paralyzed. The America you thought you lived in (the one where Hillary Clinton was going to bring us all together) doesn’t exist, and that is deeply destabilizing. If you can’t get past it just yet, I feel compassion for you. Whether you believe it or not, it’s true. I can feel compassion and frustration at the same time because I can be more than one thing. It may not seem like it right now when the shock looms large, but you can too.

So if and when you are ready, a growing group of us will be over here (not on the elite left, because apparently that’s where people are smelling the roses or something) doing the work to dismantle racism in our daily lives. You are more than welcome to join us. The comforting thing and the difficult thing is that, as I heard recently in a room full of people who have been dealing with this issue for a long time, is that if you are new to this conversation your very first job is to show up, stand in the back, and listen.

America is Not Built on Freedom

America is not built on freedom, but on cognitive dissonance.

By men who wrote the beautiful words, “We hold these truth to be self-evident: that all men are created equal,” and yet owned other people as property.

The constitution grants all men “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” except some men are three fifths of a man.

I have a theory. I think this election has not created a lot of ugliness. I think this election has uncovered a lot of ugliness. I hear my white friends saying, “everything’s about race now.” Now? Now?! Racism did not begin when Donald Trump first talked about Mexicans being rapists. It didn’t start when Colin Kaepernick took a knee during the national anthem. It’s been here all along, we just tried to stitch the wound closed in recent years with things like color-blindness and “I have an asian friend.”
Well, white people, the wound is open. We can either try furiously to close it up again, or we can debride the terribly infected tissue that’s been festering since the first time we landed here. I would posit that cognitive dissonance is more at play here than most of us realize.

In a psychologist’s office, if you come upon an area of cognitive dissonance, they may tell you there are a few ways to deal with it. Let’s agree that for most people, internal consistency is the goal.

Denial

The quickest way to accomplish that feeling of consistency, in the short term, is to disregard everything that doesn’t fit the narrative that makes you comfortable. To ignore the italics.

“She should’ve listened to the cops.” Except she did.

“He isn’t a racist. Look at this picture of him next to a smiling brown person!” Except for mountain of evidence from his own mouth that he possesses and acts on dehumanizing biases toward large groups of people.

“Well, we don’t have all the facts.” Except we have video of this from several angles and they show quite a clear picture of what happened.

“When the last thing we notice is the color of skin
And the first thing we look for is the beauty within.”

I grew up in the country. I remember this occasionally when I randomly hear a Garth Brooks song somewhere and realize that I still know all the words for some reason. With all due respect to Mr. Brooks, “color blindness” (possibly the most well-intentioned large scale effort at denial to date) is not the way forward. At the time it started being advocated for, it made sense to tell people, “Stop talking! Just stop talking because what you’re saying is awful.” But now? We really shall be free when we notice the color of skin whenever we notice it, and we are able to see that it is connected in inextricable ways to the beauty within.

Justification

Justification looks lots of different ways, and is the first line of defense when denial is challenged. It can look like externalizing or like trying to prove you’ve solved the problem.

“What am I supposed to do? I’m just one person, and this has been going on for hundreds of years.” Institutionalized racism is a system-wide problem. But systems are made up of people. “Be the change,” can be more than just a cheesy key chain slogan, if we choose to make it so. It’s a lot of work though, so don’t take it on lightly.

“I live in an integrated city and so I’ve solved racism. That city over there? That’s where racism lives.” Guess what? Living in a city where black or brown people also live doesn’t mean that you automatically ‘get it.’ The city I live in is sometimes described as a ‘liberal hotbed,’ and yet it is painfully obvious how segregated it is. What’s worse? Living in a city where everyone looks like you, or living in a city with lots of people who look all different ways, but only being in close relationship with the ones who look like you?

Change

“I will try to learn about people who don’t look like me.” For goodness sake, google some stuff. There are plenty of really thoughtful essays written by people who don’t look like you. If you are white, please don’t make people give you a free 100-level course when they are already stressed out and grieving because they’re afraid their husband, their cousin, or their daughter is one flat tire or traffic stop away from being the next hashtag. Don’t be that guy.

~~~~~

Continuing to claim that American culture is built on liberty for all people equally is a refusal to confront the cognitive dissonance. I understand wanting to find a way to reduce the dissonance. I suppose I’m just looking to reduce it in a way that actually makes a difference. Maybe that’s the musician in me….I look to the dissonance as a way to move the music forward toward beauty and resolution.

America is not built on freedom, but on cognitive dissonance. And the sooner we admit that to ourselves and each other, the sooner we can begin to truly approach the freedoms we desire.

Clans, Klans and What Connects Us

I am attempting to raise race-conscious white children. So sometimes we have conversations I wish we didn’t have to have. Like this one, which happened as we read Through My Eyes by Ruby Bridges together earlier this week.

~~~~~

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“Look at this picture. This is a burning cross. It became a symbol of hate used by men like those three standing underneath it, but that’s not what it was originally for. Do you know where it originally came from? It came from Scotland. In the time of the clans a burning cross was set up on the evening before a battle to rally the troops to fight; for kin, for land, for freedom…it was meant to be a symbol to gather around.”

“Mama, what are they trying to get people to gather around?”

“Well, those men are white men…”

“But mama, they don’t look white…”

“I know. That’s because in the picture they are wearing all white clothing, and their skin, while it is called white, is really kind of a peachy color. Like ours. And they are trying to gather people around the idea of whiteness, and wanting to hurt people who aren’t white. They are trying to get people who think that to all stick together and that’s why they called themselves a klan. Their goal is to join all the white people together under their idea.”

“Are we white people then?”

“Yes.”

“But…what about black people? Like M and N? Are they black people?”

“Yes. Like them.”

“But they are our friends!”

“Right. So if you were going to gather people to be in your clan, who would it be? Would you only want people who look like you?”

“No! Absolutely not!”

“Well, that’s a start. I want you to think about what your criteria is for what makes you think of someone as ‘in your clan.’ Who do you want to be connected to? What is your idea? We’re going to continue this conversation. Probably for a really, really long time.”

~~~~~

For a little more information on the history of the KKK and cross-burning as their attempt to bring legitimacy to their group, you can check out this short and informative article.