Beyond Ignorance: Teaching White Privilege

I work for a college-access program designed for first-generation, low-income students of color. In a class of seventeen freshmen, one student is white. She’s incredibly willing to learn about race and diversity and, even as a high school freshman, already knows terms like privilege. She wants to be educated and do anti-racist work.

I work with this student twice a week through one-on-one sessions. We’re reading Bad Feminist, by Roxane Gay (a collection of essays I recommend to anyone and everyone for Gay’s humor, vulnerability and realness when discussing modern day feminism). Multiple times, this student has expressed the opinion, “I’m really ignorant” when speaking about race, especially in regard to her uncomfortability when confronted with the notion that there’s a whole world of racial injustice she hasn’t seen and will never experience directly.

Though I’ve written before about how whiteness and Jewishness feel like two conflicting parts of my identity, when working with this student (and really all of my students) I am a white instructor. Especially when working with this particular student, I have been in her situation and still am in the situation of trying each day to unlearn racism. I too have stumbled over or whispered words like “black” or “African-American”, as if these descriptors have a negative connotation and I’m uttering an insult. This is racist of me and it’s a process to unlearn these patterns of speech and behavior.

But I don’t want this student to leave our sessions believing that she’s ignorant and that’s all she can do is admit to her ignorance because she’s white. I’m trying to move the conversation to a place where she has action steps and can recognize when that ignorance might actually be guilt or another uncomfortable emotion we haven’t yet named.

I sent her an article from Everyday Feminism: “‘I didn’t Know That was Racist’- Are You Using ‘White Ignorance’ to Dodge Responsibility?” and the accompanying video. I’m thinking of continuing the conversation by speaking about white privilege as a way of framing why she’s ignorant. I’m searching for advice and suggestions to have a more specific plan.

Does anyone have any resources or suggestions on how to have a conversation with this student that moves beyond white ignorance?

Resist Trump’s Ban on Muslims and Immigrants

As of January 27th, Trump issued an executive order banning citizens of Iraq, Iran, Yemen, Libya, Somalia, Sudan and Syria from entering the United States for the next 90 days. These are all majority Muslim countries. All refugees are suspended for the next 120 days and Syrian refugees are completely banned.

The ACLU is challenging the executive order and has temporarily halted the process to deport citizens from these countries currently stranded at airports, but this does not mean we have won.

Take a look at Kateschatz article for medium 20 Ways You Can Act Now To Support Muslims/Immigrants + Resist DT: A Solidarity Sundays Emergency Guide

Educate yourself about the executive order and the history of discrimination of immigrants in America.

https://www.aclu.org/blog/speak-freely/trump-begins-his-unconstitutional-program-anti-muslim-discrimination

Reach out to your friends (of all religions and no religion) and make sure they know about Trump’s executive order. From there, you can pool your skills and your contacts. What groups through work, through school, through family connections do you each know? Contact them this week and ask what are we doing to support our Muslim and immigrant siblings? If they don’t have an answer, work with them to create an answer. A public statement would be instrumental in voicing community anger toward Trump’s hateful and racist policies.

What skills and resources do you have that you can lend in support? Have a vehicle? Take people to a protest. Run a blog? Send out resources and information. Plaster your social media with #NoBanNoWall.

Encourage the businesses you support to issue public statements or put signs in their windows that voice support for Muslims and immigrant communities.

Contact your mayors as well as your Congresspeople and Senators. On a more local level, you can ensure that your town and your schools will protect people of all backgrounds, religions and colors. Find out what they are doing to ensure the safety and well being of all people in their district.

This is not (by any means) an extensive list. Check out a more comprehensive list of post 2016 resources (that’s constantly being updated) by Kit Mead here.

 

Suicide Squad: Deadshot and Morality

Suicide Squad, is perhaps the first movie I’ve ever walked away from saying, “That was not a good movie, but it was worth seeing.”

Without any spoilers, the plot had no structure and we spent time getting to know the characters through useless (and excessive) flashbacks. There were characters who had no purpose in the film, except to haphazardly flesh out the sprinting world of the DC Cinematic Universe. I swear Captain Boomerang was only there for laughable appearance by the Flash.

But what did work?

indexDeadshot. Will Smith’s Deadshot is the moral center of this film. Arguably, as a hit-man, he is the most villainous of the main characters by profession. He has not reformed nor makes any pretenses that he will give up the assassin’s game anytime soon.

Suicide Squad focuses on the character development of only a few characters: Harley Quinn, el Diablo, and Deadshot. Deadshot is the center piece. It is his story and his relationship with his daughter that grounds the character. Deadshot is the one talking about honor among thieves and the importance of the team’s survival.

To make it clear: a movie starring a black man featured said black man as a complicated protagonist and loving father who is the moral center of the film.

And in a media culture that only upholds the stories of white men (straight, cis, able bodied white men), this is huge. Every day people quote the racist (and downright false) argument that “there are more black men in prison than in college” as if there is a moral deficiency in black men naturally. As if black men do not want to be there for their families and for their children.

Yes, Deadshot is a criminal. He is a comic book villain. He kills people for money. But he is also a black character who is a loving father and a moral compass in a movie that desperately needs a moral center. He stands out in a media industry that needs  representations of black men who live to see the ending credits.

 

 

Advice for White Allies

I don’t know what to say about the deaths of Alton Sterling and Philando Castille. I don’t know what to say that will not be repeating platitudes that their deaths must be mourned, that these are not isolated incidents. Castille was the 561st death at the hands of police this year, according to The Guardian’s “The Counted” project.

And because I am not part of the black community, there is only so much I can say as an ally. It’s important to be an ally to the black community, even if there are no black people in the room. Allyship is not a part-time position. You are an ally 100% of the time, or you are not an ally at all.

Advice for White allies:

  1. Saying someone is black or African American is not an insult. Growing up in CT, my hometown would speak about black people by speeding up our speech and avoiding even saying the word black. Black was coded to mean less-than. But we can change our speech patterns and remove our ingrained racism when we pay enough attention. When speaking about Alton Sterling, Philando Castille, or any of the black people murdered by police, race cannot be removed from the discussion.
  2. Recognize that you don’t understand what your black friends/co-workers etc are going through. This doesn’t mean you don’t care, but do not compare your own experience, even if you hold other marginalized identities. You still hold white privilege.
  3. Attend protests and vigils, but understand this is not your place to speak. Listen instead. Be silent and listen.
  4. Know you won’t always say the right thing. Be willing to apologize.

Orlando Shooter is a Terrorist, but not because he’s Muslim

Islam DOES NOT EQUAL terrorism. To repeat: Islam DOES NOT EQUAL terrorism.

Omar Mateen, the shooter who murdered 49 people in Pulse, a gay club in Orlando, is a terrorist. Whether or not he had ties to ISIS, he is a terrorist. But being Muslim has nothing to do with his act of homophobia and violence.

Mateen is a terrorist because he willfully planned to walk into a gay club and murder queer people during Pride month. Specifically, he planned this on Latino night, when Pulse would be filled with queer people of color. His intention was to spread fear so that queer people and queer people of color across the country and the world would feel threatened. If this is not terrorism, I don’t know what is.

If CNN wants to make this a conversation about terrorism, fine. It is terrorism. But this is not a conversation about ISIS or FBI watch lists.  To give ISIS credit is to dismiss our own complicity in this attack. Mateen was an American citizen, fed on our values of homophobia and xenophobia. And the longer we derail the conversation to be about ISIS and the same gun control speeches that get us nowhere, we become even further mired in the problem.

Mateen is us. He is every homophobic slur we hear on the street, every homophobic law being passed, every racist comment from Trump and on the news against the Latinx community. He is the product of an American culture which prays to stop gun violence, but in every conceivable way each day says the lives of queer people and queer people of color don’t matter. And now, we are making the situation worse by buying into the belief that this attack was motivated by Islam. We are showing ourselves to be Islamophobic, as well as homophobic and xenophobic.

This attack cannot become an excuse to commit further violence against Muslims. We cannot dismiss Mateen as an Islamic terrorist whose motivations are worlds away from American values. Neither can we cannot dismiss Mateen as “mentally unstable” or diagnose him with bipolar or other mental health disorders, and claim his actions were caused by being mentally ill. We cannot let this attack divide us. 

Please, understand the following facts:

  1. Mateen is a terrorist because he planned to use large scale violence to inspire fear among queer people and queer people of color.
  2. 49 people are dead, most of them queer people of color.
  3. Derailing the conversation to erase the sexuality and race of the victims, or blame Islam will only strengthen America’s homophobic, xenophobic and Islamophobic culture.

 

Why We Study the Holocaust

All high school seniors in the program I work for have to go to the Illinois Holocaust Museum.

I dread visiting Holocaust Museums. I’ve been to the Breman Museum in Atlanta, Yad Vashem in Israel, the Memorial to the Murdered Jews in Europe in Berlin. It has gotten easier, but I’ve never gone as a chaperone before and felt the need to constrict my emotions. This tour is for the students, after all, not for me to process my own heritage and the stories within my family which are lost.

In Holocaust Museums my policy is silence. I do not speak and I do not wish others to speak around me. But our docent tour guide today asked a series of questions at the start of the tour I wanted desperately to answer.

She asked, “What is the Holocaust? What is a Holocaust? What is genocide?” She asked us to name genocides occurring right now. She asked the most important question: “Why do we study the Holocaust?”index.jpg

The docent explained how it is the enormity of the Holocaust that makes it so noteworthy. 11 million people were murdered. She explained how this was industrialized and mechanized slaughter, so different than even the war the Holocaust is engulfed in.

Genocide is not a unique violence against Jews, yet we talk about the Holocaust as if it is the only genocide that deserves attention.

My answer to why we study the Holocaust is different. The Nazis were Europeans. The Nazis were cultured Western Europeans. The murderers and the men who planned these horrors were white. And even though Hitler and the Nazis classified Jews as a separate race, the Jews of Europe who were murdered (for the most part) looked like white people.

To some degree, the western world cares and funds Holocaust education projects and Holocaust museums because the victims look like white people and the perpetrators were white people. The Holocaust is a stain on white supremacy. It dismantles the idea that such violence and atrocities only happen in the darker places of the world–Africa or the Middle East. And so if Holocaust education is funded with slogans of Never Again,  Never Again and mean Never Again will white people perpetrate these crimes.

Think about the way the west reacts to terrorism. Terrorism hits Paris in November 2015 and people change their Facebook picture to the French flag. Terrorism strikes Brussels in March 2016 and the news coverage was endless. It’s not to say these attacks were not devastating. Innocent people died. But, just as the Holocaust is not the only genocide, terrorist attacks in Europe are not the only terrorist attacks that matter. As Nadine Ajaka describes in The Atlantic, when terror strikes the Middle East for instance, we are left to our own devices for media coverage and world support.

Terrorism across Syria, bombings in Beirut, in Ankara, in Istanbul, Boko Haram’s killings in Nigeria, and other attacks, even those not motivated by religion. Where is the funding for museums to educate against all forms of hatred and murder?

We study the Holocaust so the West can say “Never again” with a clear conscience. But we can, and should and must, study the Holocaust as one example out of many of human cruelty, human compassion, and human resistance. We must study the Holocaust until Never Again is true for all.

 

Experiencing White Privilege

As a Jewish person, I do not always feel White. I’ve talked about this before because I see White culture as Christian culture. And yet, I look White, I grew up thinking I was White, and I have White privilege.

I went to the bank a few nights ago to deposit a check and one of the tellers told me the bank was closed. “Please go to the drive up.”

“I just need to endorse a check.” I told her. “Can I come in for a moment to use a pen?”

She told me no, that it was against policy for her to let me in. For a moment, I was upset. I felt I deserved to be able to use a pen at least. Then I realized, I was operating from a position of White privilege. The teller didn’t owe me entry. The teller didn’t owe me anything.

I was about to walk away when the manager got involved. The manager (a White male) told the teller (a Black female) to let me in. “It’s okay,” I told him. “I can use the drive up. It’s not a problem.”

He insisted I come inside and as I was endorsing the check, he quietly chastised the teller. I took the check and headed out so I could use the drive up window, but the manager continued to insist I remain in the branch and speak to a different teller behind the desk to deposit my check.

White privilege was happening to me and around me and I didn’t know what to do to stop it.

I would never feel comfortable saying I’m a person of color because I’m not! I walk through the world as a White person, where people like the White bank manager open doors for me (both literal and figurative) because they view me as one of them. Even though I am female, I am, at least a White female and therefore given certain rights as if they are my due.

Yet, I told the high school students I work with that I am Jewish, female and White and saying I’m White somehow still doesn’t feel right. Maybe, I am speaking from a desire to not be White and to not take responsibility for racism and the oppression I am a part of.

Paul Kivel, writes of a similar issue in his essay I’M NOT WHITE, I’M JEWISH. BUT I’M WHITE: Standing as Jews in the Fight for Racial Justice” for Dayton University. Kivel says that at an Academic Conference on Whiteness (can we talk about privilege to hold such a conference?) none of the White people said they were White. From gender to sexual orientation to class, everyone had a reason to say they were not White.

I do not want to be that person. I am open to thoughts and insights into what it means to claim Whiteness, not just White privilege.

 

What It’s Like to be a [blank]

I was at a Slam Poetry workshop the other day with Cyndey Edwards. As a prompt to get us writing poetry, she share Patricia Smith’s poem “What it’s Like to be a Black Girl (for those of you who aren’t).” Take a look at the poem below.

What it’s Like to be a Black Girl (for those of you who aren’t) by Patricia Smith

First of all, it’s being 9 years old and
feeling like you’re not finished, like your
edges are wild, like there’s something,
everything, wrong. it’s dropping food
coloring in your eyes to make them blue and suffering
their burn in silence. it’s popping a bleached
white mophead over the kinks of your hair and
priming in front of the mirrors that deny your
reflection. it’s finding a space between your
legs, a disturbance in your chest, and not knowing
what to do with the whistles. it’s jumping
double dutch until your legs pop, it’s sweat
and vaseline and bullets, it’s growing tall and
wearing a lot of white, it’s smelling blood in
your breakfast, it’s learning to say fuck with
grace but learning to fuck without it, it’s
flame and fists and life according to motown,
it’s finally have a man reach out for you
then caving in
around his fingers.

_______________________

What I enjoy the most about this poem is that it reads like a ‘how-to’ guide and is  instructional as well as personal. Here’s the prompt so you can write your own poem and share it with others!

First, we created a list of ways we identify. My list included everything from being asexual and homoromantic, to being a tea lover and a comic book reader.

From that list, we generated our own “What it’s like to be a [blank]”. The idea behind writing this poem is for us to define ourselves and claim ownership our identities and experiences.

Below is my first draft of “What It’s Like to be Asexual and Love Women.”

It’s not a Freudian lack no

Penis envy but a

Filling like the dentist’s

Hands inside your mouth the whir of

Metal drilling into bone under

Gum and enamel so your teeth grow

Strong so you grow strong.

Fixed.

Drink your tea.

Fill those silent mornings evenings wondering

How long can Single last

Before your Aunt, your Grandfather, the dentist (who

Goes to your Synagogue), the airport security agent begins

To ask

Questions about

Where your man is

(maybe) where your woman is

And why you want to shear your

Hair to your scalp and

are you gay and

“a little” does not answer

Cannot provide sustain the

Fullness that is romance

Without sex.

MLK Day: Celebrate with Peace

The conversation around Martin Luther King Jr. tends to stop with race. The popular understanding of his contributions, cultivated in public schools, Black History Month, and text books say two things:

  1. Martin Luther King Jr. was a great and peace loving man who brought equality to Black Americans through the Civil Rights Movement
  2. His work is complete today

Pieces of the first statement is true: Martin Luther King Jr. was a great and peace loving man, but he did not bring about equality. We do not live in a post-racial world when people of color are murdered by police, murdered by white supremacists like Dylann Roof, when people of color are imprisoned and treated as criminals.

As we celebrate Martin Luther King’s legacy, we must understand three very different truths than what we are taught:

  1. We have much to do to continue Martin Luther King’s work through active nonviolent, anti-racist lives where we do not allow ourselves to be divided by color lines
  2. Martin Luther King spoke out against more than racial injustice

He fought for an end to poverty for people of all races. And he understood that race and war and poverty are intertwined. At the time of his speech: “Why I am Opposed to the War in Vietnam” (1967), the United States government spent approximately ten times more killing enemy soldiers than they did helping poor people. As he said further along in the speech:

I was increasingly compelled to see the war as an enemy of the poor, and attack it as such.

War becomes a matter of race because:

We were taking the black young men who had been crippled by society and sending them eight thousand miles away to guarantee liberties in Southeast Asia which they had not found in Southwest Georgia and East Harlem.

The issue is the same today. We continue to send poor people–vulnerable people of all races–to fight overseas, when they are not guaranteed basic liberties in their own neighborhoods. One of the increasing number of Americans who cannot afford a college education? Through programs like the Reserved Officer Training Corps (ROTC) the military pays for your schooling and you join the military then as an officer. Our government and our military continue to exploit poor communities by denying them the basic right to education, and then (in one of many examples) paying for said education through an easy point of recruitment. Students become fodder for the war machine and are too busy learning military training to become politically active on college campuses.

To celebrate Martin Luther King Jr.’s legacy we must stand against poverty in all its forms and against war and military recruitment. Only then can we march forward to equality.

Privilege: The World Doesn’t Owe You

I’m Jewish but I’m perceived as white. I don’t usually identify with white culture because white culture in America to me means white Christian culture (a divide exacerbated with the holiday season). Yet, I have white privilege and I’ve been reminded of it more and more in recent weeks.

I volunteer at an organization fighting poverty and I had a conversation with a black man who mentioned that I’m white. His comment struck me because that’s now I would identify myself, but it was his perception (and I’m sure many people’s perception) of who I am and where I’m from.

And I began to think that this might be a normal rock of the boat for someone with white privilege: when you’re white no one needs to mention your race because you are the norm.

I’m coming to realize that no matter how I work through my Jewish identity, I have white privilege. I have white privilege because every day I need to remind myself that the world doesn’t owe me anything for the accidental color of my skin. This is an even more difficult pill to swallow than being reminded that I appear white, because I need to police myself and my own thoughts.

The first step to eliminating white privilege and working toward an anti-racist world is seeing your own white privilege. The second step is knowing what your white privilege means.