Unlearning Racism, Confronting Whiteness

By
March 6, 2014

Beck Levy.

Beck Levy.

Following a cryptic e-mail (“Subj: Moving Forward In These Challenging Times”), Dean Eloise Stiglitz convened a Town Hall meeting Tuesday afternoon at the Graduate School of Business. The meeting began with heavy-handed, muddled directives in the same evasive tone as the email. But in the middle of the prescribed small-group breakaway discussion, Black students took the microphone and expressed their frustration with the circumspect tone and structure of the meeting itself. They were vocalizing the discontent that many students present were feeling. In fact, just as they took the microphone, my table was discussing how to address that very problem–that the catalyst for the Town Hall was being danced around, alluded to, but not said outright; the injury camouflaged with buzzwords of community and healing.

So here is what happened. There is a non-Mills affiliated Facebook “Confessions” page where people anonymously post remarks about the school. Recently someone anonymously posted an abusive, violent comment insulting the Black women on this campus and suggesting that they ought to be lynched. This racist, threatening comment concluded with a glib, “Happy Black History Month.” But even though the Town Hall meeting was packed–people lined the walls and stood outside the open doors–many who were present did not even know about the content of the comment. The administration’s decision to not repeat the comment seemed like a whitewashing of the incident and many in attendance were outraged.

Despite tepid attempts by the Dean to pacify the Town Hall and shift discussion back to the predetermined agenda, the first frustrated comments on the microphone opened a dam of discontent. Over the course of the next hour, Black students and alumni raised their voices to welcome administrators and their fellow classmates to the conditions of their daily lives: the crisis, already in progress.

During the Town Hall meeting, a Black student asked a question into the microphone, frustration in her voice. She asked something to the effect of “Do any white students have something to say?” I had been focusing on listening, paying close attention to what my classmates were saying. It didn’t seem appropriate for a white person to take up airtime when Black voices urgently needed to be heard. At that meeting, Black students were working hard. Black students were performing the labor of their survival, the hard, thankless and obstructed labor of self-advocacy, and the additional labor of unpaid community education. So what this Black woman was asking was, are white students willing to work, too?

Are we? Black students are responding to an anonymous threat by speaking up, putting themselves on the line. White students ought to share the burden of stating one’s allegiance, publicly, accountably to everyone.

All white people benefit from white supremacy–whether directly or indirectly (such as not knowing about the culture of racism at Mills until the administration is forced to recognize it due to a possible public relations issue). Because of this, it is our responsibility to take an active role in ending racism and white supremacy. “Not being racist” is not enough–because there’s no such thing. Want to be less complicit? Me too. Here are some steps.

OPENING THE CONVERSATION: CRITICAL WHITENESS

Listen. Listen. Listen. White people are conditioned to feel entitled to take up space. Our personal experiences of pain and oppression can be a source of empathy and compassion, but they don’t enable us to know what it is like to be Black. Don’t assume you can map your experiences onto someone else’s life. People of color are speaking. Listen and signal boost what they have to say. Being an ally isn’t a game so don’t try to score points.

• Ask. By asking about other people’s experiences and needs, you can help open space. But remember, it’s not the responsibility of people of color to end racism or to hold your hand and educate you through not being a racist.

• Learn how to get called out. Racism manifests itself both institutionally and in social relationships. It is not possible to be reared in a racist society without being conditioned by racist ideology. So, my fellow white people, we are going to mess up, we participate in racism. If someone takes the time and energy to call you out, that’s a gift. They don’t have to expend their resources like that. Take the opportunity to grow from it. Don’t use the opportunity to just talk about yourself more

• Speak up. Again, the onus ought not be on people of color to call out racism. Often racism surfaces in spaces that are white-only or are perceived to be white-only. Don’t stay silent. While we are on the topic of speaking, words matter. For example, the emphasis on “healing” at the Town Hall meeting was problematic because it placed emphasis on individuals rather on the culture that gave rise to the racist comment, and on the systemic problems that emerged as the meeting continued.

Specificity is important. The comment that was posted was specifically directed at Black women and the violent threat referred to a specific act that has specific historical roots in the murder and intimidation of Black people. This incident should spur many conversations about the resources people of color need and the personal/systemic injustices they suffer. Those conversations shouldn’t become just a litany of identities. That’s more reductive than it is productive. When Dean Stiglitz invoked Mills’ population of “gender fluid” students during the Town Hall, it was inappropriate because the violent threat was against Black students, not genderqueer students (and some Black people are genderqueer/trans*, too). That moment read as a desperate plea to remember Mills’ more favorable track record and recent public presence regarding gender pronouns.

People of color are not a monolith. Black people are not a monolith. Being asked to represent an entire group with your opinion is a burden only placed on marginalized people. Another word for this concept is “tokenization.” Picture how weird and inappropriate it would be if you were repeatedly called upon to represent the opinions of all white people, or even all white students at Mills. This unfair and ridiculous expectation is constantly placed on people of color.

Be a resident of Oakland. Some students raised the point that the ignorance and racism demonstrated at Mills is particularly egregious given that we live in a city of significant Black history and organizing. We live in the city that gave birth to the Black Panther Party. Educate yourself. Check out books like No There There: Race, Class, and Political Community in Oakland by Chris Rhomberg.

• Be a resident of California. We live in a state in the midst of a crisis of prison overpopulation. People of color are disproportionately criminalized. The prison population is disproportionally Black and Black women are the fastest growing prison population. Educate yourself. Critical Resistance, a group co-founded by Black Panther Angela Davis, is active in the struggles against prisons and criminalization in California and throughout the country. Check out books like Golden Gulag: Prisons, Surplus, Crisis, and Opposition in Globalizing California by Ruth Wilson Gilmore.

• Understand your role. Understand what’s at stake. Mills derives value from diversity, but doesn’t reinvest in it. One of the many valid complaints raised at the meeting was the deceptive nature of the language and images Mills uses to self-describe. In particular, the very website for the school shows smiling women of many colors, including Black-presenting women, as representative of the student body. But clearly, though Mills profits from this display of diversity, Mills has not taken sufficient measures to protect, support, or listen to people of color and specifically Black women on this campus. We as white people benefit from Mills’ diversity–from the involvement and contributions of students of color, from the perseverance and work of faculty and staff of color. We benefit from the perception that we go to a progressive diverse school. When Mills as an institution benefits in these ways from Black students, but the students themselves cannot access that value, cannot get the support and respect they need, that is exploitation.

Welcome to the crisis (already in progress). Alumni in attendance spoke to the fact that they had presented lists of demands to the administration and many of the Black students who spoke up were frustrated because they had been talking about the racism they experienced for years, some directly to Dean Stiglitz. The “Confessions” comment was merely one symptom of a systemic ongoing problem. Racism on campus didn’t just become a problem this week when white students learned about it. Racism is the everyday reality of Black students on this campus.

The responsibility to respond is not on the administration alone. We should not rely on the administration to be our moral compass. Respect the work that groups like the Black Women’s Collective have been doing for years, respect the work that Black students have been doing by simply surviving on this campus. Find out what that work is. Support the demands of the BWC, support the ongoing and emerging needs of Black students and students of color, not just now but in a couple weeks, a couple months, for the rest of your time at Mills. Don’t expect to stand hand in hand, a rainbow of skin tones, on an aircraft carrier with a “MISSION ACCOMPLISHED” banner. That’s not what dismantling racism looks like.

Stay self-critical.

FURTHER READING:

(by no means an exhaustive list, just a first step)

White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack by Peggy McIntosh – This classic introductory piece is often paired in anti-oppression trainings with an exercise called “The Power Shuffle.” You can find that exercise and more in the “Anti-Oppression” resources page of organizingforpower.org.

Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence Against Women of Color by Kimberle Crenshaw – When people talk about intersectional feminism, this is the canonical work to which they are referring.

• “The Death of the Profane” from The Alchemy of Race and Rights by Patricia Williams – A critical race theory/legal analysis of racial profiling.

The History of White People by Nell Irvin Painter – Historically situates the construction of race and the invention of whiteness, which destabilizes the lie of whiteness as normal.

•  The Color of Violence: The Incite! Anthology – Essays from the frontline of women of color organizing against violence.

• “Taking the First Step: Suggestions to People Called out for Abusive Behavior” by Wispy Cockles, originally published in Clamor Magazine, was written for people who have been called out for sexual assault or abuse. Just as rape culture is endemic, so is racism and the recommendations pertain.


For more related posts, check out The Campanil‘s designated web page for our ongoing protest coverage.


Unlearning Racism, Confronting Whiteness was published on March 6, 2014 in Column, Opinions, Protest Coverage 2014

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