Privilege: A Life Unquestioned…

February 20, 2015

“There are years that ask questions and years that answer.” – Zora Neale Hurston

I haven’t been able to get that Zora Neale Hurston quote off of my mind in this New Year―2014 asked some major questions that I’m hoping 2015 will answer. Mike Brown’s killing hurled us into a social dialogue on race and racism unlike one I’ve seen in my lifetime. Sure, we’d seen these questions being asked on a national level around other similar tragedies―Rodney King, Amadou Diallo, Trayvon Martin, Jordan Davis, tragically too many other names to mention―but as the news headlines moved on to other things, the voicing of those questions, on a broad, national level, went from bold queries to whispers to indecipherable murmurs to a hush; complete silence, until the next race-based tragedy occurred.

photo credit: www.philly.com

photo credit: http://www.philly.com

But, that’s not so this time around. Mike Brown’s killing set a Movement into motion that has been dedicated to amplifying those questions, specifically and most especially in spaces where those questions cause the most discomfort, where those questions were birthed, where those questions thrive, but are greatly neglected―white spaces. The Movement is active, alive, kicking, and fighting, loudly, proudly, and unapologetically demanding answers to those terrible questions―it seems it will not rest, we will not rest, until those questions are answered. Those questions revolve around the killings of Darrien Hunt, Ezell Ford, Tamir Rice, Tanesha Anderson, John Crawford, Kajieme Powell, Akai Gurley, Eric Garner, Mike Brown, Michelle Cusseaux, Yvette Smith, Antonio Martin. Those questions are based in white supremacy, the brutality and militarization of American police, systemic racism in America, and related violence, injustices and inequalities.

Those questions are tragic. Those questions are real. Those questions are unfairly felt by, and asked of, millions of black and brown Americans who did not ask to be in this sick, unjust “interrogation.” Nonetheless, there are those individuals who ignorantly, if not cruelly, question the actuality of those questions.

As the questions were magnified in 2014, I noticed the (white) denial that these questions hold validity, that these questions are real, that these questions even exist at all. This, of course, is nothing new―we’ve seen this same response from White America time and time again. Yet, in the past, as the questions being asked on a national level moved from bold queries to whispers to indecipherable murmurs to a hush, White America was again allowed to sit in their comfortable, complicit silence. That national silence obviously did not nullify the questions being asked, it merely attempted to muffle and ignore them. That silence―not afforded to everyone―is enabled by privilege, as others outside of that privilege can’t so easily ignore or escape the haunting, echoing reality of those questions. This time, however, much to the frustration of many (mostly white) individuals, the Movement is ensuring that the echoes of injustice are heard by all.

This has led to much controversy and outrage.

You can observe White America’s attempts to cover their ears to these questions in the constant attempted derailment of conversations of systemic racism and white privilege, in the attempted justification of the killing of black bodies through demonization and dehumanization, in the arrogance of the belief that injustices unknown to, and not experienced by, them are nonexistent. You can observe White America’s attempts to step around these questions with, “What about black on black crime,” or, “We have a black president,” or, “I have a black (friend, spouse, adopted child, employee, etc),” or, “You’re racist for talking about racism.” And still, anytime I write about systemic racism in America, white supremacy, and or white privilege, it never fails that a white person―usually a man―will emerge from a dark corner of the Internet with retorts attempting to debunk what I am saying, only to satirically prove the point I was making.

White supremacy, white privilege, white denial, white rage, white tears, all white everything.

Please, do not for one second think that I am excluding myself from these thoughts. As a heterosexual, white, American, man, I realize that I live in some of the most prime property of intersectional privilege in this imperialist, white-supremacist, capitalist, patriarchal America. I say that not to boast, but to point out my awareness of my own privilege, and my fight to work out my own way of existence in this world in relation to that privilege. Some pockets of the Christian church speak about “working out your salvation,” that salvation is not something that just happens to someone at one single point in time. But salvation is, rather, a lifetime commitment of labor; I see acknowledging privilege in the same way. Acknowledging privilege isn’t a once-off event—it’s daily work, intentional effort to be self-aware, mindful attempts to not take part in the perpetuation of dominator values. It’s work. But without this initial and continual work, it’s impossible to fully understand these important questions being asked, much less to fathom and imagine the much needed answers to those questions.

When it comes to racial progress in America, it seems we are at a strange type of stalemate. I would say this is mostly hinged on that fact that many white people do not, or cannot, see or understand their role in this struggle. Those white people who do not understand the questions being asked don’t understand them because they have never had to. In his book Faces At The Bottom Of The Well: The Permanence Of Racism, Derrick Bell breaks down this entire American situation in a short excerpt, even before the preface or table of contents,

“Black people are the magical faces at the bottom of society’s well. Even the poorest whites, those who must live their lives only a few levels above, gain their self-esteem by gazing down on us. Surely, they must know that their deliverance depends on letting down their ropes. Only by working together is escape possible. Over time, many reach out, but most simply watch, mesmerized into maintaining their unspoken commitment to keeping us where we are, at whatever cost to them or us.”

This is not to be confused with ideas of white saviors—alternatively, the reality that there can be no true social progress without white consciousness. Too many white people see racism as a “black problem,” if they even admit it’s a problem at all. This is simultaneously tragic and ironic considering white supremacist ideology and practice was, very obviously, founded by white people. However, most unfortunately, white supremacist indoctrination knows no bounds, and is not limited to the minds of only white people. Once set into motion, white supremacy—as an institutionalized system of domination—can be maintained and perpetuated by people of all races, both on institutionalized and individually internalized levels. With that said, systemic racism and white supremacy in America is a white problem—one that unfortunately and adversely impacts the lives of black Americans.

Anti-white supremacy is not anti-white people. The fight is against the systems we are all caught up in, a fight against dehumanization.

But many white people cannot see themselves in the “answers” because the don’t see themselves in the questions.

Chinua Achebe said, “Privilege, you see, is one of the great adversaries of the imagination; it spreads a thick layer of adipose tissue over our sensitivity.” The unfortunate truth is, many white Americans cannot—or are not willing to—put in the work of “answering” the questions because they don’t understand the questions. Privilege has protected them, and their loved ones, from being inconvenienced by those questions. They live lives unquestioned, untouched by the injustices that lurk outside their bubble of privilege. Protected by privilege, the privileged hear others speaking of injustices unknown to them and conclude that those injustices must not exist. Those who cannot find themselves in the questions will struggle—or refuse—to put themselves in the work of finding answers, in being answers.

Naturally, the perspective of people benefiting from institutionalized systems of domination in America is myopic—obstructed by privilege. Instead of ventures to hear the questions clearly, they will fling irrelevant “answers” at the questions that they do not understand, that cause them discomfort, that question their very place of privilege. It is most often easier to believe lies that whisper sweet nothings into our ears than it is to listen to a truth that disrupts our peace. Those benefiting from privilege—and various intersections of it—have never tasted the bitter injustices wrought by the dominant cultures. As James Baldwin pointed out in his letter to his nephew, “They are in effect still trapped in a history which they do not understand and until they understand it, they cannot be released from it.”

Privilege protects. Privilege blinds. Privilege allows people to not have to question realities outside of their own. Alas, you don’t know until you know, and most privileged people don’t know because they have never been forced to know. And ignorance is bliss, as they say. But this cannot be an excuse. At this point, if people don’t know, it’s because they don’t want to know. And privilege is what grants them the option of not knowing. That stubborn refusal to acknowledge privilege, and or the realities of others outside of one’s privilege, is violence. Those who choose to remain ignorant to the vile injustices and inequalities of institutionalized systems of domination in America are complicit in that violence. Those who choose to continue to remain silent are complicit in their silence―complicit in the killings of…

Amadou Diallo and

Trayvon Martin and

Jordan Davis and

Yvette Smith and

Michelle Cusseaux and

Mike Brown and

Eric Garner and

Akai Gurley and

Kajieme Powell and

John Crawford and

Tanesha Anderson and

Tamir Rice and

Ezell Ford and

Darrien Hunt and

Antonio Martin and

every other name of black and brown bodies slain in America’s past and

every other name-turned-hashtag that we will be forced to know.

Let this national conversation cut away the thick layer of adipose tissue that Chinua Achebe speaks about. Let us continue to amplify the questions, and if we don’t understand them, put in the important work that brings understanding. Let those tragic questions of 2014 educate, enlighten, engage, and guide us to appropriate action in 2015. Let us continue to seek and fight for the answers. Let us have the courage to be the answers.

 

“This, then, is the great humanistic and historical task of the oppressed: to liberate themselves and their oppressors as well.” – Paulo Freire


White History Month…

February 1, 2014

I forgot it was February 1st today until I logged-on to Twitter and saw “Happy Black History Month” trending. I clicked on the trending topic to see what people were saying, and, inevitably, there were already tweets from white people—mostly young, mostly male—asking why there is no white history month. Do we really have to have this conversation every year? I ask that more in rhetorical angst than anything else, knowing very well that we, indeed, must have this conversation, every year, every day, every moment, as long as it needs to happen. But still.

I guess at this point in my life, I am not surprised by the blinding affects white privilege has on certain people, as I am very regularly confronted with this phenomenon. I get it, someone—especially and specifically a young white male—living in, and benefitting from, a society with institutionalized systems of domination (race, gender, sexuality, nationalist imperialism) might find it difficult to hear any other realities outside the privileged microcosm in which they live. However, what I do find frustrating amongst certain groups of white folks is their lack of acknowledgment—or even awareness—that these power structures have been, and still are, the controlling systems that dictate so many aspects of how we live in America.

Why don’t we have a white history month? Well, as Tim Wise effectively put it in his lecture Pathology of White Privilege, “We dont have white history month because we have several. They go by the names of May, June, July, August, September; pretty much any month that we have not designated as someone elses month, thats white history month. But we take it for granted, because we dont have to know other folks’ reality. Thats a privilege.”

Many white males—and white people in general—”don’t understand” this concept because nothing in their lives has ever caused them to have to understand it. They live blissfully unaware of what it might be like to live as a member of a group that is completely disenfranchised by the institutionalized systems of domination that they have been conveniently a part of since birth, yet they often adamantly, and pompously, attempt to invalidate the narratives of individuals from those disenfranchised groups when those individuals speak about injustices they face. These particular white folks are unmindful to the fact that, when white-supremacist, imperialist, patriarchy is the “norm,” it would be absurd to have designated days or months or events celebrating it, because every day is in fact a celebration of these dominant cultures. As one Twitter user put it, in response to a young white male asking why there is no white history month, “For the same reason there’s no Straight Pride parades or Not Having Breast Cancer Awareness Week.”

One day at work last year, I walked into the classroom of a colleague who teaches U.S. History. I noticed that she had done some new classroom decorating, having put up a massive collage of pictures on the long, thin bulletin board that runs along the top of the whiteboard and across the entire front wall of the room. I was immediately taken aback by the sight. What struck me was the glaringly obvious, and overwhelming, presence of white males, with maybe a mere one or two white females, and a single solitary picture of Martin Luther King Jr., and no indigenous people that I noticed.

I could not hold back my shock, “Whoa! What is that?!”

My colleague, “American history.”

I chuckled, “No it’s not! I mean, it’s a small piece of American history—American history through the lens of the imperialist white male.”

She agreed, and retorted, “It’s American history according to the New York State Regents. This is what they have to learn to pass the test.”

Having just this week proctored the U.S. History Regents, also having read every single word of it because I facilitated the special education “read aloud” accommodation, I am very aware of the white-supremacist, imperialist, patriarchal bias in the New York state standardized test. To be fair, I also know that New York schools are not the only ones where these circumstances exist, and it is through this particularly prejudiced lens that most American children in a vast majority of public schools learn about “American history.” This reality is even more striking and tragic in schools like the one where I teach, where the vast majority of the student population—above 90%—is black.

In this “American history,” fore fathers like George Washington are taught as heroes, yet the fact that President Washington inherited his first ten slaves at the age of twelve and had three-hundred slaves living and working on his property—one-hundred of them being his own personal slaves—at the time of his death, is rarely to never spoken about; racism deniers would probably argue that “he treated his slaves well.” Whilst at the very same time, in many American schools, American heroes like Malcolm X, Nat Turner, Angela Davis are taught through a filter of predisposition that they were villainous, or evil, or “violent;” Martin Luther King Jr. is safer and more acceptable to teach because he preached and acted in nonviolence in his opposition to a racist, government-instituted system that was directly hostile and violent towards him. Oh, however, it is perfectly alright to celebrate, and revel in, General George Washington’s violence during the American Revolutionary War. “American History.”

It is true that no telling of history is told without bias. Be that as it may, we have also been told, by Winston Churchill, that “history is written by the victors.” So, in a land where the Declaration of Independence was written by wealthy white men, during a time when it was perfectly and lawfully acceptable to own African human beings, and deny the rights of women, indigenous people, and people with disabilities, it is important that we continue to question the mirage they posed as “reality” when they wrote, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

I understand at this point that the majority of people still reading and entertaining this post are the choir, and I am preaching. Nonetheless, if there are any Caucasians still reading who find my words difficult to swallow, ridiculous, angering, or even downright absurd, I would ask of you, please don’t become an inadvertent satirical statistic and continue to ask why “there’s no white history month.” Take a moment to research and think outside of the white-supremacist, imperialist, patriarchal paradigm we find ourselves in. Understand that the very definition in the truest etymological sense of the word dominance is “to have power and influence over others,” and acknowledge how these institutionalized systems of domination have affected all of our thinking and being.

Read some James Baldwin.

Happy Black History Month.