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.


Skin Deep Conversations…

August 9, 2012

Lately, many thoughts on skin pigment have weighed heavy on my mind, mostly sparked by several related conversations and incidents, most of which were with young people who have been indoctrinated to despise their own skin, if only on a subconscious level. Their young, malleable minds have been proselytized by the socially constructed lies within the messages that bombard them every single day, whether subliminal or out right aggressive. It’s heartbreaking.

And I’m just a white dude. What words of weight do I have to offer in this situation? I tip-toe around the taboo-ness of the topic in my mind, knowing that I was born into a race that was unfairly and ignorantly set as the “standard”. It disgusts me to even write that. Yet, I remember growing up, having several teachers who referred to the peach colored crayon as Flesh. Flesh?

The audacity of naming one color (yes, indeed the color matching the skin of Caucasians) Flesh is sickening and absurd (The Crayola color now known as Peach was officially changed to that from Flesh in 1962); an entire box of crayons could not contain the many various flesh tones in this world. However, little white kids could hold that “Flesh” colored crayon up to their little arms and see the match, cruelly confirming that sense of deeply instilled white superiority, “Yes, flesh,” whilst the little darker brown kids could hold up the very same crayon to their little arms, and rather than telling them something about the color of the crayon, they are told something about the color of their flesh, “Not flesh.” They’re stuck with Burnt Sienna, whatever that is.

Sure, things have changed since I was in elementary school. I was born in 1980. It’s 2012. But as much as things have changed, they have also just stayed the same, stagnated. Why is the standard-color of a Bandaid still the color of that crayon that was labelled as Flesh? Bandaids are meant to cover up a wound, but also blend in with the skin to conceal it. (I am aware that Bandaids for darker complexions are sold, but they are not as openly available, and definitely not the “norm”.) Have you ever seen a standard-color Bandaid on the skin of a dark brown person?

It doesn’t really blend in.

I have spoken to many people, of many shades of brown, about the topic of Bandaids, as a more subtle and accepted form of systemic racism in our society. A large amount of them feel that I am looking into it too deeply; admittedly, most of those people were people whose flesh conveniently conceals a standard-color Bandaid. To me, the fact that this is the “norm”, that it is “acceptable”, that it is “no big deal”, that we are completely calloused to it, shows me just how deep the indoctrination of the skin pigment heiarchy goes in all of us.

Way deeper than skin deep, to say the least.

My eleven-year-old neighbor Carl was sitting beside me the other day. He was born in Trinidad, but has lived in America most of his life. He has rich brown skin, and his head is covered with a thick offering of jet-black hair. Carl stroked my arm, and seemingly out of the blue said, “I wish I had white skin.”

I was surprised by his statement, “Why?”

Carl, “It’s more beautiful than black skin.”

Me, “That’s not true. Why do you say that?”

Carl, “Black skin is ugly.”

Me, “Not true. Who told you that?”

Carl, “I see it.”

I touched his arm, “I see it too. And dark brown skin looks beautiful to me.”

Unconsolable, Carl shifted the conversation slightly, “Black people are bad.”

At this point, I would have thought he was just saying things to say things and get answers, if I had not heard the seriousness in his voice, felt it in his eyes.

“Carl, that is untrue and a huge generalization. Some black people do bad things, but some white people do bad things too. People of all races do.”

Carl, “But white people are all good!”

Me, “Also very untrue, and another generalization. White people are the ones who brought black people over to America as slaves, Carl. That’s not good.”

Carl, “But that’s not now.”

We spoke about how the “then” impacts the “now”, and about generalizations. Carl tried to convince me he was not generalizing, “But all I see is black people doing bad things!”

Me, “Where?”

Carl, “In our neighborhood, on the movies! Shooting, killing, doing bad things!”

I gently reminded him that we live in a neighborhood that is populated predominantly by black people, and that is why it is “all he sees”, but if he were to go to neighborhoods where other races are the majority, he would also see them doing “bad things”. I assured him that where I am from, and elsewhere all over the world, there are many, many white people who do bad things.

Carl seemed unconvinced, so I did a Google Image search for “Caucasian mugshot” and we scrolled through the hundreds of white people who had done “bad things”. Slightly more persuaded, I then got him to admit that most of the “good” he experiences in his life is also done by black people, seeing that the vast majority of his interactions are in his neighborhood.

Carl quickly switched over to his movies anecdote, and I quickly rebutted by saying that movies are not real life. I wasn’t sure if he was ready for the conversation about who controls Hollywood in the first place, and what their agenda is. I rather asked him what race the majority of the killers are in the horror films that he loves to watch: Freddy, Jason, Michael Myers, the dude from Saw, all the ghosts in pretty much every movie ever…Caucasian. All of them. He got the picture.

Our conversation moved on to why people have different color skin, slavery, why Carl wants to marry a white lady, white people getting sunburned, hair that grows on arms, and eventually men with mustaches and at what point a boy can expect to be able to grow one. It was all downhill from there.

That conversation with Carl validated that his perceptions and attitudes towards skin are no different to the findings of the Doll Study conducted by the Clarks in the 1940s, the same attitudes and perceptions found amongst young people of color in Kiri Davis’s short documentary A Girl Like Me; the terrible idea that “white is good, black is bad,” or “white is beautiful, black is ugly”. Truly tragic.

And little dark-skinned girls bleach their skin to make it lighter, and relax their hair to make it more “acceptable”, all to fit into this image they are told is “ideal”. Ironically, on the other side of the spectrum, white women pay for expensive products, get spray-on tans, and bake in the sun for hours, all so their skin will be a darker shade of brown, a color that will only last as long as their products do, or as long as the sun decides it is his season to shine. This makes me think that white supremacist views were probably founded in the idolization of beautiful dark brown skin, the lustful desire to have deep, colored, flawless skin with no visible blemishes, with no beginning and no end. Hatred is often rooted in jealousy.

That discussion with Carl was direct and to the point, but I witness the same conversation taking more of a meta-communicative form in many of the exchanges and interactions I hear and see the neighborhood kids have with each other on a daily basis. James gets dogged-on every single day for how dark his skin is. The jokes are way beyond endearing, and are usually just plain mean, not to mention unprovoked.

James is fourteen. He’s originally from Guyana but has lived in America most of his life. His skin is a beautiful, perfect, deep, dark brown. Fortunately for James, he seems to be proud of his complexion, and therefore shrugs off the jeering comments as “ignorant”. But that’s just James.

Who taught these kids to loathe dark skin? Who taught Carl that “white is good, and black is bad”? I’m sure no one sat them down and taught them these things directly. More likely, it is in the messages the media pummels them with daily, in the dialogue of their elders, in the “history” they learn in school, in the sickening pop culture that continues to worship “all that is white” whether admitted or not, in their interactions with police and other authority figures, and in the subtleties of their day-to-day interactions with the world.

Subtleties that tell us that “white lies” are acceptable, but “dark secrets” are not.

Subtleties beneath a certain color being called “flesh”.

Subtleties of a dark-skinned child falling down, getting a cut on his knee, and covering it with a Bandaid whose color and form stand out exaggeratedly, because it was made for a person of a lighter complexion, a complexion that has unfairly, unjustly, and wrongly been set as the “ideal” complexion, the “standard”.

These subtleties can only remain subtle if we continue to allow them to. We can, indeed, call them out, exposing the lies that have guided our social interactions for so long. And I feel it is our responsibility to do just that. Carl needs to know that all shades of brown are beautiful, and it is not our skin that determines how “good” or “bad” we are, but contrarily our motives, thoughts and intentions on the inside, which lead to our outward actions.

I’m going to need Grace Jones to to run around shouting, “Black is beautiful,” with a boombox blaring India Arie’s Brown Skin, stat!

What Racism?

January 16, 2012

This has been one of the strangest years of my life, living in the U.S. after ten years in Cape Town, South Africa. I could write a million different blogs, with a million different angles on this year alone, but for now, I’ll keep it focused. I want to talk about racism. And I figured Martin Luther King Jr. Day was a good day to do it.

Of course, in my ten years of living in South Africa, especially in the circles I moved in, I was confronted with racism on, pretty much, a daily basis. You could say it was one of the underlying “themes” of my life in Cape Town, that impacted most, if not all, of the situations I found myself in, whether it was acknowledged or not. One might say that would be “expected” in South Africa, only coming out of Apartheid in 1994. But we know South Africa does not hold the copyright to racism, and it is a global issue. This last year living in America, I haven’t been able to get the topic and existence of racism off my mind. It seems to have settled in there, and refuses to leave until I hear its plea; like the plight of anti-racism’s very own Occupy Protest, taking place in my brain. So, I’ve been listening.

One thing I’ve taken note of is how much racism plays a role in day-to-day American life, whether covert, overt, systemic, or what have you. It’s here, and it’s ugly. Another thing I’ve taken note of is how unwilling so many people are to speak about or engage the topic in any way, shape or form. Many have adopted the attitude of “we’ve just got to move on”, and they’ll even say that if we speak about racism, we are just making it worse. In a lecture about “Post-Racial Politics”, Tim Wise says there is no other social ill that we would adopt that kind of mindset with; like, “Oh, I know crime is bad, but if we just ignore it, it’ll go away,” or “AIDS is only a problem because we speak about it so much!” Kind of silly, really.

Vast majorities of people really and truly want to try to act like racism is not a problem, and therefore refuse to bring up this “tired, outdated topic”.

However, contrastingly, the very same people who are so unwilling to speak about the topic of racism are often the very same people you might hear delivering an emotional rant after a race-driven news story or life experience; possibly the same people who might say, “I’m not racist, BUT…” and what follows is the most racist statement ever. Yeah, “THOSE people”. Racism is still alive and kicking, and strong. It affects us all, whether we realize or acknowledge it. We don’t seem to want to speak about it. But if provoked, a beehive of emotions are stirred up. What’s up with that?! Why do we try and avoid something that plays such a enormous role in our life?

I think the answers range from simple denial, to people not knowing how to speak about it, from false senses of entitlement which leads people to believe there is no need to, to people being unwilling to stir up the emotions required to engage such a historically heated topic, and the list goes on. For every person who is unwilling to engage the topic, you will probably find a different reason as to why. Much like how individuals develop certain mechanisms to avoid unwanted emotions or experiences, devices otherwise known as Defense Mechanisms.

I’ve been thinking a lot about Defense Mechanisms lately. Freud theorized Defense Mechanisms as “unconscious psychological strategies brought into play by various entities to cope with reality and to maintain self-image”. There is a long list, and they range from extremely unhealthy to more healthy reactions to unwanted emotions, grouped in four categories: pathological, immature, neurotic, and mature. Freud developed the theory based on the behavior of individuals, and it is obvious how individuals apply defense mechanisms to the various responses stirred up by the topic of racism. But the more I have thought about the list of defense mechanisms, the more I have seen how society as a whole (or at least large sub-groupings), and its shared collective brain, seems to have adopted these same mechanisms when it comes to the topic of racism.

For instance, two examples of the pathological mechanisms are Denial and Distortion. Denial is obvious: people who merely refuse to admit racism is even a problem at all. Where as an example of Distortion could be white people who say things like, “Oh come on! Slavery and all that happened years ago! There’s no way it’s still playing a role now! People just need to move on! If anything, black people have it better than white people!” An example of a more mature mechanism would be Humor, a tactic comedians like Dave Chappelle and Louis C.K. apply, using extreme, race-driven anecdotes to highlight the ignorance and existence of racism.

Whether people want to admit it or not, racism still has a dominating presence in America, and it is most definitely not going anywhere, unless we are active and intentional in fighting it. It cannot merely be ignored. We can use various mechanisms, whether as individuals or as a society as a whole, to avoid the unwanted feelings and emotions the engagement of this topic stirs up, but avoiding the real issue only allows it to grow bigger and bigger. I long to see genuine, honest dialogue about the existence of racism; conversation that doesn’t just stir up emotions and leave people heated, but a dialogue that stirs all of that up, and leads us down the road to forgiveness and healing. Denial will take us no where.

Please feel free to comment below, and engage the topic if you would. Also, here are some of of the main Defense Mechanisms (Definitions and information about Defense Mechanisms sourced from Wikipedia Article), if you are interested in looking at them through the filter of how groups or individuals apply them to avoid unwanted emotions stirred up by the topic of racism:

Defense Mechanisms:

Level 1 – Pathological

Delusional Projection: Grossly frank delusions about external reality, usually of a persecutory nature.

Denial: Refusal to accept external reality because it is too threatening; arguing against an anxiety-provoking stimulus by stating it doesn’t exist; resolution of emotional conflict and reduction of anxiety by refusing to perceive or consciously acknowledge the more unpleasant aspects of external reality.

Distortion: A gross reshaping of external reality to meet internal needs.

Splitting: A primitive defence. Negative and positive impulses are split off and unintegrated. Fundamental example: An individual views other people as either innately good or innately evil, rather than a whole continuous being.

Extreme projection: The blatant denial of a moral or psychological deficiency, which is perceived as a deficiency in another individual or group.

Level 2 – Immature

Acting out: Direct expression of an unconscious wish or impulse in action, without conscious awareness of the emotion that drives that expressive behaviour.

Fantasy: Tendency to retreat into fantasy in order to resolve inner and outer conflicts.

Idealization: Unconsciously choosing to perceive another individual as having more positive qualities than he or she may actually have.

Passive aggression: Aggression towards others expressed indirectly or passively such as using procrastination.

Projection: Projection is a primitive form of paranoia. Projection also reduces anxiety by allowing the expression of the undesirable impulses or desires without becoming consciously aware of them; attributing one’s own unacknowledged unacceptable/unwanted thoughts and emotions to another; includes severe prejudice, severe jealousy, hypervigilance to external danger, and “injustice collecting”. It is shifting one’s unacceptable thoughts, feelings and impulses within oneself onto someone else, such that those same thoughts, feelings, beliefs and motivations are perceived as being possessed by the other.

Projective identification: The object of projection invokes in that person precisely the thoughts, feelings or behaviours projected.

Somatization: The transformation of negative feelings towards others into negative feelings toward self, pain, illness, and anxiety.

Level 3 – Neurotic

Displacement: Defence mechanism that shifts sexual or aggressive impulses to a more acceptable or less threatening target; redirecting emotion to a safer outlet; separation of emotion from its real object and redirection of the intense emotion toward someone or something that is less offensive or threatening in order to avoid dealing directly with what is frightening or threatening. For example, a mother may yell at her child because she is angry with her husband.

Dissociation: Temporary drastic modification of one’s personal identity or character to avoid emotional distress; separation or postponement of a feeling that normally would accompany a situation or thought.

Hypochondriasis: An excessive preoccupation or worry about having a serious illness.

Intellectualization: A form of isolation; concentrating on the intellectual components of a situation so as to distance oneself from the associated anxiety-provoking emotions; separation of emotion from ideas; thinking about wishes in formal, affectively bland terms and not acting on them; avoiding unacceptable emotions by focusing on the intellectual aspects (e.g. isolation, rationalization, ritual, undoing, compensation, magical thinking).

Isolation: Separation of feelings from ideas and events, for example, describing a murder with graphic details with no emotional response.

Rationalization (making excuses): Where a person convinces him or herself that no wrong was done and that all is or was all right through faulty and false reasoning. An indicator of this defence mechanism can be seen socially as the formulation of convenient excuses – making excuses.

Reaction formation: Converting unconscious wishes or impulses that are perceived to be dangerous into their opposites; behaviour that is completely the opposite of what one really wants or feels; taking the opposite belief because the true belief causes anxiety. This defence can work effectively for coping in the short term, but will eventually break down.

Regression: Temporary reversion of the ego to an earlier stage of development rather than handling unacceptable impulses in a more adult way.

Repression: The process of attempting to repel desires towards pleasurable instincts, caused by a threat of suffering if the desire is satisfied; the desire is moved to the unconscious in the attempt to prevent it from entering consciousness; seemingly unexplainable naivety, memory lapse or lack of awareness of one’s own situation and condition; the emotion is conscious, but the idea behind it is absent.[citation needed]

Undoing: A person tries to ‘undo’ an unhealthy, destructive or otherwise threatening thought by engaging in contrary behaviour.

Withdrawal: Withdrawal is a more severe form of defence. It entails removing oneself from events, stimuli, interactions, etc. under the fear of being reminded of painful thoughts and feelings.

Level 4 – Mature

Altruism: Constructive service to others that brings pleasure and personal satisfaction.

Anticipation: Realistic planning for future discomfort.

Humour: Overt expression of ideas and feelings (especially those that are unpleasant to focus on or too terrible to talk about) that gives pleasure to others. The thoughts retain a portion of their innate distress, but they are “skirted round” by witticism, for example Self-deprecation.

Identification: The unconscious modelling of one’s self upon another person’s character and behaviour.

Introjection: Identifying with some idea or object so deeply that it becomes a part of that person.

Sublimation: Transformation of negative emotions or instincts into positive actions, behaviour, or emotion.

Thought suppression: The conscious process of pushing thoughts into the preconscious; the conscious decision to delay paying attention to an emotion or need in order to cope with the present reality; making it possible to later access uncomfortable or distressing emotions whilst accepting them.

Tim Wise on Myths of “Post-Racial” Politics…

January 14, 2012

I wish every American would take the time to listen to this lecture.