Considering affinity groups

When Bran and I discussed some of the idea of white people working with other white people about our antiracism work, a question I wanted to ask her (and very well may in a future post) is maybe it’s not that white people shouldn’t have those spaces, but that Black people should have more spaces without white people? I was reminded of a story I’ve heard over the years in our family about disappointing and harmful attitudes about creating safe spaces for Black people. I asked my father to tell it to me again. Here’s what he said:

In the late sixties and early seventies, Wellesley College, the prestigious all-women’s institution in the Boston area, had roughly thirty African-American students out of a student body of about 1200 undergraduates.  In an act of solidarity, those students banded together to demand that the college’s administration should provide them with a student center of their own. At that time, many of the college’s white students used the college’s elegant and spacious student center, from which the black students felt alienated. White students also had access to three gracious social clubs, akin to sororities. Black students had no place to congregate just by themselves, no place to prepare the food they might want to eat or to listen to the music they might want to hear or to entertain black male guests or just to be together without having to think about justifying their own presence in the wider college world.

So the black students decided to organize to bring pressure on the college administration to designate one of the college’s social clubs as a black cultural center.  At that time the college administration and many undergraduate students opposed that proposal, often on the grounds that the college was a single community which did not set aside facilities for “special interest groups.”  The administration argued that the student body should be one body, defined by what was then regarded as progressive social values such as “integration.”

Nevertheless, and against much social pressure, the black students organized to demand that one of the social clubs be set aside for them.  The administration and the majority of the student body opposed them.  Black students found support from only a handful of faculty and from the College’s Chaplaincy, sparked at that time by a Black Episcopal Chaplain.  The black student group, which took the name Ethos, eventually voted unanimously to picket the college President’s office and to call in the Boston area press.  At that point, the administration relented, and made one social club available to Ethos.

Along the way, many of the black students paid a large personal price in terms of friendships and collegial relationships with other students and with faculty members.  Many black students found themselves shunned by other (white) students and by a virtually all-white faculty.  It was a wrenching time for these black students, most of whom had never “protested” in this way, most of whom wanted nothing more than to do their academic work, to have a few friends of their own choosing, and to graduate to promising futures.  But very few of them, in retrospect, ever regretted the fact that they had chosen to band together in solidarity and to claim a meaningful space of their own at that prestigious, upper-middle-class white women’s institution of higher learning.

Fast forward to about a year later.  By that time, Ethos has not only become a thriving cultural and social center for black students, the group had created its own choir, which, from time to time, sang its own traditional and contemporary black music on Sundays in the College’s Chapel.  That Chapel at the time had become a center for worship and preaching that lifted up the vision of Jesus as a champion of liberation of the oppressed.

On one Sunday in particular, the Rev. Jesse Jackson had been invited to preach.  Members of the Ethos Choir practiced eagerly in anticipation of the visit from this then nationally known black progressive leader.  When Jackson arrived on campus, however, he mainly kept to himself and socialized with the entourage of supporters that he had brought with him.  Jackson made no serious effort to talk with Ethos members to hear their concerns or to learn about their struggles at the college.

So it happened that during his sermon Jackson advanced the idea that blacks needed to engage white society on its own terms and to take over positions of power on their own in the wider society.  As a contrast, he pointed from the pulpit in the direction of Ethos’ new social center and said words to this effect:  “we have to get out of a ghetto mentality and get out of our segregated communities like that little house over there — and claim power of our own.”  While there very well might have been validity in Jesse Jackson’s larger point as far as the society as a whole was concerned, his words had the effect of devastating the hearts and minds of the small number of black students who had fought so hard for a place of their own in their wider campus world at that time.  He ended up giving a — probably valid — sermon on black aspirations in America, but it turned out, due to his failure to keep his ear to the ground and to listen to the voices of the college’s own black students, to be a disaster for the black students themselves who had struggled so hard for a place of their own in that all-white setting.  At the time, the one black administrator at Wellesley College was heard to observe to a few friends:  “not everything that glistens black is black.”

defund the police (what??)

Changing our systems (built on white supremacy) requires great imagination. Versions of community most of us have never experienced. I saw these images on the Internet yesterday and had to share them. They got my imagination going. If we took the money spent on militarizing the police and spent it on (see below), our communities would start looking very different:

question for my fellow William H. Hall High graduates

Is my denial more intense than I even realize? I’ve been digging into my own racism for a few years now, and I simply can’t recall memories of overt racism when I was in high school. I am confident that my absence of memories is NOT proof of the absence of overt racism. I suspect strongly it’s just proof of my obliviousness as a typical white suburban girl.

There was lots of indirect racism — just as real, but it’s not the kind of racism I’m thinking about at the moment. Like, I’m sure that most of us white kids assumed Black people were arrested more because they committed more crimes rather than the truth that they were targeted more. Or we believed it was possible and good to be “color blind.” There was the racism involved the way we socially segregated ourselves, but “Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria, and other conversations on race” helped me understand that a little better. For sure, our high school and we white students were racist (we benefit from white supremacy, so unless we were actively working against racism, we were part of the problem). But my question is about overt racism when white people were alone. In the wake of yet another ivy league-bound kid being exposed as using overtly racist language, I am asking myself again, did I witness overt racism when I was growing up?

Did kids use the N word or make overtly racist jokes when Black people weren’t around?

If I did, I definitely don’t remember it. I’d like to remember, though. I want to know the truth.

I’d love to know your memories of our high school’s racism. Commenting here is fine, or emailing me at heather at grantwinners dot net works or messaging me on any of the social media platforms where you’ve found this post also works. Thanks in advance for your help in building my memory!

“Looking at Black people like you would any other people,” a follow-up post

I want to tell you more, readers who are identify as white. I wrote on Black Girl in Maine’s blog about the awkwardness some of us get when we’re with Black people and I want to write a bit more.

The process of recognizing my own racism has been a long, long process. I want to tell you that when I got to the point, just a few years ago, where I really — and I mean really — recognized just how deep my own biases ran, it was painful and confusing. It played a part in what I can only describe as an identity crisis. Who am I, if I can be this ignorant? Looking back at my life, why did I only know a few people of color beyond the level of polite chit-chat? Why did most of my friends and family, progressives every one, also have only white friends? What did I really, really, really think about Black people? Continue reading

BIPOC and what it must be like for Black Americans and Indigenous people

Hello! This post continues to have many visitors every day. I’m not sure how you’ve found it, but I’m very curious. If you feel like it, please leave a comment about how you got here? Thank you!     —serenebabe

Listening to solid news coverage about the struggles of immigrants and refugees, I was struck today about how disheartening, depressing, and even traumatizing it might be for Black people (and, now that I’ve been thinking about it, for Indigenous people in the US) to have excellent passionate and committed activism and news coverage about the current issues facing immigrants and refugees. Even if Black and/or Indigenous people fully support the rights and causes of immigrants and refugees, I can’t help but wonder (and I suspect google would bear this out) if Black and Indigenous people might feel once again as if they don’t count or are invisible to the “allies.” Continue reading