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.”

Post-election Spirit-led Response Preparation

This message was shared on the e-group for the Portland Friends Meeting (Quakers), where I am a member. I am posting it here so I can share the whole message with others using just a link (instead of the full body of the message). I have added some links for those of you who aren’t already familiar with Quakers:

Hello Maine Friends,

New England Quakers have been meeting for the past few weeks to talk about the upcoming election. One part of that work is to prepare for a Spirit-led response in case the President does not respect the results. A handful of us at Portland Friends Meeting (“PFM”) have formed an informal group to help lead a local response, and this is a good time to share our thinking with the wider Maine Quaker community, and beyond.

Each of us has signed up with a nationwide initiative called Protect the Results. You can read all about it, and sign up yourself to get local updates, at www.protecttheresults.com. If you click on Resources you’ll find an extensive toolkit with lots of useful information.

The idea behind this initiative is that if the apparent loser of the election does not concede in a timely manner, then people across the nation will join grassroots nonviolent mass events. The first of these events is tentatively scheduled for 5 p.m. on Wednesday, November 4, the day after the election, if a rapid response is required that day. The Portland location is Deering Oaks Park, and there are several others throughout Maine.

Hopefully, none of this will be necessary and we’ll have a very ho-hum post-election transition. But rather than be caught unawares, we think it best to be prepared in advance.

We also encourage all Friends to take some steps now to be spiritually prepared and to brush up on our nonviolent direct action skills and understanding—even if you are not able to participate in in-person actions. If there is a long period of post-election uncertainty, there will no doubt be other training opportunities. We will also be looking for Friends who cannot attend in-person events to serve as elders, to hold us in the Light, and to otherwise support us spiritually.

For now, you can watch this two-hour training on De-Escalation and Safety, specifically tailored to the Protect The Results initiative.

Over the next few nights, there are also very useful online Choose Democracy trainings led by Quaker George Lakey.

Please let any of us know if you have any questions. We will be in touch around the election with any important updates.

And if anyone wants to join us tonight for the final NEYM Quaker Election prep, it’s not too late to register here.

Feel free to share this message with f/Friends throughout Maine and beyond.

Yours in the Light,

Anna Barnett
Brooke Burkett
Andy Burt (Midcoast Friends)
Sarah Cushman
Mary DeSilva
Jessica Eller
Christine Fletcher
Rob Levin
Wendy Schlotterbeck (Durham Friends)

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:

one aspect of my anti-racism work as a White woman (or, the racist White woman in the park)

Surely most of you by now have seen the footage of the White woman in Central Park calling the police on the Black man who asked her to follow the law and put her dog on its leash. We White women have a long history of getting Black people killed. I won’t write much about that here, but that’s a truth we White women need to face.

I want to share with you (my fellow White women) one small aspect of anti-racism work I’m doing in response to this latest example of White women putting the lives of Black people in danger. I’m noticing how I feel, in my body and mind, when I think of that woman and her reprehensible behavior. I’m noticing the draw to distance myself from her; I find myself wanting to focus on the fact that I’m not like that.

Digging deeper — and I’m noticing feelings of shame as I write this, knowing it’s ugly and I’m sharing it publicly — I also find I’ve had brief flashes of “I wonder if she’s mentally ill, perhaps we should have compassion” or other excuses.

I’m relieved to be able to say honestly that these pulls towards racism (excusing her racist behavior) are only flickers. Barely milliseconds, more of a whiff rather than long inhales of scent. I’m almost entirely centered and clear about the truth: this White woman responded to a Black man’s request with violence; she was entirely in the wrong.

But, as a White woman, it’s been my experience that one of the most powerful ways I can be a better human being is to interrogate the full experience in my body and mind when I consider other White people’s overtly racist behavior. Do I look for excuses? Do I “other” the White person so I can feel less a part of the problem?

The reason I want to notice these tendencies in me is that it is whiteness, the support of white supremacy, wants to keep me (a White woman) comfortable. It wants me to feel like the problems aren’t so bad. It wants to soothe me when I’m faced with racism so I don’t get too upset about it (which might lead me to wanting to change it). Whiteness is a seductive opiate-like drug.

This noticing is just one part of anti-racist lens I use to live my life (to be clear: I try to live my life through that lens, I never do it perfectly). But, I’ve found it emotionally, physically, intellectually, and spiritually freeing. I’ve been able to get more active in anti-racist work since I’ve incorporated this noticing into my everyday life.

I look for ugly truths in myself. I listen to myself, I feel my body’s response. And, these days, I simply notice them and let them go. I know those tendencies are my addiction to whiteness rearing its devious head, wanting me to not continue working in solidarity with other people on the paths to liberation for everyone.

Getting to the point where I simply notice and let them go has required some years of practice and study, learning from Black, Indigenous, and other People of Color how our systems in the USA are built on racism and how I benefit from the systems. Noticing what’s really happening in my mind and body has been one of the most important steps in bringing anti-racism into my daily life.

As Rev. angel Kyodo williams says: “”love and justice are not two. without inner change, there can be no outer change; without collective change, no change matters.”

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If you are interested in Buddhist ideas, I recommend highly Rev. angel’s Radical Dharma. It’s through Rev. angel that I got clear about the racist junk in my mind/heart’s closet that I needed to clear away.

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* I usually capitalize White just like Black is typically capitalized, following the lead of some Black people I’ve read online. These are socially constructed labels, and it seems right to treat them the same. On the other hand, I don’t capitalize “whiteness” or “white supremacy” because that doesn’t feel quite right. I’m not exactly sure why I’ve made these choices. There’s not a standard consensus about how to do this, though, so if you are not White and have feedback about it, I’d be grateful if you’d share it. If you are White and have feedback that you’ve learned from BIPOC, I’d love to hear that, too. (Thank you!)

my racism story, part 1 (or, “will you be my black friend?”)

Listening to the podcast “Our National Conversation About Conversations About Race” (or, “About Race”) I was cringing. I felt my body seizing up. The white guy, Tanner Colby, was embodying exactly what the other co-hosts were describing as infuriating and exhausting about white people. It was the episode called “Will you be my black friend?” And OH MY GOD I felt so much empathy for the co-hosts who were people of color. It was surreal, though I know it happens all the time. I’ve done it, for sure. The people of color were talking about their experiences, and the white person was saying, “But look at it the way I see it and feel differently about it!”

The conversation was about how, since #BlackLivesMatter began and especially since the Presidential election, white people are waking up on some levels to the realities of racism. Many are seeing how bad it is, how bad it’s been for a long time. So, the people of color on the podcast were talking about how white people would tweet at them, email them, talk to them at parties, all wanting to talk—to learn—about race. I had empathy for the lost souls (the white people) wanting to do better. I want to do better in that same way, and I’ve done what the co-hosts were complaining about.

When I was in college, I went to a workshop called “All Whites Are Racist,” put on by Tony Harris. I’ve written about it before, but I’m not sure I’ve written about the experiences that followed. There were two pivotal moments in the months following the workshop that were the cornerstones for the inner work I’ve done with my own racism.

The first was in a meeting for the group that brought the workshop to campus. The group was called “Society Organized Against Racism,” or SOAR. My campus was mostly white people, and there were several of us white people in the group, but more than half of the members were people of color. I had never been in such proximity to so many black and brown people. I was excited that I was going to be a part of this group that was fighting racism.

We were talking about plans for the group. I’m not sure what exactly we were talking about, but, I clearly remember one exchange. I was pleading with some group members, “How can I stop being racist if you won’t help me understand it?” I wanted to understand. I felt it made complete sense to go to the source: people who have been oppressed by racism every day of their lives had knowledge I felt I needed to stop being racist. And that’s really what it was about at that point. I wanted to be a better person. See? It was about me.

I’m forever grateful to the woman who seriously lost it on me. I don’t remember her exact words, but her meaning was “oh my god I am so tired of people like you, don’t expect me to fix you! it’s not my job!” I think I even cried. Yes. White women’s tears. (If you’re not sure why it was so bad that I was emotional in that emotionally heavy conversation, check out that link or google “white women’s tears.”) I needed that kick in the pants to start realizing it wasn’t about me and my feelings, that racism was much bigger and more than how I felt as a person.

The second turning point moment was also a SOAR-related event. We went to another college for a conference on racism. In the workshops, I was one of only a small handful of white people in rooms full of people of color. I was hyper-aware of being white. I was also hyper-aware that this must be something like what the black and brown kids on my college campus experienced all the time. Always not the dominant race in the room. Wow. Wow! The interpersonal skills required to be a part of that would be omnipresent and overwhelming. I became keenly aware of the psychological energy required simply to be in a room full of people where I was the “other.” I felt immense empathy for the students at my college who had to deal with that every day. I began a timid understanding the reality of what must be required for people of color to survive in the white world that dominates every facet of our society.

I haven’t written much about those earlier days of my own awareness because I don’t enjoy writing things that might seem like I think I should be applauded. I’m nowhere near “done” with my own work on racism and what I’ve done so far is not noble. It’s human. But, when I see people just starting out in their own awareness, I want to help. I want to say, look out! are you expecting a complete stranger to help you feel better, to help you feel less uncomfortable just because they are black or brown? That, right there, is part of the problem. Do you see? Can you see how you’re looking at racism in terms of how uncomfortable you feel and how that means you’re making it about you?

I think my racism story part 2 will be about feeling uncomfortable.

 

 

 

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these dots and words are meant to keep the wordpress ads away from my post :-)