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.”

creating new traditions

The true story behind the holiday most people call “Thanksgiving” involves a very rare moment of peace between (eventually to be called white) Europeans and Indigenous people. In our family over the last few years, it has felt really strange to celebrate what was an exception to the rule of the day; the rule of the day was my ancestors betraying and murdering Native people.

Last year, we celebrated Thanksgiving, but talked a lot about how complicated it was. Our 11 year old announced a few months ago that she was going to boycott Thanksgiving because of the harms white Europeans perpetrated against Indigenous people. Our family had some conversations about it and we have decided that we will no longer celebrate Thanksgiving.

We will, however, create our own new celebration. We are not simply re-naming the day. We will celebrate, and we will probably enjoy foods that we have shared over our lifetimes around this time of year. Our days of celebration will also include moments of solemnity and honor for all of the lives lost, the cultures crushed, and the overtaking of the land by greedy capitalists. We will live in the truth as best we can.

White supremacy culture is all we’ve known in our family, so far. What that means is we don’t have a “culture” that doesn’t relate to oppression of others. But, we white people can tease out of our family traditions, shared experiences, and other aspects of community those elements that may form a new culture or new cultures.

For us, we are trying out “Anticipating the Solstice” as our celebration. It will last two days (the last Wednesday and Thursday of November), so the kiddos can celebrate in both of their homes. The foods may vary from year to year, but there are sure to be many of the old standards we’ve grown up with. How we honor the true story of the first “Thanksgiving” will surely develop over time, too. We will start by using this as a reference. I know we will involved candles somehow, and silence. The rest we will work out as a family.

This is not going to be a “cheat.” This is not a way to celebrate Thanksgiving and still feeling good about it. We will not celebrate Thanksgiving as we have done before. We will join with our wider community in mourning the horrors our country was built on. And, on the same days, we will celebrate the bounty of our lives in joyful gratitude. Add to all of this the complexity that we know we are very lucky in our bounty, that too many people will be going without shelter, food, or family. We will recognize that, too.

As I was writing the last sentences to this post, a friend from our Quaker Meeting, Beth Bussiere, sent me an email about this very topic. I will leave you with her words: “What I found myself finally with was how interconnected lamentations and gratitude are. That without lamentations, without acknowledging the grief and the grievous, our gratitude can be misplaced or superficial. On the other hand, without gratitude, our lamentations can just pull us under.”

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.”

.

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.

.

* 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!)

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!

Elizabeth Warren *almost* has my vote; her racism around Native/Indigenous people is still a problem.

Even though she was a Republican until the 90s, I like Elizabeth Warren. I like so many of her policies — I even just like that she has policy ideas — but the Native people I follow on twitter still consider her aggressively racist. I am listening to them. I’ve been trying to find more writings by Native/Indigenous people about what Elizabeth Warren should do to begin repairing the harm she has done and continues doing.

There are many articles explaining how and why Warren’s actions have been racist against indigenous people (Google it if you haven’t heard), but I haven’t (yet) found many stating what she should do to begin making real amends.

On twitter, someone replied to a thread — someone, it turns out, who is a freelance writer and co-author of this amazing piece explaining Warren’s racism! — with what seems (to me, at least) like a decent summary of what Warren should do. I’d love for Warren’s campaign staff to read these suggestions and take them seriously, perhaps reach out to this person and talk with them more:

In text (images follow), tweets by Cole DeLaune @ColeDeLaune1:

What would be the beginning (not the end) of the conversation re #ElizabethWarren fostering a relationship with Indigenous America that’s not aggressively racist:

1) a mea culpa that accounts for all components of her decades-long anti-Indigenous record

(1/2)

2) denunciation of the bigotry of her supporters (like the #Brokeahontas hashtag) + acknowledgement of how she contributed to that dynamic

3) inclusion + representation of Indigenous/CNO perspectives in leadership team even if inconvenient 4 her personally

#ElizabethWarren 2/2

Affirming the existence of Indigenous America in her broader at-large policies (ie publicly including tribal institutions in her higher ed overhaul) would also be helpful

https://twitter.com/ColeDeLaune1/status/1129139485063540736?s=20
https://twitter.com/ColeDeLaune1/status/1129141102924058624?s=20
https://twitter.com/ColeDeLaune1/status/1129141427877715968