Responding to the death of Michael Brown, what a sincere white person can do

On Thursday, I joined the National Moment of Silence in Washington, DC for Michael Brown’s murder at the hands of six-year veteran officer Darren Wilson. Scanning the crowd, I saw adorable children holding up signs reading “Don’t Shoot” as they sat on the shoulders of their parents, and among the signs demanding justice and decrying the horror of Michael Brown’s death, one stayed in my mind, perfectly capturing the cyclical nightmare of where we stood. On a white poster board was written lyrics from  2pac’s song Changes:

Cops give a damn about a negro?  Pull the trigger, kill a nigga, he’s a hero

Even though time has disproved the lyric we ain’t ready to see a black President, so much in the world 2pac described stands, well, unchanged. That night in Malcolm X Park surrounded by so many, I felt momentarily buoyed by the crowd’s active energy as we chanted “Brown lives matter. Black lives matter.”

Image Source: Alternet. August 17, 2014. "Woman Behind Powerful Mike Brown Protest Photo Defies 'Respectability Politics.'"

Image Source: Alternet. August 17, 2014. “Woman Behind Powerful Mike Brown Protest Photo Defies ‘Respectability Politics.'”

Less than a year ago, I wrote a reflection about Trayvon Martin’s death on this blog, and shared a quote from Malcolm X’s autobiography regarding his perspective on the role of white allies in the anti-racism movement. I had posed this quote as a rhetorical question, “what can a sincere white person do?”  Now less than a year later, I need to answer this question once again with Malcolm’ X’s own words.

“Where the really sincere white people have got to do their “proving” of themselves is not among the black victims, but out on the battle lines of where America’s racism really is—and that’s in their own home communities; America’s racism is among their own fellow whites. That’s where sincere whites who really mean to accomplish something have got to work.”

In an editorial in Saint Louis Today titled “Let’s Talk About Race,” Associate Law Professor at Washington University in St. Louis Dr. John D. Inazu, succinctly states “So let me implore my white friends and colleagues not to let this be a ‘black thing.'” Yesterday, I discovered a podcast called “Hyphenated,” and in Friday’s episode, the speakers advised would-be white allies to “show up, listen, don’t talk over black people, come in with open heart and open mind, and combat racism in your community.” Enacting this advice begins with informing oneself, and a post on Everyday Feminism has beaten me to an annotated resource list that includes Colorlines’ excellent Daily Newsroundups from Ferguson and link to Saint Louis based organization On The Black Struggle, which is on the ground in Ferguson demanding justice now.

Last night, I attended another vigil, one supporting children fleeing violence in Central America. The organizer addressed the crowd saying, “we stand in solidarity not just for our children and families at the border, but also with our brothers and sisters in Ferguson.” It is all to easy to connect the dots to the painful histories of militarized police violence pushing families to flee Central America and what taking place in Ferguson today. I held up a sign with a message that speaks to both tragedies and our need to start making some changes.” We demand compassion and justice for all children.”

New & Noteworthy: Migration Crises

Two articles crossed my path today, and although each article covers immigration in different countries, the common themes of how painful histories and destructive polices create diasporas is cause for contemplation.

1. Kathryn Johnson and Lydia White Cocom.  Upside Down World. “US Policies Exacerbate Migration Crisis in Guatemala.” July 29, 2014.  http://upsidedownworld.org/main/guatemala-archives-33/4962-us-policies-exacerbate-migration-crisis-in-guatemala 

This article, co-written by The Guatemala Human Rights Commission’s Assistant Director, blends testimonies from Guatemalan youth who have migrated to the United States to flee violence with facts from  the Organization of American States, UNHCR, and UNICEF to effectively illustrate how United States’ policies are contributing to the migration crisis in Central America.

2. Americas Quarterly. “The Dominican Republic and Haiti: A Shared View from the Diaspora.” Summer 2014. http://americasquarterly.org/content/dominican-republic-and-haiti-shared-view-diaspora

I was intrigued to learn that in September 2013, the Dominican Republic’s Constitutional Court ruled that the children of undocumented Haitian migrants, including those born in the Dominican Republic, are no longer citizens of the D.R. In the linked interview, Dominican author Junot Diaz and Haitian author Edwige Danticat “discuss the roots and legacies of racism and conflict in the neighboring nations, the impact of the court’s ruling, and the responsibility of the diaspora to build bridges between Dominicans and Haitians.”

Human Rights Defender Makrina Gudiel–steadfast pursuit of justice

I always leave the Guatemala Human Rights Commission (GHRC) speaker’s tour feeling so inspired by the actions Guatemalans are taking to advocate for justice. GHRC’s 2014 spring tour with Makrina Gudiel was no exception. GHRC staff introduced Makrina by stating that “as a human rights defender, she is a “real-life hero.”

Makrina opened her talk by describing, in a gentle and calm voice, how a human rights defender “is a person who makes their life part of the social forum.” She identified two paths to becoming a human rights defender–one path was academic and analytical, and the other was auto-didactic and through lived experience. Growing up in Santa Lucia Cotzumalguapa, a sugar growing town in Guatemala’s south coast, she observed how the economic inequality on the sugar plantations created a system that pitted “the rich against the poor.” This realization sparked in her a desire to change the status quo, and by the time she was an adolescent, she joined her family advocating for labor rights.

When I heard her say the name of her town, Santa Lucia Cotzumalguapa I felt a memory jolt–I had met with members from this community and learned about the assassination and disappearance of many of their family members during the Internal Armed Conflict. Sadly Makrina’s family was one of those to suffer such a loss–her beloved brother, Jose Miguel, was disappeared in 1983. Makrina later learned that the Guatemalan military had targeted her family as “Chumpas Rojas” (Red Jackets) because their labor advocacy was considered subversive. Furthermore, Jose Miguel’s entry was found in the Military Diary, a roster the Guatemalan military kept documenting those they kidnapped, tortured, and murdered. After Jose Miguel was disappeared, Makrina and her family went into exile in Mexico and the United States.

Jose Miguel Gudiel pictured in the Military Diary. Photo Source: The Guatemala Human Rights Commission

Jose Miguel Gudiel pictured in the Military Diary.             Photo Source: The Guatemala Human Rights Commission

Makrina and her family returned to Guatemala after the signing of the Peace Accords in 1996, and her family brought her brother’s case to the Inter-American Commission in 2004. Soon thereafter, Makrina received a telephone call from a Kabil, a member of the Guatemalan military’s counter-insurgency unit, who told her, “you and your family will receive a visit from me this year.” Despite reporting this threat to the police, her father was murdered in December 2004. This crime was never adequately investigated, and Makrina recently testified before the Inter-American Court regarding her father’s murder in 2014.

Listening to Makrina tell her story, I was so struck by how she has channeled her tragic personal losses in “the social forum” as an active community organizer and a coordinator of the Network of Guatemalan Women Human Rights Defenders. GHRC staff expressed their concern that when Makrina returns to Guatemala, she will likely be threatened for her ongoing pursuit for justice for her father and brother’s deaths. I encourage everyone reading this article to frequently check in with GHRC regarding Makrina Gudiel, and to take a concrete step toward positive action by signing the petition to maintain the ban on US funding to the Guatemalan military.

Makrina Gudiel (left) and her family. Photo Source: "Porque queríamos salir de tanta pobreza" (106)

Makrina Gudiel (left) and her family. Photo Source: “Porque queríamos salir de tanta pobreza” (page 106)

Learn more about GHRC’s Spring 2014 Speakers Tour with Makrina Gudiel

1. “Makrina Gudiel: Seeking Justice for Crimes of the Past in Guatemala.”  http://www.ghrc-usa.org/get-involved/events/spring-2014-speakers-tour-makrina-gudiel/#Makrinabackground 

2.”Guatemala News Update: March 31-April 4, 2014.” http://ghrcusa.wordpress.com/2014/04/04/guatemala-news-update-march-31-april-4/

3. “Guatemalan Activist Calls for Solidarity in South Coast.” http://www.southcoasttoday.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20140403/NEWS/404030383

Learn more about the victims and survivors from Santa Lucia Cotz

1. “We Need Everyone to Know.” Impunity Watch. http://www.impunitywatch.org/html/index.php?alineaID=89 The organization Impunity Watch works closely with the community of Santa Lucia Cotzumalguapa. In this article. Impunity Watch provides background information about the violence that escalated in the murder and disappearance of many members of the community, as well as Santa Lucia Cotz’s efforts to commemorate their loved ones by writing Porque queríamos salir de tanta pobreza and painting a mural.

2. “Porque queríamos salir de tanta pobreza: la memorable historia de Santa Lucía Cotzumalguapa contada por sus protagonistas.” http://biblio3.url.edu.gt/Libros/2013/pqsalipobre.pdf This is the pdf version of the book the community Santa Lucia Cotzumalguapa wrote to commemorate their family members who were assassinated and disappeared. The story of Makrina’s brother, Jose Miguel Gudiel, and father, Florentin Gudiel Ramos, which Makrina wrote, is on pages 104-106.

3.  “Painting Realized by Family Members of the Victims of Santa Lucia Cotzumalguapa.” http://www.impunitywatch.org/docs/ENGELSE_VERSIE_POSTER_MURAL_lowres.pdf  This document includes a picture of a beautiful mural painted by the victims’ family members, a short explanation of the Internal Armed Conflict, and the family members’ process of organizing themselves and pursuing justice. One of my favorite things about this document is that it includes quotes from the family members about how they chose to represent their loved ones in the mural.

 

Pushing Back Against Privilege & What is Funny?

This week, I attended a show featuring six standup comediennes  sponsored by a leading nonprofit whose mission is empowerment of Jewish women world-wide. The host opened the show with jokes poking fun at assumptions about Jews, which felt welcome in an inclusive environment where the majority of the audience was Jewish. But I felt uncomfortable when the humor turned into exclusive abelist jokes, meaning prejudiced against people with disabilities, where the punch lines were that people with disabilities are inferior to others.

 One of the opening comediennes made a joke about a man telling her she was smart “for a lady,” and she recounted how she offered the quick retort, “you are good at using tools for a Mongoloid.” Hearing this word was a truly unpleasant throwback–Mongoloid is an old, pejorative term for a person with Down Syndrome that is also racist because it refers to the eyelid shape of people from Asia. This so-called joke also reiterates Douglas Bayton’s thesis in “A History of Inequality in America” about the trickle down effect of an oppressed group being labeled “mentally disabled” as the ultimate insult.

My discomfort grew when the headliner made a joke calling her mother “retarded,” and then minimized it by saying “retarded is a technical medical classification.” However, her joke was not using the “r-word” as a medical classification, she was actually mocking her mother’s lack of technical savvy. Furthermore, the r-word is not a “technical medical classification” and is no longer even in The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Medical Disorders. The current technical medical term is Intellectual and/or Development Disability (I/DD). A profound response on why using the “r-word” is not edgy or witty as the comedienne intended, but instead is a hateful slur comes from self-advocate John Franklin Stephens’s open letter to Ann Coulter.

The headliner had another joke where she recounted being stood up on a date by a blind man, which included a ton of gags about how she asked him out because she felt sorry that “he couldn’t see how cute he was,” and she saw a future together where “he could never see her cellulite.” These jokes do not even make sense if you have spent any time around a person who is blind or has low-vision, because from such interactions you realize complex and creative workarounds for seeing without your eyes. These jokes are premised on the prejudiced idea that being blind and/or having low vision also means that a person is truly deficient: incapable of a sense of touch (feeling her cellulite) and lacking the social conditioning and feedback from others to recognize that he is attractive.

After the Comedy Show, I wanted to address why I found these jokes so appalling, and I talked to the headliner. At first, when I tried to explain the complex skills people who are blind/have low vision use to navigate their daily lives and why her joke made no sense, she jibed,  “so why did he stand me up?” I quickly realized she wasn’t interested in developing a more nuanced understanding of the lives of people with blindness/low-vision, so I got to the point told her that I found her jokes to be prejudiced and abelist. She agreed, and said with pride, “I am going to offend a lot of people with my comedy.”

I had to accept that she simply didn’t care, and was even proud of her prejudices, but I thought that the host organization, which aspires to empower Jewish women, should care that humor grounded in prejudice is not even remotely funny. What makes comedy funny is the joining together of ideas that reveal truisms and absurdities about the way we live. Jokes whose punch line is premised on a person of privilege mocking the vulnerability of a group of people, are not edgy or original or even funny because they cruelly and boringly reiterate the status quo. For example, during the 2013 Oscars, the online news outlet The Onion tweeted that the nine-year old star of The Beasts of The Southern Wild, Quvenzhané Wallis, was a “cunt.” There is nothing funny about exposing a young African American girl to how society objectifies and sexualizes her, as this response articulates.

The following day, I emailed the coordinator for the nonprofit organization sponsoring the event, outlining many of my thoughts here. The coordinator wrote a congenial response that emphasized that as the host of the show, she does not and cannot control the comediennes’ content. She added that comedy shows are spaces for irreverent and sometimes offensive material, and she knew that none of these comics intended to offend or degrade anyone. I was disappointed by the host’s response because I felt like she missed my point: that until the comediennes can delve deeper and recognize that marginalized people, including people with disabilities, are first and foremost people whose rich experiences that can be very funny but are not to be made fun of, they will never be truly funny.

My final guideline comes from the blog “Black Girl Dangerous,” which gives excellent advice on how to push back against privilege. I  regret giving the organization my money to attend the event, and in the future I want to make more informed choices about the nonprofits and entertainers I support. In closing, I would like to recommend some standup Comedians who jokes, unlike those I parsed above, are irreverent and funny:

1. Margaret Cho http://www.margaretcho.com/2009/10/28/stand-up-clips/

2. Hari Kondabolu http://www.harikondabolu.com/videos/

3. Maysoon Zayid goo.gl/hRk5W9

New & Noteworthy: the diffusion of concepts–toast and homophobia

These articles are not so new, but I certainly think they are noteworthy. I took a week to think about why I wanted to put these two articles together: one from Pacific Standard Magazine, an exploration of the sudden spread of the hipster fad for “artisanal toast.” What begins as the author’s tongue-in-check scavenger hunt for the source of the trend, leads him to Trouble Cafe owner Giulietta Carrelli, and her fascinating life story of how intimate and shallow relationships have affected her life. The second article is from Autostraddle magazine, and discusses how homophobic polices in Africa, which its so easy for us in the Global North to look down upon, have in fact resulted from colonial influence.

Both these articles are very different in tone and address very different topics, but what they have in common is the propulsion of ideas–be they toast or homophobia and the inter-relationships along the way that facilitate their migration from coast to coat or continent to continent.

1. Gravois, John. “A Toast Story.” Pacific Standard Magazine. January 13, 2014. http://www.psmag.com/navigation/health-and-behavior/toast-story-latest-artisanal-food-craze-72676/#.UuBbo46RvRc.facebook

2. McDonald, Helen. “We Need To Talk About Colonialism Before We Criticize International Anti-LGBTQ Legislation.”  Autostraddle. January 22, 2014. http://www.autostraddle.com/we-need-to-talk-about-colonialism-before-we-criticize-international-anti-lgbtq-legislation-218306/

 

New and Noteworthy–Justification of Inequality

1. This past week, Katie Couric interviewed trans model Carmen Carrera and actress Laverne Cox. When Katie expressed her voyeuristic curiosity about the women’s transitions, they both responded with eloquence and grace about why her questioning was inappropriate.  Colorlines. “Laverne Cox remembers Islan Nettles while Schooling Katie Couric.” January 7. 2014. http://bit.ly/19ZXgZo

2. Last week, I participated in a training on Disability Justice, and re-read this “oldie but goodie” staple of the disability rights movement. This essay fits in well with the above interview, because Douglas Bayton describes how the belief that oppressed groups are disabled has been a reason for their exclusion throughout history, and sadly a counter response has involved the oppressed group insisting that they are not disabled, not denying that disability is a valid basis for exclusion.  Baynton, Douglas C. “Disability and the Justification of Inequality in American History.” 2001. http://www.disabilitymuseum.org/dhm/edu/essay.html?id=70 

3. The radio show Democracy Now! dedicated an episode to exploring the life and legacy to Amri Baraka, a poet, playwright, and political activist, who passed away on January 9, 2014. Amri Baraka started the Black Arts Movement, and in the 1960s the FBI identified him as “”the person who will probably emerge as the leader of the pan-African movement in the United States.”  Democracy Now! “Amiri Baraka (1934-2014): Poet-Playwright-Activist Who Shaped Revolutionary Politics, Black Culture.” January 10, 2014. http://www.democracynow.org/2014/1/10/amiri_baraka_1934_2014_poet_playwright?autostart=true

New & Noteworthy: Shattering the Pedestal

In a brief post just before 2013 draws to a close, two stories have recently caught my attention. It is funny to note how 2013 has been a year full of Internet outcry moments in response to celebrities of all sorts. There is so much to unpack in terms of intersecting oppressions due to race, class, and gender, and the links below blend wit and insight into this analysis.

1. Tim Wise’s twitter rants undermining his professed principles. Critical Spontaneity.
“Tim Wise, informed by Tim Wise.” August 15, 2013. http://criticalspontaneity.com/2013/08/15/tim-wise-informed-by-tim-wise/

2. Ani DiFranco’s plan to host her “Righteous Retreat” on a Louisiana plantation. Bitch Media. “Five Perspectives on Ani DiFranco’s Planned Retreat at a Former Plantation.” December 31, 2013. http://bitchmagazine.org/post/five-perspectives-on-ani-difrancos-planned-retreat-at-a-former-plantation 

New and Noteworthy: Windows to African American History

1. “Slave Revolt in Jamaica, 1760-1761, A Cartographic Narrative.”  http://revolt.axismaps.com/map/

2. Malcolm X Diary & Family Lawsuit http://colorlines.com/archives/2013/11/malcolm_xs_daughter_to_release_his_diaries_this_week.html?utm_source=dlvr.it&utm_medium=twitter

3, Barlett’s Familiar Black Quotations http://www.nytimes.com/2013/11/27/books/bartletts-familiar-black-quotations-covers-5000-years.html & http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=247166538