Race & Ethnicity

These posts address issues relating to the racial and ethnic identity of a given community, often as it intersects with other facets such as poverty, disability, and access to opportunities and services.

more thoughts on Michael Brown

During Washington, DC’s national moment of silence for Michael Brown at Malcolm X Park, the organizers read aloud the names of African Americans who had been murdered for living while black and brown–Eric Garner, Sean Bell, Amadou Diallo….each name in this litany was said with great care yet was also such a cruel reminder of their horrific unjust deaths.

Image Source: Jason Aq

Image Source: Jason Aqui. Say Their Names. August 23, 2014.

In an earlier draft of my post about Michael Brown, I reflected on how sad I felt as each name was read. And how I, as a white woman from a privileged background growing up under the impression that police protect and serve all people, first learned about the ever-present threat of police brutality experienced by people of color. I was a teenage bookworm, and one of the many books I read in my adolescence was Jacqueline Woodson’s young adult novel If You Come Softly. The title, I just learned, while doing some background research for this post, comes from an Audre Lorde poem that begins:

If you come softly
as the wind within the trees
you may hear what I hear
see what sorrow sees.

If You Come Softly tells the story of two teenagers who feel like they don’t fit in–Ellie and Jeremiah–who meet and fall in love at a Manhattan prep school. Because Ellie is white and Jewish and Jeremiah is African American, they are nervous to tell their friends and families about their blossoming romance. One night after a date with Ellie, Jeremiah, giddy with young love, starts running through Central Park, and is shot and killed by a police officer, who assumed that he must be fleeing a crime scene. Reading this novel where I so easily identified with Ellie and the world Jacqueline Woodson created, only to have it explode due to racist brutality deeply moved me. I do not want to dramatize the novel’s effect on me, but I truly believe in the power of reading to build empathy and expose people to different points of view, and I do believe reading If You Come Softly marked a first step in getting me to question my unearned privilege from being white and false belief of police as enforcers of safety.

I took this reflection out of my first post because Jeremiah is the son of a famous director and a famous writer. From when I first read this novel, I interpreted his parentage as a way of signifying that fame is not immune to racist violence. But since there has been a lot of discourse about how highlighting Michael Brown as a high school graduate about to attend college frames him as “a black man who didn’t deserve to get shot” as though there are those that do deserve to be killed by the police, I decided to leave these thoughts out. Michael Brown was exceptional though, to his friends and family, to the people who loved him. In a Democracy Now! interview from August 12, Michael Brown’s father described his son, “He was funny, silly. He’d make you laugh. Any problems that’d be going on or any situation, there wasn’t nothing that he couldn’t solve. He’d bring people back together.”

I had also taken this out of my post because I want to be very aware of my positionality as a white ally, and never take it for granted. I want to show up and listen, not make my contributions all about me and my point of view. This past weekend, I talked with a friend about how my earlier post felt unfinished, and my feelings of hesitancy to share all that was on my mind. She listened and encouraged me to not hold back in my writing and express these layers in my thought process. She added that it sounded like I was still working through how to be an ally and find myself in the movement.

I really appreciated her feedback, and I think there is a lot of truth in her perception that my navigation of allyship is a work in progress. I was also reminded of a scene in The Education of a WASP, a memoir that charts Lois Stavely’s evolution from a complacent white Midwesterner in the 1960s to a dedicated anti-racist ally. In this scene, Lois’s friend Barbara tells her about the different types of allies she has met over the years working in solidarity with white people.

“Look,” Barbara continued, she “was not going to stereotype whites as they stereotyped blacks, but white people did break down into certain categories….But it was the white liberals who, as she had come to believe were more destructive than the greedy or the damaged ego-whites.”

After Barbara enumerated on these categories of white allies, Lois asked, knowing that Barbara will give her an honest answer, “what group do I fit into? ” Barbara tells her, “I don’t know, and I don’t think you know yet yourself.”  Tragically so much of life rendered in this memoir casts a shadow to this day (it was eerie to re-read the scene I described in my post on Trayvon Martin about how the young developmentally disabled boy who had been lynched was left hanging as a “lesson” to the neighborhood). The author of this post gives a present day example of more harm than good wrought by white liberals co-opting the movement for justice for Mike Brown.

In some ways, I am much like Lois captured in that moment. I am unsure of my footing and how to contribute to the anti-racism movement in the most meaningful way, and about making mistakes that will hurt those I wish to support. As described in FreeQuency’s post, I did feel like I was appropriating the vulnerability experienced by African Americans confronted by the police by doing the “hands up, don’t shoot” chant with my hands raised, and even though the Black Panther Party declares, “all power to all the people,” I still felt as though I was mimicking a gesture that was not meant for me when I did the Black Power Salute. I wholeheartedly want to and will keep showing up for justice, but I know I need to be ever mindful not to appropriate and co-opt, yet I need to try not silence myself as I describe this journey and the missteps I have made and will continue to make along the way.

I want to bring this post full circle and emphasize that in this journey, the demand for justice for Mike Brown is a movement, and for those allies reading please reflect on these ideas, and get involved by educating yourself, supporting The Saint-Louis based Organization for Black Struggle, thoughtfully and respectfully participating in rallies and marches in your area, and although I have expressed ambivalence about my role as an ally in this post, I am never ambivalent about being an ally, we as white people need to come out for justice, but come softly when doing so.



New & Noteworthy: legacies of struggle, words from Hedy Epstien & Angela Davis

This short post shares interviews from two women–Hedy Epstein and Angela Davis–each speaking about the interconnections among different struggles for justice and equity.

The first clip is Democracy Now! Journalist Amy Goldman’s interview with Hedy Epstein, the newly famous 90-year-old Holocaust survivor arrested in St. Louis during a protest demanding justice for Mike Brown’s death. When Amy questioned Hedy about the arrest, and asked “what keeps her going?” Hedy responded that because of her experience being oppressed, she must act “because anyone who stands idly by becomes complicit.”

1. Democracy Now! “Stop the Violence from Ferguson to Gaza: 90-Year-Old Holocaust Survivor Arrested in St. Louis.” August 20, 2014. http://www.democracynow.org/2014/8/20/stop_the_violence_from_ferguson_to

The second clip comes from a speech Angela Davis gave when she was honored by the UK-based anti-poverty organization War on Want. Among the topics she addressed was the passing of Nelson Mandela, and how “Mandela urged us to see connections in freedom struggles” to find solidarity among the people of South Africa, the American South, Vietnam, and Latin America. She also commented that we are living in the legacies of these struggles, and quotes Mandela directly: “We know too well that our freedom is incomplete without the freedom of the Palestinians.”

2. Colorlines. “Angela Davis on Palestine and the Prison Industrial Complex.” July 22, 2014. http://colorlines.com/archives/2014/07/angela_davis_on_palestine_and_the_prison_industrial_complex.html

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.”

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 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 Amiri Baraka, a poet, playwright, and political activist, who passed away on January 9, 2014. Amiri 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


Correction/Reflection on August 21, 2014–re-reading this post, I’m confused about why I included the tribute to Amiri Baraka with the other two topics, and even more irritated at myself that I had misspelled his name. I wonder what I was thinking–it seems more than a little “one of these things is different than the others” since Amiri Baraka was a virtuoso who used his considerable talent in progress toward equity via the Black Arts Movement. I think I probably just wanted to write about Amiri Baraka, and I will in a future post. For now, here is Questlove’s (drummer for The Roots) tribute to Amiri Baraka in the New York Times. 

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