We’re all intersectional (just some more than others).

July 6, 2018

I mentioned that I was developing a workshop on intersectionality on Twitter and one of my social justice-minded followers replied, “Why do you see yourself as a person who is qualified to lead a workshop about it?” The implication was, what would a straight white male know about intersecting forms of oppression? I deleted my snarky defensive reply that I almost posted, reigned in my white fragility, and worked her valid question into my workshop.

Intersectionality refers to the way forms of oppression can combine for people to create obstacles that are missed if we just look at things like racism or agism or homophobia in isolation. I’ve been lecturing about it for 20 years but recently learned it has an illustrative origin, which, like many important theoretical ideas, was born on a factory floor.

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Kimberly Crenshaw, a UCLA law professor was reviewing a discrimination suit filed against General Motors by a group of black women. GM had the case dismissed because they argued that they actively hired both African-Americans and women so, you know, they were good. But Crenshaw learned that the African-Americans that were hired were black men on the factory floor and the women that were hired were white women in the clerical pool. Attempts to remedy racism and sexism didn’t help black women. Their experience was something else, the intersection of racism and sexism.

Sometimes I will ask my students to describe the experience of Asian-Americans. It’s a prompt that is not meant to have a response. There is no Asian-American experience because there is no monolithic Asian experience in America. To equate the lived experience of a fourth generation Chinese-American to someone whose family came from Cambodia in the 1970s or a Muslim from Malaysia or a Shinto from northern Japan is just silly. There are too many important variables to conceive of for even one unifying theme. Throw gender into the mix and it gets even more complex.

Speaking of, the roots of this idea were in the 2nd wave feminist movement when it became clear that “feminist issues” were really just the issues of middle-class white women who wanted to take on sexual harrasment in the workplace and the empty promises associated with suburban housewife drudgery. When women of color said, “Hey, we want to talk about our experiences, too, so we need to discuss racism!” the core (white) feminists said, “No, this is about sexism not racism. That meeting is down the hall.” This led scholar bell hooks to write the founding text of the issue in 1981, Ain’t I a Woman? Black Women and Feminism. In it she points out the convergence of racism and sexism was a key weapon of the slave traders to further devalue black women and persists to this day.

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Intersectionality has all kinds of dimensions beyond race and gender. Class, gender identity, sexuality, immigration experience, and many other measures add to the mix. Think of how a poor white male experiences white privilege or masculinity differently than a rich white male. Is a gay person with a physical disability going to experience their sexuality the same way as a non-disabled gay person? I can tell you that an undocumented immigrant who is white (like the 50,000 undocumented Irish in America) have it a hell of a lot easier than the undocumented people who are brown. Think of it as a complex Venn diagram where each intersection produces something unique, like the varied ingredients of a smoothie. And typically that smoothie tastes like multiple forms of oppression.

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There’s a lot of blowback on the topic, mostly from white men. Just put “intersectionality” into a YouTube search and see the dumb videos dedicated to “debunking” the actual experiences of others. They scream “Identity politics!” which is a common refrain among those trying to keep the playing field uneven and privileging themselves. Intersectional thinking is actually the opposite of identity politics. It recognizes what is unique about each of our struggles. A first-generation South Asian immigrant who is also Muslim, female, and gay is not served by being put into just one demographic box and should not have to pick any single identity. (“On Mondays I’m an immigrant. Tuesdays are gay days…)

The reason this matters is that marginalized people who have these intersections are even more marginalized because of them. People want to be seen and heard not pushed into the shadows even further. I’m doing these workshops because this has a real impact in the workplace. One study found that people who feel they can be their authentic selves at work are three times more likely to say they are proud to work at the company or agency and more than four times likely to say they feel empowered to do their best work. Being intersectional is good for business! That should get straight-white-male capitalist’s attention.

It’s easy for straight-white-males to dismiss this important issue. What a hassle to have to learn all these new feminist terms, right? I mean, it doesn’t affect them. Or does it? Good news, fellas, everyone is intersectional. Oppression intersect but so do privileges AND oppressions and privileges.

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In this workshop I used myself as example of the intersection of three identities; white, male, and Southern. As a child I learned being a southerner was devalued and did my best to lose any hint of a southern accent. (If you want to hear it, buy me a shot of Jack Daniels.) My whiteness intersects with my Southernness – Southern whites are supposed to be racist and pine for “Dixie.” My maleness also intersects with my Southernness – Southern men learn violence and anti-intellectual posturing at an early age. So you can imagine the learned identity when you put all three together. And that is my struggle that a white male from Oregon might not see.

We’re working at the next level of anti-racism and bigotry here. This isn’t about segregated schools and lunch counters. When we get to addressing micro-aggressions, implicit bias, privilege, and intersectionality, we’re making real progress. There will be the usual pushback from those who have a vested interest in not making equity a reality (“Hey, they had Obama for eight years!”), but I think even those folks can be brought into the conversation. When people are allowed to exist in their own skin, as complicated as it might be, everyone is happier.

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Watching America die, I sent a Statue of Liberty to Donald Trump

June 20, 2018

My wife crossed the border from Mexico into Texas when she was 8 years old. She was on foot with her mother in the middle of the night. An old man carried her across the desert because she had lost a shoe on a railroad track. Within 15 minutes of entering the country, her and her mother were picked up by a U.S. Boarder Patrol van. Welcome to America.

She was never separated from her mother, who was trying to lead her to a better life in the United States. But spending a night in jail together in a new country must have been frightening enough. The men were kept in one cell and women and children in another cell. After processing, the Border Patrol dumped them back at the Mexican border. Fortunately, the father of the coyote (the people that ferry migrants across the border) felt guilty that his group got caught and tried again the next night. He waived the additional $3000 per person price which was a good thing because my future mother-in-law barely any pesos left in her pocket.

Because of a provision in the Violence Against Women Act of 1994 (authored by Senator Joe Biden), Andrea was awarded a green card in 2010.  The section allows the victims of domestic violence visas and a path to residency. It’s sad that women have to experience excruciating abuse to feel safe in this country. It’s also sad that Republicans tried to have the provision removed in 2012.

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As my wife and I watch the news stories of Donald Trump’s new “zero tolerance” immigration policy that has resulted in thousands of children and babies being stripped from their parents’ arms, we wonder what happened to the country that passed VAWA 24 years ago. A father from Honduras Marco Muñoz, after having his 3-year-old son taken away from him by Homeland Security agents in Granjeno, Texas, was so distraught that he hung himself in his cell. These children look so much like our 3-year-old daughter and the thought of ICE agents taking Cozy from us to God-knows-where is unbearable. It’s like watching an episode of The Handmaid’s Tale but it’s the evening news. Even seasoned journalists are in tears. How is this happening in America?

This policy, created by Trump’s favorite in-house racist Stephen Miller and deemed “Biblically justified” by Attorney General Jeff Sessions and White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, has disgusted even Conservative voices like Ted Cruz and Paul Ryan. In a recent op-ed for the Washington Post, former First Lady Laura Bush compared Trump’s policy to the U.S. internment of the Japanese during World War 2. Even Tea Party rocker Cherie Currie (once of The Runaways) posted, “Bottom line is you don’t separate a helpless child from their parents. No matter what. Not ever.”

Beside the fact that somebody is making a lot of money off these private shelters that are now housing children and babies, including converted Walmart stores, the trauma these kids will face because of Trump’s irrational policy will last a life-time. Children screaming for their mothers won’t deter this White House from its “zero tolerance.” The majority of Americans oppose this draconian action as inherently counter to our values, but what can we do?

It’s not “your” country.

At the root of this problem is this binary thinking of “us and them.”  A lot of white people think this is “their” country and they have some sort of divine right to decide who gets in and that, somehow, their family came to America the “right way.”  There is so much ignorance here to unpack, it hurts. Before the The Immigration Act of 1924 (the Johnson-Reed Act) , there was no legal or illegal immigration into this country (unless you we coming from China). People just showed up. My great grandfather, Michael Blazak, arrived in 1891 from what is now the Czech Republic. He just got off the boat and started his life as an American. The 1924 law restricted immigration from non-European and non-Protestant countries (Only WASPs allowed) and has been praised by Jeff Sessions as a policy that was created to end “indiscriminate acceptance of all races.” My Catholic ancestor wouldn’t have made it in and Jews trying to escape Hitler in the 1930s were turned back.

When my great grandfather came into New York Harbor, he passed the very new Statue of Liberty (dedicated in 1886). He might have missed the poem at the base of the statue. “The New Colossus” was written by Emma Lazerus who had been aiding the refugees from the anti-Semitic pogroms of Eastern Europe, looking for safety and freedom in America. I hope someone translated the sonnet for him as he contemplated his uncertain future in this new land.

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Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,

With conquering limbs astride from land to land;

Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand

A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame

Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name

MOTHER OF EXILES. From her beacon-hand

Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command

The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.

“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she

With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,

Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,

The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.

Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,

I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

The world looks to America for that freedom and but the golden door been shut and the lamp has been extinguished. It’s now a false promise of America as a baby is literally taken from its immigrant mother’s breast. I would like to point out that you will not see any undocumented immigrants from Russia, Ukraine, or Canada in any these Trump camps (and there are plenty undocumented whites in America). I have a friend from Ireland who over-stayed their visa but has no worries that ICE agents will come knocking. This is the great clampdown on brown people because it is not “their” country. Make America 1924 again.

We have been here before

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I have the privilege of having a friend who has been through this before. George Nakata was 9 years old, living in Portland, when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor in 1941. President Roosevelt signed an executive order ordering the “evacuation” of every Japanese person, alien or “non-alien” (aka U.S. citizen) on the West Coast, to be rounded up and placed in internment camps. 120,000 people, most American citizens, were ripped from their homes, losing everything. Young George spent the summer of ’42 in a converted animal stable on the outskirts of the city. The Oregonian proudly declared my town to be the first “Jap Free City” in America. George was then shipped off to a camp in arid Idaho where the soldiers pointed their guns in, not out. He rightly calls it a concentration camp.

No Japanese-Americans were ever found guilty of engaging in espionage or colluding with the enemy. In fact, the 442nd battalion, made up of all Japanese American soldiers, liberated Nazi death camps and is the most decorated battalion in U.S. military history. In 1988, President Reagan formerly apologized for the mass internment but as George is fond of saying, they never put a Statue of Liberty on the West Coast.

If you ever get the chance to hear a holocaust survivor speak, please do. There aren’t many left. I’ve heard several and inevitably someone will ask, “When Hitler was first elected, why didn’t you just leave?” The answer is always the same. People thought it was a temporary bout of political madness. That it would be corrected at the next election. But then there was no next election. A policy was instituted here and a new law was passed there. Like the frog in the slowly heated pot, all of a sudden there was no escape. Democracy seamlessly transitioned into authoritarianism.

This is where we are. We are in it. America is dying.

We have a president, not elected by the people, but by the electoral college who is having a love affair with dictators right before our eyes and we are unfazed. It’s as if we are watching a reality show and as long as the kids behind the chain-link fences are not white, it’s just a show and not reality. But these people are slowly raising the temperature and at some point there will be no escape. Childish Gambino might think this is America, but it won’t be on my watch. Trump has described undocumented immigrants as an “infestation” and hinted that legal immigrants who receive federal benefits could be next. If they will do this to babies and toddlers, what makes you think they won’t do it to you? Because you’re white?

There is much we can do. I’ve called my senators and asked them to make the security of these children a priority. We can appeal to the decency of the Trump supporters in our circles. The emperor has no clothes! Remember your values! We can make November 2018 a massive referendum on these lunatics who are trying to hijack this country. I envision a Revenge of the Jedi wave striking down Trump’s evil space force. But there is one thing that might be more direct.

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I’m not willing to let these “America first!” nutzis define the values of this country. Not while the Statue of Liberty remains above ground. Maybe Mr. Trump needs to be reminded of what this country stands for. We don’t tell immigrants that their children are being taken for “a bath” and then place them in “tender age shelters.” Does that sound revoltingly familiar to you?

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I just sent a miniature Statue of Liberty (that I bought for 12 bucks on Amazon) to President Trump at the White House. I have a dream that, in the spirit of Abbie Hoffman, every American, conservative, liberal, or otherwise does the same. I want the White House mailroom to have boxes and boxes of statuettes to deliver to the president. And maybe a few thousand copies of “The New Colossus” as well. Here’s the address:

President Donald Trump

c/o The White House

1600 Pennsylvania Avenue NW

Washington, DC 20500

 

And if that goes well, maybe we can commission statues of Lady Liberty to be erected in San Francisco Bay and the stretch of Texas desert where my wife crossed the border, missing one shoe, many years ago. Let’s lift our lamp beside the golden door.  Por favor. #LadyLibertyforTrump

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Thinking about Racial Reparations

June 10, 2018

Growing up in the Deep South you get to hear white people say a lot of foolish things. Things like, “I never owned a slave, why are black people angry at me?” And “racism ended with the Civil War. Black people need to get over it!” In 1992, a white student of mine at Reinhardt College (in rural Georgia) said this to me; “Racism ended in 1865. Black people are just complaining.” I asked him, “What day? There had be a day when there was racism and then a day when there was no racism that we can celebrate. There should at least be a stamp or a commemorative plate to honor the day that racism ended and black people just started complaining.” He had no response.

Unless you are Donald Trump, the self-proclaimed “least racist person,” you know that racism didn’t end with end of Confederate slavery in 1865. It folded into brutal lynchings and the madness of Jim Crow, and then institutionalized into the “war on crime” and every type of systematic racial bias you can imagine; housing, health care, hiring, and on and on. People of color know this in 2018. White people, not so much.

Obviously, this country still needs to have an on-going conversation about race, not a one-day Starbucks seminar. Having a successful black president for eight years didn’t solve the problem and kicking Roseanne Barr off ABC didn’t solve the problem. White people can’t switch on a Beyoncé song and proclaim themselves woke. I think some whites are figuring that out. But if you want to talk about racial reparations, all that white liberal wokenness goes right out the window.

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I was one of those who was leery of the call for reparations for a crime from centuries ago but I should have not been so fragile. For decades I have lectured about the legacy of slavery and how the psychological effects of the enslavement of an entire race are still with us all, including with African-Americans. It’s not just rednecks waving the Confederate battle flag, declaring, “the South will rise again!” (That’s code, y’all, for bring back slavery.) It’s not even the persistent brutality towards young men of color by police. The dehumanization of the people of Africa is manifested in daily life. If you are black and your last name is Jackson or Lincoln, you family history starts with slavery. (Something those named Obama could sidestep.) If you’re black and worry that you’re not light-skinned enough or don’t have the “good hair,” that legacy is there. Do you think there might be a price tag for all that trauma?

Another thing you will hear white people say is, “Well, black people can be racist, too!” This is true but not in the way my cracker brethren think. Black people don’t think white people are inferior, but many think black people are inferior. Studies have demonstrated that many African-Americans have internalized the racism that the world has laid on them for centuries. Just ask a little black girl which is better, the black doll or the white doll. “Black is beautiful” tried to undo the imposed self-hatred but it’s still a light-skinned black person’s status that reminds those who are “too black” that not much has changed.

I was lucky enough to (briefly) serve on the dissertation committee of Dr. Joy DeGruy at Portland State University. She’s the author of Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome: America’s Legacy of Enduring Injury and Healing and it needs to be assigned reading for white people. She outlines the gut-wrenching inhumanity of slavery and how those deep psychological traumatic wounds are passed down from generation to generation. That blacks are savages, rapists, thugs, or (as Roseanne just tweeted) apes deserving of what pain comes their way persists to this minute. Where is the class action suite on that?

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There is a young black activist in Portland named Cameron Whitten who has really forced me to take the issues of reparations seriously. We are a long way from “40 acres and a mule,” but there are real ways we can talk about making an amends today for the sins of the past. He has started to host “reparation happy hours” (now “Power Hours,” since it doesn’t have to involve alcohol) where white people who get it can contribute to gatherings for black people. At these gatherings black people can build community, political agency, and, yes, leave with a little bit of cash. (There is something poetic about black people being handed a ten spot with abolitionist Alexander Hamilton on it.) It doesn’t make up for the cumulative impact of slavery but it’s a powerful symbolic act that has real, tangible value.

Of course the right flipped their shit. Fox News tried to paint Cameron as a huckster, playing on white guilt to put money in his pocket (a thought I probably have been guilty of in the past). For the record, he is doing this as a non-profit called Brown Hope. Still, the troll army came after him, lampooning the idea of racial reparations. “Get over it!” they screamed. “You had Obama! What more do you want?” Whitten appeared on a local NPR show last week and calmly laid out his case. I was in my car listening and a big ol’ black light bulb lit up over my head. It made perfect sense. Reparations are not some type of sociological blackmail and it is time to talk about it without fear of attack from the same old defenders of white supremacy, be they Fox News trolls or white liberals.

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Think of being black in America as an invisible tax. Whether it’s the poorer health outcomes that come from discrimination in the health care system or decades of tobacco companies targeting black communities with their cigarette ads. Think of lost wages from job discrimination and lost wealth from housing discrimination that has prevented African-Americans from buying homes. (From 1934 to 1968, less than 2% of FHA loans for homes went to people of color.) Think of the cumulative stress of “driving while black” in a country that still sees police use-of-force disproportionately targeting minorities, not to mention all those traffic tickets I don’t have to pay because I’m not the one who is racially profiled. I could go on and on to the break of dawn, but I think you get the idea. There is a financial cost to being a person of color (this goes for brown, red, and yellow people, as well). This is a cost that I don’t have to pay and it translates to more money in my pocket. According to one measure, “for every dollar owned by the average white family in the United States, the average family of color has less than one dime.” My white privilege obscures the real reasons for this massive imbalance but it’s as real as the balance in your bank account.

We can’t undo the hell of racism in one happy hour or one generation. But we can acknowledge the price of racism financially. Don’t expect there ever to be a tax on white people to right the wrong. (You think racists like Trump are popular among “undereducated” white folk now…) But white people can think of ways to give to people of color in meaningful ways, even if it’s just supporting a black-owned business or buying someone lunch. Let’s deal with the actual cost of being black in America.

 

Talking About Gender and Violence in the Middle East

April 19, 2018

How do you talk people out of becoming terrorists? I’ve spent this week in the United Arab Emirates at a workshop on the role of gender in countering violent extremism. The three day conference in Abu Dhabi was sponsored by the United Nations’ UN Women and Hedayah, a UAE group that works on counter-terrorism issues. My role was to brief the global participants on the state of right-wing extremism in Trump’s America, something I’ve been talking a lot about lately.

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It was a pretty amazing gathering at the Bab al Qasr Hotel, right across the street from the Emirates Palace. Three days of intense conversations with people doing work in Kosovo, Lebanon, Uganda, and the rest of the world afflicted by violence done by both men and women who have been sucked into the rabbit hole of extremism. I made friends and colleagues that will last a long time, but more importantly we saw how much of our work overlapped. My work studying white supremacists sounded a lot like the reports on ISIS and Boko Haram.

Extremists of any stripe, including right-wingers and jihadists, are often guilty of dehumanizing the targets of their anger. Similarly, we are often guilty of dehumanizing them, casting them as “animals” or “savages.” In reality, they are products of their environment on a path we rarely get to see. They often have real life grievances. It may be the evaporation of the livable wage in the U.S., or the death of family members in Iraq under U.S. bombs. Someone gives them a devil to blame and an action plan to address their emotional rage and you have a freshman terrorist.

In this context, it’s not a stretch to see a young person, who has been been bombarded online with images of real world horrors and persistent recruitment by radicals framing the horrors as the product of a vast conspiracy, heading off to join ISIS in Syria or walking into a black church in Charleston with a loaded gun.

The gender factor is clear, these calls to violence are targeted at young males looking to perform some heroic act of masculinity to defend their race or religion. While there are occasionally women warriors in both the Aryan and jihadist movements, it’s typically the guy with the gun defending “his” women. Women (in heaven or on Earth) are often used as lures like they are in college fraternities. ISIS fighters are promised wives, sex-slaves and 72 virgins in paradise. White nationalists are liberating “their” women from feminists, homosexuals, black rapists, work, and whatever else conspires to keep them out of the kitchen making sandwiches.

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The three-dray conference in Abu Dhabi was a chance to share stories from across the globe about what might work in developing strategies to rescue men and women, and boys and girls from violet extremism. Former jihadists and academic researchers worked together brainstorming on action items that would translate into UN policy proposals. We dined together and then shared more stories and refined the plan to craft a message that was more than the trope that mothers should stop their sons from becoming terrorists.

Over the course of the workshop, I thought about my own daughter on the other side of the planet missing her daddy. If she was a girl living in Cameroon or Albania, her life could be so much different. Married off as a war bride or convinced to rebel against her circumstances by being talked into strapping a bomb to her chest. The way extremism affects girls like Cozy around the world adds yet another level of external trauma the daughters of this world consumed with hyper-masculine violence face.

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I could not be more proud to do this work countering violent extremism. It makes sense to be doing it in the middle east, but it should be done everywhere. The UAE, stuck between the war zones of Iraq and Yemen, has demonstrated how it is possible for a population not to go down that path. Each morning I looked out my window, past the Persian Gulf, to the cradle of civilization. This was the world of the goddess where the weapons of war were absent for 4000 years. Committed people are working to find our road back.

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What Do We Give the World?

March 29, 2018

We are a nation of consumers. We take things in; Smartphones, Cool Ranch Doritos, Netflix series, overpriced coffee drinks, tabloid gossip, and countless internet posts. It is all digested by our collective guts. We consume so much and yet produce so little. The question that hangs in the air is – what do you give back to the world? Are you a human trade deficit importing more than you are exporting?

If I have a life philosophy it comes from my Eagle Scout father who, when we were off camping, always reminded me to leave the campsite in better shape than I found it. I’ve taken that to have much broader meaning, especially now as a father. Put more in than take out. But what do I have to give? I have friends that house African refugees and write exposés about the criminal justice system. Big stuff!

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I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately because my services as an “expert” on hate and extremism have become increasingly in demand, whether it’s consulting on murder cases or running anti-bias workshops for federal employees. I have an invited opinion piece out this week in Huffington Post on gender and white supremacy, which means a bunch of people are going to think I must know something about something. But do I? What is criteria by which one has taken in enough information that they are qualified to start exporting information out?

In academia, one measure is the drive to “publish or perish.” In my path to tenure, I published books and articles, but, although I made it all the way to the top rank at Portland State, “full professor,” it never felt like enough. (Some of my fellow criminologists are publishing machines!) I balanced my academic work with sociological fiction that I hoped would reach a wider audience than a journal article or overpriced textbook. Parenthood has now stolen much of my writing time. I’m currently working on a book on prison culture, a chapter on the impacts of hate crime on the local Muslim population, and a journal article on my research on prison visitation. I was going to get much of that done during Spring Break. Yeah, no.

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When you are young and hungry and moving up the ladder, obsession becomes your work ethic. I watched zero TV in the early nineties because I was too busy reading all the stuff you have to have read to be “knowledgeable.” I had to force myself to watch Melrose Place just so I could participate in conversations with my peers. You’re a sponge, taking it all in, and synthesizing it, and waiting for the time to be right to put your version out into the world for some other young upstart to consume.

Now that I’m older, I’m starting to take confidence in my ability to export my knowledge. All that experience has value, monetizable value. There’s no end to the learning. I certainly had a great lesson learning about white fragility this year. But the time is right to share these lessons and, when appropriate, get paid for it. Traditional cultures revere their elders for the wisdom they’ve collected. I might not be Yoda yet, but I’ve got some ideas to share.

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This popped up because I was recently invited to present my work at a workshop on violent extremism and gender in Abu Dhabi that is being hosted by the UN. I balked. First of all, the United Arab Emirates is pretty much on the opposite side of the planet. It’s a long way to go to talk for an hour. But also, why me? Am I really that much of an expert to merit these good folks to flying me to the Middle East (and putting me up for four nights)? Everyone told me to go, of course, and that if I could actually help people to understand this issue I really had to go. “If people will be helped by your experience, you need to get on that plane,” said one friend.

Every person is an expert on their own lives. As an ethnographer, I love to talk to people about their journeys and what they’ve learned along the way. Along my way, I’ve learned  that talking about what I’ve consumed and processed is not just about hearing the sound of my own voice, but exporting insight that can actually make a difference in this crazy historical period that feels like a giant backslide. I’ve always felt uncomfortable with the “sage on the stage” role, but experience matters. Your experience matters and so does mine.

Before I fly off to Abu Dhabi, I fly off to Chicago, and after Abu Dhabi, I fly off to Oslo, Norway. It’s all to talk. Andrea made me a great website (www.randyblazak.com) so I can talk more. It might be okay to say that sharing what I’ve learned to make the world more livable is what I’m going to give back. We’ve got a campsite that needs to be cleaned up.

Are you helping or are you just acting like you’re helping? Performative allyship

December 8, 2017

When I agreed to be on a public panel on racism and white allies, I had no idea it would be such a learning experience for me. I thought I was on the stage to share my expertise with a packed room about “what works” and “lessons learned.” Instead, it became a lesson in how not to respond when called out in one of those not-so courageous conversations. “But I’ve spent my life fighting racism! Racist skinheads have attacked me!” In my mind, suddenly I was there to defend myself. Well, I got schooled. Welcome to the next chapter in getting it.

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Point number one: None of us are perfect. When I talk to white people about this work, I tell them you are going to mistakes so prepare yourself for it. Wrong words used, wrong inferences made, wrong facts stated. I never included the other part of that – How you should respond when you do make a mistake. It’s so easy to get defensive. “But I’m an ally! I don’t even have to be here!” And it’s easy to forget that white people can walk away from a cause that people of color are in every single day off their lives.

Point number two: I can’t be the only one who struggles with reconciling their intellectual self with their emotional self. How many liberal sexual harassers have said, “This is not who I am!” Well, for those of us who don’t live inside your head, it is who you are. But I get the feeling. My ideas about the world and my behavior don’t always match up. I see the world through a feminist lens but I can be sexist. I’m a committed anti-racist, but that doesn’t mean I’m immune from my own internalized racism. This “woke ally” still has a little boy from Stone Mountain, Georgia inside him, whispering in his ear. “Say it. It’s just a joke.”

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I’ve written about how that panel turned into a bit of a shit show when I felt like I was being attacked by a black activist. You can watch the video of the event here. (I can’t watch it. I know what mistakes I made.) The short version is that I got defensive and made it all about me instead of using the moment to unpack any harm I was doing. I should have said, “Thank you for expressing this. Could you please help me to understand what micro aggression I’m engaging in?” Instead I just laughed. How could I be acting racist? Then, afterwards, I turned to Twitter for some classic spleen venting. Then I wrote a blog about “Woe is me” and how hard it is to do this work. “Wahhhh! I should have become a stock broker. Don’t hurt my feelings! I worked for Jesse Jackson!” It was an honest expression of frustration but it missed an important point. This isn’t about me.

While some anti-racist activists probably just wrote me off at that point as a “clueless white person,” others reached out to me. I had coffee with Donna Maxey, the long-time organizer of Race Talks. These monthly conversations are vital work in undoing the harm of racism in our community and she is a true shero. She saw me responding from a place of desperation, about my current transition in life, and a need to be seen as bringing value to the world. Then three white activists invited me to a conversation about performing allyship as opposed to actually fighting racism and it was like a thousand light bulbs went off above my head. An hour can change your perspective.

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I’ve written about Queer Theory in this blog and the concept that we perform gender. As Judith Butler wrote, gender is something we do. Well, so is being an ally in liberation struggles. For some people it is just a performance, not a real commitment to the endgame. “Look at me, I’m performing anti-racism! I marched in a protest! Selfie!” And then they put a Black Lives Matter sign in front of their gentrified house that used to be the home of a family of black lives. I’ll admit it, that night at Race Talks for sure, some of my allyship was performative as hell.

We met at the library in downtown Portland for this summit. I think we were all nervous about how it would go. My previous willingness to be combative on the issue probably didn’t give them much hope. They graciously allowed me to record our talk for an upcoming episode of my Recovering Asshole podcast. Fortunately for them, I recognize that Randy Blazak’s worst enemy is Randy Blazak. I was there to listen with an open heart and not get my hackles up, which is more in line with my emotional training. Hackles.

The next hour was an enlightening conversation about mainstream frameworks of response verses true anti-racist responses. Not only did I recognize the responses of others, I recognized some of my own. How have I responded when called out on my own racism? This is an example from Dr. Robin DiAngelo’s work on white fragility.

Screen Shot 2017-12-07 at 10.52.43 PMThis is just a piece of it (the whole thing is here), but each step of the process is about turning off one’s ego and being open to growth. This is an issue that’s always been challenging for me. Because of my own childhood story, I immediately go into defensive mode and the first response is to battle. Sitting quietly with my feelings before responding has never been a default position. Fighting has. So I understand how I could have done harm by turning the exchange at Race Talks into a sparring match instead of an opportunity for growth. I thought the packed room wasn’t there to hear these two guys go at it. In reality, they could have learned a lot about how to be a good ally if I had provided a good example of how to actually navigate those uncomfortable situations.

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I see this same response from the conservatives in my circle. If they get called out for their racism, they immediately shut down, of talk about their “black friend,” or say they are being misconstrued, instead of just listening. They are afraid to say, “I might be wrong,” or “Help me to see your point.” Everything just ends. And white liberals do the same damn thing. “You are judging me! Look at my liberal credentials! I have a blog!” Shut up and listen.

There are some real red flags that you’re a performer and not a true ally. When you’re with bunch of white people and somebody says something racist. If you don’t say something, you might be a performer. If you get miffed because nobody said “thank you” for your contribution to the cause, you might be a performer. And you’re not willing to take a back seat and just listen, you might be a performer. If posting an anti-racist statement on Facebook is about as a big a risk you are willing to take fight racism, you might be a performer.

During our talk, one of the white allies talked about how important my voice was on this issue because I have such a large audience that listens to me, through my public speaking, my podcast, and this blog. One of the other folks there pointed out how I puffed up when that was being said. It is true. I’m bit of a performer and it is good to get recognition for trying to be part of the solution to all this. But we don’t do it for the recognition. We do it because it needs to be done. It’s not a show starring me. It’s the hard work of dismantling oppression. It’s what needs to be done for us to be truly free.

I think at each step of our lives we have the tendency to think we are fully formed. When I graduated from college at 21, I thought I had it all figured out. I would never know more  about how things worked than I did on May 13, 1985. That seems laughable now. I continue to learn the importance of listening instead of just responding. Listening and hearing. It applies to my role as a husband, a parent, a friend, and an ally in the struggle to bring us out of the darkness. I am but one, but we are many.