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.

RM

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.”

Screen Shot 2017-12-07 at 9.30.47 PM

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.

KylieJennerPepsiAd-640x480

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.

1337980492708_5061534

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.

Advertisements

The emotional fatigue of liberation work

October 13, 2017

Sometimes I have to remind myself of my own advice. When we are trying to be allies or accomplices in liberation movements that are not about our liberation, there’s gonna be some big bumps in the road. It you’re a man who cares about smashing sexism or a white person who wants to dismantle racism, don’t expect to be welcomed with open arms as the great savior. I advise people to be prepared for uncomfortable situations and let folks know that they’re going to be mistakes. Don’t beat yourself up too much. Just stay on the path.

Most of my classmates at Emory University went off to Wall Street, or law school, or medical school and are now making six and seven figure incomes and probably vote Republican. I chose a different path. My road has been to dedicate my life to unmasking and upturning forms of oppression in my world. It started the day I turned my back on the Klan town I grew up in and really took off when I began my undercover research in the white supremacist subculture. That path may have earned me a PhD and some media notoriety, but I’ve also got over 30 years of committed racists threatening to kill me and attacking me in ways that have severely impacted my family.

A white activist friend recently said we do this anti-racism work because we have to and she was exactly right. This work is woven into my being now, but I still have a lot to learn. For my senior high school ring I chose Mother of Pearl for the stone as a subtle nod to the “white power” vibes in my school. That was 1981. By 1984, I was working on Jesse Jackson’s presidential campaign. I just needed that first sociology class to help me understand how I had become an agent of others’ oppression. I cast off that yoke but all these years later, there is still more to learn and it gets hard at times. I can’t count the number of racist, sexist, ableist, homophobic, transphobic, agist, classist (and whatever the body-shaming “ist” is) things I’ve done or said over the years.

690369676

To do this work is to deal with emotional fatigue because you never “win.” There’s always another battle and you wonder (especially with a president who today is speaking at a conference of an actual hate group) if any progress has been made. I was at the Portland Max train station last a May after the brutal attack by an alt-right racist that left two men dead and a third clinging to life. I was taking in the candles, flowers, and messages in what had become a makeshift memorial to these three Portland heroes. I suddenly was overwhelmed with desperation. What was the point of my decades of work on this issue if people are still being murdered by Nazis? Had I wasted all this effort? I was going to be a dentist. It was 2017 and the hate mongers were stronger than ever with an ally in the White House. I walked towards some shadows so I could bawl my eyes out.

Blazak, Randy

I do regular educational tours with the Fair Housing Council of Oregon. We put a bunch of people on big Blue Star bus and drag them on a tragical history tour of Portland. Here’s where the black community was redlined, then displaced by “urban renewal” and gentrification. Here’s where Japanese-American men, women, children, and babies were imprisoned as “enemy aliens” after Pearl Harbor. Here’s where a community of working class people were wiped out by a catastrophic flood. We visit the spot where Mulugeta Seraw was beaten to death with a baseball bat by racist skinheads in 1988, and around the corner is the Hollywood Max station, site of the 2017 version of the same damn thing. We finish at Clyde’s Prime Rib, the great jazz bar and restaurant that in the 1940s was the Coon Chicken Inn. After the four hour tour, half of the bus riders look like they want to slit their wrists. It’s draining and deflating.

Site108-CoonChickenInn

In this work, I’m used to being attacked by people on the right. It comes with the territory. White supremacists have labeled be a “race traitor” and were doxxing me long before that was even a word. Conservatives call me a “libtard,” and a communist and are convinced that white privilege is a hoax and that discussions of implicit bias is a liberal tool to generate a false white guilt.

DMCGRwNVAAA8FRU.jpg-large

It’s the attacks from the left that are more debilitating. It’s very in vogue for self-proclaimed radicals to bash “white liberals” these days, and much of it (as a self-proclaimed radical) I must say is deserved. As James Baldwin once said, “White people are trapped in a history they don’t understand.” But my work is about bringing people into liberation movements, so I worry attacking the people who are trying to be part of the solution will have an opposite effect. The (young) left can be very dogmatic and humorless, not allowing people to find the most effective path for themselves on this collective path. “Oh, you made an inappropriate comment? You’re out and I’m going to get my righteous posse to kick your ass out the door. Whose streets? Not yours.”

f3ee9b5c6f

I was on a panel this week for an amazing program called Race Talks; monthly community conversations about issues related to race and racism. This month’s talk was about how to be a white ally. The organizer called me and asked me to participate and who else should be on the panel. I suggested a young African-American activist who had recently been on my podcast. His position on the issue was provocative but important. My interview with him really helped me grow. So I was excited when we were all up on the stage together in front of a crowd so big they had to create an overflow room. I was prepared to talk about lessons learned about being a white ally and how to take a back seat in others’ liberation movements. I even wrote some notes. I never got to use them.

DMNHHltVQAANutq.jpg-large

Instead of the the woman who organized the panel moderating the discussion (as she had planned), our one black panelist decided he would ask the questions (in what could be framed as an act of male privilege). Questions like how the white people on the panel had burned people of color with their efforts to “help” and what reparations were we paying to make amends for our white privilege. I told you he was provocative. And these were important, valid questions. I’m not sure how it helped the standing-room-only crowd learn to be racial allies (in fact it probably scared a few folks away from the whole idea), but it certainly gave me one of those uncomfortable situations I encourage people to put themselves in.

One of his points is that his time is valuable and he should not be expected to help white people with their racism without compensation. I totally agree. Before the event, I messaged him and said I was looking forward to the panel. I wanted to thank him for taking the time to  be on my podcast. In the South we do that by buying folks beer.

Me: I owe you a beer. Let me buy you one tonight.

Him: I don’t drink.

Me: How about a salad. LOL

Him: I find salads offensive.

I made a joke about the salad. Apparently, I offended him. He trotted out this interchange to the packed room (and streaming on line) about “this white man” offering him a salad. I apologized for the offending comment and took it as a cue that I should probably think about my use of humor, something that has gotten me in trouble before. (I tried to acknowledge his point by getting out my wallet that only contained 3 bucks, which I placed on the table in front of him. In retrospect, that was probably seen as being a bit rude.) I really do think his point about being compensated for his efforts is valid. As the crowd thinned, some of the older African-Americans in the audience asked if I was okay. One said it was unfair that I had been ambushed like that. But I want to grow on these issues, so I’m trying to not go into a defensive mode and take everything as a learning experience.

I was still bruising when I got home and in true Trump fashion turned to Twitter and posted something that I would have not posted if I’d gone straight to bed.

“Tonight I learned what my white guilt cost”

Tweets don’t die quietly (just ask Donald). But I engaged in the conversation that lasted into the following morning. I learned a lot, including about the meaningful discussion of reparations. The income gap between whites and blacks due to generations of oppression is real and continues to widen. I believe that any reparations should come from the government (the collective “us”). It’s unfair to expect some poor white person to shoulder the responsibility. But there are lots of ways white people can participate that are meaningful.

Reparations site asks people to ‘offset your privilege’ with acts of kindness

I mentioned that I would address this issue in my blog and included a link to a recent blogpost on white privilege. I desperately wanted these fellow ant-racist activists to see I was not the enemy, just in a parallel lane on this journey. I got accused of invading a “black space” to promote my blog. It seemed anything I did or said, I was already convicted of being the bad guy. I was trying to understand their landscape, but I was somehow now the enemy. I offered to link my interview with this young activist to his PayPal account in hopes that people that listened would consider supporting his work through contributions. He said no. “I have been severely traumatized by your self-promotion over the last few days,” he wrote.

Sometimes you feel like you just can’t win. It sucks not being perfect in the eyes of others who apparently are perfect. Sometimes you are tempted to give up and let others do the work. When I was in grad school, I almost did my masters thesis on Appalachian quilt makers instead of Nazi skinheads. Think how different my life would be. Think of all the quilts I would have! But this is my life’s work, so I soldier on, learning from my mistakes.

NHZ-logo

In the last few years I’ve learned the concept of “self care” and that it’s okay to be mindful of how hard this work can be and sometimes it’s okay to take a day off the fight and gorge on ice cream. One of the other panelists from that night, No Hate Zone founder Sam Sachs, called me to make sure I was alright after the panel/Twitter/Facebook public thrashing I got from my friends on the left. He told me my work is vitally important and has changed lives. It was just what I needed to hear.

To all those engaged in the struggle for human liberation, it is important that we keep each other’s feet to the fire, so we come from a place of empathy and not ego. It is also important to remember that we are all imperfect in our humanity and in our path to our common goals of equality, so treating each other with kindness and love is key. I am not one to suffers fools gladly, even when that fool is me. We can be hard on ourselves for our imperfections and mistakes and our failures. The moral arc of the universe is long, but we’ll get there. Give us a break.

And since this will likely be picked up by some of those young radicals who will confidently accuse me of being a “self-promoting” asshole, let me just say I love you and will see you a little further down the road.

Super important endnote: No matter how much fatigue a white person feels doing this work, it’s always going to be more fatiguing to be black in America. People of color don’t get to take a “self-care” day off.

SaveSave