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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Our White Supremacist President

January 16, 2018

President Trump enjoyed his Martin Luther King Day off like he enjoys most of his days on, playing golf. Meanwhile, the rest of the country, those working and those not, were left wondering, just how racist is our president?

It’s not a matter of “if” anymore. And it’s not one comment here or there about African shitholes or Haitians all having AIDS. It’s his entire life. In 1973, Trump was sued by the Nixon administration for refusing to rent his properties to black tenants. His very public campaign for the execution of the black and brown teenagers, known as the “Central Park 5,” who were later exonerated through DNA evidence, wasn’t met with an apology by Trump. Instead he doubled down on his belief in their guilt. And of course there was the bizarre “birtherism” campaign he led to “prove” America’s first black president wasn’t actually American.

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There are numerous examples of this even before his 2015 campaign declaration in which he proclaimed that Mexicans were “criminals, drug dealers, and rapists.” That was the the moment, from my little room in Mexico, I wrote the piece “Donald Trump is the New Face of White Supremacy” that helped put this little blog on the map. It might be inappropriate to say the world has given Trump enough rope to lynch himself, but, good God, how much evidence is enough? His caricatures of Chinese businessmen? No? His Muslim ban? No? His demanding that those black “sons of bitches” in the NFL stop protesting and get back to performing? No? His proclamation that there were “fine people on both sides” of the Nazi/Anti-Nazi clashes in Charlottesville? No? How many examples do you need of him devaluing non-white people and their lived experiences with racial injustice?

I’ve been asked numerous times, including by the media, if I think Donald Trump is a racist. I always try to side-step the question. Honestly, I don’t know what in the man’s heart, other than Big Mac residue. I try to make the point that he’s just ignorant of the reality of racism in this day in age. He’s lived his life in a bourgeois bubble and the only brown noses he knows have been firmly placed in his ass. He hasn’t had to know about the persistence of racism and, like many white people, probably thinks the problem was solved at some point in the 1960s by nice negroes and the benevolent white people who took pity on them.

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But screw it. No more pussyfooting around. I’ve been doing this work long enough to know it when I see it and Trump’s obviousness about this is as big as the Stay Puft Man in Ghostbusters. He’s not only a racist, he’s a Stay Puft white supremacist. And the people that still defend him are his racist enablers. This isn’t just a sad statement of the president’s bigotry. This man has power over people’s lives. Just witness how he threatened to deport the brown children and young people in the DACA program while he threw a tantrum over his racist comments being leaked to the press. I don’t doubt that he thinks lobbing a few nukes at North Korea will help him bounce back in the “ratings.”

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The revival of the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s saw upwards of six million members across the nation (including here in Oregon). Their main rallying point was not the “negro problem,” but immigration. They promoted  “100% Americanism” and opposed immigrants “flooding” in from non-white countries as well as Jews and Catholics arriving from Eastern and Southern Europe and Ireland. The Klan was a powerful political force in America, electing congressmen, senators, and governors (including here in Oregon). Their great victory was the Johnson-Reed Act, also known as the Immigration Act of 1924. Johnson-Reed put strict quotas on immigration from Asia, Africa, Latin America, and the Middle East, while encouraging immigration from Northern European countries like Norway and was on the books until it’s repeal in 1965. In a 2015 interview with Steve Bannon in Brietbart, future Trump Attorney General Jeff Sessions praised the 1924 law as an effective immigration plan. So, to be clear, the 1920s Klan wanted less immigrants coming from “these shithole countries” and more coming from Norway. Does that sound the least bit familiar?

This isn’t just me jumping on the shithole bandwagon. Trump is a textbook racist in so many ways that future textbooks on racism will be dedicated to him. But I’d like to focus on just a few, what I call Triple D racism; denial, defensiveness, and denigration.

“I’m the least racist person there is.”

Usually, when someone says, repeatedly, that they are not something, they are. But this is more than that. People who are actually anti-racist do not say they are not racist. We grow up in a racist society and we internalize that racism. I never say I’m not racist. I oppose racism but I still have racism in me and I am actively working to purge it. Like a recovering alcoholic who never says they are not an alcoholic, I will always be a racist.

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The least racist person there is would never say they are the least racist person there is. They would say they are racist but they are working every single day to rid themselves and their world of racism. Have you ever heard Trump discuss his white privilege or his implicit biases? No, of course not. What has he done to dismantle institutional racism or even his own internalized racism? I mean besides eat a Taco Bowl on Cinco de Mayo. Anyone who believes Trump’s claim to be the least racist person is as ignorant as he is about how racism actually works.

He should spend sometime with real white allies in the struggle against white supremacy if he wants to know how to sound less racist. He’s not even a good con artist.

“So much Fake News is being reported.”

Trump is a big baby. An orange snowflake. Instead of doing the people’s work, he spends his time on Twitter whining. This is a common reaction when white people get called out on their racism. They (we) reactively go into defensive mode. “I did not say that!” “I’m a good person!” “You’re lucky to have me!” This guy doesn’t see the opportunity he has. He’s too busy circling the wagons so he can kill some injuns.

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Racism is a deeply rooted facet of our society. Each time it appears in front of us there is a learning opportunity. Remember when President Obama hosted the “beer summit” after a white cop thought black Harvard professor was breaking into his own house? That’s how you do it. Trump could have made serious points here but instead he read through some staff-written script to honor MLK and then split for the golf course.

White people, listen to me! When you are accused of being racist don’t get all defensive and shut down the dialogue. Repeat after me. I’m sorry. Please help me to see this issue the way you see it. I want to understand this complex and traumatizing issue through your eyes. Thank you for helping me to grow and be a better person.

Can you imagine Trump saying that this week? There’s a better chance he’ll release his taxes.

On the attack

Of course what Trump does best is go on the attack and hit back “ten times harder.” A year a go he was attacking civil rights icon John Lewis for failing his “crime infested” congressional district in Atlanta (which we Atlantans know is one of the nicest, most livable parts of the entire South). Now he’s going after “Dicky” Durbin for spilling the beans on his latest locker room talk. Remember when, during the debates, Hillary Clinton accused Trump of being a Russian puppet. His response was, “No, you’re the puppet.” That’s the third-grade level of thinking going on here. Na na ni boo boo, stick your head in doo doo.

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Trump and his troll army at Fox News are deft at attacking their critics. Unleash the MAGA drones and make all opponents’ lives hell. (It’s the main reason I declined to appear on the Tucker Carlson show last month.) It serves to silence dissent and protect his authoritarian approach to governing. Trump is already pushing to revise federal libel laws so he can go after tell-all authors like Michael Wolf, whose best-selling book, Fire and Fury, paints a more than unflattering picture of Trump and his dysfunctional White House. Hell hath no fury like a small-handed rich guy scorned.

Getting it

It’s crystal clear that, when it comes to race, Trump just doesn’t get it and doesn’t want to get it. This a guy who in 2014 tweeted, “How is ABC Television allowed to have a show entitled “Blackish”? Can you imagine the furor of a show, “Whiteish”! Racism at highest level?” Um, you could totally have a show called Whiteish. How awesome would it be to have a sitcom that confronted issues of white privilege? (ABC, I’m available to write it.) But Trump’s brain farts are a great example of dichotomous lower-revel thinking.  Nuance must just sound “French” to him. As a rich white guy, he doesn’t get the race problem because he’s never had to and as president he could, but he’s got a tee time at 1 pm and then there’s all his “executive time”  he needs to catch up on Fox & Friends. Courting his racist base makes him feel more secure in his own racism. Merry Christmas!

Both Bill Clinton and Barak Obama promised more dialogues on racial reconciliation under their administrations and both failed miserably. But just the idea that white people need to take part in exploring how they benefit from racism, even if they are the “least racist person you ever met,” was a start. The white people who don’t want to be bothered with such silliness are now driving the nation. An NPR/Harvard poll last fall found that 55 percent of white Americans now feel whites are discriminated against. This is Trump’s base and they want to make America 1924 again.

If we hope to move forward, we’re going to have to talk our way out of this shithole. The sad part is that our president is an obstacle not an ally in our struggle against racism.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.”

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Trump Lessons 1: Is this sexist?

December 22, 2016

In this holiday season, I’m looking for silver bells and silver linings. Barring a half dozen dead hookers being found in a closet in Trump Tower, this practical joke on America is going to be sworn in as president on January 20th. The educator in me wants to figure out how this is a “teachable moment.” How can we glean some value from watching the United States jump the shark?

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As a feminist scholar, there’s a game I play in the classroom when trying to reveal the nature of cultural power imbalances. It’s called, “Put the Stiletto on the Other Foot.” If you want to find out of something might be sexist, flip the sexes and see how plausible it might be. Would there be much a debate about abortion if men got pregnant? What if men were evaluated primarily on their looks instead of their acts? Hey, how about if sorority houses were known for sexually assaulting male students? What if all the men in congress dyed their grey hair and the women in congress didn’t? We could go on and on.

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One of the best examples of this was during the Trump-Clinton contest. A meme went around that asked what the media chat would be Hillary Clinton had five children with three different men? What if Hillary Clinton bragged about grabbing men’s penises and moving on them without restraint? What if Hillary Clinton walked into the dressing rooms to catch boys naked because she owned the contest they were in? Can you imagine?

The point is that there’s an ancient Affirmative Action program called patriarchy that gives men a lot more latitude for bad behavior. Just like our black president had to be the perfect scandal-free executive and it still wasn’t enough, women have to meet a standard far above their male colleagues. On the surface, there should have been no choice between an overly-qualified states-person and a ham-fisted, morally challenged (at best) buffoon. But one was female and held to a completely different and unrealistic standard. Welcome to the world of women.

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So, for the next four years, every time Trump gets a pass at something that Hillary Clinton (or any other woman, for that matter) would have been raked over the coals for, let’s all shout, “There’s the gender card!”

Much was written during the campaign about the sexist double standard in evaluating the candidates. This includes Trump’s countless and daily (hourly?) lies while castigating everyone else as a liar. “Lyin’ Ted,” “Crooked Hillary.” How did he pull it off? If she called him on his shit, she was instantly labeled a “bitch.” It was a no-win situation, invented long before Mr. Trump came along. Smile, honey, but not too much.

The campaign is over. The Russians, I mean, Trump won. But the shit show is just starting. The bar for both Donald and Melania has been dropped to the sub-basement by the droogs that voted for him and continued to support him even after he told them to their faces that 90% of what he said at his rallies was complete bullshit. “Yeah! Huh? Yeah! Drain the swamp!”

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The Stiletto on the Other Foot game has lots of other applications, race being the most obvious one. This time imagine if Obama had five kids with three different women and bragged about sexually assaulting women and then tried to write it off as “locker talk.” These mental games often allow folks to get creative. There’s a clever 1995 film called White Man’s Burden, starring Harry Belafonte and John Travolta. It imagines an alternative America where black and white positions in society are switched. The movie bombed. Just too much to process I guess.

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I’ve been thinking lately what would being said right now if Trump was Jewish. With all his “conflicts of interests,” pay-for-play tactics, insider trading positioning, and cabinet filled with Goldman Sachs loyalists, he would be viewed as the worst stereotype of the Jew. As it is, his neo-Nazi (alt-right) followers haven’t even noticed. It’s good to be the king!

I imagine we’ll have a chance to play this game every day for the next four years (unless he quits because people stop believing his “just trust me” mantra). The silver lining here is that it should awake a whole new generation of feminists who start telling the men in their lives, “Don’t think you can get away with it just because Trump can.” Then the next question should be, “And why can he get away with it if you can’t?” Donald Trump is the poster boy for white male privilege and he’s going to exalt that to his dying day. He’s clueless. His presidency will do more to discredit unchecked male power than all the Women’s Studies classes in the world.

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Owning My White Privilege: Stories I won’t (have to) tell my children

Sept. 21, 2016

The beauty of privilege is that is invisible. If you’ve got it, it’s really hard to see. A right-handed person might not feel they have any unearned privilege but just talk to a left-handed person about that subject. Being privileged does not mean you are a bad person, it just means you have been given an advantage. And there is nothing more real than white privilege. It’s evidence is a dead father in the middle of a lonesome highway in Tulsa, Oklahoma.

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There’s a whole army of white people who want to deny the existence of white privilege. “I’ve worked hard for everything I’ve got!” they crow. “There are black people with a lot more money than me and a black man in the White House!” they’ll point out. “It’s a liberal plot to make me feel guilty!” they’ll bleat. These folks don’t understand the concept of white privilege. They may or may not be racist, but they’re definitely ignorant and ignorance can be fixed. We’re all ignorant about things, especially things that are invisible.

There are a lot of folks who have written about the daily experience of white privilege more eloquently than I have, people like Peggy MacIntosh and Tim Wise. Although my next book project is a tome on privilege called Recovering Asshole, so maybe I can join their ranks. The daily stuff is like just turning on the TV and knowing I’m going to see people who look like me or knowing that when people see me, my race isn’t the first thing that registers. This post is about the privilege that keeps me from being killed when my car breaks down.

I always tell my students about a local news broadcast I saw about two separate sexual assaults in Portland in which the attackers were still at large. In the first story, the wanted man was 6’1 with brown eyes and long dark hair. In the second story, the wanted attacker was 5’10, black with brown eyes and short dark hair. See the difference? The white man was colorless, because white is the “normal” race. You don’t even have to mention it. If you say “a person,” it’s just assumed to be a white person.

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There’s a lot assuming that goes with race. Assumptions that Asians are good at math, and Mexicans want to steal somebody’s job (How is that even possible?) and, of course, that African-Americans are naturally violent and animalistic. This last one has gotten a lot of unarmed black men shot by police over the years, because, well, you know, we don’t know what any of them might do. Meanwhile, there’s an “open carry” white guy on the side of the road who thinks cops are agents of the ZOG (that’s the Zionist Occupation Government for you non-right-wing extremists), but let him pass. He has rights!

White “Sovereign Citizens” are America’s top cop-killers.

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The shooting of Terence Crutcher by police last week next to his broken-down car in Tulsa is such a textbook case. We don’t know what the police were thinking as the father of four, heading home from a music appreciation class, held his hands up as instructed. But we do have audio from the police chopper as it circled over head. “That looks like a bad dude, too. He could be on something,” they said. Why would they say that? Because they were playing the race card. All you need to be a bad dude is black skin.

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If I were to breakdown on an Oklahoma highway, I am willing to bet my life that police would never unholster their weapons in the first place, let alone shoot me, even if I ignored a few commands. Because I’m white. Just because I’m white. My whiteness gives me the benefit of the doubt. And there are countless examples of this every day. Just ask how police dealt with Dylann Roof, the white guy that shot 9 people to death in a black church in Charleston last year. He got the benefit of the doubt. Instead of shooting him, the police got him some food from Burger King.

It’s called implicit bias and you don’t have to be a white supremacist to have it. Pretty much everyone does. Research has shown that white people have been successfully taught to fear minorities even though most crime is white-on-white and committed by someone known to the victim. African-Americans get the brunt of this insidious lesson. When I was a kid and we drove into Atlanta, as soon as my mom saw black pedestrians she‘d lock the car doors. “They will snatch you right out of this car, Randy.” (I grew up thinking black people collected white kids.) So I leaned that lesson, too.

CLICK HERE  to take the Harvard Implicit Bias Test but be prepared for your results!

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Implicit bias is precognitive. It happens before you have a chance to think about it. As a criminologist, I know that the overwhelming amount of property crime is done by white people (especially in Portland) but if a black guy is near my car there’s a little switch that goes off in my head. It was put there by a nation steeped in white privilege that very clearly whispers in your ear, year after year, that black lives matter but just not as much. Police officers, being humans, experience the same implicit bias. Before any rational thought it says, BLACK MAN = THREAT!!!! When the officer has a gun, that message can have disastrous results, as we add another unarmed black man to the body count. “Well, we couldn’t be sure what the true threat was.”

Let me say that I know a lot of good cops and they will tell you that every police interaction is different and there are often factors in some high profile cases that the community doesn’t see. (Was Crutcher on PCP? Am I on PCP? White people need a defense!) I’ve also done a “use of force” training with the Mutlnomah Sheriff’s Department and know that a momentary hesitation can get innocent people killed. (I tried to tell a gunman that I was going to shoot him in the crotch if he didn’t put the gun down. Instead, he hopped in my police car with my rifle in and sped off to do more killin’. I should mention that this was SIMULATION.) But the reality is that even the most fair-minded police officer is up against the same racist messaging that says that, when it’s a black guy, better to be “safe” than “sorry.”

So here’s one example of my white privilege. I won’t have to explain to my light skinned children that the police, who are sworn to protect them, might accidentally kill them. Even if they have their hands up.

Again, if you want to say, “All lives matter,” you need to prove it, because it doesn’t look like it to me in 2016. The first step, if you are white, is stop being defensive about your white privilege. Secretary Clinton said this very clearly this week. “We white Americans need to do a better job of listening when African-Americans talk about the seen and unseen barriers they face everyday. We need to recognize our privilege and and practice humility, rather than assume our experiences are everyone’s experiences.” I don’t care what you think of her. I want you to care about this truth, in this crossroads in our history. We can tear down this wall.

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