Friday, November 25, 2016

Interlude: Journey to Racial Awareness(?)

I originally wrote this July 14, 2015, and am publishing now because the desire to share my learning with other activists has become more important than my fear of negative reactions to this note.

The other night I was sitting on my porch couch with some friends talking about social justice, as one does on most nights, and the subject of exponential awareness-raising came up. By this I mean that there are issues that I have come to care about that I didn't always concern myself with as much as I do now, and in the past years my understanding of why they are important has increased exponentially. One such issue is, to put it broadly, racism. It can be hard to remember my own deeper degree ignorance of not so long ago, when relating to people who are unaware of what I have had the fortune and choice to be educated about. We talked about how our awareness was changed on this issue, as white people. What was the journey? And after this conversation, I got to thinking that I might find meaning in sharing some of the milestones of this journey, for me.

I was told by my mom at age three, perhaps, that my grandfather was "prejudiced" but that she, or we (I can't remember if she specified herself or both of us) weren't. We lived in a nearly all-white neighborhood in a small, conservative Northern California town, but we had one black neighbor who my mom was on friendly terms with, and we sometimes went over to her house. So I was never consciously "racist" by the dictionary definition of "consciously believing people of a certain skin color are inferior or should be stereotyped in a certain way." But it would be a long time before I started to understand that racism is so much more than that.

Unfortunately my exposure to people of color remained limited most of my childhood and adolescence as I lived in small rural communities such as Anderson and Gardnerville that were mostly white and also segregated in function. My time in Sacramento for three years was something of an exception to this.

I'd like to jump ahead to my teenage years, during which time I became more involved in activism: first animal rights, then working at the Peace & Justice Center, Food Not Bombs.... My main cause was always "saving the Earth." Although I definitely always carried a sense that "what's wrong with the world" is all inter-related, I still had some compartmentalization when I would express the thought, sincerely at the time, that social justice issues such as racism should take a back-burner to environmental concerns. I believed, and still do, that industrial civilization is deathly, but I led that to another belief that any other "causes" could not be important--even that working on social justice while species are dying every day was selfish. Humans in the first world have it so good, I thought, even if they do experience racism. How can that be as important as stopping the destruction of our entire biosphere?

Enter Mimi Riley's "Our Sustainable Future" class at Butte College, 2008. This was hardly a "social justice" class, mostly focused on such issues as deforestation, climate disruption, ocean pollution, etc. But one thing she exposed us to that semester was the concept of "Eco-Apartheid," from Van Jones. We watched a movie from him that discussed the racial segregation of the environmental movement: middle-class white people driving Priuses while black and brown families are forced by institutional poverty to live in areas subject to factory pollution, causing health problems, among other things. His proposal was to dissolve this eco-apartheid through efforts such as creating green-collar jobs (like installing solar panels) for working class people of color. I didn't rush out and join that campaign, but I thought it made sense, and my separation between "environmental activism" and "social activism" dissolved a little more (it had always been porous). I realized that if I wanted people facing the issues of racism to care about things I care about--like protecting redwood trees--I needed to show mutuality and care about the daily struggles they face that keep them from having more energy to expend on other "causes." I didn't yet know how to do this, but again, I agreed it was sound in principle. This article by him expresses some of the same ideas:

Another milestone happened over a period of time, but there is a story that crystallizes the principle. I was at workshop with Miki Kashtan in Berkeley in 2012, about Principle-Based Teaching (of Nonviolent Communication). While we were there an issue of perceived racial (racist?) exclusion came up. There was a group process about it. The outcome of this process was the idea that it is easier to be present with a white person who is crying because their feelings are hurt during a conversation about race--and harder to empathize with a person of color who is expressing anger about injustice. But being present with that anger is all the more important and valuable because it is harder to do. This will seem like old hat to many anti-racism activists, but it is a milestone for me and others I imagine. Before that, I still had a fear of anger and some beliefs that it is "not an effective way to express oneself," or that it is the job of those of us who are upset about a social injustice to calm ourselves before speaking, rather than an opportunity for the listener to practice being present with rage and frustration. I already was convinced that anger does NOT equal violence, and anger is a valid emotion, but I still had hangups internalized from culture about it--even and maybe especially within the NVC community.

Now my awareness increase starts to unfold faster. In 2013 a friend told me to read "Sitting in the Fire" by Arnold Mendel. It's a book about communicating about privilege and oppression. He calls it "rank" instead of privilege, but it's a similar concept. He discussed all sorts of rank, including gender, racial, even spiritual. (This ties back in with the above paragraph--people pull "spiritual rank" by saying something such as, "But I must be right and you must be wrong because I am so calm and you are hysterical.") He also encourages people to not deny their rank, but to use it to promote awareness of those who don't have it. For example, he says, if you are heterosexual and coupled, don't refrain from making out with your partner in public because not all queer couples can do that. Make out with them, and then loudly pronounce, "Wouldn't it be great if ALL romantic partners felt safe kissing in public? I'd LOVE to live in a world like that!!" (Which I then did at least once with my boyfriend at the time, although I used to kiss my ex-girlfriend in public a lot too. Chico is pretty chill.)

That same year I was noticing the misogyny all around me more and more. I had someone coming to my NVC classes cross some boundaries, and do some online harassment towards me. I found it very difficult to get support. People wanted to justify his actions and defend him more than support me. I became even more hyper-aware of systemic sexism than I had been in the past. And since I was reading Sitting in the Fire at the time, I once again came to a logical conclusion: If I want men to be my allies in the fight against violence and predation on women, I need to be in integrity and be more of an ally to those who don't have an unearned social privilege I do: whiteness.

At that time I started to access online learning resources more. I started reading more articles on Everyday Feminism and such sites about types of oppression that I don't face. I started seeing a word pop up that I had a feeling of long before I saw it (although it had already existed, it wasn't as pervasive as it is now): intersectionality. Over time, I have really come to stretch myself more and more in reading "angry" even "accusatory" expressions of rage against injustice that I don't experience myself, although I can relate to from other oppressions I do. Occasionally I can really take on that view, such as when reading bell hooks and realizing I identify with her first-person narrative character so much that I also feel that "Killing Rage" (the name of one of her books) about white supremacy; I no longer have the patience to wait for "progress" on this issue; it should never have happened this way in the first place. (!)

Now, this exponential awareness increase has gotten to the point where I see racism everywhere I turn. I also see COLONIALISM which I have always been more aware of, from being taught a certain empathy for First Nations people also by my mother (although she didn't know that term), and from valuing the ecological wisdom that First Nations traditions hold. I no longer see these things as even remotely separate. Racism and the destruction of the planet are part of the same issue, along with a whole host of other tragedies of patriarchal culture.

I imagine some people reading this and thinking that this white woman doesn't even know. I KNOW I still have a lot to learn, and I am enjoying the painful process of challenging my racist socialization, although I feel like if I take in any more awareness about injustice my head might explode. Maybe that would be a good thing though. It's said, when your heart breaks, let it break open. What happens if my head breaks open? New astounding insight?

Looking over these milestones I see that it took so long for me to get these things that now seem so obvious and I wonder if there is a way to communicate them to people who haven't encountered these within themselves. This was actually one of the topics covered at the workshop in 2012; not about racism specifically but about increasing awareness of the world and our desires to live well in it--how to condense milestones in consciousness into a short phrase--like a bumper sticker--that can easily be grasped. Some that could be sifted from what I've written here might be, in order:

"Down with Eco-Apartheid: Green Jobs for All"

"Anger is an Opportunity to be Present to Injustice"

"Use Your White Privilege to Film Cops Harassing People"

"Want Solidarity? Give Solidarity to Others"

"Oppression Takes Many Forms; Learn about All of Them"

"The Neuroses of Awareness are Worth the Expansion of the Heart"

On the other hand, I question whether someone would really "get" these unless they already "got them." But I also think that when we finally "get" something, it might be because partially because we have encountered it before and not gotten it. I think of the Intercultural Communication class I took at Butte. Many of these concepts or related ones were presented in that class, but I didn't really get them at that time. Is that because I wasn't ready, or because the teacher didn't communicate them effectively, or both? I think it has something to do with the academic structure of learning, in which teachers are not mentors, who take the time to learn where each student is at and help guide them to their next stage of learning. Instead there is set curriculum that may be too easy for some, too hard for others, and not right at all for even more.

And on that note of mentoring, I am deciding to publish this primarily because of a recent altercation I had with someone I collaborate with on some activist projects. I have realized that the material I needed for that conversation already exists, I have been sitting on it waiting for this day to come. Go forth words, and ripple in ways I may never know.

1 comment:

  1. This is great insight. I like the bumper-stickers and hearing how you went form caring about one topic in isolation to many linked topics relating to your main interest