For the last year, Crossroads colleagues at ERAC/Ce (Eliminating Racism and Claiming/Celebrating Equality) in Kalamazoo, MI have been intentionally working with folks in the immigrants rights and immigrant integration movements. From this collaboration come these five insights regarding the contribution antiracism offers these movements.
1. The antiracism analysis goes beyond the Black/White binary and aims to build multi-racial coalitions.
Conversations about race and racism in the U.S. are often dichotomous, inclusive only of White dominant and African-American cultural values. An antiracism lens invites those of us who work to welcome immigrants to understand the ways in which all immigrants become racialized when they arrive here according to the U.S. race construct. There are typically six racial groups in the U.S. – Arab, Asian and Pacific Islander, Latino, Native American, African American, and White. Immigrants may or may not understand how they are viewed in the U.S. compared to in their home country, but there are very real ways in which their race affects how they are treated and how much access they get to institutions and the resources necessary for life.An antiracism analysis also reminds many of us that we are not all immigrants, which you often hear within the immigrant rights and integration movement. The founding of the U.S. began with the genocide of Native Indian peoples who originally lived on this land. What’s more, there have been economic and political strategies throughout history that have been designed to steal land and resources from and invisiblize Indian people and Indian country.
2. Antiracism teaches White people, including White immigrant allies and advocates, that racism is not about blame.
None of us were around when racism was established in this country over 500 years ago. Many conversations about race and racism go badly because we aren’t taught how to have productive dialogue about these often-painful topics. We need a common language, more complete awareness of history, and an understanding that racism isn’t any one person’s fault (at least not anyone living today). And yet we are all responsible for the dismantling of it. Racism dehumanizes us all and antiracism helps White people as well as People of Color find their self-interest in the work.This analysis can help White U.S.-born immigrant advocates and allies approach their work from a place of solidarity with immigrants and other People of Color instead of paternalism (wanting to “help, fix, and save” immigrants). It also reminds us that racism is more than just individual race prejudice. We must also examine how U.S. systems and institutions were built for White people, by White people, and in large part continue to serve White society better. Instead of focusing narrowly on a particular person’s attitudes and actions about different racial groups, antiracism asks the question: how is a particular White dominant culture value, practice, policy, or law working to maintain the supremacy of Whiteness?
3. Antiracism work is collaborative and always informed by/centered around anti-oppressive values.
Antiracism move us from the White dominant culture values like scarcity, either/or thinking, individualism/competition, and secrecy toward the antiracist/anti-oppressive values like an abundant worldview, both/and thinking, collective action, and transparency. Further, antiracism seeks to dismantle the silo-ing of and competition among social justice movements (aka the “Oppression Olympics”), which has been established through the divide and conquer strategies of our colonial and neo-colonial history. What if oppressed groups starting working together – sharing knowledge, wisdom, resources, and tools? What if we all knew there is enough to go around and that we truly are stronger together? What if as resisters of oppression we began working cooperatively to co-create a country that welcomes and celebrates all?
4. Antiracism builds upon intersectionality – the understanding that we all have multiple identities.
Antiracism understands that racism is a system of oppression linked to other systems of oppression that robs each of us of our full humanity and impairs our ability to create just and sustainable community with one another both locally and globally.Racism is not the only “ism” and antiracism doesn’t ask us to drop our other identities in order to talk about race and racism. We can use our other experience around privilege and/or oppression as a window, not a wall. While it isn’t helpful to talk exclusively about racism, it is important to talk explicitly about racism. We must ask: how is race compounding upon all other identities (such as national origin and immigration status)?
5. Antiracism sees immigrant rights and immigrant integration (or welcome work) as resistance to oppression and offers a way of changing systems that have historically kept immigrants from being able to successfully integrate into their adopted hometowns.
The focus on creating welcoming receiving communities is approachable by many and can lead into deeper conversations of what it truly means to be welcoming — both in terms of individual and collective attitudes and actions AND how institutions are or aren’t effectively serving immigrants and why. Addressing national origin, culture, language, race, and documentation status-based prejudice is important and antiracism invites us to go deeper and address how immigrants experience systems and institutions (i.e.: hospitals and schools). Doing the work of building welcoming communities is in itself an act of resistance to the historic realities of racism’s systemic and structural oppression.
Attitude or bias changing work is important and can be life-altering for both immigrants and U.S-born residents. And yet antiracism would posit that prejudice-reducing work can sometimes be masked as immigrant integration work. A school or local municipality can pass a “welcoming resolution” or proclamation, claiming to be a welcoming place to immigrants, but not actually become accountable to what that means on real and tangible levels. For example, how does a documented or undocumented farmworker from Guatemala or a Sudanese refugee experience a hospital or school or city hall when they walk through the door? In addition to changing receiving community members’ hearts and minds about immigrants (i.e.: help people see immigrants as contributors rather than “drainers”), we need an antiracism analysis grounded in the historical context of race and racism in the U.S. These two forms of resistance together can create a more inclusive, equitable, and welcoming country.
Lillie Wolff is one of two Co-Executive Directors of ERAC/Ce (Eliminating Racism and Claiming/Celebrating Equality) and a Core Organizer/Trainer for Crossroads Antiracism Organizing and Training. Prior to working with ERAC/Ce and Crossroads, Lillie spent seven years organizing around farmworker and immigrant rights and inclusion. Lillie is passionate about the intersections of social justice, ecological justice, and art, and has served on the Board of Directors of the Institute for Sustainable Living, Art, and Natural Design (ISLAND) since 2009. She earned a BA in Human Development and Social Relations from Kalamazoo College in 2004. Lillie enjoys dancing, biking, gardening, spending time in nature, and preparing and eating communal meals with her wonderful anti-oppressive community.
Jo Ann Mundy is one of two co- Executive Directors of ERAC/Ce (Eliminating Racism and Claiming/Celebrating Equality), and a Core Organizer-Trainer for Crossroads Antiracism Organizing and Training, a national partner working collaboratively with ERAC/Ce toward the institutionalization of racial justice in public and private institutions throughout southwest Michigan. Currently Jo Ann serves on the boards of Crossroads and the People’s Food Coop. As a founder mentor of the NIA Project, Jo Ann encourages the celebration of identity, purpose and sisterhood in adolescent women of color. Additionally, Jo Ann is a founding member of the Three Rivers Area Faith Community (TRAFC), an ecumenical faith-based social justice network of churches striving to build a multi-cultural, multi-ethnic, multi-racial, multi-lingual and multi-generational anti-racist faith community in Three Rivers, MI where she completed her doctoral thesis Sacred Actions to Bring Racial Reconciliation. Enjoying over 25 years of pastoral ministry, Jo Ann currently serves as pastor of On Common Ground of Three Rivers Michigan. Jo Ann enjoys reading, music, her guitars and computers and, most of all, the young people in her life.
This spring in Applying the Analysis, many of our colleagues of color have written poignantly about the impact and implications of the Black/White Binary. They have clearly delineated how the Black/White Binary functions as a divide and conquer strategy among communities of color, how it keeps People of Color from fully understanding each other’s histories, and ultimately how it keeps People of Color from battling the true common enemy of White Supremacy. To continue the conversation, we want to examine the issue of the Black/White Binary from the perspective of those of us who identify as White, how we continue to reap the benefits of a society built on a foundation of White Supremacy, and what we might do to begin to disrupt the Black/White Binary in our own circles.
1. The Black/White Binary Maintains White Supremacy and Unearned Power and Privilege
The true power of the Black/White binary is that it functions to support White Supremacy in our society and institutions. That is its function and aim, and it has a very successful track record. While White Supremacy remains unexamined, White people continue to reap economic, material, psychological and social benefits we have gleaned for centuries. The Black/White binary’s divide and conquer dynamic among People of Color allows White People to continue to retain and expand societal benefits while People of Color fight over the scraps that fall of the White Supremacy table. Our goal then as White People is to constantly be aware of how White Supremacy is supported by the Black/White Binary. If White People truly want to disrupt the historical patterns of White Supremacy, we have to diligently reject the false logic of the Black/White Binary.
Take for instance, Joy’s experience growing up White in North Dakota. The narrative around race in North Dakota at the time, and likely still today, was that “racism” occured when White People mistreat Black people. Because there were so few Black people in North Dakota (the reasons for which could constitute another blog post), North Dakota did not have a problem with racism. The fallacy of the Black/White binary allowed North Dakotans to believe that they had didn’t have to deal with racism because of the small Black population of the state. Consequently, Joy and other North Dakotans could virtually ignore over a hundred years of theft, genocide, and disposition of American Indians. That issue was not even on the radar, even though the predominantly White, Scandinavian and German descendants of the European colonizers, continue to reap the benefits of lands seized under policies like the Dawes and Homestead Acts. Joy and her family continue to financially benefit from the land her ancestors had access to through homesteading, which was only available to White people. This adherence to a a Black/White binary around what constitutes racism maintains unexamined White supremacy and the benefits that come with it.
2. The Black/White binary’s historical myth allows us to deny that our entire society is affected by racism.
As White people growing up in the United States, our framework for understanding what little we do about race is often framed only by Blackness. White people, culture and history are considered normal, whereas Black people, culture, and history are viewed as “racial” and at the other end of a spectrum. This narrative leaves us no room to understand the racial implication of the genocide of millions of Native Americans and the theft of their lands and resources, the exploitation of Asian American labor in agricultural and industrial projects (e.g. the building of the transcontinental railroad), the robbery of lands that once belonged to Mexico and the subsequent mistreatment of the inhabitants of those lands and their descendants, nor our colonial and neo-colonial exploits in the Caribbean, Central and South America, Asia, and other locations around the world. Even the history and experience of Black people is distorted by this simplistic rendering of history.
For example, when Ryan reflects on what he learned about race and racism in his formal education, it went something like this: Once upon a time a group of Europeans fled oppression and moved to a vast, unoccupied continent to create a free society. Some of those Europeans were bad and enslaved Black people, but this was solved by Abraham Lincoln’s “Emancipation Proclamation.” Some of those same bad white people, however, continued to mistreat Black people by creating “Jim Crow” laws, but this was eventually stopped by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and the Civil Rights movement. Now we live in a post racial society where even a Black man can become president. This obviously simplistic and incomplete understanding of race seen through the Black/White binary allows White people to be oblivious to other People of Color’s histories, and to avoid owning our part in the damage that our actions have done both in the past and present. It absolves us of having to work to fix or repair the carnage our ancestors left in their wake because we are ignorant of its very existence. We can even use the myth of the Black/White binary to deny the actual experience of Black people by turning it into something much more simplistic and trite rather than the complex reality that it is.
3. The Black/White Binary keeps us from working against our own dehumanization.
White people are also dehumanized by racism, and the Black/White binary hides this reality. The binary is a simplistic paradigm based on either/ or; good/ bad; wrong/ right; winner/ loser. Instead of recognizing we all regain our humanity and community if White supremacy is dismantled, the Black/White Binary with its either/or logic has White people fearing that if racism is eliminated we lose. We fear that we will lose our privileges and that Black people will oppress us once they are on the top. Take, for example, the recent claims by many White people of “reverse racism.” In these complaints we hear a deep fear of being on the bottom, because, in our heart of hearts, we know that we have created an “either/or” world and that we do not want to lose our position. What a powerful disincentive to work for justice, and those of us working for a more racially equitable society need to combat this falsehood wherever possible.
Moreover, the Black/White binary doesn’t leave room for the full diversity of humankind and thus doesn’t allow for healthy, resilient community. In his blog post, James’ Addington discusses how living in a diverse, interconnected community actually provides strength and resilience for all participants, whether they be humans or micro-organisms. The Black/White binary, however, creates a system in which instead of living in meaningful community, the set-up places White people in the role of oppressors who exploit others for our own gain. This causes broken relationships and isolation which goes against our human need for belonging and connection. Instead of being part of a differentiated, rich community life, we participate in our own dehumanization by robbing from others and weakening the very fabric that should exist to support all people, including ourselves.
4. The Black/White Binary keeps us from standing in solidarity with all People of Color to end racism.
If we don’t understand how we are all harmed by racism, White people will not be able to stand in solidarity with all People of Color to eliminate racism. How many times have we as White people been ignorant of not only our own racialized experiences and histories but also those of the various People of Color groups we seek to partner with? Moreover, remaining stuck in the Black/White binary could tempt us to try and help, save and fix Black people who we perceive to be the sole objects of racial oppression. We can also be tempted to use other People of Color group stereotypes to set some sort of imaginary standard for Black people and how they should comport themselves (See Laura Mariko Cheifetz’s blog on the Black/White Binary and the Model Minority Myth).
Another way we fail to stand in solidarity occurs when we observe the Black/White binary causing a division between Communities of Color and we simply back away and distance ourselves. We throw our hands up and say, “this is a People of Color problem, let them fight amongst themselves.” For example, as Antiracist White people we sometimes have the problematic notion that in order to be accountable to POC we have to listen to, follow and do whatever People of Color say. If the binary has them fighting with one another, however, we may find ourselves in a situation where we do not know who to follow or agree with. In this situation we may be tempted to take sides and align ourselves with one People of Color group as truly being more oppressed (or more to our individual liking). We need to be accountable to an analysis of racism that challenges the Black/White binary and includes all our histories and perspectives. Then accountability and solidarity doesn’t become about aligning ourselves with individual People of Color who we personally like the best.
For those of us who identify as White and want to engage in the work of dismantling systemic racism we must heed the clarion call of our Colleagues of Color to continually push ourselves past the Black/White Binary. We must see the totality of racism and how we continue to benefit from it. We need to hear the stolen stories, listen to People of Color from all racialized groups, be accountable to and stand in solidarity with a rich, complex analysis of racism that includes all People of Color (as well as ourselves!), and relentlessly work on our own internal transformation and that of our institutions.Antiracist White People need to be able to name the binary playing out when we see it and be proactive in disrupting it.
If this series of blogs has sparked your interest about understanding and interrupting the Black/White binary, we invite you to join us at Crossroads Leadership and Development Institutethis summer in Chicago where we will continue to explore the construct of the Black/White binary and how we can continue to organize to transform our institutions into more racially just organizations.
Joy Bailey has been the Director of Organizing and Training for Crossroads since 2011 and has been a Core/Organizer Trainer since 2008. She has her Bachelor’s degree in Spanish Education and her Master’s in Socio-cultural Studies in Education, both from Western Michigan University (WMU). Formerly, Joy taught high school Spanish for six years in Kalamazoo Public Schools (KPS) and also taught courses on race and racism in education at WMU. Joy has been doing local antiracism organizing in Kalamazoo Public Schools since 2001. Although originally from North Dakota, Joy currently lives with her spouse in Chicago, IL.
Ryan Bailey received his BA in English Education from Western Michigan University, his MA in Educational Leadership from Michigan State, and is a Nationally Board Certified teacher. He has participated in a variety of professional educational experiences including a Fulbright-Hayes exchange to Senegal and presentations to the National Council of Teacher’s of English. Ryan’s antiracism development began and continues within the context of the organizing work of Crossroads and ERAC/CE. An avid home-brewer, vintner, writer, reader, outdoors man, cook, traveler, and tennis player, Ryan makes his home in Chicago, IL with his partner Joy.
A native of Puerto Rico, Jessica identifies as a “1.5 generation Queer ESL Latina of Puerto Rican descent.” She works as a consultant and core/organizer trainer for Crossroads. Jessica holds a BA in Criminal Justice and Master degrees in Theological Studies and Divinity.
In this final post, I am reflecting on the two remaining dynamics the Black/White racial binary paradigm creates for people of color which ensure the continuous re-centering of Whiteness as the dominant and only valid experience of this nation.
Dynamic 4: The Black/White racial binary paradigm allows white people to simply ignore their own investment in both racist constructs and their participation in them.
There is no example more powerful in recent day than the Donald Sterling debacle. The wealthy lawyer and purported slumlord who owns the L.A. Clippers, an NBA team, was caught on tape asking his biracial girlfriend to not bring African- Americans to his team’s games nor post photos of herself accompanied by them. Immediately, collective outrage took over this nation. White people were coming out of the woodwork to condemn his “racist behavior.” When NBA commissioner Adam Silver banned Sterling from the NBA for the rest of his life progressive white people everywhere breathed a collective sigh of self-satisfaction. The good white people have won. But as Ta-Henisi Coates opines it is easy to condemn the oafish, classless, inelegant racism of the likes of Sterling and rancher Cliven Bundy. What is never easy, what is costly for White people is to address what Coates refers to as “elegant racism,” which he describes in this way: “Elegant racism lives at the border of white shame. Elegant racism was the poll tax. Elegant racism is voter ID laws.” It is one thing for white people to express outrage at the overt unapologetic racism of Sterling and rise to the defense of African-Americans. It is another thing entirely for White people to own the ways in which they support, benefit, and leave unchallenged “elegant forms” of racism like stand your ground laws, mass incarceration policies, the privatization of prisons, the continued colonization of native lands, and anti-immigrant laws, just to name a few.
Dynamic 5: The Black/White racial binary paradigm stunts our creativity for visionary organizing and revolutionary collaborations.
I still remember the day one of my supervisors was fired. Over a decade has passed and I can still feel the weight of guilt for the ways in which my silence aided in the process of his dismissal. The situation was complex particularly because we felt no solidarity with each other. As an older African-American man in his sixties working in a profoundly racist liberal White institution he had learned to distrust anyone claimed by the White power structure. That included me. I was a 26-year old Latina claimed by the structure he distrusted as exceptional and set up as an example of what “good” people of color were supposed to be. His upbringing and the crazy-making construct of race had led him to believe that I was not a person of color but an honorary member of the White community. My upbringing in a colony of the United States and the crazy-making construct of race had led me to believe that I needed to stay away from him in order to succeed. I sometimes wonder how our work, our lives would have been different if we had seen each other as colleagues in the same struggle. I wonder how our organizing would have been more effective if we had been able to acknowledge that while the strategies were different, our dehumanization by racism was the same. I wonder how our communities would have been affected if we collaborated in ways that witnessed respect; maybe a revolution?
Among the most damaging effects of the Black/White racial binary paradigm is the way in which it eliminates the possibility of transformative collaboration among people of color groups and between White and people of color communities. When creativity is compromised the ability to formulate strategies to debunk the binary and the White supremacist worldview that produces it is inhibited.
The five dynamics I have reflected upon in this blog series threaten our struggle for human dignity. While alone I cannot stop these, I can join others in the struggle for human liberation. For the last 15-years I have given my time, energy, and creativity to Crossroads Antiracism Organizing and Training because it gifts me with a community of people working out of a shared analysis to strategize and organize cultural and institutional interventionsthat disrupt the divide-and-conquer strategies which threaten to seduce me away from my liberation and from the struggle for transformed community.
A native of Puerto Rico, Jessica identifies as a “1.5 generation Queer ESL Latina of Puerto Rican descent.” She works as a consultant and core/organizer trainer for Crossroads. Jessica holds a BA in Criminal Justice and Master degrees in Theological Studies and Divinity.
Today, I am reflecting of the first three dynamics the Black/White racial binary paradigm creates for people of color which ensure the continuous re-centering of Whiteness as the dominant and only valid experience of this nation.
Dynamic 1: The Black/White racial binary paradigm leads to the assumption that the solution to racism and the key to liberation is to invert dynamics of power.
When I started my antiracism journey, I walked around with the belief that racial justice work needed to be focused on ending the oppression of African-Americans by over-turning the power structure which oppressed them and transitioning all social and cultural power to them. There were many factors informing this conviction. Among them was the belief that racism in the United States was exclusively a Black and White issue, and as a documented immigrant with the privilege of citizenship, my job was to help invert power dynamics. With time I came to understand the web of oppression created by systemic racism actively destroys all people including White people and me. I realized that simply being a person of color did not ensure that people would resist the dominant narratives of this nation which normalized and centered Whiteness. In fact if people of color are not actively working to address the ways in which we have internalized racist oppression we can become inadvertent supporters of White supremacy. Thus shifting power from White people to African-Americans specifically or people of color more broadly does not in fact guarantee an end to racial oppression.
Dynamic 2: The Black/White racial binary paradigm seduces people of color who fall outside of the binary into the service of white supremacy.
One of the real dangers of the Black/White racial binary paradigm is that it can trick those of us who fall outside of the binary into believing that racism is not and ought not be our concern. This belief is often accompanied by the illusory conviction that if we work hard enough, if we assimilate quickly and effectively enough, we will achieve the American dream and melt into a pot of Americanness not intended for us. I make this claim because I used to believe this so profoundly that when I turned 18, I voted Republican. I wanted to be American and the GOP represented for me traditional American values I desperately wanted to prove I could embody: hard work, individualism, patriotism, and white picket fences. This is not to say that the Democratic party is not supporting distorting patriotic narratives, but simply to say that as an 18-year old immigrant voting for the first time, the narrative woven by the Republican party came across as truly American in a way the Democrat narrative did not. It would be years before I would come to fully understand that those values and narrative required I actively participate in the maintenance of a status quo that demanded I nurture self-loathing and contribute to the demonization of people of color communities.
Dynamic 3: The Black/White racial binary paradigm results in dehumanizing Oppression Olympics that obfuscate white supremacy while jeopardizing the possibility of revolutionary collaboration among communities of color.
The most effective way in which the Black/White racial binary paradigm maintains white supremacy is the Oppression Olympics. By this I mean the dehumanizing competition that emerges among people of color communities to prove who is the most oppressed. The competition unfurls often in this way: African-Americans understandably seek to define the conversation of race around the brutal history of chattel slavery while Native-Americans are pushing for an analysis of the problem that departs from colonialism and genocide while Asian-American Pacific Islanders are fighting against a myth that purports they experience no racial discrimination. Into this conversation enter Latin@s, all too often declaring the whole problem of race does not concern us because our countries do not do race and have no racism. This of course is not true. The nations we come from were shaped by European colonialism and infused with racial consciousness, racial ideas, and racial narratives that centered the European experience as normal and best. All one has to do is watch a telenovela to see how racial dynamics are present in Latin America. Moreover, the maintenance of the idea that racism is not our concern falls flat on the face of the active and often violent discrimination our people experience. Finally, at the edges are multi-racial people trying to find a voice. While this is in fact a simplistic articulation of a very complex problem, the result of these dynamics is competition. Instead of building coalitions as people of color, we routinely scapegoat each other and too willingly invisibilize our unique experiences of dehumanization while failing to name white supremacy as our common threat.
An illustration seems fitting. I still remember my first week in Atlanta, GA. I was watching the morning news when they introduced two guests invited to discuss the anti-immigrant legislation the state legislature was considering. The camera panned over to reveal two women of color experts, both lawyers. The lawyer speaking against the racist and xenophobic legislation was South East Asian while the one speaking in support was African-American. As I heard the conversation a knot formed in my stomach. The African-American lawyer convincingly argued that Latin@s represented an economic and cultural threat to African-Americans and society as a whole. I wanted to shake the African-American woman and tell her to stop. I wanted her to see me not as a threat but as someone whose destiny is tied to hers; as someone oppressed by the same system against which she is struggling. After four years in the deep south I am filled with examples of the way both African-Americans and Latin@s participate in the Oppression Olympics. Consequently, both communities lose the ability to see and name the true culprit dehumanizing us: white supremacy.
Tomorrow, I will reflect on the two remaining dynamics.
A native of Puerto Rico, Jessica identifies as a “1.5 generation Queer ESL Latina of Puerto Rican descent.” She works as a consultant and core/organizer trainer for Crossroads. Jessica holds a BA in Criminal Justice and Masters degrees in Theological Studies and Divinity.
I still remember the question: Which one will you pick? It came in the middle of a discussion about history and racism. I had just shared the latest evolution of the race classifications boxes announced by the United States Census Bureau, which eliminated “Latin@s/Hispanic” as a category. I posited to the group the shift was about power consolidation and politics of divide and conquer. Then came the question, which box will you pick? Before I could answer one of the white women said, “The White box.” Immediately an African-American woman said, “Nope, she will pick the Black box.”
I still remember laughing and making a comment about being wanted. And after we all had a laugh, I said I would pick neither. The group stared at me. You could tell they were asking, what does she mean? Were we not just discussing how race is not voluntary? How it is imposed? How can she pick neither? I allowed us to sit in ambiguous silence in part because I needed to find my words; in part because the power of the Black/White racial binary requires I claim allegiance to one side or another in ways that invisibilize me.
This was not the first time I was faced with the black/white binary question. The first time I was 21 and the only Latin@ residential female student at Christian Theological Seminary. I was desperate for friends and filled with socialized messages about who were the “good ones” to know and who were the “people to avoid.” I will give you a hint: the binary maps perfectly on these ideas. I of course lacked the analysis of systemic racism to understand neither the historical context of the question nor the impact of choosing. I failed to see the choice as a participation in the maintenance of White supremacy, to see myself a pawn in a much bigger game of power, and to recognize the binary as a destructive divide-and-conquer strategy. The reality is there is no Black/White binary. There is instead a White/non-White binary, which seeks to turn all people into collaborators of White supremacy.
I hate the idea of being complicit and yet I know how complex racial dynamics and racial politics become when a narrative is woven that obfuscates and confuses the true purpose of race, and which preys upon the vulnerability of people who then crave comfort, material wealth, and access to resources. And yet I know that as a 1.5 generation ESL Queer Latina woman of Puerto Rican descent living in the United States life would be easier, more comfortable if I simply give into the trap the binary sets. How can that be easier? I can join the race toward Whiteness or the American Dream and buy into the lie that says it is the marker of immigrant success. I can convince myself that as a non-Black person of color I have a leg up and as such I have the choice to call out our patterns or racial discrimination as long as the calling out does not compromise my “access.” Life would be more comfortable but it would also mean enslavement to a set of lies that dehumanize me and others. Moreover, this would require ignoring five dynamics the Black/White racial binary paradigm creates for people of color which ensure the continuous re-centering of Whiteness as the dominant and only valid experience of this nation. Tomorrow, I will name and reflect on the first three dynamics.
Abbi Heimach has a B.A. from the College of Wooster in Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies and Religious Studies. After a year teaching elementary special education, she worked in young adult related ministry at the Presbyterian Mission Agency. Currently, Abbi is working on her Masters of Divinity at McCormick Theological Seminary. She is an intern for Crossroads Antiracism Organizing and Training, a member of the National Committee of the Presbyterian Peace Fellowship, and is pursuing ordination in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). In her free time, you can find her dancing and cooking vegan food.
At the end of March, I traveled to Madison, Wisconsin for the White Privilege Conference (WPC). If you’ve never been to WPC before or never heard of it, WPC is an annual conference that promotes racial equity and justice through educational plenaries and workshops, caucusing, and networking. As a first time attendee, it was refreshing to be surrounded by activists, scholars and students learning together for a common cause. I left the experience filled with hope and encouragement from the connections I made and tools I learned, but I also encountered frustrations and challenges. To continue on the journey for racial justice, here are some “reminders and reflections” that I learned from my experiences at WPC—all impacted by my own personal journey to better understand my white privilege and the ways white supremacy works to perpetuate our deeply racist world.
1) Despite our best intentions, white supremacy can still be present. My group arrived a little late, and as we settled in collecting our registration materials, we sat down to figure out which workshops we wanted to attend. There were so many interesting ones! By the time we decided where we wanted to go and walked to the assigned rooms, we discovered that most of the workshops were already filled. WPC had its most attendees yet, which is great, but what resulted was a competition to get to your top workshop choice. People were placing their belongings in rooms and leaving to save spots; people rushed from workshop to workshop with an unnecessary sense of urgency so they could win a limited seat. Even in a workshop, white participants continued to dominate the speaking space. Competition seemed to develop over who could be the most inclusive, or claim to know the most about how oppression works. I witnessed individuals responding harmfully to people who spoke up in the sessions. Although it is inevitable that each of us will make mistakes or find ourselves ignorant to someone’s experiences of oppression, responding with hate will not heal relationships and work for equity. Experiencing discomfort is an important way to learn, but humiliating someone can cause a scar that can prevent that person from learning and improving upon a mistake. Competition prevents us from collaborating. Rushing excessively inhibits our ability to notice who is excluded, and an unhealthy environment as such can contribute to perfectionism, which is unrealistic and over-burdening.
2) Equality is different from Equity. One of the workshops I attended had helpful teaching techniques for learning about individuals’ diverse contexts and identifying power roles. Throughout the 90-minute session, they had us frequently switching groups, sharing stories, finishing sentence prompts, and listening intentionally while not responding to our fellow group members (so as to allow a completely equal sharing atmosphere) all in a strictly calculated timeframe. In any group of people there are those who have a lot to say, and those who take their time to speak or aren’t as comfortable speaking. By setting a timer for an individual’s sharing time, each person can have an equal amount of time to share—stopping those who share too much and encouraging those who don’t speak much to share more. Although good in theory, there are a number of problematic consequences. This process failed to recognize how a community of people contribute to building an environment that helps people feel comfortable enough to share their stories. Also, people process information at different paces. Not everyone can quickly share a story or move on abruptly after someone exposed the depth of her soul. In fact, it can be harmful to force people to speak. What is equal is not always equitable. Because we all work differently and have a variety of experiences, we should prioritize fairness over equality in pursuing racial justice.
3). Brave space instead of safe space. I was in a workshop led by white antiracist activist Shelly Tochluk where a woman of color brought up that she cringes at the thought of creating “safe space”. This was eye-opening for me because I thought this is what we all should be striving for within group settings, educational environments, worship spaces, etc. She explained that “safe” means something different for everyone and often white people are the ones naming whether or not a space is safe. Shelly introduced that Brian Arao and Kristi Clemens write about working towards “brave space.” Whenever we are in environments that require us to build community, share stories, or become vulnerable, it requires courage and bravery. I find this to be an extremely helpful concept and reminder.
4). The importance of race-based caucusing. Since interning with Crossroads Antiracism Organizing and Training, I’ve learned about the importance of caucusing. To caucus is to spend regular time from organizing work to reflect upon internalized racial inferiority and internalized racial superiority in separate groups for people of color and white people. These groups are a way of checking ourselves, reflecting and improving, forgiving and inviting. Later, coming together whole group with people of color and white people and sharing that we did our work is a way of holding each other accountable and moving forward. WPC reminded me how vital caucusing is to the movement. My white caucus exhibited the beautiful and painful journey justice is, how racism scars everyone, and how as white people who benefit from oppression, we have a responsibility to turn the trajectory, to break the pattern, to step up and work towards overturning the white supremacist foundations of our society.
5). And lastly, WPC reminded me that it’s not about me, but us. Caucusing is not just about the internal work that we do, but especially for the group work we need. As a white person I have to remember that even though realizing the ways I contribute to oppression is painful as an individual, working towards racial equity and justice requires me to set aside my personal desire for comfort and perfectionism (manifestations of white supremacy) and join in the collective movement. We all will make mistakes and that is part of the journey—of discerning difficult solutions, of loving each other despite our brokenness, of knowing that the world must not stay the way it is.
Lillie Wolff is one of two Co-Executive Directors of ERAC/Ce (Eliminating Racism and Claiming/Celebrating Equality) and a Core Organizer/Trainer for Crossroads Antiracism Organizing and Training. Lillie is bilingual in English and Spanish and prior to working with ERAC/Ce and Crossroads spent seven years organizing around farmworker and immigrant rights and inclusion. Lillie is passionate about the intersections of social justice, ecological justice, and art, and has served on the Board of Directors of the Institute for Sustainable Living, Art, and Natural Design (ISLAND) since 2009. She earned a BA in Human Development and Social Relations from Kalamazoo College in 2004. Lillie enjoys dancing, biking, gardening, spending time in nature, and preparing and eating communal meals with her wonderful anti-oppressive community.
As a white antiracist organizer and trainer, I am on a journey toward understanding my relationship with privilege and oppression. Privilege and oppression are two sides of the same coin. In Privilege, Power, and Difference, Allan Johnson explains that the “isms” – sexism, heterosexism, ableism, racism – affect more than women, LGBTQI people, people with disabilities, and people of color. They affect everyone. It is impossible to live in a world that generates so much injustice and suffering without being inextricably linked to it. Everyone has a race, gender, sexual orientation, and disability status. We all figure in the differences that privilege and oppression are about.
Johnson suggests that the greatest barrier to change is that dominant groups don’t see the trouble of our society as their trouble, and as a result, don’t feel obligated to do something about it.This may be because we don’t even know the trouble exists, we don’t have to see it as our trouble, because we see it as a personal rather than systemic problem, because we’re reluctant to give up privilege, or afraid of what will happen if we acknowledge the reality of privilege and oppression.
Systems of privilege make privilege invisible and those who are part of the dominant white culture in the U.S. are taught to deny and minimize oppression. White people are taught to be “colorblind,” to believe that since Barak Obama is president we must be “post-racial.” Those of us who are white are socialized to blame the victim, call it something else, assume everyone prefers things the way they are. We mistake intentions with consequences, attribute oppression to others, and balance the oppression of others with our own (note: the goal is not to play the Oppression Olympics). While it may feel good in an anesthetic kind of way to believe that we are “post-racial,” the truth is that we have all inherited a material reality based on 500 years of shared history.
What if we all started thinking about the trouble of systemic racism as everyone’s responsibility and nobody’s fault?What if we told each other and ourselves that it’s not about blame and that feeling guilty about racism is actually not helpful. It’s easy to fall into the trap of guilt, as many of us have been taught to see the world through an individualistic lens that reduces everything to individual good or bad intentions. We all want to be good people. A powerful and liberating alternative lies, however, in the fact that we’re all always participating in something larger than ourselves — social systems.
To understand our relationship to privilege and oppression, we have to look at what we’re participating in and how we participate in it. For example, if a white male professor takes the students in his class who look like him more seriously, he isn’t necessarily being intentionally sexist or racist, but may be participating in and perpetuating patterns of white and male privilege. He doesn’t have to be a bad person to participate in an education system that produces oppressive outcomes – it’s simply how the system is set up to function.
The only way to change oppressive outcomes is to change our systems and institutions. If we have a vision of what we want the world to be, we have to create paths that lead in that direction. We have to do more than just hope, dream and pray – certainly more than simply take the path of least resistance. We must become aware of our biases, which we all have, and we must understand that racism is about more than just prejudice. It’s about power and privilege – it’s about who gets access to and who has control of the systems and institutions that distribute the resources necessary for life.
If racism is not about individual actions or beliefs, and is about systems and structures, the solution must be systemic and structured. If privilege is rooted in systems like families, schools, places of worship and employment, change isn’t simply a matter of changing people. The solution also has to include entire systems whose paths of least resistance shape how we all feel, think, and behave as individuals, and how we see one another and ourselves.
Thankfully, there is a growing national movement in which people of color and white people are gaining an analysis, a language system, organizing tools, and a more complete understanding of history – the history of oppression and the corresponding acts of resistance. Since racism isn’t just a trouble of the past, resistance, like that of the Underground Railroad, requires broad base participation here and now. We must resist the path of least resistance. We must find our way to the path of greatest resistance — the path of dismantling racism. It’s a big task, a generational one, which can feel overwhelming. But things can change, they have and will continue to change, and none of us are alone. There is room for everyone in this movement.
Crossroads Antiracism Organizing and Training, along with its regional organizing partners like ERAC/Ce (Eliminating Racism and Claiming/Celebrating Equality) in Southwest Michigan, are facilitating trainings and building transformation teams to help people of color, white people, and entire institutions claim an anti-racist identity. A growing number of people around the country are learning how to honestly and accurately name our troubles. We are learning new ways of being in relationship with each other and ourselves, which are grounded in anti-oppressive, life-giving values. We are committing to a life-long journey of reclaiming and engaging our full humanity in ways we never dreamed.
Neurobiologists – and others – are suggesting that the human inclination to form relationships is an expression of our neuro-architecture. We have a deep cellular bias for forming relationships. Along with this bias is a capacity for empathy. We are human in the context of complex relationships. This is what makes us human. This deep inclination is the basis of human community. We are a communal species. One helpful resource in exploring this topic further is a short RSA produced video called Empathic Civilization based on the work of and narrated by Jeremy Rifkin. Another isSocial Intelligence: the New Science of Human Relationships by Daniel Goleman.
The multigenerational impact of systemic racism in our nation’s history compromises this fundamental bias. Racism distorts our attempts to shape communities. It produces communities that are, in the final analysis, unsustainable. White supremacy (the social architecture that generations of racialization have produced) has not and cannot position us for survival in a time of dramatic climatic, ecological and social transition. It may well be the case that if our species is to make it, we need to be about the work of repairing the fabric of community. We need to shape human communities that are sustainable. We need communal fabric that can serve as our bridge into a dramatically different future. This is the work of antiracism. It is the strategic interventions in the processes of racialization that repair and restore community – whether geographically or institutionally defined.
Many organizers that focus on shaping sustainable communities suggest that the word resilient is a helpful way of thinking about the meaning of sustainable. When we explore the practical meaning of community resilience there are three features that especially stand out for me (there are many features and dimensions of sustainability). Sustainable, resilient communities are diverse, adaptive and regenerative.
DIVERSE. When the FHA crafted a model restrictive covenant in 1938, it was presumed that racially homogenous communities were more stable and peaceful. This model was one of the tools that guided the shaping of the American suburbs. Such apartheid has always been one of the features of communities in the United States. The architecture of white supremacy requires living spaces divided by walls and barriers: railroad tracks, thoroughfares, canals, rivers and streams, etc. Entire sections are effectively reserved for particular racial, ethnic and income groups. Consequently, racial homogeneity has been our default in neighborhood and community development. This social default setting impedes the development of genuine multicultural/multiracial communities. Our history is a stumbling block! When we pay attention to natural ecosystems it becomes clear that diversity is a fundamental feature – and, is key to eco-resilience. Healthy, self-sustaining ecosystems are diverse. In similar fashion, a healthy, resilient community is diverse in every way we can imagine: demographically, economically, socially – even culturally. Human communities are not distinct and apart from natural ecosystems. We are part of them. The insights of bio-mimicry suggest that we need to pay attention to the ways communities are constituted in the ecosystems around us.
ADAPTIVE. Ecosystems that adapt to changes in their environment survive and thrive. Those that do not wither and die and are replaced by others. Similarly, human communities that are adaptive have moved beyond imposed insularity and change in response to their social and environmental context. New immigrant groups are woven into the fabric of community. Economic distress in the larger society is met with new patterns of sharing and connecting. Local viability and livability is directly related to a community’s adaptive capabilities. The pillar institutions of a community are key to its adaptive capacities. This includes churches, synagogues, mosques, community organizations, fraternal organizations, sororities, small businesses, etc. They are the connectors that anchor communities to the larger society. They can also gather information and interpret for the community the changes on the horizon that will impact community lifeways. Eventually, adaptive communities have to transcend the historic boundaries of community life and create new rules. White supremacy in all its social and spiritual expressions resists such change. It simply cannot countenance fundamental change.
REGENERATIVE. Sustainable, resilient communities have inculcated deep regenerative capacities. They are marked by cycles of renewal. They recycle the necessities of life. Writing in the Permaculture Activist, Mark Morey points out that we live in a “broken culture;” “the culture of empire and the culture of the machine can never be regenerative.” “Healthy culture can trump the messages and patterns of modern life.” He envisions local communities as “a place of reclaimed and renewed culture.” “Cultural repair has many aspects, but all involve remembering, restoring and reinventing the invisible fabric …permaculture derives its power from understanding the regenerative capacities and logic of nature.”  Like a plant that returns nitrogen to the soil – thus enriching it even as it takes its nourishment from the soil – regenerative communities create patterns of renewal that vitalize individuals, families, local institutions and the surrounding ecosystems. This assumes there can be a deep regenerative logic in human communities and their relation to the living systems around them. White supremacy subverts this deep logic. These three features are sustained in a community skein of mutual accountability relationships. The synergy among them fosters a dynamic, ever changing equilibrium. The discussion of accountability must wait for another occasion. Mentoring for the Earth, Mark Morey from the Permaculture Activist; reprinted in the Utne Reader, March-April, 2014. Ibid
R. James Addington is a training and organizational development consultant with Crossroads Antiracism Organizing and Training. Previously, he was the co-director of the Minnesota Collaborative Anti-Racism Initiative (MCARI) – a long-time regional partner of Crossroads. He has 30 years experience in community development, leadership training, organizational development and strategic planning. He also serves as a service-learning consultant with the Institute of Cultural Affairs-USA. James spent ten years in a variety of international local and regional development projects including in Jamaica, Venezuela, India, the Philippines and Nigeria; he directed the Lutheran Coalition for Public Policy in Minnesota (an advocacy and public policy education arm of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America) for nine years; and served as adjunct faculty at Luther Seminary.
Jo Ann Mundy is one of two co-Executive Directors of ERAC/Ce (Eliminating Racism and Claiming/Celebrating Equality), and a Core Organizer-Trainer for Crossroads Antiracism Organizing and Training, a national partner working collaboratively with ERAC/Ce toward the institutionalization of racial justice in public and private institutions throughout southwest Michigan. Currently Jo Ann serves on the boards of Crossroads and the People’s Food Coop. As a founder mentor of the NIA Project, Jo Ann encourages the celebration of identity, purpose and sisterhood in adolescent women of color. Additionally, Jo Ann is a founding member of the Three Rivers Area Faith Community (TRAFC), an ecumenical faith-based social justice network of churches striving to build a multi-cultural, multi-ethnic, multi-racial, multi-lingual and multi-generational anti-racist faith community in Three Rivers, MI where she completed her doctoral thesis Sacred Actions to Bring Racial Reconciliation. Enjoying over 25 years of pastoral ministry, Jo Ann currently serves as pastor of On Common Ground of Three Rivers Michigan. Jo Ann enjoys reading, music, her guitars and computers and, most of all, the young people in her life.
Several years ago when I began developing my antiracist organizing identity, I sometimes found it difficult to build relationships with other People of Color. I was always getting into my own way. One time I was tripping up attempting to build relationship with a Native American, another time I “stepped in a pile” with an Asian American, another time I was told by a Latina organizer, her community did not need my “help”. On another occasion, I was informed my willingness to speak-up for others felt abusive, and since I know myself to be particularly “helpful” this assessment caused me great pause.
As I began a season of self-reflection, I asked antiracism elders in our racial identity caucus why I seemed to be the recipient of disdain from other people of color groups. Here I was trying on my new antiracism identity, bringing my outsized, first-born, degreed self into the anti-oppression conversation and being met with cynicism and contempt. I began asking myself, “Why were so many not welcoming me with open arms?” “What could I do to be more effective?” my answer came swiftly: become a critical apologist. I recognize some may be unfamiliar with who are and what do apologists do so a bit of context is necessary before going any further. Literally, apologists were and are those people who take on the task of offering an argument in defense of something controversial or unpopular because they believe it to be true and misunderstood. In a myriad of ways, apologists give witness to their convictions by arguing, advocating, taking a stand, and sometimes embodying them. Critical apologists push their advocacy further by exposing the social conditions that make their bearing witness to an alternate narrative or to a counter cultural set of convictions necessary. This of course is my conception of what a critical apologist is and does but one that opened the way to stronger relationships with other people of color.
History is most often the best teacher. Many people of color groups – Asian American, Latinos/as, Native American, Arab and Middle Eastern – experience the dominant narrative of the US as existing in a Black/White racial paradigm. Our schools provide limited education with respect to the historic colonialization of the people of the Americas, South East Asia, and more recently the Middle East. Members of these communities know their own history and to be told their stories must be made to fit into the commonly understood Black/White racial paradigm of the United States is profoundly dehumanizing. Native Americans, Asian Americans and Latino/as are constantly experiencing their history, social and statistical reality as “insignificant” in the context of the United States in comparison to African-Americans. Even more recent African immigrants detest the ever-present assumption that they fit into the African-American narrative. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie speaks of this in her TED Talk – the Danger of a Single Story. The hidden implication is power continues to be held by those who create and maintain “the story”, who tells the story and where and when the story gets told.
So, heeding the wise counsel of an Asian American woman, I learned to be a critical apologist. In claiming this identity I learned my way into the task of building solidarity across the chasms built by racism and its binary. As a critical apologist I give witness with my lips and my life to the countercultural conviction that together we are stronger. This has been the most liberating, empowering, grace-filled, and humanizing experience of my life.
Photo by B. Jo Ann Mundy
Demonstrating humility and respect matters. As a critical apologist I recognize that dehumanization all people of color experience as a result of racism and I acknowledge the power dynamics that minimize the stories of oppression of some while elevating the stories of others. I acknowledge this minimizing as morally wrong, and I commit to act in a way that demonstrates respect for the individual stories and histories of other people of color communities. And then, (if I’m on my game) I shut up and listen. I demonstrate respect by listening without interrupting, and certainly not arguing over details. I choose to show consideration for another point of view.
Learning to listen well is critical. We demonstrate “we are not know it all’s” and have something to learn. That our experience is not the only, chief, best, or fill in any other “comparative” analysis noun. When I am successful in this, I learn. I learn to appreciate the struggle of other communities. I learn we all have a story to tell. I learn we all have success and challenges. I learn even more effective ways and methods for disarming systemic and institutional racism, and dismantling structural oppression. And I learn to be a more effective critical apologist for the antiracism values around which we organize our work; cooperation & collaboration, in particular.
Photo by B. Jo Ann Mundy
This way of demonstrating humility and respect through deep listening re-humanizes us and acknowledges the humanity of others. I find tender places in my heart, and the hearts of others. I allow myself to be touched by another and allow my soul to connect with the humanity of another. It builds deep empathy. This simple yet powerful act validates the other. Listening authenticates and affirms the humanity of the other, and in this way builds power.
Claiming our histories. In the telling and hearing of one another experiences and histories, we develop the potential to begin to see our collective interest and invite one another into our larger stories. In this way we can begin to gain a clearer and fuller perspective and focus our collective power. It is empowering to understand we are not alone in our struggle. Many, many others have experienced what we have experienced. Our particular stories are not the same, yet they are similar. As we understand we are not alone, we build power through aligning our efforts.
Building solidarity and inclusion is different from becoming an ally. Being an ally is based on what I can do for you, building solidarity is what we can do together creating ever widening circles of inclusion.
Acknowledges the complexity of structural oppression. The framework of the Black/White racial binary paradigm constricts us from understanding the fullness, dynamic and complexity of structural oppression. In order to be effective at dismantling racism, it is imperative that we understand the complexity of structural oppression. Minimizing and marginalizing the reality of the racist oppression experienced by those who are not African-American is like leaving out 3/5s of the construct and this will never lead us to effective solutions that challenge White supremacy!
SEEING THE CONNECTIONS
In my experience the social justice movement and individuals within it, have been harmed by the Black/White racial binary paradigm. So I will give witness to this countercultural conviction and I will offer a critical apologetic at every turn in order to make us all stronger together.
Unjust immigration polices are impacting more people than just Mexicans. Alarming deportation rates and the shattered families left in the wake of the popular immigration story is harming all of our communities. All of our communities are impacted by the notion that some people don’t belong here. We all have a stake in immigration reform.
“Stop and Frisk,” “Stand Your Ground,” and the Prison Industrial Complex are not just about Black bodies. All of us; Native Americans, Latinos, Asian Americans, and African-Americans experience the criminalization of our bodies. These laws and institutions are a threat to all of us.
The Black/White racial binary paradigm does not serve us individually, institutionally, or culturally. Rather it serves the dominant culture as one of the most efficient, disempowering and disorganizing processes. In my mind it is the most destructive of strategies. If we developed the capacity to hear the story of another, we will become more effective organizers.
The Reverend Laura Mariko Cheifetz serves as the Executive Director of Church & Public Relations at the Presbyterian Publishing Corporation. She received her M.Div. from McCormick Theological Seminary in Chicago, and her MBA from North Park University in Chicago. She is an ordained Teaching Elder in the Presbyterian Church (USA). She enjoys spending time with friends over food, exploring whichever region in which she happens to live, and still believes The Wire is the greatest television show in history.
Crossroads is deeply grateful that Laura M. Cheifetz our colleague , supporter, occasional guest blogger of Crossroads agreed to let us repost her insightful speech on the Black-White Binary. A few words of context. Rev. Cheifetz delivered this speech at Whitworth University in Spokane, WA at the Presbyterian Church (USA) Moderator’s Third Conversation on Unity with Difference on Race, Gender, and Religious Differences. It is also posted in her blogChurch Relations. This is a long but very powerful piece on the relationship between power, the black/white racial binary paradigm, racialization, gender, and institutions. While Rev.Cheifetz is obviously speaking from her experience as a Presbyterian Christian to other Presbyterian Christians, there is much in her speech that applies to the dynamics of working for racial justice in any institution. Finally, with the writer’s permission this post was edited for length.
My name is Laura Mariko Cheifetz. Cheifetz is my family name, from my Polish-Ukrainian-Lithuanian Jewish family members who fled persecution in Eastern Europe over 100 years ago. If you know my parents, you know that I pronounce our name differently. I have no tattoos or body piercings and never snuck out at night to joyride or get high. Instead I pronounce our name differently.
My middle name is Mariko, from my Japanese American ancestry. My great-grandmother was the first Japanese American baby born in the town of San Juan Bautista, CA over 100 years ago. My Jewish Polish great-grandmother wanted my parents to call me by my Japanese name, and please know how grateful I am that my parents stuck with Laura. It’s an easier cross-over name for my Spanish-speaking relatives, and explaining my family name is already a lengthy process enough. I’m HapaYonsei, multiracial fourth and fifth generation Asian American of Japanese and Jewish descent. I’m also a Presbyterian teaching elder.
That is how I see myself. The question that most illuminates how others see me is: “What are you?” For those of you accustomed to navigating multiraciality or multiethnic identity or navigating looking not-quite-what-you-are-enough for others, this is the defining question. This is the question that is asked of me by both people and by institutions. Depending on my energy level, I either find this question annoying, angering, or just another day in the life. I know, I know, I could take the generous route, and think “these people are just curious. At least they ask instead of guess.”
I am generous with my second bedroom if you get stranded at the Atlanta airport. I am generous with food and drink. I am not generous when it comes to indulging the racial imagination of U.S. culture and American churches.
I believe there is more than one explanation and more than one right answer for pretty much everything, even if that is not how I talk. I have been well-trained by the dominant culture, and I love the fluidity of knowledge and experience – these two things are not always in sync. My own understandings of race and racism, gender and sexism, are always in development, and I look forward to learning more.
Race and gender themselves are not the problems obstructing unity. The problems here are racism and sexism. Who we are isn’t the problem, but how we live into oppressive constructs that separate us from one another is. What I will say this morning is part of a longer conversation we in the church need to have with one another, because even though we have been in this conversation for decades, we have yet to diminish our capacity to sin when it comes to relationship with one another.
Racism and sexism aren’t prejudice or dislike or ignorance. Any one of us can participate in prejudice or dislike or ignorance. “isms” are prejudice, or a belief in the inferiority of a group of people, whether this prejudice is intentional and conscious, or unintentional and unconscious, coupled with the institutional structures and the power to shape the lives of that group of people based on that belief in their inferiority.
A common coping mechanism I share with many of my friends who belong to particular minoritized groups is to make fun of people who operate out of “isms.” But “-isms” are not primarily about individuals. As the UCLA School of Public Affairs states, “The individual racist need not exist to note that institutional racism is pervasive in the dominant culture.” U.S. law tends to focus on intentional discrimination, because it is based on a dated understanding of what constitutes racism and sexism, such as blatant employment discrimination, and housing covenants that exclude certain named populations. But institutionalized discrimination is simply the consequence of maintaining power and privilege for the groups considered superior.
Another assumption I make is white supremacy and patriarchy are real. I’m not interested in sharing statistics that prove them to be real. I’m not here to convince you. If you do not already acknowledge these huge shaping forces in our culture, then this conversation will not make much sense to you.
You have read the Bible, and I’m not the best person to explain how as Christians we should care about how we interact in the church regarding race and racism, gender and sexism. I have moved beyond needing a theological justification for ending racism, or biblical interpretations for gender equality. Let’s assume that’s a given. I leave that to others who give more time and energy to it than I do.
I depart from the assumption that all of the history of what became the U.S. is important. While forced removal of Native Americans and chattel slavery shaped the south, where I now live, I grew up where Spanish colonialism and its precursors, Native American reservations, anti-Indian policies, alien land laws and Asian disenfranchisement, violence against Mexicans already on the land, and the use of migrant farm labor shaped the racial landscape.
Race and gender are social constructs. We conflate the social construction of gender with biological sex. Sex is about chromosomes. There are many chromosomal variations on the XY and XX combinations into which we assume the world falls. Gender is not a binary. I will probably be dead before the Presbyterian Church is able to come to grips with that fact and starts giving members the ability to classify themselves outside of the male/female binary. Gender expression is how we live out our own gender, and is tightly policed in U.S. society and particularly within the church. Definitions of what is gender and what is acceptable gender expression vary by culture – in some cultures, there are more than two genders. It is men that raise the children. Pink used to be a boy’s color in the U.S. It is only real because we say it is real.
I do not believe race is real. I believe it has no biological foundation. I believe race is real the way money is real – because we have given it value. Race as defined by the U.S. is a social construct. It changes constantly. Just take a look at every single U.S. census – the racial categories are different every ten years.
We as a society have constructed race and gender as real, constricting individual expression, disrupting solidarity, and giving us a series of tiny little boxes into which we might organize our limited understanding of humanity. However, I believe race and ethnicity lend meaning to our own identities both as a result of our rich heritages and as a result of racialization.
The last assumption I will name is that I am not particularly interested in talking everything to death. I want to see change. I’m not what you could call old, but I’m not exactly young, either. I’ve been in these conversations around race and gender in the church for 15 years. I know others have been in it for far longer, but I confess I’m impatient. I can do the long game, but I very much want to be in this conversation with others who can think collectively to organize for structural and cultural change. Other people before us died for this. I think the least we can do to honor them is change this church.
My context in regards to race, ethnicity, and religion is this: in my family there are Asian Americans of Japanese and Chinese descent, Latin@s of Mexican and Puerto Rican descent, white people, African-Americans, white Jewish people, Arab Americans, and so many multiracial people that we could make our own cross-over feel-good commercials. In my family, there are Pentecostals, Presbyterians from More Light to Confessing Church, Episcopalians, atheists, Jews, Muslims, Catholics, Disciples of Christ, Buddhists, and a significant population of “nones.” I grew up behind a Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. And I am so so Presbyterian, and my remarks today will largely address the context of the Presbyterian Church (USA), because that is what I know best.
I never went through a confirmation class, so I’m the person who has to look up the creeds in the hymnal. I’m the person who feels no need to prioritize visiting the great American Presbyterian pilgrimage site of Iona. I didn’t know we had an ethnic heritage as a Scottish church until I went to seminary and heard that some churches have Sundays where all the men wear kilts. I was horrified. I had grown up feeling so different from Lutherans, who in my hometown sponsored the annual lutefisk-eating contest at Viking Fest, and it turns out my religious people were just as specific.
My context in regards to gender is this: my parents, early on in their relationship, were part of the Christian expression particular to Intervarsity and the First Presbyterian Church of Berkeley in the mid-1970s. My mother once told me, “We went to a workshop on wifely submission. It didn’t stick.” But before our imaginations devolve into some sexist version of the nagging bossy wife and the husband who has to keep her happy, my parents are deliberately partners. They respect each other. My father, the one straight white guy in my home growing up, has never once questioned my version of reality. He trusted me to tell him my reality, and he believed it to be true. I take feminism seriously because my parents raised me to take it seriously, and so did the churches that raised me.
I introduce myself in this way because I think there is more than one way to experience racism and sexism. There are over 300 million ways in this country, and over 1.8 million ways in the Presbyterian Church (USA). Our conversation cannot depend upon a generic experience of racism (usually defined by blackness) or sexism (usually defined by middle-aged white women) imposed upon other experiences. Racism is not just about color. It is also about language, culture, colonialism, national origin, and citizenship status. Sexism is not just about how many women get to be heads of staff of tall steeple churches or directors of church agencies. It is about how we continue to think about gender identity and gender roles, and how those thoughts are embedded in our culture and our policies. It is about earning potential; church policies around work hours, compensation, and family leave; about how well churches minister to the lived realities of women in their employ and women who choose to be part of churches. It is about the culture of church leading change in the culture of this country instead of propping up legal and cultural patriarchy.
I will focus primarily on racism in this time we have together, but know that I approach this, understanding we are not just one thing at a time, not just a person of color at one point and a woman at another point, but our identities are multiple, mutually constitutive, complex.
THE BLACK-WHITE BINARY
We in the U.S. operate out of a black-white binary. We assume the starting point for most of our racial conversations is slavery, and the ending point is either Jim Crow or Trayvon Martin. I prefer the “yes, and” approach. I believe the reason for Native American suppression and cultural genocide, slavery and Jim Crow, Trayvon Martin and the current crisis in incarceration rates is racism, and other reasons are economic. What is racist is that the lives and well-being of people of color are just incidental collateral damage to the power of white supremacy.
What is racist, too, is the ongoing divisions made among people of color. You know of divide and conquer? That’s what happens when we focus only on one thing, on one group. That’s what happens when the church tells us it can only work on one issue at a time. That’s what happens when the church gives us a tiny pot of money to be divided among multiple diverse groups, and we decide to passive-aggressively fight over it instead of work together to make lasting change. That’s what happens when we decide to say that our experience of racism is more real than someone else’s experience of racism, and we base our organizing and our solidarity on that decision.
For the church and our society to focus primarily on the relationship between white and black, there was another group here before both of these groups, and there is a giant growing diverse middle. You do know that by the middle of the century, there will be more of us people of color than there will be of white people. Now, I don’t delude myself into thinking this will mean there will suddenly be racial justice everywhere. “Isms” are about power. Patterns of wealth are racialized, and it will take generations to change any of that. But I do know that if we as people of color would like to organize for change, it would work a heck of a lot better if we tried working together, instead of each of our groups interacting with white people and avoiding each other.
What the “ism” of racism and the black-white binary both serve is white supremacy. I’m not talking about the white supremacy of neo-Nazis moving into Sandpoint, Idaho. I’m not talking about the white supremacy of the KKK in southern Indiana. I’m talking about garden-variety white supremacy, the kind that assumes whiteness is preferable, the kind that allows people to dabble in other cultures without accountability. White people running yoga studios for their own profit, and the daughter of the governor of Oklahoma wearing a Native American headdress, using the excuse that in Oklahoma, one is exposed to Native American culture and feels connected to it (as though there were one Native American generic monoculture).
In this atmosphere of white supremacy and the black-white binary, where is the identity of Asian Pacific American? I have said before that I am Japanese and Jewish. I am multiracial. But for the purposes of demographics, I’m Asian American. I’m the model minority. Right? I got good grades and have two masters degrees and I work in a church agency. I’m a home owner. When I talk, sometimes people listen. So what right do I have to complain when it comes to racism and patriarchy?
The model minority stereotype reared its ugly head in the 1960s, suspiciously timed with widespread social unrest. Some people talk about the “riots” in black neighborhoods, and the Black Power movement. I find this interesting, because not long after, yellow power and brown power and red power movements were in full swing. Asian Americans were set up as the good people of color, the good model minority, even though they were engaged in social change movements.
You might be aware that there is more than one kind of Asian Pacific American. Many, many kinds, with different cultures, languages, ethnicities, foods, and ways of coming to the U.S. We are talking 34 countries in Asia, and within those countries, many more language and cultural groups. I was taunted as a kid for being Chinese or Hawaiian or whatever people decided what kind of not-white I was (I could be Latina or Native American, too), because in the U.S. all Asians are Chinese. I found that in the realm of the national Presbyterian church, all Asians are Korean.
The first problem with the model minority is that it jams together people whose countries of origin the U.S. invaded, people who worked for the U.S. government during the Vietnam war and who had to leave their countries as a result, and their descendants, and people who came last year on a highly specialized work visa. It includes people whose families have to wait 20 years for a visa to the U.S., and people whose ethnicities and languages show up in approximately zero U.S. government documents as a check box option. Asian Pacific American is not an accurate way to classify people, and if Asian Pacific Americans had our way, all the data would be disaggregated, so you can see how the group I belong to (Japanese Americans) are vastly different from other groups, like Hmong Americans or Iranian Americans.
The second problem with the model minority is that it presumes there are good people of color and people of color who are problems. It tells people in my group to not be like those black people, or, increasingly, those Latin@s. It helps perpetuate the labeling of all black people as the wrong kind of minority, despite all evidence to the contrary. It helps divide people of color from one another, and disrupts our organizing potential.
The third problem with the model minority… I hate to break it to America, but the politics of respectability is a lie. No matter how good you act or how high your household income or how nicely you dress, at some point someone is going to hurl a racial slur at you, or shoot at you, or stop you for questioning because you look like an immigrant or other kind of criminal, or not stop the cab to pick you up, or ask how your English can be so good. You will always belong to a group less likely to experience economic mobility, and more likely to experience higher rates of stress and discrimination than the white population. We as people of color can end up twisting ourselves into caricatures trying to make ourselves into the right people of color, instead of interrogating the very culture and system that demand such dehumanization.
DISLOCATED BY THE BINARY
I felt included in racial conversations much of my growing-up, maybe because there were so few of us people of color. Then I moved to New York. For the first time in my life, I wasn’t special. This is important. It was fantastic. I didn’t stick out. I could just blend in. There were those annoying moments, like when a white guy interning at the UN asked me and another church intern, who was from Tajikistan via Amsterdam, if we were sisters. I said, “You mean in that general Asian way?” But I was also working with the UN World Conference Against Racism, and I ran into the black-white binary so hard that I started walking out of meetings. I had a vague sense that the struggles of Latin@s, indigenous Peoples, Asian Americans, and others didn’t count as much as the struggles of African descendants, but I had no idea that this kind of meeting would bring up everyone’s internalized pain, which would manifest in blatant competition for resources and access to power. The U.S. non-governmental agency community was in constant conflict.
Attending school at McCormick in Chicago was another challenge for me. Even though the student body, just half white, and the city were plenty diverse, the two largest groups were still white people and black people. The primary participants in racial conversations were still black people and white people, and I will always appreciate the audacity of the Latin@ and Asian Pacific American students, and the space given to be part of a larger conversation. Giving into marginalization in that setting would have been giving up, and inserting ourselves into the racial conversation fought against our being relegated to the margins as “cultural others” or what I might call “window dressing.”
Conversations in the PC(USA) are often tied to the racial-ethnic caucuses and ethnic specific congregations. These conversations for people of color mean you’re either black or you belong to an immigrant group. And while I work hard to be in solidarity with immigrants, because we are all stuck in this crazy racialized category together, the most recent immigrant in my family is white and English-speaking. The majority of my family has been here for over 100 years. The issue for me is not language access (although that is important). My issues are not about my culture and the church’s inability to deal with my cultural differences (I know how to navigate whiteness and white culture. My people have been doing it for generations.). My issues are about the racism that has helped make this church what it is. Racism is embedded in our identity. And I think we as a church have the capacity to forge an identity that recognizes our participation in colonialism, racism, and other “isms,” without giving these systemic evils the power they currently hold.
So how do we do this? Let’s start simply. Let’s allow for complexity of identities. Let’s allow for a multiplicity of expressions. There is no one way or best way to be Presbyterian, or Christian for that matter. Jesus wasn’t white, nor did he speak English only. Let’s also allow for a complexity of understanding how racism and sexism are experienced in the church and in society. How a first-generation immigrant Filipina experiences racism is quite distinct than how a Native American man experiences racism. How a half Japanese half Jewish woman experiences racism is quite distinct than how an African-American man experiences racism.
Let’s quit using one another as props for our own theological or political campaigns. There is nothing more exasperating than white churches holding up “Hispanics” or “Koreans” or “international partners” or “young people” as a rationale for changing our church policies or not changing our church policies. While I believe advocacy is important, I think we tread too far in the direction of other more dangerous and exploitative territory. What was once held as a truism is rapidly shifting. No group is likely to be both theologically and politically liberal or conservative based on the definitions the church has relied on for decades. 63% of Hispanic/Latino Americans support same-sex marriage rights. Asian Pacific Americans as a group overwhelmingly (71%) voted Democrat in the last presidential election. Mexico City and South Africa and Brazil have legalized same-sex marriage. Many of the churches that are our more “conservative” partners around the world are also vehemently anti-free trade and oppose the kind of capitalism practiced by this country and our institutions, the kind of economic system that benefits us. This just goes to show how complex are our belief systems, affiliations, and convictions. If we have a belief, how about we claim it as ours, and find a good way to substantiate our claims, instead of using these monolithic imaginary others who are perfectly capable of speaking for themselves, and often do speak for themselves, given the chance.
Let’s address real inequalities. I have heard many churches, many of them majority-white, wish the Presbyterian Church would stop focusing on so many social issues and focus just on theological ones. Social issues are theological. It is a theological problem if Christians believe employment opportunity for those with varying levels of education, immigration, the criminal justice system, gun control, political gerrymandering, disenfranchisement, voter ID laws, the financial services sector, hunger, poverty, and economic inequality are not the business of the church. These are things that have a disproportionate impact on the lives of people of color. These are the problems that keep us from attaining a shot at racial justice. These are the problems that shape our lives because we’re always negotiating with banks to allow our in-laws to keep their homes, or finding lawyers so our mothers can stay in the country, or finding people to write letters attesting to the character of our wrongfully accused sons, or looking for ways to feed our families. We have to worry about elected officials who don’t look like us or care about our communities. This takes up a lot of time and energy, and it is our faith that keeps us going. These are the circumstances we bring with us to church every single Sunday.
It must be really nice to never have to worry about those things. Never have to worry about discrimination. Never have to worry about getting a loan from a bank. Never have to worry about laws regulating gun sales because you think your son won’t be gunned down in the street. Never have to worry how a police officer will react. What will drive us apart instead of together as the church is if you dismiss my real life as just the “fluff” the church shouldn’t be doing.
This might be weird, coming from the “other Asian” who is employed and has citizenship and all kinds of access, but part of being Asian Pacific American is needing to care about all these things. We are small, even if we are the fastest-growing group in the U.S. We encompass great economic and vocational diversity. And for anyone to care about our issues, we have to care about the issues of other groups. We are not so different from each other. And by building coalitions, by showing up for each other, we are more likely to get things done.
I know that some of the partners in this work are white. In the end, we are all on the same side, yes? Patriarchy and white supremacy serve no one, not even the white men among us, even if white men do (statistically speaking) stand a far better chance than others to benefit. Patriarchy and white supremacy in the United States continue to divide us from one another, disrupt our collective organizing power, compromise our Christian identity, minimize our capacity to act like Christians, and dehumanize each one of us. While I do not feel sorry for white men, I also know that the fullness of what it means to be a man is severely limited by patriarchy, and the fullness of what it means to be human is cut off at the knees in exchange for white privilege.
But people in power are going to have to start believing that oppression and marginalization are real, without putting the burden of proof on those who experience marginalization. And people with power will need to grapple with the realities of the privilege the current structures have afforded them. There’s no need to feel guilty, but there is a need to be honest about it, and to find ways to be good and accountable partners in this work.
Our church has a lot of statements, many policies opposing inequality and injustice. You also know that our church and many churches struggle with allowing both diversity and unity to creatively coexist. How can we be authentically church in the midst of real disagreement about money, theology, sexual orientation, pastoral discretion, Biblical interpretation? How can we be authentically church when we do not like each other?
I’m straying into Biblical territory here, but I have heard we all have spiritual gifts. Some of us do the complex and cutting-edge thinking. Some of us do a great job of raising money. Some of us are activists, creating change by pushing from the edges. Some of us are subversive, making change inside large institutions, incrementally making these institutions more life-affirming for all people. Some of us are great encouragers. Some of us make sure there is food on the table. Some of us pray.
I believe I said something somewhere about showing up for each other. I meant that across racial groups, and I mean it for different genders and religious groups, too. We can’t hope to make change all by ourselves, all the time. Maybe some of us were trapped in schools that taught the whitewashed version of civil rights history, but the civil rights movements have been incredibly diverse. There were many philosophies, change theories, streams of thought. They were white and African-American and Asian Pacific American and Native American and Hispanic/Latin@. Civil rights work was transnational. So if we of varying races, genders, and religious groups show up for each other, and if we of varying spiritual gifts show up for each other, maybe that is a way of finding how to be authentically church and authentically community. Maybe that is how we can create change.
Crossroads understands that racism is a system of oppression linked to other systems of oppression that robs each of us of our full humanity and impairs our ability to create just and sustainable community with one another both locally and globally.