Robette has been Executive Co-Director of Crossroads and a Core Organizer/Trainer since 2002. As a Karuk Indian, Robette brings a specifically indigenous perspective to antiracism organizing. She is a founding member and past president of Diverse & Revolutionary UU Multicultural Ministries (DRUUMM), the continental support and advocacy organization for UUA People of Color. She is currently Board President of Oyate, a Native American resource and advocacy organization. Robette has over a decade of experience in antiracism training, technical support and advocacy.
If I could change ONE THING that would have unprecedented impact on racial justice, racial equity and antiracism, I would change the way the United States “thinks” and “talks” about race. Because the way we typically think and talk about race, has no basis in the reality of how this country actually DOES race.
The prevailing discourse and analysis of race and racism focuses on a Black/White Racial Binary Paradigm. This paradigm is so ubiquitous, so persistent and so contrary to rational thought, historic evidence and lived experience one can’t help but grasp there is something powerful about it that keeps us heavily invested in maintaining it. The Black/White Paradigm is one of the most rigid constructs maintaining white supremacy and systemic racism. And the really diabolical thing about it is one can be whole-heartedly committed and working to dismantle racism, while maintaining it at the same time. And when it’s People of Color who live race in the Black/White Paradigm, it is an effective divide and conquer strategy and a toxic internalized oppression dynamic.
Some definitions are in order. First, what is a paradigm? And then, more specifically, what is the Black/White Racial Binary Paradigm? A paradigm is a shared set of understandings or premises which permits the definition, elaboration and solution of a set of problems that are defined within the paradigm. Paradigms control fact gathering and investigation focusing only on the facts and circumstances the paradigm teaches are relevant and important.
For a description of the Black/White Racial Binary Paradigm, I again turn to Perea:
“I define this paradigm as the conception that race in America consists, either exclusively or primarily, of only two constituent racial groups, the Black and the White. Many scholars of race reproduce this paradigm when they write and act as though only the Black and the White races matter for purposes of discussing race and social policy with regard to race. The mere recognition that “other people of color” exist, without careful attention to their voices, their histories, and their real presence, is merely a reassertion of the Black/White paradigm. If one conceives of race and racism as primarily of concern only to Blacks and Whites, and understands “other people of color” only through some unclear analogy to the “real” races, this just restates the binary paradigm with a slight concession to demographics. 
What this means is, if we only understand race as being Black or White, and we only have a framework for understanding racism as dynamics between Black people and White people, defining the “race problem” as the legacy caused by African enslavement, then the only solutions we can imagine are constrained to rectifying that dynamic. In the real world, this means we could solve the problem of civil rights, full inclusion and control of resources for African-Americans, we could even make reparations but still not have touched American Indian’s racial justice struggle to reclaim land and sovereignty. Nor would we have solved any issues around immigration and civil rights for people from (or whose ancestors were from) parts of the world that the US restricts legal immigration like Latin and South America, Africa, Asia and the Middle East. The homelands of Puerto Rico, Hawai’i, Alaska and Guam would still not be returned to their people. And our economy would continue to depend on neo-colonial practices around the world.
The Black/White Binary prevents us from seeing the totality of white supremacy and thus from diagnosing and solving the totality of the problem. All People of Color are exploited and harmed by racism, but the vehicle of exploitation differs and the differences are important. All People of Color have history and experience with the United States, its often oppressive political, social, economic and cultural systems, but that history and experience are not all the same and the differences are important. They are important for recognizing our individual humanity and important for effective organizing to dismantle white supremacy.
Here is an example of what I am talking about using a report from the US Center on Disease Control (CDC), National Surveillance of Asthma: United States, 2001–2010. The way the CDC collects and reports its data is highly problematic, for example: using the Black/White Racial Binary to refer to race while ignoring Asian Americans, Pacific Islanders, American Indians and Alaska Natives; and classifying Latin@s as Hispanic ethnics and not a racialized group. In some regards they are following the pattern established by the US Census, which completely mystifies the way race is actually lived out in the United States (a topic for another day). Refer to the following chart which summarizes some of the CDC asthma data, Figure 2. Current asthma prevalence, by age group, sex, race and ethnicity, poverty status, geographic region, and urbanicity: United States, average annual 2008–2010, which clearly indicates Puerto Ricans have the highest prevalence of asthma.
The narrative of the report also confirms Puerto Ricans have the highest prevalence of asthma as follows:
“Race differences in 2008–2010 current asthma prevalence—Current asthma prevalence was higher in black persons (11.2%) than in white persons (7.7%). “
“Ethnicity differences in 2008–2010 current asthma prevalence—Among Hispanic persons, Puerto Rican persons had higher prevalence (16.1%) compared with Mexican persons (5.4%).”
What this tells us is Puerto Ricans have the highest rate of asthma prevalence, but they are not racialized, so the racial group with the highest prevalence are Blacks.
The CDC generates a multitude of reports based on the data it collects presumably intended to communicate the results to a variety of audiences. One such document pertaining to asthma, intended for broad (media for example) distribution is CDC Vital Signs: Asthma in the US which reports, “About 1 in 9 (11%) non-Hispanic blacks of all ages and about 1 in 6 (17%) of non-Hispanic black children had asthma in 2009, the highest rate among racial/ethnic groups.” That’s not what the data says. Throughout the report Black and White statistic are paired together, usually in contrast to one another, and only occasionally placed in relationship to the “Hispanic” statistics which are typically reported paired as two contrasting ethnicities Mexican and Puerto Rican. As if those two ethnic groups somehow comprise the totality of “Hispanic” ethnic identity.
All this to say, reporting data this way makes sense only within the context of the Black/White Binary. The more appropriate racial term Latin@s would generate more meaningful data than the “ethnic binary” Non-Hispanic or Hispanic (which simply means “Spanish speaking”), and I would also argue it is important to disaggregate the data by ethnicity within all racial groups too. This would better reflect the lived reality of racial differences in the United States. Using statistics gathered according to the rules of the Black/White Binary to monitor progress toward racial equity (or not) is impossible, and yet, we spend inordinate quantities of money and human resources trying to do it. We need to track racial disparities in order to determine progress in eliminating them, but we need to track racial disparities (not the convoluted confusion we current track).
The Black/White Paradigm prevents us from fully understanding the problem of racism and therefore prevents us from finding systemic solutions that are effective. But it also prevents People of Color seeing one another and supporting one another in very human ways.
I recently watched the video “How Does it Feel to be a Black Student at UCLA Law School” on the ColorLines website. The video is intended to “raise the awareness of the disturbing emotional toll placed on students of color due to their alarmingly low representation in the student body.” Notice how the video conflates “Black” with “People of Color?” The video tells us there are 33 Black students out of an approximate total student body of 1100. According to UCLA the law school student body is 35% students of color. Institutions of higher education have a variety of strategies to inflate their diversity grades, counting some foreign students as People of Color for example. The more conservative numbers from the Law School Numbers website, indicate UCLA law school is about 29% students of color. It’s not great (UCLA is in Southern California after all) though statistically it’s a lot better than a lot of law schools. But this is where the Black/White Binary is truly insidious.
My observation watching the video is the Black students feel “isolated” and “unsafe” in their classes and do not feel solidarity with the other 29% of the students of color. And presumably, the other students of color are not feeling solidarity with the Black students. The reality is they share a lot of common ground in relationship to white supremacy and if they would act like it, they would be a force to be reckoned with. I’m not blaming the Black students or the other students of color for this, it’s the set up of the Black/White Binary that keeps them from understanding their racial kinship. I “get” the isolation the Black students feel and my heart goes out to them. As an American Indian in institutional settings, I’m often the ONLY one in the room, I’ve learned building solidarity with other People of Color is survival, literally. (BTW there are 18 American Indian students and 1 Pacific Islander student at UCLA law school—talk about lonely).
Sometimes I feel like Harriet Tubman, I know why Harriet carried a gun. Sometimes the people you are trying to lead to freedom are their own worst enemy. That’s how Internalized Racist Oppression works. People of Color have the power to change the Black/White Paradigm, and yet People of Color are some of the most rigid defenders of it. The discussion often devolves to some version of the “oppression olympics” with each group, trying to assert how they are the “most oppressed.” And then when White folks get involved and say the reason for the Black/White Paradigm is because the race construct was created to justify African enslavement, that’s how it all started. And Black people’s oppression is the worst oppression (and sometimes its not just the White people who say this). History, current social indicators and lived reality do not support ANY of these arguments.
Crossroads is evidence of the power of an alternative paradigm. The paradigm we use is radically inclusive of all People of Color. We understand The Paradigm we are up against is white supremacy that justified colonialism, and a multiplicity of economic and cultural exploitation. If you shift the paradigm there is room for all People of Color, their lives and experiences. It also creates space for people with mixed race ancestry who have been part of the race construct all along too (another topic for another day). If you shift the paradigm it shifts the organizing terrain and opens up a whole lot of possible transformative solutions to systemic racism.
 Juan F. Perea, The Black/White Binary Paradigm of Race: The Normal Science of American Racial Thought, 85 CAL. L. Rev. 1213 (1997).
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. Laura has a chapter in the book “Streams Running Uphill.” 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.
Whenever people who are not Asian American tell me I have lots of privilege, I would like that credit to go into my microaggression account. Thanks to my reality as a biracial Asian American woman in the U.S., the weight of microaggressions can sometimes overpower my usually healthy sense of self and place in the world, and I head into what I call my spiral of despair. I have to go read Asian American or Latin@ or Native American feminists to pull myself out of the emotional quagmire. I have to remind myself that I’m not alone.
I have the spent the past couple of months cycling between rage and indifference at Amy Chua, the co-author of The Triple Package: How Three Unlikely Traits Explain the Rise and Fall of Cultural Groups in America and the author of Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. I’ve been mad because I think her work does not deserve the attention it is getting. I’m mad because I think no amount of cultural gumption will ever overcome systemic discrimination based on race, class, and citizenship, but the latest book by Chua and her husband gives people reasons to overlook discrimination and accuse groups of people of not having the right cultural “stuff.”
But mostly I’m mad because I think what she has done is given more fodder to the model minority myth, driving a wedge between groups who could gain more by working together, but instead play right into the divide and conquer tactics practiced by the system of power and privilege we know as U.S. racism. This latest book just expands and makes more specific the number of groups who get deemed “superior” due to their culture. And I should be clear I am mad at Amy Chua herself. Yes, AT her. Not at her husband. Because as a woman of color, I think she should know better.
Hello, Model Minority stereotyping. I haven’t been able to escape you since the 1960s.* Have you heard of this? This is one of racism’s finest achievements: the capacity to dupe everyone into thinking that certain minority racial or cultural groups are just inherently superior, regardless of the amount of structural racism facing those groups, and regardless of what the actual data show. This has been so successful that not only do white people often believe it—
“Oh, you Asian Americans are doing just fine. Look at how high your household income is!”
Implication: Racism is over for you!
Implication: You are just so much better than those other people of color, who won’t stop whining about their oppression. Let’s unite against other brown people, even though you’re never getting that promotion.
And the real success? People of color believe it! Too many Asian Americans are totally cool with the Model Minority stereotype:
“At least it’s a positive stereotype.” (I’ve actually had that conversation.)
So do other people of color:
“Asians.” (snort) “Privilege.”
“What we really need to focus on are the needs of African descendants.”
It’s true. When 18millionrising began and hosted a Twitter conversation using the hashtag @NotYourAsianSidekick, it opened the door for other Twitter users to begin posting using the hashtag #AsianPrivilege. Some of the Asian American participants didn’t help, and responded by lashing out against other communities. While we people of color are in a corner busily accusing each other of having privilege, or being blatantly bigoted, or trying to explain how the data obscure the realities of racism and discrimination, the system of racism that privileges white people is having a party in the middle of the room. This, my friends, is not the Olympics. The only winner is the system.
What the black-white binary does is limit the conversation, narrows our analytical lens, and leads to an incomplete organizing strategy. The Model Minority Myth plays into this binary by marginalizing the fastest-growing racial group from the discussion, and isolates distinct communities of people of color from one another. That’s right: Asian Pacific Americans aren’t black. (I have been accused of not being black. It’s true. I’m not.) And by not being black, we are divided from our African-descent brothers and sisters. The binary and the Myth mean the organizing power of people of color is divided, and we end up primarily relating with white people instead of with one another.
This is exhausting.
I feel exhausted, because now I have the sense that I need to go through an actual data breakdown to prove that Asian Americans should be in this conversation, along with Latin@s and Native Americans. I would like to walk away from this conversation, but I won’t. If I walk away, the system wins again.
So instead of playing into the black-white binary, let’s try something else. Let’s try learning one another’s stories. Instead of comparing our puny pieces of the American story, or the amount of visibility or power or economic influence we have, let’s take a step back to look at the whole picture. Let’s try to determine how we add our collective power and stories together to fight a dehumanizing and bloodthirsty system. Let’s figure out what Native American sovereignty has in common with immigration and criminal justice reform.
* In the 1960s, the narrative emerged that certain immigrant and other minority groups, primarily Asian Americans, were doing great, over and against other distinct communities of people of color.
Michael Russell is the pastor of the Jubilee Faith Community of the ELCA (Evangelical Lutheran Church in America) in Country Club Hills, IL. Prior to that he did community organizing with Neighborhood Housing Services, Inc in Chicago’s West Englewood community. He is also an antiracism trainer and organizer with Crossroads Antiracism Organzing and Training. Michael is also vice president of SOUL, a grassroots coalition of faith based organizations focused on economic justice, leadership training and political responsibility in Chicago’s Southland.
As Black history month approaches its final week, I continued to be reminded of the grip racism and white supremacy have on this nation. From the failure of a Florida jury to find Michael Dunn guilty of his unjustifiable murder of Jordan Davis to Ted Nugent’s racist rant about the President of the United States, the evidence that we are not in a post racial or colorblind nation is undeniable. Just a month ago the nation was commemorating the birth and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in parades, interfaith services, community actions, and days of service but as I reflect upon the daily carnage of people of color lives lost and dehumanized in defense of white supremacy, I want to breathe new life and energy into Dr. King’s message and work for radical social transformation.
King believed racism and economic oppression were cancers invading and destroying the soul of the United States. He worked to spread a message and organized to share a non-violent methodology because he believed that people working together for a common purpose had the power to excise these malignancies from our society and because he wanted to agitate for geo-political and socio-economic change. As a Baptist minister King preached against social messages, which sought to dehumanize African-Americans. Theologically and ethically, King held onto the conviction that God did not tolerate the sin of racism and stood on the side of those who struggle to bring dignity to all life. He appealed to the moral center of individuals and society because wanted them to understand that “[t]he racial issue that we confront in America is not a sectional but a national problem. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. Therefore, no American can afford to be apathetic about the problem of racial justice. It is a problem that meets every man [sic] at his front door.” King gave his life to organize a movement aimed at securing human and civil rights for People of Color in the United States because he knew that at stake was the very soul of this nation.
King’s formula for change is strikingly simple: Message + Methodology + Momentum (movement) = sociopolitical change. One example of the application of this formula was the Montgomery bus boycott. The leaders of the civil rights movement were clear that racism was dehumanizing and denying basic human and civil rights to a part of this nation’s citizenry. They understood that racism had also socialized the African-American citizens of Montgomery to cooperate with and finance their own dehumanization through oppression, intimidation, and terrorism.
Recognizing that liberation of African-Americans in Montgomery, AL would require divestment from the infrastructure of the city, a bus boycott was planned. Preparations were made to provide alternative modes of transportation. Meetings were held to prepare the community for the pressure they would experience. Then Rosa Parks, a 42-year old African-American woman trained in non-violent organizing at the Highlander Folk School, boarded a bus paid full fare for her ticket and refused to relinquish her seat defying the bus company’s rule that required a black person give up their seat to any white person upon request and move to the ‘blacks only’ section at the back of the bus.
For this act of civil disobedience, Parks was arrested; an event that catalyzed the community’s support for the boycott. For more than a year, they inspired one another to resist and persevere through even the most violent tactics employed by local police, vigilantes, and the Montgomery business community. The resisters remained committed to their message, and methodology boycotting the buses and businesses that participated in discriminatory practices. They imposed grass-roots community based economic sanctions on their institutional oppressors. These sanctions weakened the economic foundation that sustained that particular racist system and raised the consciousness of a nation to the need for the elimination of Jim Crow practices.
Right now we endure the continued exploitation of people of color who are used as human fuel for corporate economic engines, including United States militarization, criminalization and incarceration. Our nation along with the global community is being torn asunder by economic policies that increase the gap between the “haves and have-nots,” governmental and social disregard for the human rights of its most vulnerable citizens, a growing environmental degradation crisis, hegemonic wars, and the devaluation of all life, Dr. King’s words ring prophetic and his wisdom timely. As we organize to dismantle all forms of systemic and institutional oppression, our call is to struggle against the commercialization and dilution of the movement Dr. King helped birth. We must accept his challenge, rally the resistance, modernize the methodology, and live into his legacy by organizing and working together until the dream is made real for us all.
Racism is alive and well in 2014. Systems of oppression continue to morph into new constructs that marginalize and dehumanize us all. Giving up is not an option. Let us honor those whose lives and dreams have been cut short by racism by renewing our commitment to work across all lines of difference for a world and nation in which all people thrive. As we conclude this years observance of Black history month let us not forget to that a true celebration and commemoration of Dr. King and the men and women with whom he labored in the civil rights movement demands that we work without ceasing to ensure human rights and civil rights are afforded to all.
Toni Cade Bambara
Toni Cade Bambara was a writer, activist, feminist, and filmmaker who gifted the struggle for civil and human rights with incisive words, powerful images, and opportunities for laughter. Among her many contributions to the world of arts and literature is an anthology of non-fiction, fiction, and poetry, entitled The Black Woman which was the first major feminist anthology featuring work by Nikki Giovanni, Audre Lorde, Alice Walker, Paule Marshall, and others. One of Toni Cade Bambara’s most beloved stories, The Golden Bandit, was published the year of her death in an edited volume titled Jump Up and Say! A Collection of Black Storytelling and it is a retelling of the children’s story Goldilocks and the Three Bears. Bambara’s ability to use this classic children’s story to offer a critique of White privilege and White supremacy is fun and a reminder of her gifts, which were lost too soon when she succumb to cancer in 1995.
This past summer Debra Russell, Crossroads’ Director of Management and Resources, lead the participants of Crossroads annual gathering in an interactive reading of Bambara’s sharp retelling of the children’s classic. As Crossroads continues to remember voices often forgotten in the celebration of Black History month, we share this reading of Bambara’s Golden Bandit.
Derrick Dawson is a member of the AntiRacism Commission of the Episcopal Diocese of Chicago, and served as its Co-Chair for three years. He is a graduate student and teaching assistant in English Composition at Northeastern Illinois University in Chicago. Derrick was also a broadcaster and journalist in the United States Navy, where he served for eight years on ships in Asia and the Pacific.
Barely a week into Black History Month and I am exhausted. The DVR is already full of black programming, there’s a play, concert or other event every night and two on Saturdays. Someone joked that a cable channel is showing a minstrel marathon in celebration, and a Catholic high school for girls in California has apologized for a Black History Month lunch of fried chicken and watermelon.
The annual debates around the relevancy of Black History Month are emblematic of common discourse around race in the United States; a discourse which is almost exclusively characterized by a black-white binary paradigm. This paradigm is problematic because it masks the connections people of color have to one another and does not address the complexity of American History which has seen the genocide of Native Americans, the genocide and enslavement of African Americans, the systematic deportation of Latinos and the exploitation of Asian Americans and the rounding up of People of Color who threaten the United States.
I confess that I have struggled with the fact that the black-white binary paradigm is problematic in the work antiracism organizing and the work of social justice. This is not an easy admission for me. As an organizer-trainer for Crossroads, as well as its co-chair of the board of directors, I would like to believe that I’d mastered everything there is to know about institutional and systemic racism. I was raised on the far South Side of Chicago in the 1960’s and 1970’s when Martin Luther King moved the civil rights movement to the city to fight segregation. He later referred to this effort, stating ” I have seen many demonstrations in the South, but I have never seen anything so hostile and so hateful as I’ve seen here today,” he said.” As a kid in the South Side’s Burnham neighborhood, I unknowingly played on the steps of the Area 2 police station while John Burge and his corrupt policemen beat confession out of dozens of innocent men in one of the nation’s worst examples of abject institutional racism.
My work as an antiracism organizer trainer has shown me that there is a persistent struggle against this binary as those who are neither black nor white often struggle to have their voices heard in the fight against white supremacy. “The reality is that the exclusion of others is a result of a particular black-white normative vision of the American nation as being properly and primarily black and white. The . . . black-white binary is a nativist idea that aids the continued exclusion of Latinos, Asian Americans, and other nonwhite immigrant groups . . . from full citizenship and equal protection.”
I became aware of my own participation in this nativist phenomenon about 3 years ago when Michelle Alexander published The New Jim Crow. Her book about mass incarceration was better received than even the author anticipated. After reading the book and seeing Ms. Alexander speak at a few readings around Chicago, I began to hear criticisms that she addressed neither the growing presence of women nor Latinos in the conversation of mass incarceration in the United States. I was surprised when Michelle Alexander acknowledged her own adherence to the black-white binary paradigm on Bill Moyer’s & Company last December, declaring that she had came to realize the need to “change lanes” and see the issue more broadly. It had finally occurred to her that
“If I care about a young man serving, you know, 25 years to life for a minor drug crime. If I care about him and care about his humanity, ought I not also care equally about a young woman who’s facing deportation back to a country she hardly knows and had lived in only as a child and can barely speak the language? And ought I not be as equally concerned about her fate as well? Ought I not be equally concerned about a family whose loved ones were just killed by drones in Afghanistan? Ought I not care equally for all? And that really was Dr. King’s insistence at the end of his life. That we ought to care about the Vietnamese as much as we care and love our people at home.”
And of course she’s right. An illustration is buried in the issue of Mass Incarceration that is the subject of her book even though it has gone largely unnoticed. In 2013, Wall Street Journal journalist Patrick O Connor reported that the harsh immigration laws passed in Arizona last year were written by lobbyists for the Private prison industry, specifically Corrections Corporation of America and the GEO Group.
Here in Chicago, I have attended any number of rallies and meetings about immigration. It is clear at these events that immigration issues are seen as an issue only important to Latinos just as mass incarceration is seen as an issue concerning only African Americans. Ronald R. Sundstrom illustrates this further with an example from Hurricane Katrina.While Arizona citizens believed they were taking a firm stand in favor of “border control,”they were being duped by CCA and GEO who were selling bodies for the profit and the career advancement of local politicians. Arizona Senate Bill 1070 was signed into law by Governor Jan Brewer on April 23, 2010.
As the aftermath of the hurricane developed, the image of African-American urban poverty dominated the news and discourse. The discussions of the hurricane and race did not stray from stories about poor African Americans and worked to exclude the news that the Bush administration had used the disaster as an opportunity to apprehend and deport undocumented Latin American immigrants who ended up in Shelters. This move was, of course, paired with widespread exploitation of Latino labor by contractors who sought to take advantage of federal and state monies for the rebuilding of the Gulf Coast region. Additionally, the binary blocked from public attention the news of the losses of Honduran Americans in New Orleans and Vietnamese American communities of the Gulf Coast. The race story was simply the black story, and the result was that the nation thought of race in its old black-white terms.
I look at my bookmarks and realize that I turn to some of my favorite sites, like Angry Asian Man, Son of Baldwin and Indigenous Peoples Issues and Resources in an attempt to keep up with what’s going on in various communities’ social justice work. While I’m grateful for those resources, I also recognize that those resources exist because of the marginalization of non-Black people of color in the black-white binary paradigm.
The black-white binary paradigm is dangerous because it serves white supremacy by marginalizing, isolating and dividing people of color. Moving beyond the binary might allow us to see more black social justice groups showing up at Reforma Migratoria PRO America rallies and supporting the National Congress of American Indians.
African American demands for justice deserve satisfaction, and those claims do not need the black-white binary for justification. The black-white binary renders invisible the experience of groups that stand outside the binary, makes hyper-visible the experience of African Americans, and diverts attention away from white supremacy. The black-white binary is a fictional representation of race in America and has to be set aside if racial justice work is to be located in a broader human rights context.
 “Incarceration Nation” Bill Moyers & Company. PBS. 20 Dec. 2013. Televisio
 Sundstrom, p82
 Ronald R. Sundstrom, The Browning of America and the Evasion of Social Justice, SUNY Press, 2008, 190pp., ISBN 9780791475867
Joy Bailey has been the Director of Organizing and Training for Crossroads since 2011 and has been a Core/Organizer Trainer since 2008. 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.
I was recently asked what I thought the difference was between antiracism and racial equity. Frankly, I often use these terms interchangeably and don’t see much difference. If I had to parse them out, I would say racial equity is about creating policies, practices, and structures that deliver equitable, not necessarily equal, treatment to all. It means actualizing shared power and decision-making that is just and fair. The Center for Assessment and Policy Development defines racial equity this way:
Racial equity is the condition that would be achieved if one’s racial identity no longer predicted, in a statistical sense, how one fares. When we use the term, we are thinking about racial equity as one part of racial justice, and thus we also include work to address root causes of inequities not just their manifestation. This includes elimination of policies, practices, attitudes and cultural messages that reinforce differential outcomes by race or fail to eliminate them.
I would say that racial equity is a component of antiracism. The term antiracism encompasses a systemic analysis of racism that includes historical, sociological, economic and political frameworks. It includes a response to racism that involves action and organizing strategically. For us at Crossroads, it means applying a systemic analysis of racism to our institutions and then organizing collectively to transform them into more racially equitable and multicultural institutions. We understand that for a single institution to be transformed, we will have to transform all other institutions and systems with which it is interconnected as well. The interconnected web of institutions and systems producing racist outcomes is often called structural or systemic racism, which antiracism seeks to eliminate. As defined by National Antiracism Council International Perspectives: Women and Global Solidarity, “Anti-racism is the active process of identifying and eliminating racism by changing systems, organizational structures, policies and practices and attitudes, so that power is redistributed and shared equitably.”
Now, some people Crossroads organizers encounter will ask why we use the term antiracism when, “it is so negative.” We might hear, “It turns people off and sounds like you are blaming individuals, ” or, “Why not say what you are for rather than what you are against?” While it is true that we must say what we stand for, providing hope and vision, and not simply point out what is wrong and unjust in the world we do not think that the term antiracism is negative nor individualistic.
If we think about other uses of the prefix anti-, e.g. anti freeze; antibiotic; antiviral; antiparasitic; antifungal; antimalarial; antipsychotic; antidepressant; antiviolence; etc., we see that this prefix is especially common in the practice of medicine and that it points to an intervention aimed at curing or preventing systemic conditions. This is a clue regarding the way Crossroads uses the term antiracism. It suggests activity that is curative and preventive in relation to the systemic damage wrought by racism.
Crossroads organizer James Addington likes to say, antiracism as an intervention includes the reparation of community. The term antiracism is especially relevant in reference to collective, collaborative action. While individuals can certainly be antiracist, their antiracism is especially relevant in common cause with others. Antiracism in this sense is about the reparation of the fabric of community and the role that institutions can play in that process. It is about calling institutions into an accountable relationship with communities. It is about restoring and shaping sustainable community life; life that is diverse, resilient and regenerative. It is about healthy, life giving community.
Even though the notion that the US is “post-racial” has been pretty thoroughly trounced, we still hear people claim to be colorblind and that they treat everyone the same. The purpose of Blindspot: Hidden Biases of Good People is to expose the large set of biases all of us have hidden in our brains and to show how those “bits of knowledge about groups of people” (their skin color, age, education or religion) can influence behavior.
Karen Ziech organizes and trains in the Episcopal Diocese of Chicago where she has been a member of the Anti-racism Commission since 2008. As a member of Chicago Regional Organizing for Antiracism (C-ROAR) she is working to build a network of antiracist allies in the Chicago area. She moved into instructional design and training in the telecom industry where she worked for nearly fifteen years. As a career consultant in the outplacement industry. Karen loves spending time with her four children and their kids (eleven grandchildren and counting), practicing yoga, reading and walking.
You may have heard of the Harvard Implicit Association Tests (IATs). Available online for almost 20 years, they were created by Blindspot’s authors to prove that it is “unconscious cognition,” rather than conscious thought that drives human judgment and behavior. The 10 minute exercises test the taker’s attitudes, one’s positive and negative associations, about groups of people. The data from over 14 million IATs show the disconnect between what “good people” believe about themselves and the reality of their implicit attitudes. Among the many attitudes studied, results reveal that in this country the preference for White people is pervasive, that we favor young over old (this is one of the strongest biases in our culture), and that we prefer straight people over gay people.
Blindspot, like Crossroads’ Critical Cultural Competency workshop, shows how constant input from our culture shapes our attitudes and gives examples of how, when we’re unaware of them, we can engage in behavior that is damaging to others. The authors point to studies in which people with higher levels of preference for Whites judged White job applicants to be better qualified than Black applicants and where ER physicians recommended optimal treatment more often to White patients than to Blacks. While both these studies refer to the preference for White people over Black, the authors cite numerous examples of unequal treatment to Hispanics, Asians, Muslims and American Indians.
In the discussion of stereotypes, which we all form and use, the authors state that the more one can be described by the default attributes of one’s society, those that Crossroads calls normative, the less one will be subject to stereotyping. And conversely, the fewer dominant culture characteristics one possesses, the more likely one is to be stereotyped, by others, and also by oneself. As just two examples of the negative effects of internalized stereotyping, the authors point to elders who unconsciously influence their declining health and women who underperform in STEM professions. (A recent preventative medicine study, which uses results from the Race IAT, measures the role of internalized stereotypes in the aging process. Study: In Black Men, Internalized Racism Speeds Up Aging)
While it can be discouraging to be confronted with our own hidden biases and to understand how unconsciously we behave towards others, the good news is that just being aware of the problem is the beginning of fixing it. The authors devote an entire chapter to ways in which we can spot behaviors that result in damage to people in stereotyped groups and what we can do to outsmart our implicit associations. It’s impossible to be truly color blind, but this book can help us to be intentional about treating everyone with the dignity and respect we all want.
Blindspot is a thorough and compelling argument for getting in touch with one’s individual biases. It’s pretty clear, though, that the authors view this connection as just a first step. In the body of the book, they cover a short history of the study of racism in the US. And, in addition to the race IAT, which first established the widespread preference for White people over People of Color, the authors discuss the consistent implicit associations with Americans as White People, topics that would logically lead to a discussion of racism. It’s in the 40 page appendix that the book shows its true goal—to open up that discussion. Here the authors cover the history of racism in the 20th century and its current levels in the US; causes and examples of racial and ethnic disadvantage (in criminal justice, education, health care and housing, to name just a few); and continued racial segregation. Because they are social scientists, they come at racism from the perspective of scientific studies. One hopes, one yearns, for a next book, which could cover studies about research that shows positive outcomes in dismantling racism.
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 Currently, Jessica holds Masters degrees in Theological Studies and Divinity.
The terrorist attacks on the Twin Towers in New York City misshaped life in the United States in profound ways. The suspicion, vicious antipathy, and the violence that met Muslims and Arab-Americans after September 11th, 2001 was not surprising given the history of this nation. One of the developments of our post-9/11 world has been the racialization of those perceived to be Arab Americans and Muslims into the catchall racial category of “Arab/Middle Eastern/Muslim.” Sociologist and professor of Social Welfare and Justice Louis A. Cainkar suggests the 9/11 crisis did not create animosity toward the “Arab/Middle Eastern/Muslim/Other” community as much as it made evident preexistent anti-Arab/Muslim sentiments. While all who are lumped into the “Arab/Middle Eastern/Muslim/Other” category are not Muslim, Middle-Eastern or Arab, the dominant political discourse via the media has created a visualscape in the United States, which “otherizes” all who “appear” to be “Arab/Middle Eastern/Muslim” into this group. Consider for example the case of Sikh Americans, who are not Muslim or Arab but are routinely profiled as both and are often victims of hate motivated crimes.
The hypervisibility this racialization bestowed upon previously invisibilized communities elicited a diversity of responses among which is “Arab/Middle Eastern/Muslim” stand-up comedy. Stand-up comedy in the intervening years since 9/11 has created a space where the racialization of “Arab/Middle Eastern/Muslim/Other” is being contested, explored, and where counter-narratives to dominant culture are being constructed. Acts like the Axis of Evil Comedy Tour, The Muslims are Coming, and Allah Made Me Funny along with comedians like Ahmed Ahmed, Mohammed Amer, Maz Jobrani, Preacher Moss, Dean Obeidallah, Negin Farsad, and Azhar Usman are just some of the stand out acts that have come to define “Arab/Middle Eastern/Muslim/Other” stand-up comedy in the last 14-years.
Allah Made Me Funny
This week I watched and laughed with the stand-up comedians behind “Allah Made Me Funny.” This documentary/comedy concert centers on three stand-up comedians: Palestinian-American Mohammed Amer, Indian-American Azhar Usman, and African-American Muslim convert Preacher Moss. Each of the comics is presented as being firmly grounded in their faith. Additionally, the observance and practice of Islam features prominently in their acts, which appear directed to a mostly Muslim audience. Each comic takes the stage for 20 minutes in which they share their humorous observations about Muslim women, air travel, stereotyping, racial profiling, generational communication issues, cultural idiosyncrasies and the challenges of being Muslim in a country that is ignorant of Islam and those who practice it.
There are many things that work well in the collective project Usman, Amer, and Moss have put together. Each of the comics challenges the dominant narrative about Muslim women in the United States. Through funny accounts about their life as sons and husbands, the comedians present Muslim women as fearless, decisive, strong, and driven. In one of the funniest moments of the DVD, Preacher Moss shares the story of young men planning to take the headscarf off a Jamaican woman riding a D.C. bus. Preacher says laughing, “I wanted to tell them ‘No, she will kill us all!’” Another strong dimension of their work centers on their discussions about living in a post-9/11 United States as Muslims. Mo Amer, the funniest of the group but also the least overtly political, shares the reason first generation Palestinians circumvent political conversation is fear: of risking their status, of loosing favor with the government, and of being deported. Mo delivers the punch line of this story by saying, “But mom, we are Palestinian, we are stateless people, where are they going to deport us to?” In the end I concur with Hussein Rashid’s Religious Dispatches column about the documentary: “What Allah Made Me Funny has the promise to do is to keep a spark burning that it is not all doom and gloom. To remind us of what else our Muslim and American identities hold.”
Not everything works. While they reframe the narrative of Muslim women, they go about it in ways that skirt sexism. Usman, who presents his wife as being independent, professional, and smart, also refers to Muslim women in his stand-up act as the terrorists of the home. Amer refers to Muslim women as the Queen in a chess game, which can do anything, go anywhere and move in any direction, while men as the King get stuck moving in circles and are the mercy of their women. Unlike the Axis of Evil comedy troupe whose members selected their name in response to President Bush’s 2002 State of the Union address, the three comedians profiled in Allah Made Me Funny skirt around the edges of the political, often placing the responsibility on the shoulders of the Muslim American community to shift public opinion. Both Usman and Moss spend segments of their 20-minute sets reviewing the ways Muslims in the United States could afford to shift their image. From hard to explain holidays to the inability to pronounce certain words; from the lack of a theme song to the prohibition against eating pork; from the absence of infomercials explaining Islamic words that are hard to understand, the consequence of this tactic is that Allah Made Me Funny never fully challenges the dominant narratives about Muslims on the United States. Instead, it suggests if Muslims were more mainstream, less other, and more funny, the racism and xenophobia distorting U.S. opinion about Muslims in the United States would be delegitimized. I will admit that it is quite possible this is not what the comics intended. In a 2005 interview with NPR, Usman described what made their tour appealing,
“I think part of the reason why the tour has become kind of a phenomenon unto itself is because comedy and humor is really the antidote to fear. You know, we talk to people and through our show, particularly non-Muslims will come out and say, `God, you know, I had no idea that, you know, Muslims could be funny or, you know, that you have a humor tradition within Islam or, you know, that this is what Muslims are all about,’ etc., etc. And it’s because they feared something they didn’t know.”
In the end where Allah Made Me Funny succeeds as a stand-up comedy show is in redefining what it means to be a Muslim in the United States after 9/11.
 Louise A. Cainkar, “The Social Construction of the Arab (and Muslim) American,” in Homeland Insecurity: The Arab American and Muslim American Experience After 9/11, First (New York, NY: Russell Sage Foundation Publications, 2011).
 Dr. Maureen Reddy in her article, “Invisibility/Hypervisibility: The Paradox of Normative Whiteness” offers this helpful articulation of hypervisibility. She writes, “Whiteness and heterosexuality seem invisible, transparent, to those who are white and/or heterosexual; they are simply norms. In contrast, whiteness makes itself hypervisible to those who are not white, much as heterosexuality forces itself upon the consciousnesses of gays and lesbians. And one way that these constructs reinforce their invisibility to those who benefit from them is precisely through this hypervisibility to those who do not.” Source: http://www.questia.com/library/journal/1P3-506047621/invisibility-hypervisibility-the-paradox-of-normative#articleDetails
 Andrea Kalin, Allah Made Me Funny – Live in Concert (Unity Productions Foundation, 2009).
 Hussein Rashid, “Allah Made Me Funny : Borscht Belt Goes Halal,” ReligionDispatches, October 9, 2008, http://religiondispatches.org/archive/culture/600/allah_made_me_funny__borscht_belt_goes_halal___culture___/.
 Jennifer Ludden, “Allah Made Me Funny: Muslim Comedy : NPR,” NPR.org, August 14, 2005, http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=4799868.
Joy Bailey has been the Director of Organizing and Training for Crossroads since 2011 and has been a Core/Organizer Trainer since 2008. 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.
“A social movement that only moves people is merely a revolt. A movement that changes both people and institutions is a revolution.” – Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
As we enter the month of February, Black History Month, which follows on the heels of MLK DAY, I have been reflecting on the accomplishments of Dr. King and others in the Civil Rights Movement. This year we will celebrate the 50th anniversary of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, yet I am mindful of how far we still have to go towards racial justice. Racism continues to permeate every facet of our society. It impacts individual People of Color struggling against racial micro-aggressions and individual White people who continue to reap the benefits of White privilege and White supremacy. Racism also manifests in our society’s culture at large, imposing dominant White cultural ways of being on everyone and distorting, discrediting and destroying People of Color cultures while simultaneously appropriating them. Finally, racism continues to get lived out in the policies, practices and structures of our institutions as evidenced by outcomes like the Achievement Gap in education (more aptly called the Opportunity Gap) and health disparities.
Crossroads organizer and trainer James Addington likens the ever-present and simultaneous manifestations of individual, cultural and institutional racism to an electromagnetic force field that is very difficult to penetrate. He shares a story of a friend of his who found herself in a meeting where she was the only Person of Color and the only woman. She, for the life of her, could not make herself heard. No matter how hard she tried to bring her voice to the table, she was continually ignored and dismissed, or someone else got credit for her ideas. She described the experience as similar to being surrounded by a force field from which she couldn’t break free.
The metaphor of racism as an electromagnetic force field is powerful because once the problem is identified then we can begin working toward a solution. Racism is a structural problem that requires a structural solution. There needs to be an injection or intervention into the force field of racism that will weaken its power over us; that will heal us and restore community. Since there are at least three ways racism manifests itself, individually, culturally and institutionally, there are at least three ways to apply an intervention.
Some racial justice activists and organizations utilize individual interventions. Generative Somatics is an organization that makes a distinction between oppression and suffering, that the former is externally created and the latter is internal. They argue that many organizers for social justice tend to focus on systemic oppression and neglect self-care. They argue that committing to practices that acknowledge and interrupt “conditioned tendencies” developed in response to stress and trauma, can open us up to more healthy and appropriate ways to respond to individual suffering and more effectively struggle to end racial and other oppressions.
Other organizations challenge cultural racism in our society. For example, Race Forward does a tremendous job of shifting worldviews and language around race and racism in the media. Their Drop The I-Word campaign is just one example of the many ways Race Forward strives to generate a cultural shift in the way our society thinks and talks about race and racism. Oyate is a Native organization that sells books and provides trainings and reviews in order to ensure that Native lives and histories are portrayed with honesty and integrity. 18 Million Rising is another organization that challenges cultural racism by exposing and debunking cultural stereotypes through focused campaigns like #NotYourAsianSidekick.
Crossroads applies our intervention into the force field of racism at the institutional level. We don’t think that an institutional approach is the only or even the best way to eliminate racism, but it is a necessary component to racial justice. It is what we, as Crossroads, offer to the movement. Of course we also address individual and cultural racism, but we do so in the context of institutions and systemic racism. Part of the reason we choose to focus on an institutional intervention is because institutions are where individuals and culture come together. Institutions are made up of people who make decisions and enforce policies and procedures and our society’s cultural values and practices get lived out in our institutions. Our institutions also create, manage and distribute the resources necessary for life. As Robette Dias, Crossroads’ Executive Director, likes to put it, we have replaced the life sustaining nature of the land with institutions. Today, people in the U.S. gain access to the stuff of life through accessing institutions. The problem is that our institutions don’t create, manage and distribute resources equitably to all people and all living beings.
The injection Crossroads offers to diffuse the force field of racism is an antiracism intervention. Our method of intervening and disrupting uses a variety of organizing strategies, workshops and organizational development tools to transform institutions into antiracist multicultural institutions that are life giving for all. To learn more about Crossroads’ antiracism intervention in institutions go to www.crossroadsantiracism.org or call us at 708-503-0804.
The Rev. Dr. B. JoAnn Mundy is executive co-director of Eliminating Racism and Claiming/Celebrating Equality (ERAC/CE) in Kalamazoo, MI (which is a Crossroads regional partner) and a core organizer and trainer with Crossroads. Jo Ann was recently interviewed by Chris Mills, a reporter for WOOD TV8 in Grand Rapids, MI about ERAC/CE’s work in the intersection between food justice and systemic racism. This short clip contains excerpts from the interview in which Jo Ann reminds us, “Every community has the right to determine from where their food comes, what they are gong to eat and how they are going to eat it.”