Archive for December, 2014

while white

Posted: December 6, 2014 in Uncategorized

There is an awful lot of very important dialog happening in the US right now, with regard to race, racism, corruption, law, systemic issues, alliance and privilege.

I have the privilege of having been recruited into a sociology department while pursing an education in psychology, religious studies, and leadership/public service.  My mentor worked closely with inner-city youth (and so afforded me the same opportunities), social justice, and prison outreach. Issues of race, and understanding systemic racism and the prejudices and privileges of the dominant US over-culture, became a forefront part of my academic experience. Suffice it to say, I am grateful every day for the lessons I learned in that curriculum, which took me well outside the bounds of a classroom and into the hearts of the communities around.

Racism is real. The proof is all around us. White privilege is real. I, like most white people, struggled with an internal resistance to acknowledging this second statement when first introduced to the idea. I had “never been involved in racism”, I told myself. I wasn’t one of “those” white people. That was before I understood what was meant by privilege. Once I understood the term, and the systems behind the term, I had no resistance left, because there was nothing to resist: it was clear and inarguable, and also, did not make me a bad person for being white.

In response to current systemic racial atrocities faced very literally and directly by People of Color in our nation, there is a trending hashtag called #crimingwhilewhite, wherein (mosty young) white people refute the claim that there is no such thing as white privilege by citing experiences from their own lives where their misconduct or crime was encountered by law enforcement without their murders in the street. It is inspiring to see this (although there are criticisms of the trending and viral hashtag movement, which some say is distracting from POC voices and experiences. I think that it is important to not allow white ally voices to drown out the voices of those we are attempting to be of aid and support to, and also I think it is important for white allies to be addressing other white people who don’t yet get it — which is kind of the entire point of being an ally. We can’t do that by being silent. That said, we also need to be certain that we’re listening.)

So, the trending meme showcases white people and their DUIs and drug use and casual violence or car theft, and the stories of police walking them home or gently chastising them without real enforcement (so that they won’t lose their scholarships, etc, clearly demonstrating for white people who don’t get it that white privilege is a real thing, and even the white people who break the law and benefit from that privilege are capable of seeing its impact in their own lives.) And yet, still, people rose up to argue, this time not against privilege — it was very hard to argue against the privilege displayed in this context, because, wow, yeah… — but against whether #crimingwhilewhite was actually helpful or not, and it was even described as “more divisive than useful”, because it did not account for cases of police brutality on white people.

So… I decided to wade in on the subject:

I am a white person who has been criminally victimized by police brutality. I am also a white person who has experienced extreme privilege with regard to law enforcement interactions. The fact that I have been victimized by police (due in one case to criminal corruption of an organized sort, if you catch my meaning, and in others to non-racial based profiling due to my appearance or reputation as clergy in a minority religious practice) does not in any way erase the fact that my race has also allowed me to walk away from many more instances where a person of color would not have been able to.

As an early teen, I launched a firework at a police car as it pulled into the driveway responding to a call about fireworks in the middle of the night. My older brother (underage) was drinking. Our parents were home, but “asleep”, and the officer noted that fireworks were illegal in the state, and drinking underage was a crime. He advised that we “finish up soon”, and did not confiscate the alcohol or the explosives. We stayed out another thirty minutes lighting them off — including while he was pulling out of the driveway — and did not get shot, arrested, assaulted, handcuffed, threatened, or even have our parents contact. This is white privilege.
Two years later I was zip-tied to a chair and beaten with an extendable baton and a handgun by two police officers who, while in uniform, were not acting in any lawful capacity at the time. This was police brutality and criminal corruption unrelated to race, but instead seated in other criminal connections to which I had inadvertent (and antagonistic) association (i.e. I dated the wrong girl).
That same year I was verbally assaulted by an officer on my property, who had no reason to be there, on a night of tragedy and loss (somebody had died) and I was not in control of myself; I was still a teenager (not yet 18), but nevertheless ordered him off of my property with all authority and entitled outrage at his conduct. I chased him off of the property and, and even after he fled in his car, I gave pursuit on foot “forcing” him to speed away. He fled in fear of his life. I was not arrested, choked, tased, shot, or run over with a car, and later he bought me lunch and apologized for his behavior. This is white privilege.
In my early 20s in California I was stopped by not less than five police vehicles and a sea of uniformed officers who restrained and assaulted me with hands, fists, feet, and a flashlight, including bodily throwing me against a steel fence post at the construction site several yards away. This began by the mailbox of my apartment building where I’d lived for several years, in broad daylight; I was dragged onto the sidewalk and then the public street, and told that it had been reported that a young man fitting my description was stalking the streets with a firearm. (It was later stated that they identified that I was not armed in any such way prior to stopping me, which is why nobody had shot me.) I was illegally detained, beaten, and then released while coughing on the ground “with a warning”. This call was, so far as could be determined at the time, made by somebody in the fire department following an unrelated incident a block away (which I walked past on my way home from the grocery store) where a hit-and-run took place involving a local child. This attack has nothing to do with my race, and everything to do with my appearance: I was wearing a long black (religious) garment, which at the time put a target on me.
I have had cases of extreme abuse, profiling, and criminal violence put on my person by police officers. I have also had very positive exchanges with police officers, in which I was acting as a concerned citizen, the victim of a crime, an advocate for a victim of a crime, or (most often) a clergy person acting on behalf of a community member who was the victim or witness of a crime. I have also had cases where my race has awarded me the privilege to behave in ways that somebody of another race, absent those privileges, would have been detained, shot, or assaulted for.
My negative experiences (e.g. having my fingers broken while zip-tied or my head cracked open on a fence post or being hit in the face with the butt of a shot-gun for refusing to strip naked in the street at gunpoint because they were convinced I had concealed gang tattoos or weapons) do not in any way negate the fact that I have also experience white privilege in dealings with police officers as well. Those are unrelated circumstances, on one hand, and on another still quite related: the fact that I have never been formally arrested or for that mattered shot and murdered in any of these circumstances certainly relates to my white privilege, even in the cases where corruption and/or physical assault was taking place. A dead white kid is generally a lot more inconvenient for a police force than a black one, because racism is real. So is white privilege. So are other forms of profiling. These additional circumstances do not cancel out the realities of racially based institutional terrorism which takes place every day.
Also worth noting, re: police brutality: in all instances of this behavior in the S.F. Bay Area of California — which is not where all instances of this behavior took place — I was able to turn these experiences of assault and profiling into positive community relations by contacting the watch-commanders or others up the chain of command and deciding to leverage community outreach and dialog rather than legal charges or formal complaints against the officers. This led to an *increase* in community relations, positive communication, and respect: it also allowed for me to have unprecedented access in terms of helping to informally educate local law enforcement in responding to members of the community outside of its own experience of culture or society. (For example, the local branch of law enforcement had no idea who or what a “Sikh” was, and so education was able to happen around that important religious group, through discussions of religious garb and dress, state laws pertaining to protection for certain religious articles including the kirpan, and so forth.)
It was my race (e.g. white privilege) which allowed me to enter into these exchanges and opportunities. It was my willingness to be a good ally to other groups absent that privilege that allowed me to use that access to do whatever I could to bring education, increased sensitivity and training, as well as formal hierarchical accountability (through appealing to the chain of command informally, and often over beers) rather than legal action.

Elsewhere on the internet, I saw the following meme going around:


This is a hopeful message of peace and hugs and bunny slippers and daffodils and shit, right? Well… maybe not so much. Prior to my first real sips of coffee, this was my response to the image:

Please read before liking this image. The message of this image is, I think, well intentioned, but misguided:

While I agree obviously with the statement around finding ways to stop acting from a place of violence from fearing one another, due to the obvious levels of systemic racism and sanctioned hate crime atrocities facing our nation right now, I need to comment on the wording of this particular meme.

It is basically incorrect.That is not what the word “race” is intended to mean, as I understand it. “Race” is not a biological term for all humans — that would be “species” — although it is not incorrect to say “the human race”. Race is a term which in any use is meant to identify differences between groups of descent based on observable or known variances. It ties to concepts of lineage (largely lost in modern context), and is absolutely a social construct meant to discuss the differences of observed characteristics within a species. “Difference” and “differentiation” are not bad words, nor should they be addressed (socially, systemically) with fear, as that fear leads to exactly the kinds of atrocities we are seeing around the country right now. But *erasing* those differences is not the solution, either, because that actually just promotes an even deeper fear. Both “hating that which is different” and “erasing the difference” are born of a fear of the different — an intrinsic xenophobia if you will — in others of our species.

The above meme’s message indicates that the solution is to forget our differences with regard to race (despite naming them at the top), which is the wrong message. If they said, “We are all one human species”, it would be more okay: species is a biological determinative and measurement, whereas “race” is a social construct being at least partially misused in this context (in the sense that its implication is incorrect, though the usage is not technically wrong).

It is important that instead of sending messages that “we are all one” (we’re not, not in any meaningfully measurable way) we send (and absorb) the message that “we are many, and that is okay”. We don’t need to be “one race” to get along: that’s a nuanced and subtle expression of the same xenophobia that causes the problems. It’s well intentioned but misguided. The real message isn’t that “we are all one”, but that “being different is okay” and “we are required to not murder each other for those differences”. It’s less catchy as an inspiring by-line or sub-title, but it is more accurate to the nature of the issues.

It isn’t that we are not “one human race”, it is that being “one” doesn’t actually hold meaningful implication in this context, and indeed serves to potentially silence (rather than empower) groups within that implied condensing of racial experience. Hugs are fantastic and messages that bring warmth and comfort are important, but right now the messages needed aren’t about how we’re all one. Because we’re not. The statistics don’t lie about that. Which is what we’re all needing to be talking about right now, looking at right now, and using our various levels of social and constitutional influence to affect change upon right now in our nation and our world: our differences are real and measurable, and those differences which are sacred and holy and wonderful are being responded to with fear by some who in turn murder others in fashions systemically sanctioned by our “duly elected state”. We may be one race — more appropriately one species — but it is our differences that define us, not our commonalities, and it is the hope for an intrinsic movement away from xenophobia (rather than a compulsion to reductively combine and mush things into a perceived “sameness” despite the statistical realities) that must be the focus of our messages now.

As a white ally I find it important to not try and send messages intended to comfort white people when facing the national outrage, fear, and violence being systemically put upon people of color. I find that this message is meant to do just that: comfort white people who are privileged to be able to “see beyond the differences”. But if we see beyond the differences, don’t we also see beyond the identities, the basic rights and intrinsic humanities? Don’t we *lose sight* of the importance we each as groups and individuals carry? Not to mention the statistics, and the inherent responsibilities that we as allies to change and progress and indeed *peace* have to our fellow humans of all differentiated expressions of being, experience, and presence? The ability to “see beyond difference” is not a focusing of the social “artistic” lens, it is an *unfocusing*, which blurs the trees from the forest and leaves a Monetic impressionist display where the Browns are quickly washed out by the Green, which catches so well the white beneath it.

My words were reposted elsewhere quickly, and almost immediately another commenter stated:

“Anomalous Thracian is fighting an uphill battle. “Human race” has been in common use for at least a hundred years. That said, I would not use “species” nor “race”, but instead “family”.

To this I scowled into my (now full, steaming, black coffee) and replied quickly and without thought:

You’re misreading my piece entirely if you think I said anywhere in there that we shouldn’t use that phrase. I’m saying that we shouldn’t reductively use that phrase to attempt to create an image of unification or oneness that is, while perhaps not biologically false, not socially relevant to the current atrocities faced.

Hugs don’t stop bullets.

As an ally, I try to use my voice — and my interesting background full of varied and often intense systemic experiences, some of them bloody and some of them violent and some of them brutally linked to systemic corruption that allows me some level of sympathetic understanding of the experiences of People of Color who face this every time that they step out of their homes (and often within their own homes), because our world is fucking broken. But whatever shared experiences I may have do not in any way erase or excuse my white privilege: I don’t live in fear that a cop will shoot me in the street, even when they’ve beaten me to a pulp, because the paperwork alone would be too much trouble for them. Because I am white. And grand juries? They care when green-eyed white people die. That’s white privilege, kids, present even in cop-on-white police brutality.

Our differences may set us apart, but they can also bring us together… so long as they are acknowledged, honored, respected, seen, supported, advocated, and fucking courageously defended. #Blacklivesmatter