Category Archives: 101 Series

Casual Racism 101: “Race Changing” and 30 Rock

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Being a problematic, flawed, and contradictory human being, I will freely admit that I watch and am entertained by certain popular shows I would never describe as critically conscious or racially progressive. I’m not sure that any such show exists on television. I will also admit that 30 Rock does not fall into the entertainment category because I am personally biased against finding it endearing. Yes, The Office tried to get away with a peripheral character in Blackface as part of a “Christmas tradition” in the holiday episode of their current season. No, this does not get a pass because I’ve been a fan of the show for six years. So while I acknowledge that the shows I happen to like are equally deserving of the same scrutiny and criticism, they are not the subject of this particular post.

Last week the “stars” of 30 Rock appeared on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon to reflect on their seventh and final season. And one might ask: why watch the interview if you don’t like the show? Please refer to paragraph one, sentence one. I was watching Late Night because ‘I hearty Jimmy,’ and I watched most of the interview with the 30 Rock cast because I was curious to see if they would address the multiple spectacles of racist humor and uses of Blackface on the show—if even for a moment.

And the moment came.

When it was Jane Krakowski’s turn to share her favorite clip from the series, the actor who “portrays” a self-obsessed actor chose a clip prominently featuring her own character, Jenna Maroney. Most importantly, this was an opportunity to publicly downplay and ignore the two instances (that I know of) where she appeared in Blackface on the show; instead, she used the interview as an opportunity to publicly showcase it. Her introduction began something like this: “Well, once we established that Jenna was totally insane, we could get away with anything.” This is no excuse to disguise racist humor, in my opinion, but I momentarily hoped she was laying the groundwork for a follow-up commentary on their moral opposition to racism and some explanation of Blackface as “social satire.” I wouldn’t cosign this as a justification for Blackface from a sitcom, but that wasn’t even the justification she tried to make. A series of homophobic and transphobic remarks linking her character’s “insanity” to her “gender changing” for an xmas party costume were all that followed.

The clip played. On the left is Jenna’s “shman” (Will Forte) dressed as Natalie Portman in Black Swan, and on the right is Jenna in Blackface as Pittsburgh Steelers athlete Lynn Swan, completing their couples costume of “two black swans.”

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Jane Krakowski would only address the fact that her character had temporarily assumed a different gender identity, and made absolutely no mention of the fact that she was also dressing up as Black. It was when Krakowski described her character as participating in “gender changing” that Tina Fey casually interrupted her a few moments later to add “and race changing,” which I translated as her white code words for Blackface. No one called it what it is, reminding me of the phrase coined by Toni Morrison: “racetalk,” or the “explicit insertion into everyday life of racial signs and symbols that have no meaning other than pressing African-Americans to the lowest level of the racial hierarchy.” To me, this exemplifies the marriage of white liberalism and political correctness. A show like 30 Rock can celebrate feminist subplots and liberal politics while still reinforcing dehumanizing racial tropes and employing casual racism under the banner of “irony.” And when they use very clear and unequivocal Blackface, symbolic language disguises it as “race changing.”

Historical amnesia and neutrality in entertainment allow whites to be “pioneers” all over again, thereby enabling discussions of racist humor to be either congratulatory or effectively mundane and placating. I also sense a desire to treat the use of Blackface as courageous, edgy, and worthy of the highest recognition, as Robert Downey Jr.’s Oscar nomination for his Blackface role in Tropic Thunder would attest. When an equation is drawn between Jenna Maroney’s “gender changing” and “race changing,” this wrongly suggests these politics and identities are interchangeable, if not identical—something straight/cis/white folks are neither qualified nor entitled to decide. Drawing this equation also suggests that conservative boundaries are being liberally pushed when a white woman dresses up like a Black man and sings a song next to a white male dressed as a white woman. So this display of transphobia and racism (treating trans and Black identities as comic costumes) are casually transformed into harmless entertainment and white folks can continue the fantasy that we are pushing our own prejudiced boundaries.

Eduardo Bonilla-Silva (co-author of Racism Without Racists and White Out: The Continuing Significance of Racism) has identified a “new racism” in the US as a subtle, subversive, and often casual racism that has become more commonplace than the overt, hostile, and explicit racism of previous decades. Don’t get excited—this does not mean the hostile and the explicit have vanished and been completely replaced. He is talking about public discourses of white liberalism where issues involving race are whitewashed and/or “sugarcoated” to avoid the accusation of racism. So if Tina Fey can sugarcoat Blackface as some kind of random/everyday “race changing,” she can avoid accountability for the very specific, historical, and racist meaning of this recycled comedy.

Creators and writers can only project so far: they can try to make it seem as if the racism and racist humor of their characters are disconnected fictions without any basis in reality, but characters like Jenna Maroney are not improvised—she and her Blackface are consciously created and actively written. The characters on a show might be “insane,” but behind every crazy character is a calculating and moderately sane writer. I don’t care if writers are dropping acid and taking body shots, teams that write for hit shows on mega networks make critical decisions, approve content, and get their shit together eventually. And 30 Rock is one of the most, if not the most, celebrated and awarded television comedies in the history of television comedies. This is more proof for the point that something that was once explicitly hostile and gratuitously demeaning in previous decades (Blackface) can be transformed into a subtle, neutral, and sugarcoated version of the original in the contemporary moment. Tina Fey can put lipstick on a pig, but it’s still a pig.

—DD

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Colonialism 101: white Privilege in a “Nation of Immigrants”

In last night’s second Presidential debate, Mitt Romney used the phrase “We are a nation of immigrants” as his opening line to a voter’s question on immigration policy. This romantic idea, dripping with political correctness, manages to erase history, ignore social stigma, and homogenize the category of “immigrants” in a single sentence. The statement is horizontal; immigration is not. It suggests that the US has been a nebulous collection of travelers (which it hasn’t), all of them coming and going willfully and with agency (which they haven’t). It makes it seem as if there are no walls crossed and no lives risked, there is no degrading bureaucracy to contend with and no uniformed mercenaries waiting to harass, profile, and deport certain immigrants. It pretends as though there are not human beings designated as “legal” and “illegal.” It fails to recognize the sovereign territories of Indigenous peoples—the original inhabitants of this land—that exist within this “nation of immigrants.” The fact that Indigenous cultures are still thriving and still present in the US today invalidates that idea altogether.

Before we even get into this, let’s clear the air about Mitt Romney’s “roots.” His Mormon relatives fled to Chihuahua to escape anti-polygamy laws and his father returned to the US before Romney was born. Does that make him an immigrant? No. Do white people born to white people living in Mexico make them Mexican? No. Are US citizens living in Mexico who decide to return to the US immigrants? No.

First and foremost, the US Nation-State was created by European colonizers, and their descendents are now citizens enjoying privileged positions within the dominant culture of white supremacy. Then there were white settlers who either occupied stolen land or forcibly seized it from Indigenous peoples, and their descendants are privileged citizens also. The slaves on whose backs the US economy was built did not willfully migrate to the thirteen colonies. As a WOC professor of mine once said: “No one stood around on the shores of African countries and said ‘I wonder which slave ship I’ll take to the ‘New World’ today.’” Slave labor from Africa, imported labor from China, victims of human trafficking, and refugees don’t qualify as immigrants. Even the Bracero Program that imported laborers from Mexico, followed by a policy (“Operation Wetback”) designed to hunt down and deport disposable laborers of color… still not a “nation of immigrants.” Territories of the present-day Southwest were stolen from Mexico and colonized in the midst of violent Westward Expansionism, which means the US-Mexico border fence, US immigration policy, and white nativism are the only factors that construct folks from south of the border as “immigrants” in their homeland.

So let’s talk about US immigration policy and the creation of the US as a Nation-State direct from Mae M. Ngai, author of Impossible Subjects: Illegal Aliens and the Making of Modern America. Fast forward to neocolonialism in the 20th century with the Johnson-Reed Act of 1924 codifying the exclusion of Chinese, Japanese, and API folks in general, and establishing a system of allowing/disallowing immigrants from certain countries by numbers (national quotas) based on their “National origin.” With the passing of the Immigration and Nationality Act (McCarran-Walter Act of 1952), quotas were replaced with numerical “caps” on immigration and, for the first time, it somewhat limited previously unhindered immigration from the “Western hemisphere.” This law, still in use today, established a legal preference for “skilled professional labor” as well, creating a hierarchy of ‘desirable’ and ‘undesirable’ immigrants in the US. When immigrants have been divided along lines of race, and when race continues to determine inclusion and exclusion within immigration politics, there is no cohesive or equitable “nation of immigrants.”

But hold up—isn’t that a good a thing to say? Not if you’re white, and here’s why: Which immigrants are we? Are we the immigrants who have been excluded by law from entering the country? Are we the immigrants who live in fear of racial profiling? Are we the immigrants who get deported with our children left behind? Can we really claim to be immigrants when we are still colonizing and occupying Indigenous land?

Recent white immigrants have automatic racial belonging to the national body, and white colonizers of the past created the national body, giving whites tremendous privilege in migration power dynamics. As Toni Morrison said, “In this country American means white. Everybody else has to hyphenate.” Immigrants with white skin have the privilege and physical safety of being read as American simply according to their color, which is a privilege immigrants of color do not have. When white politicians like Mitt Romney use the “nation of immigrants” phrase, he is pandering to reformist attitudes about immigration while supporting racist immigration policies like E-verify, secure communities, and “self-deportation.” He is also making it possible for whites to benignly say we came from “immigrants” rather than admit our ancestors were Native slaughtering slave owners responsible for colonialism and genocide. “Immigrants” sounds a lot nicer, doesn’t it?

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Allies 101: Good Intentions, Bad Behaviors

To be an ally is a privilege in and of itself. It automatically means you do not personally share the experiences or oppressions of the group to which you are allied. An ally can support a struggle, but an ally does not live a struggle. As well-intentioned as white allies might be, we are limited to being intellectually or morally opposed to racism. As much as allies might understand the injustice behind the oppression they have chosen to rally against, they are not existentially implicated in suffering. There is a personal investment in ally-ship that tends to derail the goals of social movements—one of the many hazards of privileged folks re-centering issues around their character when they can’t be too vocal about their identities. Theoretically, there is nothing wrong with solidarity. When the practice of solidarity becomes a spectacle, that’s another story.

A recent phenomenon in public ally-ship begs the question: when are gay pride weeks and/or parades going to start happening on high school campuses in the US? Although folks may not be ready for that, they can handle a subliminal message about queerness sent through a very ambiguously named week-long event for straight folks. Be nice to queers: all the heterosexuals are doing it. “Gay pride week” is not going to receive the same controversial reaction as “Ally Week.” The problem isn’t the individuals who participate that may be very well-intentioned, it’s the sliver of visibility queers are given only after we are processed through a lens of heterosexual ally-ship. Both the name and the concept bring those with privilege to the forefront while relegating those without privilege to the background.

The rhetoric of “Ally Week” seems intentionally misleading; there are different identities, so there are different types of allies. Research revealed that “Ally Week” in this context is code for “Heterosexual Week.” Many good arguments have been made about the failure of heteros to recognize how they are invading a queer struggle from a place of straight privilege, but heteros are also demonstrating the privilege of charity. They are creating a charitable movement for the queer community to make us feel better, safer, and more comfortable—around them. This is where ally-ship often fails: it becomes more about making folks with privilege feel better about having it and less about meeting the needs of those without the same privilege(s).

On the white supremacist calendar in the US, there are months and holidays designated for specific non-white/cultural/gender identities because every other month is already a celebration of whiteness, white men, and white history. The same goes for heterosexuals. Heterosexism and hetero privilege is glorified, enforced, perpetuated, and generally normalized in major institutions, structures, and social attitudes on a daily basis. So why would these “allies” need a week out of the year to focus more attention on themselves than they already receive? A week for heterosexuals who identify as “allies” to queers is like a week for white folks who identify as “allies” to POC: yet another week where folks with tremendous social privilege take center stage and/or co-opt a struggle that isn’t about them. Being heterosexual and being white are positives, so there really doesn’t seem to be a need to make these experiences even better.

Here’s the thing: if you’re an ally, why aren’t you an ally every day? Allies shouldn’t need a special moment in time explicitly dedicated to kindness and charity. Allies should confront their friends whenever they detect homophobia, transphobia, ableism, sexism, or racism, not when there is a temporary spotlight promising recognition. Allies should engage in important conversations about social issues without a special occasion. Allies should understand this process is difficult and complicated, and will potentially involve many people dismissing them as insane rather than congratulating them as progressive. Allies shouldn’t take up space with their pride, take away attention from actual struggles, or expect praise for their decisions. Allies need self-criticism, not self-esteem.

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white Feminism 101: Whatever the Fuck We Want

This is a very basic arc of popular white feminism in the US: first wave, second wave, and third wave feminism. I’m still waiting on tidal wave feminism that destroys the whole of patriarchy in its path. But aren’t we all. The first wave starts with white women like Charlotte Perkins Gilman and Kate Chopin in the 1800s, then the second wave washes up with white women like Gloria Steinem and Betty Friedan, then an intervention happens between the second and third waves… WOC feminists like Audre Lorde, Cherrie Moraga, and Barbara Smith bring queer and racial politics to a white-dominated movement. The white supremacy in mainstream feminism was finally called out, yet the legacy lives on.

Individual freedom and/or liberation has been and continues to be at the heart of white feminism, ranging anywhere from the freedom to vote to the freedom to wear underwear in public and not be called a “sl*t.” Like most rights and private liberty discourses in the US, liberation often translates to individuals having the power to do whatever the fuck they want. But who has the privilege to do whatever they want with a considerable amount of public safety? Who has institutional power while they exploit the social freedom of never having been reduced to a stereotype that results in oppression, violence, and death? Whether it’s a white woman wearing dreadlocks, wearing a bindi, wearing a sari, wearing a war bonnet, wearing a burqa, or getting “tribal” tattoos worn by Indigenous Filipino peoples, the only “freedom” we have is in damaging and disrespecting the cultural expressions of the women and people of color to whom these expressions belong.

We white folks are all about private property and ownership, and we have been ever since the days of chattel slavery when we owned human beings as property. European whites + capitalism + racism = slave trade, colonization, genocide. Could it be our persistent dehumanization of POC that compels us to never see cultural objects, traditions, and garments as the private property of POC? When we affirm our own “humanity” through the “freedom” of stealing from women and people of color, we devalue the humanity of those from which we steal (otherwise known as racism). For those of you that might raise the argument “but white women became the property of white men through marriage,” think of it this way: even though you may not have been alive back then, there was certainly a huge difference between working the fields of a plantation and sipping tea on the porch of a plantation mansion in silk stockings. White women were never sold and traded in chains through public auctions, and neither were their children.

In the picture below is Lady GaGa, only one contemporary example of cultural appropriation and white supremacy in mainstream feminism. Women with white skin appropriate clothing for maybe five minutes—the significance being that they “appreciate it”—and do not live in this clothing for most of their lives. Famous white women who appropriate clothing make it that much easier for their fans to act like none of what Muslim women experience matters. This is a hideous example of white feminism because it serves the interests, privileges, and liberties of white women exclusively; this is not feminism that supports and empowers the WOC being devalued, dehumanized, and dismissed by cultural theft.

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Here’s a simple list of reasons why white women should never do this kind of shit:

*If you are not a member of a group that traditionally and historically wears these garments, there is never a good reason to wear something that is not socially or culturally relevant to you.

*Mocking Islam by taking something worn for religious purposes and wearing it for Western entertainment will only benefit racist ideas and racist culture.

*If feminism is for the good of all women, then white women who oppress ‘others’ for their own empowerment are not practicing feminism. They are practicing white feminism.

*Stealing a cultural and religious garment for the sake of performance is cultural appropriation. If it is not your daily experience as a white person, it should never be your costume.

*White women do not encounter racism, oppression, or Islamophobia (the social fear and racial hatred of Islam) when they wear cultural garments that do not belong to them.

*Only white people can take something from another culture and make it “fashionable” while experiencing none of the violence POC endure.

*white privilege is having fun with racist stereotypes.

*The argument in defense of Lady GaGa that says “equality is anyone being able to wear anything they want,” really boils down to “white people can steal anything they want from POC and should be able to wear it without consequences.”

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Racism 101: Prejudice vs. Power

Any time a white person uses their own personal experience of prejudice (or a fabricated one) to demonstrate how whites suffer from racism, there is an underlying tendency to believe individual experience reflects broader social and structural realities. This is not the case. Just as one white person who was harassed by a person of color does not prove “reverse” racism, one Black president does not prove the end of racism. For the few white folks with hurt pride, there are thousands more with staggering social comfort who make hurt pride an exception to the status quo; for the few POC with class/political privilege, there are thousands more with staggering social oppression who make this privilege an exception to the status quo. How much white privilege does it require to think one painful confrontation is equally damaging as living with the daily reality of racism? And how much white privilege does it require to think one isolated incident, or even several isolated incidents, are equivalent to the constant violence of racism?

Part of the problem in this case is the assumption that individuals are representative of entire groups, whether they are white or of color. Malcolm X attacked as an “extremist” and depicted/blamed as the symbol of Black “violence” ignores and erases the diverse complexities of identity and thought within Black communities. Making a case for reverse racism based on that one white girl down the street who got called a “cracker b*tch” or a “gringa” that one time ignores and erases the systemic and social power of having white skin. The fact that our whiteness protects us from racial violence and hatred 99% of the time facilitates our unjustified outrage when POC don’t value us for being white. We are so used to being valued for being white that we are quick to cry ‘injustice’ when anyone challenges the longstanding positive construction of whiteness. But don’t get it twisted: prejudice does not equal power. When white folks have legacies of social, structural, and racial power in our favor, prejudice against us is completely inconsequential and certainly not identical. Interpersonal conflict does not threaten the power of whiteness or render the suffering of racism equal along lines of race.

Until the majority of white folks have been retroactively written out of the US constitution, enslaved on the basis of being less than human, imported to work in agribusiness and industry then deported as disposable labor, and have been overwhelmingly colonized, displaced, raped, and tortured, then maybe we can talk about racism against whites. Once the majority of white folks are segregated to neighborhoods next to industrial plants and sewage refineries, have their social and political opportunities limited because of their racial identity, are discriminated against in employment and education, and have to live with constant dehumanization based on their race, then maybe we can talk about racism against whites. Stereotyping and lumping all POC under one identity by misinterpreting individual actions is racist; white folks losing their privilege because individual white people have hurt feelings is impossible.

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Race 101: Colorblindness and the Privilege of Not Seeing Race

For white folks to claim that race should not matter is to reveal that race has never negatively impacted us. The invented supremacy of whiteness has provided us with privilege and power in politics, social institutions, and our personal and professional lives, making it a positive issue and, by extension, easily converted into a non-issue. We are so comfortable with a white identity that we have a tendency to imagine ourselves as not possessing race at all. Part of white privilege is the freedom to simply forget we possess race because it works so effectively to our advantage. We have the power of deciding when to acknowledge race and when to ignore it because there are no negative consequences for us to suffer in the process of doing so. Whiteness is not dehumanizing to whites and it is not willfully imposed upon us as a form of oppression. White privilege removes racial oppression from our social experience and normalizes our lives to the extent that we can think of ourselves as “just human beings.” If whites make colorblind arguments, here’s what we need to understand:

*People may be part of a larger race of humans, but social experience does not reflect this.

White arguments in favor of colorblindness, or seeing everyone as “just human beings,” enables white folks to ignore history while also continuing our tradition of dictating the meanings of race. In theory, colorblindness might be a nice fantasy, but in practice it is an act of violence. To explain, not all violence is physical: the attitude that very real experiences POC have with race and racism can be dismissed by deciding not to see color is to dismiss and devalue their experiences as human beings. Race is a social experience and an institutional force, it is not just an idea. If white folks pretend not to see race, then we also refuse to see racism or racial oppression, which begs the question: who has the power to decide when race matters and when it doesn’t? Until there are social arrangements that do not create division or inequalities along lines of race, class, gender, disability, or sexuality, then these issues will always exist and matter.

*To say “I don’t see color,” means the individual claims to have made a decision to not personally “see” race even though institutions and fellow individuals will still see it.

Race is not just a matter of vision. If we think we can refuse to see someone as Black, Brown, Red, or Yellow, then what does this really mean? Are we simply pretending not to use these words? This is one of the major problems with the ‘political correctness’ of colorblind thinking: folks assuming race is a “bad thing” and stumbling to find ways of not seeing it, while we aren’t deconstructing myths or stereotypes about racial identity. Race is not just a matter of individual agency. Because race and racism are present in institutions, policies, housing, etc., an individual ignoring these issues does not make them socially disappear. When whites treat racial modifiers as “offensive” or meaningless we are also refusing to acknowledge the significance these modifiers have to POC, and we insult them by ignoring their historical, social, and cultural experiences.

*Making the argument that race “no longer exists” gives white folks the power to decide race is not an issue for POC, but we can still decide it is an issue for us.

White privilege allows us to deny racism as a reality for POC, then make a mad dash to collect, twist, and invent information that “proves” we are “victims” of racism, which requires a seriously heavy dose of historical amnesia. If we examine the current presidential election in the US we can see that white folks are very much concerned about race when there are POC in positions of power, then there are those of us that claim Barack Obama as President establishes the US as a “post-racial” society.  So which is it? If the US is “post-racial,” why are there white folks that claim they are the targets of racism? How are white folks experiencing racism if race no longer exists? If race is supposedly “over,” how can racism still exist? Colorblindness and a Black president are not going to answer those questions.

*We can’t claim to be colorblind, then freak the fuck out over the “white race” disappearing.

Recent US census statistics have revealed that there will no longer be a population majority for white folks in upcoming years, which makes the colorblindness approach that much more unlikely to survive. This information is treated as important source material for journalism and is often explained with a sense of foreboding when it is cited by conservative white politicians or anti-immigration platforms. If we only see race when it is a problem for us, then colorblindness is nothing more than a way for us to escape the accusation of racism. It is a way for us to say “I don’t see race, so I couldn’t possibly be racist.” It is a way for us to say “I don’t see race, so my issues with [insert ethnicity] people have nothing to do with color.”  When we invent blindness, we are only blind to our own racial power and privilege. Refusing to see systems of oppression and inequality is just another way to prevent their destruction.

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White Guilt 101: No Sympathy for the (white) Devil

Here are two ways to break this down.

Tears, or what happens when those of us who are anti-racist witness racism:

Being disgusted by racism might mean our racial politics are in the right place, but the attitude that whites and racism are so offensive they can’t be dealt with means we cry about racism when it isn’t happening to us. We find it so unbearable that we shut down and retreat. We forget that whites defending racism, or practicing it, is normal–meaning we shouldn’t be shocked to the point of breakdown. Letting racist comments go, resisting education, or giving up on arguments about white supremacy because we’re too upset benefits whiteness. Whites expecting sympathy because they can’t deal with other whites completely ignores the fact that POC have to deal with that shit all the time. One tough conversation, one ugly (but fleeting) moment of awareness, shouldn’t hurt us. We have the social safety to cause a scene and not be in danger, we have the freedom to walk away and not be dehumanized in doing so, we have the privilege to move on and forget about it.

Emotions, or what happens inside us when we deal with the subject of racism:

If legacies of white supremacy cause us to feel bad for ourselves, we are co-opting pain from an experience that isn’t ours. Whites don’t experience racism, so we don’t feel the same pain a person of color feels; our emotions don’t matter when it comes to white supremacy because this pain is not about us. White privilege in this context is believing our hurt feelings take precedence over the subject at hand and feeling justified when the subject is derailed. Making an issue, or even a spectacle, of our pain makes it seem as if we suffer equally with POC because “it hurts all of us.” Consider these questions: Is hearing a white person use the N word the same as being called the N word? Is a rude comment about white Christians the same as demonizing the entire religion of Islam and the POC who practice it (Islamophobia)? Is dealing with a nasty friend or relative the same as dealing with histories and cultures of oppression? Is philosophical confrontation of personal whiteness the same as lived struggle against institutional racism? We might all “bleed red,” but a pin piercing a finger tip that draws blood is not the same as decapitation. Wounds are not created equally.

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Tone Policing 101: The white Privilege of “Free” Speech

There’s no denying that it takes a shit load of white privilege to safely say everything that is said on this blog. There’s also no denying that PoC do not have the same freedom from harassment and ridicule when they discuss white supremacy as openly as it is discussed on this blog. Folks with white skin can say racist things or participate in racism without much backlash from other white folks, and the ACLU can protect the “free speech” of the KKK without similar controversy. But when PoC speak critically of these practices, there’s a big fucking problem. When white folks patronize PoC by instructing them on how they should discuss racism, this is tone policing, which only serves to reinforce racism.

So who is it exactly that truly has and enjoys “free” speech? Who has the freedom to find racist attitudes acceptable and criticism of these attitudes unacceptable? Who has the freedom to speak without being policed? White anti-racists can talk about white supremacy and be largely received with praise and nobility; we can speak candidly and profanely without being dismissed as “emotional” or “extreme.” White folks will not turn around and police our tone by telling us to be “nicer” when we talk about racism. Most importantly, when we educate or speak out when it comes to racism, we still benefit from the system and maintain our white privilege.

Self-criticism, self-refection, and the willingness to accept criticism from PoC are crucial to the process of understanding white privilege. If we read something that makes us uncomfortable, if we hear something that makes us uncomfortable, the best reaction is to question our discomfort, not the speaker. Historical precedent, lived experience, social violence, and systemic injustice are enough supporting evidence for what PoC have to say; our “hurt feelings” are not enough supporting evidence to reject or attack what PoC have to say. Since we benefit from racism, it doesn’t make any sense to find ourselves hurt when racism is called out.

Discourses on race are not meant to comfort us, they are meant to challenge us. We do not contend with racism, so it is not our job nor our responsibility to prescribe the “right” approach to dealing with it or discussing it. It’s important to understand that when those of us with white skin speak critically of racism and white supremacy, we will receive more credibility and praise even though we do not deserve it. White privilege allows us to speak freely no matter what we are saying, which means going against the “status quo” is relatively safe—not extremely dangerous.

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Language 101: Shut Your Mouth and Open Your Mind

Racism inhabits language as much as it inhabits systems, institutions, practices, and ideas. Although there are racial slurs that explicitly demonstrate this reality, there are other words, phrases, and forms of speech that operate on a much subtler level and might appear to be “harmless.” There is speech that homogenizes experiences or people, suggesting they and their struggles are all the same. There are words that are racialized, meaning they have a symbolic racial content behind them that might not be immediately obvious—especially to white folks. As much as we white folks like to talk about “the human race” or how “we are all human beings,” there is a false message of equality in these ideas that ignores the differences and inequalities in social experience. It is important to understand how racism and racist ideas in language have specific meanings and affect specific people; if we think we as whites have the freedom to create our own meanings and remove words from their original context so we can do whatever the fuck we want with them, this is also racist. So let’s look at some racialized phrases.

—“We should have a powwow about this” or “I’m going to powwow with my colleagues”

*Powwows are ritualistic gatherings of Indigenous peoples that involve their culture and heritage, they are not board meetings or casual check-ins. Using this phrase to describe an intellectual or professional gathering outside of Indigenous spaces is cultural appropriation—yes, this happens in language also. White people do not have powwows in any context. Ever. Although the use might seem “harmless,” powwows are still very much alive in the contemporary moment and, like Indigenous peoples themselves, they are not “things” of the past. We do not get to decide what this word means, and use it accordingly, when it already has a historical and current meaning.

—“Don’t get me started on welfare queens”

*Who could this phrase refer to exactly? As many white women as there are on welfare (YEP), the idea of the “welfare queen” is distinctly racialized and based on racial stereotypes of Black women being “lazy” and living on “charity.” If we look at the facts, more white women receive welfare than Black women—according to US Census statistics. So when we use this phrase, it is not about numbers, it is about race. When white folks say this, it creates the illusion that we are being “politically correct” in our language without directly talking about Black Women… even though that’s exactly who we’re talking about.

—“That’s so ghetto”

*One time I heard a white girl say “people don’t like the word ghetto because its negative and there’s something beautiful about living in the ghetto.” NOPE. Since none of us here are Black or Brown, we can’t speak for why these folks personally don’t like the word/phrase (and neither should any other white folks), but we do understand how this word/phrase is used to refer to something “dirty,” “trashy,” or “low-class.” Since white folks in the US don’t live in ghettos, when we use the word we are attaching it to the PoC who do live in ghettos. We equate things we think are “ghetto” with the specific people who live in them by using this language. It is dehumanizing.

—“You’re badass and stealthy like a ninja”

*This might seem like a compliment… but it isn’t. Ninjas have specific histories in Japan and Japanese culture, they aren’t teenage mutant turtles or white guys with black belts and black masks. Because their legacy in Japan can be situated in much earlier centuries, this is not a reason to describe anything covert or “stealthy” as similar or identical to being a ninja. This word is often equated with very general and confused ideas of “Asian” culture, meaning white folks who say this or make this representation in forms of media are combining stereotypes from multiple cultures on the continent of Asia. Either that, or they are appropriating Japanese culture to make it seem cool that they got away with stealing a candy bar.

—“I don’t want illegals in my neighborhood”

*The word “illegals” or any of its variations (“illegal alien” “illegal immigrant”) are perfect ways to disguise racist language, because these words enable white folks to pretend like they’re talking about undocumented immigrants in general and not a specific group of Brown folks from Mexico, Central America, and South America. Many anti-immigrant platforms are inextricably linked to the “protection” of the US-Mexico border, which says everything about the kind of immigrants they target. There are no ferocious and widespread campaigns that directly target, demonize, or attack immigrants with white skin. The argument that Jewish and Irish immigrants once faced similar threats ignores the fact that these folks were not considered to be “white” back then.

—“Terrorists are security threats to our nation”

*Like the KKK? Even though this claim seems neutral and seems to refer to anyone who commits acts of violence against the US, it is a claim that does not commonly refer to the KKK or any white terrorists who bomb buildings, create racial conspiracies, or commit mass shootings within the US. There is no billion-dollar war or campaign that invades multiple countries to end white terrorism. This claim racially lumps all Muslims, Arabs, and Muslim Arabs into a single category, and similarly implicates the religion of Islam as “threatening” to US “security.” If being secure means living without the fear of violence, then white folks need to understand that PoC in the US have not known this privilege for centuries because of white terrorists.

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Whiteness 101: There’s no Get-out-of-Privilege-Free Card

Several times before on separate occasions, we have heard white anti-racists use this argument: “This isn’t about white people, this is about whiteness.” It’s not that only white anti-racists use this argument, but this post will only address those who do. The phenomenon of PoC making this argument or practicing whiteness does exist, but this is not something for white folks to fully expose or comment on. Our responsibility is to address the problematic actions, thoughts, and states of privilege of white folks, not to call out PoC. In terms of white folks who use the argument that white privilege or white supremacy is not about white people, but is exclusively about the concept of whiteness… we disagree. It is not the abstract concept of whiteness that benefits from white privilege, it is white people who benefit. It is not whiteness that commits lynchings, hate crimes, or shootings, it is white people who concretely carry out these acts of violence. Because white people and folks with white skin privilege are writing this blog, we won’t get the backlash PoC would get for “hating white people” with this entry. Even if we are speaking critically of whiteness, we maintain our privilege as people with white skin. Whiteness exists in us and in our skin color as much as it exists beyond these things. Owning this privilege and admitting its existence can’t be equated with “hating” ourselves or other white people.

Whiteness is a combination of social ideas, forces, systems, and actors—all of them inseparable and interconnected. Whiteness is where we have grown up, the privileges we have enjoyed, our media representation, our social and public security, our racial politics, wealth and comfort from prior generations, and it is all of us as people who can only truthfully identify as white or identify as biracial but have white skin privilege. When white anti-racists, or white folks in general, distance themselves from being white they place whiteness in an abstract state and make it seem as though, with enough education, we can escape it. This is not so. It is ridiculous for white folks to say things like “Ugh I HATE white people” or “This is only about whiteness,” because both statements suggest the speaker has somehow “moved on” and is no longer white. Our minds and hearts can change, we as people can change, but regardless of these possibilities, our skin will always be white and we will therefore always benefit from white supremacy/privilege as long as this system is still in tact.

This particular debate is why we said in a previous post on white privilege that Peggy McIntosh’s idea of the Invisible Knapsack isn’t a good place to stop in terms of critically examining whiteness. While her list is accurate and overall holds true in the contemporary moment, its central focus is on individual privilege and freedom, not on networks of oppression and the brutality of power. Whiteness is not just an experience, a social state, or a system of advantages, it is also an expression of violence. White folks thinking of and/or seeing PoC as less than human is violent, denying the experiences PoC have with racism and oppression is violent, refusing to admit we have privilege over PoC is violent, housing segregation is violent, hate crimes are violent, racial language is violent. Why are these events and structures violent? Because they cause material harm and damage to PoC. White folks might disagree or disapprove, but we aren’t any less powerful and we can’t claim to be victims.

The point is not to take every argument about white privilege personally, meaning finding ourselves individually guilty for every white aggression/atrocity ever committed, but to understand how we can’t logically claim to be completely separate from whiteness. White anti-racists should not feel the need to comfort white folks (and possibly themselves) by saying “this isn’t about us as people,” when whiteness undoubtedly involves white people and our actions—we are comforted enough by white privilege anyway. If a white person calls an Arab person a “sand n*gger,” do they get to turn around and say “oh, that wasn’t me it was just my whiteness”? If we’re being real about the situation, it’s both. It’s the person and the privilege, the racist and the racism, that are equally accountable. What about the white folks that marched and organized during the height of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s? Sure they did good work with their politics in the right place, but their freedom to eat in segregated restaurants, their safety in going home to white neighborhoods, their ability to escape harassment outside of protest scenes, demonstrated the continued existence of their skin privilege. The system can’t exist without people to run it, people to reap rewards, and people to oppress.

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