Tag Archives: race

Let’s Talk About: the Comments Made by Morgan Freeman

Before I even get into this: If Black followers would like to comment on internalized oppression or POC practicing whiteness, then I wholeheartedly welcome it. I, however, as a white person do not have the right, reason, need, or lived experience to speak on such matters. Personally, I see a crucial distinction between acknowledging this phenomenon and actively battling it. I’m not taking Morgan Freeman to task directly because this is not my battle and it is not my job, nor is it the job of any white person to school POC on their ideas of race. I cringe every time I see Tim Wise on twitter going after POC for practicing white supremacy, because, quite frankly, he just comes off as racist. I firmly believe these specific discussions and confrontations belong in the communities they directly involve.

A dear Brazilian friend of mine who I met through political organizing last year messaged me this morning and told me this video of Morgan Freeman’s comments was going around on Brazilian facebook pages in response to a “Black Consciousness Week” held at the end of November in Brazil. Aside from making some excellent criticisms about the white middle class reception to this video, he also said he’d like to see a discussion on this topic engaged on the blog. I was inclined to agree, but I was more so skeptical and cautious as to how I would approach this issue. I personally believe silence is not a solution to race and racism, but I can only speak to this belief through my experience of white privilege. These comments have been circulating for some time, and as much as I think they serve as one good example of exactly what happens when people refuse to talk about race, I think there is more danger in terms of white folks righteously savoring the reflection of their own ideas in the spoken words of POC.

Everyone knows Morgan Freeman is not the only Black person on the planet, right? More importantly, everyone knows that he isn’t the only person of color on the planet, nor was he unanimously appointed to speak for all Black people… right?

I think whites might want to hesitate before we uphold the idea that dialogues on race and racism should stop because a single individual says they should, especially if we think this then gives us the license to say “a Black person said it should stop. SO THERE.” As my friend put it, there is no reason for whites (wherever they are) to defend this kind of argument as being universally valid simply because it was “authorized” by a single Black person. Racism is not an issue that is limited to Black vs white. When there are numerous and diverse ethnic identities that contend with numerous and diverse racial oppressions, whites need to take a long look at our “I don’t see race” mantles and the token POC we may have stacked there as our personal opinion trophies. I sense a double standard of whiteness at work when Morgan Freeman’s comments are privileged as incontrovertible truth, but the words of Malcolm X are dismissed as extremist ramblings that pose a “threat to homeland security.” Why would whites have either the interest or the investment in one position over the other? Because one position works to our advantage and reinforces our privilege while the other does not.

I have no disrespect for Mr. Freeman, but with the undeniable reality that I would still be a dumb white motherfucker had I not been exposed to discourses on race and racism, I have to respectfully disagree. I cannot discuss why this kind of thinking might be damaging to POC because I am not a person of color. What I can do, is use my stories to explain why this kind of thinking is ultimately beneficial to and in the interest of white supremacy.

I vividly remember what I’m going to call the ‘white awakening’ I had my first quarter of college in the Ethnic Studies department. Prompts for our midterm papers were being handed around in class, and I was sitting comfortably with my usual expectations of academic exercises. In other words, I was going to breeze through whatever 5-6 pages this would be while remaining as neutral as I’d always been as a student. This white arrogance had no idea what the fuck to do with itself once I actually read the prompt. “Tell your personal migration narratives of contact with the United States and explain how this has shaped your ethnic identity.” I am still perfectly ignorant of many things, but in this particular context, this is how ignorant I was at the time: I went home in crisis. I had a self-indulgent meltdown where I unleashed white panic and stared at the prompt for who knows what amount of time. This isn’t an assignment for white people, I kept telling myself, how unfair. My first serious paper, and the first one ever that had asked me to examine my own ethnic identity, left me dumbfounded, directionless, and questioning my major.

It shocked me when, the next day in class, our TA revealed that my fellow desperate white students in crisis had collectively and immediately crowded her office to say to her what I wouldn’t say out loud. I will never forget what she said to the *entire class,* how she said it, and how this changed my thinking forever:

“I have news for you, white folks. YOU HAVE RACE. Understand that white is a race too and it’s socially constructed too. Yall are related to European immigrants, so don’t give me this shit about how you can’t talk about your migration patterns and ethnic identities.”

For me, this was the single card an important person pulled to bring the whole house of cards down. I have made mistakes and I have been wrong, I will continue to make mistakes and I will continue to be wrong. But had this moment not happened, had the radical power of words not existed, I would have remained locked into the great white ignorance that still controls this country and most of the planet. This state of mind would not have been good just for me; it’s good for whites in general.

At the risk of sounding presumptuous, I would say it’s not really Morgan Freeman who whites are agreeing with. When we use comments like these to defend colorblind thinking while we simultaneously reject or attack the ideas of radical POC, we are ultimately validating our own ideas and agreeing with ourselves. When we are at this point, it doesn’t matter that Morgan Freeman is Black; what matters is that his words are not threatening to our whiteness, while the words of Malcolm X or Angela Davis are perceived as highly threatening in this regard. The suggestion that we stop talking about race and racism prevents us from staring white supremacy in the eye behind its white hood, which means we must stare into a mirror, rather than look away and assume we were right all along. It is always easier to never speak of something again than it is to face its ugliness every day.


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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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Racism: It’s How We Sleep at Night

The New York Times recently published a report on new findings linking race to quality of sleep (or lack thereof) called “How Well You Sleep May Hinge on Race.” The ‘you’ in this sentence refers specifically to white folks, and how well our white privilege allows us to sleep. There is extensive investigation into race in this article, but only in terms of POC. There is no mention of white privilege, or the racial meaning behind the solid sleep the majority of white folks enjoy. The largest mystery remains the reasons for sleep inequality along lines of race, which simply demonstrates how the mainstream media is well prepared and armed with “facts” when it comes to race while being conveniently clueless and mystified when it comes to racism.

Beginning with a big booming knowledge drop, the article introduces one individual under study, Moleendo Stewart, by saying “Sleep experts would point to another factor working against Mr. Stewart: He is a black man.” Oh.. so it sounds like this is his problem. It sounds like the claim is: he’s Black so he doesn’t sleep well, not he’s a Black man struggling in a racist society so he doesn’t sleep well. While this team of tireless professionals has come to the conclusion that “sleep is not colorblind,” they have not discovered why. With all of their “unique” material on the correlation between race and sleep, they still can’t understand their findings and are without explanation. Well, team of professionals, fret no further. We don’t need to spend years in a lab with our white coats to find the answer. It comes down to one simple word: RACISM.

Although researches haven’t yet “unlocked the secret” behind this phenomenon, they have a promising lead: freeway noise. Yes, they actually site this shit as legitimate data in potentially harming sleep for POC. The NYT doesn’t get a big pat on the back for initially giving mention to segregated neighborhoods, because there is no in-depth analysis of the white supremacy and institutional racism behind housing segregation that follows. There is no context, no historical perspective, and no social understanding. First of all, segregated neighborhoods don’t spring up under freeways, freeways are built over and through them. And second of all, even though it is common for this kind of noise to be in low-income neighborhoods, it’s an extremely small factor compared to the much bigger reasons why POC are losing sleep. Despite how inconclusive this article claims to be, it desperately wants to make class the ideal source of sleep deprivation.

“The idea that differences in work and living conditions can explain the racial sleep disparities is a popular one among sleep experts.” Any guess as to why this might be? It is completely unsurprising that “science” would favor a class analysis over a racial one. It is much easier for white folks to blame class status as the reason for social inequality because it allows us to pretend racism does not exist.  It is a comforting idea to believe socioeconomics are more relevant than race–an idea that suits and exposes white privilege–because it means we are no longer accountable for racial inequality in this equation. This shifts the focus of our reality as oppressors to the myth of POC as poor workers, thereby making it easier to argue that POC are responsible for their own class status and we are not responsible for the material consequences of racism.  Clearly racism is the cause, but nobody in this article wants to explicitly say so.

“We had no way to control for stress, and there are social stresses an African-American man might feel that a white man with the same income and education level wouldn’t.” In this instance, the word ‘stress’ is a euphemism for racism. Here we are with a perfect comparative example that throws class out the window, and we still can’t say: IT’S RACISM, STUPID.  Even with this kind of evidence, two men with different racial identities who possess the same shit, we can’t admit what is actually going on. We can’t admit that class doesn’t matter and racism doesn’t sleep. How about investigating that, team of professionals? When class status fails to fit their scientific model, another false culprit must be uncovered.

“It may also be the culture. Black and [Latin@] children in America are far less likely to have regularly enforced bedtimes than white children, according to a 2010 study conducted by Dr. Hale for the National Institutes of Health.” This argument is otherwise known as something called cultural racism, where “culture” is scapegoated for any number of bogus claims about POC instead of skin color. Once again, this article is suggesting the problem is with POC, not with institutional racism or white supremacy. The whole corporate time model, whip cracking schedule, and “properly enforced” timing for every behavior is very much a thing of whiteness. POC are not losing sleep because they don’t act like white folks or have an identical approach to their lives. Furthermore, they aren’t all children, so that piece of trivia isn’t worth much.

And now, a laughable closing statement: “In order to break the cycle, researchers say, patients need to make sleep a priority.” Well that’s a helluva lot easier than dismantling racism isn’t it? And it’s a much nicer white fantasy to educate POC about their “priorities” instead of educating white folks about their racism. White folks don’t sleep better because we make it a priority, we sleep better because we are safe from racial violence and oppression, because we are racially privileged, and because we never deal with racism of any kind. POC don’t need different priorities, we do.


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Lessons from Arguments with white Folks: The Difference Between Luxuries and Privilege

Having had many debates with self-proclaimed socialists or Marxists with white skin, there has been a noticeable trend to deflect from white privilege (or deny that it exists altogether) on the basis of class oppression.  Yes, working class whites do exist and they may struggle with certain forms of class barriers, but the point is that they will never struggle with racial oppression.  That’s part of what having white privilege means: not having to calculate and consider racism in every aspect of your life.  That is a social, political, institutional, and factual reality for white folks.  What is crucial for us to understand is this: class status can be changed, race cannot be changed.  A white person who has been university educated and holds a degree, who can’t find a decent job or lost the one they had, and finds themselves on the verge of homelessness still has more opportunities and racial advantages than a person of color who couldn’t afford to attend college in the first place.

Thinking critically about the idea of us whites experiencing class ‘oppression’ is also important.  Changes in class status are often expressed in “rags to riches” narratives, or what is also called the myth of meritocracy.  This is the idea that hard work can take anyone in the US anywhere in terms of social mobility, and once this upward mobility has been achieved they can say they ‘earned’ everything they have based on individual merit.  First of all, does someone who grew up in Watts or on a reservation really have the same opportunities as someone who grew up in say… Beverly Hills?  The proverbial playing field is not level, and anyone can see this obvious truth in such a small geographic example. Even if there are white folks born in the Ozarks instead of Beverly Hills, the promise of “rags to riches” was made for us.  It protects and comforts us.  How often does this narrative apply to POC?  If we see Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor through this lens we can see how limited this idea is: she is the first and only Latina to hold this title while also having this kind of story.

White folks that go from “rags to riches” do not have to overcome racism to discard their rags, and they do not have to continue to confront racism once they’ve earned their riches.  If they don’t have riches, that doesn’t necessarily mean they experience class oppression.  During one particular debate about class oppression with a white socialist, her argument against her own white privilege was presented as follows: I don’t have a six-digit bank account balance, I don’t have a private yacht, I don’t have a ten bedroom mansion, I don’t get to take lavish vacations, I don’t have a “Cadillac health care” plan, I’m not a CEO of a major corporation, therefore I don’t have white privilege.  The items on this list are better understood as luxuries, not as parts that comprise the whole of privilege.  If you can also say: I have family and friends with money and a family home, I have a car/laptop/smart phone, I have a decent apartment in a decent neighborhood and grew up in a white neighborhood, I have the freedom to take road trips and flights out to conferences, I have been in safe environments away from constant pollution and can afford to feed myself well so I don’t have conditions that require “Cadillac” health insurance, and I am a leader in my social institutions who might find the search for gainful employment difficult but not impossible… then you have privilege.  White privilege is whites having more advantages, access, safety, protection, and comfort than POC even if we don’t possess the luxuries of the super rich.

Class barriers do not negate white privilege.  Not being able to pay the mortgage on a house is a financial barrier, not having a mortgage because you will never be able to qualify for a loan and afford a house is oppression.  And if we’re going to talk numbers with this shit, the actual percentage of whites living with class barriers is quite small.  Here are some statistics for thought from the National Poverty Center:

“The poverty rate for all persons masks considerable variation between racial/ethnic subgroups. Poverty rates for Blacks and [Latin@s] greatly exceed the national average. In 2010, 27.4 percent of Blacks and 26.6 percent of [Latin@s] were poor, compared to 9.9 percent of whites and 12.1 percent of Asians.

That’s 9.9% of over 300 million people.  And that’s white folks living in poverty, not white folks living in “I have a car but I don’t have a yacht” land.  Not to mention, the economy was already falling apart two years before that data was compiled.  Breaking down white privilege involves being honest about what we have and getting perspective on what POC don’t have, it isn’t denying the existence of white privilege because wealthier white folks have more stuff.

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Race 101: Unpacking “Race is a Social Construction”

If you have ever taken a course in the discipline of Ethnic Studies, or communicate with people who just know this shit, this is the most basic fundamental you will learn.  So what does this mean?

  • Race is not biological, and there is no scientific evidence to support this idea.  Syracuse University created a US version of an exhibition investigating the alleged connections between race and biology, and no connections were found.  Skin color is only genetically significant in terms of melanin, migration patterns, and geography.  There are more genetic differences within ethnic groups than there are genetic differences between ethnic groups.  The excerpt below was taken from one of the exhibition panels:

    “Some of our physical differences give the impression that it is possible to divide us into races. But when these physical characteristics are subjected to detailed study, that cannot be concluded at all. Instead it becomes obvious that our physical diversity reflects continuous changes from one extreme to the other of the continents. To place any boundaries within this continuous diversity would be, therefore, completely arbitrary. Human diversity is in fact infinitely more complicated than the idea we have constructed of it. This is why attempts to make racial classifications don’t yield any coherent results; there is nothing scientific about “races”. The science of genetics teaches us that it is impossible to attribute physical resemblance to genetic resemblance.” [bold and italics added]

    There is some seriously problematic shit about that exhibition, and that website, in terms of how the ideas are presented and what doesn’t get addressed… which leads us to another bullet point.

  • This quote uses a seemingly neutral word that erases huge amounts of historical specifics: “… more complicated than the idea we have constructed of it.”  By “we” the author meant elite white European men during the Age of “Enlightenment.”  In 1735, Charles Linnaeus published The General System of Nature in which bogus ideas of racial hierarchies began to be theorized and formed.  By then Europeans and friends, who had colonized most of the planet, needed a justification for killing, raping, conquering, enslaving, and displacing Indigenous peoples.  The concepts of race, both the invented superiority of white Europeans and the invented inferiority of Indigenous non-white ‘others,’ were created to make such a justification possible.
  • These hundreds of years of history lead to these ideas being concretely rooted in institutional and social practices in the present day US (since we’re writing from the US, these are the race relations being discussed).  Some examples include, but are not limited to: genocide, slavery, segregation, boarding schools that “civilized” American Indian “savages,” Japanese internment camps, higher rates of imprisonment, lack of access to education/housing/healthcare for POC, and much more.  What these practices reveal is this: while race is an invention, an illusion, and something that cannot be scientifically proven, it is also a social fact.  It is something that has a function, something that is taught, learned, and enforced.  It is experienced and it is present.  It is, to this day, still used with its original intention of uplifting whiteness and oppressing POC.
  • Constructions of race have material consequences.  No one can biologically prove that white skin is superior to different skin colors, but this is how whiteness has been constructed socially—meaning white folks created this nonsense and we perpetuate it, which is reflected in all of the laws and movements that had to pass/occur in order for POC to gain some access to institutions that were exclusively reserved for white folks.  That is why all white folks and folks with skin privilege (moderators of this blog included) still benefit from this legacy of race; we still reap the rewards and consequences of slavery even if we don’t own slaves in the current moment in time.  Safety and privilege for white folks are the consequences of white supremacy, just as racism and oppression are the consequences of white supremacy for POC.  The meanings that are assigned to race are fiction, the social experiences of race and corresponding advantages or disadvantages are fact.
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