Thursday, July 26, 2012

Repentance

I finally am ready to write, but this is difficult. 

Our chickens died this week.  I wish I could say "of natural causes" or that we ate them for dinner.  But, no, we forgot to give them water, didn't let them out of their yard, and they dehydrated in extreme heat... as I enjoyed the air conditioning inside my house only 20 feet away.  We feel awful.  I cried all night. 

We have had chickens for a little over a year now.  At first, I helped out, but slowly my husband ended up with most of the duties.  I have hibernated indoors for the summer with a reading course to finish, a baby, and a toddler.  And my husband worked full-time in the heat.  All of this made a recipe for disaster the morning our routine was disrupted because of a dentist appointment.  I keep replaying it in my mind, but no amount of regret can bring them back.

"They're just chickens," I keep telling myself.  But we kind of got used to them, their clucking, the way they tried to sneak onto the deck, the way they ate our garden produce and kitchen scraps... We will miss them. As my sister said, "They were a weird part of your little family." 

One part of the loss is the death of our urban farming dream.  We had such high hopes when we began, two children ago.  But the truth is, we aren't farmers.  We work full-time jobs and have two babies.  We have worship practice on the weekends.  We have no idea how to cope with extreme heat advisories month after month without air conditioning, which is isn't helping our garden.  

When I really examine my heart, however, I find that the greatest death is my pride and sense of achievement.  I mean, we really let those poor chickens down.  They were depending on us to protect them.  They were God's creatures. 

And also, I realized my own little "attitudes" that I had about "having chickens."  I sort of felt a little smug, as if we were really hip, organic, edgy.  It created an image for me.  Wannabe hipster. Pathetic. 

So I am repenting.  For animal abuse, for arrogance, for over-committing myself and my little family. 

And this made me think about other ways I have been arrogant, how I have portrayed an "image" that is really more show than action.  Like how I feel so good about myself for living in "the city." In reality, I don't have one black, Hispanic, or Vietnamese friend who lives by me, even though these racial groups make up the majority of my zip code.  Most of my friends in this area are white people who either go to my church in South County or are people I know from that church.  Not that there is anything wrong with South County or white people, but to hear me talk about it, you would think that I was somehow "better" because I lived in a "diverse" neighborhood.  My circle of friends is actually almost all white people, which is no different than if I lived in South County. 

All my hypocrisy is complicated, not entirely consistent, and potentially riddled with good intentions.  But the end result is that I am repenting.  Repenting for judging people, including myself, for where they choose to live.  Repenting for segregating myself and not making friends with people who don't look like me that I live around.  Repenting for not bringing my message in love to those in my sphere of influence. 

I feel convicted by the words that God spoke to the prophet Jeremiah,  
"Therefore, thus says the Lord,
“ If you return, then I will restore you—
Before Me you will stand;
And if you extract the precious from the worthless,
You will become My spokesperson..."

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Theorizing racial structures and racial stratification

I just finished Feagin’s (2006) Systemic Racism.   I feel that his work can shed some light on the misunderstandings I have had in some recent conversations with friends and family.  As I stated before, I don’t believe my friends and family, or most white folks for that matter, are “racist people.”  I know my friends and family well enough to see that they have very good intentions and want to love people as well as they can.  However, the recurrent theme in these conversations is the minimization of race and racism.  It is as if talking about race itself is seen as “racist."  Conversely, the subject of “white privilege” seems to elicit protestations of “reverse discrimination” or the equivalent.  I realized that in most cases, we were not coming at the subject from the same understanding of racial inequality.  Feagin’s work is key for theorizing about racial structure and stratification/hierarchy in the U.S. 

First, Feagin does not see a dichotomy between past and present.  In other words, our society is not fundamentally different from the period in history when we became a nation.  Feagin documents the overarching trend of systemic racism in the U.S. from the “founding fathers,” through slavery, the “Jim Crow” era, the Civil Rights movement, until the present. Feagin extensively shows how, over the history of the U.S., systemic racism has been foundational and continuous, not just something tacked on to an otherwise healthy society or something that has cropped up in different points in history.  In general, the narratives of elite white people that Feagin documents reveal denial, amnesia and alexithymia regarding the oppression of black people and other people of color.  As white people have remained mostly segregated, they have socially reproducing racial hierarchies.  This elitist narrative has been transmitted from one generation to the next relatively unaltered and unchallenged by white people.  There is a cumulative effect in terms of oppression and privilege that has created and sustained racial inequality to this day. 

The power of Feagin’s work, however, primarily lies in the voice of African Americans throughout the work.  In line with standpoint theory, he documents how oppressed participants in history have a singular view of not only their own experience, but the experience of their oppressors.  They have grappled with these concepts, struggled for their freedom, resisted and subverted the status quo.  They have displayed greater moral integrity than the men who are traditionally considered to be the heroes and “founding fathers” of this nation. 

This book has strong implications for education, given that this full view of history has been omitted or suppressed in textbooks and curriculum.  This would explain why most white folks, along with some people of color, today have a hard time talking about racial inequality.  Without a view of systemic racism, racism that has “spread throughout, system-wide, affecting… society as a whole,” we are left with weak cultural arguments, or even resort to biological explanations to try to explain inequality that is blatantly racialized.  In the post-Civil Rights era, white people instinctively feel that talking about race might get you labeled a “racist,” so there is an effort to make it “anything but race,” further exacerbating attempts to address societal inequity. 

I just recently revisited Tim Wise’s website (“Michelle Alexander & Tim Wise on Racism and the New Jim Crow,” 2012) and listened to "On the Other Side of the Myth: A Conversation with Michelle Alexander and Tim Wise."  There were a few points that stood out to me, and which I felt related to Feagin’s (2006) work.  Tim Wise commented that indifference, not overt hatred, is actually the core of oppression, Feagin calls this indifference “social alexithymia,” a general inability to empathize with the experience of others, especially those we have made to be very “other” from ourselves.   This “otherizing” or dehumanization, the rationalization of racial difference, is then accompanied by a general amnesia about past oppression.  This has been foundational to racial stratification over the history of the U.S., and is the essence of the “new racism.” 

Many scholars are pointing out that while overt racism still exist, there is a new "color-blind racism" that seems much milder, and yet is much more persistent for the very fact that it is harder to address and dismantle than blatant racist speech or acts.  Tim Wise mentioned that many black people are leaving the West Coast, for example, and moving to the South.  He speculated that in some ways, it might be because the blatant racism of the South is easier to identify and resist than the slippery, “now you see it, now you don’t,” colorblind ideology.  The bottom line, of course, is that neither style of racism is just; both need to end. 

Some of Tim Wise and Michelle Alexander’s conversation centered around how much progress is to be hoped for in the anti-racist movement when many times anti-racist activists are trying to convince white people of something white folks don’t believe is there.  Tim Wise mentioned “interest convergence,” which is based on the premise that most progress in anti-slavery and civil rights movements took place when there was a convergence of white elites' interests with the goals of civil rights activists.  For example, at the time of the Civil Rights movement of the 1960’s, the U.S. had a strong need to appear democratic in the face of worldwide Communism.  This was actually documented in a brief prepared for the legal counsel during the hearing of Brown vs. the Board of Education.  Wise suggests that one tactic is to convince white folks that racism and oppression actually hurt them economically and psychologically. While Michelle Alexander agreed that this approach could be useful at times to get in the door, she maintained that there is a need to build a moral consensus to sustain momentum.  She recommended a call to the “beloved community” in terms of spiritual consequences as a way to build a lasting anti-racist movement.   

On a more positive note, I had a pleasant conversation recently with the man who owns the building next door.  He is an African American minister who lives in another neighborhood but comes by to work on his building occasionally.  I think we honestly didn’t know what to make of each other for the first year or so that we knew each other.  Slowly, we have been getting to know each other, and the other day we had a quite enjoyable conversation about what I have been reading.  As I listened to the pastor, I found myself amazed as he talked about history, white privilege, race relations, racial inequality, etc.  He used none of the terms that I just mentioned, but he was talking about these concepts as I have been reading about them in books.  It was a moment of self-reflection for me, because I realized that I should not be amazed.  He, as an active participant in his own struggle, has thought deeply about racial structures and racial stratification. 

I am only just now reading and thinking about these issues because of my privileged position closer to the top.  In my whitewashed world, I never looked down to see the structure or those who have experienced the systematic, interrelated barriers of the structure.  Only later in life were there white people who pointed out the racial stratification to me, and only now I am finally listening to people of color talk about their perspectives.  As I think about my own developing understanding of systemic racism, this progression should inform my interactions with other white folks.  I hope that I am better able to communicate information in way that can be well received, with an understanding of the deficiencies in my own knowledge. 

References

Feagin, J. R. (2006). Systemic racism: A theory of oppression. New York: Routledge.

Michelle Alexander & Tim Wise on Racism and the New Jim Crow. (2012, June 25). Tim Wise. Retrieved July 12, 2012, from http://www.timwise.org/

Discourse and colorblind racism


I have been getting into a lot of conversations lately.  Friends ask, “How’s your summer going?”  “Great,” I say with a wry smile, “I’ve been spending the summer reading about systemic racism.”  

I really need to learn the art of chit-chat. 

Of course, these conversations inevitably end up being more difficult than I intended.  I am in a certain frame of mind right now and I forget that all my friends haven’t been reading along with me.  I liken it to a study abroad experience: I have been changing slowly in my way of thinking, and I expect that everything will be the same with the people I have known for so long.  My point is not to say my friends are not also changing and growing, it’s just that we are having different experiences. 

The latest book I read was called Racism without racists: Color-blind racism and the persistence of racial inequality in the United States by Eduardo Bonilla-Silva (2003).  Again, not a conversation starter in most circles, and if a conversation did get started, I have a feeling it would get ugly rather quickly.  But since you are reading this blog, I assume you would like me to explain why this is an important, insightful work.  

Bonilla-Silva conducted two large studies, one with hundreds of white university students, and the other in the city of Detroit with black and white adult participants from diverse backgrounds.  He and his fellow researchers conducted hours and hours of interviews with these participants.  The interviews centered on issues of race, racism and racial inequality.  For example, most of the participants were asked, “What is your opinion about affirmative action?” or “Interracial marriage is a controversial subject.  What do you think about this topic?”  The interviews were recorded, transcribed and then analyzed.  The goal was to look at the ways in which people, black and white, talked about race.  This included body language, silence, tone, volume and rate of speech, and other speech patterns, like stuttering or false starts. 

I should make clear at this point that the goal was NOT to analyze the speech of well-meaning individuals and reveal, “Hah!  We knew it! You’re a racist!”  In fact, Bonilla-Silva makes it very clear he doesn’t believe that people are either “good, non-racist” people or “bad racist” people.  Bonilla-Silva also noted that participants, regardless of age, mostly did NOT use racial slurs or other explicitly racist language more typical of the “Jim Crow” era.  Instead, with the understanding that racism is both systemic and institutionalized in the U.S., Bonilla-Silva wanted to see how people are influenced by this dominant ideology, even if their language is not overtly racist.   Therefore, the interviewers were very careful to ask questions in a way that would show the racial beliefs of the participants.  I might even describe it in terms of “innocent until proven guilty”—the interviewers attempted to help the participants clarify their views in ways that would show that they did not hold racist beliefs if that was the case.  

Bonilla-Silva found that many white participants, who were mostly complete strangers from across the state of Michigan, shared ways of talking about race, racism and racial inequality.  He calls these “frames.”  For example, one of the main frames is that of “cultural racism,” which has been traditionally described in terms of a “culture of poverty” (e.g. “Blacks don’t place much emphasis on education.”)  Ostensibly, it replaces essentialist racism, but since it presents culture as monolithic and stable it has been called the “biologization of culture.”   This was offered by many participants as a primary explanation for racial inequality in society.  While it seems like a compassionate response, it ignores systemic racism and places the responsibility on the victims.  Bonilla-Silva found that white participants used this frame, but that this frame also seemed to indirectly affect the discourse of some black participants, as well. 

An extension of the cultural racism frame is the narrative of the “exceptional black,” that is, the belief that most black people are culturally deficient, but there are a few exceptions (e.g. “I know a black guy who makes more money than I do.  He didn’t let discrimination get him down.”)  This is also similar to a rhetorical move that many participants used: “If the Jews/Italians/Irish/Asians can make it, why can’t the blacks?”  This is in line with the belief that if a person just works hard, they can succeed.  Ultimately, this view minimizes institutionalized racism against blacks specifically, but also against other people of color.  It also can be yet another way to “talk around” a belief that black people are culturally deficient. 

Bonilla-Silva found with the participants in his study that the use of color-blind discourse combined several frames and rhetorical moves.  Other frames were “minimization of racism” (e.g. I don’t think discrimination really happens these days.”) and “naturalization” (e.g. “People like to stay with their kind of people. It’s just the way it is.”)   Rhetorical moves included projection (e.g. “They are the racists ones.”) and claiming interracial friendships (e.g. “Some of my best friends are black.”). 

Again, the use of these frames and rhetorical devices do not reveal that the participants are inherently racist people; however, it does indicate problematic and faulty beliefs about racial inequality, discrimination, and privilege.  Secondly, the evidence of the “racial grammar” of color-blind racism in the discourse of many unrelated white people, and even some black people, is further proof of a hegemonic racial ideology in the U.S. (Frankenberg’s power- and color-evasive discourse, or Feagin’s white racial frame).   It is possible for the participants to have been influenced by this color-blind ideology and have incorporated it into their discourse without active awareness, especially if they had been socialized in predominantly white environments.  My advisor suggested that one way to think about discourses is that they speak “through us” in imperceptible ways.  It is this color-blind discourse, however, that allows people to navigate around issues of race so that a few pernicious racist perceptions remain unrecognized and unchallenged.

It is important to point out here that most black participants, and a handful of white participants, did show a “race cognizance” (Frankenberg, 1993).  In other words, while they may have displayed some influence from color-blind discourse, they recognized that racism still exists and that while race is merely a social construct, it still matters in terms of life outcomes in the U.S.  This shows, in line with other researchers, that it is possible to break out of the cycle of socialization, recognize the dominant discourse, and reject it. 

Most of the conversations I have had recently with white folks have ended poorly and left me feeling rather confused.  It’s like we are speaking different languages.  And it turns out, we almost are.  As I shift into “race cognizance,” I am finding more and more examples of color-blind discourse in the conversations with friends, family, and even strangers.  I also recognize that in the past I have been guilty of buying into and using several of these frames and rhetorical moves.  As I moved from my white segregated context to work with urban mercy ministries, I attempted to explain the inequality that I encountered.  Even though I had excellent mentors who told me about institutionalized racism, I still functioned from the whitewashed version of history that I had learned from my family, friends, church and school.  It has been a huge shift for me to realize that systemic racism currently, and over the course of the history of our nation, accounts for the majority of racial inequality that exists within our society.  Cultural explanations for racial inequality are deceptively gentler versions of racism because at the heart is a view of “black culture” as monolithic and essentially inferior. 

My understanding of solidarity has also been refined as I have realized the fallacy of cultural racism.  While it purports to be compassionate, I realize that I cannot be truly empathetic if I don’t recognize the systematic and institutionalized barriers that have been set up to oppress different groups.  Joining with an oppressed group in solidarity had a shallow meaning for me; I assumed I was mostly commiserating with “those people” and helping them to better their situation.  In reality, solidarity means that I recognize our common humanity and abandon the idea of “us and them.”  I must recognize the struggle of oppressed people against a system, acknowledge my role in that system, and as much as I am able, attempt to disassociate myself from this system, which has ultimately damaged white folks, as well.  Then, as I fight against the system alongside the oppressed, I must realize that they have been fighting long before I came on the scene, and that ultimately the struggle will cost the oppressed more.  

References

Bonilla-Silva, E. (2003). Racism without racists: Color-blind racism and the persistence of racial inequality in the United States. Lanham, Md: Rowman & Littlefield.

Feagin, J. R. (2006). Systemic racism: A theory of oppression. New York: Routledge.

Frankenberg, R. (1993). White women, race matters: The social construction of whiteness. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.


Sunday, July 8, 2012

Baby food jars

Social identity is a complex thing.  As I continue to dig into controversial issues as a graduate student, pseudo-theologian, white woman, I also still identify as a mother.  And whether it's part of the social construction of gender, socialization or some innate womanly instinct to feed my children, I am the one in the house who gets to be in charge of the baby food.  Which is fine.  Anyway, this is my attempt to reconcile my seemingly disparate identities and let people know I'm not serious all the time.  I put on my pants two legs at a time.  Or is that one leg at a time?  I didn't pay attention.

The deal with the baby food is that I made all of Son #1's at home.  I was convinced (and still am) that baby food is overpriced, considering it contains pureed food and water, over-packaged and nutritionally homogeneous.  The major conviction was that of simplicity and frugality, however, as evidenced by the fact that I did not use strictly organic fruits and vegetables.  I bought a book that taught me how to make "super baby porridge" and so I made batches and batches of the multi-grain stuff and froze it in  ice-cube trays.  It was a good experience.

Now, as I have mentioned before, we have qualified for the WIC program.  In this program, babies at 6 months get hundreds of cans of baby food per month and two boxes of baby cereal.  Which we are grateful for.  Nonetheless, the baby is not in love with this "real food" yet, and it is all my effort and trickery to get him to eat somewhere around 2 cans of baby food a day, at best.  Combine that with the fact that something, perhaps the fiber-less cereal or the baby meats, seems to stop him up.  When it seemed that this might be the culprit for a few sleepless nights, it was a full-out boycott on any suspicious baby food items.  I switched him to the home-made millet cereal more familiar to me and generally backed off the 2 can/day quota.

So now what to do with all this baby food.  Fortunately, the world wide web (can we still say that?) offers a myriad of blogs to help with such an issue.  I feel I should note at this point that we will most likely donate any baby food that we cannot use after the baby stops eating it.  But while there is a chance that he will eat it, we will continue to stock our shelves, but occasionally try to clear some space by re-purposing it.  Soup seemed to be the obvious choice, so next time I make chili most of the ground chicken is going in there, with perhaps a few cans of squash.  The fruit is the easiest to work with since it is actually delicious to grown-ups and toddlers.  We even made a meat spread with the canned beef the other day and pretended we were British by adding Worcestershire sauce and sliced cucumbers.  It might not be my favorite, but is certainly an emergency food option.

That's all.