Racial and Cultural

Calling all white people, part 16: Devil’s advocate deviltry

Calling All White People, Part 16

(A periodic attempt to mobilize white people for something other than supporting just other melanin-deficient folks and maintaining a status quo of a nation geared toward whiteness as the baseline and the norm)

By An Average White Guy

TODAY’S EPISODE: Devil’s advocacy can make a devil of you, too

[To find other installments of “Calling All White People,” click here]

From the very moderate to even the most progressive and seemingly open-minded white people, my brethren of the pink-hued skin seem to love to play devil’s advocate when issues of race come up. For some reason, they don’t seem nearly as eager to do so for issues like poverty, the environment, etc.

But that’s not the most annoying thing. The most annoying thing is the failure to realize, especially with an issue that is as highly charged (and dangerous to those affected by it) as racism and racial inequities, that to play devil’s advocate is to become a bit of a devil yourself.

Major social issues aren’t minor things, so why are you “playing” around at something, anyway? Unless you’re an actor in a paid role on stage or screen, why play the defender of the devil? And that *is* what a devil’s advocate is, you know. Essentially, the devil’s lawyer.

Why would you feel a need to defend people who are doing harm, when there are so many other less-sensitive and less-aware people to do that already? Why do you add to the stress of people of color to argue how just maybe some probably racial incident could be seen from one perspective as not racial at all? Why are you essentially on the attack…however soft an attack it may be…against people already under attack for the color of their skin and nothing more?

Moreover, why the insistence to play devil’s advocate for people who are least in need of your protection? Like, for example, the police.

Now, I’m not anti-cop. From friends of the family over the years to actual family members, I am now close to and have been close to current and former members of law enforcement. I even dabbled with the idea of going to police academy a few years ago for a mid-life career change. I’m not keen on anarchy and like to know someone is around to enforce the law. But the police are terrible on the racial track record and aim their actions disproportionately and unfairly at non-white people. The less white; the harder their approach. So I’m not here to try to cheerlead for them, either.

And why would I need to (or you)? I’m not saying that being a police officer isn’t stressful or risky. But there are more than a dozen professions in the United States (last I checked a few months ago) that are more dangerous than policing, many of which are actually more valuable and critical to our daily lives, and are people who we *don’t* lift up all the time and worry about like we white people tend to do with police officers. (BGIM note: here’s a list of the most dangerous U.S. professions in descending order…police are at #14)

Not to mention that the stats clearly show the threat of death (the thing the police keep telling us is a rising danger to them) has gone down for at least the past decade if not longer, and the Barack Obama presidency was one of the safest periods for police officers in modern history (while violence against non-white people by police was a frequent and disproportionate occurrence and one for which they have almost always gone unpunished, even for the most egregious cases caught on video). Police wield so much power, see so few repercussions when they do wrong, and still we rush to their defense. We are so eager to defend them and we say “blue lives matter” so easily while often tripping over “black lives matter.” (BGIM note: figures on police officers’ relative safety in recent years here and here.)

Not to mention the comments like, “Well, 98% of cops are good people,” which I see over and over, even as recently as yesterday. And yet it’s those 98% of cops who are very much doing things like stop-and-frisk on almost only non-white people or doing searches of cars for minor traffic infractions by non-white people. Things that are more likely to turn up evidence of criminal activities; things that if they were also done to white people (and they hardly ever are) would mean a lot more white people in prison to make things more proportional there (or maybe not, since stats clearly show white people are treated more leniently in the courts for the same crimes as non-white people). Also, when the so-called 2% of bad cops do wrong, who is there to turn off body cams or audio from dash cams? Or to protect them from being revealed or punished in other ways? Who are the people who don’t stop the bad cops when they’re out of control nor speak out against them? Pretty much almost all of those 98% of “good” cops.

And we also rush to the defense of politicians and celebrities (among other well-defended or privileged folk who don’t need our devil’s advocacy) who spew nonsense and dangerous rhetoric trying to downplay white supremacy and systemic (and personal) racism. Again, people who don’t need defending by those of us who claim to be critical thinkers and compassionate people.

Racism is evil. An evil that is woven deeply into the fabric of America. Evil is associated with the devil. If you want to be a devil’s advocate, you need to ask yourself if you’re becoming a devil yourself. Step away from the abyss. Please.
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Either we destroy white supremacy or we stop lying to ourselves

“Beyond the ebb and flow of racial progress lies the still viable and widely accepted (though seldom expressed) belief that America is a white country in which blacks, particularly as a group, are not entitled to the concern, resources, or even empathy that would be extended to similarly situated whites.”

Derrick A. Bell, Silent Covenants: Brown v. Board of Education and the Unfulfilled Hopes for Racial Reform

Since 2003, I have shared my struggles as a Black woman living in one of America’s very whitest states, but really the reality that I have lived in Maine is the reality of the majority Black people in America. “How could that be?” you might ask. Well, it is because we are confronted with overt and covert racism in our daily lives. Regularly. Virtually every day for most of us and more than once a day by far. Racism existed in my hometown of Chicago; after all, it was there that at the age of 16, I had a white child call me a nigger. It was was there where a police officer accused me of being a sex worker for the “crime”of being in the passenger seat of the car with my then husband as we drove down the highway (this being the 1990s, mind you, not the ’60s or even the ’70s, in case you got confused and thought I was an adult back in those decades…hell, I wasn’t even born until the 1970s). It was in Chicago where teachers chose to ignore the fact that as a sullen 16-year-old whose father had been diagnosed with cancer that I wasn’t just being hard-headed and not going to school but that I was in crisis.

The racism that I discovered in Maine was not, in hindsight, particularly extreme in terms of actions or behaviors. But what it was (and continues to be) extreme in the utter lack of racial representation. Simply put, in Chicago, there was a community that provided safe harbor and respite from the slings and arrows of racism. But in Maine, for the majority of Black people and other people of color, we are isolated and that makes the racism that we face even more dangerous. Rarely do we have a safe harbor to retreat to and nourish ourselves. Few (to the point of being almost none at all) largely Black neighborhoods or shops or hangouts. Instead, we are hyper-vigilant and always on though because we are constantly surrounded by whiteness and people who expect us to “act white.” Granted, that is slowly changing thanks to younger activists who are working diligently to change things. But it’s still very much an unfinished work in very early progress.

I must confess that I am tired, I am weary and I am mad. Recently a “friend” suggested that I tone down my rhetoric on race as I was turning people off. Funny thing is that for the past several months, I have been in a deep funk about my work because at times, I wonder if my writing or work has any real value beyond knowledge or camaraderie. As I watch a younger generation of Black activists and thinkers come up, I think they are on to something: The humanity of Black people cannot wait for a collective mass of white folks to realize that we have as much right to sit at the table of humanity as they do instead of always requiring that we twist ourselves to be palatable to the white gaze and aesthetic.

Technology’s ability to capture racial injustice on camera has led to millions of white people starting the process of waking up to the realities of race in America and while that is a good thing, it is not enough. It is not enough to realize that white privilege is a real thing regardless of one’s economic situation. Waking up to whiteness and acknowledgment of injustice do not lead to the structural overhauling of this entire system which is desperately needed. In short, it is no longer enough to educate yourselves and work towards being anti-racist in your personal sphere.

White privilege exists on the foundation of white supremacy, which is what we need to address as a collective body. To be born in a body labeled as white is to be born into white supremacy, it is to be as steeped in white supremacy as a Lipton tea bag is in a mug of steaming hot water.

Western civilization was built on white supremacy and affects every interaction in our lives from how we run our meetings to how we buy our homes. Whiteness is the cultural norm that we are all forced into and for those of us in bodies that are not white, our ability to survive is often tied to just how well we can fit ourselves into this narrative that upholds whiteness as the cultural norm. If you think I am lying, look no further than the former President of the United States. Barack Obama’s ability to distance himself from Blackness was part of his ability to capture the hearts and minds of millions of white people. He was our first Black president and yet it was under our country’s first Black president that Black people mobilized in numbers not seen since the Civil Rights era as we affirmed our right to exist thanks to the growing numbers of Black people being killed by police.

This space has long served as the starting place for many white people to create awareness around racism but that is no longer enough for me as the creator of this space. We must move the needle on racism and while education and knowledge are central to that process we must also have action. We need to ask ourselves are we upholding white supremacy and thus perpetuating the never-ending cycle of racism or are we taking stock of our lives and actions and looking at where we can be the change?

The past several days have been hard for Black Americans as we saw yet another police officer acquitted in the death of an unarmed Black person who was so clearly undeserving of lethal force. Last summer, Philando Castile was pulled over for from the crime of having a busted taillight while driving with his girlfriend and her child. After being asked for his license and registration, Castile told the officer that he was licensed to carry a firearm and that he had one on his person. He was polite and complaint, the two things we are always told will keep us from being shot. Yet the officer decided that his life was in danger and shot into the car multiple times killing Castile. Castile’s girlfriend recorded the incident on Facebook Live as her 4-year-old daughter witnessed this all from the back seat. Yet in the end, the officer was acquitted. People wonder why we say Black Lives Matter but more times than not the system sends the clear messages that Black Lives Don’t Matter.

As many of us sit with this unsettling reminder that our lives only matter when white America says they do, we were faced with another brutal reminder that our lives don’t matter. Seattle police shot and killed Charleena Lyles, a 30-year-old Black mother with a reported history of mental health issues after she called to report an attempted burglary. Lyles, who was pregnant, was armed with a knife which apparently triggered the officers to shoot and kill her; her children were present in the apartment. A woman calls the police to report a burglary and ends up dead. In moments like this, I find myself wondering is there any reason for any Black person in America to call the police given that the system has the uncanny knack of finding us so threatening that whether we are 12-year-old kids engaging in play with a toy gun at a playground or driving in our cars or calling for help, we still are killed. Yet white men who go into Black churches and shoot and kill people can be delivered safely to jail with a pit stop for fast food before being locked up. Or they escape from jail, go on a crime spree and can still be captured alive.

If this space resonates with you, what are your plans for change? How are you affirming the humanity in Black and non-white people? How are you supporting people of color? How are you taking your learning and putting it into action? What is holding you back? If Black lives really matter to you, how are you letting the Black people in your life know that?

Lastly, to the “friend” who said I was too much, I say no. In fact, what I have been doing is not enough and I will work until my last breath to create change. If that makes you as a white person uncomfortable, decolonize your mind and break free from the shackles of white supremacy. Do better, think better and be better. Dismantle the system that says whiteness is rightness and everything else.

Do these things. Do them, or else acknowledge that the lives of non-white people, especially Black ones, are simply not enough of a priority for you to unplug yourself from white supremacy and white privilege. Make change in yourself and around you, however you can, or stop lying to yourself.
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If this piece or this blog resonates with you, please consider a one-time “tip” or become a monthly “patron”…this space runs on love and reader support. Want more BGIM? Consider booking me to speak with your group or organization.

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I’m light-skinned, not thin-skinned

Today’s post is from return contributor Veronica A. Perez (b. 1983). She is an artist and educator who works mostly in the mediums of sculpture and photography. Usually utilizing construction and kitschy materials in her pieces, Perez creates intense personal moments by means of hybridization, ideals of beauty, nostalgia, while fragility echoes sentiments of a lost self, and at the same time paralleling contemporary feminist tensions.
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I was shopping at the local grocery store last week, in the aptly named “Hispanic” section. As I was looking at the Goya goodness, a man and woman came up behind me and the wife asked the husband if he maybe wanted some tacos for dinner. The husband curtly replied, “I don’t want none of that Spic Mexican shit!” and let out a hearty laugh. My jaw dropped as I mustered up a small and tiny “Excuse me” to which he angrily replied “You got somethin’ to say?”’ I at this point just walked away to the fading sounds of his laughter.

I bring up this story because it has a lot to do with being a white passing POC within the state of Maine. There is usually disbelief when I tell someone I am Latinx (Puerto Rican on my father’s’ side; additionally, Latinx is indeed a word, it is a gender-neutral alternative used to move beyond the gender binary and the more commonly used masculine form of the word). I am most definitely white-passing and I am also half Italian on my mother’s’ side. I was recently asked if I sometimes I use my Puerto Rican-ness to be more ethnic and othered, by a very ignorant white male.

Light-skinned privilege is exactly what it sounds like; it means POC with lighter complexions usually get a pass because they are not as dark as their peers. Colorism is a major driving force behind racism in America. Big Bill Broonzy’s 1947 song Black, Brown and White explains colorism perfectly:

“If you was white,
You’s alright,
If you was brown,
Stick around,
But if you’s black, oh, brother,
Get back, get back, get back.”

Basically, what Broonzy is saying is “If you’re darker than a white tan girl, something’s not right.”

Now, I obviously pass for white. I have not faced the contemptuous discriminations or systemic oppressions that my darker brothers and sisters face everyday. I grew up in a lower-middle-class family that lived on an army base in New Jersey. My father, Miguel, was much darker than I and I would pick up on small cues when we would go out together; specifically, the way people would act around him and change their tones when talking to him. I clearly remember one time when we went to the florist to pick up flowers for my mother and the woman behind the counter, once realizing that this was the man she spoke to on the phone, said, “Oh, I didn’t realize you were Black, you sounded white on the phone.” My father always had this way of subtly disarming people, while at the same time putting them in their place. He smiled and kindly asked this woman, “Well, what have you done differently if I was white?”

However, I have had my share of bias; specifically speaking, while I was in grad school in Maine. I was making a lot of work related to feminism, my interpretation of feminism, Latinx feminism. And it wasn’t taken seriously.  Well, let me stop there, I am not sure if it wasn’t taken seriously or if the type of work I do isn’t accepted here. Maine, artistically, is a very traditional place with traditional craft values (It is taking steps to right this; I am seeing more and more diversity. But it’s moving at a glacial pace). I work with very untraditional materials and kitschy ideas. The work is messy and loud. I was told more than once that I am “too emotional, too passionate” (like being passionate is a bad thing) within the discourse that I am working in.

I’m sure if I was white, or having a white conversation, others would have been able to glom onto my ideas and identify with the experiences I was having. When POC share their knowledge and experience within a room of white peers, the POC is interrupted, corrected, and explained to, instead of giving POC the space to speak their truth and lead. In these conversations, POC are “allowed in” and their work becomes a footnote within the privileged white discourse. The frame of reference always returns to white cultural norms. And since I am a white looking woman, who am I to be talking about Latinx experiences? What do I know about it? My work shifted to become more traditional sculptural forms, devoid of meaning and passion. They were just forms. The identity had been ripped away and all that was left was dust. Boring, white dust.

I’ve learned, living in this state, and with the recent sitting president, that bias and discrimination is real. I’ve always lived and grown up in very diverse areas along the eastern seaboard: New Jersey, New York, Philadelphia. And always knew that racism and biases were real. However, it was not until I moved here that I realized that it was still vibrantly, actively alive. Some Mainers believe that there isn’t a race problem, when the problem is that there is nobody to be racist to most of the time; there are mostly just white people. Portland and surrounding areas are the most diverse of the state, and even then not really so. And even when a light-skinned POC like myself attempts to speak upon the matter, I am shut down for not being ethnic enough because of my light skinned-ness. No matter though, I won’t stop.

Recognizing the privilege you have as a light-skinned person is imperative. Light-skinned POC need to recognize this privilege and use it to be an advocate for those whose voices people decide to drown out because of the color of their skin. Light-skinned POC have a responsibility to defend and use their light-skinned-ness to voice equality.  Just like that jerk in the grocery store, he thought I was just another white woman living in Maine, but what he didn’t realize is I have a voice and I will continuously use it to fight, even though I didn’t use it in that moment at the grocery store. I still have this burning passion to be an advocate to others.
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If this piece or this blog resonates with you, please consider a one-time “tip” or become a monthly “patron”…this space runs on love and reader support. Want more BGIM? Consider booking me to speak with your group or organization.

Comments will close on this post in 60-90 days; earlier if there are spam attacks or other nonsense

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