Calling All White People, Part 27: Taking up less space

Calling All White People, Part 27

(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: We white people need to take up less space  

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

People with an interest in environmental issues will often talk about “reducing our carbon footprint.” Well, those of us who are interested in racial equity and who are white might want to think about something similar, except it would be “reducing our Caucasian footprint.”

Now, one could argue for the need to reduce such a potentially damaging footprint in all kinds of ways, from reducing our propensity for colonialism (which is still practiced in such places as Puerto Rico today) to ending the practice of overwhelmingly putting white people (particularly men) in charge of corporations and federal law, way out of proportion to their actual percentage of the population or sometimes even their ability to do the job.

But no, what I want to talk about is reducing how much space we white people often take up.

You may have heard people of color talk about “white people taking up too much space.” If you haven’t , you might want to pay attention more, because you might be one of the folks crowding them. And no, I’m not talking about literal space, though white people do have a bad habit of invading the personal space of people of color, too. What I mean is that we tend to make ourselves the center of attention when it comes to discussions of racial matters.

(If you’re the kind of person who says at this point: “Well, if Black people or whoever don’t want us white people around to help undo racism and they’re just going to complain about us all the time, I’m just gonna take my marbles and go home” then you probably don’t really care about racial justice and…why are you here, anyway?)

No, it isn’t that people of color, particularly Black people, are tired of constantly being surrounded by white people and having to always adjust to white norms because it hurts them figuratively or gets them literally hurt if they don’t do exactly what white people want and expect all people to do regardless of cultural or historical background. I mean, they are tired of that, but my point isn’t that we white people need to be literally absent from the scene more often (because really, white supremacy and racism is something white people created and continue to nurture, consciously and unconsciously, so we need to do most of the work of undoing it).

My point is that we need to stop making ourselves the center of attention.

And that is often what is at the core of people of color complaining that white people take up too much space.

For example, you might have a group of people of differing races together, and talk of racism comes up. Eliminating racial disparities, reparations, higher rates of police violence vs. Black people. Whatever. And during the discussion, one or more white people will somehow make it about themselves, either individually or as a race. Instead of focusing on the issue of how things like white privilege and white supremacy hurt non-white folks, they’ll start going on about their feelings of guilt or how hard it is to work for social justice of whatever.

And it’s not that their feelings or the difficulties of dismantling racism or anything else are invalid.

It’s just that too many white people turn that into the focus and want to be heard out on such topics to the exclusion of respecting the people of color, or instead of focusing on the bigger and more important issue, etc.

If you’re not getting what I’m talking about, think about fellow white people you hang out with or have been around in the past who “suck all the air out of a room” or who always dominate conversations or try to be the center of attention. It’s not that all of those people are bad or even annoying generally. They might be fine humans or delightful company most of the time, but still, their antics are often exhausting and exasperating.

And when this kind of thing is brought up to white people by people of color, nowadays it isn’t that uncommon for the white people to ask if they can have a separate space (in the virtual world or the physical one) where they can talk with each other and process their own emotions about racial issues. Which isn’t a bad thing, because often it’s tiring for people of color to have to always hold our hands or listen to us weep or gnash our teeth about our struggles with overcoming white supremacy both outside and inside ourselves.

So, creating white spaces to deal with white feelings can often be an example of taking up less space. And yet, even there, white privilege and white supremacy ironically can still rear their ugly heads. I’ve witnessed and heard about all too many examples where white people in racial justice or racial equity circles get those “safe spaces” and then spend more time on talking amongst themselves about their feelings than actually working against racism. Or they start asking for time, space or resources that distract or detract from the work of people of color or that exceed what the people of color get in trying to take down racism.

Basically, as I’ve often heard it said: “Whiteness is a hell of a drug.”

So, let’s kick the habit of being quite so white-centered and self-centered and try to be a lot less prone to dominating spaces and conversations about problems we created to begin with. Don’t metaphorically be the person who recklessly ran down someone with a car who then asks the victim’s family to listen to them cry about how hard it is to be charged with vehicular manslaughter.

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Calling All White People, Part 25: On the subject of digital blackface

Calling All White People, Part 25

(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: Let us not attempt to be “black” when we aren’t  

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

In recent days, we’ve seen a couple rather high-profile stories of famous Black men “falling” in the public eye. There was Kanye West on the one hand, tweeting a picture of himself in one of those signature Donald Trump red “Make America Great Again” (MAGA) caps and a slew of tweets that included praising Trump, calling him a brother and lauding his “dragon energy.” And then on the other hand, Bill Cosby being convicted on three counts of sexual assault.

The two stories don’t share much in common except for that aspect of iconic Black men being at the center—one is a story of a man showing what most Black people and a large number of non-Black ones feel is a highly misplaced allegiance with an open bigot and authoritarian and the other being the culmination of what many feel is a far-too-long delayed bit of justice for heinous acts against women.

But both bits of news got people talking. A lot. A lot of Black people. And a lot of white people. And it’s that second group I want to address (what a surprise, huh?).

First, let me say that I’m not about to say we white people don’t have valid things to comment on with regard to both stories. Shock, relief, regret, disgust, whatever. But I guess before I get into the meat of this post—about a little something called “digital blackface”—I should probably start with a cautionary note. It’s probably too late for some of you with regard to these two stories, but maybe it can help in the future.

And that would be scale and context. I feel like too many white people outraged by West’s supportive tweets of Trump and MAGA (which too often is, of course, really a call to “make America white again”) feel very comfortable calling out the musical artist but aren’t expending the same energy to call out their friends, family and other fellow white people about their own support of Trump. And frankly, even if these people are calling out white celebrities like Roseanne Barr for their Trumpishness, it’s not enough. When we start going in on Black people but don’t do the work with fellow white people in our lives, we fail. This is a case where it’s often better to let the Black people do the major analysis and sometimes chastisement of a person like West. Because we white people have too long a history of holding people of color (especially Black ones) accountable and letting our fellow white folk off the hook.

Same with Cosby. All well and good to cheer that he finally is being held legally accountable for his crimes after years of getting away with them and having them swept under the rug, but are the same white people cheering his fall as eager to hold white men for similar crimes accountable? Or, when it comes to the Matt Lauers and Harvey Weinsteins and Louis CKs of the world, are we satisfied with their public humiliation alone? Louis CK already seems to be recovering his career footing. Both he and Lauer are well younger enough than Cosby to go right back to elevated positions before they retire from the limelight or die of old age. And quite likely they may never face criminal charges for what they did. Weinstein might very well coast on his riches without facing the same late-life conviction Cosby has enjoyed. If we don’t acknowledge the inequities in how criminal justice goes after Black bodies compared to white ones, we fail. If we don’t push for and demand the same treatment across the board, we fail.

Sorry. As I so often do, I’ve gotten sidetracked. So many issues and layers to racism in this country that it’s hard to just not address them. But back to the intended point: digital blackface.

I’ve now provided two links for you to get familiar with the term, if you aren’t already. I encourage you to click on both. But if you’re in a “too long; didn’t read” mode (I might be judging you if you are), it’s basically the practice of using memes (pictures or videos) of Black people by white people online to react to various events, issues and happenings, usually with relation to those things happening to (or being done by) Black people. It can also involve using Black or brown emojis in texts or posts when you are a white person.

I know some of my fellow white people are still unclear on terms like “reaction memes” despite years of being online; that’s why I want you to use both of those links. Also, the whole concept of tying that to the blackface issue (“popularized” in old minstrel shows but still evident today with white people donning blackface for Halloween or just general fuckery in real life and in online photos) is a complicated and multi-layered one that many of us white people haven’t truly examined. Nor have many of us considered why it isn’t the same thing (nor really even comparable) when Black people use memes of white people in their reactions.

The ever-popular “eating popcorn” meme comes in different colors, as do almost all relevant memes

Not all—but too many—white people have used memes featuring Black people to react to the West and Cosby news and have done so with other issues and happenings in the past. And this rightly rankles a lot of people of color.

Bottom line: I don’t think digital blackface is a good idea. I understand that the intent isn’t always to appropriate blackness nor to be insensitive, but it’s that intent vs. impact thing. If you don’t mean harm, but you do it anyway (perpetuating racially insensitive outcomes), your lack of ill intent is irrelevant.

In the end, it has much the same effect as adopting AAVE (African-American vernacular English) in your speech when talking with Black people, or taking special effort (often convoluted and contextually inappropriate) to bring up your Black friends or past efforts on behalf of racial equity to let Black people you interact with know that you’re “one of the ‘good’ white people.” It’s forced. It’s awkward. It’s off-putting and often insulting.

Believe me, I’ve been guilty of such things in my younger days and I still every so often slip up and do that crap from time to time now. It’s a habit that we need to break. If we’re truly not “bad white people” let’s let our actual actions and treatment of non-white people around us show that. It’s like the old writing rule: show, don’t tell. Your behavior should illustrate where you stand more than the words coming out of your mouth. Or typed by your fingers. Or exhibited by pictures and video and other memes online.

Similarly with emojis.

It was great when recently (too recently; it should have been standard from the start) emojis finally offered varying shades from the yellow (which basically represented whiteness) to shades of tan and brown and black. That was important. But it was important to allow people of color to use emojis that more closely represented themselves rather than being forced to stick to a standard created by and reinforcing whiteness. They aren’t meant for us white people most of the time.

Now, there are exceptions. If I were to be congratulating a Black person in my life for finally finishing and defending their dissertation and posted an emoji of a Black person in a graduation cap with a heart emoji, I’m acknowledging them. But if I use a smiley emoji or frown emoji for my own reaction to something, and I choose a brown or black one, I’m doing digital blackface. My general guideline is that only “reaction” emojis I’ll do in brown or black are things like a thumbs-up or the “OK” symbol for example—and even then only with people of color who are particularly close to me. And even then I periodically shift between various shades. And then only because I’m acknowledging something and because that acknowledgement involves both of us. It isn’t just about me (and isn’t just representing me) and it is a very small way of making sure I don’t always center whiteness in our interactions via text. But for actual emotions/faces? I stick with the “white” versions. Because that’s what I am.

We’re white. Let’s own that. Let’s be white. We can do that and still interact with people of color in meaningful ways. We don’t need to don brown or black virtual skins nor do we need to use Black people as virtual props for our reactions. We don’t need to find another way to appropriate blackness or brownness. There’s a big, wide world of GIFs and videos and the like that express the exact same sentiments but represent our skin. Let’s go find them.

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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Calling All White People, Part 24: Call them the terrorists that they are

(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: Whitewashing terrorism makes terrorism a racist word  

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

Mark Anthony Conditt seems destined to join an esteemed list: White people who committed terrorists acts but will never be called terrorists by the U.S. president or, really, any governmental agency. Or, for that fact, by most white Americans.

We’ve seen mass shooters from Orlando (the Pulse nightclub shooting) to Las Vegas (the Harvest Festival country music concert). Which one did Donald Trump and the rather significant number of white Americans who support him use to launch into talk of brown-skinned immigrants and the so-called Islamic State and stoke fears of terrorism? Orlando, where the shooter was a guy named Omar Mateen. Sure, Mateen claimed to be doing it in solidarity with the extremists of the Islamic State, but that’s not the point. Whenever a Muslim or…well, anyone brown-skinned…does something like this, a whole slew of white Americans get into a tizzy about either terrorists flooding to our shores or Black people being degenerate or Mexicans being murderous drug dealers pouring across the border or some other nonsense.

Heck, if you’re white like Conditt (or like Dylann Roof, who shot dead nine black churchgoers in South Carolina in 2015), especially if you’re young, you get sensitive treatment from the mainstream media about how you seemed like such a nice boy or came from such a nice family or must have suffered from mental illness—like Roof, you might even get not only gentle arrest treatment but a snack at Burger King. Meanwhile, Black and brown suspects and killers have every sordid little item in their past, no matter how irrelevant, trotted out. Hell, Trayvon Martin, who wasn’t a killer but a murder victim, got turned into a villain in the press for having smoked pot and being “no angel” so that murderer George Zimmerman could be lifted up as the victim instead.

And we keep demonizing brown-skinned people in general, and playing up the threat of terrorism from their ranks, despite the fact that domestic white far-right extremists are at least a comparable threat (and possible a bigger one when you consider how the attacks have risen since Trump was elected). Since Trump took office, more U.S. citizens have been killed by domestic white male terrorists than by immigrants, Muslims, refugees or any other groups that have been pointed to by Republicans as being the imminent danger.

And, just for the record, despite the fears stoked about undocumented immigrants in this country, the evidence leans heavily in support that they actually are less likely to commit crimes than are U.S. citizens.

I’m digressing a bit, but I felt I needed to set the stage.

So, back to Conditt and the Austin bombings in the news lately. Well, mostly since March 18, even though the bombings started earlier in the month. But I’ll address that little tidbit a bit later.

Conditt has been called a “serial bomber” but not a terrorist. While his motives appear to be unclear at this point, in part because he apparently didn’t have much a social media presence, he was using terror tactics and his initial targets were Black and brown people. In fact, the White House has made extra special sure to point out there is “no link” to terrorism in Conditt’s actions, even though they leap at the chances to restrict immigration and clamp down on brown-skinned people whenever someone from that end of skin-tone spectrum kills even one person, much less multiple people or masses of them.

The fact is, the Conditt story didn’t even make the mainstream news in any significant way until white people started getting hurt. When Conditt’s bomb with a trip wire set up on the roadside in an upscale Austin neighborhood injured two white men. And then ramped up more when a package blew up in a FedEx facility near San Antonio and then another one was intercepted before exploding in an Austin FedEx facility.

The only reason I knew about the story days before March 18 was because of people (mostly people of color) posting on Twitter about the first three bombings and wondering (a) why it wasn’t hardly being covered in the news and (b) why wasn’t it being treated as a hate crime, since the victims up until that point were all non-white—either Black or Hispanic.

Now, was it a hate crime? Was it driven by racism? I’ll admit that things are unclear on that front. The first three bombs killed or injured people of color. The fourth was in what is apparently a pretty white part of Austin. The subsequent bombs were in packages and there is no word yet on where (and to whom) they were going. I’m not willing to bow out on the hate crime angle yet, though. By the time Conditt planted that fourth bomb, people of color were talking about racism possibly being the cause, and nothing seems to offend racists more than being called racists, so I wouldn’t be shocked if Conditt planted that bomb in a more white area to make his acts look “not racist.”

Also, who knows? The trip wire for that fourth bomb was anchored to a “for sale” sign. Did Conditt see a Black person visiting the house to potentially buy it? Who knows? Unlikely, but we just don’t know. But I’m still pretty suspicious about how un-white the first three victims were and those were in packages that were left at homes—which seems pretty freaking targeted to me. Just like the two FedEx packages had to have been targeted to actual addresses—though we may never know what addresses. That trip-wire one by the side of the road? Again, seems very random, like a diversion from Conditt’s actual “mission.”

But let’s drop the potential hate-crime angle. Again, what he did was terrorism. Whether he did it just to terrorize Austin or whether he did it with some specific twisted social agenda in mind, it’s terrorism. Let’s call it what it is.

Part of the reason so much of America is so willing to look at immigrants and refugees and Muslims and brown skin as “terror material” is precisely because we, as a nation (mostly the white part of the population), are so reluctant to finger white people as terrorists.

Again, let’s go back to some of my earlier links in this post. Going back to the years following the 9/11 attacks, more lethal terror incidents were the result of white people on the far right. Granted, yes, slightly fewer people dead by white hands, but more attacks by white right-wing extremists. And since Trump? Definitely the right-wing extremists are the major threat—and they are pretty much…well, white guys. But while they may get tagged as domestic terrorists in certain statistic-gathering, officials and politicians and average citizens don’t really call attention to that, and more than that, they let whole bunches of other white people who should be labeled terrorists off the hook. That same reluctance—and sometimes completely disregard—does not get afforded to non-white terrorists.

In fact, it seems to me that America is as likely to brand non-terrorist brown people as terrorists as it is to refuse to label white terrorists as terrorists. So I’d argue that any stats showing comparability are likely skewed to favor whiteness anyway and thus are making a false equivalency.

But the bottom line is we need to start naming terrorism by white people as terrorism. Hate crimes in particular are a terror attack. They are part of a systematic—and systemic—form of terrorism that white people have inflicted on Black people in particular since the earliest days of this nation.

Time to stop letting white people off the hook because we’re afraid to call them “racists” or “terrorists.” Time to stop humanizing white killers while failing to humanize non-white ones. And time to stop turning—in some cases—white terrorists into victims or heroes while making their victims into the villains.

Because if we’re only going to really loudly use the word “terrorism” when a non-white person is the terrorist, then we simply turn the word into a useless—and racist—term.

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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Photo by Estefano on Pixabay