White folks and affirmative action: The 101 real-deal lesson

The most dangerous White supremacists wear suits and smiles, not hoods. They kill with respectable debate and marching orders, not weapons. – Ju-Hyun Park

I am a Black woman from Chicago living in Maine who writes and talks about race pretty regularly. Then, to ensure that I really never stop talking about racism, my day job is heading up an anti-racism organization. That means that my small-talk game in social settings leads to some pretty interesting moments. If you want to kill the vibe at the local watering hole or social gathering, try talking about a job like mine in the era of Trump. I am what some might consider a buzzkill. Hey, it’s a living and someone has to do it.

Seriously though, what happens far too often is that some white person, upon hearing what I do for a living, wants to engage me on race and generally starts feeding me the “I don’t see race line”…“We are all the same”…or some other line of deflection that reveals that the speaker has never thought deeply or critically about race. Someone who rarely or never understands that to be white in America (and, frankly, most of the world) is to exist in a bubble of privilege.

As I said in my TEDx talk last fall, America is a nation built on stolen land that was built with the bodies of stolen and enslaved people. In choosing that course of action, we set in place a country where possession of white skin has meant inclusion into the family of humanity and anything less than white skin has meant a struggle to be viewed as fully human.

What’s interesting is that since the Obama presidency, there has been a shift in perception that white folks are becoming a minority and that anti-white bias/discrimination is an issue. Funny how the first non-white president out of the previous 43 white male presidents brought about this shift in mindset. I guess when you don’t see yourselves occupying the highest seat in the land, it causes one to feel some kind of way.

Well, fast-forward past the Obama years to the Trump months and we have Trump to the rescue, making America great again by putting those Blacks and other non-white, non-cisgendered, non-heterosexual, non-Christians back in their place. Under the thumb of the straight white man.

Given how fast things move in Trumpland (in the span of a Scaramucci perhaps, or maybe a Scaramouche?), I have tried to avoid writing about Trump directly because by the time I pen my thoughts and post, we will be on to the next calamity or stunt. However as news broke that the Trump regime planned to investigate anti-white bias in affirmative action admissions policies, I had to say something.

For decades now, there has been this fixed false belief that Black people and other minorities and immigrants were getting all the goodies once reserved for white people and thus displacing white folks from their “proper” place of entitlement. When you are used to having all the candy in the treat bowl, sharing does feel uncomfortable but that is how we achieve racial equity.

The real deal is that white folks and specifically white women are the biggest beneficiaries of affirmative action. Let’s go back several decades and talk about how the great middle class in America was created. After World War II, soldiers came home and took advantage of the GI Bill, the reward for serving your country and coming home alive.

The GI bill allowed soldiers to come home and to have access to housing loans and education, as my friend and colleague Debby Irving writes about in her pivotal book Waking Up White. Debby talks about how her parent’s first home was subsidized by the government and her father was able to attend law school for free. Debby’s family was not alone. Millions of white folks had access to the American Dream and the GI Bill was the great equalizer. At the same time that white GI’s were starting to climb the ladder of the American Dream, Black GI’s were blocked thanks to the racial inequity embedded in the higher education, finance and housing systems. In the end, only 4 percent of Black GI’s were able to access the bill’s offer of free education.

Why does this matter in 2017? Well today’s white folks are the direct beneficiaries of those GI’s in the 1940s and 1950s. That means if your folks were able to get an education, buy a home and start building wealth, chances are high that you were raised with real access to the tools for upward mobility. Our homes are our largest biggest wealth builders and where you live matters even more given how we fund schools and other resources. All schools are not created equal.

Back on the other side, the FHA created a set of policies that would come to be known as redlining that essentially pushed Blacks into less favorable homes and neighborhoods. These policies had a trickle-down effect and Black folks were often relegated to communities with declining home values thus little chance to build equity and create wealth while their white counterparts were creating wealth in their homes. Moving to a better neighborhood wasn’t exactly an option since the better areas were associated with whiteness and Black folks were essentially blocked from accessing those areas thanks to the federal government. And when Black people have moved into such neighborhoods, white people have often moved out (no matter how professional or wonderful those Black people) and those neighborhoods were seen as less desirable and home values went down.

I am not about to give a full history lesson here but if any of this is news to you, a great place to learn more is watching PBS’s Race: The Power of an Illusion.

The same white folks who ballyhoo about non-white people getting great stuff for free or getting more benefits (both of which are very, very rarely the case) are often the same folks who refuse to see all what whiteness has bequeathed to white folks. To go even further, they often refuse to see whiteness at all. To be white for many white folks is to be “normal.” Thus, everything that white folks do is the norm or the “proper” way and everyone else is “other” or “wrong.”

So, when a country starts to racially and ethnically shift, it feels like a seismic shift of epic proportions to white people, even if it really isn’t. The thing is that even with the very real racial and ethnic shifts happening in America, that won’t necessarily change the power dynamics. And, ultimately, it is those dynamics that must shift for true equity and equal opportunity. After all, majority-minority locales (places where whites are the minority, that is) where almost all the power and wealth still resides with white people are not an aberration; it’s typically the rule.

There is a certain irony that the Trump cabinet is overwhelmingly filled with rich, white people and yet it feels the need to take on this almost entirely mythical anti-white bias. Truth is that this is nothing more than a wink and a nod at Trump’s base of disaffected white folks who have been left behind in a changing world. The problem is that it will do little at all to help his base (because they have been left behind by factors other than racial shifts) but it has the potential to create a world of hurt for Black, Brown and other non-white people who are participating in an unfair race that is tilted towards white success.

The only way we will move past this is to start having honest discussions on whiteness, but I suspect that conversation will not be held by the current regime.
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Musings on Whiteness and Mammy…the Toxic Sea Or Level 200

“The reality is that African-American women face discrimination through both their race and gender. Spheres of social identities—from race to gender to sexuality to disability—operate on multiple levels, creating multidimensional experiences.”
Kimberlé Crenshaw

When I first started writing about racism back in 2003, barely anyone wanted to touch what I was selling except other people of color and a few hardy white people who had swallowed the red pill and had the intestinal fortitude to touch the uncomfortable. Ours is not a culture that willingly embraces the uncomfortable yet, in recent years, technology’s ability to capture what has been normalized for centuries in this country—that is, to literally show people proof of what Black people have been saying has been happening to them all along (and rarely being fully believed)—has made discussions of racism almost hip and trendy.

Talk of white privilege and white supremacy has now entered the mainstream lexicon and, while many are genuinely making the effort to labor for racial justice, the reality is that we don’t have a shared vision of what racial justice and racial equity actually look like. It should be quite clear by now, for example that a few well-placed people of color in highly visible roles or in positions of wealth doesn’t indicate a post-racial era and words on pages (notably, anti-racism and civil rights laws) often fail to lead to actual justice for victims of racism. More people are aware of systemic racism and institutional bias and all that thanks to the growing evidence, video and otherwise, shared online and elsewhere, but that awareness hasn’t brought us any closer to solutions…yet.

Instead, what we are actually often doing is working for the continued existence of whiteness as the cultural standard bearer and as the baseline norm, with the vision of bringing marginalized people into that norm. It’s the old assimilation thing in new clothing in many cases. Applying a form of justice to everyone that continues to support whiteness as the best and most normal standard. Or maleness or any other privileged class as being the standard.

We often talk about how Black and Brown people in this country have been dehumanized but what is truly dehumanizing  is how whiteness as the cultural norm doesn’t recognize individual or collective humanity nor does it often respect cultural differences. It demands the blood and sweat of all and it rarely sees the individual. And yet we hold this concept of whiteness up as our norm and something to aspire to.  It should instead be destroyed…and to be clear, I am not saying that white people should be destroyed. I am however saying that the cultural norm of whiteness should be destroyed. After all, a “value system” that cannot see people’s individual or cultural worth is not healthy for anyone, regardless of race. Whiteness benefits white people but it is not a healthy benefit even for white people; for all that it gives, it demands the soul in return.

True racial justice should honor the inherent worth and dignity of all people and should not require one standard of “normal.” But it doesn’t, and as someone who works in the racial justice and anti-racism world, it has become increasingly clear to me that much of the work that we do is especially harmful to women of color. Because just like in other areas of life, women of color (and particularly Black women) are asked to serve as the pack mules for the greater cause.

For the past several months, I have found myself quietly noticing how women of color are treated on an interpersonal level and after a conversation with a fellow sister activist of color, frankly I am dismayed. Given that we all live within the context of whiteness as our cultural norm, we live with a system that devalues women of color and particularly Black women in the United States. Black women have historically been relegated to one of several archetypes,  with the most popular being: Mammy, Sapphire, Jezebel and the Angry Black Woman.

Even in 2016 with talk of race and racial justice being an almost daily occurrence, rarely are we willing to discuss how we still put Black women in the boxes that whiteness created for them even in the context of dismantling racism. Far too often, we expect the Black women in our lives to be our personal Mammy, to be of service to us all. To nourish us, to teach us, to lift us up, to carry the loads. And yet when do we see their individual humanity? When do we really grasp the intersectionality of a a Black woman’s life with other groups and classes of people? (For example, in feminism, Black women’s racial concerns are often glossed over because the goal is often more focused on white women’s equality first and foremost.) Do we really concern ourselves with the special struggles they face, or do we just pay lip service and throw around jargon while feeling good about ourselves and passing out collective high fives because we think we know a little something?

To be a Black woman in America is to hold multiple identities that start at the intersection of Black and woman and, as Kimberle Crenshaw states, it creates a multidimensional experience. To exist in many spaces and to be validated in none of them. A life with many facets that is rich, complex, and often disheartening but rarely appreciated except in the private spaces where Black women hold each other up…rarely understood except by others at that same race and gender intersection.

Right now in America, the only person who truly sees a Black woman is another Black woman because patriarchy and misogyny often creates too many layers for even a Black man to see a Black women without the frame of whiteness and its unreasonable expectations.

We can talk about race, we can join groups, we can write, we can attend conferences, we can educate, we can march. But at some point we need to shift the discussion to realize that we are all swimming in a toxic sea called whiteness that threatens us all. The cure requires more than the busy work of showing up; it actually requires nuance and intentionality at a level that is frankly missing in many racial justice spaces. If your praxis creates harm to women of color, then your ally-ship is not enough. 
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Primetime Blackness and White Discomfort

To be a Negro in this country and to be relatively conscious is to be in a rage almost all the time. – James Baldwin 

America is a nation in the midst of seismic change—a change so great that it threatens the very soul of this nation and, to be honest, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. The creation of America is the result of whiteness centering itself as the norm. Whiteness as an ideology and as a people created a system that disproportionately favored whites while creating laws and policies that actively oppressed and discriminated others and while that uncomfortable truth is a bitter pill to swallow, we are all living with the aftermath of decisions made long ago.

To be white in America in 2016 is to have the privilege to choose whether to engage on matters of race. For people of color, our proximity to white skin often determines how much latitude we have in choosing to avoid matters of race. Personally, as the daughter of an Arkansas sharecropper’s son, race is has never been an optional discussion for me. My first awareness of race and the notion that this brown skin I wear could be seen as a negative by some occurred when I was around 4 or so.

There are few topics that make White America as a collective squirm as talking about racism and race outside of a white lens. It’s not nice, it’s not polite, it doesn’t feel good. For some, it’s a stubborn refusal to acknowledge that the sins of the past still affect the lives of today, for some it’s a fear of fumbling and offending and coming across as racist. For others, they are so steeped in the silo of whiteness that they are unaware of just how unaware they are on matters of race. After all, to be white in certain segments of America means you can live your entire life with little to no interaction with people of color except as something to be consumed through the media.

Which is why when unbridled, unabashed Blackness and joy of Blackness meets up with one of America’s biggest events, the tensions flow and people will do everything to avoid naming their reality. Millions tuned in to see this weekend’s Super Bowl 50; even for the un-sports folks like myself, the Super Bowl is a time to nosh on treats, watch the latest commercials and enjoy the halftime show.

Well, this year’s halftime show was a bit more than some could handle but that’s okay because it was a public declaration of a piece of American history that is often hidden and our collective wholeness as a nation requires that a change occur. It is time for a full embrace of all Americans in all their very unique experiences, even if they aren’t white ones.

Beyonce, the superstar who makes even other superstars shrink, dropped a new single this weekend and then performed that single at the Super Bowl. That single, “Formation,” is a song that does not run from the Black American experience. It’s an open embrace of them, especially many aspects associated with the Southern Black American experience.  Visually (in the video) she paid homage to multiple aspects of the Black American experience, including our tragedies, and in the halftime show she was joined by a group of Black backup dancers dressed to invoke the imagery of the Black Panthers…it was a Black experience.

I wouldn’t say that I am a Beyonce fan, but with the release of “Formation,” she brought unabashed Blackness to the mainstream. We witnessed Blackness as worthy of being centered in primetime where normally it is the white aesthetic that dominates center stage. As we say in some Black spaces, yasssssssss! I am here for it despite the fact that the backlash was almost immediate.

Since the blessed event and thanks to social media, it’s never been easier to know what people are really thinking and, sadly, for many white folks in America, they did not appreciate having their primetime family experience “ruined.” As @yeloson tweeted on Twitter Think hard on this re:Black hypervisibility: “Servants are supposed to entertain, not advocate for survival.”  Because… that’s what it is.”

Blackness and by extension Black people are increasingly demanding to be seated at the table of full humanity that our white brothers and sisters take for granted. Half-assed laws with a few token players who are allowed to succeed (provided that they assimilate into white norms) is no longer enough. We are the descendants of those enslaved people who were forced against their will to build this great nation and we carry that pain, that strength and that grit in our souls. Our stories and our lives are just as American as anyone else’s and if our truths and our ways offend than that is not our problem. We are more than marionettes who dance on demand for the white gaze and this weekend’s half time show gave a glimpse into the rich tapestry that is part of the Black American experience.

Growth often requires discomfort, and right now we bear witness to a nation experiencing racialized growing pains that may eventually lead us to a place of true racial equity. But I suspect that the journey will be rocky. As for me, damn, send me a plate of collard greens and cornbread! I do carry the hot sauce in my bag!


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