“Racism is a morphing beast”

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Recently, I attended an OSPAN anti-racism workshop run by Didi Delgado and Leslie Mac.  #OSPAN — stands for “Organizing on (Safety) Pins and Needles.”  Developed by Leslie Mac and Marissa Jenae Johnson, these in-person and online trainings are designed to help whites become better allies.

Attending was my way to take constructive action after being stunned by Didi Delgado’s incisive piece about whites’ failures at being allies:  The Caucasian Invasion.

It was a smart move. I came away both charged and humbled. The meeting was held in Boston a few blocks from Fort Point Channel. I took the T in, which for this old broad was something of an adventure. The clouds were gorgeous and it was a little too warm for my pea coat, but I would’ve been cold in anything lighter. That’s the kind of spring we’re having.

The meeting started a half-hour late, during which time I was stunned (agog really) to see how focused the gathering group was on their phones (what can I say? I don’t get out much). Hardly anyone talked or introduced themselves. I ate cinnamon Altoids (five at a time for some real fire) and — what else? — looked at my phone.

It was a decent-sized group with all ages represented. About half of the attendees were employees of non-profits, individuals clearly charged with bringing back reports. A fair number of UU ministers were present.

After some emphatic jokes about the origins of the program being ‘finding a way to get white people to pay me’ (which, P.S., I have no problem with) and a very brief ‘ice-breaker’, the facilitators went over basic rules of engagement (listed below). Many in the group appeared to be familiar with them. I was not.

  1. TAKE INDIVIDUAL AND COLLECTIVE RESPONSIBILITY. To be an effective ally, whites must  both own and counter our status of privilege. This means addressing the sins of the past (reparations; addressing the ongoing legacy of slavery) as well as acknowledging the privilege of the present. In any given setting or relationship, ask, ‘who has the power here?’ and ‘how am I wielding my power?’ and ‘how can I leverage privilege in aid of marginalized or oppressed people?’
  2. ATTACK THE PROBLEM NOT THE PERSON. Didi Delgado shared about how truly awful some of the comments to her articles are by way exemplifying how to violate this rule.
  3.  PROGRESSIVE STACK  and STEP FORWARD/STEP BACK, according to wikipedia:

. . . a technique used to give marginalized groups greater chance to speak.[1]

The progressive stack attempts to counter a flaw in traditional representative democracy, where the majority is heard while the non-dominant groups are silenced or ignored.[1] In practice, “majority culture” is interpreted by progressive stack practitioners to mean White people, men and young adults, while non-dominant groups include women, people who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender, people of color, and very young or older people.[2][3]

The “stack” is the list of speakers who are commenting or asking questions in public meetings. Anyone can request to be added to the stack. Generally, people speak in the order in which they were added to the queue. By contrast, in meetings using the progressive stack, ‘stack-keepers’ invite people from non-dominant groups to speak first (i.e. before people from dominant groups). They use the phrases ‘step forward’ or ‘step back’ to manage the list.[4]

(edited)

4. OUCH AND OOPS. ‘Ouch’ is a shorthand reaction to an offensive remark and ‘oops’ a shorthand response. This technique can be employed to briefly acknowledge hurtful statements or attitudes and apologize for same, with the goal of keeping a meeting from being derailed. Participants can choose to explore at greater length outside the meeting, or not.

Personal aside:  You know that moment in “Hidden Figures” when the Kirsten Dunst character is trying to defend or apologize for her complicity with racist decisions within NASA (and really fucking it up) and the Octavia Spencer character says, “you might want to stop talking now”? That was a major ‘ouch’ and ‘oops’ moment.

I wished I’d had this technique sooner in life. Funnily enough, the friend with whom I attended “Hidden Figures” said those exact words to me years earlier. It happened at a track meet when I sputtered aloud my surprise that our kids’ coach was black (there were reasons why it surprised me). I tried to add nuance to the statement — it was a sign of progress that it never came up, in my parents’ generation it would have, just like not knowing Mr. ______ was gay for two years. Blah, blah. She at last said: “you might want to stop talking now.”

Picture this then, years later, white woman leaning toward black woman in the cinematic dark, whispering,”You said that to me once upon a time.” The two of them laughing.

5. THERE IS NO QUICK FIX.

“Racism is a morphing beast.” (Leslie Mac)

As a constantly evolving, complex problem, fighting racial injustice requires sustained effort and constant learning. Activism of this sort does not lend itself to a check-list. “White people LOVE lists,” Leslie Mac joked (it’s true!) and then added, “anti-racism isn’t a a list. You can’t check if off.”

The work is messy and we’re gonna get messy doing it.

6. INTENT v. IMPACT

While some slack can be given to those allies with good intentions but little to show for them, black people have the right to make judgments based on value.

Is our involvement casual? More like a hobby than a sustained commitment? Would we risk our lives, the way they are forced, day by day, to risk theirs?

“I can’t eat your good intentions.”
Leslie Mac

 Here are some other points covered:

  • Support of black lives cannot be conditional.

African American activists don’t have to frame their message in ways palatable to white people in order for us to support them. Didi Delgado is often dismissed as an “angry black woman” and in fact two of the recurring criticisms of her recent article were that it wasn’t constructive enough and its tone was too abrasive.

How can anger be a disqualifier given the history of oppression in this country?

T-shirt at the event:
“BLACK LIVES MATTER
more than white feelings”

Needing a tax receipt for a gift is inherently conditional. Below please find some creative forms of giving (shared with permission):


  • Black people are not monoliths. Neither are their responses to oppression.

The imposition that every black person speak for all black people is something James Baldwin referred to as : “the burden of representation”.

The burden of representation is not only hurtful and limiting in one on one exchanges, it is corrosive to wider intellectual inquiry and has a way of encouraging tokenism.

Certainly there ought to be room for elegant rants as well as polite political analyses.

I suppose whites make value judgments about who their sources are, as well, gravitating toward those that inspire rather than demoralize. But, if one is not feeling uncomfortable at least some of the time, it might be worth asking ‘what am I avoiding?’

  • White missteps are inevitable and we ought to anticipate them

How can #WHITEFRAGILITY surprise us anymore? Our job is not to avoid screwing up (and certainly not to avoid being in the fray out of fear of fucking up), but to make the recovery time quicker and a tad more graceful.

Name it / Claim it / Tame it.

Didi Delgado, “I’m still holding white people’s hands during my oppression.” Also: “I don’t want to spend time with someone who leaves me on the line because I made them uncomfortable.”

  • We mustn’t forget to act!

Self-education
Reflection
Analysis
Action

These are the stages to becoming a decent ally. We need to guard against getting stuck toggling between learning and reflection and failing ever to get to action.

Leslie Mac: “People ask, ‘what should I do,’ but once you get through the first steps, knowing what to do will be obvious.”

“At some point if we’re gonna dig a hole,
someone has to pick up a god-damned shovel.”
Leslie Mac

  • Accountability is a real thing.

One of the primary objections to some white efforts — Stand Up for Racial Justice, for example (explored in Delgado’s article, The Caucasian Invasion) — is the lack of accountability to people of color. It’s one thing to take ownership for learning history and understanding grass-roots movements, it is another thing altogether to expect to effectively fight racism with no actual ties to black people.

Becoming accountable is an ask, one with real risks (see: ‘it’s messy’, above).  However, absence of accountability is no excuse for failing to act.

Hope you benefited from this post. As always, comments welcome.

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PS  As a writer of a novel set in South Carolina during the mid-eighteenth century, I am really flummoxed on the business of accountability. How do I ask a black reader to review my manuscript — it’s long, for one thing.  And for another, the issues around creating authentic voices, cultural appropriation and exploitation of African American pain are really tangled.

“Please read my draft (which I hope will be published someday and maybe even produce a little income). Let me know what you think? And if at all possible, please don’t tell me this isn’t my story to tell.”

Would any of the icky problems around cultural appropriation and profit be mitigated by an up-front commitment of a portion of earnings to black causes?

I think about these things a lot.


11 thoughts on ““Racism is a morphing beast”

  1. Ginny

    Thanks for sharing Dee. I was very curious about this workshop and plan to read it through carefully later at home.

    As much as I am exposed to these issues on an almost daily basis there are always things that take me by surprise or are completely new to me. Like white female aggression being up there with white supremacy. That is a new term to me. What’s that all about? I also get stuck on hostilities from white/cultural appropriation. ((( sigh)))

    Every day the world/we/people/bigotry/hatred/hostilities seem to get worse and worse and worse. And no end in sight either. 😦

    Reply
    1. deemallon Post author

      I need to learn more about white female aggression, too. I know how I experience it (and BTW those are occasions when I unrepentantly use the “c” word), but I need to hear more about how it goes between black and white women. An example (and the leaders posted a response on FB the next week) was of an attendee that night bitching about the late start time and asserting her need to get a good night’s sleep. I get it. A white woman’s need for her sleep trumping a movement to keep POC from being killed, cheated, and silenced is pretty stark.

      On the other hand, I snuck out a little early because of the long trek by train home and for that I don’t apologize. So maybe it’s the obnoxious assertion? One predicated on assignment of value?

      But I have to say the workshop made me feel some hope. So many earnest folks hoping to do better!

      Reply
  2. Mo Crow

    when we moved to Australia in 1969 my teacher said, Oh, yo are American, there is such terrible racial problems over there.” to which I retorted, “You don’t even recognize that you have a problem here!”
    NB the first people of Australia were recognized as people not fauna and given the right to vote in 1967.

    Reply
    1. deemallon Post author

      1967, wow. Do you mean they were considered fauna and not people?

      somewhat of a corollary here is how Northerners can have a tendency to act as if we didn’t take part in slavery. There’s been quite a bit of scholarship about this recently, as well as very public declarations by local universities acknowledging their ties to slave owners, so I think that false claim to an exemption is not as easily held these days.

      I read Anne Farrow’s “The LogBooks: Connecticut’s Slave Ships and Human Memory” and most of another book she contributed to: “Complicity: How the North Promoted, Prolonged, and Profited from Slavery.” Thankfully, how intertwined the economies of the north and south were is becoming common knowledge. One pithy quote from “Complicity” — something like 40 cents of every cotton dollar was pocketed in the north.

      Reply
      1. Mo Crow

        when England claimed Australia as a colony they deemed it “terra nullius”
        http://www.austlii.edu.au/au/orgs/car/docrec/policy/brief/terran.htm
        “British colonisation policies and subsequent land laws were framed in the belief that the colony was being acquired by occupation (or settlement) of a terra nullius (land without owners). The colonisers acknowledged the presence of Indigenous people but justified their land acquisition policies by saying the Aborigines were too primitive to be actual owners and sovereigns and that they had no readily identifiable hierarchy or political order which the British Government could recognise or negotiate with.

        The High Court’s Mabo judgment in 1992 overturned the terra nullius fiction. In the same judgment, however, the High Court accepted the British assertion of sovereignty in 1788, and held that from that time there was only one sovereign power and one system of law in Australia.”

        Reply
  3. Anonymous

    We have an anti-racism community group here in Princeton, NJ. It’s called “Not In Our Town”. I go to the monthly meetings when I can. Your delineation and documentation here is invaluable. I don’t think you’ll mind if I share it with our organizers? They do similar things but this so thorough! I have some to share but I am dashing off to school (again). Thank you, Dee!! more soon…

    Reply
    1. deemallon Post author

      I don’t mind at all but I’d prefer if you suggested that they purchase a Safety pin box.

      Reply
      1. RainSluice

        yes, will do! This whole discussion is shedding light on so much I never knew before. I am grateful to you all as I clearly need to keep studying and keep learning to listen more to everyone I meet from every walk of life. I am filled with hope that the ignorant and uneducated (to whom I belong, to my own horror) are learning and joining hands to fight racism. The constant work to keep the peace as we learn to speak and to listen is something I’ve been thinking a lot about. I heard Howard C. Stevenson (U Penn) speak and do a workshop last February. If you are not familiar, he teaches people effective communication skills in order to reach across the racial divide (with Dee’s “open heart and fierce will” approach,h I think). His work may be of interest and relevant to all? Here’s a link to his bio and publications: http://scholar.gse.upenn.edu/stevenson

        Reply
        1. deemallon Post author

          Thanks Maggie. I will follow link. There is hope in seeing the urgency with which many of us now recognize that equality for POC is tied up with our own liberation.

        2. RainSluice

          yes. Oh! and have you seen the Pope’s TED Talk? It is a little dry and slow compared to your blog, but just in case you have 17 extra minutes and/or need to be encouraged when you are feeling alone? I watched it as part of captured audience at a faculty meeting and I enjoy being a non-Catholic at a Catholic school.

Love to hear what you think!

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