The bottom dark blue floral strip came from a pair of rayon pants I bought a couple of weeks ago.
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.
- 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?’
- 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.
- PROGRESSIVE STACK and STEP FORWARD/STEP BACK, according to wikipedia:
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. 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.
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. 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.”
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!
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.”
- 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.
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.
I got my NEW GLASSES! They were so INEXPENSIVE! I got TWO PAIR!
I’M GATHERING info about impeachment for my group. I’M DOING something! Learning! Networking with OTHERS! Remembering the only thing I ever liked about the law (i.e. applying constitutional principles to right wrongs).
MY NEW Endocrinologist IS A DOLL! He TOOK AN HOUR to explain things to me! It’s like the Universe SENT HIM A MEMO on how to perfectly offset the behavior of DR. ARTURO, of Boston– an unprofessional, condescending, cavalier prick who dwells in a grubby office and actually hung up on me a few weeks back. I GIGGLED ALL THE WAY HOME!
And get this, my new AMAZING doctor recommends using FOOD to feed the body calcium not supplements! GREENs — I love them! Beans, yogurt – real FAVES of mine! BYE BYE ridiculously EXPENSIVE HORSE PILLS!!
Working on chapter summaries and it FEELS LIKE PROGRESS! Also, read part of TERRIFIC ARTICLE ON CULTURAL APPROPRIATION (to be shared later — regarding the Emmett Till painting controversy). IT gets added to my ‘I HAVE PERMISSION TO WRITE A STORY SET IN SLAVE TIMES’ file (Yes, I have such a file). YEAH!!!
The BLM activist who wrote an article about how thoroughly and completely white people ruin the movement for racial equality IS OFFERING TRAININGS IN BOSTON NEXT WEEK! HER ARTICLE RUINED MY DAY. I DIDN’T EVEN KNOW HOW to say so without evoking #whitefragility and #itsnotaboutyou but I DARED TO anyway to a BLACK FB FRIEND. We’re still friends.
I’M GONNA GO! (Am I foolish to think it can’t be two hours of telling white people how much they suck?) I FEEL BRAVE! I FEEL GOOD ABOUT TAKING RISKS WHERE IT REALLY MATTERS!
Have a nice weekend everyone! And I won’t blame you if you decide to skip the “Bad News” post that’s already forming in my head.
Seven encouraging minutes by Dr. Glenda Russell that are worthwhile and, believe it or not, funny.
“Don’t cultivate anger, direct it.”
“I cannot help but feel some measure of anger. I must deal with that anger.
I don’t want to wrestle it to the ground. I want to harness it.” Charles M. Blow
“The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” MLK, Jr.
Don’t give your power to those who would do you harm. Focus on your allies.
Sleep enough, eat well, and limit your exposure to depressive media.
Because so many groups are being attacked simultaneously, “the potential for mass mobilization and coalition building is greater than it’s ever been in my lifetime.”
Frederick Douglass: ‘The end of the Republic begins when the heroism of the struggle for equality yields to the cowardice of resentment.’
Jill Lepore: “What could possibly be more important, more meaningful, or more fun, than making this election the basis for renewing the struggle for justice, equity, and peace.”
There I was clearing off the windshield while the radio filled the interior: the mayor of Boston asking people to stay home. I would have stayed home, I love staying home on days like this, but it was the final day of the Carrie Mae Weems show in Harvard Square and I had a plan with a friend.
The last two Louvre photos feature stacked chairs that were at the ready for a closing presentation. The peony prints were art in and of themselves but were also tribute specimens that the artist collaborated to develop in honor of W.E.B. DuBois. She also created a garden.
2). Black out some words (or select some) or both.
3). Type up and read, edit if desired.
4). Repeat. Enjoy the variations.
I followed two rules: 1) all words in the Erasure Poem must be in the order that they appear in the source document and 2) all words must remain in their original form (i.e. the same tense or person). I made an exception to rule two and updated archaic spellings.
This technique, very popular in altered book circles, is one I’ve used for collage, but never for poetry. Relative to the historic fiction I’m writing (Eliza is one of the main characters), I was curious what might be revealed — anything new or useful about Eliza or her circumstances?
All of this was inspired by a poetry reading a few weeks back at Sam Durant‘s “The Meeting House” in Concord, Mass. (an Arts and the Landscape event sponsored by Trustees of Reservations). Four poets read. One of them was 2015 National Book Award winner for Poetry, Robin Coste Lewis (pictured above), who offered an erasure piece. It was intensely moving (you can hear her read three of her poems, here).
Letter from Eliza
to her Father, 1740
Words to express the situation
the fearful immediate
as I must own some
such as honor, perhaps profit too.
Put in with my just cause
the love you avoid
by unjust means.
The assurance that this life
depends on Dear Sir,
Injurious to imagine
You always persevere
Letter from Eliza
to her Father, 1740
I want words
The situation terrifies us.
I must own
You are sensible.
Might some advantages arise
such as honor, profit too,
in the balance?
A just cause in preference
to every other means.
to will the thought
unworthy of you.
To pretend to Heroism
should conceal fears
Your most obedient
Letter from Eliza
to her Father, 1740
I want words under you, us
Beyond and increased
Some place to differ
There, when put in the balance
A just cause
You avoid the assurance
that this welfare
injurious, I deserve.
Heroism, I conceal
I am always the prayer.
Letter from Eliza
to her Father, 1740
I am sensible and
I esteem the fight
as well as the love
These mere trifles
honored a just cause
as well as every means
to retract anything more
than I deserve.
Mama and the Almighty
The constant prayer
Your obedient Eliza
The piercing beeping of trucks in reverse and the roar of playground grass maintenance started at 7:30. That would be immediately after I sat down in the cool peace of our deck to write. Even inside, with all windows closed and headphones on, I thought I would jump out of my skin. It didn’t help knowing that in another hour, two house construction jobs within a stone’s throw of my driveway would get going. So, I got in the car and drove around.
Aimless escape of this kind is a luxury since Finn came to live with us. I drove around in part because I could — it’s a doggie play date day (oy – talk about First World) but also because I couldn’t think of a place nearby that I wanted to occupy. Peets is crowded, always. Our town library is not reliably quiet. The coffee shop in Newtonville — also rarely has an empty seat.
Greeted first by Saint Thomas More and then by a Ruth McDowell quilt, then entering a wing donated by the law firm I used to work at, there was a sense of homecoming (even if I did not feel at home at that law firm for a single minute of my tenure there and even though this library was built after I graduated).
Something curious went on just before noon. Maybe because I was recently ‘followed’ on twitter by a Massachusetts ACLU lawyer, maybe because last night I watched a talk he gave at the Center for Constitutional Rights on YouTube (Carl Williams) and was really inspired, and maybe because when at 11:55 I got up to chant the Lotus Sutra for Mike Brown, for Mike Brown’s family, for all the BLM activists on the front lines, and even for the dumbbells who don’t understand that racial justice benefits each and every one of us, I was tempted into pulling a directory off the shelf that just happened to be at eye level.
I don’t even remember what you had to do to qualify for the Order, but I know it was kind of a bid deal. It was a weird and unexpected pleasure to reclaim this part of my life, even if temporarily and for no other purpose but to notice.
I’ll leave you with a little law school humor, lest you conclude I am spending all my sanctuary time on social media!