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everyday white people confront racial & social injustice: 15 stories


Whiteness is the unmarked signifier of deservedness.
– Michelle Fine

If you’ve read anything or been to workshops on racism and white privilege in the US, you will recognize many of the authors of the fifteen short essays that comprise Everyday White People Confront Racial & Social Injustice. These folks are “everyday” in the sense that they do not necessarily have special talents, skills, experiences, or positions that make them special or unique among their White peers. On the other hand, their collective and individual public stances against racism and other forms of oppression in our society make them far from ordinary. These people have made it their life work to fight for equality and equity across our society. They are to be respected and, to some degree, emulated, even as they would probably argue against it.

I have found it hard to get out from under the strong training in racism I received as a child. I have come to think of my racist mind and heart as my hard drive, but if I consciously install an alternative software, I can at least temporarily respond to the world with a more whole psyche and sensibility.
– Peggy McIntosh

Each of their essays brings a different perspective on ant-racist work. Most tell the story of their upbringing and the privilege they carry because of accidents of birth. Most discuss the ways that intersecting identities put them in more or less privileged positions depending on the social and political context. One of the most effective discussions of intersectionality comes in Jane K. Fernandes’ essay on the intersections of White and hearing privilege. The concrete examples she uses of the White Deaf community responding to her and to people of color in the deaf community bring it home in ways I had not seen before.

Intersections of privilege systems, when they are not unfolded and opened to full view, become a bastion for maintaining White power and privilege. In many cases, they take place out of the view of the majority of people and thus many, even those committed to social justice, do not see or understand the role of intersections in the maintenance of White supremacy.
– Jane K. Fernandes

All of them stress the importance of this work for White people, the responsibility to use the privilege we are born with for good in the world. Or as Michelle Fine puts it, “Our debt to justice is to interrogate our privilege and li(v)es of whiteness.” At the same time we must recognize that “those who are victimized most by racism – people of color – understand it best, having to navigate racism on a daily basis. White people who want to understand racism need to shift from listening to other White people to learning to hear people of color.” (Christine E. Sleeter) We must listen to our brothers and sisters of color, not speak for them, but follow their lead, working together for a more just society.

The concept of being an ally is useful but inadequate. It is not an identity; it is a practice. It is the act of being present, showing up and working with others that defines the activity of an ally. . . When I am not working from a long-term vision ambitious enough to create serious change and led by people most affected by the issues, no matter how good I feel about my work, I am not responding to the magnitude of the challenges we confront. I may be standing for the right things, but I am not standing with the right people as an effective ally in the appropriate struggles.
Paul Kivel

That means, as Andrea Rabinowitz suggests, you must have relationships with the people you are trying to help. Otherwise, you are liable to fall into missionary mode.

Saving People of Color is one of the preferred weapons of whiteness.
Heather W. Hackman

These authors don’t do what they do for money or fame. They have made it their life work because they believe it is that important. They could not stand idly by watching injustice without acting, because, as Kevin Jennings maintains, “Silence is not neutrality; it’s complicity.”

 Standing up for what is right will rarely (if ever) make you popular. Being an ally to a disenfranchised group is often severely punished by those with whom you share privilege, whether based on your race, religion, gender, sexual orientation, ability or any of a host of other categories I could name.
Kevin Jennings

They are racial and social justice workers because they understand that “the oppressor is also profoundly dehumanized by systems of oppression, and there cannot be racial equity unless we are all freed of this system.” (Heather W. Hackman)

They know they are imperfect. They still make mistakes, like we all do. Jennings implores, “it’s important to recognize the need for continuous struggle and to understand one’s proper role in that struggle.”

The slippery nature of whiteness and the incessant seduction of White privilege demand that I maintain a level of critical self-reflection and accountability as I do this work (at times, even my saying “I’m no expert” was an unconscious attempt to buffer a sort of false humility and gain racial justice credibility.)
Heather W. Hackman

They speak to the importance of interrogating whiteness and our role in it. Understanding the cultural erasure that being White promotes has motivated me to learn about and claim my heritage (Swiss and probably English, German, and French). I also must admit the ways in which I perpetuate and benefit from white privilege, as well as other accidents of my birth.

Privilege and White normativity have made [our] lives seem racially neutral, and thus [we] have never had to consider what it means to be White. . . I define whiteness as the combination of White privilege (the system that grants concrete and life-sustaining advantages and benefits to Whites) and White supremacy (the ideology that says we deserve them because we are superior.
Heather W. Hackman

Programs, laws, and policies are not enough, because people implement them. Hackman explains, “Policies are enacted to redress systemic inequalities, but because there is no corresponding internal transformation across this society, the desired result is not fully achieved.” And, “charity is useful and necessary, but it doesn’t change the system. We do need soup kitchens, I’m sorry to say, but we also need to be changing the system at the same time so we don’t permanently need soup kitchens.” (Alan Rabinowitz)

So, what can we, as White people, do? Christine Sleeter answers, “In order to learn to work against racism, White people must first recognize its everyday existence.” Second, the very a question “has the effect of distancing ourselves from the problem by assuming that we stand outside of racism rather than being complicity with it.” (B. Applebaum as attributed in Sleeter)

Further, White people learning to work against racism must come to grips with their own position as ongoing participants in and beneficiaries of racist systems that shield us from awareness of racism. . . although White people cannot escape participation in a racist system, we can learn to become “anti-racist racists.”
Christine E. Sleeter, quoting J. H. Katz

To conclude:

We need this book because it is a self-help manual for recidivist Whites, those of us who exercise our privilege as repeat offenders but are willing to try to change our ways as individuals, in our families, at work, in social movements. Read these chapters and think through your won biographies of embodying, enacting and resisting whiteness and bearing witness. You may periodically relapse into White privilege, but you will develop the muscle of reflexivity, of double consciousness that Du Bois so eloquently described for African Americans.
– Michelle Fine

We are all not finished yet.
– Maxine Greene, as quoted by Michelle Fine


small links round up

South Africa Isn’t Post-Racial Either
In a thoughtful essay, Robert Jensen writes about his visit to South Africa, the racism he saw there, and what he learned about confronting it.

The White Supremacist in Us
Rinku Sen, Executive Director of Applied Research Center and Publisher of ColorLines, writes about the connection between recent killings and our white supremacist culture.

Inspired Bicycles – Danny MacAskill 2009
In this video, Danny MacAskill does almost unbelievable things with his bike. There’s some question why he’s still alive.

don’t think of an elephant!

George Lakoff’s near classic primer on framing, Don’t Think of an Elephant! Know your Values and Frame the Debate: The Essential Guide for Progressives (2004), is a great little book for learning how to talk and think in the political world. He outlines the worldviews of both conservatives and progressives in a simply, easy to digest way that helps you keep it in mind and communicate the differences more clearly. In fact, it’s a little too simple—notwithstanding Lakoff’s minimal attempt to nuance the ideas—and probably that’s appropriate in today’s short attention span world.

That doesn’t mean Lakoff is simple. On the contrary, he is a cognitive scientist and linguist and his approach reflects that training. He looks at how people think and make decisions and vote and then at the language people use to influence each other. He tries to find the underlying themes and logic that unite what might otherwise seem like contradictory positions and behaviors. The results are powerful for understanding our society’s politics.

Because he is primarily trying to identify the themes that unite each of two opposing sides, his analysis elides many of the differences that sometimes cut across his dualistic approach. I’m thinking especially of identity issues—race, class, gender, sexuality, and others. Lakoff very briefly discusses these issues as one of the six main strains of progressive ideology, but he is self-consciously trying to bridge those differences and his treatment is probably unsatisfying to many who identify with those strains. That is, I think many people might see the intelligence of his thinking and still feel he’s missing some important issues.

Nevertheless, the book is valuable as a handbook of technique and skills—essential background for the activist, thinker, and aspiring politico.

race and recession report

The Applied Research Center has put out a report entitled “Race and Recession: How Inequity Rigged the Economy and how to Change the Rules,” telling the story of the way our current recession disproportionately impacts people of color. The report uncovers root causes of long-term racial inequities that fed into the economic crisis and proposes structural solutions to change a system that threatens future generations.

See a video about the report and down load it at: http://www.arc.org/content/view/726/136/.

gansta, wanksta, rida

“All the research shows the same thing: the bottom line is that good teaching is about relationships. The best teachers come in to their classrooms every day ready to be vulnerable to their students. Therefore, to be a great teacher is to deny your human instinct to protect yourself.”

These words from Dr. Jeff Duncan-Andrade, Professor of Raza Studies and Educational Administration at San Francicso State University, during his standing-room only talk at the City College of San Francisco on February 25. The title of the talk—“The Gangsta, Wanksta, Rida Paradigm: Urban Youth Culture and Learning”—is a reference to common elements he found in the best teachers in his study of urban schools. The few great teachers are “ridas” in that they “ride” with the community. On the other side are the handful of “gangsta” teachers that don’t like the students they work with and act as barriers to, rather than enablers of, those students. In the middle and on the fence are the “wankstas” who mean well and do a lot of talking about what they are going to do for students, but rarely, if ever, follow through.

Duncan-Andrade sought to normalize the teachers he studied who produced student success by every measure, including good grades, high test scores, increased self-confidence, and sustained engagement with school and learning. “Being successful with our students is not heroic, not exceptional. We make it heroic to excuse ourselves” when we are not successful. According to Duncan-Andrade, great teachers have or create the following five qualities:

  • Critically Conscious Purpose — great teachers are teachers because they want their students to change the world
  • Duty — great teachers understand that it is a privilege to teach, that they serve the students and their communities, and that the students are more important than the job
  • Preparation — great teachers meticulously prepared for class and take a great deal of ownership for their work and for the success of it in the classroom
  • Socratic Sensibility — great teachers know that they don’t know, are self-critical without doubting their ability to succeed
  • Trust — great teachers engender the trust of their students, choose solidarity over empathy, and know that loving their students means holding them to high expectations

Duncan-Andrade is author of The Art of Critical Pedagogy: Possibilities for Moving from Theory to Practice in Urban Schools. He has lectured around the world about developing classroom practices and school cultures that foster self-confidence, esteem, and academic success among all students. His research interests and publications span the areas of urban schooling and curriculum change, urban teacher development and retention, critical pedagogy, and cultural and ethnic studies.

ethical amibition

When Derrick Bell, long-time civil rights lawyer, law professor at Harvard, NYU, and other schools, author, commentator and more writes a book, entitled Ethical Ambition, about morality and survival and getting ahead, you probably want to have a look. In the introduction, Bell writes:

I want this book to encourage those who, by reading it, may recognize more clearly their abilities, talents, and potential for positive contributions in this world. A committed life need not mean one without fun, without laughter, without romance. Energized with this insight, readers may better see that a full life should include humor and good times while challenging the barriers that life poses. This all-encompassing approach can nourish the spirit—whatever the risks, whatever the outcome.”

Bell explicitly calls for a multi-faceted life, asserting that serving the common good is life’s highest purpose and we cannot truly and fully do that without taking care of ourselves. Put another way, we cannot spread love and support and goodness unless love is inside us; the strength and compassion to care for others is founded on caring for ourselves and those we love. While acknowledging the challenges of his prescription—“trying to simultaneously balance my dreams and needs is tough, and requires an ongoing assessment of who I am, what I believe, value, and desire”—he affirms the importance of honoring his values and believes that his “needs will be taken care of.” Such commitment is “scary and exhilarating” for him, and ultimately exactly the right thing to do.

Bell identifies six keys to ethical living—passion, courage, faith, relationships, inspiration, and humility—and dedicates a chapter in the book to each. His take on each is unique and peppered with personal narrative.

For Bell, we all have passion, but we do not always access it or use it in ways that are productive for us or for the world. It “is not an event, but an energy; and it’s an energy that exits in all of us all the time. The question is not whether we have it but whether we access it and how we channel it.” In addition, passion can be both constructive and destructive:

The difference between a passion that nourishes and one that denies you is that the first enhances the experience of being present, and the second facilitates the experience of escape. So contrary to popular belief, passion is not something you have or you don’t, or that has to be fed or it dies. It’s something that grows strong because you nourish it with the experiential equivalent of healthy food and sunlight, or wastes away because you deny it the attention and nourishment it needs to thrive.
Passion will respond to the buzz of a quick fix: sarcasm, too much junk food, impulse buying, gossip, rage . . . . But it thrives on substance: a job well done, giving credit to others, standing up for what you believe in, voluntarily returning lost valuables, choosing what feels right over what might feel good right now. In other words, nourishing passion is ethical passion—it’s finding power in doing the right thing.

If passion is the energy that feeds our ethical actions, courage is the determination to use that energy in the service of our true values, “putting at risk your immediate self-interest for what you believe is right,” since “courage has no meaning if there is no consequence to be feared.” And there are consequences to be feared because, according to Bell, “to be human is to be brought up against fears, large and small, whether we’re conscious of them or not.” We can repeatedly decide to take risks in the face of fear, and for the right reasons, “but however much we learn from our experiences, there is no graduation from fear training, no degree in courage. It is behavior that we must carry on for a lifetime.” By making that decision, over a lifetime, we can make a difference; and “by understanding that courage is not a reflex, but a consequence of knowing your own mind, determining right and wrong for yourself and acting on that understanding, you create the possibility of risk taking in the interest of the greater good. Your good and the greater good become almost synonymous.” Ultimately, then, for Bell to be afraid is to be human and “to risk ethically is a difficult blessing, but whatever the outcome, to risk ethically is also to live.”

Bell’s sections on the importance of spiritual faith, relationships, and inspiration are equally as powerful and speak both to what we can receive from them and to our responsibility to our faith, our relationships, and our inspirations. He speaks, in particular, to the need to be present and ethical in our relationships: “we will always make mistakes, and there is always the possibility of learning from them, but if we cannot behave ethically overall toward the person with whom we have chosen to share our lives, what real value can there be in the show of ethical behavior toward others?” A powerful question and one that he explores further, trying to find the balance between doing good work in the world and being in relationship. Part of his answer is to “argue that the belief that you are working for justice and against evil can take over your life as much as the drive for wealth can.”

Similarly, as he moves on to discuss humility, he writes that “self-righteousness is a gentle curse visited on those striving for social reform and personal uprightness. Humility, no cure, can serve as a continuing reminder of the difficulty of doing good.” He also counsels against placing too much belief in the power and the effects of any of your actions: “ethical actions must always fail if we understand them in terms of end goals. . . . no dramatic change . . . is likely to achieve even most of what it promises; if your criterion for success is perfection, then the failure of every ethical action is assured.” So, in the context of ethical living, humility is “the acceptance of inevitable failure and the willingness each day not to be daunted by it, the conscious connection of our knowledge and our experience.”

The book concludes with this message:

We cannot know whether our actions are a help or a harm. . . . Our lives gain purpose and worth when we recognize and confront the evils we encounter—small as well as large—and meet them with a determination to take action even when we are all but certain that our efforts will fail. . . . an ethical life is not a life a sacrifice. It is, in fact, a life of riches.

Bell’s tone is personal and real. His model and experience is inspiring and, I believe, many of us can learn from it—and, for me, there is more. In terms of motivation, another reason I do what I do is simply for people. Simple and profound, but sadly not as common as I would like, respect and appreciation of other people is a major part of my life and of every social interaction. It means that I am happy to see people, that I look them in the eyes, that I notice them and say “hello,” acknowledging their presence and their humanity. I do this because I sincerely like people, almost to a fault. I think this approach to life jives with Bell’s view of an ethical life; it helps make my life richer and better, more full of what feeds me–other people.

Beyond that there is an even stronger motivation for me: loyalty to my friends and allies. I don’t want to be the one who lets someone I care about down. I want to be dependable; I want those I love to rely on me and for them to know that when I mess up it is the exception, not the rule for my behavior and that I will take responsibility for my failings. I try to learn how better to care for my friends and family and how not to let them down.

The fundamental lesson to learn from Ethical Ambition is that we must live passionately and follow our hearts. To do anything less is to live less fully and less well; to do less is to be untrue to our family, friends, colleagues, and allies. Most importantly, what’s in our hearts is the acid test of whether we are true to ourselves.

fugitive days

In 1972, the year I entered 1st grade, the U.S. was still fully engaged in the Vietnam war. The movement to end the war was going strong, as well, and our society was searching for stability in the wake of the necessary upheaval created by the struggle for civil rights. The hippie counter-culture was in full bloom.

All this barely existed for me then, at six years old. No adults in my life talked about civil rights or the war or hippies in front of me that I remember. Certainly, none of my teachers talked about these things or discussed them in class. Everything about these events was shrouded and unspeakable, yet phrases and images punctured the veil: body count, free love, acid, red menace, Ho Chi Minh, Woodstock, Black Panthers, J. Edgar Hoover, Richard Nixon, a young girl running naked down a Vietnamese highway—all these were part of the mythology, the background, however dark and incomprehensible.

The lack of information added to the mystery for me, made me curious. I wanted to know what was going on and, since it was clear that the adults in my life didn’t want to talk about it, I simply recorded the emotions and feelings and images and words that I could see and feel around me. That is to say, I remained mostly ignorant of history, of a time in our nation’s and our world’s history that I see now shapes much of our current world, especially the generation between my parents and me, people who are currently 55 to 65.

I’ve been meeting and talking to people from those days. They lived and struggled, believing in the portentousness of their era and the potential for changing the world. They felt that revolution was upon them, that the world might be fundamentally different next year or next month or next week or maybe tomorrow.

During the last several years I’ve begun doing social justice work within the educational system. I consider this work a continuation of the movement and ideas from the 1960s and 1970s and I’ve been trying to learn from their triumphs and failures how best to make my work effective. (Further, I think we as a nation and a world need to learn from those times—considering our nation’s involvement in Afghanistan an Iraq, I’m afraid we aren’t.) I’ve been trying to learn about middle and upper class white people (people like myself) and how they tried to work in alliance (or not) with working class folks, poor people, and people of color. They saw the fight against the war as tied up with the civil rights movement and also with rejection of the dominant culture. With hindsight some of their work and perspective was self-serving and did not overturn the system as they hoped. They were, as we all are, trapped in the systems in which we live; destroying those systems is, while a good goal at times, perhaps not always realistic or even entirely positive.

It was in this context that I began to read Fugitive Days, Bill Ayers memoir about coming to the anti-war movement and the progression toward building and planting bombs in buildings, claiming credit for them, and publishing manifestos proclaiming the injustice of the war, calling attention to the genocide propagated in Vietnam, and demanding its end. I was looking for insight, for understanding of how and why someone comes to decide that blowing things up seems like the right choice. I wanted to know how he felt about it now. Did he feel that their actions helped achieve their goals?

I found some of what I hoped for, though not enough to be satisfied. Perhaps I had unrealistic expectations. It may be too much to ask Ayers for profound wisdom and help with my own strategic decisions; the events may still be too close, too personal, too raw. Whatever the case, a lot of the book feels unfocused, rambling, jumbled, even confused. To its credit the book feels very real, real enough to be uncomfortable for me, who clings tightly to my rationality and the idea that I always have options. I want to stay connected to the worlds I know.

For me that is the real lesson. Ayers paints a world in which blowing things up became the only option, a reasonable response to unreasonable circumstances. He and his cadre of friends and allies disappeared down the rabbit hole, putting themselves in a world where there were no other alternatives if they were to remain true to their principles. That is a very difficult place to be.

I never read a memoir without feeling the sense of self-indulgence and solipsism. This one in no exception and, in particular, it is a little like a trip through temporary insanity; only when Ayers begins to emerge from it, toward the end of the book, do I start to feel comfortable. He pulls back at the last and I get a little of the perspective for which I hoped. Along the way, I also got a lot of stories about living in those times, about fighting the police, about arguments on campuses and in basement rooms, about the sexism and racism and classism that still challenge our movements and society. It is not a great book, but I’m glad to have read it. May we all learn a little from it.

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