We’re heading into the bloodiness of Holy Week in just a little while. Good Friday looms at the end of Lent, this horrible black, silent day where we actually contemplate the slow suffocation of a Palestinian Jew on a cross. Uh, depressing. I’d much rather skip it and get to the chocolate Easter eggs on Sunday. Continue reading “That Saved a Wretch Like Me”
I’ve been out of the loop on the #Zumamustfall campaigns that spread across South Africa at the end of last year calling for the removal of our corrupt president (protestors are pointing to things like Nkandla, the mansion Zuma built with tax payer money- protest chant is simply “Pay back the money!”) I’ve been out of the loop because I’m in America, and I’ve been out of the loop because the articles that my black South African friends are sharing on social media aren’t super supportive of the movement. Yes, many South Africans across racial lines want Zuma to be held accountable, agree that the ANC is becoming complacent with their power–using it for themselves (the few) rather than to benefit the many. But the biggest critique I’m hearing is that these protests are springing up because Zuma sacked the finance minister and that put the Rand in a downward spiral and the best way to get white South Africa to turn out to protest is mess with the economy. When poor people are out there protesting about the rising cost of food, but the Rand has stabilized, will white South Africa still be there? Continue reading “Nation Building: Our country, not “this country””
Today we’re continuing this conversation on privilege with Brett! Check over here for part 1.
How do you feel about the idea of privilege now?
I wasn’t going to post this week, because we’re in the process of moving in to our new apartment in Texas! Yay! Expect to hear lots more “y’all” and twanging in these posts in the future. But, I just had to share this, briefly.
This one is for the Americans. I just listened to this story on NPR. Sometimes people ask me, “But what about poor white people? You make it sound like all white people are privileged, but there are lots of black people that are richer and have better lives than poor white people.” There are poor white people. True. But.
Here are a couple quotes that blew my mind from this podcast, which talks about the school district in Ferguson:
- “In the Saint Louis area, nearly 1 in 2 black children attend schools in districts that performed so poorly, the state has stripped them of full accreditation. Only 1 in 25 white children are in a district like that. That’s 1 in 2 black kids, 1 in 25 white kids….”
- “Of course, there are poor white children in the Saint Louis area, but they live in mostly middle class areas. So they aren’t attending schools as terrible as Normandy (Michael Brown’s school). In Saint Louis, poor white children are twice as likely to go to good schools than black children of all incomes”.
And that’s the kicker. There are white poor people. And life is hard if you are poor, no matter what your race. I do not want to undermine that. But when it comes to a lot of things, it’s not only about income, it’s also about race. A lot of poor white people still experience aspects of white privilege, ranging from big to mundane. Off the top of my head, here are a few:
- going to better schools with better teachers
- knowing that when you’re walking into a store, you won’t be followed or suspected of shop-lifting
- being able to wear sweatpants without being worried that people will think you are a thug
- being called back for interviews and given the benefit of the doubt in job hiring (this article references a study done in 2000 that showed when people were obviously qualified or unqualified for a job, there was no racial discrimination, but when the qualifications were fuzzy, participants were nearly 70% more likely to recommend the white applicant than the black applicant).
- being more likely to get off with a warning than being convicted (see The New Jim Crow).
And not only in the present, but historically, too. For example, Polish, Irish, Italian and (enter European ethnicity here) immigrants were all discriminated against when they first came to America. Many of them took low-paying factory jobs. Many of them had to work very, very hard to make ends meet. But, the book “How the Irish became white” explains that one way all of these immigrant groups eventually became accepted into main-line America was through discriminating against black people. Kind of a “You rich white guys think we’re bad? Well, we’re not as bad as them.” Some of the worst violence against black people at the turn of the century in the North (don’t just blame it on slavery, y’all) came from the poor working class white people. Managers would discriminate against hiring black people, and would go for the immigrants instead. So just because your grandparents didn’t own slaves doesn’t mean that your history is free from racial privilege.
We have made so much progress in the past 150 years. We have, we really have. We don’t have to claim that things are as bad today as they were during the Civil Rights era. Things are much, much better. But imagine the outrage you’d hear if we had a stat like, “In this area, half the poor girls are in a failing school, while only one in twenty-five poor boys are in a failing school.”
I mean, we’d be put on UN watch-lists or something. Maybe I’m exaggerating. Okay, I probably am. But still. Listen to the podcast. It put a human face on a really big problem. And I might have cried at one point. Can you tell I cannot endorse this enough? 🙂
There’s an article going round on the Huffington Post right now, talking about how racism isn’t just having prejudiced feelings towards people, or saying nasty things about people of another race. It has to do with a bigger system that shapes the way the world works, and who has access to privilege and power, and who does not. If we think racism is only about saying mean things or personally hating people of another race, then we don’t ever stop and question a bigger system— and we can actually feed into that system. For white people who read that and were like, “Yes! Agreed… okay, so…and now what?” Here are a few ideas of ways to concretely tackle some of these issues. I have not come up with these ideas myself. Most of them come from other smarter people than I am. Also, I realize that I often talk in black/white language, but racism affects many groups in the US and SA in different ways- Asians, Latinos, Indians…it’s not just a black/white thing.
First, don’t be the boss. When it comes to fighting against racial injustice, there’s a massive need for white people to get involved—racism is our problem, it’s everyone’s problem—but we really don’t need to run the show. This happens in the States, and I’ve seen this happen All. The. Time. in South Africa. Us white guys are used to being the boss. If we think we’re doing a great job of including black people in decisions we’re making about making black lives better…uh, that’s already a problem. If we find ourselves thinking things like, “I’ve hired a black assistant pastor, so now our church is diverse!” that’s probably a problem. We can’t be running the show and co-opting people onto our team to make it more colourful. Whether it’s churches or work places or anything. Listen. Go join someone else’s team. Submit to black leadership. Find a mentor.
Listen & Learn about race and racial injustice. I feel like I’m a stuck tape recorder on this one. I love what Christina Cleveland has to say on this topic to leaders, “Within the family of God, members of oppressed groups should not have to mount a social justice campaign to be heard.” Of any group, Christians have some of the strongest and best motivations for listening to the ‘outsider’ and oppressed. Let’s reshape our structures in our churches and workplaces so that members of oppressed groups can be heard loud and clear. Let’s educate ourselves on the issue as well.
Become a white ally. The term that people use in America for white people who want to help end racism is “white ally”. You don’t experience racism first hand, but you ally yourself with people who do, and join their cause. Janee Woods has a great article listing 12 very practical things you can do to be a good white ally, from learning how modern racism is rooted in a history of racism, to getting active in your community around policing issues, to advocating for change in the criminal justice system. Read it! Several ideas of hers I will be expanding on, but she has lots of wisdom here.
Stay informed. Change your media. Unfortunately, I can’t offer much help for people in South Africa, except BrettFish’s blog (awesome stuff related to race here), but I know a few more in the US. Many of these are specifically from a Christian perspective. Here is a link listing some of the top blogs written by Christian people of color in the US, and many of them focus on racial justice issues–and even if they don’t do that constantly, you can be sure when something happens in the news related to race, they will “pause their normal programming” to weigh in on it. (This link is, yet again, thanks to Christina Cleveland. If you haven’t read her book, do that, too!) Because I’m lazy, and don’t want to subscribe to hundreds of people, I generally look for people who are good content curators, and retweet/post links to other people. Two of the best I have found for that is the blog “By their strange fruit” (@BTSFblog) and @CarisAdel.
Share your voice. The sad thing is that sometimes a white voice will be heard before a black voice will. This is wrong, we need to work to change that, but it’s reality. So use your voice to make space for black voices. Don’t be afraid to share about racial justice issues in your sphere of influence. Talk with your friends and family, your pastor, your school board. Speak in places where a black voice just won’t reach yet, and introduce people to new black voices.
Be willing to look at how economic & racial privilege are linked, and then make choices about your stuff. You don’t have to just go with the flow. Since the system is giving white people economic privilege, you can share that privilege, rather than horde it. For example, we were given a car to use for the next two years because our family is awesome and generous with their stuff, but also is able to be generous because of a history of privilege. So I can just take that gift and say “Score! More room in my budget for holidays!” or, I can figure out a way to give my money/time towards making it possible for people who don’t have that kind of privilege to get access to material possessions. Mine your social privilege for others. Make connections for people getting jobs. Tithe on major purchases (like a house) into organizations or groups that are working on getting people access to affordable housing*.
In South Africa, learn the majority language of your area. In the US, racism is really tied into slavery, but in South Africa, racism and colonialism are still very linked. Part of that means that if you’re an English first-language speaker, the system is built to privilege you. You can read more about that on a blog I wrote here. Also, based on feedback from that post, I want it to be clear that learning isiZulu is not some kind of magic “get out of jail free card.” There are plenty of racist people in South Africa who know isiZulu. But anyone who is committed to racial justice in KZN and hasn’t seriously made an attempt at learning isiZulu is missing something vital. In the US, you could learn Spanish, or the language of the most recent immigrant community in your area.
In the US, advocate for reform in the criminal justice system. Read a book like “The New Jim Crow”, which explains how our criminal justice system is whacked. It explores major inequalities (like how most drug dealers are white, but most people in prison on drug related charges are black, or how when a black and a white teenager are caught with the same amount of drugs, the white teen will get off with a warning and the black teen will serve time. It also talks about how possession of drugs as a felony means that people are never able to rebuild their lives after serving time on a drug charge, because of “the box” asking people to check if they have ever been convicted of a felony on job applications….) Obama is the first US president to ever visit a federal prison and speak out about this issue (see it here), and if you’re looking for a way to advocate around these issues, here’s a link to some organizations.
Advocate for better education for everyone, everywhere. As one guy has argued, we could be totally pragmatic about all this and forget trying to help white people come to terms with understanding racism. Instead, we could just focus on changing things “on the ground”- like improving education, ending the war on drugs, providing contraceptives etc. I don’t see this as an either/or, but a both/and. Especially because as a Christian, I see justice as holistic: oppressed and oppressors experiencing wholeness that comes from working together to make our world better for everyone.
Some more resources for understanding privilege:
- The implicit bias test: This test is talked about on this AMAZING TEDTalk on racism and bias. Take the test, then watch the TED talk if you’re wondering what to do next.
- Here’s an interesting review of a new book that has come out on modern racism.
Ok, your turn– what are some other good resources you know of to help white people join the cause of racial justice in both South Africa and the USA?
*Note: There are a lot of structural, big picture economic reforms that many people are advocating for in South Africa that could help the vast majority of people who are stuck in material poverty due to our racist history of apartheid. I think as a white person, a lot of our gut instinct is fear, panic, and immediately rejecting the very notion. Instead of that, we should educate ourselves about these proposals. Even if you end up being against large-scale change instigated by the government, you’ll need to offer a thoughtful alternative. You’ll also have a much better leg to stand on if in your personal life you are willing to live generously, sacrificially, and in a way that empowers others.
The area that my masters in sociology falls under is “whiteness studies”. Basically, it means studying white people, and the construct of whiteness, and understanding white privilege, and looking at ways to “de-center” the story of whiteness. In most places, “white” is the norm by which everything else is measured (which I kind of understand in America, since white people are still the majority, but why that would be the case in places like Africa or Asia makes no sense except because of the history of colonization and globalization and Western media and all that stuff).
Anyway, one of the things that some whiteness scholars try to do is make whiteness “visible” to people to whom it’s invisible. If you ask white people to tell you about themselves, not very many of them mention their race as part of their identity, because it’s just the “norm”. Race is something other people have. And “white culture”? What’s that??! Some white Americans have a vauge sense that their ancestors were Irish or something, but really, they just see themselves as “normal Americans.” When you’re the majority, you set the norms, and you can’t see how you fit into these larger cultural norms you’ve created. (Okay, caveat– I know that everyone in the whole world is an individual, and people don’t actually fall into neat stereotypical cultural categories, and we cannot let our assumptions about people’s culture define how we interact with them. But on the other hand– sociologists study people in groups, and groups do have certain traits. Not everyone in the group fits every trait, but I think it’s okay to make generalizations as long as you realize that they are generalizations).
The problem, I think, has more to do with the fact that white people can make generalizations about other cultures, but can’t see that generalizations could be applied to their culture as well. Which is why, when I was on Twitter the other night, I freaked out because the number one trend was #IfIWasWhite. ( I tried to wake my husband up and be like– look at this amazing research opportunity unfolding before our very eyes!! But he was sleeping). It started as a hashtag about the Olympic guy Shaun White, but people saw the hashtag and immediately started posting things like this:
“#IfIWasWhite I’d yell at my mom and slam the door and nothing would happen bc she’d say I was going thru a phase.”
“#IfIWasWhite I’d drink $10 Starbucks drinks.”
Or some interesting ones about education:
(guilty of the former, I must be white :D)
Some of these were really funny and clever. (Go here to read some). But also… these tweets reveal something to us white folks who don’t know what our “culture” is– here’s how other races and cultures see us. We make stereotypes about other races “All Black people are so loud” — why not sit back, shut up, and see what other groups say about our group? Maybe it will actually reveal to us what things are “unique” about our group–what things we all do and think are normal that actually aren’t that normal?
There were also some really heartbreaking ones that revealed how a white-dominated system side-lines other races. Many systems in America (and South Africa) are biased against other races (especially black people). There were lots of references to the unfair treatment that black people experience at the hands of the police.
There were maybe 10 tweets similar to:
#IfIWasWhite, I wouldn’t have store clerks follow me around every time I went shopping, assuming I was going to steal something.
Okay white people, ouch. Maybe you don’t think this applies to you, since you’re not a store-owner or a policeman, but what about this one:
How many times have you told a “kind of racist” joke and said, “But my black friends know I’m just joking, they laugh and think it’s funny, too.” Um. No.
And then of course, some white people got on the bandwagon, and felt they needed to defend themselves, so took some shots back:
Which made me SUPER irritated. I think the people who made the two comments above missed out on a chance to listen and learn. They resented that the other group was making stereotyped comments about them but assumed they knew the other group well enough to make comments back. Despite all the tweets that gave glimpses to the real hurt that other races experience because of systemic injustice, these white tweeters just assumed everyone was whining, that everything in the world is fair, that white people got to where they are today solely by their own hard work–and the list goes on.
The sociologist part of me wanted to do a content analysis of all these tweets, and figure out which ones fall into the “funny cultural stereotypes about whites” category (and then see what the different cultural traits are), how many fall into the “revealing prejudice in the system” category, how many fall into the “rankled white people retaliating” category, and how many fall into the “why is this a trend on twitter now??!” category. But. I didn’t. I wrote a blog post because I’m lazy and this is easier. But maybe someone else out there will do it.
But I hope at the very least, this twitter trend can help us white people think a little bit more about what we define as normal, about how we stereotype others, and about how desperately we need to shut up and listen to people who are not white, and value their experiences and insights into the injustice around us, rather than getting defensive and shutting them out.