Sunday, we saw a moving play in two acts about a conversation between a white professor at an elite private college and a black history student. It was moving. Tough to watch. Didn’t answer any questions. “The Niceties.”
From the article about white playwright, Eleanor Burgess, and the play’s creation:
The imbroglio at Yale made Burgess, a former high school history teacher, realize that smart, educated, and well-meaning Americans couldn’t talk to each other about race. ‘ I started to believe that we actually disagree much more than we think we do.’
…the advantage of having the debate unfold on stage, where audience members are not taking part in the conversation directly. ‘You’re not personally being attacked, and you don’t have to think of a next thing to say. So you can actually hear the entire conversation and just let it wash over you.’
The play was set prior to the presidential election and all of us wondered how much starker the terms of the argument would’ve been today.
Who gets to decide what perspective is important?
What role does the insistence on source documents in writing about history play in discounting the history of slavery in general and the lives of the enslaved, in particular?
Where should people in positions of power draw the First Amendment line when it comes to triggering images and content?
What would happen if professors were more open to the strengths of millennials (and less reflexively dismissive)?
If saying “sorry” isn’t enough in the wake of a problematic encounter, what sorts of reparations are?
Should change be approached incrementally or in dramatic sweeps? And, who decides?
What actual supports do students of color need and deserve on college campuses, particularly bastions of privilege like the ivy leagues.
(The role these institutions play in perpetuating a closed loop of power is particularly on display this week with the Kavanaugh revelations).
Back to work.
PS is it weird that all four of us who watched the play think that Kavanaugh will be appointed and yet nevertheless find the many ways that protest and pushback are having an effect in real time, inspiring?
Women We Overlooked aired on The New York Times podcast about a month ago. It features an interview with a New York Times obituary writer/researcher and went on to discuss the life of journalist and activist, Ida B. Wells.*
“When she took over as editor of the Memphis “Free Speech” in 1889, Ida B. Wells had already made something of a name for herself challenging racial bigotry.” In 1892, Wells wrote a stunning editorial following the lynching of eight men, after which the offices of the paper were burned down and her life threatened. Wells happened to be out of town that day and subsequently moved to Chicago. From there she “launched a systematic investigation of the hated practice [of lynching] around the country” and wrote about her findings in a series of newspaper articles and a book called “Southern Horrors” … Wells was also active as a teacher, feminist and civil rights leader.
Amy Goodman’s podcast, Democracy Now, interviewed the authors of “News for All People”, here.
Finn was just picked up and I’m off to Salem. Time to order a fridge and hire movers. If time, we will jaunt over to Kane’s — the greenhouse over by Trader Joe’s. My sister’s new place has wide windowsills, perfect for some potted geraniums.
This post is a placeholder, containing some homework for myself — I hope you don’t mind. Wanted to capture these things while they’re still fresh.
* If you don’t know about The Daily — you’re in for a treat. Each episode is only 20 minutes long and yet manages to do interesting and in-depth reporting. They’re an essential part of my news fare these days.
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.” 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!
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.
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?