Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Challenging Racism: Part II

This is a continuation of my previous post on Damali Ayo’s public service art: “Hello My Race is…White." The artwork can be downloaded from her website.

My favorite quote is from step 4: “Keep a tally of the many times a day…you benefit from your whiteness. Inventory is a hard step in the program. Try keeping a favorite friend, hero, or personality of color. When you can’t do it for yourself, do it for them.”

As many readers know, my partner is a genderqueer woman of color. Reading the 4th Step actually made me very upset, thinking about the times that I might have consider something easy or accessible, and she might find it incredibly inaccessible. Case in point, she recently applied to a very prestigious school and I recall thinking that she would easily get in. Not only is she an amazing artist with a strong vision, but also I thought her Blackness, her queerness, and her female identity would all lend the school a greater diversity, which it desperately needs. Well, I was wrong. But what makes me cringe and shrivel inside is that my partner’s friends of color knew that her race wouldn’t help her. I was suffering from “a white view of affirmative action” where I thought her ability to address issues of race, sex, gender, and queerness would add to her desirability. I thought that, should a snap decision come between her and another equally qualified candidate her race would be a deciding factor. Her friends knew better. They knew no institution made on the backs of women (and men) of color would turn a 360 and let her in because of her racial identity. This is not an instance where I benefited from my whiteness but where I was clearly not supporting her enough because I couldn’t see the whole racial picture. This is an instance where I hurt her through my unacknowledged privilege.

Ayo’s Fourth Step, and the inclusion of her plea to do it for others when you can’t do it for yourself incited me to challenge someone the other day in a space and at a time when I would have rather kept my mouth shut. At one of the Masculine Spectrum meetings a fellow transman made a comment where he compared un-educated people and physically dangerous people to people from Developing Nations. The comment basically ran that folks from Developing Nations have no education and therefore no compassion and will take out their anger on transpeople. The comment was in the context of the safety of coming out as transgender at work – and he was making an excellent point that we (transgender people) can’t condemn a person for being closeted, as the world is still very scary. Before we could move on to a new subject I spoke up with “I” statements: “I heard you say that people from developing nations aren’t as intelligent and won’t be supportive of us. I don’t know if this was your intended statement, but I heard something racist that sounded like it was saying that people of color are dangerous and un-educated. I wanted to let you know what I heard.” It went on for longer than that, but it was all very low-key and I tried to not say “you are racist” but to say “what I heard was unacceptable”. It’s important, of course, to admit racism but I think that it’s more important to try and get white people to understand how racism occurs through them and how they’re able to end it. This is why I wasn’t more confrontational, even though various anti-racism trainings I’ve been to (and portions of Ayo’s work) imply that my style of soft statements isn’t acceptable. Maybe it’s not. I don’t know. And I certainly don’t want to make these statements just so I can say “aren’t I great and anti-racist?” I want to be able to say, “I’m connecting and changing white people, and I’m constantly challenging myself”.

Like Ayo writes, it’s easier for me to speak up when I think of my partner. I think: if she were here, would I allow this to go down? Just because I’m in an all-white space doesn’t mean that racism can go un-checked. And if I’m in a mixed space, it’s not the job of people of color to speak up against racism. It’s my job, and I plan on doing it in a respectful way that encourages change and ongoing conversations.

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