Saturday, July 31, 2010

Can the Shirley Sherrod fiasco start a real dialogue about white privilege?

An old college friend blogging at edgeofthepacific, suggested we start a dialogue wherein we choose a topic and exchange posts. We decided to start with the Shirley Sherrod fiasco. We don’t have much in the way of disagreement on this one. A lot of people came off poorly in this mess. In fact, only Sherrod herself came out of it looking good, and she was the one who suffered most in the debacle. I don’t think any other heads will roll at the White House or Fox News; that would be an ironic reaction to prevent future premature firings. However, in the midst of the circular firing squad of blame, I worry we’re decontextualizing the event, or contextualizing it poorly. Some of the coverage has gone back as far as the killing of Sherrod’s father by a white farmer, framing her initial reaction to the farmer she mentioned in her speech, and some has covered her husband’s role in the civil rights movement, placing her, generationally, in that historical context. Both those parts of the history are important, and one wishes someone like Breitbart or anyone in Vilsak’s USDA had bothered to type her last name into a simple Google search. But I’m worried that we’ve missed the most important context for this circus; a real discussion about white privilege.

My background gives me a somewhat unique perspective on white privilege. Thanks to magnet schools, I attended schools wherein I was an ethnic minority (an predominately Mexican American junior high in Sand Diego and predominantly African American high school in Cincinnati), but lived in predominantly white neighborhoods. Not only did I learn a lot about Mexican Americans and African Americans, but I also learned a lot about Whites. One thing I learned was that very few Whites think of themselves as racists, and a great many take pride in being “color-blind”. What those white folks don’t realize is that so-called “color-blindness” is a mild form of racism.

Racism certainly has degrees, from the gas chamber to the white hood to the exclusive country club to the awkward conversation, and the notion of “color-blindness” is among the mildest types, but that doesn’t mean it’s entirely innocent. In a way, it’s insidious. The white person who buys the line can pat him or herself on the back, point to Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech, and then turn around and point the finger at anyone who brings up race or racism and say, “See? They’re the racist.”

This is the context for the circumstances that led up to the Shirley Sherrod debacle. The NAACP demanded that the Tea Party reject racism within its ranks. This was done in a ham-fisted way, and offended a lot of people in the Tea Party who not only aren’t racist, but take great pride in not being racist (often to a degree that is, in fact, racist). One of the main problems with the NAACP’s statement is that it was directed at a group without leadership. Hell, they barely have a platform. How can a group that can’t articulate what policies they want to have put in place beyond sound bites the fit on placards go about systematically rooting individuals from their midst? It’s not like they have a membership test and those who check the “I agree with Glenn Beck that Obama is only interested in Health Care because it’s a form of reparations for slavery” box will be refused a membership card. The Tea Party can’t kick people out, but the Republican Party can, and the NAACP miscalculated by trying to remain non-partisan rather than asking Republican candidates to refuse to take money from Tea Party sub-organizations that espouse racist beliefs, inflame racial hatred, or tolerate racist rhetoric. As Frank Rich wrote this last week, “The Tea Party Express fronted by Williams is an indisputable Republican subsidiary. It was created by prominent G.O.P. political consultants in California and raises money for G.O.P. candidates, including Sharron Angle, Harry Reid’s Senate opponent in Nevada. But Republican leaders, presiding over a Congressional delegation with no blacks and a party that nearly mirrors it, remain in hiding whenever racial controversies break out under their tent. ‘I am not interested in getting into that debate,’ said Mitch McConnell last week.” The NAACP could have called those folks out. Instead, it went after a movement without a spokesperson. That was dumb.

Andrew Breitbart’s response was to pull a variation on the playground turn-around. “I’m not a racist. You’re a racist!” So he tried to paint the NAACP as racist using Shirley Sherrod. He has not backed down from this, even now, claiming that the crowd’s reaction to Sherrod’s speech implicates them as racists. I say that’s bull, but watch the whole thing for yourself and be the judge. You’ll be doing more homework than Breitbart did.

But why would Breitbart have calculated that this line of reasoning would play in the first place? After all, it’s inherently illogical. If I’m standing in the middle of the street and a police officer runs over and sites me for jaywalking, I can’t defend myself by saying, “I am not because you’re doing it too.” This line of reasoning didn’t counter the claims of racism within the Tea Party at all. Those have been challenged, but because there have been racist signs at rallies and reliable accounts of racist behavior, the reasonable defense would really be about the nature of the Tea Party movement and the lack of control of its fringe elements. That’s a bit nuanced for our sound-bite age, especially for a movement not known to be fans of nuance. It’s easier to play to a preconception, let’s call it the “He who smelt it dealt it” model, which dictates that the first person to bring up race or identify racism is the real racist. Unfortunately, that model is patently false, and it’s also racist.

It’s wrong because racism does exist. I could defend this claim with a hundred anecdotal examples I’ve seen with my own eyes, with statistics, links to racist organizations currently operating in the United States. But I won’t, because if someone believes there’s no real racism in this country, they’re a lost cause. Ditto for the people who believe that, thanks to “reverse-racism”, Whites have it worse off. That’s what Martin Luther King Jr. called “sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity”, and he was right to say it’s the most dangerous thing in the world. My friend at edgeofthepacific writes that the NAACP should be abolished because it’s been so ineffectual recently. I would argue that there’s still plenty of work for them to do, but agree that they need to refocus their energy and devise better, less reactive strategies if they don’t want to be overtaken by more effective groups like

One dialogue the NAACP could actively engage is the “he who smelt it dealt it model”. This model is not only wrong, it’s also racist, because it’s rooted in an ignorance about white privilege. I’ve heard this expressed a number of ways, but they can generally be distilled to claims of “color-blindness”. Here’s the thing, though; racial color-blindness is a luxury only Whites can afford. Martin Luther King’s dream of a world where people are judged by the content of the character rather than the color of their skin is a goal, but ignoring racism is not the means to get there.

Years ago, I was in a multi-culturalism class taught by a Mexican American woman, and we were discussing race. One of the white teachers tried to explain that she refused to see the teacher’s skin color or heritage, and that’s why she didn’t think of herself as a racist. “But what is my heritage is important to me?” the teacher asked. “What if I like the color of my skin?” The white teacher was shocked. She’d never considered the fact that her color-blindness was dismissive and even hurtful. How could she have grown up without considering the importance of a cultural identity to someone from a minority group? Easy. She was white, lived in an almost entirely white world, and therefore could afford to ignore issues of race and racism if she felt like it. Racial minorities don’t have that luxury.

This came up again just this week in a conversation in the classes I’m currently taking. One teacher pointed us to this research, which shows that when whites attempt to display colorblindness they actually come off worse in interracial interaction, as their self-editing can be misinterpreted (or perhaps correctly interpreted) as insensitivity or outright disregard. In my experience (and I know this is only anecdotal evidence) ethnic minorities are far more comfortable bringing up race in interracial conversation, both mine and their own. I don’t think it’s a huge leap to theorize that this difference can be explained by the fact that minorities have to come into contact with whites more often than whites have to come into contact with minorities. One of the teachers in the room was flabbergasted by this research. “So what are we supposed to do?” she asked. “Just walk up to somebody and say, ‘Hi. I notice you’re Black.’?” That’s white privilege. She wasn’t racist, and she wasn’t trying to be rude. She just didn’t know how to navigate an interracial conversation about the topic of race so she preferred to avoid the topic. And she can do that. Because she’s white.

I worry that this Shirley Sherrod fiasco will blow over, caught up in the next turn of the twenty-four hour news tornado (though it may get some legs from this or this), and we’ll miss an opportunity to have a real discussion about white privilege. Chalk that up to the growing list of opportunities for real dialogue that this administration has missed in its efforts to be non-partisan (a real dialogue about the costs of war, a real dialogue about the dangers of oil dependence, a real dialogue about class disparity and tax policy, etc., etc.). That’s a shame, because ignoring the topic of race doesn’t make racism go away.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

From the OWP: The Better Teacher

Here's a little piece I wrote today at the Oregon Writing Project. Now I just need to figure out how to track down this former teacher to share it with her.

The Better Teacher

Mrs. Green was a better teacher than I’ll ever be. Only a few years from retirement, she’d watched Withrow High School change from the segregated, all white, highest quality school in Cincinnati Public, to the low-income, all-black school of middling quality, to its current renaissance as the IB magnet serving the now upper-middle class black neighborhood and the few white kids being bussed in by parents who’d white-flighted out a generation before. She commanded the room with utmost authority but always made us all feel valued. A lot of this power came from her ability to recognize our individual needs. Some students needed, more than anything, to break free from the use of double negatives. Others needed to expand their vocabularies with the lists she gave us each Monday and the tests each Friday. I needed a dose of humility.

Mrs. Green could have broken me down. She could have told me, in front of everyone, that I wasn’t as great as I thought I was, that I wasn’t all that and a bag of chips, that I ought to get over myself. I can imagine her remonstrance mimicked in the halls by students who, despite my best efforts to despise them, were right to look askance at the weirdo white kid in the trench coat with the spikes in the epaulets, hiding in his earphones and a paperback novel from the library. He was a freak, angry and scared and full of himself. Mrs. Green could see all of that. She was able to look beyond the arrogance that manifested most fully in her class, where I felt most comfortable with my abilities, and see the kid who was terrified of everything else.

One day she asked me to stay after class. I don’t think I’d been acting out that day. Maybe I’d rolled my eyes one time too many, maybe answered too many questions. More likely, I’d checked out, complete with the slouch that advertised my withdrawal. I don’t remember students “oooo”ing when she asked me to wait, which inclines me to believe she did it in a careful, subtle way.

“Ben,” she said, “I can’t teach you how to be a better writer. You’re already a better writer than I am. But I know some people who can.” And she marched me down to the library and explained how our class would work for the rest of the school year. It was the fall, so this seemed like an eternity. Her plan was simple. Every few days she’d assign me another book to read. When I finished, I had to write her a paper on each one. She knew I could tear through them in a couple days. She didn’t know that I was not, and still am not, a fast reader, and that I kept up this pace by reading on the bus (an hour long ride each way), at home where I hid from the comfortable, overly-perfect suburban life I hated, and yes, in my other classes, where the subjects didn’t come as easily. What she did know was that I would chafe at the idea that the writers she exposed me to were better than me. I would fight back. She wanted me to fight back, to criticize their work, to argue that I could do a better job. I think she had this plan from the beginning.

When I told her I didn’t like a book, she had me read another by the same author. I didn’t like The Scarlet Letter. “Six pages and six years pass with no dialogue,” I whined.

“You didn’t like it? Read The House of the Seven Gables.”

I didn’t like the first book she gave me by Thomas Hardy. So she made me read Far From the Maddening Crowd. I read Turgenev. I read Camus. The more I criticized, the more I read, and now I see that she subtly directed my criticisms, not only pushing me to look deeper but also guiding me to examine the skills she wanted me to work on. Hardy and Hawthorne didn’t make me a better writer. Mrs. Green did. But she never said so.

I don’t think I could tell a student they are a better writer than I am, so I’m not sure I’ll ever be as good a teacher as Mrs. Green. But I can admit that she taught me more than writing. She taught me about teaching.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

New Poem: The Prodigy

Here's a new one about (and by) Noah.

The Prodigy

“Hey Dad!” he says
“I call this one ‘Headless Dragon’!”
He aims the squirt gun into the air
Waving it back and forth.
I see it.
The decapitated beast
Serpentine neck
Coiling through the sky
Flailing back and forth
Defeated and enraged
One last lashing
Until it fades.
And I know my son is a poet.
I am proud.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

New Poem from OWP about Noah: "Keeping the Fire"

Today, at the Oregon Writing Project, we were asked to read "The Lightkeeper" by Carloyn Forché and write about who keeps the light on for us. I wrote this poem about my son.

Keeping the Fire

We’re the good guys.
We’re keeping the fire.
The man and the boy used this sacred mantra
To carry them down McCarthy’s Road
And when I put down the book
I hugged Noah fiercely
Then waited till he slept
Kissed his forehead
And thanked him.
He once needed me
To change his diapers
To keep him warm
To feed him
To sing, sometimes for hours, until he slept
To wake in the middle of the night to make sure his chest rose and fell
But I always needed him more.
I will always need him more.
He makes me keep the fire.

Monday, July 19, 2010

New Poem: "Strange Defense"

This is a product of a guys-only camping trip my friend Paul invited me to. Paul is the friend in the poem who tried to stick up for me. The antagonist was very drunk when this incident took place. I know that's no excuse, but in vino veritas. I was equally compromised when I wrote this, but I'm pretty satisfied with it the next day, at least enough to post it.

Strange Defense

Don't jew me, the guy says.
My friend points a thumb in my direction
Jew at the table, it says.
Oh, no, I mean like the Jews back in Jesus times.
I see.
He's not an anti-Semite
'Cause he only hates the Jews
Responsible for killing Christ.
I'm not cheap.
They were.
What a relief.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Assignment for OWP: Artist's Statement

Today we went to the art museum on the Willamette University campus. Our assignment was to read an "Artist's Statement" on a plaque on the wall, then find a painting and write a fictional variation by a different artist. Here's mine. I should say that I not only made up much of the biographical information about the painter, but also shifted the date of the painting itself from 1949 back to 1944.

Artist’s Statement
Based on “Driftage” by William Givler

Driftage - Share on Ovi

Five years into my position as the dean of the Museum Art School in Portland, I suppose I was getting something of an itch. I’d been teaching there since ’31, so, after 13 years, academia had not only lost some of its luster, but it had begun to rub some of the sheen off of my love for art itself. This bled into my personal life, or perhaps my failing marriage soured my attitude towards work, but by the summer of ’44 I needed a break. Plus, the war was going on. It seemed like the world was going to hell on every level.

A friend let me borrow his beach house that summer, and I set up my easel, prepared my paints, then found myself taking long walks on the beach by day and having one scotch more than I should each evening. I’d listen to swing music and think about how those happy sounds reached the ears of former students of mine stationed in England or Hawaii, or in the bellies of steel leviathans swimming through the Pacific toward Japanese artillery nests. The happier the song, the more bitter the static sounded, like the hissing and popping of great distance, and the whispers of the hollow nature of words about love.

One day I started to paint a pleasant sunset, and I could hear the tinny voices and forced rhymes of love songs in every crashing wave in the painting. Out of frustration, I splattered dark brown-gray paint over the sun, then swirled the thick spots into a giant piece of driftwood on the beach. The soft pink clouds became bloodstained harbingers of a coming storm. I added my wife in the foreground, her back to me, hair whipping in the wind. Exceeding the impressionism of the rest of the painting, her hand looks particularly unfinished. That’s because I stopped there, stepped back, and looked at what I’d done. Not only had I eclipsed the sun, but I’d filled the world with horror. I wanted to reach into the painting, to take my wife’s hand, to finish it with my own.

The painting itself went on to win awards, to find fancy homes for itself, first in galleries, then in private collections, then museums. But it did me a greater service. The painting sent me home from the beach, back to the job I’d forgotten I enjoyed, back to the art I’d committed to, back to the wife I love.

And I left the scotch behind to warm my friend’s cold beach house. I didn’t need it anymore.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

From OWP: "The Gift"

As a part of our classes for the Oregon Writing Project, we model lessons for one another which we can perform in our own classes for our students during the year. Today (yesterday, technically), one of our excellent lessons, by Teri Daniels, focused on writing memoirs. This piece really surprised me. Teri had us write a list of some formative events during our lives, and thanks to her instruction I avoided some that seemed more important, but were cliches or lacked surprise or conflict. I'm glad she guided me to this one. I had no idea it would have any emotional resonance for me at all, but when I shared it I found I was almost crying in front of these people I've known for four days.

This is dedicated to my mom, as it was written on her birthday.

The Gift

Home movies make legends of seemingly innocuous events. Seeing myself on tape warps the memory, so that I remember myself from the outside as much as from the inside. On the screen, the restaurant’s dark lighting makes my skin look even more pale. I’m opening my birthday gifts, so my head is turned down, my dark hair obscuring my face. I pull the items out of the box one by one. My mother, who is behind the camera, is so excited she can barely contain herself. I part the tissue paper and pull out the first item, a travel journal.

“Okay?” I say.

Then I pull out a small, round piece of fabric. I unfold it. It’s black, circular, and about as big as my hand. It’s slightly domed. Since I’m not a practicing Jew, it takes me a second to recognize a Yarmulke. I still don’t get it.

“Keep going,” Mom says. “There’s something else.”

I pull out a small, thin, blue book. I still don’t get it. I open it and see my own picture. Now the camera is watching me look into a book at myself.

Then I put it all together. On the camera, my head pops up. My mom nearly screams. My dad’s laugh starts out low, then gets higher as he shifts from his joy at the gift to amusement at my response.

Only, this part I can remember without the camera. The shock of the moment, of realizing I’ll be going with my dad on the tour he’s leading to Israel and Greece, fires up a highway in my 33-year-old brain that was paved so deeply in that eleven-year-old’s that it has weathered all the traffic in between.

“I get to go?” I look at Dad. Then Mom. Only she’s holding the camera, so on the screen I’m looking right out and all my wonder is visible, even in the dim light.

“You’re going with me,” Dad says.

I have no idea the trip will change my life, will alter the way I see the world, the way I associate previously compartmentalized pieces of information. Jerusalem will do that; link family and ancestors, war and faith, God and dusty stones, history and emotion. But I haven’t been there yet. I’m eleven, and I just know I’m special. I’m lucky. I’m going.