Screwing up

I’m not going to link to the post* because I’m still embarrassed at messing up so badly, but despite all my “practice” in mixed-race setting, I got myself in an emotional knot and made a posturing inappropriate comment in a blog thread in which Black women were talking in really deep and important ways about their experiences. Even though I really wanted to connect human to human with the tread, my comment was more focused on trying to present myself as experienced and liberal than on connecting with the experiences people were writing about. When called on it, I apologized, and I tried to behave myself thereafter, but I know the people over there think I’m a jerk, and I feel bad about it. So I’m just sitting with the bad feeling, because I think it is good for me. This is not the first time I’ve realized I’ve been a jerk, and I’m afraid it won’t the last. It’s too darn easy to be smug about racial issues when you spend a lot of time with White folks who are more clueless than you are, so as painful as this is, I’m accepting it as an important reminder that there is an objective reason why humility is the best stance.

I knew when I was writing my comment what the ground rules were, and I know that the reason I screwed up was that I got myself in an emotional tizzy that left me more worried about my own feelings than about the needs and feelings of other people. One thing that drives people of color crazy is having to deal with the emotional needs of White folks confronting their own internalized racism and discomfort in charged interactions. If you are White and paying attention to what is really happening and what people of color are saying about their experiences, it can feel just awful, and you feel like you need to be DOING SOMETHING to help, or to distance yourself from all that awfulness. These are legitimate feelings and we White folks need to deal with those feelings, but we need to do it with other White people, I think, because people of color have their hands full already dealing with being the targets of racism.

This ties in with the theme in church yesterday, Hearts Breaking Open. It was done in music and song and was a lot more poetic than I am, but the general point was that we have to let our hearts break, let ourselves be open to the suffering in the world. We cannot fix the world, but we can respond to the world by letting it into our hearts. One of the lines (someone was being quoted, but I don’t know who) was: philosophy is safer than love. When we are confronted with the suffering of others, it is too easy to shut the heart down. It is safer to intellectualize or to be cynical than to feel all that pain. Or to focus on our own pain and not other people’s needs, like not visiting a loved one with a terminal illness because we “just can’t bear to see him that way.” We were reminded that the world is both very beautiful and very broken, and we live amidst that beauty and that pain. When we open our hearts to both the beauty and the pain, we have the possibility of responding to others’ needs.

* OK, I realize this is more stupid impression management. Of course I should link to the really WONDERFUL post and discussion thread over at stuff white people do in which Black women talked in honest detail about their experiences, where the discussion really evolved and they explored commonalities and differences. One line of discussion, for example, involved their common experiences in programs for the gifted. Another was about not being treated as feminine. The main theme was the “Strong Black Woman” who can take anything, whose feelings don’t matter. It is painful, wrenching, but also very thoughtful and insightful and truly beautiful. My heart was broken open by reading what they wrote, even as it was also broken open by recognizing my own brokenness.

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Turf

These are excerpts from two longer statements written by Ida Thomas, an older Black woman who only completed the ninth grade and considers herself uneducated. She and I are members of the same racial disparities task force. She has a son who has been in prison. She wrote up her ideas because she wanted me to speak for her at a meeting she could not attend. Most of her writing focused on concrete recommendations relevant to the task force agenda. But I was blown away by some of what she said and wanted to share it. She specifically asked me to edit what she wrote so it would sound good, and I have complied by doing minimal editing for spelling and grammar. All the ideas and word choices are hers. I am posting this to my blog with her permission after reading it to her and receiving her approval. She wants her name used.

What we Blacks fail to realize is that we have invaded their town. We are on their turf now. It’s do like we say or go to prison, for sometimes petty stuff. And we did wrong by coming here, trying to change their ways. They only know how to protect their own color. They are not used to us. Especially the way we think or act. Every race has its own culture. I don’t think this will ever change here if you ask me, Ida. They really want us to go away like the wind, rain, winter and summer.  It’s a nice place to live if you can stay out of their system. But can you be sure to do that here? No. It’s like in the slave days here. Yes Madam, yes sir, you are right. Every Black person here is living on borrowed time for freedom. You have to walk a straight and narrow line. Please let’s change this.

. . .

Many White people do not know how to deal with Blacks here in Wisconsin — they look at us like we are from another planet. Their culture is much different than ours. We think differently, look at life differently. We need people in our culture that will defend us, that understand our way of thinking.  Where are those people for us to communicate with?  .  .  . * Your best bet is to stay out of trouble if you can here, or you will end up with your back up side the wall like so many have done before. It is said, come down here on vacation, go back on paper.**  But that’s not true about going back on paper, because sometimes they want you to stay down here and finish your paper here. That’s unfair because if you sneeze the wrong way you will be going to prison to finish up some of your time. You are never free here.  .  .  .  It’s is a beautiful place to live but there is a price that you have to pay to live here. Myself, I love it here.  But Madison keeps you walking a straight line on a narrow path. Let’s live and let live.

* The omitted material talks at length about the lack of Black judges, district attorneys, public defenders, and police.

** To be “on paper” is to be on probation or parole, i.e. living in the community but under correctional supervision.

Ethnic Conflict: Them

My reading is full of racial/ethnic conflict these days.  Audible.com was featuring Nathan McCall’s Them: A Novel , which caught my eye as my mind was sensitized to issues of gentrification by David Wilson’s Cities and Race: America’s New Black Ghetto.   The story is told from the point of view of Barlowe Reed, a Black printer who lives with his ex-con pigeon-raising nephew in a rented house in Atlanta’s historic Old Fourth Ward, home of Martin Luther King.  The story follows the area as it is settled or invaded (depending on your viewpoint) by the so-called “urban pioneers” – that is, White yuppies searching for in-city housing bargains.  I could imagine teaching about the sociology of racial/ethnic conflict using this book.  And as many of Amazon’s reader comments say, it would make a great book club discussion book.  It is about the conflicts arising from wildly different backgrounds and experiences and the very real difficulties in bridging these differences.  The conflict is very much two-sided.  The Black residents don’t want the Whites there and try to get them to go away, with tactics ranging from a general refusal to speak to the Whites to muggings and thefts.   For their part, the Whites see themselves as racial liberals and integrationists, but enact largely-unconscious White racial supremacy as they take over the neighborhood, replacing local institutions with their own, and destroying people’s lives in the process. Continue reading “Ethnic Conflict: Them”

Public Sociology in Farmtown #9: Reflections on the Experience

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I’m not sure who (if anyone) has stuck with this series, so I’m not sure what your interests are in wrap-up. Drop comments if you want me to address other issues. Here are my thoughts. This was an overwhelming experience in many ways, and there are many threads one could pick up from the things that happened at the conference. I’ll discuss three themes: the content of what people talk about, the importance of listening along with talking, and cultural differences in public talk. I tried to provide a lot of details about what people said and how they said it because I’m very interested in how people talk as well as what they talk about. I have been struck before how the whole tone of interaction shifts when a meeting is dominated by people of color instead of whites. Although the two day conference in Farmtown was a kind of immersion experience, I have had many similar experiences before. As a White person watching the interactions, I’m most struck by how deeply personal and painful these issues are for Black people.* Continue reading “Public Sociology in Farmtown #9: Reflections on the Experience”

public sociology in farmtown: #6 what’s going on?

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In this episode: details about problems and programs, some startling facts about returning prisoners, a brief eruption around mistaken racial identity, we talk about mentoring. Again, a mosaic of experiences. Remember, these discussions are not being “performed” for Whites; the point is a group dominated by people of color are trying to understand what is going on and what they can do to contribute to solutions.

Next up is a panel of six people from Unitown, all in their thirties to sixties. None were here yesterday for the first day of the conference. They are a White woman who runs a faith-based nonprofit with a significant prisoner reentry project; an Asian woman community organizer; a Black man who has been a local politician and is head of Unitown’s office of equal opportunity; a Black man who is a former prisoner who is now the head of a returning prisoner’s organization, and a Black married couple (both professionals) who have been involved in a lot of different activist projects; she is now chair of Unitown’s Equal Opportunity Commission. I know five of them from the various groups I’ve worked in and have heard much of what they say before. My notes are details that caught my attention. Continue reading “public sociology in farmtown: #6 what’s going on?”

public sociology in farmtown (4): white supremacy

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(Shorter extract from this post if this is too long for you)

It is important to place this discussion in the context of the whole conference, so it you are new to this series, please check out the previous post. For a quick recap, I’m writing about a two-day conference on racial disparities in incarceration and education at a university in a rural area I call Farmtown. The previous post focused the first half of the first day and the ways information was brought into the group. This post focuses on the second part of the first day, which ran from 3:15 – 9pm.

Two Farmtown professors do the short version of a workshop they’ve done often before for white faculty at their institution on the ideology of white supremacy. The black social science professor goes first, and it is relevant to note that he is older, in his sixties. His title is “isms and schisms.” The point is about how demographic differences become structures of inequality. He talks about how people respond to experiences of discrimination and then asks people what they see when the imagine pictures of powerful groups (i.e. Congress, Supreme Court). We are supposed to say “white male.” I hear one of the officers next to me say something like “mostly white males with some women and a few blacks and latinos” to Congress, and for the Supreme Court says “mostly white men and a woman and a black man.” At the end of this exercise, he requires the white man to answer his “what do you see?” question, and the answer is “mostly white men.” I’m glad I’m not put on the spot like that. I learn later that the speaker always forces a white person to answer this question. Continue reading “public sociology in farmtown (4): white supremacy”

culture, style, race, pain

As I mentioned in an earlier post, my UCC church asked me to lead “conversations about race” I described the first week in my earlier post.  The second week I did a short version of my presentation on race and criminal justice.  Today I began by showing clips of Rev. Jeremiah Wright’s sermons, first a clip from  ABC news “exposing” Wright (the clip starts with a commercial you cannot avoid) and then a six minute clip from the 2003 sermon which places the “God Damn America” line in its context in the sermon, which is about how nations come and go and don’t always follow God’s law, but God’s law endures.*   We are a pretty liberal congregation and folks mostly laughed and enjoyed Wright’s political references, as well as saying they appreciated the way the sermon had clearly been planned and was making a point about history.  I mentioned why some people objected to the sermon in web comments, even in its longer context, stressing both its political content (as many Whites are unaware of the long tradition of political commentary from Black pulpits) and its “angry” tone, and mentioned that this difference in cultural style is a really big problem.  I also commented that there is a similar problem on the other end, with typical Asian interactional styles being considered by many Whites to be too polite and reserved and not assertive enough.

In response, one White woman said that Wright’s angry tone bothered her and she worried about its lack of “solutions” would that just incite racial animosity.  Then the one Black participant (the same one from last week; everyone else was White) said that Wright was not angry, that he was just expressing himself passionately and forcefully.  She elaborated on this point, talking about her own style and about Black mothers who come in to talk about their children and the White teachers code them as angry when they are just being assertive.  She said, “If I’m angry, you’ll know it.”  (Not saying I’m some kind of cosmopolitan, but based on my experience, the Black woman’s style was on the very mild and soft-spoken end of the range of Black expression I’m familiar with –  well within the range of how I would express myself – and I coded her as warmly and compassionately making the effort to explain a standpoint.)   Then the White woman said that the Black woman sounded angry and aggressive to her, and that she was bothered because the Black woman had interrupted her to make the point, and that the expression “If I’m angry, you’ll know it” sounded like a threat to her.   Continue reading “culture, style, race, pain”