Tuesday, December 1, 2009

It's not a valuable discussion on race until the POC show up

I've been grappling with the question of whether conversations about marginalized peoples are valuable if the conversations take place without the participation of said people.

Recently, I observed as a comment thread sparked by Sammy Sosa's skin bleaching, which could have been a nuanced discussion of the impact of racism and Eurocentric beauty standards on people of color, jump the tracks. The discussion was a textbook study in derailing, with a mostly white commentariat minimizing the effects of race bias on self image; turning the discussion to beauty standards in the majority culture; and denying the lived experiences of the few people of color in the thread. The experience left me frustrated and angry and I found myself wishing that the conversation, which lacked strong participation from the very people most effected by the issues discussed, had never happened.

That wish--the wish that this group of mostly white people had not indulged a conversation about race and its effects in America--feels wrong for someone who considers herself an advocate of anti-racism. I feel strongly that people of color should not be the only ones discussing of race, racism and race bias. But can valuable conversations about race happen without us--without our unique points of view as historically marginalized groups? My gut instinct is to say they cannot. But how does that work? White folks, we want you to talk about race, but only if a certain percentage of brown folks are on hand to ensure the conversation doesn't go sideways.

I felt a similar discomfort earlier today, while watching excerpts from Joan Walsh's interview with Gail Collins, whose new book, When Everything Changed: The Amazing Journey of American Women From 1960 to the Present is already in queue on my Kindle. Watch this segment that Walsh described thusly:
We talked about how rare it is to see the struggles, and different priorities, of black, working-class and other non-white women depicted in a mainstream book on the women's movement:

I could be being entirely too sensitive, because the issue is fresh in my mind, but something bugged me about the way Walsh and Collins, who are white women, discussed, or didn't discuss, women of color. Their conversation begins with a nod to the ways that women of color have been erased in histories of the women's movement, but spends little time examining our role and marginalization within feminism, instead veering quickly into black women in the civil rights movement, then black female resentment of white women in the civil rights movement and then the tragic story of Viola Liuzzo, a white woman who was killed for her participation in the civil rights movement.

Barely half of the short segment on race and feminism was spent actually talking about women of color within the women's movement, before the issue turned to how the civil rights movement impacted white women. I know this was a longer conversation and much could have been lost in the editing, but the interview felt to me like another example of how the stories of people of color get short shrift when we are absent from the dialogue.

What do I want, really?

Would I have been happy if Walsh and Collins had not mentioned women of color during their discussion of the history of feminism? No. Would I have been happy if the pair authoritatively waxed on about the experiences of black women as if they have lived our experience? No. And there's the rub. I am frustrated when the stories of people of color are left out. But I am also frustrated then the stories of people of color are included, but glossed over or mistold. To an ally, this must seem like a "damned if you do, damned if you don't" situation. And maybe it is...

I am not saying that all white people are inherently clueless when it comes to race. I have heard the voices of many eloquent and wise allies on and offline. But all that any of us can do, regardless of our race, is to speak from our lived experiences (our biases, strengths and weaknesses are all tied up in here). Yes, yes...we are (hopefully) impacted by learned experiences and empathy for others. But as much as I might seek to educate myself about what it is like to, say, be a Latino man, I cannot be that person. And I cannot tell that story like someone who has lived it. It would be presumptuous for me to try or extrapolate too much from what I presume to be shared experiences. The most valuable discussion about Latino males would be one with actual Latino males involved. So...

Can valuable conversations about race happen without people of color?

My conclusion is no. A conversation about race where people of color are not involved is woefully incomplete and, because of our country's history and present, likely to be mired in privilege. Of this I am sure. (This is easily illustrated by the poor representation of people of color in the media, entertainment and advertising industries, where we are under-represented in decision-making positions.)

But, this post has me thinking about the flip side of this equation:

Can substantive conversations about race happen without white people?

What do you think?


rosmar said...

This is a super thoughtful post, and my overall instinct is to agree with you.

When you got to the part about not having the lived experience of a Latino man, though, I realized one issue--there is no singular lived experience of a Latino man. My dad's experiences are different in many ways from his brothers' experiences, and all of my family's experiences are different in some ways from those who immigrated to the U.S. in a different time period, or from a different class, etc.

I know you know this, but it made me think about the problem of people of color having to stand in for their entire demographic group (or groups). Just having one person of color in a conversation can be as troubling, sometimes, as having none, if that person's experiences and feelings get treated as if they are necessarily representative.

Mainly, though, I think you are right that white people need to check in with people of color regularly (even if they primarily are aiming to help other white people overcome racism) if they plan to keep a conversation about race productive.

Satsuma said...

It does seem like a damned if you do damned if you don't situation Tami. I believe the best thing is to have all the people involved in the discussion, and people who ARE IT, so to speak know best about their community or life experience.

Nobody is ever going to be happy having "others" speak for US, whomever the minority us is. Two white women can't do women of color justice, two white men can't do white women justice, etc.

I wish Obama would do something really radical like having all black press conferences at least once a year, so more black journalists and white house reporters would be hired. Eleanor Roosevelt did this with women, and that's how Helen Thomas got hired by AP I believe. There were NO women reporters on wireservices before Eleanor Roosevelt instituted the women only press conferences back in the 30s I think.

I'm never happy having others talking about my group, I'm never ever happy with this. We all just have to push to have our own group up there talking about us. Others can learn something along the way, but it really will be the same old racial divide in some profound way and this country is not going to get over it anytime soon.

Heck, I'm always unhappy that feminism gets short shrift everywhere!!! You know the old Obama vs. Hillary stuff...

Kelly Hogaboom said...

Thank you again for another great post. You know that "honest discussion" we're all supposed to be having about race? I really think your writings further that immensely.

Satsuma said...

Kelly is right. Tami YOU are the one who is creating the honesty, and every time I come here, I have hope.

And now women of color blogs are being quoted in the LA TIMES... great article about "Precious" so messages are getting through.

Cindy said...

I agree that you do need PoC in the mix to have a substantive discussion on race. Otherwise it's like reading your test results without the doctor in the room. You need to real understanding and experience to translate the information into something truly meaningful. There may be rare instances where a real discussion can occur amongst a white only crowd, but I've never really experienced it. I have one friend that I can do this with. One.

By the same token, there probably do need to be white people in the room too. Wide spread understanding will not be achieved if everyone is not part of the discussion. That's true for virtually any set of groups trying to relate their stories.

Reggie said...

I think that you're clearly a very insightful writer.

I also think it's kinda hard to have a conversation about a particular group of people, without including someone representative of those people in the dialogue.

I'm a man of color, my vision of the world has been flavored by my environment and experiences. I would say that a Caucasian man, growing up would have been exposed to different stimuli and so now our views of the world are different. That's why Glenn Beck thinks what he thinks and Spike Lee thinks what he thinks.

No one can speak for me and I can't speak for them; because I haven't walked a mile in their shoes and they haven't walked a mile in mine.

Perception is reality, our own realities anyway.

Arwen said...

Do you think if white allies acknowledged white as a race and discussed in that as a context, it would help? Or at least make for a more honest discussion?

As a white woman, I can't speak to the range of POC experiences, but I can at least confront the normativity - that white is "other" to the vast majority of people on the planet with a disproportionate amount of influence and power.

I think that to frame white as not being the centre of the universe is something allies can do authentically, at least. Saying HOLD UP, not everyone lives the life you've lived. This is an amazingly hard concept to get people to accept.

I don't think that idea necessarily helps with the feminists here, though. For allies who should be past the 101... I don't know. It feels to me like this subject isn't well addressed without the voices of WOC.

Arwen said...

I went over, and yeah - there are some awful comments, and very few white people saying anything useful at all.

My first impulse would be (with other white people) to show that white is an experience. "IE: I'm a white woman. What does tanned skin mean to white people? Well, having been white my whole life, I know what happens when I get a tan! People ask if I've been on vacation (in the wintertime), or if I've been hiking a lot: they say I look healthy and/or glowing. This is obviously not what's going on when a dark skinned man gets lighter: no one will assume it's because he's had a vacation somewhere. No one's going to think he's been out in the sun. Other than illness, I'm not sure how someone of dark skin would get lighter naturally. I don't know Sammy Sosa's motives personally, (although I can guess, since the media routinely lightens the skin colour of people of colour) but I don't think we can in any way compare it to a white experience of changing skin colour."

Does that make sense? This would be an utter derailment in a room with POC talking on a less 101 level, but as a white person talking to white people, it might be of use?

Pia_AdiosBarbie said...

To have a valuable discussion about race you gotta have the right mix of POC and white folks. As a mixed race white latina (who is very close to her brown relatives who have never lived in the US), I find I often "represent" POC in discussions about race among whites, asians and even self described progressive blacks.

Many times I've been told I'm over-reacting, should take a joke and my favorite, "it's really not that big of a deal, nothing was meant by it". I've been called cute for my passion and even dubbed by one as the angry black man trapped in a white woman's body. As a result, I find those who really "get" me are mixed or are POC who are interested in unraveling the complexities of race through conversation.

Some white women, I have found, don't want to talk about race around POC for fear of being attacked or demonized. IMHO, acknowledging white privilege does not mean you are the architect of centuries of white supremacy and oppression. However it does mean that you benefit from that system as a direct result of the color of your skin.

Talking about race is so complex and new, especially in diverse company. As perspectives evolve, I hope the conversations will too.

Tami said...

Thanks everyone for your comments!

You bring up an excellent point. POC have no one lived experience. Which brings me to an actual PROBLEM that sometimes occurs when we are involved in race discussions. As Pia mentions below, we come to represent the views of all POC. Sometimes there is an implication that because the POC in the room endorsed a line of thinking about race that all of us do.

Arwen said: Do you think if white allies acknowledged white as a race and discussed in that as a context, it would help? Or at least make for a more honest discussion?

Most definitely.

I don't want to imply that allies shouldn't ever talk about race among themselves. But I think if you do so you have to know that you are missing a crucial voice. What bothered me about the Sosa discussion was that it became a handful of white people dispassionately, academically and very self-assuredly discussing black people based on their own lived experiences and without any indication that they realized a POC voice in the matter was important. Indeed, when a few POC chimed in, they were argued down.

Mad Gastronomer said...

I know it's not quite the type of conversation you're talking about, Tami, but if I'm in a small group, in person, and everyone is white, and the topic of race comes up, and I'm the only one engaged in anti-racism, I can't necessarily just go find a POC or two to make the conversation better. I've got to work with what I've got. I don't want to gloss over anyone else's story, and I want to acknowledge that I can't truly tell it, but in that kind of situation, I would some way to make that conversation as valuable as possible (while granting that it's not as valuable as it would be if POC were there). This is, to me, where the damned-if-I-do-damned-if-I-don't binds tightest. I don't want to let that moment, that conversation, pass without comment just because I can't speak with authority for those not present. Under circumstances like that, what's the best thing I can do? How can I be least damned? Can anyone help me with this?

As for valuable discussions about racism being held without white people, well, I imagine that there are at least some conversations that can be, since I know from experience that there are valuable conversations to be had about internalized homophobia and misogyny within the gay and feminist communities. But if it's a conversation about racism by white people, and by valuable you mean that white people should be learning something, then probably white people need to be around to do some learning.

That whole thing reads incredibly self-centered, but since I'm talking specifically about my circumstances and experiences, I'm not sure how to get around that.

PureGracefulTree said...

Wonderfully thoughtful post, Tami. I do share this feeling of "I want white people to talk about race among themselves, but they have to do it right." I think you said it well when you wrote that we need to be aware when we are missing crucial voices. I didn't read the Sammy Sosa piece (nor do I really want to), but derailing occurs exactly when white people believe themselves to be experts on race, not considering the possibility that their privilege blinds them to a lot.

I love Cindy's analogy to discussing test results without a doctor in the room. Because we PoC are, in fact, the experts on racism, something even Tim Wise acknowledges. And just as fighting physical sickness is both the doctor and the patient's responsibility, so too is fighting racism everyone's responsibility. If I were a doctor, I wouldn't want a patient coming in thinking she knew more about her diagnosis and treatment than I did, but neither would I want her to shirk all responsibility because "she's not the expert". Knowing where the holes are in our knowledge and experience and listening to those who can fill the holes is key.

amandaw said...

Yes, it is a double bind for white people...

... and you know what, we can effing deal with it, because it's still nothing compared to the oppression that POC face every moment of every day.

It's a difficult situation for a white person to navigate -- but then again, white supremacy makes LIFE a difficult situation for POC to navigate, 24/7.

There's no easy answer for me, a white person. But I know that, and I try to navigate that situation the best I can, and realize that it will still, in some way, be at *least* insufficient if not being outright wronging in some way. But there are even fewer easy answers for the people actually affected by said oppression, so I consider my right to complain about it pretty close to nil.

White folk, just keep listening, keep learning, keep respecting, keep doing the best you can, know that it will never be a 100% acceptable solution, and know that you still have it better than POC do on a daily basis, so don't make it all about you.

Tami - thanks for writing this. It IS difficult territory to navigate. And you, and everyone else, have every right to be frustrated with any approach we could present, because they *are* still lacking in one way or another. Always. I feel like you gave a really balanced look at it without excusing people from the work they (we) still need to be doing. Which, to be frank, analysis from white folks on the same subject tends to do.

Julia said...

What a great post and discussion. And it doesn't seem so much to me like a double bind as an entirely reasonable response. I don't think white people can ever talk effectively about POC in their absence. At the same time, I've been thinking about useful conversations that white people could have with each other, although these would probably have to be white people who are fairly well versed in anti-racism:
i.e. a conversation about how one has come/is coming to terms with one's privilege

And then, there are some conversations that seem like they SHOULD happen in the absence of POC:
i.e. the "I think I just did/said something racist and I feel so guilty" conversation
-or the "I think I just offended someone, what should I do to make it right?" conversation
-or the "but that's not what I meant/ I was misunderstood" whiney conversation.
In these conversations, it seems like the burden should be on white people to take care of themselves, however imperfectly.

NancyP said...

If POC are present by proxy (discussion of articles, books, films, art, etc) and the focus is on the individual writer, artist, etc, I think that white-only discussion groups can learn something. It is also true that white people would learn *more* in a discussion group attended by POC as well as white people.

M and M said...

Tami, this is a great post. I have a particularly aggravating professional experience in that as a white woman and educator EVERY SINGLE TIME I have been in a white only group of people working to talk about issues like culturally relevant pedagogy OR being better allies to staff and kids of color, I have felt the "white only" discussion has simply reproduced exisitng paradigms (and rotten ones at that!). Sadly, it is often also the case that when PoC join the discussion there are some very ignorant white people who cry "foul" or "whiner" all too quickly.

And I have to say, Satsuma has a good point, because I know I am NEVER happy when 2 white men try to do white women justice. I feel the loss of my voice in that conversation. It's a good reminder to me about 'voice' and 'lens'.

I'll keep doing my best, as imperfect as it is. Thanks for the challenge - and for continuing to ask the hard questions. I need these calisthenics!

Satsuma said...

And it gets scarier to think that huge institutions were founded with only white men present, or only Italian men, or Greek men... and they called this "democracy" or a "renaissance." Or "the discovery of America" and without irony or a feeling that something is amiss with this historical description of eras, that there isn't something inherently flawed when a minority or excluded group was never there when the rules were written to begin with. Now that's what's scary!

chia pet said...

One issue in this debate is the nature of the sources. The Sosa issue and the Women's Rights Movement are different in that the sources for Sosa are very much present: as a historian (as would a sociologist), I would be interested in hearing what Sosa really thinks, and people close to him have to say. However, for the women's movement - and the coterminous discussion on the Civil Rights Movement - most of the sources available are preserved in writing and other documentary evidence. Most of the actual people in that movement are no longer alive. Collins (hopefully) immersed herself in the sources to understand people in the past. Although humanity and America has leagues to go, the Civil Rights Movement made and has led to great strides for PoC. That said, it seems disingenuous for present-day PoC to assume they completely understand the life experience of those who lived during and took part in any rights movement. Essentially Tami, you are right; we need to get as many different people in on the conversation to encourage different ideas and understandings. 'Outsiders' and 'insiders' and 'in-betweeners' all have something to share.
Apologies for the naiveness of this comment: i have only lived in racially diverse, PC, liberal areas and am a student in that 'dispassionate academic' field of history.

Satsuma said...

chia pet has a really good point about how we understand the past, and how people actually lived in that past. If we don't have everyone involved in the reporting and researching of the past, we get a really fake idea of history.

And we have this idea that "movements" are the only game in town. We have individuals who go out on a limb, and then others come along. It takes great courage for these pioneers, and not as much courage for the settlors who come later.

But how do we report on the past to understand the present? Who is being left out and why? And I think we all have to know that no one speaks for us ever, we speak for ourselves. Only many times, certain groups are given a microphone, while others have to raise their hands to get a mic. That's where the problems begin.


Hmmmm...I've long held an opinion that it is about white "allies" talking to their white brothers and sisters--without the POCs--about race.
Strange as it may seem, I believe the progressive white allies need to take their own folks "to the shed" on race. For too long, they've hung back and have taken little responsibility for their own kind.
I wonder,what would happen if millions of "progressive" white allies took just a week to dicussion race with some of their most indifferent family members---what would happen?

Satsuma said...

Africanfab, you're dead on. It's a subtle and not so subtle racist nightmare out there. White people have to take more social risks to challenge racism within white only places, clubs, homes etc.

Not to sound overly pesimistic, but this isn't going to happen anytime soon. We're at the point where a white dominant group will invite POC into the club, but they won't change one iota of the structure to increase the comfort level. The institutional part of racial exclusion.

white ally said...

I completely agree with Africanfab. As a white person trying my best to be anti-racist, I feel like I have had a lot of valuable conversations with other white people about being anti-racist/an ally and what that means--especially white people who identify as liberal and have a "color-blind" mentality and don't see the limitations of that view.

A lot of well-meaning white people won't talk about their fears or stumbling blocks around race when in a conversation with poc for fear of being offensive, which is not always conducive to growth and learning around racial issues. Nonetheless, I think dialogue among white people only should take place primarily in private settings as a means of anti-racist education and that public discussions on race of course need to include a diversity of contributors in order to be useful and accurate.

The national anti-rape group One in Four has done great work on my campus, with men educating other men about sexual assault prevention, how to work against rape culture and how to be an ally to women who have been assaulted. I feel that they would not be able to do their work as effectively with women present because, again, men often won't discuss certain very real and very problematic behaviors and thoughts with women present for fear of being offensive.

That said, if that were the only forum for discussing assault and assault prevention that would be highly problematic. The analogy may be imperfect, but I think it speaks to the need to have multiple spaces in which to discuss any issue.

Anonymous said...

White person here.

An interesting book on the differences in viewpoints of Whites/Europeans/Colonials/ versus Native American Indian perspectivs is a book by Kert Nerburn, Neither Wolf nor Dog Now the book was written by a white person.

Nevertheless, interesting viewpoints therein.

Guess it would depend on who was in on the conversation, and their background and experiences, and perhaps their ability to effectively comment on what they learned from those experiences.

Some folks have limited exposure to folks of other races/backgrounds/socio economic levels . . . so lack real life experiences and also may not learn in other ways such as reading this or that or listening to this or that radio . . .

Agree with the person who said a person from any race may not have the experiences of others from the same race . . .

On the other hand, sometimes broad generalizations may work, even if they do not apply to all people of a particular race, such as white folks mucking up Mother Earth. Lots of folks in positions of responsibility/decision making who are mucking up Mother Earth are white. That said, there are also white folks standing up for Mother Earth and for peoples of Mother Earth as well.


Otr Eliconia said...

I'm a white person who lives in Seattle. In my city, like in others, white people asked people of color-led groups how to combat racism, and many POC progressive and leftist organizations told us to educate ourselves and other white folks and to organize our own white communities against racism. So, we organize an all-white group to do support work for people of color-led groups, and one of the things we do is white-only anti-racism. Like Nancy P said, we learn from the writing of radical and progressive people of color, so we are in conversation about racism with people of color. We don't define POC experiences for them, but we do talk about POC experiences as defined by POC. However, we don't want to make it our POC friends' and community members' jobs to educate us. I know there are different radical POC positions on the matter, but I tend to go along with the idea that white folks should take responsibility for our privilege, and that part of that means educating each other, like Africanfab said.

Also, as a white person in a white supremacist culture, there's a lot of bullshit that's likely to come out of my mouth, even though I'm well-meaning and want to do anti-racist work. I'd rather say something potentially hurtful in front of other white people, who won't be targeted and triggered, and then be called out, than in front of a POC who could feel targeted and triggered. I'm bound to make mistakes, but I would rather do the least amount of damage, and take responsibility for other white folks as well, hoping that they take responsibility for calling me on my shit.

As a non-passing trans man, I don't like to have to defend my existence. I would rather have a cisgendered ally have that conversation far away from me, because even well-meaning cisgendered folks are in this transphobic culture, and are bound to say some awful things. I understand that being trans is not the same as being a person of color, and not everyone feels that way about allies' roles, but it's what I need for my own well-being.

I also don't think my privileged white experience is needed for POC to have productive conversations about race. I know Anarchist People of Color has convergences for POC only, and I feel good about them creating the space they need. In my experience, it's felt good to be in a group of people who experience a particular or multiple oppressions (sexism, transphobia, queerphobia), and it avoided a lot of the derailing and minimizing as compared with conversations that included people who experienced a corresponding privilege.


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