Antiracism: New Learnings

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“Racism Has No Home Here” signs are appearing all around my neighborhood. 

I finally finished reading How to Be an Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi. A friend loaned me her copy, but it took a while for me to warm up to the book because its approach was jarring to what I previously had held to be important about antiracism.  However, by the time I finished it, my understanding was deepened and changed in profound ways.

Before:

I had spent much of my activist life trying to get folks to understand that racism is systemic–it is more than just direct prejudice against people of another race, or hatred toward people of other races. Rather, it was a whole institutionalization of that prejudice by those in power.  Thus, while individual people of any race could hold prejudice, only white people and white systems could be racist.  Even if individual white people did not harbor direct prejudice, we benefited from these structural systems that kept racism in place. Thus, there was no way for us to be “non-racist.” Rather we must commit to being “antiracist,” and to use the privilege that structural racism had conferred on us to work against racism.

During and After:

So right off, Kendi used examples of how he had been racist in various ways throughout his youth and young adulthood. He brought it back to a personal level, and did not agree that only white people could be racist. So that threw me off a bit. Later he explained it more directly. He wrote:

I thought only White people could be racist and that Black people could not be racist, because Black people did not have power…. This powerless defense, as I call it, emerged in the wake of racist Whites dismissing antiracist policies and ideas as racist in the late 1960s.  …Black voices critical of White racism defended themselves from these charges by saying, “Black people can’t be racist, because Black people don’t have power.”

Like every other racist idea, the powerless defense underestimates Black people and overestimates White people. …[It] does not consider people at all levels of power, from policymakers like politicians and executives who have the power to institute and eliminate racist and antiracist policies, to policy managers like officers and middle managers, empowered to execute or withhold racist and antiracist policies. Every single person actually has the power to protest racist and antiracist policies, to advance them, or, in some small ways, to stall them. …”Institutional power” or “systemic power” or “structural power” is the policy-making and managing power of people, in groups or individually.  … The truth is: Black people can be racist because Black people do have power, even if limited.

Note that I say limited Black power rather than no power. White power controls the United States. But not absolutely. [p. 140-142]  [He then shared multiple examples of Black men in various government positions who advanced policies that were detrimental to people of color, and says:] These were men who used the power they’d been given–no matter how limited and conditional–in inarguably racist ways. [p. 149]

He does not negate structural and institutional racism–but he makes it less covert and more identifiable, by shifting our attention to “policy.” He uses the term “racist policies” instead of “institutional racism.”

Policymakers and policies make societies and institutions, not the other way around. The United States is a racist nation because its policymakers and policies have been racist from the beginning. [p. 223]

Another major shift he articulates is that racist ideas are created by racist policies, and not the other way around.

The history of racist ideas is the history of powerful policy makers erecting racist policies out of self-interest, then producing racist ideas to defend and rationalize the inequitable effects of their policies, while everyday people consume those racist ideas, which in turn sparks ignorance and hate. [p. 230]

So if we want to eradicate racism, we cannot merely use education and persuasion to try to get rid of people’s ignorance and hate, but we must work primarily to change racist policies.

I am pulling out these particular ideas in the book because they changed my own way of thinking about antiracism. Kendi speaks about how if we have incorrect understandings of the problem of racism, that inhibits our ability to be successful in our desire to create an antiracist society.

I would encourage everyone who cares about the problems of racism or other oppressions to get this book and explore all of his ideas, to see which ones might challenge and transform you. It is powerful and essential.

Racist: One who is supporting a racist policy through their actions or inaction or expressing a racist idea.

Antiracist: One who is supporting an antiracist policy through their actions or expressing an antiracist idea.  [p. 13]

Bearing Witness

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As most people know by now, on May 25th, George Floyd, a 46-year-old African-American man, was killed by a white police officer, Derek Chauvin, who pressed his knee into Floyd’s neck for 8 minutes and 46 seconds, despite him begging for help, and saying “I can’t breathe.”  It was one more brutal death in a seemingly never-ending series of deaths inflicted on African-American men and women by police brutality enforcing systemic racism and white supremacy in the United States.

Because of the courageous video taken by 17-year-old Darnella Frazier, people all over the world actually witnessed the horror of this murder. Thousands of people, in every state, and all around the world have taken to the streets to protest, day after day, night after night, to demand a change. The four officers involved at the scene have been fired from the force and charged with his murder, or the aiding and abetting of his murder. A first step.

It has been difficult for me to write during this. I asked myself–was there anything I could add to the condemnations of white supremacy that have already been said by so many others? And as a white woman–should I be speaking at all? This is a time to center the voices of people of color. But also, how can any of us remain silent? On a very personal level, initially I also felt very discouraged. I have been an activist for my entire adult life. I am not taking credit for anything, this has been my calling in the world. But these days, I have wondered, did anything change? How could we have struggled so long with so little progress?

Bernice Johnson Reagon wrote a song, released in 1988, about activist Ella Baker, using her words to express deep truths about the long journey of activism for racial justice. These excerpts especially move me:

We who believe in freedom cannot rest until it comes…

Until the killing of Black men, Black mother’s sons/ Is as important as the killing of white men, white mother’s sons.

To me young people come first, they have the courage where we fail/ and if I can but shed some light as they carry us through the gale.

The older I get the better I know that the secret of my going on/ Is when the reins are in the hands of the young who dare to run against the storm.

These days, the irony of Baker’s words–we cannot rest–is not lost on me as I deal with a chronic illness that demands that I rest every day, that robs me of my capacity to show up to protest in the streets, or do very much of any other kind of activism. But her words also helped me to articulate one thing I could do. On Wednesday, I lit a red candle at 4 p.m., as a protest at Portland (Maine) City Hall was beginning, led by young activists of color. I offered my prayers and watched a live video feed for the two hour protest, and bore witness to the young people with such courage who dare to run against the storm. Maybe today, all I can do is bear witness in support of these young people, and in that way, “to be one in the number, as we stand against tyranny.”

As the protests began to multiply, in big cities and small towns, in countries all around the world, I felt a glimmer of hope. Sometimes, something breaks open.  Rebecca Solnit, author of Hope in the Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities, reminds us that the future is unknowable – and that’s a good thing. Why? Because it creates space for creative intervention. The lessons of history teach us that change happens in unexpected ways, and often in seemingly sudden, non-linear ways.

May the words of George Floyd’s six-year-old daughter Gigi prove to be prophetic:  “My daddy changed the world.” #blacklivesmatter

 

Ancestors and Whiteness

Can learning about our own ancestors help white people in undoing white supremacy and colonization? Or could it possibly be a distraction from the real work? When did our ancestors become “white” instead of German or Ukrainian or French or Irish? How did it happen? If our ancestors owned land, when and how did that happen, especially in relationship to the stealing of land from Indigenous peoples?

We were talking about these questions in my Maine-Wabanaki REACH group last night. It has been helpful to join in a small group with other white folks committed to the process of ending racism and colonization. We ponder the difficult questions together, in the context of the wider work of Maine-Wabanaki REACH which is in conversation and solidarity with Wabanaki people.

It seemed to us that understanding our families’ histories in the context of colonization, can help us to better understand colonization, and to make it visceral and real for us.  It is not just recounting the stories we may have heard in our families, or read about in research, but juxtaposing those stories with the history of colonization, land theft, and slavery, in the particular locations in which they lived.

I have already done a lot of exploring of the matrilineal side of my family.  Last night, after the meeting, I wondered how this might have played out on the other side of my family–my patrilineal ancestry.  My dad’s ancestors came to this country from Germany.  But more specifically, his great-grandfather and great-grandmother arrived in Illinois as children in 1851 and 1854 from East Friesland. East Friesland was actually a somewhat isolated culture on the North Sea with its own community and language, in some ways more closely related to Holland and old English than German.

Thousands of East Frisians came to the midwest during the middle of the 19th century, drawn by the promise of cheap fertile land and a long-standing love of freedom. Most of them worked for a few years, then were able to buy land, and become successful farmers, from what I can gather.  In America, they formed closely knit communities centered around their church, their family and their language.  But over the course of three generations, the young people had assimilated into the surrounding communities, and no longer spoke their parents’ language.

By the time the East Frisians arrived in Illinois, it had already been colonized for several generations.  But the name gives a clue.  On the Illinois State Museum website, I read about the Illinois peoples losing their lands.

In 1803, the Kaskaskia tribe signed a treaty giving up its land claims in the present State of Illinois in exchange for two small reservations on the Kaskaskia and Big Muddy rivers. The Peoria, in turn, ceded their Illinois claims in a separate treaty signed in 1818. Finally, in 1832, two years after President Andrew Jackson signed the Indian Removal Act, the Kaskaskia and Peoria tribes agreed to merge and moved west to a reservation in Kansas.

So I wonder if the German immigrants even knew about the history of the land they were so excited about farming?  More research surely to do about all that.

In the course of this research, I may have coincidentally solved a mystery that had recently emerged in my DNA reports.  According to my DNA analysis, 15.3% of my ancestors came from the British Isles.  But from my genealogy research, I thought that number should be just 3% (my Scottish ancestry).  I didn’t think I had any other British or Irish ancestry.  So what was that other 12%? Was there some family secret I hadn’t heard about?  Well, I learned online that East Frisian DNA is indistinguishable from that of the British Isles.  So rather than a secret in the family tree, I think this 12% might be my great-grandfather Henry Johnson (also known as Heinrich Jansen), who was 100% East Frisian.

And when did they become white?  Well, I’ve got to stop for today, but I’ll come back to it. In the meantime, a 1920 census with Henry Johnson listed–see between the blurred out parts.  And the “W” next to his name.

Henry Johnson 1920 census section

The Story We Are Called To Be

You don’t have anything if you don’t have the stories.   Leslie Marmon Silko

The word “story” can be used to describe the way we understand the reality in which we live. A story is what we tell ourselves about our lives, the meanings we attach to reality. This past week we saw that people in America are holding vastly divergent stories about what it means to be American, that we hold vastly divergent understandings of the reality of our times.

One thing about stories is that even vastly divergent stories can exist in the same space, and in a sense they can all be true—because people live out their lives based on their particular understandings of reality. Stories are a way to understand reality, but stories also shape reality. In this way, stories have incredible power: to harm or to heal, to destroy or to protect, to create the future and even the past.

One story I heard a lot during the last several weeks was the story of a woman who would finally break the ultimate glass ceiling and hold the highest office in the country. This story identified its beginnings in the sacrifices of the suffragists to win the vote for women. But it also included a vision of a multicultural nation that honored all of its people, and welcomed the immigrants who came into our midst. There were many people who believed in this story, who were deeply inspired by this story. In fact, the popular vote of our country would have elevated Hilary Clinton to the presidency. When the electoral votes were all in, and Clinton had lost, the people who were holding this story in their hearts were crushed and heartbroken.

There was another story that took more effort for me to discover, a story of those who supported the other major candidate, now president-elect Donald Trump. I was able to get some insights into this story by looking at Facebook posts from more conservative members of my own extended family. In the best versions of this story there was a hope that a very imperfect outsider would bring the jobs back; that he would shake things up and pay attention to people in the middle of the country, the working Joes whose lives had been upended by free trade deals. There was a lot of pain in the heartlands that no one was paying attention to. These folks were not oblivious to the problems he represented, but they saw the other candidate as much worse. I respect those folks who wrestled with their values searching for the best way forward.

But there has been a much more troubling story in the support shown for Mr. Trump. It is a very old story, an ideology of white supremacy in this nation that originated in the destruction of Indigenous nations who lived in this land, and in the capture and enslavement of African people. White supremacy has morphed and changed through the centuries, but it has never gone away. Some hoped that the election of Barack Obama signaled a transformation had been achieved. But that was never the case, and during this election season, we saw the flames of hatred stirred up and given more oxygen. Mr. Trump played on the real pain of people in our country, and through scapegoating, channeled that pain into hatred. Hatred against people of color, immigrants, Muslims, women, queer people, people with disabilities.

Since election day, I have been hearing stories about people already experiencing violence from blatant white supremacists emboldened by the Trump election. Muslim women whose hijab scarves have been ripped from their heads, Latino children beaten up in school, Swastikas painted on the door to a Jewish community center, rainbow flags being burned, and heartbreaking fears about what will happen next.

A story is what we tell ourselves about our lives, the meanings we attach to reality. Some of the stories we tell about our lives are so ingrained that they are almost invisible to us. We think of them as just “the way things are.” But we do not have a shared reality as a nation, a shared sense of “the way things are.” That may not be a bad thing, if it helps us to wake up, to ask questions about what story we are telling ourselves.

There are some people saying that now is the time for our country to come back together, now is the time for us to unite as Americans and let go of the hostilities of the election season. I would agree that letting go of hostility is a good thing. Letting go of blame and hate. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow once said: “If we could read the secret history of our enemies we should find in each man’s life sorrow and suffering enough to disarm all hostility.” It is important to understand the suffering in each other’s lives, to understand how we come to the choices we make. It doesn’t help us to hate each other.

But the call to unity covers up something very important—the call to unity relies on our going back to a story that Joanna Macy calls “Business as Usual.” This is the foundational story of our Industrial Growth Society. In this story, our economic and political systems depend on ever increasing extraction and consumption of resources. They require the generation of ever more rapidly increasing profits. In this story, human lives are valued only insofar as they can be used in the generation of profits and the consumption of products. In this story, the Earth is seen as a resource bank for the generation of profits, and also the septic tank for human waste. The underlying power in this story belongs to the multi-national corporations and elite business-owning families. This is the story that sometimes we think of as “the way things are.” We don’t really think of it as a story at all.

So I cannot answer a call to unity like that. I keep hearing in my heart a different call, a call to a whole new story, or a story that is so old it seems new. That call is sometimes just a whisper, but more and more it echoes like a great shout—a call that demands that we look beyond the superficial unity of the realm of the status-quo, and look deeper into a more essential unity that we are beginning to awaken to.

For the Business as Usual story is actually a story built on separation. Business as Usual is a story that says that human beings are separate from each other, that one can build a wall between different races and religions. It is a story that says that human beings are separate from the earth, as if the environment were a special interest and has nothing to do with our food and water and life itself.

Joanna Macy talks about three foundational stories. The first is Business as Usual. But Macy suggests that if we keep trying to follow Business as Usual, we will end up in another story, “The Great Unraveling.” This story is about the disasters the Industrial Growth Society is causing. This story is the stuff of our nightmares of the past week. Race hatred, violence in the streets, the people torn apart fighting over scraps to survive. This story is about the environmental disasters of global warming and rising sea levels and mass extinctions. It foretells a future of destruction, hunger, disease, and war, and the likely extinction of human society as we have known it.

But there is a third story. Macy calls it “The Great Turning.” In this story, people choose to create a transition away from the Industrial Growth Society toward a Life-Sustaining Civilization. In this story, people come to understand their profound interconnection with each other, and with all of the natural world. People join together to make the changes that can heal and defend life on earth.

Human beings have the capacity to meet our needs without destroying our life-support system. We could generate the energy we need through renewable forms such as solar, wind, tides and algae. We could grow food through organic permaculture methods in thousands of small farms and gardens in every yard. We have birth control methods that could bring human population under control. We have developed social structures to mediate conflict, and give people a voice in democracy. When we realize how profoundly interconnected we are to all beings, we know that we need each other, that no one is outside of the circle of worth and dignity. The name of this third story, “The Great Turning,” grew from imagining how future beings might look back on our own time, if humanity survives because we’ve made a transition to a Life-Sustaining Civilization.

Business as Usual. The Great Unraveling. The Great Turning. If we understand the stories, we realize that each of us can make a choice about what story we want to tell about our lives, what version of reality to which we want to give our energy. And there is power in that. We don’t have to sit back and observe with horror the increasing violence and destruction that have been unleashed. Instead, we must remember the story we are called to be. We must recommit ourselves to live out our deepest values. Now, more than ever.

In the contest between Business as Usual and the possibility of a great turning toward Life Sustaining Civilization, the front lines are perhaps most starkly drawn right now on the plains of North Dakota. The Indigenous people of Standing Rock have made a stand to protect the water from the destruction of the Dakota Access Pipeline. They have been joined by thousands of Native people from across the Americas and the world, and thousands of non-Native allies. Robin Wall Kimmerer and Kathleen Dean Moore talk about it in a story called “The White Horse and the Humvees.” I want to share a few of their words:

On one side is the unquestioned assumption that land is merely a warehouse of lifeless materials that have been given to (some of) us by God or conquest, to use without constraint. On this view, human happiness is best served by whatever economy most efficiently transforms water, soils, minerals, wild lives, and human yearning into corporate wealth. And so it is possible to love the bottom line on a quarterly report so fiercely that you will call out the National Guard to protect it.

On the other side of the concrete barriers is a story that is so ancient it seems revolutionary.  On this view, the land is a great and nourishing gift to all beings. The fertile soil, the fresh water, the clear air, the creatures, swift or rooted: they require gratitude and veneration. These gifts are not commodities, like scrap iron and sneakers. The land is sacred, a living breathing entity, for whom we must care, as she cares for us. And so it is possible to love land and water so fiercely you will live in a tent in a North Dakota winter to protect them.

..The people at Standing Rock and their busloads of allies… are making clear that we live in an era of profound error that we mistakenly believe is the only way we can live, an era of insanity that we believe is the only way we can think. But once people accept with heart and mind that land is our teacher, our mother, our garden, our pharmacy, our church, our cradle and our grave, it becomes unthinkable to destroy it. This vision threatens the industrial worldview more than anything else.

Leslie Marmon Silko says, “You don’t have anything if you don’t have the stories.” I know so many are feeling discouraged right now about the change to our elected government. We can see that it bodes suffering and hard times. But here is the thing. A change in stories, a change in world view, has never happened because of the people in power, the people at the top. This kind of fundamental change always happens from people on the margins, people on the bottom, people in unexpected places.

We don’t have to follow the call to return to Business as Usual. We can follow the call of old stories and new dreams, of deep values and courageous ideals. We never know if our own acts of love and kindness might tip the balance. We never know if our willingness to welcome an immigrant to our community or visit a neighbor’s house of worship might tip the balance. We never know if our planting a garden, or living more simply, might tip the balance. We never know if reminding each other of the interconnections between all beings, might tip the balance.

This is not going to be an easy time ahead of us. But it was never going to be easy. If you were hoping it would be easy, it may be that you need to grieve that old story. Let yourself take time to weep and mourn. We are all being called upon to make a choice. We have our work cut out for us. Our job is to keep track of the story we are called to be: to remember our connections with all people and all beings of the earth, and to live in such a way to further those values. May we find strength and courage.Birch light and dark DSC07802