Monday, January 10, 2011
To celebrate the relief of completing my last yoga assessment in Atlanta this weekend, I decided to sojourn to the King Center. I wanted to lay my eyes upon the landmark Ebenezer Baptist Church, see the King archives, and more.
I got on MARTA in Midtown, and watched the passengers shift from white to black as I transferred to the east-west lines. When I exited at King Center station, I walked into a cavernous, run-down station in a neighborhood alongside the interstate, and we know what interstates do to do neighborhoods. I’ve seen it in Buffalo, Detroit, and Milwaukee where I live now. Wealthy neighborhoods don’t have highways running through the middle of them, but they often break up working-class communities and create urban decay. In contrast to the lively, well-kept Midtown neighborhood where I was renting an apartment, the ¾ mile walk to the King Center was desolate, marked by vacant lots, houses needing some stimulus, and a mega-church.
As I experience all over the nation, the 2 people I passed on my walk, both African American, met my eyes and nodded hello. Rarely do white people do this. Instead, typically they assiduously avoid eye contact. Anyone else experience this? In my Milwaukee neighborhood, on the east side of Holton (primarily white), we don’t say hello, and on the west side of Holton (primarily black) we do: a topic for another essay.
I felt a surge of complex emotions as I spotted Ebenezer and became teary, recalling all its historic events and sermons. The entire region had been turned into a campus honoring MLK, with sculptures, a rose garden, community center, crypts for MLK and Coretta Scott King, an eternal fire, and a reflecting pool.
However, after spending an hour or so in the museum, I felt quite agitated and exasperated. It seemed that the radical message of Dr. King had been co-opted by foundations, the middle class, and the dominant culture. I sat down on a bench to jot some notes. An African American woman about my age sat down next to me, casually asking, “How are you doing?” Instead of exchanging pleasantries, I poured out my heart to her.
I shared my frustration with her and tried to briefly explain my impressions. All the exhibits were about historic racism, and largely focused on racist acts of individuals. Exhibits like these give the wrong impression that racism is part of our past, and that since Jim Crow is over, white supremacy is also over. Displaying images of hooded KKK members implies that white supremacists comprise a fringe group, and not that it’s a mainstream political/economical/educational/social/cultural system that continues to dominate our country to this day. I was angry that the language of systemic, institutional racism/white supremacy was not used at all in the Center. I felt there needed to be an exhibit of why Dr. King’s work is still necessary today, as evidenced by our failing public schools, overflowing prisons, rising poverty, unemployment, and more.
My patient benchmate listened and completely assented. Then she quickly let it go, and told me she was here with a children’s gospel choir from Savannah, who was going to sing at the capitol the next day. We went on to some pleasant small talk, and bid farewell.
The Center, in fact, was bustling with children and teenagers, many of them enjoying each other more than the exhibits, joking and goofing like normal kids. In this light I was particularly interested in a 15-minute film about the role of children in the Civil Rights Movement, a film funded by Coca-Cola. The famous opening quote about children not being judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character, had some disturbing resonances in this context.
The fact of the matter is, white children and adults are constantly judged by the color of their skin. The color of your skin makes an impression at job interviews, getting an apartment, school admissions, how authority figures like teachers and police officers perceive and treat you, and how store clerks and neighbors and others respond to you. White people routinely benefit from the color of their skin as evidenced by statistics on every measurement, from social to economic.
What King really meant was,
“May black children NOT be judged harshly for the color of their skin,”
“May race be invisible so as not to hurt my children,”
which prompts conservative whites to say,
“Now race doesn’t matter anymore, Dr. King’s message has come true,”
as a justification to cut social programs and render white privilege even more invisible.
I’m afraid Martin Luther King, Jr.’s legacy has become a message of color-blindness rather than a message of radical social transformation to uplift the oppressed.
Color-blindness is race-negating rather than race-affirming. Rather than celebrating our differences, people of color are literally being white-washed. This makes complete sense if we are being hurt for our differences. Although Asians are sometimes upheld as successful examples of the American dream, in reality, this is a result of strict immigration limitations, in which only doctors and professionals were given access. Now that we have more working-class Asian Americans, including refugees, our statistics more closely reflect the strains of all marginalized groups.
Recently a Filipina friend was admiring a t-shirt I was wearing. I told her I had more shirts like it that I had brought back from India, and that I would bring her one. The following week, I presented her with a half dozen shirts for her to choose from, ranging in colors and designs. She was immediately attracted to a shirt with the figure of Ganesh, the elephant god of beginnings who removes obstacles and bestows good luck. But she rejected it because the shirt was a bright, vibrant yellow.
How many times have Asian women been advised not to wear yellow because it brings out our sallow, olive skin tones? We’re supposed to look more like the dominant ideal: white and rosy. “Yellow is a beautiful color,” I told her. “It’s good to be yellow!” I insisted, feeling a little like Kermit the Frog. “Yellow skin is beautiful! Wear the yellow shirt!”
A white friend who was in the room went on to comment on her yellowish skin as well and we looked at her slightly puzzled, but she explained that next to her husband who was kind of pinkish, she was much more olive, and she seemed rather proud of herself. My Filipina friend tried on the shirt and took it after all, but not only until her skin color had been affirmed as beautiful by the white person in the room. We are still under the thumb of the dominant culture of white supremacy.
This is just a small example of how presumed colorblindness as a function of white supremacy damages us. More serious damage can be seen daily in schools, in the media, the legal system, and most recently in the shooting of Congresswoman Giffords in Tucson, Arizona.
The emphasis of the film and the exhibits at the King Center was on personal indignities, like the rude store clerk, rather than widespread, socially sanctioned oppression. It strikes me that poor whites resort to physical attacks when they have no other tools to defend white supremacy. Bankers, teachers, judges, and government officials have multiple means other than physical violence to defend the status quo. They are not morally superior to working-class whites when it comes to racism, they can just be less overt.
Later on my King Center tour, I perused the archival rooms of the Kings and Gandhi. The Kings’ room had all the marks of middle class life and high accomplishment: Dr. King’s elegant shoes, a photo of him tuxedoed and Mrs. King in a ballgown at the Nobel laureates ceremony, photos of his house.
The Gandhi room, by contrast, was marked by simplicity: images of Gandhi at the spinning wheel; his personal artifacts of wooden bowl, spoon, and sandals. Gandhi understood that as a spiritual and political leader, his power lay in his identification with the poor. He recognized the need for solidarity, and he renounced his economic and class status in order to serve the nation.
King was headed in this direction, especially in his later years, recognizing that the real problem in the nation was poverty, created by militarism, and fueled by racism. He became an increasing threat to the nation as he organized the Poor People’s March on Washington. Our government was able to contain the damage of the Civil Rights Movement to some degree, but uplifting the poor meant an attack on capitalism itself, which is as sacred as anything gets in the USA.
I’m further concerned that King’s message has been about idealizing, embracing, and uplifting a few to, the middle class, instead of dismantling the crippling system of capitalism. Certainly, better distribution of resources is central in uplifting the oppressed, but an emphasis on building wealth takes the focus from society and systems, to individual success which does not alter white supremacy. King’s message is one that particularly assuages the liberal class. Liberals can feel good that civil rights legislation passed, Jim Crow ended, and blacks and whites can go to school and work together. And white supremacy is still in place.
Personally, I believe the trajectory of King’s life indicates that he would have embraced Gandhi’s, and of course Jesus’s, principles even further, regarding the poor, had he lived beyond his 39 years. It’s up to us now, to complete the work he started. What does the Kingian legacy mean? The holiday is just a token. We need to reform our schools, make our government leaders listen to us, invest in local communities, eradicate poverty, and end wars. Are we willing, as Martin Luther King, Jr. did, to lay our lives on the line? Can we put our self-interest, careers, and comfort aside to continue his work? May we fearlessly confront systems of oppression. May we speak truth to power. May Dr. King not have died in vain.
Saturday, November 27, 2010
From here to…
Life gives us the opportunity to develop our collective humanity. We are invited to notice discomfort in its mildest form and ultimately pain. We are invited throughout our lives to tune in and first notice pain, then move through it.
White supremacy and racial oppression dulls the human capacity to notice, wonder, ask, listen, and allow. It’s very premise requires numbness to pain (comfort) and denial of collective suffering. This is its own trauma. A trauma of the human spirit to see itself, know itself, remember itself and love itself.
Moving through pain is a skill developed through life’s offering itself to us.
When waking up to racial oppression, like through cultural appropriation, we are invited to notice the pain, like guilt.
This feeling of guilt is an indicator that work/exploration need to take place. To move through the guilt, we must grieve. Grief is a process, not a destination. Getting stuck in grief ensures that others will be responsible for the healing action. Grieving can be the never-ending spiral abyss of “poor me”. It is easy to get lost in the ego feeding frenzy! It is easy to get others to buy into our smallness and victimization. This co-dependent sharing of pain will feed our ego, not our soul. It will nourish our smallness, not our humanity. It will stimulate addictions, not our humility
We must flow through guilt while expanding our awareness of our oneness. This is an essential step on the healing journey. The gift of life is the capacity to move through pain. This brings us closer to our humanity.
From Guilt ….exploration/wonder/research
Repairing Racial Harm….Letting Love Be.
November 27, 2010
Friday, October 1, 2010
I was torn about attending because the ticket price, which included her book, was steep, and I have long held mixed feelings about Norris. On one hand she is an extremely capable, smooth, insightful journalist. On the other hand, is this enough?
I admit I hold white people and people of color up to different standards. This is because we hold different levels of status in USA society. Study this site to understand what I mean. Because of historic oppression, people of color continue to experience disadvantages, even though Jim Crow is technically over.
Michele Norris is a successful African American woman in the overwhelmingly white culture of public radio. As such I expect much of her and can’t help being disappointed when she doesn’t deliver. Not only do I expect her to bring national attention to issues of race (which she does to some degree), but also to help transform NPR to truly reflect the nation’s demographics, and to leverage her power to dismantle racism/white supremacy.
I hold Obama up to that standard as well, so like many people of color, am disappointed that he isn’t doing more to actively dismantle racism/white supremacy. On the other hand, I know what he is up against in Washington: the embodiment of white supremacy which is the top echelon of our government. I recognize how hard it is for people of color to claw to the top when their parents were not able to provide the advantages that upper class whites have long held close. And when these individuals do climb to the top of their field, it’s often at the expense of alienating themselves from other people of color, by serving as the exception, the token.
Last night I found myself getting extremely restless. Norris’s talk was interesting, painting a portrait of racism/white supremacy in the USA in the 1940s-1960s for her parents and grandparents. But the problem with such discussions is that they gloss over the fact that racism/white supremacy continues. In fact, in the 21st century, “white supremacy” is a bigger issue than “racism” because the former assumes a system, while the latter implies personal actions of bigotry.
We’ve all been trained to be polite and to act justly in personal affairs, but how successful have we been in dismantling centuries of economic, educational, and political injustice? Milwaukee’s poverty rate has just soared to 27%. 4 out of 10 children in our city live in poverty, and these children are overwhelmingly African American. Can anyone look me in the eye and claim we do not live in a system of racism/white supremacy?
Personal stories like Norris’s are important for informing us about the depth of racism/white supremacy in our nation, but as she stood up there center stage—beautiful, eloquent, light skinned and straight haired—like the symbol of Obama, she made us feel like the work had been done. She made us feel self-congratulatory: “Oh, those black people, and what they’ve been through…Thank God, it’s over….” And now we are off the hook.
If Norris was dark-skinned with curly hair and a body shape more like Gabby Sidibe, would she have been hired by ABC News? If she had grown up in a working class black neighborhood and her speech more Ebonics-tinged, would she have been hired by NPR? Her appearance and upbringing in White society gave her enormous privilege, which she never acknowledged during the talk or Q/A. The mostly white audience, like the listeners of NPR, felt at ease with her.
But facing racism/white supremacy should make us uneasy. Confronting injustice should make our hearts race. Ongoing systems of privilege that disenfranchise millions should bring us to our feet, should be intolerable and unbearable.
I know, I know, Michele Norris cannot do it all, and neither can Obama. But WE must step up to the task. WE must compile our own family stories. We must understand the role racism/white supremacy has played in our own lives, then actively dismantle these systems.
Me? I’m struggling to find the ways. I run a nonprofit yoga school to bring wellness to underserved communities. I am teaching 2 new classes at Alverno on Repairing Racial Harm and Healing Collective Trauma. I’m working on building a yoga/organic farming/housing cooperative in the working class, mixed race neighborhood where I live. I’m giving away as much money as I can. I help run EmergentSee Racial Reconciliation Dialogues. It’s not enough, not nearly enough. But we must find the ways, creatively, joyfully, to dismantle injustice in our communities, and uplift the children of our city so that 0 out of 10 tolerate poverty.
At some point, silence is no longer graceful.
1 October 2010
Thursday, March 25, 2010
We've been having some deep, intense discussions on race and sex the past 2 months. At our last session we did a brief writing exercise. The results were so moving and startling that I asked participants if I could put their poems on our blog. The assignment was to write a 6-word poem responding to the question: "What process do Black men use to lovingly connect with their humanity within a community that fears their power? How do they reveal their power effectively?"
vulnerable self recalls mother's love unyielding
deliberate stillness informing
its hard. dont stop. attempt again.
shunned but not feared
Thursday, February 25, 2010
MCSC Proudly Presents:
Award-winning author and producer Curtis Chin and his documentary
A film screening and talk on Thursday, March 4, 2010, 6:00 p.m., UWM Union Fireside Lounge
In 1982, Vincent Chin was murdered in Detroit by two white autoworkers at the height of anti-Japanese sentiments. For the first time, Asian America ns around the country galvanized to form a real community and movement. This documentary features interviews with the key players at the time, as well as a whole new generation of activists. "Vincent Who?" asks how far Asian Americans have come since then and how far we have yet to go.
This event is sponsored by the Multicultural Student Coalition and co-sponsored by the Hmong Diaspora Studies, Union Sociocultural Programming, LGBT Resource Center, Academic Affairs, and the Organization of Chinese Americans-Wisconsin Chapter.
Contact: Kathy Vang, President of MCSC at firstname.lastname@example.org for questions!
FREE AND OPEN TO THE PUBLIC
Also the public is invited to:
Sun., Feb. 28 - Milwaukee
6:30 pm - Rice Palace dinner, National Ave.
Thurs., March 4 - Milwaukee
8:00 pm - dinner with students
Tuesday, February 9, 2010
Sunday, January 24, 2010
• Do people tell you that you're "just too sensitive" when you bring up topics of race?
• Do you read at least one article each week on the topic of race?
• Do you wish you could do more to repair racial harm than just talk about it?
If you answered, yes, yes, yes, and YES, then EmergentSee Dialogues is for you!
We meet monthly to have deep, honest discussions about race with the goal of racial reconciliation and reparation. We look at institutionalized racism and white privilege, observe our roles in them, take personal responsibility, and work to dismantle these systems.
Spring 2010 Theme: Race and Sex
Join us on the third Thursday of each month from 6:30-9pm: February 18, March 18, April 15
Suggested donation for refreshments, handouts, and EmergentSee Racial Reparations Fund:
$20 for 3-session series
Location: 3038 N. Cambridge Ave, Milwaukee, WI (home of Peggy Hong)
We encourage all attendees to bring along a friend whom you talk with about race.
Questions? Contact email@example.com or 414-975-7382
Our Mission: The multi-racial EmergentSee Collective formed in 2008 to reveal and correct white privilege and racial oppression. In our work with individuals and groups, participants learn to recognize their roles in systems of oppression and institutionalized racism. As individuals take personal and social responsibility, they experience the humility and contrition required to repair racial harm. EmergentSee Collective inspires and supports individuals to make personal reparations and work toward institutional reparations.
SPRING 2010 REGISTRATION FORM
Complete this form and email to firstname.lastname@example.org or send to 3038 N Cambridge Ave, Milwaukee, 53211.
Race: Asian/Pacific Islander__ Black__ White__ Latino/Hispanic__ Native American__ Other______
Age: under 20___ 21-30___ 31-40____ 41-50___ 51-60___ 61-70___ 71+___
Do you have book, film, or article recommendations regarding this topic? ________________________ __________________________________________________________________________________
Do you have questions or concerns you would like addressed in these dialogues? ___________________________________________________________________________________