Welcome to the Uprooting Racism read-along! For the next twelve weeks I’ll be slow-reading and reflecting on Paul Kivel’s revised and expanded Uprooting Racism: How White People Can Work for Racial Justice (New Society Publishers, 2011).
Anti-racism work is an area of my life that I need to / want to more actively cultivate. Like many Euro-American white folks I have lived in social circles of majority-whiteness. My SES (socioeconomic status) is, to a degree, a product of my whiteness. And yet, of course, I have spent less time in my life thinking about my racialized community — a community of relative privilege — than I have about my sexualized, gendered, or even class-sorted or educated self. So this slow-read project is an opportunity to think about race in my daily life, particularly how race operates on a structural level, than I have before.
This week, I read the acknowledgement, prefaces (original and 3rd edition), introduction as a way of easing into this reflection. Below are my reading notes. I welcome those of you reading along to speak up in comments, and even those who aren’t reading along are welcome to join the conversation if my notes or comments spark further thought.
I often read acknowledgements first when approaching a nonfiction book. For me, it’s a way of situating the author as part of their scholarly and personal communities of support: Who offered early comment? Who provided childcare? Do they thank the librarians? From whom did they receive funding? Did their barista make good coffee? Were their cats helpful. You can learn a lot about a person by taking note of who they acknowledge.
Paul Kivel begins by acknowledging “the creative spirit that is the source of life,” “the earth that nurtures and sustains,” and “the Native Peoples whose land I am on” (xiii). Already we are being encouraged to think in deep structures and systems of connection.
Reading the preface, I found myself thinking about the difference between race, racism, and racialization, a social science term for the processes by which groups of people are defined as a “race.” Kivel tends to use race/racism but I find it helpful to keep “racialized” and “racialization” in mind when I read on matters of race because the terms remind me that we produce race and its meaning within society. And can, therefore, unproduce it as well.
I like Kivel’s dual focus on critical thinking and social action. We need both. I love deliberation as much as the next person, but the need to think carefully or speak to all stakeholders at length can lead to endless thinking with little action. Likewise, swift action without critical thought can lead to replication of unjust power dynamics — even with the best of intentions! The two should work in tandem.
Much of Kivel’s preface reflects on how our fear of making mistakes, of not getting it “right,” leads to paralysis. I think we need to acknowledge up-front, particularly in social justice work, that we will screw up. It’s like when I take the new employees on their first building tour at our library and show them how the swipe-card security system works on the stairwell. I always tell them, “We’ve all set off the alarm; you will someday too. When you do, here’s what you should do next…” I think social justice communities could do a better job at helping people learn how to say sorry and how to not make the same mistake twice.
Kivel also reflects on the importance of listening when you are in a situation where you occupy the relatively privileged side of the fence. The example he gives is listening to a store clerk describe her experience of social erasure, where a white customer confused her with another employee of color and, when corrected, tried to cover for the mistake by suggesting all people of color look alike. Kivel listened to this woman’s anger without defending the white woman or jumping into to say, “Not all white people…!”
Gene Robinson, in his book God Believes in Love (Vintage, 2012), also observes that the first act of being an ally is listening:
When you’re trying to understand the plight of someone else, when you’re trying to understand someone’s experience that has never been your experience, you begin by truly listening to him and his stories, really listening. And then — and this is key, I believe — you believe his truth. It may not be your truth, and it may not have been anything you have experienced. But you believe that this is the truth of the other person’s experience. And you show infinite respect for him by believing him (p. 45).
I think it will be important to center the racial dynamics of oppression within the read-along series. At the same time, I want to think about the framework Kivel is developing to combat the kyriarchy more broadly.
Kivel spends much of the introduction fleshing out his operational definition of racism:
Racism is often described as a problem of prejudice. Prejudice is certainly one result of racism, and it fuels further acts of violence toward people of color. However, the assumption in this book is that racism is the institutionalization of social injustice based on skin color, other physical characteristics and cultural and religious difference. White racism is the uneven and unfair distribution of power, privilege, land and material goods favoring white people. (2)
The key take-away from the introduction, for me, is that Uprooting Racism will be focusing on structural issues rather than individual beliefs. As Kivel observes, “issues of social justice are not fundamentally about individual actions and beliefs,” but about institutionalized, systemic oppression which imposes upon one group of people based upon the prejudices of another. And then makes responsibility for that violence invisible because that’s just the way things are.
Next week, we’ll be reflecting on p. 7-42.