uprooting racism (#3): “the economic pyramid” to “who is a victim?”

Welcome to part three of the Uprooting Racism read-along. This week, we’re considering the second half of  “art I: What Color Is White?” — “The Economic Pyramid” through “Who Is a Victim?” Following the personal-assessment half of this section, the second half asks us to consider how our whiteness shelters us from many of the negative experiences that people of color face in the United States.

The Economic Pyramid

As of 2007, the top 1% of individuals in this nation (overwhelmingly white) controlled 43% of the wealth; the bottom 80% of individuals (majority people of color) controlled only 7% of the wealth. Sandwiched between the top 1% and the bottom 80% was an upper-middle-class population (19% of individuals) who control 50% of the nation’s wealth. Kivel’s point is this:

With wealth so concentrated at the top, most white people have much to gain from working with people of color to redistribute wealth and opportunity. However racism often keeps poor, working-, and middle-class white people from identifying their common struggles with people of color. Feelings of intra-racial solidarity keep many white people focused on our racial connections with people at the top rather than our economic connections with others lower down (43).

Bringing it back to our professional home, I am reminded of this past Tuesday’s #critlib chat about labor within and across libraries, Storified by Annie Pho (@catladylib). I become increasingly convinced listening to my colleagues in the archives and library science professions that attention to labor and workers rights is a key issue for our generation of workers at all levels — and that any discussion of diversity, inclusion, inequality cannot meaningfully take place without addressing the material inequalities that exist in the U.S.

The Costs of Racism to People of Color

Here is my list of the costs that Kivel recounts. If you are a white person reading this, consider how many of these types of micro- and macro-aggressions you have recently observed, heard about on the news, read about on social media, etc.

  • Racially-charged insults and/or name-calling
  • Racially-coded “jokes” or comments made by white people about people of color
  • Suggestions people of color leave the country, go home, go back, etc.
  • White individuals expressing stereotypes / prejudices / lowered expectations regarding a person of color over whom they have formal power (teachers, supervisors, landlords, etc.)
  • Accusations of stealing, cheating, or lying by a white person against a person of color
  • Less respect, attention, or response from medical professionals toward people of color
  • Less respect, attention, or response from first-response professionals (police, fire, etc.) toward people of color
  • A person of color racially profiled by the police
  • Discrimination in housing or employment
  • Degrading, stereotypical, or fear-inducing portrayals of people of color in the media
  • Religious or cultural holidays unrecognized at work or school
  • Religious or cultural practices distorted, appropriated, ridiculed, exploited, or otherwise degraded
  • Accusations that people of color are too sensitive, too angry, or too emotional when they protest any of the above
  • Physical violence by the state or white people towards people of color

If any of these  aggressive acts against people of color seem to be exaggerated or no longer current (“that might have happened in the past, but…”) consider the center-margin dynamics of privilege, discussed in the next chapter, which make a lot of this “invisible” to those of us who live more buffered, centralized lives.

The Culture of Power

To illustrate his point about the dynamics of power and privilege — that it naturalizes privilege for those populations whom it benefits, encouraging them not to be aware of their privilege, not to see the effects of the culture that privileges them (on one side) have for  non-privileged groups (on the flipside) — Kivel uses the analogies of gender and age:

I often don’t notice that women are treated differently than I am. I am inside a male culture of power. I expect to be treated with respect, to be listened to and to have my opinions valued. I expect to find books and newspapers that are written by people like me, that reflect my perspective and that show me in central roles. I don’t necessarily notice that the women around me are treated less respectfully, ignored or silenced (47).

We’ve had a fairly clear demonstration of this in the library and information science world recently with conversations about codes of conduct and harassment, where people in relative positions of privilege were surprised to hear that anyone experienced harassment or was made to feel unwelcome in professional spaces, while others of us nodded along — we’ve been there, experienced that, sounds familiar. It all depends on how and where you’re taught to look, or learn to look.

I knew a gardener, once, who was responsible for caring for a children’s garden. Once a week, he’d walk through the space on his knees to see what the green space looked like from the height of those whom it was meant to provide delight and learning. Much like adults who work with children in our adult-centric culture need to go out of their way to learn how to “see” from a child’s perspective, we Euro-American white folks in a white-centric culture need to learn how to see the invisible culture of power that surrounds, shelters, and buoys us up.

Kivel offers a few questions “you might ask yourself to identify the culture of power and its appearance” in any given space (49):

  1. Who is in authority?
  2. How is the space designed?
  3. What is on its walls?
  4. What languages are used? Which are acceptable?
  5. What music and food is available?
  6. Who is treated with full respect?
  7. Whose experience is valued?
  8. Who decides?

Most of us will be quick to notice the indications in a given space that we are not in power. For example, a university hall in which nine out of ten portraits are of white male presidents, with perhaps a token (recently-painted) white woman is a visual cue to me (a white woman) that “my” perspective has been added in a latter-day effort at diversity within that space.

We may be less attuned, unless we intentionally make it a habit, to notice situations that may favor us to the detriment of others — for example a broken elevator that isn’t fixed. I once overheard a colleague joke about how during renovations they’d decided to suspend elevator service to some floors “forcing all of us to become more fit!” I was appalled by that erasure of any staff or library patrons whose dis/abilities temporarily or permanently precluded their using the stairs to reach the now-inaccessible floors. At the time, I was in a social setting — the story was told as an “amusing” anecdote — where I felt constrained to speak up about this oversight, but to this day think of it and wish I had intervened and pointed out the dis/ableism, not to mention fatphobia,

As white folk, we need to intentionally work to unravel the protections white-centric culture has woven around us, encouraging us not to see the ways in which people of color are excluded from the spaces of our lives, the arc of our narratives. The questions above can help us begin, or continue, to do just that on a daily basis.

Entitlement

I would actually argue there are positive and negative senses and expressions of entitlement. I believe that all human beings should feel entitled to certain social and material goods. We should feel entitled, for example, not to be beaten by an abusive spouse. We should feel entitled to equal protection under the law. We should be entitled to a childhood and old age — heck, any age! — free from poverty. We should absolutely be entitled to affordable, accessible, respectful, and expert healthcare. In short, call me a socialist idealist radical what have you, but I believe that we should all grow up expecting — feeling entitled to — basic human rights.

What Paul Kivel is talking about here, though, is the kind of entitlement that stems not from equality — “all people should have access to…” — but rather from privilege — “I am entitled to have access to …. because I am …”

I am better educated…
I am more rational…
I worked hard to get where I am…
I need to get there on time…

White entitlement is the sense of deservingness we have that does not stem from a shared sense of humanity, but rather a sense of being a more “civilized,” more “advanced,” more “disciplined” or “industrious” people. The only things, I would argue, that we should ever consider ourselves to deserve as entitlements are those things which we are ready to advocate extending to all people regardless of their life situation.

The Costs of Racism to White People

If you had to list some of the ways you (as a white person) have lost in a world tainted by racialized thinking and organization, what might you list?

You can read Paul Kivel’s checklist on his website. Here are a few examples from that list

  • I have sometimes felt that “white” culture was “wonderbread”2 culture — empty and boring — or that another racial group had more rhythm, more athletic ability, was better at math and technology, or had more musical or artistic creativity than mine.
  • I have felt that people of another racial group were more spiritual than white people.
  • I have been nervous and fearful or found myself stiffening up when encountering people of color in a neutral public situation (for example, in an elevator, on the street).
  • I have been sexually attracted to a person from another racial group because it seemed exotic, exciting, or a challenge.
  • I was in a close friendship or relationship with a person of color, where the relationship was affected, stressed, or endangered by racism between us or from others.
  • I am not in a close significant relationship with any people of color in my life right now.
  • I have been in a close friendship or relationship with another white person where that relationship was damaged or lost because of a disagreement about racism.
  • I have felt embarrassed by, separate from, superior to, or more tolerant than other white people.
  • I have worked in a job where people of color held more menial jobs, were paid less, or were otherwise harassed or discriminated against and I did nothing about it.

I would note that a common theme running through these checklist items is a loss of relationship. The loss of an opportunity to recognize and connect with another human being — whether that relationship (or potential relationship) is with people similar from or different from ourselves in one or more ways. A racialized world creates barriers, as does a world with rigid hierarchies of age, gender, class, nationalist, and other vectors of inequality.

Retaining Benefits, Avoiding Responsibility

In this chapter, Kivel asks us to consider common ways of avoiding collective or individual responsibility for the inequalities of a racialized world. His stages of avoidance run as follows …

Denial … “We live in a post-racial society! … it’s not that the African-American community in Boston is being racially profiled, it’s just that black people are more likely to be criminals.”

Minimization … “Well, okay, maybe some profiling has been happening, but we’re continually working to make it better!”

Blame … “We can only do so much when people of color continue to commit crimes at higher rates than white people!”

Redefinition … “It’s not racial profiling, it’s smart policing!”

It Was Unintentional … “Gee, we just stopped to talk to this random black guy on the street …but then he came at us with a knife!”

It’s All Over Now… “Segregation and police discrimination are totally a thing of the past — we have regular trainings now!”

It’s Only a Few People … “Officer Smith has a long and troubling arrest record; we have investigators looking into his previous use of force while he’s been put on paid leave.”

Counterattack and Competing Victimization … “American citizens just don’t understand how hard it is for cops working the beat every day; they gotta make these split-second calls and no one’s ever going to be perfect. We’re the ones in actual danger out there!”

“Thank You For Being Angry.”

I’ve actually been using this tactic more and more recently thanks to becoming more aware of tone policing. Privileged white mainstream America values politeness, measured, anti-emotional behavior. Particularly in this era where rhetoric about political partisanship runs high, the discourse of “civility” and “balance” has come to hold powerful sway.

In short, I call bullshit.

The first thing we should be saying when someone expresses a strong emotional reaction to injustice, to violence of any kind taking place in the world, is to say thank you for your anger Or, as Kivel writes:

When people of color are angry about racism, it is legitimate anger. It is not their oversensitivity but our lack of sensitivity that causes this communication gap. People of color are vulnerable to the abuse of racism every day. They are experts in it. Most of us rarely notice it. [Anger] is tremendously draining, costly and personally devastating for people of color … They often end up losing their friends, their livelihoods, even their lives. Rather than attacking them for their anger, we need to examine the layers of complacency, ignorance, and privilege we have put into place which require so much outrage to get our attention (68).

As white people, we should be amplifying and supporting those angry voices of analysis, and becoming allies in the project of change.

It’s Good to Talk About Racism

In the #critlib chat I linked to above, one of the points I made — hashtag added by a friend! — was that a simple act of labor solidarity that relatively privileged supervising professionals (such as myself) can take is to speak about inequalities in the workplace:

Similarly, Kivel points out that that the more we speak about the act of racialization, structure of inequality, and individual acts of bigotry, the safer we collectively make the world for people of color. “Talking about [racism] keeps us from passing racism on to our children [by normalizing it]. Talking about it allows us to do something about it” (69).

However, we also need to be mindful of what language we use to speak. The phrase “Illegal aliens,” for example, has powerful racial connotations and is neither accurate (no person is inherently illegal) nor helpful. “Politically correct” is another coded term that Kivel points toward, for as he points out “people who use these words claim to be concerned about freedom of speech but avoid addressing issues of discrimination and harassment” (71).

I winced recently when an archivist used the phrase “politically correct” to describe the term “African American.” I think what she meant was that “African American” is commonly-accepted language but was not necessarily a phrase that made sense to retrospectively describe a collection of records in which the individuals identified themselves as “people of color.” The challenge of cataloging historical materials for optimal discovery is, of course, a complicated one. This past summer I spoke with a historian of working on 19th century African American history of told me that he had learned over the years that when searching for commissioned portraits of enslaved African Americans he had to look not only for “slaves” but also for “servants” — not appropriate language to our modern ears, yet a reality of working with historical materials is often that the language used then is not what we would use now. And we must be over- rather than under-inclusive in both describing and searching collections, particularly when looking for the histories of under-documented folks.

But … the term African American described as “politically correct” by a member of our profession? We need to stop doing that. Because by doing that, by using the term “politically correct,” we invoke a whole reactionary movement that aims to resist the gains made by marginalized peoples in self-description. We need to pay attention to the words we use and the worlds that exist behind them — we need to speak with awareness, and with the goal of “holding the space” for others quite different from us to speak for themselves with clear and carrying voices.


 

Join me next week for the first half of “Part II: The Dynamics of Racism,” p. 77-114.

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