uprooting racism (#4): “the dynamics of racism”

Welcome back! This week’s read-along covers the whole of Part II: The Dynamics of Racism (p. 78-114). For previous installments of this series, please see the Uprooting Racism page.

I’ve been thinking a lot, recently, about how the work of rectifying injustice and inequality can feel — whether you’re tackling a given issue from a position of privilege or a position of oppression — like an overwhelming task. And how the overwhelming-ness of the task can be a roadblock to actually making headway because we imagine that whatever we do won’t be enough or the right thing. Obviously, there are ways to abdicate your responsibility to work for social justice, and ways to screw up. I’m sure many of us screw up before we get out of bed in the morning, in this regard. But rather than getting stuck on the question of where to get started, I’d like to suggest that we re-frame the work as one of lifelong habit. The habit of questioning, challenging, revising, reconsidering. We can signal openness to, and awareness of the need for, change in a lot of small, everyday ways. I think it’s particularly important to treat the work of inclusion, and discussion/rectification of injustice, as necessary and unremarkable, something to be done without fanfare because it is the right thing to do. We don’t get special points for doing it, because it’s what we should all be doing habitually, in every facet of our lives.

With that general reflection, on to a few specific thoughts sparked by this week’s reading …

The Enemy Within

This section revisits Kivel’s earlier point that a society divided by racialization has, basically, been magicked by a “don’t look here!” spell … cast by the economically privileged. Economic injustice, Kivel argues, is a cause that could bring people together to create a more equal, just society — a cause that would go far in repairing the damage done by institutionalized racism.

Consider this recent Washington Post piece on the “new gilded age.”


According to the columnist, Matt O’Brien, “the top 1 percent now own over 41 percent of all the wealth in the country. That’s the most since 1939.”

I don’t have much by way of insight to offer here, except that I do agree with Kivel that economic insecurity for “the rest of us” is a timely issue. And to the extent that income inequality is distributed along the faultlines of race, it’s a deeply racial issue as well.

Fear and Danger

Being afraid is not the same as being in danger (80).

As Kivel points out, people of color are vastly more likely — as recent instance of police brutality have demonstrated — to be victims of violence at the hands of white people than white people are to be victims of violence at the hands of people of color. This doesn’t stop white people from projecting our own acts of violence on the communities we are conditioned to fear.

Geographies of Fear

In what areas do you feel routinely safe? Why?
How safe do you think people of color feel in those areas you feel safest in?

I was, thankfully, never taught to fear big cities qua city — nor was I taught to fear rural areas qua wilderness. As a teenager, I remember jogging in the woods alone; I remember riding my bike home from work and school in the late evening; I remember my parents only ever locking the house on Christmas Day — seriously! I didn’t have to worry about remembering a house key until I was living on my own. Seven years later, I still resent locks on the doors.

So, no: I didn’t learn to fear black men on the street. I have never felt particularly endangered as a woman walking home unaccompanied at night in Boston.

But this, too, is a mark of socioeconomic, racialized privilege. Because I don’t have to worry that the police are going to stop me and ask me where I’m going, arrest me in my own neighborhood, or shoot me in the back.

Exotic and Erotic

In this section Kivel talks about the intertwining of racism, violence, and sexualization. By happenstance, a member of the Amiables group had just, the morning I read this section, sent me Tressie McMillan Cottom’s piece on the sexualization of black women’s bodies, circa the Miley Cyrus “twerking” episode. I excerpt at length because I think it’s important for us to remember how these things — race, violence, sexualization — map differently across different bodies, and operate in different types of social situations. Notice how gender, race, and sexual identities intertwine in this situation in ways that are indissoluble from one another, in ways that must be understood not as “about” race or class or gender or sexual identity but about all of those, and more, wrapped up in a specific alchemy of power imbalance that meant  white people felt entitled to a black woman’s body.

At a Franklin Street pub one night [my partner and I] were the only black couple at a happy hour. It is one of those college places where concoctions of the bar’s finest bottom shelf liquor is served in huge fishbowls for pennies on the alcohol proof dollar. I saw a few white couples imbibing and beginning some version of bodily grooving to the DJ. I told my partner that one of them would be offering me free liquor and trying to feel my breasts within the hour.

He balked, thinking I was joking.

I then explained to him my long, storied, documented history of being accosted by drunk white men and women in atmospheres just like these. Women asking to feel my breasts in the ladies’ restroom. Men asking me for a threesome as his drunk girlfriend or wife looks on smiling. Frat boys offering me cash to “motorboat” my cleavage. Country boys in cowboy hats attempting to impress his buddies by grinding on my ass to an Outkast music set. It’s almost legend among my friends who have witnessed it countless times.

My partner could not believe it until not 30 minutes later, with half the fishbowl gone, the white woman bumps and grinds up to our table and laughing tells me that her boyfriend would love to see us dance. “C’mon girl! I know you can daaaaannnce,” she said. To sweeten the pot they bought our table our own fishbowl.

My partner was stunned. That summer we visited lots of similar happy hours. By the third time this scene played out my partner had taken to standing guard while I danced, stonily staring down every white couple that looked my way. We were kicked out of a few bars when he challenged some white guy to a fight about it. I hate such scenes but I gave my partner a break. He was a man and not used to this. He didn’t have the vocabulary borne of black breasts that sprouted before bodies have cleared statutory rape guidelines. He didn’t know the words so he did all he knew how to do to tell me he was sorry this was my experience in life: he tried to kick every white guy’s ass in Chapel Hill.

I’m also going to take the opportunity to say, if you aren’t familiar with McMillan Cottom’s work on race/class/gender in higher education and occupational stratification, you should definitely remedy this situation.

In particular reference to our ongoing conversation about legitimacy, professionalism, and inclusion, I recommend “ ‘Who the Fuck Do You Think You Are?’: Academic Engagement, Microcelebrity, and Digital Sociology from the Far Left of the Matrix of Domination” (PDF), which is an exploration of how black women, specifically, are challenged on their assertion of expertise and authority.

The Myth of the Happy Family

Because of violence and unequal power, we are not equally privileged or equally safe within our families (95).

This section is about family; it also about community groups — say, colleagues in a close-knit department — and the way in which some members of the group may be excluded, out of step, even abused by others in the group. Such a dynamic, antithetical to human thriving, is not always obvious to members of the group for whom the status quo works quite well thank you very much. And those who speak up to call out the myth of collective happiness are often punished or otherwise ostracized (perhaps sued?).

I think it’s good to be aware, over all, of when we are in a position to speak up / call out and when we are in a position where we are likely to either overlook or disbelieve those calling out the unhealthy dynamic. Our position relative to those who hold power in a given situation will shape how we hear, and respond to, dissent.

In the context of the archival / library / information sciences professions, this often takes the shape of policing the boundary of our professional norms — who has a right to participate in our professional community, what credentials one needs to be considered “one of us,” what ethical practices are expected, what expertise needed, etc. Some of this boundary policing is healthy — we don’t want an archivist to consider it ethical practice to grant preferential access to collections based on a researcher’s politics, for example. Some is not — as when people get hyper-defensive about younger professionals, or in discussions about credentialing.

Beyond Black and White

The final chapter of this section is about language, and about how so often discussions of race in America are reduced to black vs. white, when in fact whiteness is a privileged racial position relative to many different experiences of racialization by those we collectively term “people of color” (a term Kivel uses, while also acknowledging its problematic nature).

I like how Kivel acknowledges that within communities, terminology is often in flux: internally, we often experience disagreements about what language to use to describe our collective experience — the labels which bring us together for collective political organizing, or describe the characteristic by which the broader society identifies us as similar.

I see echoes, for example, in my own experience of language to describe myself and other sexual minority groups collectively. When I helped form the roundtable for New England Archivists meant to support discussion around issues of human sexual and gender diversity within archival collections and the archives profession, one of the first debates was whether we should use “queer” as an umbrella term, or whether we should stick to the alphabet soup of LGBTQ (or similar). We ended up formally going with LGBTQ after several members expressed discomfort at reclaiming the “queer” terminology; though our blog is now called Queer!NEA, we retain the LGBTQ Issues Roundtable group name.

All solutions are imperfect, yet I like Kivel’s gentle point that there is a vast difference between imperfect respectful language and disrespectful terms, such as racial slurs or other derogatory language. For example “illegals” or “illegal immigrants” are disrespectful terms in the context of human migration; “undocumented” is perhaps an imperfect term, but at least indicates very specifically the relationship of an individual migrant to the state (which has the power to document, and pass judgement on, human movement across political boundaries).

It’s getting late and the cat is ready for me to set the computer aside and come to bed — so I’ll leave it there for this week. If you’ve been reading along, or this post has prompted reflections on its own, I do look forward to hearing your thoughts!

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