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!

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.


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.

uprooting racism (#2): “let’s talk” to “white benefits?” p. 7-42

For explanation of this read-along see the Uprooting Racism page.

Welcome to the second week of Uprooting Racism. Today we’re reading the first section of “Part One: What Color Is White?” the section exploring whiteness as a racialized category, and how being assigned whiteness by society confers privilege both individually and across generations.  Below are my reading notes, organized by chapter.

Let’s Talk

We [white people] assume we are white. It may seem like I’m stating the obvious. Yet there is something about stating this obvious fact that makes white people feel uneasy, marked. Why notice? What’s the point of saying, ‘I’m White.’ (p. 9)

I’ve learned over the years to be in (imperfect) awareness of my whiteness. I grew up in a majority-white community, went to a majority-white college and graduate school, and married into another white family. I work in a majority-white workplace, in a majority-white profession. It’s actually on the Internet — that place where we were all supposed to magically transcend our gendered, racialized, class-bound, dis/abled, otherwise marginalized selves — that I actually learned the lesson of habitual self-recognition; the naming of identities, privileges, and marginal selves. I’d be curious, demographically, if people who came of age within networked publics have learned to catalog their identities more consciously due to having to identify themselves with language and labels in online spaces.

“I’m Not White”

Some of the white people [at a workshop] said, ‘But I’m not white.’ I was somewhat taken aback because although these people looked white, they were clearly distressed at being labelled white. (p. 10)

If, when you move down the streets of major cities, other people assume based on skin color, dress, physical appearance, or total impression, that you are white, than in US society that counts for being white. (p. 11)

What parts of your identity does it feel like you lose when you say aloud the phrase ‘I’m white.’? (p. 11)

My Euro-American heritage is — as far as my family genealogists can tell — German, Dutch, and Scottish. I grew up in a community in which Dutch heritage was, on some level, presumed for most white folk and white my strawberry blond hair and blue eyes I never would have passed for anything but white. That I didn’t think about being white as a child is, actually, one of my strongest reminders that I am white: the invisible social privilege of being white, and of thus not having to learn about racial inequality as a function of survival.

I don’t think I feel I lose any particular aspect of my identity in naming my whiteness, though I think (in the past more than now) it has been hard to hold whiteness (racialized privilege) in tension with my more marginalized aspect of self (home-educated, queer, female, politically leftist in a deeply conservative community, agnostic in a community of committed Christians). Intersectional thinking has taught me a lot about how to understand contextual margin/center dynamics and be able to understand white privilege without erasure of other ways in which I am not privileged within U.S. society.

“I’m Not Racist”

Just as it’s not useful to label ourselves racist, it is not useful to label each other. White people have committed some very brutal acts in the name of whiteness. We may want to separate ourselves from them by claiming that they are racist and we are not. But because racism operates institutionally, to the benefit of all white people, we are connected to the acts of other white people. (p. 15)

Y’all seen Jay Smooth’s “How to Tell Someone They Sound Racist,” right? Let’s refresh:

(On a side note: This works for so many -isms! Substitute [marginalized experience here] and you can confront people strategically on their classism, sexism, ableism, religious bigotry, transbigotry, anti-gay arguments, etc., etc. so forth and so on. I think of this strategy in basically any internet conversation ever. Including certain conversations recently on and about a certain listserv.)

“To the benefit of all white people.” It sucks, but we can’t get away from the fact that — as people who are read as “white” — we benefit from the accrual and continued violence and prejudice of other white folks. We need to name it when we see it — but not in an “I’m not one of those white people,” ways. More in a, “What you said was racist, quit it” way. To one another.

What Is Whiteness?

I grew up learning that racial categories were scientifically valid and gave us useful information about ourselves and other people. (p. 21)

How can you respond to people who say that there are specific differences between races? (p. 21)

I would say, “as a child of the 1980s, I didn’t grow up believing racial categories were scientifically valid…” except of course that there are still plenty of people today who believe there is a scientific validity to racial theories.

While I would have reflexively rejected the notion of biology-based racial inequality as a child (I was very much into “fairness,” and inequality isn’t “fair.”), I probably wouldn’t have had an evidence-based argument to hand. I thank my reading in feminist and queer theory for my skepticism regarding scientific studies, actually, since feminist scientists and social scientists, women and sexual minorities have repeatedly documented the ways in which what is “known” through science is very often flawed by confirmation bias: we expect to find (gender, sex, and racial) difference, and thus design studies using definitions that enable us to confirm our beliefs.

I think I do lack the “elevator speech” about science and how it has been used to structure racialized difference over the past several centuries. As a historian, I am very aware of the historical context of the concept of race, and how the boundaries of various race categories have flexed over time (for example that the Irish were at times considered “black”). Like gender performance or sexual behavior, what racialized identities signify about an individual person varies wildly from place to place — and interacts with all of the other ways in which our identities are embedded within society. These understandings of historical context and social construction of identity are so interwoven into my ways of thinking at this point that I’m unsure of how effective I am at arguing with “the opposition.” In my experience, I have very little success arguing with “the opposition” when it comes to gender or human sexual variety either.

If anyone following this read along has been successful at prompting thought on this front, I would like very much to hear what your approach entailed.

In this chapter Paul Kivel explores the “clusters of meaning” around whiteness — how it signifies not just one’s supposedly “superior” embodiment, but also more classical cultural identities as well: Western Christianity, American, and Masculine (“Blonde — the best kind of white!“). When you put Western Christianity, American citizenship, and (presumed straight) masculinity together, you’re looking at a construction of racial superiority that actually takes an incredible amount of work to maintain. As Kivel observes:

Word and Pictures

A chapter on the racial coding of language and image — how the villains in films are often seen in the dark, for example, while those coded pure and good are dressed in white or light colors, filmed well-lit, etc.

Calls to be mindful of our language often bring the “political correctness” crowd out of the woodwork, but I think it is important to consider the origins of words — I’m a word nerd, among other kinds of nerdery — and at least since stumbling through the process of learning not to call God “he” have first-hand experience of how possible it is to change habits over time. “Lame,” for example, is a pejorative I’ve been working to drop from my casual conversation, as are references to negative ideas or actions being “crazy” or “schizo.” We have other words, more precise words, we can use to express that something is a poor idea, is boring, is whacky or inconsistent. I’m not perfect with this — I’m sure you could do a keyword search on my blog and find numerous uses of “crazy” or “insane” to mean “what the hell is wrong with this person?!” — but I’m working to get better at this. And racialized language is something we need to be mindful of, too, particularly as people who benefit from white privilege.

White Benefits, Middle Class Privilege

It is not that white Americans have not worked hard and built much. We have. But we did not start out from scratch. (p. 32)

I grew up middle class — maybe even upper-middle. Three of my grandparents and both of my parents had gone to college. For three generations of my family there have been people with advanced, professional degrees and doctorates; grandparents and parents have owned their own homes, not had to rely on public welfare programs (apart from social security and medicare). I married into a family in which homeownership and higher education were similarly part of adulthood, though on a slightly more precarious scale. Despite the fact that my current household is living paycheck to paycheck, our multiple masters degrees, extended family assets (representing a social safety net of sorts, should we need it) and cultural capital position us to hang on — even if only by our fingernails — to a middle-class existence in the midst of a teetering, toppling economy.

Have y’all read Ta-Nehisi Coates’ “The Case for Reparations” (The Atlantic, 21 May 2014). It’s the sort of thing I feel white Americans ought to bookmark and re-read on a quarterly basis for awhile until it actually sinks into our psyches and forces us to initiate a nationwide movement to effect reparative justice in this country.

White Benefits? A Personal Assessment

On Paul Kivel’s website, you can find a version of the white benefits checklist that appears in Uprooting Racism. Some sample benefits to consider while thinking about our own family histories (with my own responses in bold):

Your ancestors were legal immigrants to this country during a period when immigrants from Asia, South and Central America or Africa were restricted.You live on land that formerly belonged to Native Americans.

Yes and yes. (Doesn’t the second “yes” apply to pretty much everyone in the U.S.?)

Your family received homesteading or landstaking claims from the federal government, or if you or your family or relatives receive or received federal farm subsidies, farm price supports, agricultural extension assistance or other federal benefits.

I don’t actually know about this one; at least one set of great-grandparents were farmers during the New Deal so I would suspect so.

You lived or live in a neighborhood that people of color were discriminated from living in or you lived or live in a city where red-lining discriminates against people of color getting housing or other loans.

Again, I would suspect this was at least informally true of the (entirely white) “historic district” neighborhood I grew up in, and I live in Boston now, where there has been a virulent history of race-based “red lining” and other forms of discrimination in housing.

You or your parents went to racially segregated schools.

This one is not the case, for either my parents or myself.

UPDATE (10/3 10:51am): It was pointed out to me on Twitter that above I describe growing up in majority-white communities and attending majority-white schools. So perhaps a better answer to this question is that I experienced de facto segregation. Neither I nor my parents experienced the formalized policies of “whites only” segregation, which is what I took Kivel’s question to mean. However, it could be read both ways, and yes, in college and graduate school I did my formal learning in majority-white spaces.

You live in a school district or metropolitan area where more money is spent on the schools that white children go to than on those that children of color attend.

Yep. No question.

You live in or went to a school district where the textbooks and other classroom materials reflected your race as normal, heroes and builders of the United States, and there was little mention of the contributions of people of color to our society.

I didn’t go to formal school until college, so didn’t use textbooks. My parents worked hard to ensure our books and other media were diverse — though I’m sure there is always room to do better. In part because of some of my early outsider status, I’ve approached history from the outside in throughout my scholarly career, which has been a good de-centering exercise. I imagine those opposed to the new A.P history exams would be appalled.

You attended a publicly funded university, or a heavily endowed private university or college, and/or received student loans.

I attended a private college for both undergrad and graduate student, made possible by my father’s employment with the college (undergrad) and federal student loans (graduate school).

Your ancestors were immigrants who took jobs in railroads, streetcars, construction, shipbuilding, wagon and coach driving, house painting, tailoring, longshore work, brick laying, table waiting, working in the mills, working as a furrier, dressmaking or any other trade or occupation where people of color were driven out or excluded.

Most likely. What I know of my immigrant ancestors’ occupations, they included such work as horse trainer, millner, farmer, and postmaster. 

You have received a job, job interview, job training or internship through personal connections of family or friends.


I encourage you to read the whole list and complete it (mentally or actually) yourself.

Next week we’ll be reading p. 43-76. Please do join in reading along!

uprooting racism (#1): front matter

uprooting_racism_coversmWelcome 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.

Preface Continue reading

uprooting racism (#0.5): some background on the author

I had planned to begin our read-along this week, but my public library’s inter-library loan system failed to deliver the book in time! So I am beginning this project with some background information on the author, Paul Kivel. Kivel is a professional writer and educator based in Oakland, California, who has been working in violence prevention for nearly three decades. Within this broad field, Kivel has chosen to focus on men and violence, racial injustice, and working with youth. My own previous experience with his work was in reading the 20th anniversary edition of Helping Teens Stop Violence, Build Community, and Stand for Justice (Hunter House, 2011), co-authored with Alan Creighton. Reading Helping Teens, I was impressed by his grasp of intersectional oppression as well as ageism towards youth — something few Americans are willing to acknowledge, let alone work to combat.

Below is a YouTube video of a recent session Kivel led this summer in the U.K. for the organization Let Freedom Ring! that I encourage the interested to watch / listen to in the next week; it provides a good hour-long sense of where Kivel is coming from and what is approach to social justice action is.

read-along invitation: uprooting racism

Cover art for 3rd edition of Paul Kivel's Uprooting Racism: How White People Can Work for Racial JusticeI’m taking a break from the links list this week to issue an invitation to participate in a read-along with me, beginning the week of September 15th, of Paul Kivel’s Uprooting Racism: How White People Can Work for Racial Justice (New Society Publishers, 2011; revised and expanded 3rd edition).  Given the events in Ferguson, Missouri, among other places in the past few weeks this seems like a timely moment to reflect on everyday ways that all of us — including those who experience the social privilege of being white, or read as white, — can intervene for a less violent and more equitable world.

This is a read-along because I myself have not read this book, although I have read and appreciated Kivel’s Helping Teens Stop Violence (Hunter House, 2011), co-authored with Allen Creighton.

I will be reading the book one chapter per week and posting short reflections / discussion questions here at the blog each Friday until the book is complete. If others in the group are interested in reading along with me and would like to take a turn posting the opening reflections, please speak up now or along the way!

I look forward to our conversation(s).