Thursday, July 9, 2015

ALERT: I'm moving! New postings are at

Thank you for visiting! I have moved (upgraded)! All new and old blog posts are now available at, my new website. I will no longer post to this site. Please visit, subscribe to my email list (if desired) to receive alerts and updates, and click on the "blog" tab to see blog posts starting July 2015. I hope to stay in touch!

Saturday, February 7, 2015

Baby Steps into Activism: A Time Sensitive Call to Action

Becoming politically active is not unlike choosing to walk across a mine field. It takes years to figure out how to avoid making regular missteps. And yet, taking action that sparks controversy and upset is bound to happen. No doubt about it, it’s painful to find out that regardless of your best intentions, people you care about think you made an error.

Navigating challenging feedback is tough, especially when there has been a serious attempt to outreach to a diverse set of people before taking action.  What do you do when two of your closest advisers give you different advice? When it comes to issues of race, as a white person, I have frequently felt challenged when two politically-minded friends of color have expressed totally opposite viewpoints and suggestions.

One of my closest friends recently faced this challenge. He’s a white rapper invested in social justice. He just released a song called Listen, and it highlights the receipt of military-grade weapons by a local school district. It’s a good song, and it’s an amazing first step into political activism.

And, it’s not a perfect effort (from an activist's standpoint). There’s a particular phrase that sets things up a bit too much as him being a “protector” for students of color. Since my friend is a white guy, this easily calls to mind the “white savior” idea. We’ve talked about this, and he’s been receptive to feedback.

This one point of feedback, however, should not detract him from forward movement. A large number of people of color in his life are saying: “Yes, you have to do this. Yes, this is a great song. Yes, this is useful. Yes, we are behind you.” A diverse, creative, well-connected set of people have also come together to help produce a video for the song that should help it reach a wider audience and support action steps

But, even with these folks working for free…there is money to be raised to help make the video shoot happen. This is where seasoned activists and caring individuals come in. If you want to help support a budding activist in walking this path, please take a few minutes and contribute even a little to his Kickstarter campaign.

If we can get a bunch of people to contribute even $5 or $10 each, we can demonstrate that taking a risk to put yourself on the line, in the path of critique, is worthwhile. This is a great way to help me send the message to my friend he should continue down this challenging road of learning how to walk the activists’ path.

Please donate whatever you can and share with others who recognize the need to support an emerging activist and all those rallying behind him.

Sunday, February 1, 2015

Are We Teachers or Security Guards?

Should a teacher be fired for refusing to search students?

My AWARE-LA colleague, Vitaly, has just written an article explaining how he is being threatened with termination as a Los Angeles Unified School District teacher for refusing to use a metal detector to randomly search his students. Although the policy itself is alarming and implemented unjustly in many schools, this particular situation needs attention because this 21-year veteran educator has created a vibrant, trusting environment for students living in a housing project, a continuation school for students who have been kicked out of traditional schools. These students, attending class in a one-room schoolhouse in the projects with their sole teacher, are inspired to learn and dedicated to the restorative justice and critical pedagogy (a la Freire) this teacher brings to the school.

Vitaly and his students have created one of the most inspiring classrooms I have ever witnessed, and it is likely to be destroyed without outside support and pressure on district officials. Please take a look at the article Vitaly just wrote for the school district's union newspaper about the situation, Are We Teachers or Security Guards?, (article is on page 9 and continues on page 15). It documents research indicating that random searchers have been shown to be destructive and undermine the basic intent, to create safe schools. Please share this post with others to raise awareness about this situation.


Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Unmasking Whiteness Institute 2015 - Space Available!

AWARE-LA will offer its 7th annual workshop series on building white anti-racist practice and community in an intensive 4-day institute designed specifically for white people from Thursday, July 23rd through Sunday, July 26th, 2015. The event will take place on the downtown Los Angeles, Mount Saint Mary's University, Doheny campus.

We limit this group to approximately 25 participants. At this time, there is space available. Last year we began a waiting list by mid-May. This year, spots appear to be filling up more quickly.

The cost for attendance is only $200 (before April 1st) and $225 (beginning April 1st) in order to ensure its accessibility to grass roots organizers, students, and those without institutional funding. A limited number of partial scholarships are available (see our info sheet for details via the website link below). We are sorry that we cannot help support housing needs for out-of-town folks. But, we recommend reaching out via your networks for space sharing options in the city.

In case you've never heard of us, this series invites white people to deepen their self-awareness and build community with other white people taking up work for racial justice. Through personal reflection, small and large group dialogue, and experiential activities, this institute invites the exploration of subjects such as:
  • The meaning of whiteness
  • White privilege and multiple identities
  • How to resolve guilt and shame
  • Institutional racism
  • Development of an anti-racist practice and identity
Please visit the main page to download the information sheet, flyer, and registration form. Contact information for more information is on the flyer.

You can also visit the AWARE-LA home page and search under the "projects" tab.

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Multicultural Teaching Institute 2015

Last June, the first (what I hope will be annual) Multicultural Teaching Institute offered me tremendous insight into how teachers at the early grades need to be aware of issues affecting transgendered students. I had no idea! So much great collaborative learning took place, it was really inspiring. This upcoming June 2015 I will be a part of this conference again, and I'm truly looking forward to learning from the other presenters. Take a look at the Institute's website to learn more. Registration is now open. I hope to meet you there.

A hands-on, collaborative conference to provide real-world tools in multicultural teaching for teachers of pre-k through grade 12.

Teachers will:
  • engage in creating multicultural lessons and teaching practices
  • develop a deeper understanding of personal limitations and blind spots in teaching
  • expand ability to critically evaluate self and practices within the classroom
  • reflect on personal experience and implicit biases

Monday, December 22, 2014

Ferguson, Eric Garner, Unconscious Bias, and Witnessing Whiteness Dialogue Groups

There has been no shortage of words spoken and printed on the primary subjects of this piece. I offer my voice now to highlight some of the important messages I received.

First, Sandy Banks describes findings from a highly respected Stanford researcher, Jennifer Eberhardt, which highlight that deep, subconscious stereotypes exist in the majority of us, regardless of race. These stereotypes can be triggered subliminally, heighten fear responses, and result in deadly reactions against black people. Of this, there is really no question. Banks' December 5th LA Times article on how "police expectations damage black men's realities" is an important starting place for understanding how we all may be subject ot this very upsetting and damaging phenomena of internalized, subconscious stereotyping.

Caryl Rivers then offered an op-ed in the LA Times on December 11th which describes how "confirmation bias" a long history of helping whites demonize blacks." This article provides additional context for how unconscious bias and stereotypes are triggered based on the tendency to "interpret or remember information in a way that confirms what we already believe." This type of bias helps explain why even though "as Harvard sociologist Charles Ogletree has pointed out, 'ninety-nine percent of black people don't commit crimes, yet we see the images of black people day in, day out, and the impression is that they're all committing crimes.'" The essential take away from this work is that we will never resolve the real divisions that exit between blacks and whites in the U.S. until we recognize and confront the power of confirmation bias.

One result of confirmation bias is the belief among many white people that the U.S. has effectively ended systematic and institutionalized forms of racial discrimination. Paul Gorski's early December blog post highlights the irrefutable evidence that our society remains one in which "white people on average gain substantial benefits from their whiteness." His offering, in response to angry white voices on social media, helps us see that the very structure of our society continues to breed and maintain inequity and that its systemic nature is not simply a product of individual bigotry.

The need to attend to the systemic issues, as Paul Gorski does, is essential. And in order to truly get underneath the way pervasive, subconsious bias arises and is maintained through institutional structures, we need to each delve deeply enough into our own psyches to honestly evalute how we continue to be affected by bias. Debby Irvine does this on a regular basis. Her blog post explaining her shock as she witnessed herself rise as a white male approached her (as a show of respect) at a conference is illustrative. What she realizes is not simply that she gave respoect ot a white male (which is fine), but she reacted differently to others she encountered earlier the same day. This is the point. Subconscious bias is just that...below our level of conscious control. It is essential to consider that this same impulse to treat one person with increased deference and respect works in the opposite direction. This impulse come from the same kind of bias that causes the split-second, anxiety-fueled decision by some police to pull the trigger against a black man when it is not absolutely required. All of us who are not in law enforcement should consider ourselves forunate that our unconscious bias is unlikely to prove deadly.

It was Debby herself who alerted me to a useful TED Talk by Verna Myers who recently spoke about how to overcome our biases. Besides the culminating message letting us know that we need to boldly walk toward our bias, she offered a specific (and rather profound) first step for those of us who are white. She said, basically, that we need to stop worrying about being "good" people and we need to start focusing instead on being "real." So, what does she mean by that? Well, the 18 minute speech is worth listening to in full. But, at the core, what I found essential is that she is alerting us that if we only focus on whether or not we are "good", then we will be forever resistant to the unsettling question that needs to be asked..."how does Ferguson live wihtin us?" In other words, where in me does a fear of black men reside? Where in me is there unconscious bias?

Why are those questions so essential? In additional to our personal actions, subconscious bias also allows news events to go unexamined. Take a recent event in Los Angeles for example. A military-grade shipment of arms was recently sent to and accepted by the Los Angeles Unified School district (LAUSD) police. From what I understand, the initial delivery included a tank and grenade launcher. Wow! What makes any of us believe that it is even remotely appropriate for school police to be armed with military equipment? Close your eyes and imagine a scenario that would warrant the use of military equipment on a school campus. Who is in the scene? What racial background are the people in the scene? A close friend of mine, one who is working hard to combat subconscious bias, has written a song called "Listen" about this situation.This song highlights the need for a vision that replaces the fear of youth of color with an embrace of their gifts and inherent potential.

Thankfully, there are many who are responding to the anger, protests, and confusion unleashed by the recent grant jury deciisons by taking action to learn more about oureslves and each other, an esential step in breaking down unconscious bias. After all, we have to first learn about our bias and raise it to the level of conscious awareness before we will ever be able to learn techniques to eliminate its effects. A Decmeber 9th Colorlines article called "The White Conversation on Race" highlights the fact that there are many whites in St. Louis who are seeking conversations about undoing racism with each other.

One of the links within the article is to a CBS Evening News clip of a Witnessing Whiteness Dialogue Group. This group has been onging in St. Louis for the last four years. What I love most about this clip is that it offers a positive example of how white people can come together to learn and grow. It's not about segregating ourselves and it's not about guilt. This work is about taking responsibility for understanding how racism continues to play a pervasive role in our society, and it helps us learn how to take action (both within ourselves and with each other) to combat its effects. Look closely and you'll see the dialogue participants are holding my book. Am I thrilled to see this? Yes, of course.

You see, during these last couple of months circumstances have prevented me from participating as fully in the conversation about these issues as I would have liked. So, yes, I was thrilled to learn that throughout it all, something positive was coming from my work. And that's the point I'd like to end by making: We never know how our voice will affect people. We don't know how far and wide the message will extend. But every once in a while, if we keep doing the work of consciousness-raising AND taking action for justice, someday we just might get a message back that indicates people are positively affected during a critical time. We can make a difference. Each of our voices matter.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Straight Vanilla: White Culture and its Flavor

"My life is straight vanilla," a friend once said to me during a catch-up phone conversation. There wasn't anything to report. No adventure, no excitement. She considered her life boring and has since alluded to a diffuse and pervasive sense of meaninglessness. She didn't see her life as having flavor, culture, or spice. As I listened to her speak, the word "plain" came to mind.

In seeing the words "vanilla" and "plain" as synonymous I continued with a fundamental error  in thinking that I have found common within many in my white community. My explanation requires a bit of storytelling. You see, for many years I conflated "vanilla" and "plain." As a child, I believed vanilla ice cream was plain ice cream. Vanilla meant no flavor, the same as plain. I saw plain yogurt in stores as a curiosity. Who would ever choose plain? I never chose anything plain, and I never chose vanilla either. It was as though my taste buds were not sensitive enough to pick up vanilla's flavor. My error in thinking was never questioned.

Somewhere along the line I began to taste vanilla. I don't recall when it happened. But I remember noticing that I liked Vanilla Bean ice cream and Very Vanilla Yoplait yogurt. I realized that each had a distinctive taste. Vanilla candles spelled pungently, and vanilla body wash woke me up in the morning. As I increasingly recognized the flavor of vanilla, I began pouring an extra 1/2 teaspoon of vanilla in batter when baking.

What I have since realized is that saying "vanilla" is the same as "plain" is like saying that being white has no flavor, that it is plain and has no associated culture via generalizable assumptions, tendencies, or beliefs. For most of my life, I was not sensitive enough to see how being white shaped me, contributed to the way I thought, behaved, interpreted events, and saw others. seeing my white culture as plain masked its effects on my life. My error in thinking was never questioned. In fact, my white culture taught me not to see being white as real or meaningful. My white culture taught me to only see myself as an individual, to relish in my uniqueness.

Knowing that what white culture is, means, and includes is often hotly contested, I can still say that it is partially because of it that being white equaled being "plain" in my mind. If anything, I associated being white with my life having no culture. I thought it was colorless, flavorless, lacked spice, and was boring. The fact that my ancestors had elected (and been coerced to some degree) to take on a white identity and give up our heritage to fit in to the white group is 100% a part of this. Ultimately, my cultural and ancestral history supported my inability to see white culture as a flavor, like vanilla, hard for me to taste.

At this point in my life I see being white as part of my life's flavor. I may not fit into all that some say is associated with white culture. But, that's ok. No one fits 100% into the categorical box that is used to describe any particular culture. Said a different way, no generalized description of any culture fully captures all of those who are influenced by that culture.

White culture is real to me now, just like I now recognize that vanilla is a flavor. White culture is perceptible, even if I would never claim I exemplify all of it. Seeing white culture as "plain" did me, and those around me, a disservice. When I saw white culture as having no flavor, no influence on my life, it led me to believe I was culture-less and it made me unable to perceive how my thoughts and actions were infused with ideas and assumptions I did not realize were affected by my culture.

I love the taste of vanilla, and I appreciate seeing white culture. Being aware of its flavor helps me choose how much of it to keep as part of my life and where certain elements should be shed. Although my life may not be "straight vanilla" or exclusively shaped by white culture, I now recognize how much of my life is infused with it. And, I can now more consciously and responsibly choose how to enact the recipe of my life.

(More is written about my own process around my sense of cultural loss in Chapter 1 of Witnessing Whiteness, just in case you're interested.)