Sunday, November 1, 2009

Tread Carefully Arizona - Endangering Immigrants, Endangering Ourselves

Here we have it, reason enough that law enforcement and immigration officials should NOT work together in a way that makes undocumented people in our cities fear the police. This is a warning to all those in Arizona who are about to make life extremely dangerous for those in their state.

(Note: the position that law enforcement and immigration officials should NOT work together is an argument outlined in an Op-Ed in November 2009 by outgoing Los Angeles Police Chief William Bratton, who we thank for endorsing a vision of community policing that helps reduce crime.)

So, here's the situation:

Take a community of undocumented immigrants. They are working multiple jobs to try and support themselves in the US and send money home to support the families they've left behind in countries like Guatemala, Mexico, and El Salvador.

These are good people, family-oriented and hard working.

Individually, throughout a city, they begin to receive phone calls telling them that if they don't pay upwards of $5,000 that one of their relatives in their home country will be maimed or killed.

They are instructed to gather the money and go to a money transfer outlet, like Western Union. The money is transferred to somewhere else in the US, where it is picked up.

If these immigrants don't pay...they have every reason to believe their loved one will be on the receiving end of significant violence. --- This is extortion, plain and simple.

This is also happening. Reports from some of our least politically powerful citizens are too afraid to speak up publicly, but the word is spreading. At least one little boy in another country has already had his finger cut off.

This is an international network. The calls appear to be coming from Guatemala, but the money is collected in the US, and the violence is not isolated to either of these two countries.

To pass laws that allow the victims of these crimes to fear deportation if they report this level of extortion is a complete travesty!

This is clearly an issue for the FBI, and my strongest hope is that my colleagues who are telling me about this activity will have the confidence in our system to report these heinous crimes. How to approach this carefully has been our conversation so far.

Unfortunately, there remains a lot of fear among immigrant communities, and inviting them to come forward really only appears viable if they believe they will be truly and honestly helped.

An atmosphere that lets them know their very presence in the US is despised is hardly a way to support honesty and justice.

And, just think about this, if WE don't help support them when they are in need...what in the world would make us think that they would support US if we ever needed their voice?

Confronting our Fear, Inspiring Others

What do you do when someone does something that requires critique?

Do you:
a. Keep your mouth shut so you avoid risking the relationship
b. Say what you need to say, as directly as possible, not worrying about the person's feelings, and risking that the person may no longer wish to associate with you further
c. Work to find language to express what you need to, working to use the info to build the relationship, hoping to inspire consideration and new understandings

When it comes to confronting race issues...all three seem like pretty common paths taken. In my life, I've found myself using all of them on occasion, depending upon the larger set of power dynamics that change with each discrete situation. (Not that they are all equally helpful! I'm trying very, very hard to create a practice where choice "c" occurs without any trepidation.)

Lately, I was confronted with the choice again....but in a new way. This time I was removed from the situation, not part of the original event. And, therefore, I had to negotiate how to..

1) support my colleagues to express themselves
2) raise the issue to those in higher positions of authority in a way that doesn't break down the initial trust I'm trying to form on campus around these issues.

The last thing I need is to become the "gotcha" girl on campus, always ready to catch your mistake!

The choice is clear for me, but the path took some time to clarify. The information had to be shared, both with the instructor at our College who used some course content in a way that reinforced stereotypes, and with the Chair who oversees the program.

But, how I would do that was essential. I needed to give myself enough time to approach this in a way that invited self-reflection, from one colleague to another, as opposed to a reactionary stance that either "told on someone" or "shamed and blamed".

In the end...what did I do? How did I respond? I spent a good deal of time speaking with my colleagues about their capacity to use their voice to name what they observed (supporting them to witness for themselves), and I also used my own in order to support us all becoming more aware of 1) how we teach, 2) the messages we deliver, and 3) how damage can occur even in a room where everyone is laughing.

It's one of those things that seems completely obvious to anyone familiar with this work. Yes, of course, have the conversation. It's basic ally work!

The trick is, each situation feels different and holds a different sense of precarious footing. Understanding and supporting each other to keep making those "right" choices to the best of our ability felt very, very, very important.

In short, I had to support my colleague of color who was hesitant to approach a white male instructor. She had had so many experiences being invalidated in past situations that she felt the entire endeavor was likely either fruitless or to inspire additional pain. Instead of dropping it, however, we approached the instructor together, as a team. We offered our praise for what had been done well, and then we offered our recognition that some subtle bias was present in the ppt shown the session prior.

Thankfully, this instructor responded favorably (a bit to our surprise). He had been wholly unconscious of how his image choices would affect students, and I do believe he is likely to rethink his choices in future semesters.

Even though this may seem like a fairly minor issue, it was actually rather anxiety provoking for both myself and my colleagues. Neither of us relish confronting race issues head on. But, we did...and we had an opportunity to share our experiences with others at a lunch gathering on campus a few days later.

Perhaps the best part, however, was that three days later I was approached by one of my other colleagues who had been present at the lunch. She wanted to offer a compliment to us for having offered ourselves as a model. She then reported that, for the first time, she approached a presenter after a college presentation to inform the speaker about some areas where discrimination and bias were recognizable. She let me know that before, she wouldn't have had the courage to face up to the need to speak directly to the presenter. Instead, she would have complained to friends later and just sat steaming.

The point? We support each other to take risks when we take our own risks. When we form communities in which we can share our experiences, we become models that those around us can use to challenge themselves.

I'd lost sleep over the earlier situation for a couple of weeks. But that night, hearing that my colleague and I inspired someone else to action....I slept soundly.

Drowning in the Work

Close to two months since my last post and I have a list of things that could be, should be, said. What happened? I became inundated with the work. This wasn't really surprising, as I saw it coming. In fact, the truth is that I invited it. For a few months I decided to do something different. I decided to say "yes" to anything that sounded like a good idea, even if I wasn't sure that I'd have time to accomplish it.

I now have various projects and issues being worked on, about 5, in addition to my full-time job, and it leaves me precious little energy to sit and ponder in front of the computer this way.

Pondering? I do plenty of that. In the car, in the shower, and walking the dogs. So much has transpired that the self-reflection necessary to witness it all has been required. I just haven't written it down.

Perhaps the best moment, inspiring just 1 of the projects, was an early October experience where, for the first time, I ended up (note that I'm acting like I didn't help set things up this way :) leading a group of my college's faculty and staff through an initial dialogue on race.

It was an open invitation. The session would occur after a major meeting on a Friday evening. My colleague and I imagined maybe 10-13 people might attend. We had 23. This included the Provost and the President of the College (who showed up to truly participate, not simply observe).

The session went really, really well...perhaps the best experience I've had leading dialogues/workshops about witnessing so far. For several, they mentioned that this is the first time they've really spoken to people about race in the workplace and how nervous they were walking in the door. It was really gratifying to know how many thought we should really continue this process and dig in to how race and racism are present on our campus.

And, so now...what did that mean?

It's now my (volunteer) role to help prepare and facilitate the workshops for the rest of the year.

I'm really not complaining. It's amazing to have the opportunity. My only recognition is how essential it will be to do this well....and take the time to ensure that I can do this well!

And, this is just 1 of the many...and I'm drowning with this work...hoping to find my strokes so that it feels like swimming again soon. Even in the midst of the turbulence, though, the water is healing.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Dialogues on race in 8 minutes

I’m a single, white woman in my thirties. For me this means I regularly take part in various forms of social/dating rituals: blind dates, internet connections, meet up groups, and most recently…speed dating.

In the last several years, as my voice on white identity and racism has strengthened, I’ve come to terms with the fact that any first date will involve a discussion on race. There are usually two ways this goes. Either the discussion resolves well, and a second date becomes possible (at least on my end). Or, it does not go well, and I downshift into becoming my best educator self for the remainder of the date.

I learned something about myself last week. It is this: No, I cannot share substantially with someone for even 8 minutes without talking about race. No, I will not submit to surface level chatter to avoid it. And, no, I am not afraid of what that might bring.

So, enter Bachelor number 4. Our 8 minutes together started with so much promise.

Me: So, what are you passionate about?

Him: Justice. (Very nice start!)

More questions, more answers…all of which made him increasingly attractive.

Him: So, what are you passionate about?

Me: Racial justice

Him: What do you mean?

Me: I’m invested in helping people see how our history of racism continues to impact people today and how the structures of our society still operate largely in ways that support inequity.

Him: So, you support affirmative action?

Me: I see it as an important step in our movement forward.

I could have said more…a lot more. Had we been sharing a meal he would have gotten an ear full. However, we had two minutes to wrap up and he felt it important to let me know how na├»ve I am and how he used to be liberal until he moved to LA.

There’s more to the story…and more to him. I’m sure it’s hard when you find that your business struggles in part due to policies that do not put you at the front of the line. I’m also sure that whatever I might have said, it likely would not have altered his perspective.

I’m sure of that mostly because of what occurred in the last 2 minutes. He received a call. (Yes, on an 8 minute date he felt the need to take a call.) Why? Because he had parked his fancy car in the loading zone of a high-priced hotel with a note on it saying that he was working inside the hotel. And…shockingly, he was actually receiving a call telling him that it was time to move his car. No tow truck for the fancy car, apparently.

Privilege oozed from him, and I had to laugh in order to cope with the situation.

I kept chuckling to myself, shaking my head, until the bell rang and the men were asked to switch seats. Bachelor number 4 raced from the room to rescue his car. I proceeded to talk about what happened to both the Latina woman seated next to me as well as the African American man who sat down next in front of me. We all laughed and shook our heads, sadly witnessing Privilege with a capital P, with a heavy dose of Denial to support it.

And, 8 minutes later, another white man sat before me, another white man with whom I could try to talk about race. Let the games begin! This last guy seemed to get it, thank goodness. And we actually had quite a nice conversation, one that lasted longer than 8 minutes since he was last in the lineup for the night.

And thus, the night ended with a tie, a score of 1 to 1 for the white men. And hope exists (floats up as they say) even amidst sad displays of entitlement.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Wake up call...

The phone rang at 6:30 this morning. I knew who it was. There's only one person who calls me this early. My student, former student, who is currently working as a seasonal, migrant worker at a food processing plant in Wisconsin. I've known him since he was 13. He's 19 now. I taught him for two years when he was in middle school. Then he was sent to live with relatives in Mexico.

I've been getting phone calls like this now for years. From Mexico and LA and now from Wisconsin. For a few years it was only every few months. He'd walk for miles at night to the only pay phone in town. It has always been this way for us. He reaches out when he's angry, hurt, and worried that he is about to become violent against somebody - either himself or another.

Life for him is not never has been. And he wants so much more. The full story of how I became his crisis hotline is much too long for this one post...but, what prompted today's call is important.

I plan to put him through college. I've known this for years. He's known it for a few months. We talked about it recently while he was back in LA a little while back and I let him know he had options. He didn't have to go to Wisconsin with his grandfather to work in the factory this summer/fall, to pick the pieces of rat and frog from the beans. (Yes, his main job is picking out the pieces of cut up rats and frogs from the conveyor belt before the beans move to the next phase of cleaning and end up in the cans we buy at the store. Eww! That's how I responded when he first told me. Now we joke about it. Eww! is what we say every time we talk.)

He's about at the end of his rope the system, the 14 hr. a day shifts he works, the falseness of the employer, the way Mexicans are treated, they way he feels beat up and abused (asked to do more than possibly can be done, more than is asked of others), the government, everything and everyone who is not kind. He's the guy that a lot of people would pass up standing in front of the Home Depot...He's the guy that a lot of people would dismiss.

He's also the guy fighting to follow his dreams of going to college and studying psychology. He loves to think. For a guy who only spent a few years learning English in California during his early adolescence, our conversations are amazing! He's fighting the internal battle of knowing that everything in his upbringing is telling him to give his hard-earned money to his grandfather, his struggling uncle, his brother without US citizenship, etc. He laments how little will be left for himself. Then he talks about the privilege he has because he carries a US passport and what that means he must do for his brother.

He wants to make it on his own...maybe with a little help. But, today he blew me away. Toward the end of our conversation he asked me if my offer was still good (to help him with college) even if it took him awhile to get there. You see, even though he called me this morning to help him find a way to not give up on the end of the conversation he was still putting his family's needs first and not seeing college as an immediate possibility. He wants it...but he can't give it to himself yet.

Now here's where my need to check my privilege comes in. I'm sitting in my comfortable home, knowing that I'm trying to offer him a way into my own middle class life. He's outside the bunkhouse, knowing that he simply cannot walk away from his sense of familial obligation. We talk about the tension: his life's dreams vs. his family's expectations, individualism vs. communalism, capitalism and exploitation, cynicism and hope. It would be so easy, so easy to judge his say that he's being stupid for wasting his time working in that factory, to say that he could offer so much more to his family with college under his belt.

Witnessing has made me know better.

We talk, and I share my frustrations. We talk, and he shares his. We talk, and I have to check my cultural and class-based arrogance that would argue with him. We talk, and I have to respect his process. We talk, and he is heard, and seen, and valued.

And I'm glad we talked. At least I know he won't give up on life today. And because he doesn't, neither do I.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

The Destruction of a Movement, Sinking into Privileged Despair

In the scheme of things it's a small thing, really. There's so much that comes together to subvert and destroy what is an essential movement to develop...white people coming together en masse to work toward racial justice. But, I just bumped into myself again, and came face to face with one aspect that I don't hear talked about nearly enough.

Many of us (white folks) feel like if we can't be like the premiere, perfect anti-racist person then we might as well give up. (Yes, I know that privilege oozes out of that statement and could rightly be considered the most important aspect to discuss. But, that's where my conversations with other white people trying to act responsibly usually go.) What I don't hear very often is the discussion over what sets that feeling in motion.

For example, last night I sat down to offer up a post. As a newbie in this realm I wanted to link up my topic to Tim Wise because I respect his work and often find his analysis more well-crafted than my own. I learn from him...and I think plenty of other people should too.

But, as I cruised his blog (Tim's Main Blog) and saw how much he really offers, the feeling swept over me...what in the world do I have to contribute? How could my voice possibly add in a beneficial way and not just be unhelpful clutter? My sense of self sank and I ended up not writing a post. In fact, I sank into a sense of personal self-pity that left me unmotivated to do the other work I'd intended to do that night.

Why is that a big deal? It's because my lack of motivation for doing my own work showed up because I was in some way disappointed at not being at a Tim Wise level.

Again, I'm already recognizing that it's a privilege position to even sit and reflect this have the time and opportunity to follow my own emotional self-pity into laziness and not have it adversely affect my life.

And, yet, I think there's something to be gained by realizing that if there are lots of people doing what I'm doing then we need to really deal with it. If I (and others) can resist entering that place of "well he's doing so much...I can't do what he I'll just go over here and sulk" then maybe, just maybe, we'll be more likely to resist our privilege to do nothing and figure out a way to contribute in our own way.

After a night of destructive thinking, I awoke this morning realizing how much that tendency to compare might be stopping people from taking up action.

Although it remains true that I respect Tim's essay-writing capabilities and appreciate that his voice is in the world, I also have to remind myself that there's room for ALL white people to find their unique voice and speak out about racism, privilege, and how we can work more effectively for racial our own, hopefully continually improving, way.

For me, today, more effectively means that I search within myself for my own offering to the conversation without worrying whether or not I've achieved my perfection standard. Yes, I'll make mistakes. Yes, there will be times when I add to the clutter. But, my belief must be that struggling to learn and speak about how white privilege and whiteness show up in my life and how I allow them to derail my efforts at times can perhaps shed a bit of light, on occasion, and perhaps, just perhaps, support others to do the following: Stop the comparison. Use our voices. Speak out against privilege whenever and wherever possible. Create community around our attempts at subverting racism. And, stop the cycle where we as white folks allow ourselves to turn away from working at racial justice (even for a moment) because of our own insecurities.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Dis-ease in the white community

"I have an uplifting view of the world. Racism has become unacceptable in our society. We have outlawed discrimination and more and more people are transcending race. In fact, race has no biological reality.”
I used to speak using this language. I know plenty of people who still describe their approach to race this way. Admittedly, this sounds like the right and healthy approach to most white people and some people of color! The trouble is what many of these statements ignore and deny. The trouble is what is left unexplored and unsaid. The reality is this: There is a deep dis-ease regarding race residing within much of the white community. We are uncomfortable, but we don’t know what to do about it!