Saturday, August 14, 2010

California's Proposition 8 - Privilege and the Naming of Neutrality

My commentary here will be brief. I just want to alert you to a current issue/debate going on here in California that can be used to help us increase our ability to see how white privilege often shows up in our public debate.

Having said that, this issue is really not about race at all. It's about Proposition 8, an initiative passed by California voters that ended the ability of gay and lesbian people to legally marry in this state.

On August 13th , a pair of editorials were published in the LA Times. Links are posted below. They are both short and worth reading.

Lose the Ruling, Attack the Judge

A biased ruling on gay marriage in California

As you can see, neither say anything about white privilege. But, what I'd like to offer here is that there are links between the arguments presented here and the criticisms against the nomination of Sonia Sotomayor for the Supreme Court.

Basically, (and I'm probably abbreviating this too much) what I see is that when a group that has long held a position of power (and sees its way of life as the "norm") fears that there is another group becoming increasingly powerful and thereby potentially 1) receiving increased benefits from the system and 2) creating a cultural shift regarding what is considered "normal", there is a backlash. This backlash targets the less systemically powerful group as "biased", as though being part of a "minority" group automatically makes one incapable of rendering an objective and fact-based opinion.

Let's be clear, though, that the point I am raising is that the group that has long held power assumes that its representatives ARE absolutely neutral and are somehow more capable of generating a reasonable and fair perspective.

Pasted below is a perfectly crafted (in my opinion) satire of this issue as presented on Stephen Colbert's comedy show in regards to how it plays out in terms of race.

Stephen Colbert's THE WORD - Neutral Man's Burden

We should watch out for, and argue against, this problematic tendency whenever it arises. Because regardless of how you feel about this particular issue (gay marriage) is all tied up with power and privilege, and the people who are in a position to wield institutional power most often in this country are still both white and straight.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Notes from my field

Update #1:

This is a story about how my anti-racism practice shows up in my work world.

A couple of years ago, upon the publication of my book - Witnessing Whiteness - a fellow faculty member (turned administrator) mentioned feeling that convening a book club of faculty/staff at the College to read my book would be a good idea. Fabulous! I thought. I wanted to be able to share my work with my colleagues, but was really worried about being seen as some type of self-perceived know-it-all about race.

This colleagues put out an invitation to the College and two book groups emerged, one on each of our campuses. I attended each session on both campus, and other members facilitated the conversations. After a year, about 12 individuals remained invested in the discussion (some inspired by the book's contents), and discussion revolved around how to keep it going.
Throughout, I tried to hold my tongue and allow the process to develop organically (again, anxious about being too much in control).

What emerged was a plan for two types of dialogue spaces to occur the following academic year. One would be for open, unstructured conversation. The other would be in a more "workshop" format". All faculty/staff would be invited, and we'd develop the conversation and structure as people convened.

In order to support the process, I volunteered to show up to the first dialogue with a workshop structure and provide facilitation. It was mostly centered around community building and sharing interests, concerns, and goals. In no way was I invested in being the primary facilitator over the long run.

Much to my surprise, 23 individuals responded to that first invitation (including the College President) to spend two hours on a Friday evening discussion race and culture. I acted as facilitator. Things went well...very well. I was asked to continue to provide leadership and continue providing facilitative support.

Deep down I knew that there was an emerging problem. Invitations and facilitation for these dialogues were being done exclusively by three white women (myself, the originally inspired administrator, and one other invested, senior colleague). I knew the basic message conveyed was not a good one. And I also knew that my work life felt overwhelming.

I call the building in which I work a vortex. Once I enter each day I am completely swept up in the impressive array of logistics and conversations that I am responsible to guide and resolve. Over the course of the year I knew the value and import of reaching out to the people of color colleagues on campus in order to seek collaboration. I knew that multi-racial collaboration was the only to allow the dialogues to become safe spaces for the diversity of our staff/faculty to show up.

Because I didn't get out of the vortex, last year's dialogues were primarily attended by white faculty. Honestly, really honestly, this worked for me. I understand white caucusing. I think the work with white faculty is extremely important, and I was actually a bit happy to start there...realizing that pain awaited a person of color attending and listening to well-intentioned, but troubling, remarks about race/culture from some of my white colleagues.

But I also knew that something needed to change.

This change finally occurred this summer. During my break, I finally made it over to the office of a colleague of color who I admire and respect and who I've had conversations with in previous years about race. I knew he understands issues of power, privilege, and diversity really well. He's also a veteran staff person on campus.

I told him my story, unsure of what I was asking, if anything. But, I knew I needed to explain my efforts and why they looked like they did.

The feedback offered was a bit different than I'd imagined --- and that's precisely why it was important to take the step to ask for it.

It's resulted in a new collaboration. I don't know what levels of commitment we have to one another. But, he and I will be co-facilitating a first dialogue after our College's convocation in a couple of weeks. We've planned together, and it felt really good.

So, what's my point in telling this story?

I'm not perfect, and neither has been the enactment of my anti-racist practice on campus. I know that. But, I also know that taking one step at a time, continuing to reflect, and continuing to try and rectify and challenge areas where I'm not as good I want to be is a powerful thing...and essential for those of us who need to stay motivated to keep stretching ourselves.

I'm hopeful about this upcoming academic year...and I'm also nervous...for two reasons.

1) I'm choosing to invest more in my home community. That has already led to some challenging conversations. More are surely on their way.

2) This means I must set aside moments to escape the vortex of my job in order to have the one-on-one conversations necessary to build trust with other colleagues and repair any damage that might have been done during last year's white led approach.

Wish me well! I'll need all the positive thoughts coming my way that I can get.