Saturday, February 26, 2011

Critical Race Theory: Challenging Popular "Kumbaya Diversity" Paradigms

A couple weeks ago, I attended University of Utah’s annual Conference on Social Awareness.

On the drive over, I was nervous. I’d never been to a social awareness conference that you have to sign up for in advance. Would they make us stand in a circle and hold hands? Honestly, I wasn’t in the mood for audience participation. Already off to a rough start that morning (forgetting to set my alarm, sleeping in), what I really wanted was to sit in the back row of a large auditorium and take notes.

When I walked into the Marriott Library, my mood was brightened by the smell of hash browns and eggs. I had already missed the introductory address, and the beginning of the first break-out session, so after collecting a pre-printed, plastic-encased name tag, an orange itinerary folder, and a mini back-pack with the COSA insignia, I figured some time out for a little breakfast couldn’t hurt (free food!). I breezed through the buffet and sat next to a young (freshman? Polynesian?) friendly volunteer named Trini. I pulled the two-page itinerary out of the orange folder, and chatted with Trini about what meetings to attend. She noticed the name of one of the presentation leaders, Asaeli Matelau, and laughed with surprise. “That’s my club leader--I knew he’d be here today, but I didn’t know he’d be one of the speakers.” I read from the itinerary that Asaeli was there representing the FACE Movement, “an organization working to enable youth to action beyond conversation by bringing together people and ideas who are working in marginalized spaces to empower and inspire one another.”  I was amazed at how an organization’s purpose statement could contain so many words and so little meaning. The description I’ve discovered recently on the FACE Movement blog is satisfyingly less vague. It starts with, “We were having conversations about the lack of support for students of color here on campus . . .”  

A few minutes later, I caught a glimpse of Asaeli. I was expecting to see a man in a suit and tie, what I saw instead was a Chris Brown back-up dancer look-alike. Trini pointed him out to me, and as he came by to flirt with her, I was surprised that he seemed so young. His hat and clothes were new, loose, and yes, totally hip-hop.

My fashion assessment was interrupted when I noticed a promising meeting description in the itinerary. “Using CRT (Critical Race Theory) to challenge popular ‘kumbaya’ diversity paradigms.” Light bulb! I knew this was the right meeting for me. I’m a sucker for sentences that contain both the words “challenge” and “paradigm.”

The Presentation

It was a large classroom. Rather than rows of desks, each row had a long table and wheeled office chairs. I guessed that the room seated 50 or so. There were about 25 young adults, and 1 middle aged woman in the audience. An equal number of men and women. Just as the presentation started I noticed a sign language translator at the front of the room. I was surprised to see so few people of color. There was 1 black man, 1 black woman, and 1 Asian woman, all the others were white. The discussion leaders were 3 conservatively dressed young adults. The first to speak, Dhiraj Chand, was a slender U of U graduate (Bachelor’s Degree) who looked Indian to me. The other two said they were graduate students. Nicola Saliendra had medium long, wavy, layered black hair, and a light brown complexion; I couldn’t tell if she was Polynesian, Asian or mixed race. Richard Diaz had fair skin, dark hair, Latin lineaments, and a hint of an accent.

I took careful notes during the meeting, but in my hurry to get it all down, I may have left a word or two out of the statements I wish to cite. It is, therefore, appropriate for me to confess that although I am using quotation marks to indicate dialogue, I may be only paraphrasing what was said.

Dhiraj opened the presentation by offering this matter-of-fact preface: “The purpose of this presentation is not to debate whether privilege or oppression exists. This is the moderate-to-advanced level course on these issues. So, if you are a person that questions whether or not racism is real, this might not be the right presentation for you.” I half expected someone to stand up and walk out. No one did.

Dhiraj, Nicola, and Richard took turns leading us through a power point presentation about Critical Race Theory. They explained that most conversations about race are the problematic “Kumbaya Diversity” type, superficial interactions with the following characteristics:

Kumbaya Diversity
  • the expectation that we can simply come together, hold hands, and be friends
  • the concept of “colorblindness,” pretending that race doesn’t exist
  • evasion of controversy (focusing only on “food, fun, and festival” where cultural diversity is concerned)
  • ignorance of the historical context of racism and oppression, and its contemporary effect
  • the archetype of the privileged person saving the underprivileged souls

To illustrate the last characteristic, Nicola described a satirical Mad TV skit in which a nice white lady tries to save the poor, inner city kids. The presenters then offered this summary of Critical Race Theory:

Critical Race Theory (CRT)
  • It’s about recognizing the significance of race in American society.
  • Racism is embedded in everything we do--CRT assumes this, and focuses on the question of how racism exists.
  • Race is part of a person’s intersection of identity (aspects of who you are). This informs work from multiple areas of academic study on race.
  • CRT scholars also have the obligation to fight for social justice.
  • There should be mutually beneficial dialogs on race, racism, and white supremacy in safe environments.

Part of the thesis of this presentation was that “safe spaces” for open dialogue about race (environments where people can be truly comfortable without fear of social consequence) are few are far between. Included in the power point presentation was this description of “Toxic Spaces,” race-dialogue opportunities gone bad.

Toxic Spaces
  • When race is the elephant in the room; tension is there, but no one is willing to talk about it.
  • When the historical context of white supremacy is ignored. When white people are unwilling to recognize that even in contemporary society being white still empowers them.
  • When a non-white person tries to express a frustration about discrimination, and a white person responds by saying something like, “Oh, well, I did a study abroad in [Country X], where I was totally the minority, so I know how you feel.” While those sharing I-know-how-you-feel anecdotes have likely experienced the temporary phenomenon of minority status, they have unlikely experienced the life-long phenomenon of being the historically underprivileged minority. Because this kind of comment seeks to diminish the magnitude of the comments made by the person of another race (sometimes inadvertently), the opportunity for open dialogue is closed. Most people would prefer to change the subject rather than say, “Excuse me, but you actually don’t know how it feels!”
  • When conversations are made to serve white people so they can “get it.”
  • When persons of color are expected to speak for their race and act as teachers.

Last Chance for Eden

Dhiraj explained that we’d be watching clips from a 2002 film that documents an open conversation about race between 9 individuals, “Last Chance for Eden” by Lee Mun Wah. Richard added that to prepare for discussion, as we watched, we could write questions or comments on large sheets of easel paper that Nicola would be passing out for each row to share.

The setting of the film was a medium-sized living room space packed tightly with a circle of chairs. There were nine or ten individuals of various races participating in the conversation. All appeared to be between 30 and 50 years old. There were no noticeable economic class distinctions; a woman who I supposed might be Filipino mentioned that she was a professional, but that was the only career mention. The participants all wore casual clothes. There were about as many women as men.

The first shot was of a white woman saying with a trembling voice, “I’m not black...and to me it’s very, very false when people say ‘I understand.’ Excuse me, how could I possibly understand?”

A black woman answered in response, “Well, you can ask me what my story is, you can come ask me, and you can take my hand, and we can stand in the pain together. And I’m just saying to all you white people, welcome to the pain! Welcome to the pain.”

I remember at that point, taking a purple sharpie, and writing on the easel paper, “I didn’t expect this film to be so emotional. But of course, how could a candid conversation about race not be?”

She continued, “People have decided what American means--and it doesn’t look like me, and it doesn’t look like you and you and you, but it looks like you (to white person). They say, ‘Well, we’re bending over backwards to do this and to do that’ . . .well, why can’t this just be what we do, we tell each other stories, we get honest about people. Why does it have to be, ‘I’m doing these gymnastics!’” She was referring to her observation that white people view race issues as an extra burden that they dislike, but feel obligated to deal with. She then spoke of an experience in which her boss disregarded her feelings when she tried to describe an episode of discrimination that day.

A black man said, “People wanna hear what it’s like to be black and then I tell them, and they say, ‘Well, I’ve been poor, I’ve been stopped by the cops.’ And they seem to be saying, ‘Well, I still act my age, why don’t you?’” He also added, “Pain is often dismissed . . . I’m dissected and told what I should have done. I wanna be validated. I wanna be believed.”

These shared perspectives opened my eyes. I began to wonder whether I’ve ever casually dismissed someone who opened up to talk about discrimination.

Throughout the film, the white participants seemed awkward. It was obvious that they were out of their comfort zones--trying very hard to say the right thing, bearing “concerned” and “caring” looks on their faces. I’m not suggesting that they were feigning interest in the conversation. I think, rather, that they were nervous, and markedly concerned about being judged as racist. The effect, however, was that sometimes their emotions seemed exaggerated, and their carefully chosen words were over-cooked. In addition, at moments when it would have been more thoughtful to simply listen to the effects of subtle racism, they responded defensively, which was understandable, considering the topic at hand. However, it didn’t resonate well with the other participants.

“That’s something that I’m fearful of” a white man said explaining his anxiety about the race conversation itself, “that if I make a faux-pas in some sort of way, that I’m written off, that I blew it . . .”

A woman with light brown skin, and short, coarse hair (African American?) asked, “So what is that feeling for you to know that you, too, walk on eggshells?”

He answered: “It pisses me off, because I don’t get to be myself.” He explained that he hates worrying about which terms are politically correct, that usually he just gets by by thinking of people as people and doesn’t have to worry about race.

The woman who looked Filipino to me swallowed his statement with the taste of irony. She voiced an emotional response, “. . . to walk in and just say, well, this is me . . .That’s not something that easily comes to people of color. Because we look different. Because we don’t have your features, and we don’t have the status and rank that you have.”

At a different point in the film, the same white man spoke to a brown-skinned Hispanic man, “I understand your anger, but not your pain . . . tell me . . . You’re gonna become real for me right now.”

“I’m offended that you said that,” a black man responded immediately. “It’s like the burden of proof is on you (to Hispanic man) . . . I’m offended that Carlos isn’t ‘real’ to you until he is where you want him to be. This constructive criticism is because I care about you.” It seemed obvious to me that the white man’s comment was simply a well-meaning, but  ill-shapen metaphor (the idea that a person is not real until a moment of friendship is shared). I was surprised that it was pulled apart and analyzed with so much scrutiny.  I didn’t like the idea that the participants of color seemed to be ganging up on the white man, finding fault in every thing he said. But then I saw my own irony. Many people of color feel daily that same judgment and criticism--the feeling that they have to prove themselves, to always say the right thing to be accepted by whites. They were looking for ways to convey that feeling as they conversed.

The conversation turned again to the topic of safety. The question was asked, “When do you feel it is safe to be with white people?” This was understood to be more a question of emotional safety than of physical safety.

I noticed that a classroom audience member on the other side of the room had written an easel paper comment that surprised me. I assumed that it was not meant as an objective question, but as an inappropriate joke that sarcastically evoked a common stereotype, “When does it feel safe for white people to be with black people?”

A black man in the film, answered the original safety question. “Never. I just don’t feel safe . . . I come guarded . . . I would like to say that I want to feel safe, but I can’t get there.” He added that if he saw a white woman on the street who needed help, he’d like to help her, but wouldn’t because he wouldn’t want to risk being accused of something.

A Hispanic man offered, “I feel safer with people who are willing to talk about the issues . . . when white people are willing to talk about how they benefit from racism, and how we don’t.”

Humility hit me when I realized that although I’ve had many conversations about white supremacy, I’ve always removed myself from the context. I’ve never seriously pondered the effect of my own whiteness, and how it gives me a social status.

The woman I thought might be Filipino, and a woman who said she was Navajo gave these answers, respectively:

“It costs me a great deal to be in a relationship with you (to white person).”

“When I leave the best part of me elsewhere so you (to white person) can feel good--that’s when I feel safe. Why don’t I get to bring that good part along with me?”

The film conversation moderator asked the participants a final question: “Do you imagine a world without racism?”

The white woman who spoke in the first film clip was somber, “It just makes me feel so hopeless that there is no answer.”

A white man concluded, “White people don’t understand the depth of the fear. We’ve never been able to hear how it can be--that it’s a sacrifice to be alive.”

 Discussion of the Film

Our presentation leaders stopped the film and allowed us a few minutes to discuss questions and comments with the people sitting next to us. There was a white woman about my age (27-ish) to my left, and a 23-ish fair-skinned Hispanic man to her left who started the conversation. He said he thought the criticism of the white people in the conversation seemed like too much, “in some ways, it seemed fabricated.” He supposed the fact that the participants were all similar ages brought on a kind of disrespect and controversy that might have been prevented had the participants been of varying ages. I disagreed, I thought the age similarity was a good control for this social experiment. Difference in age may have been a distraction--participants would have been tempted to talk about age discrimination instead of racism. Our third discussion partner said that, personally, she felt at a loss for what to do. She explained that she was a therapist, and wanted sincerely to be someone that her clients would open up to. “How do they want to be treated?” she asked herself aloud.

Richard, Dhiraj, and Nicola then initiated a whole group discussion. Another white woman in the row behind me was eager to respond, “Someone in the film said that when a person of color expresses an emotion about racism that offends a white person, it’s like they’re expected to apologize for it. I wrote WTF on the paper. Excuse my profanity.”

The black woman sitting behind me had a few comments to make. One of which was about the CRT power point presentation statement that some white people who’ve done a study abroad or comparable experience use that to prove they know what it’s like to be a minority. She felt that many white people get involved in “other culture” experiences so they can have diversity stickers on their resumes.

A white woman agreed and emphasized, “Systemic racism makes it so that being a white person in a black group or neighborhood is not parallel to being a black person in a white majority.”

I was still stuck with a question. If proponents of Critical Race Theory say it’s inappropriate to ask persons of color to speak for their race, or teach whites what it’s like to experience discrimination, what should whites do instead? Someone else asked my question aloud, and Richard took at crack at it. “It’s not necessarily about asking people of other races to explain stuff to you, but talking to people of your own racial group about the issue.”

Dhiraj supported the idea. “I think whites should have open, candid conversations about race with other whites.” The importance of being a good listener when people are willing to share discrimination experiences was reiterated.

He closed the meeting with this final statement, “It’s like pollution, you can’t get rid of it, you can only alleviate it a little. It’s okay to leave today with a list of questions. It’s a continued process.” I chuckled, because I felt exactly that way.

I came away with the affirmation that racism is not just about job discrimination or the Klu Klux Klan. It isn’t solved when cast members of color are added to a T.V. show that centers around a white family. It isn’t solved when white individuals confirm to themselves that they are colorblind, because they have a couple of black friends. Racism is an undeniable part of our history, our socio-economic system, and our collective subconscious. It’s such a subtle part of who we are, that it will take much candid conversation to bring it to the surface, let alone bring about a little alleviation.

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