One of the most pernicious tricks of oppressive privilege is the way that it makes itself invisible.
Despite the success of feminism and the women's movements around the world in exposing male privilege, we still have far to go in the battle against sexist and patriarchal oppression. Though not as easy as it once was, one aspect of male privilege continues to be the capacity to choose to ignore that privilege âe" even up to pretending (or denying) that it exists. Men can still choose to disappear that privilege on a daily basis, treating their actions and accomplishments as though they were not connected to sexist and patriarchal training, socialization and so on.
Nonetheless, the fight against sexism and patriarchy is something that has won a significant degree of mainstream credibility and acceptance. Not so with another invisibility that continues to structure our society and lives in powerful and exclusionary ways: whiteness.
Racism is one of the most pervasive forms of oppression in the world âe" ubiquitous is, perhaps, a better adjective still. It has been such an integral part of the making of the modern world that there is hardly an aspect of our social, economic, political or daily life that is not bound up with it.
There is an always growing literature addressing the countless aspects of racism from numerous perspectives. In this review, I feature five different types of anti-racist writing. Not that they are easy to classify. Just as anti-racism cuts across all disciplines and practices, so these books span a diversity of interests, engaging theory and practice in numerous ways. They include a manual for organizational change, sociology theory, a white anti-racistâe(TM)s account of his work, a gay Jamaican American's essays and an insurgent dictionary. Think of this as a field kit for the anti-racist educator.
Dancing on Live Embers: Challenging Racism in Organizations by Tina Lopes and Barb Thomas (Between the Lines, 2006; $26.95) is a must-have for all anti-racist activists. I know that sounds more like a blurb than a critical comment but the most critical thing I feel I can say about this book is that it should be in the widest possible circulation.
All books are interventions in the world âe" some seek to sustain things as they are and some, as with this one, push for urgent and necessary change. Combining theory, personal critical reflection and hands-on tools, this book is a powerful resource both for understanding how racism pervades and how to act against racism (and for equity) in organizational contexts.
The core of Dancing on Live Embers is divided into three key âeoephasesâe of anti-racism work in organizations: the phase Getting Beyond Training is about moving effectively past the characteristic crisis response to creating an anti-racist process; the next phase is about applying anti-racist practices to organizational behaviours, structures and processes which leads to the third phase of staying committed to the goal of racial equity in the face of contradictions, set-backs and other hurdles.
Each section centres around a few brief scenarios and one substantive case study from which theory and practice are articulated. The next section takes things up a level from the context of single organizations to that of national organizations and coalitions. And, to round things off, the authors courageously document their own dialogue as a racialized woman and a white woman working together both in the various experiences recounted in this book and in the writing of the book itself.
It is this dialogue that makes the book exceptional in the field. It takes guts to dare to be as vulnerable as this âe" sharing the necessarily intimate exchanges in which some usually very invisible racist practices are challenged and scrutinized, such as the âeoeinterpreter roleâe in which someone adds their thoughts to something already said by a colleague and thus inappropriately drawing the credit for the point. Men do this to women, older people to younger people and white people do it to people of colour. It is an extremely common ploy of privilege and one that is needful of continued anti-racist attention.
There are simply too many positive points in this book to do them justice in this brief review. This is a book that can respond to the urgency for anti-racist change. Here's a thought to leave you with: what if every organization with an equity committee (something every organization should have) were to support its members to work with this book to apply the ideas, tools and lessons? Hmmm, what then?
In addition to organizational change there is also personal work to be done. As a white activist/educator committed to anti-racism, I apply what I learned first from feminists: the obligation to take responsibility for my education and not simply rely on women or, in this instance, on people of colour to teach me. I have witnessed (as well as performed) the characteristic response to being challenged on oppressive behaviour: asking the challenger to teach me better behaviour. This can be, and often is, used as a subtle means of exploiting the experience of people resisting oppression while simultaneously avoiding or abdicating personal responsibility. Yet another trick of privilege.
Racism, regardless of degree, is a form of violence. And I keep these words of Brazilian philosopher Paulo Freire, from Education for Critical Consciousness (Continuum, 1973), fresh in my memory:
Every relationship of domination, of exploitation, of oppression, is by definition violent, whether or not the violence is expressed by drastic means. In such a relationship, dominator and dominated alike are reduced to things âe" the former dehumanized by an excess of power, the latter by lack of it. And things cannot love. When the oppressed legitimately rise up against their oppressor, however, it is they who are usually labelled "violent," "barbaric," "inhuman" and cold. (Among the innumerable rights claimed by the dominating consciousness is the right to define violence, and to locate it. Oppressors never see themselves as violent.)
White, anti-racist activist Tim Wise repeatedly makes this dynamic very clear in White Like Me: Reflections on Race from a Privileged Son (Soft Skull Press, 2005; $19.50). This is both memoir and essay in which Wise recounts his own struggle to learn about racism, unlearn racist behaviour and ideas, and practice anti-racist education and advocacy. An obvious question (at least it should be obvious to anti-racist activists) is, âeoewhat does a white person have to say, let alone teach, about racism?âe
This is a trickier question to answer than might be apparent. For there is the usual risk that works such as these ironically will mobilize white people to be more proactive without proper attention to a just relationship with the leadership of people of colour.
White people taking action is, of course, necessary. But this is a loaded issue. It would be so easy for white anti-racist people to move into the position of âeoeexpertâe on racism. (Tina Lopes and Barb Thomas write effectively about this.) And a key question is: what is a just means âe" including tactics, strategies and disposition âe" for white people to act on anti-racism? Wiseâe(TM)s book has something powerful to teach about the consequences of racism, what it means to be white and privileged. His own story shows well how deeply ingrained racist ideas and behaviour can be. A white person cannot write about racism (as I am doing with this review) without risking further benefiting from racism.
There will always be people who want eagerly to reward white people for taking action on racism and, while credit is necessary, this can easily slip into reinforcing privilege by promoting exceptionalism: âeoeisn't he special for daring to write so?âe It is perhaps an unavoidable contradiction, but one that must be named and acted on. Iâe(TM)m not sure what an appropriate response is, but I know it has a lot to do with emotional and political honesty and courage (something that you will find in Wiseâe(TM)s account) and humility. Though I am confident these are part of the mix, I remain uncertain both about how to theorize this and practice it.
Antonia Darder and Rodolfo Torres in After Race: Racism After Multiculturalism (NYU Press, 2004; $22.90) introduce yet greater complexity into anti-racist discourse and change. A more academic piece of writing than the previous books, it is nonetheless quite accessibly written. This book makes two crucial points about the dynamics of racism. One is the difficult issue of how we theorize and use the term âeoerace.âe While, it is accepted that there is no scientific basis for âeoerace,âe things get more complicated when articulating the social and political significance of âeoerace.âe Darder and Torres effectively problematize this dynamic while avoiding necessarily any grand conclusion. They proffer the term âeoeracializedâe as in âeoeracialized peopleâe as one possible alternative.
The second crucial point that this work is advocating the linking of racism with class. Yet another very invisible form of privilege or, as Darder and Torres describe it there is a âeoeconspicuous absence of a systematic discussion of class and, more importantly, a substantive critique of capitalism.âe While they are addressing specific U.S. and academic contexts (such as critical race theory and Latino critical race theory or LatCrit), their ideas are highly relevant both to anti-racist activists and scholars.
This can be hard stuff to read. And as much as I advocate for the hard work that must be done, it is a relief to come across works that can also be called beautiful. Thomas Glaveâe(TM)s essays collected together in Words to Our Now: Imagination and Dissent (University of Minnesota Press, 2005; $33.95) is beautiful. A friend passed this on to me having picked it up inspired by the subtitle. And I owe thanks for that.
The lyricism of Glave's writing is matched nicely by his courage to name the painful issues he confronts in his life as a gay Jamaican-American writer and activist. Glave's essays take on the many issues that he has experienced and confronted: violence, homophobia, being a Jamaican American in the U.S and an American Jamaican in Jamaica. He writes about his founding of the Jamaica Forum of Lesbians, All-Sexuals, and Gays (J-FLAG) and includes in this book an open letter published in the Jamaica Observer in 1999 entitled âeoeToward a Nobility of the Imagination: Jamaica's Shameâe in which he takes what must have been a great risk in challenging homophobia, passionately appealing to people to remember the struggles against slavery and colonialism.
One of the complicated issues in anti-racist struggle (as well as other struggles against oppression) is how both to theorize and practice the inseparability of the multiple forms of oppression. It is tempting to privilege one form over the others and much has been written on this alternately advocating for class, race or gender as most fundamental. Concepts are proposed such as âeoemultiple and overlapping,âe âeoeintersectingâe or, perhaps a bit more fearsomely, âeoehybridity.âe It is not necessary to argue importance to say with confidence that all these forms of oppression (and more) are interrelated. Glave's writing models the struggle to think and write from within the intersections of these many issues âe" about identity, political activism, risk-taking. It is difficult and very, very necessary knowledge.
And, finally, an unusual reference book that is worth adding to your critical anti-racist reading list is New Keywords: A Revised Vocabulary of Culture and Society (Blackwell, 2005; $39.50). Inspired by the original Keywords by Raymond Williams (1975), this book updates, revises and adds to this dictionary of the political and social history of words. Words are not innocent. They have complex and, often, very partisan histories. This book includes numerous entries that can help the scholar and activist committed to resisting oppression, such as âeoerace,âe âeoecolonialism,âe âeoepostcolonialism,âe âeoecivilizationâe and many more. There are 142 entries by over 60 scholars; even one of these terms is worth the price of admission.
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