Thursday, May 18, 2006

New definitions of racism

I know better than to write about this topic. I typically only get myself in trouble.

But I have this congenital inability to leave well-enough alone.

And there are lots of things about race issues I still don't get.

(Part of this is that I try to apply my own experiences as a woman, perhaps where they are not as analagous as they seem to be to me.)

So here goes:

I read someplace that the Seattle Public Schools have established a rather comprehensive definition of racism.

The part that stuck out the most for me was:

Cultural Racism:
Those aspects of society that overtly and covertly attribute value and normality to white people and Whiteness, and devalue, stereotype, and label people of color as “other”, different, less than, or render them invisible. Examples of these norms include defining white skin tones as nude or flesh colored, having a future time orientation, emphasizing individualism as opposed to a more collective ideology, defining one form of English as standard, and identifying only Whites as great writers or composers.

And I find myself wanting to unpack that paragraph.

OK, I understand the issue with "nude" crayons and such and how only giving white examples of writers and composers. And I agree.

"Defining one form of English is standard" is in the middle. At least I understand what they mean. I tend to disagree with teaching ebonics on the grounds that it cripples the people we would be teaching. You can speak more than one kind of English if you want, but one form of English is used for cover letters that will help you get a job that doesn't suck. I guess I would be OK with Ebonics taught as bilingual education, but to straight up deny, as this seems to, that one form of the language is likely to help you succeed professionally in a way other forms likely will not, is at best naive IMHO.

(Right now, on America's Next Top Model, Tyra Banks continues to give Danielle all sorts of crap because Danielle talks like she's fron Arkansas. Though real celebrities hire accent coaches, Danielle is apparently supposed to be fixing this on her own. Next season, the girls have to do their own dental work. Ok, I'm getting off track here, but I just wanted to point out that you can't even have a job LOOKING BEAUTIFUL WHILE PEOPLE TAKE PICTURES OF YOU without people giving you crap about not speaking standard American English. In the case of modeling, I'll be the first to admit that it isn't very fair. But it's the way things are and I favor incremental change where no one generation's kids get sacrificed.)

Languages do change. Widely used but technically incorrect terms like "alot" and "Y'all" will eventually join the language. A good source for how this process has occurred (and a source gauranteed to bitch about every change) is Fowler's. (Try to score the second edition in a used book store. It's all snarky and Britishy.)

But the language is not changing fast enough for the idea that there is no one correct way to speak English to be anything more than a handicap to the students who are taught that way.

OK, now the other two as racism I don't think I understand:

"Having a future time orientation," When we talked about "future time orientation" in Psych class half a decade ago, I think I remember it was all about whether you saw any point in planning for the future. Not having a future time orientation was a sign of depression. (I'm recalling here how my friend Margaret, even when in the hospice, insisted that she was there to recover and get strong enough for chemotherapy. She was going to go back to Mexico and dig pots. She was going to see me get novels published. She knew damn well she was dying, as did we, but her sisters made it clear that Margaret had said the focus of the conversation was to remain on her recovery.)

Anyway, is that what we're talking about? It can't be the whole of it, I don't think?

Emphasizing individualism as opposed to a more collective ideology Now this is the sort of idea the ChaliceRelative is into. Indeed, I know lots of white liberals who like it. My general impression is that most of these ideas work best on paper.

I don't agree with viewing things this way, though I know a lot of fine people do. I don't even object to teaching kids to look at things this way. I do object to the idea that to value individualism is inherently racist.

Is that what they're saying here?



Joel Monka said...

I’m astonished at your astonishment, CC; this is the sort of thing I was trying to tell you about in the discussion on Coffee Hour- and in fact this document from the Seattle schools is watered down from what they use in the sensitivity classes I mentioned. It is written such that not only is every white, by virtue of being white, racist, but also anyone holding certain political and/or philosophical views is also racist- this is how former Congressman Watts, or Condoleeza Rice can be dismissed as self-hating racists. You will also find that only whites CAN be racist- you see, hating people for the color of their skin is not enough, in and of itself, to be racism; racism is hatred PLUS the power to do something about it.

Before you ask “Me, power? What power do *I* have?” consult “White Privilege”. You only THINK you worked for what you have, material possessions or honors; they are actually the privilege of being white. You probably didn’t realize that because this privilege is invisible to white people, but buying into the myth that anyone can succeed by individual effort, future orientation, and hard work is proof of it. YOU are an oppressor and a racist for accepting things that many African Americans who work just as hard as you do not have.

I was not joking or exaggerating when I had said in that previous discussion that in those sensitivity lessons whites were expected to (and largely did) break down into tears over the hideous shame and guilt of being white, and that anyone not doing so was not asked to speak again. This is why I had no interest in attending the “White Allies of DRUUM Conference” when invited- I am not ashamed of my skin color, and won’t pretend to be, and I do not accept the political beliefs necessary to be certified non-racist.

Oh, by the way, if you research gender issues you’ll find the same exact language, substituting “male” for “white”.

Steve Caldwell said...

Joel wrote in response to CC:
"I was not joking or exaggerating when I had said in that previous discussion that in those sensitivity lessons whites were expected to (and largely did) break down into tears over the hideous shame and guilt of being white, and that anyone not doing so was not asked to speak again. This is why I had no interest in attending the 'White Allies of DRUUM Conference' when invited- I am not ashamed of my skin color, and won't pretend to be, and I do not accept the political beliefs necessary to be certified non-racist."

Joel and CC,

As a person who has attended youth events as an adult advisor and a person who has attended anti-racism workshops as a white person, there's a question that I have about how we do anti-oppression work.

Youth advisors and other adults working with UU youth are often trained about power imbalance issues surrounding ageism. Even if I'm generally a good person, I may find myself unintentionally acting from a position of unearned privilege due to my age.

Youth advisors are very good at policing ourselves with this when participating in workshops with youth and adults present.

For example -- let's imagine a mixed group of youth and adults participating in a workshop. During the group discussion, an adult advisor notices that the last six individuals who have spoken have been adults and we may be providing enough space for our youth to speak. She mentions this briefly to the group as a reminder for the adults to "step back" to allow the youth a greater opportunity to speak in the group.

When this happens, the adults don't get upset about being ageist. No one feels guilty for being older and for having greater privilege in the world because we're adults. No one feels ashamed for being an adult.

There's just an acknowledgement of the feedback regarding the power imbalance and we move on to continue our work.

Why is it so hard to transplant that attitude present in youth advisors working with ageism issues into other situations involving antiracism work and other anti-oppression work for UUs?

If we don't examine these issues of power and privilege, we end up sounding like Bruno on the "Black/White" series on F/X network.

Chalicechick said...


Applying youths instead of other races to the points I asked about nets me the following results:

1. Language
I think expecting teachers to use youth slang is sort of silly. I sometimes use a little bit of YRUU slang when I'm trying to talk to them like peers, but to tell them that all language is equal and encourage them to say "Y'all's pre-med program is fo shizzle" in their college interviews would be a disservice.

2. Future oriented thinking --
Naturally, I want them to be future-oriented thinkers. I want them to study for the SATs rather than spending every moment with their friends. I want them to go to college rather than marry the girl of their dreams right out of school.

It is sometimes hard for me to listen to "Shelly dumped me! She was the only girl in the world who will ever like me! I will never love again!" and not say "Dude, you have no idea how little this girl, and indeed all your high school friends, will matter to you when you get to college. You will keep in contact with a few people from high school, but it's a big world, and there will be LOTS more girls."

I do respect the pain they are going through and that Shelly seems like the only girl in the world when you're 15.

But if anything, future-oriented thinking is the cure for a lot of the things that suck about being young.

Many times I told my young self "When I get to college, there will be boys who like smart girls and boys who like to read." I was right.

Unfortunately, they were professors.

(Just kidding. Sort of.)

3. Individual vs. community-oriented thinking

I have no idea if you people are more or less individualistic than I am. I can make a case for either in my head.

So I'm not sure what application the answer you gave has to the questions I asked.


Steve Caldwell said...


I think your points about language, future-oriented thinking, and individualism with respect to youth are attempting to create a false dichotomy here.

We can teach our youth how to survive in a world where "dominant" and "marginalized" groups exist without uncritically embracing the ideology that supports this sort of oppression.

But should we accept this sort of oppression any critical analysis whatsoever in our congregations?

The situation where the dominant cultural group attempting to define what is "normal" or "preferred" can be seen in an email list discusssion about UU religious education that I participated in several months ago.

A UU religious educator made a broad generalization about how most UU youth were not comfortable with worship and did not worship.

My comment to this observation was from my perspective as a youth advisor. I pointed out that every UU youth event I have attended had a youth-led worship service and youth are very comfortable planning and leading worship services in their camps and conferences.

It may be accurate to say that many UU youth are not comfortable with the typical Sunday morning adult worship. But should we assume that the adult worship defines the "preferred norm" for worship and all other styles of worship are somehow suspect?

Would we say that many UU adults are "not comfortable with worship" because they don't worship in a circle in a dark candle-lit room like our youth worship?

Rather than saying the dominant adult worship style or the marginalized youth worship style should be the defining norm for all worship, perhaps we could accept both adult and youth worship styles as two examples of the many normal and valid worship styles available to us?

Finally, you may want to look at this reflection on the importance of individualism in various societies in North America. The observations come from an article in the Liberal Religious Educator Association Newsletter commenting on the 2005 Pre-GA CENTER Day keynote speaker "Tink" Tinker:

[begin quote]
Excerpt from "Reflections on Center Day 2005: 'America As Dry Drunk: From Domestic Abuse to Global Bully'" by Susan Archer (MRE, Cedar Lane UU Church, Bethesda, MD and President of LREDA)
Get away from hyper individualism that, they posit, is part of the dysfunction of America. The individual is not the center of all "valid" cultures. This discussion reminded me of a visit to New Mexico I had in the early 1970's. I was to lead a workshop for teachers of native American primary age classes about how to work withissues of fairness and justice. I was working with materials from Lawrence Kohlberg on the development of moral reasoning and concepts of fairness. How to decide what was fair – for example, how to decide if a person who got out of a long line to chase his hat blown off by the wind, should be allowed back into the same place in line – was the issue I was using. How did all the "stakeholders" in this decision feel and what did they think and how did they decide? This example worked wonderfully well in classrooms of Euro-American children as they began to understand various points of view. However, the adults in this workshop were at odds with the question "what is fair?" What they taught me was that the question the exercise had posited for them had no relevancy to their lives, for their worldview. The "rights" of the individual were not part of their thinking apart from the needs of the community. Who was first in line was a question that was unfamiliar; in fact the notion of "lines" only applied when they had to participate in the larger "American" culture. For them, the group was primary and the question of "how do I get what is mine" just was not an important question. I had made an assumption that I thought was global but was indeed particular to my own worldview.

[end quote]

The lesson here is that we really need to be careful in assuming that any worldview is a universal aspect of "human nature" shared by all persons and all cultures.

Chalicechick said...

Again, Steve, I think you miss my point.

Look at the page I linked to in Seattle. They are the ones creating the dichotomy. They don't suggest teaching both standard english and ebonics, they directly say than an example of cultural racism is "Defining one form of English is standard."

I'm the one OK with shades of gray, they are the ones who want to label the idea of standard American english as racism.

I am A-OK with analyzing why things are the way they are.

What I am objecting to is the Seattle folks saying that anyone who talks realistically about the English language is a racist.

Someone who says "There's no standard American English. A job candidate who speaks Ebonics is just ask likely to get hired as a smilar guy who speaks English" is NOT a freedom fighter.

He/she is a liar who will do FAR more damage to his/her students than a teacher who is open about the fact that it may be unfair, but there is a Standard American English.

Along similar lines, I don't mind that some cultures are community-oriented and we teach that. I do mind the quite clear implication from Seattle that if you do emphasize individualism, you are a racist.


fausto said...

Is domination always wrong? Are there ever circumstances where domination is justifiable?

Steve Caldwell said...

Can racism exist without "racists" and can we talk about racism without using the word "racist"?

The Seattle resource never explicitly states that a person who actively or passively supports the social structures that promote cultural or institutional racism is a "racist" ... the resource just describes what it views as some forms of "racism."

I think it's possible that a non-racist person might support cultural and institutional racism without possessing an ideological view that some races are superior and some are inferior.

I think one reason that folks get upset by things like the Seattle resource on racism is many assume that only those folks who engage in "Individual Racism" or "Active Racism" (as defined in the Seattle resource) can ever be "racist" and it takes the person engaged in individual or active types for all forms of racism to thrive in our culture.

Perhaps we should agree that the label "racist" shouldn't be applied to the person who actively or passively accepts or supports cultural and institutional racism because its such a "hot button" word in our culture?

What non-threatening word should we use to describe a person who actively or passively supports institutional or cultural racism?

If we expand the definition of "racist" include those who actively and passively support the institutional and cultural forms of racism, then we end up with folks getting distracted by the use of the word "racist"?

What do you suggest that we do?

Steve Caldwell said...

Fausto asked
"Is domination always wrong? Are there ever circumstances where domination is justifiable?"

Under what circumstances do you want to be dominated?

Under what circumstances would the domination of you by another be wrong?

LaReinaCobre said...

You light up my life.

fausto said...

Steve, you didn't answer my questions, but I'll answer yours.

Protected freedom of expression is a system I want to be dominated by. Being judged by a jury of my peers appeals to me, too, as does being governed by elected representatives. A society that rewards personal probity and productivity and holds me accountable for my own behavior, and holds everyone else to the same standard too, but doesn't let the weakest fall into desparation, is one worth paying my taxes to.

A society that is structured in a way that rewards dependency, condones self-destructive behavior, and punishes self-sufficiency, on the other hand, is as bad a domination system as most others.

Joel Monka said...

Steve- we can find a way to discuss racism without calling someone a racist- but you keep missing the point. They are describing things that have nothing whatsoever to do with race as racist! I DENY that believeing a future oriented outlook is normal, individual effort, or that there is a standard form of English IS racism! These things have nothing to do with race! These are outlooks that get you a job or a life, whatever your color or origins. I rather doubt that Colin Powell or Tiger Woods would agree that they are racist asumptions, either.

You still have not addressed the question posed first by CC, and now by me: Do you in fact think that those things are racist?

Bart said...

Just a quick comment about the ageism and self-policing of adults in conjuction with YRUU, if you think adults are really good at are wrong. Adults don't always recognize their power just like white folk have to learn to recognize that them talking over people of color is racism and males talking over gender-oppressed folk is sexism. Even my favorite advisors fucked up. Even the world's greatest allies fuck up. It's something to work through and a learning possibility.
And it does have to do with. Racism stems from systematic power. Therefore every thing that is considered the "norm" by white folk is an extension of their internalized racist superiority (IRO). It's what says that flesh colored is white and that individualism is the way we should all act. IRO makes white culture the norm.

Steve Caldwell said...

Bart ... you're right that allies do make mistakes -- I've been there and done that myself.

However, it's been my experience that UU folks are more willing to evaluate ageist power dynamics and critically examine them.

UU folks are less willing examine issues of race or class and the power dynamics associated with them.

Steve Caldwell said...


I think the Seattle Public Schools racism resource is a good summary of the various types of racism present in North America -- especially the cultural and institutional racism definitions in the resource:

I don't think that a person who disagrees with this summary is a racist for holding that opinion.

This person easily be a non-racist person who is unprejudiced about race, color-blind, etc.

However, I think it would be extremely difficult for a person who is anti-racist to also reject this summary (anti-racist = "a person with a commitment to dismantling the structures of the status quo that build racism into our culture").

It may be worth looking at the following article from UU World for more background on antiracism and how it differs from tolerance of diversity, affirmative efforts towards inclusion, neutral non-racism, and other efforts that do not challenge the status quo:

Antiracism Primer

That's my opinion and I'm sure that someone will disagree with it.

Anonymous said...

my understanding of "future time orientation" as discussed in past "Inclusion" workshops was in the context of whether people are more worried about "getting somewhere on time", worried about the schedule, or comfortable more in the moment, relating to others or taking care of themselves such that they might get there really late, and in their culture that is not viewed as rude, while in the dominant "white" culture, lateness could be viewed as rude by some. Not sure if this is what they meant, but we talked about how different cultures look at a meeting time or party as starting at the time of the invitation, or much much later.

fausto said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
fausto said...

I don't think it's racist or oppressive when we talk about being oriented toward the present moment versus being oriented toward delayed gratification and the future consequences of present actions. The two orientations are in necessary conflict, as Aesop's fables about the grasshopper and the ant, or the tortoise and the hare, show. Both being fully engaged in the present and being concerned for the future are necessary to a meaningful, fulfilled life. Everyone knows a carefree grasshopper whose lack of concern for the future causes his/her own problems. Everyone knows a type-A overachiever whose obsession for future results at the expense of present engagement makes you want to shake her/him by the shoulders and yell, "Get a life!"

There's no racism or oppression in that conflict, though, only the personal responsibility to choose.

It's when you wander away from the neutrality of the paradigm to invest it with the language of racism and domination that the spectres begin to arise. Are we talking about present orientation, or "colored people's time"? Are we talking about future orientation, or "punctuality is the politeness of princes"?

I notice that, until now, nobody in this discussion or in Seattle has dared use the explicit words that actually do invoke the racial and domination overtones, and I have to ask, why? I also have to ask, is it appropriate to take what are essentially personal choices and generalize them in race or class terms? Are these race and class generalizations empirical, or are they normative? Does the grasshopper's neglect for the future become more worthy if we are also told he is the dark-skinned descendant of former slaves? Does the prince's obsession with punctuality become less laudable if we also note that princes are prone to abuse their power, or that it is usually true that "uneasy lies the head that wears the crown"?

I say that taking these essentially personal choices about how one uses one's time, and generalizing them into racial or class characteristics, and then further judging one attitude to be superior to another (or one to be oppressed and the other to be evilly domineering) because of the race or class connotations, is itself a form of racism or classism that devalues the worth of the individual.