My word for the year is NO

Over the past couple of years I’ve noticed this trend where people choose a word that is going to guide them for the year. In the past, I’ve done resolutions, and I’ve failed miserably at them. Year after year, I’ve struggled to be present in my own life, to lower my stress level, to create more down-time, to take more walks, to spend more time just “being” with my family and friends. Every year I add these things to my list, but this year I decided to take stock in what is keeping me from succeeding. As I look at the list, it’s clear that I’m not struggling with DOING things, I’m struggling with BEING. And when there is a struggle with doing vs. being, the answer is almost always: DO LESS THINGS.  So instead of making resolutions, I have one word for the year. NO. It’s not romantic or poetic. It doesn’t look good written on a sunset. It probably won’t be pinned to pinterest. Photo Jan 27, 12 22 49 AM Um, yeah . . . no. But I feel that this word is the key to balance and being present. I need to carve out time. I need to work less. I need to stop saying yes to things, and hold better boundaries for my soul and for my family. Saying no is not an easy task for a freelance writer. When you don’t have a salary, there is a tendency to take whatever work comes your way, because you never know if more work will be available later. Last year, I was terribly unbalanced as a result. This year, I need to say no, even if I make less money. Even if I make a lot less money. Because no amount of money is worth my sanity. It also means I’m going to have to say no to opportunities that look really good on paper. Things I’m passionate about, even. It means I have to say no to requests from people I love, from companies that I like, and for causes that I care about. It means paring down even when I want to say yes. Because too many plates in the air make me feel crazy . . . even if the plates are full of really awesome stuff. As it turns out, you CAN have too much of a good thing. So, this year, I’m learning to say no. I’m one month in and it hasn’t been easy. AT ALL. I’ve said no to some speaking gigs that I would have loved to do. I’ve said no to some involvements with charities I really like. I’ve opted out of trips. I’ve declined invitations to have someone “pick my brain.”  I’ve turned down paid work. I struggle with guilt and with people-pleasing, and with worrying that similar offers won’t come my way again. I worry that I’ll burn bridges or seem uncaring or aloof. In fact, so far saying no has been almost as stressful as saying yes. But the pay-off is that I’m finding balance, for the first time in a long time. My head is clearer because I’m not juggling as many things. Saying no means I have the time and brain-space to cultivate the practice of presence. I didn’t need more resolutions. I needed more no. That’s my word for the year.

White privilege, and what we’re supposed to do about it

The case of Trayvon Martin’s death has sparked a national conversation around race. People seem to be polarized in their reactions to the recent verdict, and as such I’d love to avoid more conjecture on that in this post. Rather, I really want to explore some questions about white privilege, since that is a term that has been widely used in the past week, and hopefully shed some light on what it means and what, exactly, we white folk are supposed to do about it.

White privilege is a difficult concept. It can cause a lot of confusion and defensiveness. In the diversity class I teach to graduate students, this topic is more heated than any other topic we touch on. Similarly, this week I’ve seen people pushing back against the idea of white privilege as if it’s an indictment that they are a racist (it’s not.) I even watched a blogger (who is white) criticize my friend Kelly (who is black) for her suggestion that people confront their white privilege. The blogger suggested that Kelly called white people “white supremacists” . . . as if “white privilege” and “white supremacists” were interchangeable terms (they’re not.) Confusion abounds when we talk about white privilege, and I think it’s confusion that often leads to offense at the term.

Simply put, privilege refers to an unearned advantage. It usually refers to something inherent . . . something you were born with rather than something you worked for. There are many types of privilege: economic privilege, gender privilege, heterosexual privilege, and of course . . . racial privilege. Racial privilege can take many forms, from minor things to life-threatening things. White privilege can look like being able to grab some shampoo at the grocery store and being confident they carry products for your hair type. White privilege can look like being able to find a band-aid that matches your skin tone. White privilege can look like waling through an upscale residential neighborhood without anyone wondering what you are doing there. White privilege can look like wearing a baseball cap and baggy pants and no one assuming you are a criminal.

At it’s essence, it’s a simple concept:white privilege refers to the both minor and significant advantages that white people hold in American society. But still, people seem to struggle with both believing it exists and figuring out what to do with it. Here are some of the questions I often hear asked about white privilege:

I had a hard time growing up, too. We’ve all had hardships.
Of course we have. The concept of white privilege does not deny individual hardships. Hardships can be circumstantial, they can be born into, they can be at our own doing, or they can be outside of our control. Some hardships, for some people, are related to race, and those who haven’t experienced those particular race-related hardships hold white privilege. That doesn’t negate the hardships others have faced because racial privilege refers only to race.. It doesn’t mean that people haven’t experienced difficulty. Nor do the hardships not related to race negate the very real discrimination some people have faced.

I have a black friend who was raised with way more privilege so how can I be the privileged one?
Again, white privilege only reflects racial privilege. It’s possible for people of other races to hold other kinds of privilege. They don’t negate it either. . .  we’re not playing oppression olympics. When we ignore one form of privilege because another exists, we’re being dismissive. The fact that I’m white does not mean that I don’t sometimes experience sexism. That fact that a black person was born to a well-off family doesn’t mean they never experience racism. Imagine going to your boss to complain about sexual harassment, and being told that it shouldn’t bother you because you have a nice corner office.  When we deny white privilege exists because there are other forms of privilege, we are deflecting a very real issue for some people.

What do they want me to do?
I think that the biggest reason people refuse to acknowledge that there may be some privilege inherent in being white is the fear that it means they owe someone something. I’ve seen a lot of people this week push back against the idea that white privilege exists for political reasons . . . but this isn’t a political or legal concept. I can’t speak for all minorities but for most people I know, the biggest thing they want from me is for me to LISTEN. To hear what their experience is like. To believe them when they describe their own experience. 

There is nothing threatening about acknowledging your privilege. Being more empathetic to the experiences of others is not a sacrifice to anyone’s politics.

Am I supposed to feel guilt for stuff I didn’t do?
White privilege is not a value judgment. It’s not meant to be hurled as an insult or use as something to invoke guilt. On the contrary, I think it’s guilt that often compels people to deny that discrimination exists. I’ve seen a few folks make comments about white privilege that infer that it’s a made-up concept by liberals to add more white guilt on ourselves. But self-loathing is not the goal. It’s possible to have a healthy self-concept and racial identity while acknowledging the imbalance of racial privilege. A part of self-worth is acknowledging your strengths and weaknesses. In my experience, bullying and abuse is usually perpetrated by people with a low sense of self. So I think it’s valuable for white Americans to identify what it means to be white: what they like about their own culture and values, and what they want to change.

The only aspect of white privilege that should invoke guilt is if you decide that because you don’t experience racism, that you don’t have to listen or care when other people do.

Owning my white privilege means that I am more empathetic, but it also means I can use my privilege to talk about race without being accused of “playing the race card” for self-interest. A person’s political leanings should not effect the empathy and listening ear they extend to others. Similarly, a person’s race should not dictate whether or not they believe the experience of others . . . and allowing our seat at the Majority Table to cloud our empathy (or deny the experience of others) is the crux of what white privilege is about. What to do about it? Start with listening.

To learn more about white privilege, I really recommend reading this insightful checklist from Peggy McIntosh about “Unpacking the Invisible Backpack”.

What is your reaction to the term “white privilege”? Is it confusing . . . comforting . . . guilt-inducing? Do you think it’s politically loaded? Is so, why?

Finding justice for Trayvon: seven actions steps for our outrage

“I take for granted that I belong wherever I happen to be.” — Joan Haskins

Trayvon just brought to light the oppressive stereotypes that all black men are living under. And the case illustrated that it can sometimes be a matter of life and death. photo via NerdyWonka Any plausible deniability about the negative bias that black men face in our country was pulled out from under me during our first adoption process. Americans love to see themselves as “colorblind” . . . to describe our country as a post-racial melting pot with a black president and a smug sense of satisfaction for not being as racist as the previous generation. But race preference in adoption tells another tale, and in my mind, perfectly exemplifies the disturbing social status of black males. Black males are the hardest children to place in adoptive homes. Of prospective adoptive families, only about 14% are open to an African American child, and of that 14%, even fewer are open to black males. When I asked social workers why, the answer: people are afraid they will grow up to be criminals. When we began the adoption process from the foster-care system in Los Angeles, we received calls for placements immediately, because we were open to any race. A few calls involved biracial children, and the social workers were always quick to highlight that the children were “half-white” and “light-skinned”, as if this was some kind of selling point. We were eventually matched with our oldest, who is black. I can vividly remember having a meeting with an elderly social worker in Compton. “Now I want you to realize . . . black boys turn in to black men. Are you prepared for that?”  I remember feeling so disgusted by his question, as if he were speaking some kind of prophecy into the character and potential of my new son. My son who was six months old. Since that time, my eyes have been wide open to the discrimination, stereotypes, and suspicion that black men face in our society. But just as keenly, I’ve been aware of how these experiences of discrimination, stereotypes, and suspicion are dismissed by some white people. Black men who speak out about their experiences are deemed as paranoid or angry or “playing the race card”, despite ample evidence of the contrary. I have seen a shift in the last year, though, and I think the Trayvon Martin case served to rattle some people out of complacency in regards to bias against black men. Like many, I was deeply disappointed to hear the news that George Zimmerman was acquitted. While I suspected that he wouldn’t be charged with murder, I absolutely believed that he was guilty of manslaughter.  Defined as“the crime of killing a human being without malice aforethought, or otherwise in circumstances not amounting to murder”, I think Zimmerman should have at least had some criminal responsibility for the death of this young man. I find it disturbing that someone can be 100% responsible for starting a confrontation, but then not at all responsible for what results. I felt sickened when I heard the verdict, for the message it sends to black men . . . that they can be followed on suspicion of being a thug for appearance alone, and then killed if they don’t defer. After I shed some angry tears and talked about it with Mark, I logged onto facebook, expecting things to look similar to the days following Trayvon’s murder. I expected to see people of color expressing outrage, and most white people staying silent. I was comforted to find that, at least in my feed, my white friends were just as outraged as my friends of color. And not just transracial parents, who have been ejected from the privilege seat because they have a stake in the game. I saw people of all races and generations, equally disturbed that a young black man was followed and killed with no consequence. Of course, I also saw people who denied that race had anything to do with it. And if you are one of those people, I hope you will keep reading. Because this isn’t just about Trayvon. His death is a catalyst for this conversation, but regardless of what happened there, the issue of bias and black men remains.  It’s evident when people call the police on a black person attempting to break a bike lock but walk by (or offer assistance to) a white person doing the same thing. It’s evident when a group of children are asked about the photo of a white man and a black man and they assume the black man to be a criminal and the white man to be a teacher (despite the fact that the pictured men were Timothy McVeigh and a black Harvard professor). It’s evident when people assume a black man to be a criminal over a white man at first glance. It’s evident when children look at photos of two children on a playground and a majority of them assume ill intent on the part of the black child. It’s evident when we look at the shameful “stop and frisk” habit that profiles young black men as potential criminals. Trayvon just brought to light the oppressive stereotypes that all black men are living under. And the case illustrated that it can sometimes be a matter of life and death. I’m heartened to see that white people are acknowledging the race aspects of the case, but I’m also worried that after this story falls off the news cycle, the issue of race will again be ignored. And honestly, it’s likely that it will be, because for the majority of Americans this story does not have a personal impact. Parents of black children are burdened by concerns for their child’s safety as they navigate the world, but why should this injustice be left for black people to deal with? If you are looking for ways to channel your outrage about the Trayvon case, I’ve got some ideas. But even if you felt the verdict was just, I think (and hope) we can all rally to make sure that the dynamics at play in the links above are eradicated for the next generation. (And if you aren’t buying that there is racial bias against black males, go watch the links again. Watch until it sinks in.) As the media fury dies down, let’s remember our frustration, and move it into action: Push back against racism when you encounter it. To fight against racial bias, it’s vital that we create a society in which racism is not tolerated. This will only happen when enough people become vocal that the perpetrators of racism are motivated to change.Racism is more covert, but many of us still encounter it. It’s time to speak up and ask questions. Stop being so touchy about our own racial bias. All of us will hold racist thoughts from time to time. And there is not a one of us who is immune to racial bias . . . we are swimming in it. Social conditioning means that we all hold it. Let’s stop pretending we have to be a card-carrying KKK member to hold racial bias. It’s implicit. It’s possible that George Zimmerman wasn’t a day-to-day racist and it’s also possible that he racially profiled Trayvon. It’s messy. Racism is not so polarized anymore. We need to deal with the nuance and be willing to confront the ways we’ve all been shaped by media and stereotypes. Talk about racism. Race is one of those topics nobody wants to touch. Like religion or politics, people seem to want to stay out of it. The problem, though, is that in not talking about race, we are letting it fester. We are putting our heads in the sand and pretending not to see the bias that people have to endure every day. Talking about racism does not perpetuate racism. Let me repeat that: talking about racism does not perpetuate racism. We won’t solve anything if we are too scared to speak about it. One of the comments that annoys me the most, when I blog about race, is when someone says, “Well, you are just passionate because your kids are black.” Shouldn’t we all be passionate? Are we content ignoring a problem just because it doesn’t effect us? Should we ignore bullying unless our kid is actually being bullied? It’s time for everyone to care. Educate yourself on racial injustice. If the idea of the black man’s burden is a new concept for you, or if you believe that we are living in a post-racial society, I would really encourage you to educate yourself.  Websites like Racialicious The Root, Tim Wise’s blog, and NPR’s Codeswitch are great resources for learning more about issues of race, and have been hugely helpful for me. Finding justice for Trayvon: seven actions steps for our outrage Listen. I have noticed that many white people feel an innate need to either defend or deny that racism still occurs. I think white people sincerely wish that the world was colorblind, so we pretend that it is . . . even when that involves dismissing the experience of others. But we’ve got to start listening . . . without dismissing, without derailing, without defending. We’ve got to listen to our friends of color and their experiences. Rapper Lecrae said it so well

“I pray my non-black people grasp that there is a cultural identification blacks have with Trayvon and our own experiences that cause deep emotional connectivity and sympathy. He represents our cousin, our son, ourselves, our past present and future. We are very culturally connected and this affects us in incommunicable ways. Blacks are NOT just emotionally blind to the facts and evidence and trying to pull the race card.”

Focus on what you can do. Too often, I see white people respond to issues of racism by citing that black people are racist, too. It’s predictable that when I post on facebook about an instance of racism, someone will trot out examples where a black person has been racist. Do black people hold some racial bias? Sure! Of course they do. We can find examples of prejudice in every racial group. But just like I tell my children when they try to deflect: “Focus on yourself. Do the right thing. Don’t worry about what others are doing.” Diversify your world. Racial bias festers when we fail to develop friendships with people of other races. It’s vital that we diversify our relationships, not just for ourselves but for our children. Too many kids are being raised in homogenous communities by well-meaning parents. They are taught to accept others, but they have limited experience with people outside their own race. We need to make sure that the media is not our kids’ first encounter with people of other races. We need to make sure that Lil Wayne and Snoop Dogg are not the cultural ambassadors to the black community for our children. If we are not intentional, our kids will develop views about other races from stereotypes instead of from relationships.   Black Male, Re-Imagined II: Performance by Daniel Beaty from Open Society Foundations and The American Values Institute on FORA.tv The nation is paying attention to the burden and risk of being a black man. Let’s move to action. I was heartened to see the protests tonight, and to observe that the crowds were very diverse. I felt that the verdict yesterday sent a horrible message to black men, and I hope the protest sends a message that many people care. But we can’t leave it at a protest. We’ve got to tell young black men that we’ve got their back today, and every day. That is what community looks like. That’s how we will find justice.

Defending Paula Deen: what the national reaction can teach us about race

what we can learn about race from Paula Deen There has been a lot of press about the recent lawsuit filed against Paula Deen, alleging (among other things) that she tolerated blatant racism towards the staff in her company’s restaurants (including separate entrances for black employees) and referred to black men as “n*ggers” to another employee.  At this point, the case is a bit of a she-said, she said, with Paula denying most of the allegations. While I suspect the truth lies someone in the middle, I’m going to focus on the things that Paula Deen has said, and how I find much of it so troubling in terms of the way many white people approach talking about race. For a lot of people, this controversy has been boiled down to whether or not Paula Deen has uttered the “N” word. She’s admitted to doing so . . . she admitted to using it multiple times under oath but was more vague with Matt Lauer. But for me, and for many others, it’s not just about the “N” word. It’s about the subtext of what she is saying. My point in this post is not to vilify her further. I know some believe that Paula is taking an unfair beating. But I think that her attitudes about race exemplify the covert racism that pervades in society today, and warrant discussion. Most of us recognize that walking up to a black person and calling them a n*gger would be absolutely abhorrent. But what white folks in the company of other white people is another matter. Paula’s admissions reveal that, in certain circles, racism against black people has simply gone underground, and given way to a more slippery version of racism that is harder to nail down. In a society where racism has (thankfully) become less socially acceptable, racism has gotten more obscured. And well-meaning white people are enabling it. Let me explain. I have noticed that many white people feel an innate need to either defend or deny that racism still occurs. I think this happens for two reasons: First, I think white people sincerely wish that we were living in a post-racial society, and would like to hasten to the time when we can be free of the sins of our fathers. We wish that the world was colorblind, so we pretend that it is . . . even when that involves dismissing the experience of others. Second, I think white people feel deep shame and embarrassment about racism and colonialism, and in order to avoid a shame-based racial identity, we pretend not to see racism, or minimize it, or rationalize it. I’m seeing this happen all over the place as people react to Paula Deen losing her Food Network contract. When Paula Deen’s deposition first leaked, most people were pretty outraged by the contents. Someone who answers “of course” when asked if they’ve used the “N” word, someone who plays dumb about the impact of racists jokes, someone who acknowledges that both their brother and husband are in the practice of using jokes with racial epithets, who had knowledge of racist practices within her company but did not fire the perpetrator . . . it was all rather alarming. The accusations from the plaintiff were even more alarming. I wasn’t surprised that companies wanted to distance themselves from her, and I affirm the Food Network’s decision not to renew her contract. But in a matter of days, fans of Paula were taking to the internet, calling for a boycott of the Food Network and citing an insidious allegiance to political correctness as the reason for Paula’s demise. Jason Avant does a great job of addressing the pushback against political correctness in a post on MamaPop:

What you’re saying is that when some of us get upset when a rich and powerful white person uses the word “nigger”, we’re adhering to some sort of liberal nicety. And that when some of us recoil in horror at the thought of putting on a good ol’ fashioned Calvin Candie-style wedding complete with authentic-looking house slaves, we’re just following a manufactured and ideological way of placating oversensitive people.

Over the last week, in addition to the chorus of Deen Defenders, Paula has been doing her own damage control, issuing apologies(sort of?) and making appearances in which she speaks about her character. I’ve seen a lot of parallels between Paula’s defenders and Paula’s own apologies, and I think they highlight some of the deep denial our country holds about race. In fact, I think these statements are almost talking-points among people who want to deny that racism exists while simultaneously ignoring their own racist behavior. Here are a few patterns

“I find racism unacceptable”

Paula has repeatedly said that she finds racism unacceptable. Paula’s online defenders seem to start each protest with this disclaimer, too. But saying that we find racism unacceptable, without action when confronted with racism, means nothing. In the face of racism, we all have three options: we can participate, we can tolerate, or we can fight. Way too many of us engaging in the bystander effect of racism, and Paula’s deposition indicates that she is in this role with the people in her own life. Case in point: the lawsuit alleges that Paula turned a blind eye to her brother’s racist behavior in the workplace, and Paula admits that she was aware of this:

Lawyer: Are you aware of Mr. Hiers admitting that he engaged in racially and sexually inappropriate behavior in the workplace? Deen: I guess Lawyer: Okay. Well, have you done anything about what you heard him admit to doing? Deen: My brother and I have had conversations. My brother is not a bad person. Do humans behave inappropriately? At times, yes. I don’t know one person that has not. My brother is a good man. Have we told jokes? Have we said things that we should not have said, that — yes, we all have. We all have done that, every one of us.

Deflecting . . . defending. Not fighting racism. If she truly finds racism unacceptable, she would not have tolerated it in the workplace, and her brother would have been fired. What Paula does with her brother is an eerie parallel to what Paula’s fans are doing for her. In another part of the deposition, Paula acknowledges that her husband makes jokes about people of other races:

Lawyer: Do the other members of your family tell jokes at home?
Deen: Yes.
Lawyer: And they told jokes using the N-word?
Deen: I’m sure they have. My husband is constantly telling me jokes.
Lawyer: Okay. And have — are you offended at all by those jokes?
Deen: No, because it’s my husband.

This is not the behavior of someone who finds racism unacceptable. If Paula wants to issue a sincere apology for her racism, it should involve acknowledging that she has tolerated it in her family and in places of businesses that she owns. If we want to be honest about racism in our country, we all need to acknowledge the ways in which we have tolerated racism by ignoring or defending or minimizing it.  

“I am confused. Black people use the ‘N’ word so why can’t I?”

I have heard people use this defense for Paula all week so I was really dismayed when Paula herself used it as well.  In the deposition, when she acknowledged her husband told racist jokes, she said the following:

Deen: [Jokes] usually target, though, a group. Gays or straights, black, redneck, you know, I just don’t know — I just don’t know what to say. I can’t, myself, determine what offends another person.

Essentially, she played dumb . . . acting as if she can’t actually know whether or not a racist joke is offensive to others. When Matt Lauer held her feet to the fire on this one, and asked if she was really confused about whether or not the “N word” is offensive, she responded by talking about how distressing it is for her to hear what her black employees say to one another in the kitchen. She then went on to talk about the “problem” of black people using the word and how it has confused her. PEOPLE. NO. Just no. None of us are confused about the word n*gger being offensive just because some black people called playfully each other “nigga”. And I will tell you how I know Paula wasn’t confused: she does not go around using that word in public, or on television appearances. She knows well enough that it’s not something she should say in mixed company. If her confusion truly stemmed from black people using it, that would manifest by her walking into the kitchen and shouting, “Hey, nigga”!” to black employees, followed by a record-scratch moment where someone ushers her aside and explains social norms. The fact that this hasn’t happened indicates that she isn’t, in fact, confused. The fact that she has referred to black people using the word n*gger TO OTHER WHITE PEOPLE tells me that she knows the rules, and that she just (allegedly) picked the wrong white person to show her hand to. Frankly, I’m a little disturbed by the number of people who have cited the use of the word “nigga” by some black people as some kind of defense or deflection for Paula Deen. First of all, it’s not the same thing. It’s pronunciation, spelling, intent, and meaning are wholely different than the racial slur. Whether or not it’s okay for black people to reclaim the word as a playful slang is a separate debate, but I think it’s a derail tactic to minimize the fact that some white people still use it. For the record, I’m not a fan, and my boys will not be using that word while living under my roof. But there are plenty of black people who agree with me on that one. Furthermore, why are white people complaining about the “unfairness” or double standard of using the word? If someone else is doing something you deem as wrong, the impulse shouldn’t be to cry that it’s unfair unless it’s something you want to be doing yourself. So white folk: please stop whining about how black people can use the “N word” but you can’t. It makes it sound like you’ve got a hankering to say it, too.  And let’s please stop pretending that a white person calling a black person a n*gger is happening because of hip-hop culture. We all know this problem stems from something else. 

“I’m not doing it in a mean way”

Another disturbing aspect of Paul Deen’s deposition is that she seems to have the idea that there is a mean way and an “okay way” to use the “N” word:

Lawyer: Miss Deen, earlier in your testimony you indicated that one of the things that you had tried to — that you and your husband tried to teach your children was not to use the N-word in a mean way, do you recall that testimony?
Deen: Yes.
Lawyer: Okay. And could you give me an example of how you have demonstrated for them a nice way to use the N-word?
. . .
Deen: We hear a lot of things in the kitchen. Things that they — that black people will say to each other. If we are relaying something that was said, a problem that we’re discussing, that’s not said in a mean way.
What about jokes, if somebody is telling a joke that’s got —It’s just what they are, they’re jokes.
Lawyer: Okay. Would you consider those to be using the N word in a mean way?
Deen: That’s — that’s kind of hard. Most — most jokes are about Jewish people, rednecks, black folks. Most jokes target — I don’t know. I didn’t make up the joke, I don’t know. I can’t — I don’t know.

Again, there is no nice way to tell a joke with the word n*gger in it. Paula’s underlying message: I find racism unacceptable . . . unless it’s in a joke, because jokes always target someone. It’s just more of the same dangerous rationalization and attempts to deflect from acknowledging racism. Racist jokes are just that: racist. This line of reasoning (there is a nice way and a mean way to use the word) appears again, when she addresses the allegation that she referred to adult men this way:

Lawyer: Is there any possibility, in your mind, that you slipped and used the word “n—-r”?
Deen: No, because that’s not what these men were. They were professional black men doing a fabulous job.

It’s never okay for white people to refer to black people as n*gger. Never. Even if people aren’t being professional. Even if they aren’t doing a fabulous job. Even if they are lower-class. Even if they are pointing a gun to your head. There are no exceptions that make racist behavior okay. Let’s stop making them.   

“Nobody’s perfect”

This has been the most consistent thread for those defending Paula Deen, and while I can’t argue with the premise, I do think it’s an oft-used attempt at minimizing racism. Absolutely, no one is perfect, but in the workplace most of us are required to behave in certain ways lest their be consequence. Paula Deen failed to squelch overt racism within her company, and the consequence is that her “brand” is no longer a friendly face for the Food Network. There has been a lot of talk about the need for forgiveness and grace, but it’s important to note that those two things can be offered without removing the natural consequences of someone’s actions. It’s possible to offer forgiveness while still affirming that something is wrong. Yes, everyone of us makes mistakes. And most of us pay for our mistakes as well. When my children get in trouble for something, I do not lower the offense if one of their siblings was doing it, too. Paula has to reap the consequences of her own actions regardless of what others are doing.

“Slavery was not that bad”

Paula’s covert racism reveals itself in her fantasies of having a “plantation-style” wedding, complete with black men dressed up as slave caricatures, as she herself describes in the deposition:

Lawyer: Why did that make it a -– if you would have had servers like that, why would that have made it a really southern plantation wedding? … Deen: Well, it –- to me, of course I’m old but I ain’t that old, I didn’t live back in those days but I’ve seen the pictures, and the pictures that I’ve seen, that restaurant represented a certain era in America. Lawyer: Okay.
Deen: And I was in the south when I went to this restaurant. It was located in the south. Lawyer: Okay. What era in America are you referring to?
Deen: Well, I don’t know. After the Civil War, during the Civil War, before the Civil War. Lawyer: Right. Back in an era where there were middle-aged black men waiting on white people.
Deen: Well, it was not only black men, it was black women. Lawyer: Sure. And before the Civil War –- before the Civil War, those black men and women who were waiting on white people were slaves, right?
Deen: Yes, I would say that they were slaves.

If black people happened to be the servers, that is one thing. But envisioning some fantasy where the servers are specifically black, dressed up to be “classy” as if they are house negroes, is not okay. Specifically hiring black people to serve as an “aesthetic”, particularly an aesthetic meant to evoke a throw-back to the time when blacks where owned, is not okay. Paula herself knows this is inappropriate, which is why she says the media would be critical. Her minimization of slavery is also revealed in a televised interview. When asked about learning about her great-grandfather, she focused her empathy on him, rather than on the slaves. She lamented about how hard it was for him to loose all of his “workers” (avoiding the term slaves) and claims that back then, slaves were “like family”. This kind of revisionist history again serves to minimize the realities of racism. Slaves were NOT like family. Family eats at the same dinner table. Families are not bought and sold. Families are not property that are listed as belongings. To pretend they are is to whitewash history and deny the atrocity of slavery.

“I wasn’t raised to be racist”

Another way Paula exemplifies our national preference to minimize racism is her claim that her own family was not racist. In her interview with Matt Lauer she insists that her parents taught her to treat everyone as equals. Yet in her deposition, she acknowledges that in the 60’s, the use of the word “n*gger” was deemed acceptable. Judging by the behavior of her brother, couples with Paula’s own attitudes, I have a hard time believing that her parents did not exemplify some racist attitudes in her home growing up. And yet she insists they did not. I teach a graduate-level class on diversity and every year, I have the students give a report on their own racial bias. This involves an inventory of the messages they heard about race from their own family. Without fail, a majority of my students describe their families as not being racist. And without fail, those very students go on to describe implicit racist attitudes held by their parents, most often manifesting around who they could date or suspicions surrounding black people in general. I think this is where racism gets so tricky for people to talk about. It’s hard to acknowledge that our grandparents or parents, many of whom were sweet, loving people that we admired, also held very racist viewpoints. So we minimize or excuse or rationalize or ignore, because we don’t know how to hold this dichotomy . . . the dichotomy that kind, loving people can be racist . . . and that racists can be kind and loving. In many ways Paula Deen is our national grandma in this situation. People love her. She’s funny and affable and relatable, and so it’s hard and confusing to view as someone holding some negative prejudice. And yet, it’s clear that she does. It’s not an overt, in-your-face brand of racism. But it’s there. Most of the black people I know are not surprised or hurt to learn that Paula Deen holds these attitude. But they are quietly resigned in their frustration at her denial, and I share this frustration. Paula exemplifies the New Racism . . . someone who understands the talking points of Treating Everyone Equally, but who tolerates racist jokes in her own home, minimizes slavery, minimizes the racism of those around her, and fails to fire someone who is openly racist to his employees. She’s not an evil person. Her attitudes and behaviors represent many people in this country. But she’s also a television personality, and therefore her actions are held to a different standard. Paula Deen missed an opportunity to be honest. She missed an opportunity to really, truly apologize for the attitudes that she holds, and for some of the ways her upbringing shaped the way she thinks. Instead, she went for minimization and denial. To me, a real apology from her would look like this:

  • I’ve tolerated racism in my home and family
  • I’ve failed to address racism in my business
  • I’ve minimized slavery
  • I’ve poked fun at an employee’s dark skin
  • I’ve feigned ignorance at the offensiveness of the term “nigger”
  • I suggested that slaves could be a quaint scenic touch at a wedding

If our country ever wants to heal from the racism of our past, we’ve got to stop denying that it’s still an issue. We need to own it. To step up and start a national conversation about race. That starts by being honest. We’re not being honest when we excuse the racist attitudes of Paula Deen, or our grandmothers, or our own parents, or ourselves. [Follow my blog with Bloglovin]

the underlying tension of gender roles in the pursuit of an egalitarian marriage (or: what I learned from watching friday night lights)

Mark and I just finished watching Friday Night Lights.  We were WAY late to this party, because I absolutely refused to watch a football-centric show, no matter how good the reviews were. Finally, a friend had a serious chat with me about how empty my life was without Friday Night Lights, and I had a conversion experience.  We became instantly addicted, and watched the whole series in a matter of months. tami-and-eric-taylor
If you haven’t seen it, I’m going to give away the plot a bit, but not the ending. You can skip this paragraph if you haven’t watched the series yet (and seriously, you should watch the series).  The finale stirred up some interesting conversations in our house . . . namely the ambivalence we both felt Tammi’s request that they move to another city for her job. I think part of the brilliance of this showing is that it was constantly making us analyze what choices we would make in our own lives.  Tammi’s character, in my opinion, was the perfect EveryWoman.  So when she started to find some identity in a meaningful job, I cheered her on. And when she decided her assert her own desires, and asked her husband to compromise and let her job be the deciding force in relocating, I was all, YOU GO GIRL! I loved it. IN THEORY.  But the more this plotline went on, the more I felt like she needed to back down a bit. I felt uncomfortable . . for her and for Eric. I worried she was emasculating him. I felt like she was being too pushy. It just felt a little . . . wrong. Unbalanced. And yes, I realize these are fictional characters here, but I really felt like the situation cast an interesting light on my own reactions to equality and gender roles. I have often felt that women of my generation are living in an awkward transition phase when it comes to gender roles and family life. I think that many of us hold to an ideology that women and men can choose to share both bread-winning and child-rearing responsibilities, and that women no longer need to be passive participants when it comes to big family decisions.  At the same time, I think we haven’t quite shaken traditional gender norms either. My experience has been that while Mark and I talk the talk of egalitarian marriage, we both have some subconscious feelings about how it plays out in the day-to-day.  We consider ourselves a co-parenting family.  While I’m a work-at-home mom, there is one day a week that Mark spends home alone with the kids so I can work without distraction. We’re both on board with this arrangement, but on those days I often come home feeling guilty.  When I walk though the door and see him cooking dinner with a crying toddler on this hip, I get a gut check that says, “Oh dear. I should be doing that.”  I worry that he’s feeling resentful for doing “woman’s work”.  And honestly?  Often, he’s fighting that gut feeling too.  I usually have to talk myself down from those feelings . . . reminding myself that it’s only one day a week, and that I’m not in a marriage that adheres to strict gender rules. I believe that.  Cognitively. So does Mark.  But I often find myself needing to override my initial adverse reaction to stepping outside of those prescribed traditional roles. I’m curious if I’m alone in this, or if it’s just a byproduct of being in a transition generation.  In my family of origin, my mom had a job.  But she also did continued to do ALL of the traditional roles of a stay-at-home mother, from cooking to cleaning to laundry.  My husband’s family was the same way.  I think people our age have wised up to the idea that if a woman works, then the husband should probably step it up and help with some of the domestic duties as well.  But why is it so awkward to live out that value?  Is it because we didn’t have our own fathers modeling any level of domestic assistance?  Or is it some instinctual drive that is directing us to stay in our prescribed paths? How do you approach gender roles in your relationship?  Do you have mixed feelings if and when you step outside of tradition?