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.
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 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]
One of the questions I’m often asked by prospective adoptive parents is . . . how hard is it to raise a child of another race? This is such a tricky question, because it many ways, it really isn’t hard at all. Race isn’t something I think about in our day-to-day routine. By and large, parenting my boys is no different than parenting my girls. I still have the same hopes, dreams, fears, and insecurities as a mom . . . I’m still largely concerned with the day-to-day minutiae that every mom of every race is concerned with. How are they doing in school? How are they doing socially? Are they kind and compassionate? Should they be in more activities? Are we overscheduled? How long can I really go without bathing them? You know . . . typical parenting questions. Race is rarely a factor in my daily decision making, but at the same time it’s always something I’m considering. It’s an undercurrent – an extra layer in the juggling act that is parenting my four kids. As I’m deciding what sports the boys will play, I’m thinking about timing and schedule and prices, but I’m also considering which neighborhood facility is more likely to have a diverse team so that they aren’t the only children of color. As I’m signing Jafta up for cub scouts, I’m weighing out if it’s worth the drive and evening out to put him in the troop at the local AME church, or if I should just sign him up for the after-school troop that’s more convenient. When it’s time for a haircut, I weight out if I can just buzz his hair at home in a few seconds, or if I should take him to the barbershop because the experience of being the majority for an hour is worth the time it takes. I think about their race in making decisions, but it’s really no different than I think about other considerations for each of my kids. I’m also always weighing out our gluten-free diet, the fact that India is introverted, the fact that Karis sunburns after two seconds of outdoor play, the fact that Kembe needs structure, the fact that Jafta has sensory processing disorder. . . I’m not saying this to suggest that race is comparable to a special need. I’m just pointing out that every parent learns to negotiate their own child’s needs in a way that becomes second nature, and race is a part of our family’s daily negotiation. This isn’t an experience exclusive to transracial adoption, but it is something that most white people have the privilege of skimming over. It’s not a burden or a “challenge” – it’s something I rarely think about and yet something that is always at the back of my mind. Sure, at the beginning there was a learning curve. White people adopting children with kinky, African hair will need to do some research and some serious trial-and-error, but it’s not as if our lack of melanin prohibits us from learning the hair-care skills that we didn’t learn growing up in a black family. It was a challenge at first but I ended up taking a lot of pride at being good at doing my boy’s hair. It’s not hard, it’s just different. Figuring out what lotions work best to prevent ashy skin, and stashing little tubes of Eucerin in the car and the diaper bag quickly became a part of the routine. Certainly no insurmountable problems there. There is one aspect of parenting black children that is outside of something I can just learn though trial and error, though – and that’s how to teach my kids how to interact with the world as black men. The question of how white parents can teach black children “how to be black” is one that is often thrown out by opponents of transracial adoption. I don’t love this question because it implies that there is one monolithic experience of being black, or one right set of behaviors, attitudes, and experiences that somehow denote a person’s acceptance as a black person. I reject the idea that “being black” is something that my boys need to learn, because they ARE black. The idea that some would view them as having “lost their black card” by way of having white parents is frustrating to me. At the same time, I do think that a part of securing their identity as proud black men involves having them be a part of the black community. The tragedy of Trayvon Martin illustrates the importance of teaching my young men that the will have to navigate the world differently as black men. One of the concepts often taught to parents who are adopting transracially is the idea of the Transracial Adoption Paradox. This refers to the fact that a child will grow up in a family that enjoys the privileges of being a part of the majority race, but then the child will grow up and live without those privileges. (If you are unclear of what I mean by “privilege”, take a look at this list by Peggy McIntosh on white privilege. Or go read this post at Jezebel in which people react to the casting of black people in the Hunger Games movie. Sure, it’s just a reaction to pop culture, but this kind of stereotyping is the perfect illustration of systemic racism.) This is what I know to be true about raising black boys: it will be imperative for me to teach them that some will look at them with suspicion or stereotype based on their skin color. I HATE THIS. I hate that it’s true and I hate that I have to burst their innocence and I hate that it may shift their view of the world. But it’s a part of our role as their parents, and we can’t do it alone. I don’t share that experience, and so I have to enlist other people to help guide them in this. It’s why it’s so important to us that our boys have strong black role models. It’s why it’s important for me to open my eyes to racism, instead of burying my head in the convenient sand of a mythical post-racial world. It’s why I subscribe to blogs like The Root and My Brown Baby and continually attempt to learn. I read a recent article referring to the Trayvon Martin situation, in which Jesse Washington articulates the Black Code that parents of color must teach their children. He describes it as such:
Always pay close attention to your surroundings, son, especially if you are in an affluent neighborhood where black folks are few. Understand that even though you are not a criminal, some people might assume you are, especially if you are wearing certain clothes. Never argue with police, but protect your dignity and take pride in humility. When confronted by someone with a badge or a gun, do not flee, fight, or put your hands anywhere other than up. Please don’t assume, son, that all white people view you as a threat. America is better than that. Suspicion and bitterness can imprison you. But as a black male, you must go above and beyond to show strangers what type of person you really are.
I love that I have resources to learn about these concepts. But I’m also humble enough to admit that while I get it cognitively, I don’t know what it’s like to live this, and I need to provide my boys with relationships with people who do. I know that some adoptive parents bristle at the idea that they need to outsource a part of their child-rearing. I understand that. As adoptive parents, we want to feel like we can give our own kids everything they need. It can feel like a hit to the pride to realize that in this area, we can’t provide for our kids sufficiently. But this, in my opinion, is the most important consideration in transracial adoption. This is where transracial adoption is a big deal. A REALLY BIG DEAL. Insurmountable? No, I don’t believe so. But it’s something that every prospective adoptive parent should consider.
You’ve probably already seen links to the online film Kony 2012. The 30-minute documentary produced by Invisible Children has gone viral, and #KONY2012 has been trending on twitter for days. Of course, as with anything that garners immediate and national publicity, there has been some criticism as well. Several people have asked for my thoughts on the matter, and I thought I’d weigh in. But first, here’s the video. You really should watch it if you haven’t yet. I first became aware of Invisible Children in 2005, when I was given a screener DVD of their first documentary by a mutual friend of the filmmakers. I had a couple friends who were on staff with Invisible Children . . . I knew it was a group of recently-graduated college students who were out to change the world. I watched the film and I was deeply moved. I had never heard of the LRA, despite the fact that they’d been terrorizing Uganda for 20-some years at that point. My heart was broken for the generation of children who were recovering in Uganda, trying to move forward with their lives after months or years of being brutally raped or forced to kill in the name of Joseph Kony. My first impulse after learning about these atrocities was to try to help in some way. My biggest goal, after seeing the film, was to somehow use my counseling skills to help rehabilitate returned children in Uganda. I knew that PTSD had to be rampant, and I felt like my training as a therapist could be put to good use. For a couple years, I helped facilitate trips to Uganda, in a partnership with my church and a church in Northern Uganda. I was supposed to go on three of those trips, and each time some major life crisis resulted in me having to cancel my trip. A miscarriage, a car accident, another miscarriage . . . every attempt at going to Uganda was thwarted. Soon enough, Jafta came into our lives, and more kids shortly thereafter. My desire to help the Acholi people was put on the back-burner, and as we began the adoption process from Haiti, I began feeling that Haiti was the place where I was supposed to direct this impulse to help that was stirred by the story told in Invisible Children. Being in Port-Au-Prince during the earthquake and adopting our Haitian son only solidified that I wanted to focus my advocacy there. This is why I think storytelling is so very important. Blinders were taken off my eyes after I saw the first film nearly ten years ago. Since that time, I have felt a heavy responsibility to educate myself on what is going on in the world. Learning about the Acholi people was the tip of the iceburg . . .and it motivated me to immerse myself in world news to learn more about global injustice. I tell my story about how Invisible Children inspired me not to illustrate how I then connected to the children in the film . . . obviously there was another path I was to take. But I truly believe that seeing that film softened my heart to global issues, and made me more compassionate and interested in the world around me. One of the major criticisms levied at the filmmakers of #Kony2012 is that they are a bunch of privileged, white Southern California kids who are trying to “save” Africans from Joseph Kony. And, well . . . . they are. These guys are charismatic and creative. They’re driven and good-looking and yes, obnoxiously hipster . . . but all of these things are what paved a way for them to have a huge platform in social media. They have managed to give an international voice to the Acholi people, who have been terrorized for 25 years.. Would it have been preferable for a Ugandan filmmaker with connections, resources, and an astute understanding of social media to produce this film? Sure. Should we have continued another decade or two of people living in fear of an international madman while waiting for that to happen? I don’t think so. Unfortunately, the young men of Northern Uganda spent their college years living in fear of abduction, rather than attending film school and cutting their teeth at internships that taught them the ins and outs of social media. They didn’t have that privilege. I get that there’s a rub that it takes hip, young white people to get other young white people to care about global issues. I agree that it’s annoying that the fimmakers used a white child in the film to garner empathy for the children of African with an “all kids are important” analogy. But do I think they did that because they are ethnocentric? No. I think the filmmakers understand the unfortunate reality that so often, children in Africa are written off because they don’t look like the majority’s own children. I agree that it’s frustrating that so often, stories of minority hardships are only given credibility and interest when told by majority voices. I see all of these things as problematic, and as markers of systemic racism. At the same time, until the system is remedied, it may mean that those who hold the privilege use their voices to act as allies, and it may mean that those with more privilege volunteer their time, resources, and influence to give voice to others. The concept of white privilege does not exist to evoke guilt in white people. There are major benefits to acknowledging white privilege. In doing so, we are able to lay some of that privilege down, we are able to be more inclusive and less ethnocentric, but we are also able to use the privilege we have to advocate for others. I think it’s disgusting to squander privilege by doing nothing. Should we bask in blind privilege while being apathetic and ignorant to the rest of the world, for fear of someone chastising us for our privilege if we try to help someone less fortunate? Ridiculous. White privilege exists, whether someone is making a documentary about the Acholi people or working a corporate job in ad sales. Frankly, I’m a little sick of it being levied as an insult for anyone who dares to advocate for people of another race or culture. My friend Jen Hatmaker echoes similar sentiments in a post about #Kony2012 today, saying,
“When it is all said and done, when my grandchildren read about Joseph Kony and eleven-year-old sex slaves in Haiti and children sleeping on the streets in Ethiopia and foster kids in their fifteen home, and they say, “What did you do about all these tragedies?” I am not going to say, “Well, I didn’t want to be labeled a white supremacist, so I wrote mean blogs about folks who threw their hat in the ring.” I am not going to say, “It was complicated. So I didn’t do anything.” I am not going to say, “People were extremely critical back then. It was PR suicide to engage difficult issues. I remained troubled but silent on the sidelines. I cared in my mind.”
I suppose I identify with this criticism because I’ve certainly been on the receiving end of it, as a blogger who tries to advocate for social justice on a regular basis. In October I wrote a post about the connection between slavery and chocolate and it was republished at several other websites. While clearly many people appreciated the information, I couldn’t believe how many commenters took offense at my message. I was criticized for having a messiah complex, for being a “white savior”, for being preachy, for being a hypocrite, for not caring for children in the US, and most frequently, for being a “bleeding-heart liberal”. It was astounding to me that a post that was meant to bring injustice to light was actually a catalyst for so many people to take issue with me personally, as someone trying to give information, instead of being outraged at the grave human rights issues I was presenting. So when I see people jumping on the bandwagon to criticize Invisible Children on account of their race or age or socio-economic status, I’m annoyed. That being said, there are some legitimate concerns being raised, related to the organization’s financials, mission, and methodology. I think that the organization has done a really good job of addressing most of those concerns in their recent video. I think we could debate all day about whether or not their choice to focus on advocacy vs. aid is the best use of resources, but the bottom line is, they are filmmakers and this is how they’ve been moved to act. Some people are criticizing them for not implementing a more cohesive recovery plan. Others are criticizing them for stepping out of the role to implement aid programs at all. And you know what all of this banter reminds me of? It’s as if a bunch of people were standing around a burning apartment building. Some people are working on stopping the fire. Others are working on attending to the people who’ve been pulled out. But what if the majority of people are just standing around, criticizing the people who are trying to help for starting on the wrong job, instead of getting in and helping out, too? I’m also frustrated by the reactions that seem to want to denigrate their efforts in favor of different forms activism. In my opinion, tweets like “What about the invisible children in America?” are attempts to derail the conversation, not an actual bid for activism towards US children. If your heart has been stirred to advocate for a different people group, then do it. It doesn’t need to be in contrast or comparison with how Invisible Children chooses to advocate. Again, are you going to walk up to a fireman in the middle of a mission and ask, “What about the houses being burglarized?” Invisible Children has never existed to swoop in and solve all of the problems they outline in their films,. Nor has their mission ever been some kind of neo-colonialist, “white man’s burden” effort to Westernize the Acholi people. Their mission is raising awareness about the LRA. They have partnered with some key Ugandans who have mobilized to help rehabilitate child soldiers. One such person is Jolly Okot, who was featured in the documentary War Dance for the work she does with Acholi children. This is such a good movie, and if you’ve been moved by Kony 2012, I definitely recommend watching it to see how some of the children are finding redemption through the arts. Jolly is now the in-country director for Invisible Children. I’ve had the pleasure of meeting Jolly and she’s an incredible person with a deep passion for helping the Acholi people maintain their cultural pride and traditions. Granted, there are aspects of this documentary that I don’t care for. But I’m not the audience. This film was made to be a short, motivational introduction to the issue, to appeal to those previously uninitiated to global issues of social justice. Is it oversimplified? Of course it is. It’s a 30-minute spot created for social media. Yes, it’s absolutely sensationalist. That’s why it’s being shared all over social media outlets instead of an in-depth Al Jazeera documentary on the same subject. It’s slick, flashy, and maybe a bit cheesy, but I don’t think it’s manipulative or stretching the truth. The filmmakers were very clear that Kony is no longer in Uganda and that he is now wreaking havoc in Central African Republic, Democratic Republic of Congo and South Sudan. Their goal was to create a film that was moving, that told a story, and that people would be compelled to share. And they were really, really successful. A lot of the writers who have been openly critical seem to want to illustrate their previous knowledge of Kony and all the details the film left out. Of course there is more to the story, but again this is an introduction to the issue. The reality is, most Americans don’t know or care about Kony’s LRA. Just last year, Rush Limbaugh made completely ignorant statements about the LRA (Lord’s Resistance Army) with the salacious and patently untrue headline Obama Invades Uganda, Targets Christians:
"Lord’s Resistance Army are Christians. They are fighting the Muslims in Sudan. And Obama has sent troops, United States troops to remove them from the battlefield, which means kill them. That’s what the lingo means, ‘to help regional forces remove from the battlefield,’ meaning capture or kill. So that’s a new war, a hundred troops to wipe out Christians in Sudan, Uganda, and — (interruption) no, I’m not kidding. Jacob Tapper just reported it. Now, are we gonna help the Egyptians wipe out the Christians?"
Case in point: last week, the world was abuzz over Rush Limbaugh calling Sandra Fluke a prostitute, and YES. That was disgusting. But several months ago he defended a madman responsible for raping, kidnapping, killing and mutilation, and I did not see a single facebook post or tweet in outrage over it. So do I think the world needs an education about Joseph Kony? Indeed, I do. The one criticism of the recent Kony 2012 film that I do share is that I’m not 100% sure about increasing U.S. government efforts to militarize Africa. Honestly, I’ve very conflicted on this one, and not just in relation to Uganda. I do believe there comes a time when human atrocity is so great that the global community needs to step in. History has given us many examples, and I don’t think any of us would look back and wish that we hadn’t helped in squelching Hitler’s reign of terror. I think that Joseph Kony should absolutely be captured and punished for his crimes, but at the same time I see a film like Restrepo and have major reservations about sending our young armed forces into any war situation. I have the same feelings about Syria right now. I will say that I have massive frustration towards the US tendency to only care about social justice when we have something to gain. Our decision to remain uninvolved during the last two decades of Kony’s reign in Uganda, while sending troops to oil-rich countries for lesser evils is quite disconcerting, and I appreciate that this film is bringing that to light. At the same time, I don’t know if the answer is sending our troops, or aiding the corrupt Ugandan army. What I do know is that I’m probably not the person qualified to be making those strategic decisions. Still, I think that people being informed about Kony is important, and I think calling for the powers-that-be to put energy into his capture is warranted. All that to say, I am glad to see the buzz that #Kony2012 has created. My hope is that it will stir people to become more educated on all issues of social justice. If you were touched by the film, I hope you will consider becoming informed on what is happening in Sudan, in Syria, in Malaysia, in Greece, and here in the US. Also, if you want more information on what the LRA is currently up to, check out these articles:
It’s far from over. I believe that the impulse to help in the face of tragedy is a good impulse – I think wisdom and research are important, but I don’t think a burning desire to help should be squelched by fear of being called out for white privilege or liberalism. I know many people felt an impulse to help in the immediacy just following the earthquake in Haiti, and Kony 2012 is creating that similar passion in people. However, I would encourage you to watch Kony 2012, get mad at the injustice, and then ask yourself:
What do I have, and how and where should it be used?
Maybe the capture of Joseph Kony won’t be your mission. Maybe it will be women’s rights or family preservation or orphan care or human trafficking or access to education. But maybe, like me, a film made by Invisible Children will inspire you into figuring out what cause you will take up, and what gifts you have to help others. EDITED TO ADD: I would be remiss if I didn’t point out two really amazing organizations that are bringing jobs and opportunities to people in Northern Uganda: check out 31 Bits and Krochet Kids.
Last week I talked a bit about how often I notice people dancing around racial descriptors, and how this has led to some awkward interchanges. A friend pointed out that perhaps I was glossing over the context of racial descriptors, and so I want to talk a bit about that. In fact, I think it’s relevant because I think some of the negative context around pointing out someone’s race is what has led to the general unease about acknowledging or discussing issues of race in today’s society. I think many of us probably grew up hearing people use racial descriptors in a negative way. I can certainly remember my grandparents doing it:
Another black family just moved in. They’re taking over this neighborhood!Those Puerto Ricans behind me were talking so loud.I nearly got in an accident with someone today! He was Asian.
Hopefully I don’t need to explain how these are examples of inappropriate racial referencing. In this instances, the race of the individual is irrelevant, but included in the conversation to confirm a generalization or prejudice. The reference to race is not about describing the other person, but rather about ascribing a stereotype or judgment to the situation based on another person’s race. As a result of growing up with this kind of racism, many of us had well-meaning parents or teachers who wanted to create a better environment, but in doing so we were taught that we should ignore race. “Race doesn’t matter” . . . we were told. Everyone’s equal. Don’t notice someone’s race, and for heaven’s sake, don’t talk about it if you do. This is the credo that I think a lot of white folks were raised on, and while it’s certainly an improvement over the more overt racism of racial ascription, it has (in my opinion) created a generation of people wearing a set of blinders to the real and ongoing issues of prejudice that people of color deal with. It has also created a society in which mentioning someone’s race is deemed offensive. Which is kind of a problem when a black friend tries to describe her experiences of subtle racism, and her white friends argue with her that no one notices race, and that she’s being overly sensitive. Or when I talk to a preschool teacher about my son’s experience as the only African American in his class and it results in an awkward conversation where the teacher feels as though I’m being confrontational. Or when I mention my concerns about the prejudice my sons may face and I’m told I’m just being paranoid. The idea that race doesn’t matter is a lovely dream, but the truth is that it DOES matter. Still. Today.
Another way I see this sense of racial denial play out is that people frequently relate stories to me about how their kids don’t notice race, as if this is a confirmation that their children don’t hold any prejudice. But here’s the kicker, that I think both children and adults need to learn:
It’s possible to notice race without prejudice.
In fact, it might even be optimal to notice race. According to Nurture Shock, parents who don’t talk to their kids about race are setting them up to view diversity as a negative thing. Not to mention, I believe that every child notices race on some level . . . it might not hold much weight, but I think if asked, most children could point out what children of color are in their class or friend circle. That doesn’t make them budding racists. So, to sum it up:
People shouldn’t be judged on race.
BUT Race does matter.
Everyone is equal
BUT Not everyone is treated equally
I get the collective cringe when someone is described according to their race. For many of us, there is a deeply engrained notion that it’s wrong, and depending on the context, it sometimes is. Therefore, it’s really important to recognize context, and not presume that every mention of a person’s race has a racist undertone. Sometimes it’s an apt way to describe a person’s appearance (as my children do, all the time, in regards to children of all races). Other times, it’s appropriate to acknowledge race to promote cultural sensitivity. Culture and race are a part of identity, and when we pretend that we don’t see someone’s race, in a way we are denying a part of their experience. Last night, I took the kids to see the Alvin Ailey dance company. At intermission, India pointed out, rather loudly, that all of the dancers have brown skin. I felt that familiar cringe creep up . . . my first instinct was to shush her, or to whisper, or ask her to be quiet. I felt a little squicky about the people around me hearing her say this so directly, and worried about what they thought of her for being so direct. I could have easily said something to shame her observation in that moment, but instead I fought through my discomfort and baggage and acknowledged what was an innocent observation on her behalf. “You’re right – this is a mostly African American cast,” I answered, without whispering. Then we had a discussion about who Alvin Ailey was, and why his contribution to the African American community was so great. On the way home, we continued our discussion. I explained more about the Revelation dance, and how the spirituals in that number were songs that were sung by slaves as a way to express their hope and faith in the middle of a horrible circumstance. It ended up being one of the best discussions I’ve had with the kids about historical racism, and I felt glad that my daughter was able to freely make observations without my discomfort shaming her into pretending not to notice.
A couple weeks ago, I posted a list of resources for talking to kids about racism. As it happens, a few people “pinned” the post onto Pinterest. As a blogger, checking Pinterest is interesting, because you can see commentary on your posts from people who don’t necessarily read your blog (or know anything about you). Last week, I noticed a comment on a pin of that post – the description was “how to talk to kids about race”. A woman replied (I’m assumed without having actually read the post);
This is so great! We always teach our kids never to notice the race of others. Whenever one of them comments on someone else’s race, we remind them that we don’t talk about that.
Of course, the irony here is that this is exactly the opposite of what my message was . . . so I found it amusing but also a bit disconcerting. It got me thinking a little, though, about how prevalent this mindset is. I notice how uncomfortable my students are at the beginning of each semester when I teach a graduate level diversity class. It is really hard for some of them to talk openly about racial bias, especially in a diverse classroom. And honestly? I don’t know that I am completely immune to it myself. I definitely think our society has some unspoken rules about talking about race. Here’s a few ways I have seen it play out: _________________________________________ The kids and I are at Trader Joe’s. I’m in a long check-out line, and the kids are anxious to go up to the manager’s station and get their prized lollipop. This is a new store, so the kids aren’t as familiar with the layout, but I send them up by themselves because it’s in my line of vision and because it makes them feel important. I can see the kids standing in front of the long counter at the front of the store, confused, because there are three different windows, and they can’t read the sign that designates which window they should approach. There are three people behind the counter: a white man, a white woman, and a black man. The black man is the one working behind the sign that says “manager’s station”. My kids look back at me with confusion, since they can’t read it. “Which one?” they pantomime. I point, but they can’t tell where I’m pointing. They are about 20 feet away from me in a crowded store, so I have to yell to be heard. “It’s the man!” I yell. “Which one?” They ask. “The one in the Hawaiian shirt” I yell back, realizing they are both wearing the same thing. “Which one?” They implore. I look around. At least 15 people are within earshot, likely hearing everything I’m saying. Again, I try to avoid saying it. “The guy on the right!” I yell. They remain confused . . . still not quite old enough to understand that concept. I wrestle in my mind. What can’t I just say it? This is ridiculous. It’s a descriptor. I’m just going to say it. “The black guy!” I yell. My kids nod appreciatively, but simultaneously I swear I hear a record scratch, as every eye in the checkout line turns on me. Me, who dared to speak it out loud. Me, who referred to someone by their race. Some people shake their head, others roll their eyes at my apparent rudeness. The bagger looks embarrassed for me, and I regret having said it. _________________________________________ I am at a playdate with a group of other moms. There is a new mom there, and we are making small talk, as people do. She asks about the ages of my kids, and I ask about hers. Then she asks which children are mine – and glances out at the playground, where about 20 kids of similar age are playing. “My daughter is the blond there, in the pink dress . . . with the ponytail. And the other one is the blond toddler on the ladder. And my sons are the two black boys*.” She looks like a deer in headlights. A couple other moms look stunned, too. Someone pipes in to explain that my children are adopted, but I feel like what she’s really trying to do is rescue me from my guffaw. I quietly wonder why I feel like I have to play the “descriptor dance” whenever pointing out my boys at school pickup or after church. Why do I have to list 5 descriptors when one is the most obvious? Especially when they are so often the minority, why do I have to skirt around it and describe their shirt, their hair, their age . . . when referring to their race cuts to the chase? _________________________________________ We are at preschool for open house, seated at a child’s table with several other parents and their small children. A little girl points to my son, and excitedly makes an observation to her mom. CURIOUS GIRL: Mommy, do you SEE him!?! He’s brown! MORTIFIED MOM: (clearly embarrassed) Honey, be quiet. CURIOUS GIRL: Mommy, do you see? Do you see that boy? MORTIFIED MOM: Sweetie, BE QUIET. Be quiet right now. CURIOUS GIRL: But mommy, look! He’s brown. MORTIFIED MOM: (whispering through gritted teeth) If you don’t stop saying that right now, I will give you a spanking. _________________________________________ These are just a few examples from my own life. Obviously, I don’t think everyone has such hang-ups with talking about race . . . in fact I suspect that this is an issue unique to white folks. But I do find it interesting that in seven years of raising black children, I have never had the experience of someone describing his race without some serious dancing around other descriptors first. “The one with the braids? Blue shirt? Brown hair?” Always. Contrast this with my own kids, who I’ve raised to talk really openly about race. They are at a very diverse preschool, and it is so interesting to hear them describe their classmates to one another. Almost always, if they are talking about a schoolmate that the other doesn’t know, one will say, “what color skin and hair does he have?” And the other will describe – with no judgment and no baggage surrounding it, the skin color of their friend. What do you think? Do you notice a reluctance for people to use racial descriptors? Have we gone so overboard with our good intentions to not judge others based on skin color, that we can’t even comfortably mention skin color now? And more importantly, what do you think all of this dancing around really does in terms of defeating racism?