Saturday, August 29, 2020

White Privilege: Selective Memories

White privilege is being able to have selective memories about our history.

When I was in high school, I wasn’t taught about the Civil Rights Movement...or at least not much. But in college, a wonderful professor opened up a whole new world to me. He showed clips of Eyes on the Prize in our Social Work Policy class. Real footage...all black and white...of what happened in the 60s. I was shocked...dumbfounded, actually. I knew about Martin Luther King. I knew he had a dream and I knew (or thought I knew) that his dream was fulfilled.

After being introduced to the clips, I begged my professor to borrow his VHS tapes. I needed to know more of the story. He was hesitant. After much begging, however, he conceded.

I watched the entire series that summer and cried my way through. It had never occurred to me that people...White people...could be so evil. I was horrified...and then angry. Why had no one ever told me about what happened during this time period before?? It was a turning point for me.

This new knowledge caused me to start questioning the history I had learned...and led me to discover quite a few disturbing pieces of history that seemed extremely important, but that were left out of my history books. Because the authors of these texts didn’t feel the need to tell me *all* of my history, I wondered what else might have been left out. Here are a few things I’ve found:

  • Homestead Acts of 1862--Gave land grants to White Americans for colleges and farmers needing land. However, grants were not provided for enslaved people...and slaves were not freed until African-Americans were not able to establish the same wealth as White people.

  • Forty Acres and a Mule (1865)--Set up to compensate for the land not given to African-Americans during the Homestead Act. Forty thousand Black people (which wasn’t all of the freed slaves, but it was a start) were given 400,000 acres of land in Georgia and South Carolina...only to be taken back when it was found that confederate planters had previously owned it. President Andrew Johnson reversed Special Field Order No. 15, forced African-Americans off of the land, and returned it to the White men.

  • GI Bill of 1944--Gave out free college and low-interest mortgages...but this didn’t include African Americans, who were prevented from qualifying for home loans, which also prevented them from establishing wealth in the same way White families did. 

It’s not that I wasn’t told about my history. It was that I wasn’t told *all* of my history. The parts where BIPOC (Black, Indiginous and People of Color) were denied those same opportunities were conveniently left out of the explanation or downplayed significantly.

I grew up in what I would consider an upper-middle class family. I grew up on a huge farm. I’ve always admired and respected the way my dad has been smart about his investments. Not long ago, I was asking him about how it all started. I knew our ancestors...had established the area of the Ozarks where I grew up, but I wanted to understand how. That’s when he told me about the Homestead Act.

Our family was given land that they farmed and developed...and passed down through the generations. That opportunity allowed them to have the capital to purchase more land throughout the years and that land has created my inheritance. That same land opportunity, in Missouri or elsewhere, was denied to African-Americans.

Let that sink in. My current wealth, assets, and privileges are directly related to an 1862 Homestead Act that I had nothing to do with. But I benefit. My children will benefit from it and my children’s children will benefit from it. I have always taken that for granted. It never occurred to me that I had advantage...until I realized that in 1862 Black people were not allowed that distribution and now have to work 10 times as hard to make up for over 150 years of accumulation of wealth that they were denied.

I took my history at face value. I celebrated the fact that our country gave out land grants, created education systems, and provided free college and low home loans to veterans. It just never occurred to me that during those time periods when those new opportunities were taking effect, certain individuals...certain racial groups...were excluded from and intentionally denied those opportunities. It never occurred to me that the things that made (and make) America great only made (and make) America great for *some* people.

Saturday, August 22, 2020

White Privilege: Defined by Assets

White privilege means I get to be defined by assets attributed to me, not the deficits around me.

When I moved into my apartment complex, the Dallas Morning News wanted to write a story on me. It was basically a story about how I had done something unimaginable. The children and families in the apartment complex were all Black and Brown and I had sacrificed myself to offer them something better. (you can read more about it in the fourth installment of the White Privilege Chronicles)

At the time, I couldn’t understand why so many in my community had a problem with the article. In my mind, the newspaper simply presented the truth:

“Janet Morrison does the hard thing, the hardest thing called for by the Christian faith: She sits, she listens, she loves people--one by one--on their own terms.” … “She is a small-town Missouri girl, 24, who has chosen to live in one of the poorest neighborhoods in Dallas. It’s so poor that all of the color seems drained from the place. The parking lot is gummed with oil patches. The cars are dusty. It’s rare to see one manufactured in this decade. Concrete is pitted, the railings are rusty. Apartment doors are flimsy.”

As I look back on the article, it is painful to read. It’s all about how wonderful I am and how awful the community is.

Yesterday I learned a new term that gave me a whole new understanding: Deficit-framing (thanks, Deborah Douglas!). Deficit framing defines people by their problems. Not only does it define people by their problems, it conditions the rest of us to see and focus on those problems. It allows us to be free of our own shame and guilt and place the responsibility on the people in the situation.

The above article could have said that the apartments were “...dilapidated because of years of neglect by the owner and haven’t been repainted in years. The owner doesn’t bother to clean or repair the parking lot, the railings, or the doors.” The reporter could have said that, “Minimum wage has not risen in years, which forces people to live in substandard housing and purchase cars that barely get them back and forth to work.” She could have said, “The community endures the hard choices of working all day, surviving on a minimum wage salary, and coming home to an apartment complex that the owner refuses to fix.” All of that would have been true as well.

Instead, she focused on choice, my sacrifice. Though I did not know or understand deficit-framing at the time, it was quickly pointed out to me by friends and neighbors that they didn’t enjoy being painted in such a negative light.

It’s not just newspapers; nonprofits use deficit-framing all of the time. They do it because it works. As a program director, I have often been asked to pitch stories to help raise money. I remember one specific story that I thought was amazing. I had met the dad in a monthly meeting we both attended at the local elementary school. He was always very vocal and opinionated, which was right up my alley. As I got to know him and learned he had two kids, I invited them to our program. They started attending our weekly school-year program, then our 8-week summer program. As they outgrew those, they both began working and volunteering in our after-school and summer programs. My friend always pushed and encouraged his children to, “Do better than us.” He wanted his kids to understand how gruelling his work was with such little pay so that they would aspire to go to college and end up in a situation with a more comfortable job that had benefits. I had a whole story around how amazing this family was, with all of their drive and ambition. What we offered was opportunity and a connection to resources that hadn’t been available to them.

Our development department came back and asked, “But who helped them? You did, right? We need an individual to talk about so we can show what they did for them.” The success story they wanted was from the staff or volunteer side...not from the community. Deficit-framing and help *for* communities; asset-framing for and help *by* outside individuals. It’s what brings in the money.

Stories like these bring readership. They make people feel good. They get donations for the nonprofit they represent.

And they alienate and distance People of Color.

When we are constantly bombarded with images and stories of negativity about a specific ethnic group, our brain automatically generalizes this narrative. With every new image, our brain associates with the negative and bypasses the positive. Not sure this is true? Name five people or groups of color who have done something to benefit themselves or their community. Now name five people or groups of color who have done something negative. See how that works?

This is further reinforced when we create a White person or an outsider as the hero. Associative thinking automatically leads us to believe that if there is a hero, there must be a villain. White people become the heroes and Black and Brown people become the villains.

Though I would like to think that I no longer contribute to deficit-framing, I know that’s not true. I know I say and write things that still demonstrate my deficit-thinking, in spite of my intentions. Honestly, I worry about messing up. I worry that some of my friends and mentors who are people of color will notice it and call me out. But I also know that my desire to do better is more important than my fear of someone calling me out. And I know that while my ego might be bruised, the lessons I learn can only help me be more conscientious.

I like to live by the principle, “Where you focus is where you’ll end up.” My hope is if I focus on asset-framing instead of deficit-framing, my writing, my thinking, and my scope of how I see people will adjust accordingly.

Sunday, August 09, 2020

White Privilege: White Superiority

White Superiority. It’s a big part of White Privilege. Inherently, I don’t feel superior to anyone, but I don’t have to feel it for it to be true.

I began recognizing my White Superiority twenty-five years ago. I had started working at an “urban ministry.” As I sought out things for kids to do, people responded and started donating items--toys, books, computers. Donated books were easy to come by...and I was happy to accept.

Though I don’t remember what brought it to my attention, I started noticing that the characters in the books didn’t look like the kids who participated in our program. Donation after donation came in, all the same: White, White, and White.

Until then, it had never occurred to me how White books were. I had grown up a voracious reader and had never noticed that all of the books I read looked like me. The same went for movies and TV shows (with the exception of the Cosby Show).

I had never noticed that the music I listened to was mostly by White people. That the names of all of the buildings at my college were named after White people. That when I went to Washington D.C. in high school, I saw the Washington Monument, the Lincoln Memorial, and the Thomas Jefferson Memorial...all White people. My history books, with a possible mention of Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks, were dedicated to lauding White people’s accomplishments. Disney movies were all White princesses with White knights in shining armor sweeping them off of their feet. The dolls advertised on TV? All White.

Though our rural Missouri town was small (707 people to be exact), I did get some exposure to people of color. The maids and butlers in TV shows and movies were Black or Hispanic. The bad guys in children’s books and Disney movies always had dark skin. Welfare moms on the news were represented by single Black women and “deadbeat dads” were represented by Black men. We were taught to lock our doors in the “scary” parts of cities where homes were more rundown and people of color were walking the streets. In the 80s, “Rock 99,” the local radio station, proudly proclaimed, “We never play rap!!!”...which, we knew, was mainly created by Black people.

In my childhood, I fell in love with old black and white movies like White Christmas and I loved tap dancing movies with Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. I was never exposed to African-American movies like Cabin in the Sky or astounding Black tap dancers like the Nicholas brothers. I had no idea they even existed until about 20 years ago when a Black friend intentionally showed those movies and more, knowing how many knew nothing about them.

White Superiority is about a system that is in place that tells me I am important. By default, people who are not represented are given the message that they are not as important. If they were, they would be represented more. White Superiority is not about how I feel; it’s about who I am by default.

The problem lies in who chooses...and has always chosen...the representation. Until we recognize that multiple voices and multiple perspectives need to and deserve to be represented, and until we fight to make sure that becomes our reality, our White Superiority will remain intact.

Wednesday, August 05, 2020

White Privilege: Questioning Others

White privilege allows me to question others’ actions without checking my own.

Caden was a 7th grade Black boy in the program I run. He was a sweet kid, one-on-one. With other kids, though, Caden’s behaviors were exasperating. I was constantly pulling him aside to talk to him.

Caden’s mom was awesome and supportive...toward him and us. She let us know that she was a single parent trying hard to make sure he had male role models and good influences. I felt like we had a good relationship.

A few months into his time in our program, Caden’s behavior and attitude seemed to get worse. Several girls were complaining about inappropriate (and very graphic) comments he made to them. I spoke to his mom. She was understanding and concerned.

When the behavior continued, I addressed Caden directly. I tried to help him understand that what he was saying to girls was inappropriate and could really get him in a lot of trouble. However, my conversation with him didn’t change anything. My co-worker, who was Black, agreed to talk to him. I thought she might be able to connect with him in a way that I couldn’t. She had a very direct talk with him as well, but the behavior continued.

In my mind, his appearance had started slipping as well. He had always dressed neatly, but now he seemed to be more unkempt. He was wearing old t-shirts and jeans and his hair looked bushy and uncombed. I wondered if he might be using or selling drugs.

Not sure how to help, but really wanting to, I decided to try to appeal to his teenager side and use lingo I knew teens used. I wanted him to know I saw him and was noticing what was happening. I expressed my genuine concern and then pushed a little harder... “Your hair isn’t combed and you look like a crackhead. Is there something I should know?”

I guess I thought this would help him open up because he would feel like whatever he was dealing with wasn’t getting past me, but it didn’t happen like that. Instead, a few days later his mother confronted me. Caden had told her what I had said because he was hurt and offended. At that point, I realized I had not only damaged my relationship with him, but with her as well. I would like to say that I apologized (which I did) and everything worked out (but it didn’t). My words had added insult to injury. Caden’s behavior didn’t change and his mom became distant.

There is no doubt Caden was struggling. His behaviors were definitely cause for concern. But as I look back, I realize my own behaviors were also cause for concern:

  • Caden was a teenage boy. Why didn’t I find a guy to address those behaviors?

  • Caden’s “uncombed” hair was actually a current style that many NBA players were wearing. What if I had paid attention or educated myself more on Black hair...especially considering that I had Black kids in my program? 

  • I had a good relationship with his mom. What made me sidestep her and figure I could solve a problem she couldn’t?

  • If I was concerned about him using drugs, why didn’t I bring that to her attention?

  • What if I had asked his mom how she would like me to handle it instead of jumping in without her knowledge?

  • As Caden’s behaviors worsened, what were my underlying assumptions about his mom that caused me to keep her out of the loop?

I would like to say this was early on in my career, but it wasn’t. This incident happened after about 15 years of working in Black and Brown communities, of doing a lot of reading and research, of listening to and learning from people of color and attempting to do anti-racist work. What’s even more egregious to me is that until I spent time writing this, it didn’t occur to me that my offense was not only against Caden, but actually against his mom as well...and maybe more so.

White privilege makes me believe that I act/react because of someone else’s actions and overlook my own egregious behaviors. White privilege makes me believe that I care more than someone who may be closer to the situation. White privilege makes me feel like I am absolved of all responsibility because I am simply acting out of care/concern.

What I need to realize is that my actions in this situation were a series of microaggressions. What I also need to realize is that I have been conditioned to be this way. We all are. The conditioning is nothing I can help, but the way I pay attention to it and adjust my behaviors is.