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 me...my 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.