Monday, June 22, 2015

Confronting My Own Racism

I am a white woman, and I have spent most of my life not thinking about race. Not in a "we live in a post-racial America" type of way, but just that on an everyday level it didn't really come up that much. Of course when something overtly racist happened, I would notice and be upset by it. I knew that people of color (POC) are underrepresented in STEM, I thought this was a bad thing, and I wanted to increase the number of underrepresented minorities (URM) in Astronomy and Physics. But overall, race and racism was an occasional thought that would briefly come to my mind, and then quickly leave.
Source: Washington Post 
    Then some incredibly powerful events happened this past year which opened my eyes and very much changed my perspective:
    1. I wrote a blog post for Women in Astronomy that (among other problematic things) was racist. I got called out on this, and was incredibly ashamed and embarrassed.
    2. Fellow CSWA member and WiA blogger John Johnson​ challenged me to read Seeing White, where I learned a lot about white privilege and systematic racism in America.
    3. A Facebook Group (which I moderate) started having intense conversations about race where I was continually challenged to confront the various ways I have been contributing to a hostile climate for POC in my everyday life, on this blog, and in my professional community.
    4. There were several high-profile murders of unarmed black men by the police in America.
    So, it turns out I was/am racist. Not in an overtly bigoted way, but in the way that many white people in America are: I spent most of my life ignoring race, ignoring my white privilege, and not actively doing anything about the problem of systematic racism. I live[d] in a predominantly white neighborhood, and primarily interacted with other white people. I rarely discussed race with anyone, or thought about how my race impacted my world-view or life-experience. What had allowed me to ignore race in my everyday life was my white privilege. This is not something I would be able to do if I had been born a person of color in America.

    The authors of Seeing White eloquently discuss why being passive, as a white person, is contributing to the problem of racism (pages 66-67):
    A white person can be actively anti-racist, working within their social network and means to reduce the impact of racism. A white person can be passively racist, doing nothing about racism. Or a white person can be actively racist. Many white people want a passively anti-racist option. They don't want to take any action, and they want to be absolved of responsibility. Doing nothing supports racism. In a racist society, going with the flow allows racism to continue. To be passive in regard to racism is to be racist.  
    Some white readers may feel uncomfortable processing this argument. Many whites (including the two white authors of this book) have been passive at some point in our lives with regard to race. Being called a racist feels like a slap across the face. It feels awful. It takes a moment to recover. But we would rather be called-out on our unintentional racism than to be unaware and inadvertently harming others in ways much more devastating. 
    Individuals with power are unlikely to recognize their power and may feel uncomfortable when someone tries to reveal it. Because white privilege tends to be invisible, any given individual white person is unlikely to be aware of their racial advantage. White people might not feel personally powerful, and because of this, arguments about power might not resonate with them. If the focus is shifted from individuals' feelings of power to an analysis of who tends to hold power as a group, it becomes clear that whites are highly likely to be overrepresented on corporate boards and in legislative bodies.
    I decided that I was no longer ok with being passively racist, and that I wanted to do something about it. Below is what I have been doing, and will continue to do to address my own racism:
    1. I listen to POC talk about race and racism: It turns out that living as a POC in America means that you are exposed to a lot more everyday racism than a white person. Therefore POC have a lived experience that is profoundly different than mine, and I can learn a lot by trying to understand their experience. Most of the time when it comes to conversations about race the best thing for me to do is to listen to, validate the experience of, and elevate the voices of POC. In fact the main role I see myself playing in conversations about race is to talk to other white people and try and help them understand their own passive and active racism.  
    2. I point out inequities, white supremacy, and racism when I see it. This mostly involves telling other white people that I think they might not be considering how their white privilege is influencing their perspective on a situation or how their words/actions are negatively impacting others. This normally doesn't go very well. It turns out that (in general) white people don't like talking about race or any implication that they are behaving in a racist way. This phenomena is called white fragility. However, I will continue to do iteven though it hurts me socially and professionallybecause I believe an important step in breaking down systematic racism in America is for more white people to clearly understand their privilege and resist participating in passive or unconscious racism.
    3. I am continually educating myself about race, white privilege, and intersectional feminism. This involves diversifying my media, following people of color on twitter, reading books, and attending trainings, workshops, and conferences around the issues of inclusion and equity.
    4. I am advocating for my workplace, and the STEM community as a whole, to institute best practices around recruitment, hiring, training, reviewing, promotion, and retention of URMs.
    5. ​I am participating in real-life activism like protests and meet-ups.
    6. I am donating to causes which help POC and other URMs.
    7. I am accountable for my mistakes: When I am criticized or called-out, I am of course embarrassed and ashamed. But I am also VERY grateful that the person cared enough to point out my mistake. They could have written me off as a lost cause, they could have avoided conflict by not saying anything. Calling someone out takes energy and is risky. So when I am called-out, I see it as an incredible gift, and respond with gratitude for the opportunity to change, regret for causing harm in the first place, and a commitment to do better in the future.
    8. I am working with other astronomers to change the culture in astronomy to address discrimination and prejudice in our field. I am helping the organizers and participants of Inclusive Astronomy develop recommendations for best-practices around inclusion and equity.
    9. I am seeking out more diverse voices for this blog, hoping to elevate the experiences of women of color and other URMs.
    Now let me be clear: I am still racist. This is work I am going to have to continue to do for the rest of my life. There is no test I can pass which declares that I am no longer racist. However, it is incredibly important work, and work that is essential to the overall success of our field. How can we do the best science if we are excluding and pushing-out some of the best talent? I believe the first step in addressing racism in Astronomy is for us to admit the ways we contribute to racism as individuals, and to try and become better as individuals in combating our own racist and discriminatory behavior.

    What are you doing to address your own racism?  Please comment below.

    I would like to especially thank Zuleyka Zevallos and Chanda Hsu Prescod-Weinstein for being excellent leaders, teachers, role-models, and continuing to hold me accountable.

    7 comments :

    Anonymous said...

    Sorry but I don't agree with your analysis. You may be politically naive, comfortable in your privilege, or simply unaware of how power relies on passive acceptance to maintain and build its base. But none of these things makes you racist. Your logic is flawed. Yes by being passive you are supporting a racist hegemony and you are right to say we should all stand-up and denounce our iniquitous societies (I'm a Brit) but if you wish to put on the badge of 'racist' then you must also wear all of the other badges that go with being passive or accept being a hypocrite. Seems to me you are a thoughtful person, waking to the realities of the world in which we white privileged westerners live. Calling yourself names will not make you or the world a better place. Be careful of an intellectual power-elite that seeks to maintain its own power.

    Jessica Kirkpatrick said...

    Anonymous -- Which other badges do you refer to? Within this frame work, if I am passive then I participate in all discrimination of people who are underrepresented or in a position of less power. This post focuses on racism, but yes I am also sexist, homophobic, ableist, fatphobic etc. I am not sure I would call them badges, because that insinuates that I am proud to wear them. However, I do think it's helpful for people in positions of power and privilege to be less fearful about accepting their -isms and recognizing that discrimination is something we all participate in unless we work very hard to counteract it. By calling myself racist and admitting my own struggles with passive racism, I believe it does help other white people accept their own racism and want to do something about it, which in turn makes the world a better place. I hope you read Seeing White (the book I link to several times in the post).

    Jessica Kirkpatrick said...

    Also Anonymous, I'd love to hear about what you do to address racism in your life. This is what I was hoping the comments would be used for.

    Jessica Mink said...

    I wouldn't go so far as to call myself racist, though if someone accused me of what they deemed a racist act, I would first apologize and then work to understand why what I did was racist so that I would never do anything like it again. I, too, was at the Inclusive Astronomy conference, and experienced microagressions from a direction so surprising that my general immunity to them--and for reasons that aren't relevant here, I get a lot--didn't work. The stress they added to my life made me *much* more sympathetic to how the microagressions of race, gender, disability, etc. affect people all of the time in our society, and made me even more conscious of how my actions affect others. This is a place where it helps to have diverse sets of friends, colleagues, and neighbors, people who you can think of when you say or do things which could affect them.

    Nicole Cabrera said...

    Okay I think everyone missed the point of Jessica's post. We are all products of a racist society (even we minorities), therefore unless we come to terms with this racism and become aware of our own racist tendencies AND we take action against that, we will passively perpetuate racism. The rest is just semantics; we are racists, let's deal with that so we can move on to the more important things, like taking action.

    I grew up in a Hispanic enclave and Hispanics are not immune to racism; I see a lot of racism directed at the black community by Hispanics. This is actually part of the system: oppressed groups who are divided don't stand a chance against the majority. On top of that, as a woman I've been taught to be afraid of men (after all, 1 in 5 women experience sexual assault), and I have to admit that this fear is greater toward black men than toward white men.

    So what I'm doing to address my own racism is to educate myself and have deep conversations about race not just publicly but with my own family, which can be much more difficult. I'm about to go pick up my own copy of Seeing White at the library, and I know that as much as I know about racism in the U.S., this will probably be a huge eye-opener.

    I'm committing to taking the CRT route and talking less about racism outside my own group and instead listening to and elevating the voices of those facing that racism. I know I will make mistakes along the way, but I'm prepared to own up to them and apologize the right way (thanks for that blog post by the way Jess!), and continually commit to doing better. It's really a lifelong process, unfortunately that is how entrenched some of these prejudices are. But it's a worthwhile investment.

    Anonymous said...

    This kind of topic is something I've been trying to come to terms with for a while.
    I am somewhat conflicted as I also think that it is a widely held belief that the oppressed group should be at centre stage of their own struggle to be free of oppression (if this makes sense). So men should not be taking a lead role in feminism, white people should not take a lead role in anti-racism and things like that. As such, I am never sure what exactly it is that I (as a white person) should actively do against racism.
    I do not know where my role could be in activism, I suppose I simply need to ask activists. I also am not in any position where I personally can do anything of great use (e.g. encouraging diversity within a company or something).
    I try to educate myself on various topics to do with racism, I try to listen to the voices of POC. It's on more active things I'm never sure.
    I do sometimes call people out on racist behaviour/assumptions etc., but as a white person I am loath to be talking for POC (if that makes sense, since I don't personally experience these things, I don't think I ever can fully understand). I am not the most knowledgeable on these things, so I feel that getting into a discussion with people about it will often not help at all. I will not be able to provide a convincing argument and it could end up reinforcing the idea of everything being too PC nowadays and giving the person reason to dismiss these concerns.
    Something I do try to do is point out lack of diversity etc. in media and so forth when it is appropriate. I feel that it might help to get people thinking about race. (though of course I do miss an awful lot of very problematic things)

    Anonymous said...

    I would never raise my white children in a predominantely liberal white enclave, for fear they would end up infected with the type of unaddressed self-hatred and white-guilt that is on display here.

    Growing up around people of different cultures in Toronto has been a blessing, as an inoculation against the seething white-guilt that rich white liberals who were brought up in suburbs seem to labour under their entire lives.

    The worst part is that these very people, who are so lost, feel that they are in fact the saviours of all the 'unenlightened whites', who they feel that their skin tone gives them some sort of connection to, whether by some perceived shared socio-economic status, or perceived shared culture, or shared history.

    And then they try to push their insane socio-political agenda on other 'whites', with the fervor of religious zealots trying to save the immortal souls of the unbaptized.

    It's absolutely insane, and for that reason I would never ever want to put my child through a US east coast liberal education surrounded by white liberals. What a disaster.