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Posts Tagged ‘black lives matter’

BlackLivesUU

We believe that hundreds of UU churches signaling to their own members and to the larger community that “our faith takes racism seriously, especially within our own walls” will push our faith toward the beloved community we all seek.

Black Lives of UU

On Sunday, my Unitarian Universalist congregation participated in the first #UUWhiteSupremacyTeachIn. This began as a call to action by Black Lives of UU for congregations around the country the dedicate one day of services to teaching about racism and white supremacy. Our worship team took the charge seriously, shifting not only the content of the service but the very structure of how we gather together. A new seating arrangement brought everyone face-to-face. Without the familiar printed order of service to guide us, we watched videos of anti-racist leaders like Tricia Rose, and worshiped in the company of art and music by people of color. Most notably, our pastors made unflinching use of the term “white supremacy.”

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SURJ note

In February 2015, Natasha McKenna, a 37-year old neighbor and mother, called 911.  The help she expected was not what showed up.  Instead, she was herself arrested on an outstanding warrant.  In custody, she suffered a mental health crisis.  She was restrained while naked and put into leg shackles and handcuffs.  Six Fairfax County police officers in hazmat suits put a bag over her face and tazed her four times.  She stopped breathing.  Natasha McKenna died a few days later.  The deputies responsible for her death faced no charges and continue to work in law enforcement.

Today, SURJ Northern Virginia gathered at the Fairfax County courthouse in front of the detention center where Natasha McKenna was held and brutalized.  The protest found its way to Route 123, a narrow and busy corridor through downtown Fairfax.  At 9:00am right during rush hour, we stepped out into the street and stopped traffic.  Coverage of the story is here and here and here.

The primary objective of this action was to focus enough attention to Natasha McKenna’s case that county Sheriff Stacey Kincaid will bring charges against the six officers.   The protest is also part of a larger goal: to stand with Black Lives Matter.  We need our neighbors and leaders to hear that racism and brutality are not problems somewhere out there, in Memphis or St. Louis or Ferguson.  They exist right here in our own community.

As a white person at her first racial justice action since protesting the death sentence of Mumia Abu Jamal at the 1995 governor’s convention (that’s 21 years ago, people!), I’ve got some catching up to do.

This work is about Natasha McKenna.  It is about changing structures of law enforcement and governance that dehumanize and destroy People of Color.  This work is decidedly not about me.  Yet when stepping out today, I woke up to a few things — food for thought for other allies who are considering their involvement? — about being white while working for racial justice.

Like how stark the difference between our treatment today and that of Black protestors using the same tactics in other cities.  The police who came on the scene took their time to congregate.  They kept a safe distance.  They gave us three clear warnings and articulated exactly what would happen if we refused to move.  No one touched a weapon.  No one hid under helmets or riot gear.  When they handcuffed the folks who blocked traffic, they asked if the cuffs were comfortable.  The ones under arrest were booked and released in less than an hour.  Everyone had time to get to work.

White privilege at a racial justice action means knowing that my job is safe even if I show up late, or show up on TV.  I can take personal leave or just stay after 5:00 to make up the lost hours.  Many of my co-workers, my supervisor, and even the students I serve will be supportive of my involvement in political protest.  My livelihood is secure.  I have no criminal record and I’m not on probation for any of the thousand tiny infractions that can land a Black person in jail.  Even if I get arrested, even if my name is in the news, the consequences are negligible.

White privilege at a racial justice action means I can choose whether or not to be arrested.   Both the cops and the activists know the script and the parts they play in it.  We move through the choreography.  The certainty is near total:  I’ll block traffic at 8:00 a.m. and be heading to the office by 10:00.

Being white at a racial justice action means that I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that the armored truck trying to turn right into me is not going to run me over.  I can plant the giant image of Natasha McKenna in front of me.  I can refuse to budge.  The driver is welcome to be as pissed off as he wants.  He can rev his engine, nudge up to me, come within 10 inches of my body, and I’m going to be safe.  The cops standing there will not let him hurt me.  There are laws in this country that protect me.  And I’m secure in the knowledge that those laws will do exactly that.

And guess what?  The Loomis truck driver growled and cussed, then backed up and shot an illegal U-turn to find an alternate way around us.

Being white at a racial justice action means that when the gal with the bullhorn clicks off the mic to confer with the cops and everyone is standing there waiting for guidance, I get to hide.  It’s a white sort of hiding.  I can stand there silent and anonymous and surrounded by 20 other silent white folks in front of double lines of cars stretching a mile in either direction.  My privilege — and the expectation of decorum and conformity — allow me to gaze off vaguely and wait until our leader is done.

Awareness of white privilege at a racial justice action is something altogether different.  It means reaffirming the commitments that brought me out.  It means calling to mind the simultaneous actions going on around the country, and remembering that the People of Color leading this work are tired.  They are always the ones on the front lines or in the line of fire.  Arrest is no joke.  Law applies differently or not at all.  They don’t have time for my timidity, my uncertainty, my need for a perfect plan.

They are why I showed up.

Ending the racism that permits the white privilege that keeps our little group of protestors safe — and its dehumanizing corollary for everyone else — means that I get to check myself.  Confusion and embarrassment are thick veins running right through the heart of the white culture I carry, particularly in the affluent, educated whiteness that is my native land.   This need to know what I’m doing before I do it, this fear of looking stupid or screwing things up, these are all part of a crippling anxiety that has no part to play in the work of liberation.

So I say to myself, you know what, Smirk?  No one knows what the hell to do. No ONE. 

No one knows how to build this thing.  No ONE. 

But you are not one today.  You are many, you are a force, you are part of an improvisation and a collaboration and a movement.

Go.

Being white at a racial justice action means stepping through the silence, opening up my  out-of-practice voice, and shouting out the call:

Black Lives Matter.  Black Lives Matter.

Black women matter.  Black women matter.

Say her name.  Natasha McKenna.

Say her name.  Natasha McKenna.

No justice.  No peace.

No racist.  Police.

Black Lives Matter.  Black Lives Matter.

Say her name.  Natasha McKenna.

A final note:  Putting down my sign at 10:00 and heading to the office, I realize with stunning clarity how goddamned much I have to learn.  Becoming more skilled, knowledgeable, and effective will take some work.  For this, I take the lead from activists and authors of color on all these fronts.  This week, I dive into this excellent Black Lives Matter reading list which curates and categorizes a number of recent pieces from folks working on racial justice.  It and others are available on Longreads.


Image:  Note from a morning commuter sent to the SURJ organizers today.

 

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People are getting live-killed on Facebook, y’all.  If we aren’t showing up now, then when?  It’s time to get out there.


SURJ Organizer, 7/10/2016

Over 70 folks came out for the SURJ (Showing Up for Racial Justice) meeting.  They had to bring in more chairs.  After last week in America, despair and outrage have combusted into something that refuses to stay contained.

The meeting was two hours of focused, efficient movement.  We engaged in small group discussions about concrete things we’ve seen white allies do to disrupt racism and cultivate justice in our communities.  We heard from the organizers about activities that have gained traction in the first year of this young organization’s life: immigration reform, police accountability, renaming buildings that celebrate the Confederacy, and coordinating a region-wide canvas in majority white neighborhoods in the run-up to the presidential election.  We then split into breakout sessions for a deep dive into each of these areas.  Finally, we learned about the next public action planned for this coming week.

Around the country, ally organizations are stepping up to make a stand for Black Lives.  The focus is on police departments, sheriff’s offices, and Fraternal Orders of Police.  Affiliated organizations led by People of Color have put out the call to SURJ and other white allies to take bolder action on issues of police brutality.  Facing our white privilege means more than talking about it on social media.

It means showing up.

It’s time to take our horror at what happened to Philando Castile and turn it into a movement.

And what happened to Alton Sterling.

And Natasha McKenna.

And Freddie Gray.  And Trayvon Martin.  And Michael Brown.  And Eric Garner.  And Tanisha Anderson.  And Tamir Rice.  And Zamiel Crawford.  And Dominick Wise.  And Frank Shephard.  And Vincent Valenzuela III.  And the 5 Dallas police officers, some of whom had stood with the protestors before the shooting began.

And so many more, each a story.  Each a neighbor.  Each a life blown short by a force whose call to protect has gone haywire.

The organizers asked who would be there for the coming action.

At a public protest, my skin and income lower the risk of abuse to negligible.  This fact does not make me proud.

It makes me raise my hand.

It’s time to show up.


 

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We tell ourselves the story that we have triumphed over the (official) racism of the land. We say, “It was awful then.” Then we twist ourselves into logical contortions to explain or ignore mass incarceration of Black men, the economic marginalization of communities of color, and a whole continuum of institutional racism.

In the post-civil rights era, newer forms of racism present formidable obstacles because they recruit and rely on our belief system about racial equality and egalitarianism. They hold that we exist in a meritocracy, and any consideration of race in policy or access is itself indicted as racism.  The new forms are more insidious than the public expressions of white supremacy so easily identified and vilified as racist.  Our shared narrative is a public expression of racial equality.

Meanwhile, we move ever further from welcoming any approach that seeks to rectify structural conditions of inequality.

We import the idea of meritocracy and lay it on top of these conditions. One example: we continue to base the funding of our schools on local property values. When students from those schools have chillingly different outcomes and opportunities, we attempt to understand it by placing it in a behaviorist frame, which obscures the structural imbalance.

We claim that because the law changed, society is fundamentally changed.  This is a fallacy.  The racial caste system is evident across the social and economic landscape.  The gaps exist in housing, health, incarceration, the accumulation of wealth, job training and discrimination.

We retreat from addressing the legacy of harm as we try to embrace of picture of inclusion or diversity.  We are confused and ineffective.  We have to be honest about the legacy.  If we have uneven playing fields and then function as if we are a meritocracy, we are doomed to continue reproducing the conditions that lead to those inequalities.


 

– From a talk by Tricia Rose, Professor of Africana Studies and the Director of the Center for the Study of Race and Ethnicity in America at Brown University.

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Mahalia

The trick is to tell him the dog can stay in bed with us for the first book. We settle down in the nest of pillows and blankets. Poor, long-suffering Noodle is crammed into my boy’s insistent grasp.

We begin with Mahalia Jackson: Walking with Kings and Queens. The illustrations are rich and the story simple enough.

Simple does not always mean comfortable.

Bug listens and the dog drifts into a warm stupor.

Ms. Jackson left school in 4th grade to take care of her baby cousins and only returned when she was 16 and living in Chicago. She soon had to quit yet again to work as a maid and a laundress. Through all this, she sang in churches, she lifted congregants to their feet. People joined because her voice called to them.

When we finish the book, Bug asks, “What is gospel?”

I give him the barest definition then search up a video on my phone. There she is, young and vivid, her voice weaving in and over a gathered crowd’s soulful noise. She vibrates, filled with light and bright as the sun. The hall is an unnamed church. It is crammed with people, white and black both. At the lectern on the other side of the room, Martin Luther King, Jr. waits with a patient smile.

Bug knows that face, of course. From his first years, King’s image and his words have           stood with those of the founding fathers and the flag to which he pledges allegiance.  They are basic building blocks in the canon of his education. For him, “I Have Dream” is a prayer both fixed and abstract existing in another time and context. King is prophet from first introduction, forever commanding an elevated position above a faceless crowd.

Now, on my tiny screen, the man, real and revenant, young again. The camera pans from Ms. Jackson’s crackling energy to Dr. King’s measured calm. Heads bop in and out of the frame. My son is transfixed. On the jumpy, amateur film, King steadies himself and seems almost uncertain where to fix his gaze. The force drawing people into jubilation is not him but this woman who opens her voice, this surge of power in song.

Bug is up on his elbows, staring with wide eyes into the screen. “Who is that?” he asks.

“That’s her,” I say. “That’s Mahalia Jackson. This is during the civil rights movement.”

Usually when we do what Bug calls “learny things,” he is more than willing to roll his eyes and tell me how boring it all is. He endures until we can get back to the fun stuff, to Rick Riordan and teen demigods doing battle with gorgons.

For this moment, Poseidon waits. Bug watches, immersed. The camera turns to the room as the song quiets. Young folks and old, black folks and white, faces alive on the long-ago film. They are crammed in together, expectant, ready to step through the door one voice has throw open.


Image from Reed Magazine

 

 

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Talk About Race

The mother with a son Bug’s age tells me she wants to raise her child colorblind. She is white, her boy Latino. She says our children will be able to grow up without racism. She says in her family, they choose not to point out differences.

My voice stumbles before overreaching. We’re both on our way somewhere. In this fleeting conversation, I say too much and not enough.

It’s a mistake for well-meaning white liberal parents to avoid conversations about race and bias. Racism is happening. It is grown right into the structures that govern our lives. What good do we do if we fail to give our kids a vocabulary for understanding it, for talking about it? For changing it?

It’s not up to us to wish away racism. We can’t simply decide we live in a post-racial world. If we could, why not eliminate poverty by pretending not to see  the homeless woman on the median strip with her cardboard sign? Why not declare gender equity and hope it will end rape?

In her post, “Let’s Not Be Quiet Anymore,” Linnea Nelson says,

As we begin to recognize that not all of us have the same resources, societal expectations, opportunities and history, we need to start the conversation that includes privilege, microaggressions, intersectionality and our own history as we open ourselves to conversations with our children.

My friend knows that a disproportionate number of black men are imprisoned in America  and that black people are more likely to get killed by police. She also knows that white people have a better shot at advanced degrees, lucrative careers, positions of power, and home ownership. When our children learn the history that feeds specious notions of race, they will be far better armed when they stumble across these chilling facts. They’ll be able to place this fact in a story and they’ll be able to do something with it. Maybe they will be better able to change that fact that our generation has.

I recall one chapter in Nurture Shock that sheds a bit of research-based light the limits of the colorblind approach. I tell my friend I’ll send it to her if she’s interested. She isn’t.

She is a white woman raising a child of color, yet conversations about the legacy of racism do not happen in her house. She is considering pulling her son from a class where racial justice is being discussed. Her approach makes sense to her even if it doesn’t to me.  I shrug and say, “we all have to do what’s right for our families.”

The brief exchange has shaken me. Something other than our disagreement has unsettled me. For all my fervor, I am conscious of my own failings in speaking with Bug about racism.

Here is what happens: I go into the library to pick out an assortment of books. This weekly ritual keeps a rotating mix scattered around the house. The supply includes picture books, non-fiction works, and graphic novels. For years, I’ve sought out books by writers of color with characters and story lines that will broaden my kid’s knowledge of the world. The libraries here stock an impressive range of material that can introduce children to tricky pieces of history. It’s all very accessible. I bring the world home: Japanese internment in WWII, farm worker organizing, the labor movement, suffrage, civil rights.

My boy pushes these books aside.

He goes for graphic novels. Zombie warfare and superheroes are his favorites. In the realm of non-fiction, he tends towards armaments, architecture, engineering, math.

The book about W.E.B DuBois? He pushes it off the pile without even opening it.

In those moments, my loyalties grab the opposite ends of the rope and start pulling. As a mother to this child in this home, how do I raise him, how do I guide?

My boy is kicking back after a full day of learning, chaos, complex social dynamics. School stimulates and wears him ragged. He comes home and reads for pleasure. I’m thrilled he is disappearing into a book — any book — and cultivating a love of reading. By being the agent of his own curiosity, he builds the capacity to make his way in the world.

Then another part of me tugs back.

Bug is not just my son in this home. He is a child of the new millennium on this planet in this place. He is a white boy in America. He is a neighbor. An emerging citizen. Isn’t it a parent’s job to step in next to him on this journey and say, “Let’s learn together”?  It seems simple enough to add one book from mama’s pile to our bedtime routine or our weekend schedule.

The darker truth is that the conflicts unnerve me in a deep-down place. It embarrasses me to see Bug so disdainful of these books. It’s as if his rejection of a kids’ biography of Wilma Rudolph is a measure of my failure as an anti-racist. Without being aware of the convoluted logic, I reach some secretly shameful conclusion that perhaps I’ve raised my son without empathy or the capacity to strive for justice. I give up on him. Ultimately, this is another way of giving up entirely. If he’s beyond redemption, then I can let myself off the hook, right? His lack of interest is an excuse to turn away from my terrible discomfort with the unfinished work of healing our world.

Maybe I’m more like my mom-friend than I care to admit. Steering clear of tricky topics relieves the stress and the confusion, at least temporarily. Do it enough and it’s possible to convince oneself that harmony is a fitting proxy for virtue.


Image: Let’s Talk about Race by Julius Lester and illustrated by Karen Barbour

 

 

 

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