Was Charleston Enough or do you Need More to Stop Being Silent or Post-racial?

Source: http://www.wbez.org/system/files/styles/original_image/llo/insert-images/IMG_4161.jpg
Source: http://www.wbez.org/system/files/styles/original_image/llo/insert-images/IMG_4161.jpg

I have posted this (see below) several times over the last few years and I am going to re-post it in light of the Charleston SC tragedy. I want to repost this again because it’s important to understand that Roof was not an anomaly but the ‘norm’. How he enacted it may be ‘rare’, but racism is racism and it can only have negative consequences for ALL. The other day, I posted about the silence I experienced by my mostly white friends over the years about race, racism, and white supremacy in this country. In particular, I was frustrated and heartbroken over the lack of engagements with anti-racism amongst my white friends, after the Charleston shooting by a white supremacist. This ‘silence’ reflects the core of many of my white friendships throughout my life. I would like to share this article again that I wrote and it’s a shame that I have to keep on posting it because white supremacist racist acts of violence continue to happen in the USA and beyond.

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The other year, I tried to reconnect with a friend I had gone to Dartmouth College with in the 1990s. We’ll just call him “Thomas”. I saw that “Thomas” was on Facebook. I sent him a message to see how he was doing. Somehow, we started talking about things we remembered from college. I told him how I remembered sharing with him that I had been called the ‘n-word’ my first day of 7th grade. We had been sitting on stairs outside somewhere and he had been shocked that, “People still do that!?” It was 1995. He was white, straight, and from an upper-middle class background. He had grown up in Southern California and had shared with me how he had graduated Valedictorian of his high school class. We were buddies throughout college.

However, our re-connection via Facebook ended up being rather confusing to me. After I had reminded him about all the different things we had talked about during college, in particular, how I talked to him about how deeply affected I was by being called the ‘n-word’ as a child (in an all white school system), we started talking about the U.S. presidential election.  He eventually ended up writing something like (sorry, I don’t remember it verbatim and didn’t save it), “I would never vote for a nigger.” Though he was referring to Obama, I couldn’t tell if he was joking or not. I’m assuming he was, but I was really thrown off guard and couldn’t comprehend why he thought that it was okay to say or even joke about using that word. I ended up stopping our communication immediately. I thought that this just didn’t make any sense. How could he not know how triggering “nigger” is for me? And especially after I had shared that childhood trauma with him? Why did he think it was funny to say that to me?

In 1997 or 1998, “Thomas” had told me that his mother would never approve of him marrying a Black girl. “Yea, she’d be okay with me dating, but not marrying.” I remember being really confused by how he seemed so nonchalant about her beliefs. Alternatively, my parents really didn’t care at all about who I dated or married. How could he be so calm about his mother’s racism? During the same year, our two mutual friends had started dating each other. They were a heterosexual couple, black (“Henry”) and white (“Jessica”). They were supposed to go to “Jessica’s” family member’s wedding together. However, “Jessica’s” mother had told her that she was not allowed to attend the wedding with him because he was black. I remember the couple had gotten into an argument about it and I also remember her nonchalantly telling me, “Well if I have to choose him over my family, I’m going to choose my family.” It was with the ease in which she had said this that made me very uneasy. Don’t get me wrong: I know how hard a child/parent relationship can be; especially if you don’t want to disappoint them, if you love them, and yea, if they are your sole financial support. However, what was disturbing was the ‘ease’ of which she had shared her thoughts with me about the situation– without ever even saying something like, “Breeze, you are black and my mom’s beliefs about dating black people as unacceptable must be really hurtful for you to hear.” But no, neither “Thomas” or “Jessica” ever wanted to talk more about the implications of what it means for their parents, who are part of the racial-class status quo of the USA, to have these beliefs about black people (or perhaps anyone who didn’t fall into their social-class category). After all, if Black people aren’t good enough to marry their children, then they simply aren’t good enough, period. And the implications of this really troubled my 21 year old mind. I remember thinking:

If we’re not good enough to marry, then I wonder how “Thomas’s” or “Jessica’s” mothers think about us in other contexts. If they had to be on a jury and determine if a Black person on trial were guilty or not, would they automatically think they aren’t as deserving as being considered as innocent as white peers in their social network? If these women worked at a bank and a black person came in for a home loan, would they feel like they were less likely to deserve it than a white person with the same economic background? If they were on a college admissions committee and saw that the applicant had marked ‘African-American’ as their racial identity, would they not weigh his achievements the same way they’d weigh a white applicant’s?

After all, one just can’t think that their desire for their child not to marry ‘another race’ doesn’t impact how they generally feel about ‘that other race’ (and I put this in quotations to acknowledge that there really are no races; race is a social construct), even outside of the context of considering who your child should marry.

It has been a couple of years since the Facebook interaction I had with “Thomas.” I have yet to re-connect with him. However, over the last few years since I became more and more active on Facebook, I have been able to follow a lot of my Dartmouth peer’s lives who have Facebook friended me. It has been interesting for me to see the fan pages, political groups, etc., that many of my white peers follow and support.  I am taken aback when I see some of their strong support of political parties such as the Tea Party, or their firm stance against immigration, or liking particular public figures who are blatantly racist and white nationalists in their thinking. Had they always thought this way while we attended college together ? Why would they want to be ‘friends’ with me on Facebook if their heroes are people who hate those who are not white? (Or just hate another population in general!?)

About a year after I had graduated from Dartmouth College, I moved to Princeton, NJ to take on a telecommunications job. I had made a new friend named “Curt” who was working at a hat store I would frequent. After hanging out for a few weeks, he invited me to go on a weekend trip to NYC to explore the Stonewall area as well as other vibrant areas of LGBTQ life in NYC. We hitched a ride with his friends, a white gay male couple, “Luke and Dan”. While we were driving to NYC, a driver cut off “Luke”. In instant rage and anger he yelled at the driver, “Nigger!” (the driver of the other car had been white). Everyone in the car went silent as they realized that this was kind of awkward with Breeze in the car. After a small bit of silence, “Luke” responded with , “Sorry. Great, now she probably hates me now.” I responded with something like, “I don’t hate you, but you really should be careful with saying that word.” I think what was weird about this comment was that it was not really an apology as much as he was worried about how I would hate him. Was he not disturbed by his comment and what it represented about his consciousness and how structural racism and white supremacy had made him comfortable to say what he had? To think the way he did? He only seemed concerned about, “I wonder if Breeze now hates me”? It was an external response, not a deeply internal and critical response. For the rest of the weekend trip, he didn’t talk about it or offer a more sincere and deeper apology/analysis of what it means to be a white male and how he may collude with upholding racism and white supremacist ideas about Black people and other non-white folk (i.e. using “nigger” to insult someone). And perhaps this had more to do with the fact that we live in a USA in which white people– at least during the end of the 1990s– just don’t feel comfortable about talking about that white elephant in the big USA room because they are collectively socialized NOT to talk about it in this “post-racial” age.

When I first started the Sistah Vegan Project, I was met with a significant amount of resentment and anger from white vegans who truly thought that if focused on how racialization and socialization affected black female vegans’ collective epistemologies, I was creating disharmony, distractions, and ‘playing the race card.’ As I shifted from just black female vegan epistemologies, to understanding how neoliberal whiteness undergirds mainstream vegan philosophy in the USA, I opened up Pandora’s box. When posting updates on my Facebook status about the work I was doing and the questions I had, I ended up receiving posts and emails from white friends (none I think were vegan) who didn’t understand why race was so important to me. I even had a child hood friend unfriend me and call me a racist when I had posted about racism and white supremacy as structural and systemic problems. She sent me a post that ‘reminded’ me that she had grown up very poor and that we were friends and that she had never judged me because of my skin color. She told me she was not a racist and how could I post these types of questions and concerns that implied that she was, ‘just because of her white skin color.’

I was amazed that she interpreted my research as a direct attack against her as an individual. This is common, as I have spent years trying to explain structures and systems versus ‘individual racists’. No, having ‘white skin color’ doesn’t automatically make you a racist, but let’s start thinking about how all of our consciousnesses have been shaped by white racist structures in the USA. How has being racialized influenced how all of us experience our world, regardless if you identify as an ‘individual’ or ‘overt’ racist or neither? This is what I tried to share with her, but she completely disagreed with me and promptly unfriended me. For those who I have grown up with or went to college with and have not [yet] unfriended me on Facebook, I get the ‘reminders’ several times a year that, “I am not racist and don’t care about skin color.” Funny reminder, no? You know, when I receive posts, articles, updates from friends who analyze their embodied experiences about being fat in a fat shaming culture, trans identified in a trans-hating culture, or living with disabilities in an ableist culture, I know they are not individually attacking me as a slim bodied, CIS gender identified, able bodied woman. I completely understand that they are trying to understand issues of sizeism, transphobia, and ableism at the structural and systemic levels. I also understand that regardless if I am or am not a fatphobe, transphobe, or ableist, my consciousness has been affected and I have automatically earned certain privileges because of my body shape, my CIS gender identification, and my able-bodied status. And yea, I want to know what I don’t know, because of the ignorances that my privileges have produced in my consciousness. I am thankful that I’m asked to engage with these issues because I may very well be complicit. I want to eradicate the injustice, suffering, and violence that epistemologies of ignorance and privilege produce.

I still hold in my heart the wonderful memories and times I have shared with these friends, in spite of these clear instances of racial ignorance and misunderstandings. (As a matter of fact, that weekend “Luke” yelled “nigger” was a weekend that also inspired me to write about my experiences and develop them into the ‘fictional’ character “Cesar” in my newest novel Scars). However, maybe I’m naive, but I also hold in my heart that one day, my friends from childhood and college, such as “Thomas” and “Jessica” , will make the effort to reconnect with me one day. I fantasize that they will share with me a type of awakening and acknowledgment they have had about the realities of systemic racism in the USA; how they were able to realize that ignoring racism in any manifestation won’t make it go away… and that they really are trying to do something to remedy it.

In the mean time, for many of us who are still hurt and confused, and seek ways of healing from ongoing racisms and/or racial micro-aggressions: I continue to do my anti-racist and critical whiteness awareness activism and scholarship through webinars, web-based conferences, and writing. See below how you can learn from my work and support us through GO Fund Me and our latest online conference The Vegan Praxis of Black Lives Matter…

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3 thoughts on “Was Charleston Enough or do you Need More to Stop Being Silent or Post-racial?

  1. I can’t even explain enough how glad I am to have found this website. I have been so fed up with current vegan movement that undermines the struggles of marginalized people.
    In regards to the article I have experienced a very similar situation when I was dating a white male. He said that he didn’t care about racism and called me racist because I told him about a statistic that white male felons have a better chance at getting a job then a black man without a record. Needless to say the relationship didn’t work out. We definitely don’t live in a post racial society and the sooner people realize this the better. Great article!

  2. I’ve been working toward shedding illusions concerning racism and colonialism for some time now. I’ve been a reader of your work since you started writing online but must confess that my comprehension (feeling and thinking) about the ubiquity and profundity of these destructive processes has been limited…partially because of my own ineptness and also because of the (now that I dimly see some of it) serious and powerful whiteness driven ideology that permeates U.S. American culture. My most recent post re this is here: http://veganelder.blogspot.com/2015/06/these-were-facts-of-their-lives.html

    I expect to write a post soon about my recent experiences regarding a vegan advocacy group I helped start up last year here in central Oklahoma. I had begun voicing the idea that the group needed to ally itself with other groups in the area that were working toward human liberation since they were the natural allies of folks who promote veganism. Maybe not so surprisingly, there wasn’t much interest in this from the other founders…beyond some lip service to the notion.

    Then, back in March or thereabouts…someone posted a link to a thug kitchen video on the group’s facebook page. I privately messaged the individual (a white woman) who posted the link and asked her to consider removing it since some PsOC found it to be offensive…and I included a link to Bryant Terry’s writing about this. I was polite and respectful in my request (since I’m a white male, I had my wife proof the message before I sent it to ensure I wasn’t being obliviously overbearing). Previously I had written a post about the problematical nature of the thug kitchen thing but wanted to reference a different voice than mine about the ugliness of those presentations. My post about tk can be found with this link: http://veganelder.blogspot.com/2014/12/racism-isnt-funny.html

    Strangely enough, I did this just a few days before the surfacing on the internet of the video from the Oklahoma University fraternity bus and since the vegan group is based here in Norman, Oklahoma…where I live…I thought…heck..there’s no way that folks aren’t going to “get it”

    Well…the woman said she didn’t want to offend anyone and removed the link…but then she promptly quit the vegan group. I reported all this to the founding committee and there was considerable turmoil and much back and forth messaging…eventually four of the original founders decide I was not suitable for continued participation in the group and banished me from the group and blocked me from the FB page…saying they were concerned that I might post something that was upsetting. They…all four of them…said they didn’t think tk was offensive and that I was too “emotional” about issues regarding racism. One even went so far as to say that anything up to “blatant racism” in a posting ostensibly advocating for animals was acceptable since the focus of the group was veganism.

    They adamantly maintained that the reason for their removing me from the group wasn’t because they disagreed with the philosophy of opposing the various “isms” of oppression but rather that I wasn’t doing it the right way. Which apparently would have meant letting them, four white women, decide whether a post was racially offensive even when various vegan PsOC had spoken out against a presentation. I can’t tell you how they arranged it in their minds…I can only report what they did and said.

    Luckily I had been doing lots of reading and thinking about all these issues and was familiar with Robin DiAngelo’s essay about White Fragility. It was rather stunning to watch these ostensibly compassionate and aware vegans talk the talk of not engaging in supporting sexist or racist or homophobic language or notions then turn around and not only deny the offensiveness of presentations like thug kitchen but to also become highly indignant at any suggestion that serious attention and care had to be devoted to avoidance of recreating or promoting oppressions of marginalized groups of humans in the quest to “stand up” for Earthlings who didn’t happen to be human animals.

    The whole thing has been upsetting and dismaying but I must admit it has also been educational and eye-opening. I’m writing all this in support of your efforts and the efforts of anyone who’s vegan and concerned about liberation and non-oppression. It’s important to address these issues…vital even…but do be aware that speaking out may evoke unforeseen and unpleasant reactions from white people…even theoretically enlightened white people who are supportive of the vegan approach to living.

    I’ve been struggling to wrap my mind (and emotional comprehension) around all this and that’s a good thing. What’s not a good thing is the apparent fact that way too many of us white people think that just saying words is enough…nor is it a good thing that if white people say words that challenge illusions…the outcome may be a re-branding of the speaker of those words as “emotional” and unsuited for inclusion in a vegan group.

    I shared all this with several PsOC that I know and one woman made the sadly funny observation that now I know, in some small measure, what it is like for a black person to try to speak up about offensive things.

    I thought I was a valued and esteemed member/founder of the group…I found out that challenging the ideology of white obliviousness evokes reactions that quickly can result in the evaporation of any worth I might have (obviously it wasn’t much) possessed for this cadre of vegan group folks.

    I console myself, while licking my wounds of being “degrouped”, with the notion that even though my objections were deemed unacceptable the tk post was removed and not reposted…and…just maybe…my efforts sensitized those founding members…whether they would admit it or not…to being more careful about negative postings.

    Anyway…hooray for your efforts…and here’s one white man who is deeply sad and repentant about my being too oblivious and too silent for way too long. Being quiet about the ugly destructiveness and obliviousness of many white U.S. Americans is simply not an option for anyone who wishes to be a compassionate human and vegan.

    The Charleston massacre is an abomination and we white people not coming to grips with our awfulness and ignorance is part of what set the framework for such tragedy. This must stop…it just has to.

  3. I really like how well thought out your ideas are–especially your analogy of pointing out that while some of your white “friends” may get offended and think you are pointing a finger at them when you speak of your activism but you, yourself, understand that when other friends post about different activism and discrimination (fat shaming, trans hating, etc) that you KNOW they aren’t saying you are part of the problem or trying to offend you, they are simply sharing and educating.

    It’s much easier, though, to just get offended and stop listening than it is to wake up, listen, and then figure out what to do about it.

    Also, we do need to be mindful with our speech. While I’m not a proponent of “political correctness,” there are just some words that are outright hurtful and unacceptable (the N word being one of them).

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