Monday Musings: Institutionalized Racism?

How do you deal with privilege in the workplace? Racism?

When one has to deal with the subtleties of institutionalized racism, it creates friction. Although “friction” is a misnomer, because when only the person of color experiences that tension, the relationship is simple; it causes oppressive and repressive tendencies that I knowingly bend to – for some stupid reason. I know this is an issue, but I don’t know how to bring it up. In the meantime, I turn inwards and blog about it. It wasn’t until I reflected on this topic with my sister that I have found the courage to write about this.

Day in and day out, I look over our grant proposals and metrics and demographics logs. As I hear them speak about our impact and justify how one of our programs is impacting a multitude of “underserved” populations within Oakland, I start to wonder about their conception of “community.” Questions go off in my head: Who are they (we) serving? How much time to they (I) give? Who do they talk to, and more importantly, are they listening? Even after listening, are we putting programs in place to actually respond to community needs (through art education or art therapy, for example), or is it all a ploy for recognition with some talking heads at City Hall?

Anyway, without further ado…

First this happened:

quick-drafted tweet after a moment of panic, 5/15/14

quick-drafted tweet after a moment of panic, 5/15/14

Then this happened:

unedited rant on Instagram, 8/13/14

Here’s another example:

I recall a time when a woman whose name I’ve changed to Erin, a resident at affordable housing, shared a very simple  story about how she learned pinhole photography from a workshop with one of our registered artists. It wasn’t a huge speech, but it was the way she said it with such earnest sincerity  that showed us how much she appreciated and valued the workshop: she thought it was really cool, she learned something really neat, and was thankful she had something interesting and skillful to show to her kids. Erin is a black woman, and aside from being introduced to the reception as one who is living in affordable housing, there were other indicators of class inequality between her and other folks at the reception in the gallery.

And they whispered:
“Lauren – can you take pictures of her speaking?”
“Lauren – make sure you get her in front of everyone!”
“Lauren – did you take notes? This would go great in our narrative.”

I am ridden with both an earache and heartache as I know exactly how they are benefiting from someone else’s struggle. It could be said that Erin’s is the kind of story we require to continue running our programming with the affordable housing community, and therefore continue offering a lending hand. Maybe. (Even though we need to empower rather than provide). But in the end, I was the only one who went up to Erin to shake her hand and thank her for sharing and ask her what her kids thought of her work. The way I see it, the difference between me and my colleagues is that while I acknowledge Erin as a person, I have reason to think they digest her as an example – one that is easily collected and archived for use for a crucial moment in the future.

Last example:

Two of my colleagues were discussing a short list of jurors for an upcoming show. As they ran down the list, one of them goes, “how many of the jurors have been white in previous years?” I felt myself tense up, preparing for another onset of privilege. The other one proceeded to divide the list of names into categories: white or [appropriate ethnicity]. I stepped away and pretended to do some gallery maintenance because I couldn’t handle the way the conversation was shaping up. Aside from perpetuating the “white vs. other” dichotomy, it took me a minute to identify exactly why I was so upset. After mulling it over with some friends and talking about it with my sister, the layers started falling away to reveal what’s at work.

  1. We become tokens. They’re down for the color but not down for the cause.
  2. “Diversity” = “Digest-able” for the whities. Yes, please make us educate you about our own struggles at your convenience!
  3. We satisfy your funders. It does a number on my psyche having to work for an organization that uses a person rather than works with them because they see their work as important, valued, and necessary.

I endure stuff like this each week. A friend of mine told me in response to my instagram photo, “you missed your moment to help white people with their racism.” Truth be told, I doubt I’ll run out of opportunities. The first photo was from my twitter which I wrote just a couple of weeks after I began my new position. At first I thought I was just being hypersensitive to rudeness, but after months of countless situations like these, and clumsy use of language, I can confirm that my hunches are correct. Both race and class privilege are pretty easy to sniff out, but bringing it out into the open so that the offending parties can realize it, is another task. Especially aggravating when it becomes the burden of the offended (oppressed), amirite?

I don’t know how to talk about this in a positive and comfortable way with them. While I was talking it over with my sister who started her own non-profit, she told me that they had workshops and training available that the employees would go through. I want that for my organization. Sadly, I’ll be the only POC in the office. Sadder still, most workshops are designed to bring up topics about race and racism in ways that don’t threaten the white person. Until I find something effective, if anyone has any pointers that won’t put my career or work environment at risk, I think I need to hear them.


Wearing my ‘Redskins = Racist’ Tee in a Bourgeois Area

Last month I picked up this delightful tee and have been giddy to wear it everywhere I go. I decided that the first time I would wear it, it would have to be in a place with high ignoramuses who bleed privilege. Yeah yeah yeah…call me out for being an attention-whore who seeks shock value, whatever. Anyway–

Where did I go? Santana Row, of course! I get this gag reflex every time I go there. Although I’m overly generalizing, it seems to me that everyone wants to be like Kim Kardashian and Kanye West out there. People who hang out there on any given day means they 1) aren’t at work or busy hustling, and 2) display their wealth in disgusting excess. The interesting thing is – San Jose is so ethnically diverse. It attracts folks from all over the world because of it’s association with Silicon Valley on top of being considered the biggest (wannabe) metropolitan city in the South Bay. Although many groups of people who reside in San Jose are minorities, many of them are very unaware of internalized oppression and the reality that they (we) are largely marginalized. They ‘pass,’ so they don’t think any more of it. Sounded to me like a perfect opportunity to give people a little dose of history, a bit of a challenge, and also kick their consciousness in gear.

So, you bet your bottom dollar I’m going to traipse myself around in this t-shirt!

The Results:

  • Lots of double-takes. Most people’s gaze went to my shirt, up to my face, and down to my shirt again.
  • Blinking eyes and raised brows. A lot of these also came in the form of pointed stares as if it were somehow offensive to them. No surprise there, but wearing a t-shirt is passive – not active, nor confrontational. (Ok, maybe visually confrontational).
  • One conversation. One guy said that he agreed with my shirt. He seemed nervous and made it a point to keep our chat very short, but overall he relayed that after learning more in-depth treatment of Native Americans in the US at school, he couldn’t believe people still use such terms.

That sole conversation was more than I expected. But as I could see the wheels in people’s heads turn, I knew that the visibility – and more importantly, readability – were a good point to my wardrobe choice. I know I’m not going to change the world by wearing the shirt, but I can challenge wearer-perceiver relationships and stereotypes that keeps people from talking about it. At the very least, I can say I’ve got them thinking about it. We all start somewhere.

To read more about how the term “redskins” is racist and offensive, I’ll point you to one of my favorite bloggers and scholars, Adrienne K.’s Native Appropriations. As for the shirt, I got mine here  from Bambu DePistola – be sure to check his music.