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:
Then this happened:
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.
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.
- We become tokens. They’re down for the color but not down for the cause.
- “Diversity” = “Digest-able” for the whities. Yes, please make us educate you about our own struggles at your convenience!
- 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.