Talking About The Things We Do To Each Other

by Latoya Peterson

road

In order to keep the peace around here, we have a policy against the Oppression Olympics:

Let’s avoid oppression olympics please. I’m not saying it’s never something to be discussed, but generally speaking, bickering over who has it worse off, or who’s more racist, is really kind of useless.

The reason why this policy is in place is simple: we are trying to organize outside of the traditional structures that separate us by race and ethnicity. This process is difficult. It is a constant negotiation of boundaries, an ongoing discussion about who we are and where we fit in race conversation, and requires a lot of weeding out of people who display that they could care less about other races/ethnicities.

However, the concept of Oppression Olympics is flawed. As I explored in an older post “Re-examining the Phrase ‘Oppression Olympics‘:”

Now here’s an example [scholar Andrea Smith sites in her chapter about Heteropatriarchy and the Three Pillars of White Supremacy] that jumped out at me the most (and I think comes closer to what Black Canseco was trying to get at in the comments):

Our organizing can also reflect anti-Black racism. Recently, with the outgrowth of “multiculturalism” there have been calls to “go beyond the black/white binary” and include other communities of color in our analysis. First, it replaces an analysis of white supremacy with a politics of multicultural representation; if we just include more people, then our practice will be less racist. Not true. This model does not address the nuanced structure of white supremacy, such as through these distinct logics of slavery, genocide, and Orientalism. Second, it obscures the centrality of the slavery logic in the system of white supremacy, which is based on a black/white binary. The black/white binary is not the only binary which characterizes white supremacy, but it is still a central one that we cannot “go beyond” in our racial justice organizing efforts.

If we do not look at how the logic of slaveability inflects our society and our thinking, it will be evident in our work as well. For example, other communities of color often appropriate the cultural work and organizing strategies of African American civil rights or Black Power movements without corresponding assumptions that we should also be in solidarity with Black communities. We assume that this work is the common “property” of all oppressed groups, and we can appropriate it without being accountable.

Damn right. As we get deeper and deeper into the feminism debates, I notice a couple of bloggers who do espouse these anti-black sentiments while using the civil rights movement as a foundation to stand on. Particularly, those bloggers who continually refer to “the blacks” or “the black feminists” and the power of our numbers, as if every time we complain, something is granted and we never worked to be recognized or acknowledged in mainstream feminism. These bloggers are not white. But they are not black either. And it would be foolish to think that if someone is non-white, then they must be allied with black women, or a larger movement that advocates for the rights of women of color.

But that’s a discussion for another time.

After looking at some of the discussions about Black-Asian racism dynamics on Reappropriate, some conversations I’ve had with Thea, discussions of South Philadelphia High School, and some of our long standing conversations about inter-racial issues, looks like the time for conversation is now.

A while back, around the time Thea wrote the 100% Cablinasian post, we had a long, long conversation* about the contexts involved with POC organizing, perceptions of mixed race identity, and the idea of edging into whiteness. This conversation was in both frustrating and illuminating – frustrating because race is a social construct, and the way people experience race and racism constantly shifts and renegotiates itself. This means that a black woman from a low income background, born and raised in an urban area in the United States will come to very different conclusions than a mixed race Asian and white woman who lived in Canada and Singapore and dealt with those racial dynamics. But it is also illuminating because in order to organize together, we need to understand where everyone is coming from.

Over the course of the conversation, there was one sticking point we kept returning to, time and time again: the white/black dynamic. (Please note, this is a quick chop of the conversation – the actual exchange is around 40 pages, so a lot of the context is missing.)

Latoya:

Often, people run into trouble [at Racialicious] because, as POCs, we generally focus on our battles versus whiteness. We tend to assume that everyone else is struggling in the same way, and then came to the same conclusion. But that isn’t the case. You felt silenced by the community here, but a lot of what I saw was the articulation of pain – I edit this site, so I force myself not to look at everything through a black lens. But a lot of African-Americans do feel unjustly shit upon, especially by other minorities. We’re always the bogeyman or the scapegoat, and that’s why many blacks will say that racial issues aren’t so much between whites and everyone else, but blacks and nonblacks.


Thea:

…In what ways do black folks feels shit on by other minorities? Do you think that black folks are actually shit upon [by other communities of colour], or do you think it is misplaced anger? …

I had a long convo with my friend L about this last week, where he said that East Asian students always gravitate towards white students, whereas African American students will usually stick together. The more we talked about it, the more I realised that he thought East Asian students do that because they aspire to whiteness, and because they can – economic privilege or light skin privilege allows them to do so. I was surprised to realise that he didn’t get it – East Asian students gravitate towards white students as a means of protection from the particular kind of racism that East Asians experience; where they are always made to feel as if they are from somewhere else. It’s not simply about idealising whiteness. Like how East Asians will often rename themselves with “white names”, in contrast with the fact that some African Americans have proudly “black” names. These two different and opposite behaviours are BOTH responses to racism.


Latoya:

In what ways do black folks feels shit on by other minorities? Do you think that black folks are actually shit upon, or do you think it is misplaced anger?

Nothing about it is misplaced.  African Americans are often maligned by other minorities, in the same way we are maligned by whites.  But, because you can gain a toehold in white society by dissing blacks, other minority groups (and some mixed race people) have embraced that tactic of using the backs of blacks to get their footing elsewhere.  But hey, don’t take my word on it – listen to Andrea Smith:

Our organizing can also reflect anti-Black racism. Recently, with the outgrowth of “multiculturalism” there have been calls to “go beyond the black/white binary” and include other communities of color in our analysis. First, it replaces an analysis of white supremacy with a politics of multicultural representation; if we just include more people, then our practice will be less racist. Not true. This model does not address the nuanced structure of white supremacy, such as through these distinct logics of slavery, genocide, and Orientalism. Second, it obscures the centrality of the slavery logic in the system of white supremacy, which is based on a black/white binary. The black/white binary is not the only binary which characterizes white supremacy, but it is still a central one that we cannot “go beyond” in our racial justice organizing efforts.

If we do not look at how the logic of slaveability inflects our society and our thinking, it will be evident in our work as well. For example, other communities of color often appropriate the cultural work and organizing strategies of African American civil rights or Black Power movements without corresponding assumptions that we should also be in solidarity with Black communities. We assume that this work is the common “property” of all oppressed groups, and we can appropriate it without being accountable.

Often, it feels as though people want to take on everything but the burden when it comes to African American narratives – and it disturbs me how many of our allies cannot see that to be black is to be constantly faced with rejection.  A larger system of white supremacy has made it advantageous to distance oneself from blackness.

The more we talked about it, the more I realised that he thought East Asian students do that because they aspire to whiteness, and because they can – economic privilege or light skin privilege allows them to do so. I was surprised to realise that he didn’t get it – East Asian students gravitate towards white students as a means of protection from the particular kind of racism that East Asians experience; where they are always made to feel as if they are from somewhere else.  It’s not simply about idealising whiteness.

But the obvious question there is why do you gravitate toward whiteness? Blacks are also American – are we not good enough?  That inclination, to choose to be more white to fit in, is in itself a rejection of blackness. By and large, African Americans do not have that option – no matter how much we choose to assimilate, we will still be seen as subpar.  Why would you give yourself a white name, when whites have discriminated against Asians on a systemic level since shortly after the founding of this county, and when our movements aligned and allied with each other over the years?  Why would you accept a dominant paradigm that privileges whiteness – and then buy into it as an escape from the racism you face? Whiteness is not a retreat for blacks and never will be.  That’s why African Americans have proudly black names – every moment we’ve been in this country has been dedicated to proving our inferiority. That is a function of whiteness.  And by opting into that system, you’re oppressing us by confirming, once again, that given the choice between allying with blackness or assimilating into whiteness, whiteness is preferable.  Black is less desireable.

Thea:

…My first instinct is to disagree with you that when Asians gravitate towards whiteness, they are rejecting blackness. I have to think on that. The reason I disagree is because Asians gravitate towards whiteness in order to get away from POCness. And yes, like you said, this is because they can. But it’s about rejecting association with absolutely anything that is racially marked, in order to protect themselves. In the process do East Asians through black folks under the bus? Quite definitely.  But what Asians have as their focus is whiteness, and nothing else. Is that an implicit rejection of blackness? Sure. But it’s also a rejection of East Asianness, indigeneity, Arabness, South Asianness, Latin@ness…

But the obvious question there is why do you gravitate toward whiteness?

Not sure if you meant “you” as in “one” or “Thea,” but when I talk about East Asians, I’m not talking about myself. I don’t identify with the East Asian American narrative really, or even the hapa narrative; it’s not one I can take on. Part of my own experience growing up was about being told over and over that I was definitely not Chinese. I know a lot about the East Asian American experience, but I’m not racialised in the same way that East Asian Americans are. This has to do with the fact that people often can’t place me, but also to do with how I dress and where I live. What I identify most with are mixed race people of colour.

Most of my adult life has been about resisting whiteness and trying to get people to understand that I have an experience that whiteness repeatedly tries to delete. I obviously gravitate towards people of colour – in the US and at school this usually actually means black folks, and I always do so carefully because I recognise that I shouldn’t assume black folks will immediately see me as an ally. In fact, I feel like I have to wait before I display my cards – I feel like sometimes people look at me and see all the privilege that I have (class privilege, light skin privilege, linguistic privilege, educational privilege…) and it may seem absurd for me to talk about my experience of racism…I just think that people are not going to immediately understand why or how I feel any solidarity with black folks, when I have so much light- skinned privilege. Like it must seem incredibly presumptuous for me to say I feel like there are parallels between my experience and a black person’s experience.

So that’s hard, knowing that when I step into a room, the people that it naturally makes sense for me to want to get close to, see me as an opportunist, or it would never cross their minds that we might have something in common…in their eyes I’m just as much as an ally as a white person.

Latoya:

Yes, groups of color all shit on each other. But those who are not phenotypically black [have the option of] coasting in whiteness. You have that option, though you may reject it, and though it isn’t really an option at all. It’s kind of like what Paula mentioned, about a white friend saying to her “if she had to be anything but white, Asian is the next best thing.” It’s always a second best kind of scenario. However, in order for whiteness to exist, there must something set against it – blackness. This is what I am saying. I’m not saying that black folks cannot be xenophobic or distance themselves. But I am saying our struggles are very, very different, and to be black means you never know what is like to not be racially marked.

And again, it’s not about people benefiting [from the civil rights movement] without crediting – it’s about benefiting without solidarity. The same people pulling out the civil rights blueprint for their cause are often the same people who think blacks complain too much. They say things like “Where is the Asian Jesse Jackson?” as an accusation, without learning that hey, black people don’t want to be seen as a monolith, and that the fact that there are identifiable “black leaders” in the media is the result of decades of constant work, not some magical black media privilege.

You keep coming back to saying rejecting POCness. But I keep explaining that because of how things are set up structurally, blacks cannot do this. Whiteness needs blackness to play against. Where something is exalted, something else has to be reviled. And thanks to the dynamics of slavery (again, read the Andrea Smith piece) this binary was established. White is exalted, black is reviled, anyone that is not either must make a choice. That is why conversations around mixed race identity and passing are so fraught – being black isn’t just a birth thing, it’s a political and social thing, something that is not a choice, something that most of us come to embrace anyway. Multiracial identity is, without a doubt, separate from blackness. But it is not separate from the history of this nation. And early on, some parents in the multiracial movement learned that for agitating for a different categorization of their children, they would receive better treatment. I was attracted to the politics of Carmen and Jen because it seemed to me multiracial POCs claiming the term for themselves – not white parents trying to shield their kids from black taint, as was originally presented. To accept and embrace blackness, our created media, our alternative messages, is for many African Americans, the only refuge from the onslaught of racism. When other races gravitate toward whiteness, they are reinforcing that structure. And its so ingrained, people don’t even fight it…

…So, when other minorities tend to point fingers and say “look at what black people have,” half the time I want to ask if they want to take the attendant, bottom of the totem pole discrimination that comes with that.

Again, it’s fine if people like our media or participate in our movements. The more the merrier. But that issue of solidarity is crucial. If some racist shit goes down, who is standing in support with us, and who skated back into a neutral position between here and whiteness? …

So when someone from the outside makes a comment like “they would never do this to black people” they show they have no idea of the shit black people put up with every day. And when blacks say things like “I wish someone would give me a positive stereotype” it shows they also do not understand how those are just a different kind of shackle. But when the people we are working with still have the option of “gravitating to whiteness” it changes the game. We are automatically working on different levels of engagement.

Thea gave a lecture on Monday at Oberlin about organizing across communities of color and hit me with a question before she left. She wanted to know my thoughts on Ishle Park’s “Sai-I-Gu”, performed here:

Park is talking about violence against Korean Americans and the articulation of pain in the aftermath of the 1992 LA riots, but Thea had questions about one segment in particular:

war of blacks & koreans

then watch us rip

each other to red tendons for scraps

in the city that they abandoned,

a silence white as white silence

and we have no jesse

no martin no malcolm

no al, no eloquent, rapid tongue

just fathers, with thick-tongues

Thea touched on how important this poem is to the Asian American activist community, but wonders, in the context of our earlier conversation, if Park’s words are problematic.

However, I had heard Park’s poem before and enjoyed it. To me, she was articulating pain – and if nothing else, we have the right to our stories and our pain. But what I was getting at in the earlier convos wasn’t articulated by Park’s poem – I instead found the issue articulated over at Jenn’s blog, Reappropriate. In the comments to her post “Inside Black and Asian Tension: Sometimes It is About Racism” a commenter provides a textbook illustration of the sentiment I am discussing:

I find what you wrote interesting but this type of belief among some blacks is very baffling to most asians because asians do not believe we benefit from “minority status”. In fact, asians get NONE of the “luxuries” that most minorities get. We don’t get affirmative action and in today’s society, it is still acceptable to use anti-asian racism as a form of humor. In movies, the so-called “yellow face” is still acceptable whereas “black face” would create a huge scandal. Trust me, asians are stuck behind a rock and a hard place. We are not white, but also not thought of as a “minority” even though we’re the smallest group among the major minority groups. In the discussion of race in america, asians usually don’t even warrant a mention. During elections, when talking heads speak of the black voting bloc, we asians are reminded that we have very little actual political influence. And yet, most asian people simply live their life normally. If by living peacefully among white people is “sucking up to white people”, then so be it. It’s certainly better than sequestering ourselves in enclaves (Chinatown these days have less and less Chinese people come to think of it. And chinese americans rarely live in chinatown beyond the first immigrant generation).

I don’t understand how being recognized should be seen as a luxury, especially when this type of recognition was paid for in blood.

Jenn’s comment section, both on her first post and her follow up, because a safe haven for racists who wanted to trash African Americans. But watching how the conversations devolved reminds me of how difficult it is to have a conversation about things that we do to each other. It’s a necessary conversation that must take place, but often occurs between groups that are not in solidarity. And, as we’ve seen on threads here, quite often, we do not trust each other enough to break down these barriers and approach these conversations with the type of curiosity, respect, and humility to have an actual productive conversation. Can we talk about what’s happening at South Philadelphia High without demonizing the racial groups involved? Can we talk about why so many readers here are completely disinterested in the conversation on Immigration Reform, only getting worked up when Arizona passed SB 1070? Can we talk about why we all expect white people to sit still and listen when we talk about racism they perpetuate, yet shy away from discussing what we perpetuate against each other? Can we talk about why so many of us feel so defensive, because we expect the types of attacks that happened over at Jenn’s place, that we listen so hard for someone to bring the racism that we miss everything else?

Not talking about these issues creates a rift. A festering wound, one that drives us back into our respective communities and allows us to keep ignoring each other. We are othering ourselves, and some people are more than happy to perpetuate that system. It also kind of makes you wonder what all this work is for.

But then I read this thoughtful reflection over at Resist Racism:

I hold people of color to a higher standard. I expect them to be able to understand racism and how it functions. And yet I realize they (and I) were steeped in a racist society. It is work to find our way out.

It is hard sometimes to feel commonality, to feel kinship, especially with people who are not feeling that kinship with you. Yet I am reminded that communities of color share many similarities of experience. I remember that I identify as a person of color and not solely a person of an ethnicity. I see the ways in which prejudice and racism harm all of our communities by supporting a racist hierarchy in which whites are acknowledged to be superior. …

it does not serve a white agenda to tell the complex stories of people of color. Easier to write black people=criminals, Asian people=passive, submissive victims. (White people=not any more racist than anybody else.) But we need to tell these stories rather than having our history written for us. And shaping our communities by our own hands rather than letting others create us in their racist imagination. That means also fighting the racist imagination when it is impressed upon other groups. …

In March, a national immigration rally was held in Washington D.C. I watched extensive news footage; I did not see any of the Asian American groups that attended. Asian Pacific Americans for Progress, the National Korean American Service & Education Consortium and the Japanese American Citizens League are three groups that have been working towards immigration reform. You’d be hard pressed to see any mention of them in the news. Other non-Latino groups attended as well. (I can’t remember their names off the top of my head and I’m too lazy to go look it up.)

But casting immigration as a Latino issue narrows the connection with non-Latino populations. It additionally causes people to believe these issues are only the concern of Latinos.

I remember on a personal level that only black people have ever stopped to help me when I have had car trouble. And I wonder why the racist stereotypes of my society replace my personal reality and create a new one, formed in the white imagination.

A lot of us are invested in these types of questions, these types of conversations. So how do we start talking to each other?

*One day, we will post the larger excerpts of this conversation, because I think it is helpful for people to see how much we have to think and negotiate and renegotiate things internally. Thinking and talking about race is not easy, and even those who are allies will misunderstand each other.