Whiteness and White Fragility: Can We Be Real?

We’re fresh off the first of a two-part training on Responsible Whiteness.

The beginning of a learning cycle chart for white fragility.

The goal of “Responsible Whiteness” is to enlarge your perspective on whatever racial dynamics you’re involved in or worried about so that you can access and practice new ways of moving so that the same old problems don’t just keep happening. The way to achieve this enlargement is to get out of a self-focused mindset: find some humility, embrace the opportunity to learn something you don’t already know, and then allow yourself to be changed and grow.

Seeing whiteness — recognizing when it is at work in/through you and racist policies that you participate in (especially those of us with white bodies) seems to be a most difficult task. Probably the only thing harder than seeing whiteness is regularly exercising the muscle to act in antiracist ways with always-increasing frequency and consistency.

This means, as facilitators, our job is to challenge conversation that deflects or deters us from that goal. During this first session, we observed many moves of whiteness — that is, statements, comments, observations, and questions that prevent or distract from the task of understanding how whiteness and racism work in and through us. What white people’s moves share in common, whether they come from an emotional or an intellectual impulse, is their effect in derailing a focus on personal complicity with white supremacy and oppression. Until one comes to recognize the whiteness, these moves are subtle because they are normal ways for white people to talk about race.  Normal meaning common, widespread, typical, accepted and generally unquestioned by people embodied in white skin.

Actions and New Practice

Interrupting the normalcy of whiteness operating in/through white-bodied people is the first step toward becoming responsible for one’s specific and particular self as a human being with a white body.

The second step is accepting and being willing to persist in the discomfort of having one’s sense of normalcy disrupted. To that end, we introduced five tools for interrupting and moving beyond initial reactions.

The best moment of this first session, from our perspective, was the answer from a participant regarding this quote from Dr. Evangelina Holvino, a professional consultant and educator on group relations and multicultural organizational development:

“Simultaneity/intersectionality…are not just models of individual identity, i.e., the simultaneity of identities, but models of processes of social differences and power, which also operate simultaneously at the individual, organizational and societal levels. One of my beliefs is that when we don’t include the organizational-institutional aspects of the “isms”, we leave people alone with their individual USA focus/mythology, which makes them more vulnerable to blame, guilt, defensiveness, etc.”

We had purposely decided not to provide an explanation of any of the parts of this quote up front. We wanted participants to tap into their own capacities and awarenesses of whiteness, privilege and so forth to come up with ‘what it means.’ Earlier in the session we had posed “white stamina” as the antidote to white fragility (following Robin DiAngelo). After reading, writing and talking about the meaning of the quote above from Dr Holvino, this participant said: “The enlarged perspective is where the stamina comes from.

Yes!

Homework

For homework we asked participants to commit to an individual behavior change: to come to the 2nd session with a clear statement on what new action or behavior they will do after this workshop. We had asked this question during the session and received general responses such as to “talk differently” or repair a relationship or have permission to keep doing a thing that has caused pain to people of color. The last one is off the table as it is counter to the goal of taking responsibility for the ways whiteness uses us.

In terms of language, talking, or fixing broken relationships (and avoiding future breaks) we’re asking you to state a positive thing that you will do in that direction. The example we gave was, “Tell someone when I am experiencing [any one of the bizillion forms of] white fragility.” Perhaps there is someone specific to tell, or other things to say about the whiteness in you that is more responsible for you in your situations. In terms of relationships, what are the things you do to fix relationships that are broken or suffering for other reasons? Can you transfer any of those skills? Is there a better focus for your work on whiteness than zeroing in on a particular individual(s) who brought it to your attention? If you let go of them, what would an alternative next responsible step be for you in your regular, everyday life?

To deepen understanding of the systemic nature of whiteness (and thus build stamina and capacity to move out of a self-centered space) we suggest listening to (or reading) these two podcasts:

First, Seeing White by Chenjerai Kumanyika and John Biewen. There are 14 parts, numbered 31-45 as part of a on-going podcast called Scene on Radio. If you don’t have time for all of them in the month before the next session we prioritized the following five episodes.

Second, 1619 by Nikole Hannah-Jones, especially Episode 3: The Birth of American Music (featuring Wesley Moore).  There are four episodes to date, plus an Introduction, but all six will be released before we meet again.

Finally, a short commentary by Dr Evangelina Holvino on Vermont Public Radio: Racist or Racism. When we ask the question, how will your behavior change, we aren’t asking about a single action that you will do, once. We’re asking, what type of action will you start or stop doing every single day?

Comments on this blogpost are welcome. If you are a current participant, please use an alias. Previous participants and others are invited, responsibly, to use your real name (first name only is fine).

Melissa Etheridge at Tanglewood (selected quotes)

We were three or four songs into Melissa’s set when I asked my girlfriend (of the unique 3-year generation born 1980-1982) how she learned about lesbian music. She explained “probably through Women’s Studies” during her undergrad years.

Sent this tweet 7:37pm, three minutes later we were dancing.

L: “Mab introduced me. She opened a portal.”

L: “And Elliot followed it up.”

L: “…introduced me to Joan Armatrading…”

Melissa was going all out “I want to come over” on this most perfect late summer evening as a couple dozen friends gathered together on the lawn to enjoy her.

L: “…Chris Williamson, Song of the Soul…”

L: “My mom listened to this music!”

L: “I went to Michigan.”

Melissa Etheridge: “…to hell with the consequence!”

L: “…a Pandora station. ‘Holy fuck. This is lesbian music!’”

About this time, someone kicked my lawn chair.

E: “WHAT ARE YOU DOING? GET THE FUCK UP!”

What a great call! Suddenly we were all standing and dancing. A lick of lesbians in the midst of thousands totally getting down to Melissa, just like in the old days. Such laughter and incredible grins! The only thing wrong with it was the failure of the rest of the audience to catch our enthusiasm and join in.

M: “Earth Wind and Fire was better. Everyone was up dancing…snakes were going all around. I’ve never seen Tanglewood like that.”

Melissa played a 90-minute set, maybe more?

I was curious how frequently M attends shows at Tanglewood. She used to come as a teenager because she went to a boarding school nearby, and then this summer “more than ever before. It helps to have friends to go with,” she explained.

Melissa Etheridge: Somebody bring me some water!

I commented on our obvious delight: “We are the coolest group here.”

T: “That’s absolutely right! Everyone else is either jealous or they suck.”

Melissa Etheridge: Come to my window . . . 

_____

ps – new album: The Medicine Show  (2019).

RID Denies Members Opportunity to Vote on Motion

If you have an immediate negative reaction to the idea of unionizing sign language interpreters, then I would like to ask you—politely, please—to pause for a moment and recognize bias.

Most of us have no idea what it could mean to become a Union. In fact, I am still learning. I’m eager to find up to a dozen other sign language interpreters, Deaf and Hearing, who are willing to investigate this notion.

Most importantly, interpreters in general have no idea how much unionizing could help the aims and goals of the American Deaf Community. Instead, the notion is shot down by assumptions and stereotypes before we get a chance to engage in a thoughtful way.

The reality is that there are many questions to answer before we can have a clear vision about whether unionizing is an act of deep structural change that will promote Deaf people’s freedom to participate in social life, or just another way to protect the privileges of hearing interpreters. Anyone who wants to respond seriously to calls for social justice ought to be open to learning if unionizing has real potential to make differences that all of our other efforts have so far failed to produce.

The RID Bylaws Committee found a legal reason not to bring the Motion to the 2019 Business Meeting.

A Motion for RID to set up a Task Force to study the question of unionizing was rejected by RID’s lawyers on the basis of anti-trust law. Interpreters can talk about it, but not within the auspices of RID.  This means we have to establish ourselves on the outside, as a small self-selected study group, technically called an organizing committee.

The members of this group would invest time exploring the questions of what and how unionizing could be the best, right, next thing for sign language interpreting in the United States. Please sign up to volunteer or to receive information on developments.

Find more information at this webpage: Organizing Interpreters.

Seeds: The Gardener’s “Hour of Power”

Beans have crazy names: Hog Brain Cowpeas are supposed to be quite tasty.

It was the end of the day in the gloaming, afternoon fading into the earliest stage of evening. Steph was reluctant.

There was, however, no point in arguing against Soirée-Leone’s enthusiasm:  learning how to garden for food was the whole, entire point!

Tromping out to the newly-cleared and fenced-in garden, Soirée-Leone explained the purpose of the hour of power. Steph adjusted her attitude.

The instructions were straightforward. Scrape out a narrow trough about an inch deep, distribute one packet of seeds evenly between fence posts, cover the seeds. Move to the next section of fencing, repeat with a new pack. A dozen different kinds of beans. Who knows which ones will take in this particular soil and these specific conditions?

Don’t aim for some ideal or sense of perfection; just get it done. If conditions are correct, the seeds will take. This is one way to learn about your soil’s unique characteristics. Especially at the beginning. Experimentation is necessary. And a certain mix of faith and fatalism. The fatalism is that some things aren’t gonna make it. The faith is that other things are.

The types of bean seeds varied in size, shape and color.  Steph’s curiosity was piqued.

Which ones will grow?

 

 

“Do What’s Right for All of Us”

gardening to grow food….understand the food economy where you live, because then you can identify what staples to produce for yourself and strategize whether and how to fill a specific niche for your community.

Dale gave me instructions for the shopping trip with Soirée-Leone and Master Herdsman.

Pre-packaged deli meat is the freshest it gets.

We went to the large convenience store chain that passes for a grocery in rural Tennessee. “They’re trying to make it look like it’s healthy, but its not,” explained the MasterHerdsman.

Tractor Supply was closed for the Easter holiday, so we rushed over to Home Depot. They were closing in 15 minutes, an hour earlier than usual: task focus commenced.

Actually, there’s been steady task focus all day. And since we arrived yesterday, too. This is one of those skills you need to have to do the work involved with gardening to grow food. Triple and Soirée are experts in steadiness. What’s cool is neither of them convey a sense of pressure. Just ‘this is what we gotta do let’s get at it” energy and action.

The first night we made dinner together and ate, comfortably, talking about the vision that brought us here. Actually we didn’t explicitly talk about the vision, we’ve already done that a few times. We dove directly into the implementation of our workplan: test a design for next year’s inaugural intensive residency.

The first morning we took our time getting up and getting going. Each to their own pace. Eventually we merged into breakfast, agreed upon the tasks for the day, and got to it. Quite satisfying to clear the garden so Soirée can do more than comfrey. For the first two years she and Dale were here, getting the house set up had taken priority over putting in a garden. Now it’s time. We also identified and cut fence posts and took a tour to see where the camping platforms will be made, along with the outdoor privies and shower.

Mission: Acquire Items.

Roxy finally got let loose to mingle—that dog is fast! Me and The MeanGoose (doing his job, protecting the flock) are still facing off every time we’re in proximity, and Guppy trotted around the forest near our workspaces all day.

I hadn’t wanted to leave paradise to go to the store, but Leslie agreed that I needed to “suck it up, Buttercup.” It is critical to understand the food economy where you live, because then you can identify what staples to produce for yourself and strategize whether and how to fill a specific niche for your community.

 

Design “A” is a Success

I thought I’d have a minute to myself at the gate.

Colorfully dressed black woman jumping in the air, surrounded by trees at a driveway.
Soirée met me at the road.

Instead this blur of color materialized into an ecstatically happy  human being.

We waited for MasterHerdsman awhile past his ETA. I mean, I think Soirée-Leone was early, then I snuck up on her, then we waited. I’m not always patient, particularly when I’m hungry…

After arrival and unpacking, we were assigned tasks in the kitchen.

Then Soirée-Leone vanished and me and MasterHerdsman had to figure stuff out.

At some point, I realized Design A is perfect as a guide for next year. With room for on-the-fly adjusting.

“We won!” Soirée-Leone hollered.

“Team B came in second!” Leslie added.

I was still waiting for dinner. Soirée-Leone got on it. “We’re scraping the bottom of the barrel!”

Leslie responded: “We were cleaning out the fridge! Where did the barrel come from? You been hiding it in the fridge all this time?!”

 

We Are Water: Walking the Howsatunnuck for the 7th Generation

Grandmother Carole Bubar-Blodgett, explaining aspects of the 220-mile Prayer Walk of the Howsatunnuck River (Housatonic).
Grandmother Carole Bubar-Blodgett, explaining aspects of the 220-mile Prayer Walk of the Howsatunnuck River (Housatonic). Photo: May 27, 2018.

Easily taken as just another crazy old lady, Carole Bubar-Blodgett talks a lot. Her stories are personal, about the lessons, teachings, and experiences she’s had walking the Good Red Road. Emotion runs through her, especially gratitude.

Grandmother Carole was at Standing Rock, where she gifted the Water is Life Eagle Staff to the youth of the Seventh Generation. “It was always theirs,” she explains, “I was just holding it for them.”

Healing

Beginning in 1999,  Carole danced the Sun Dance at Chief Leonard Crow Dog’s Paradise Grounds, and continued dancing for twelve years. Sun Dancers commit to a specific focus of their dancing in four year cycles. Grandmother Carole’s commitment is to the Seventh Generation, to strengthen the children as they lead us in healing the planet. She renewed her Sun Dance commitment three times. In 2011, Carole transferred her Nurture the Children Prayer from the Sun Dance to Walking the Sacred Water.

“Ceremony,” Grandmother explained during this year’s 8th Annual Water is Life Walk along the Howsatunnuck (Housatonic), “is about healing.” Carole had been raised white and learned by chance that her family had suppressed their native lineage. A decade before her first trip to the international Sun Dance at Paradise Grounds, Carole offered tobacco to Bill Soaring Eagle Martin (circa 1989-1990), asking him to become her teacher. Then aged thirty-five, Carole had a lot of whiteness to un-do. Soaring Eagle explained to her that the kind of instruction he could provide was primarily about healing. Personal healing. In the beginning, Carole did not comprehend how sincere he was. “I didn’t know I was going to be digging to China!”

About a decade later, Carole went to Sun Dance in support of a friend. Following communication with Spirit and strict attention to protocol, Carole was soon authorized to Dance. Like all Sun Dancers, Carole was required to conduct a Vision Quest prior to Dancing. In preparation, she was instructed to select and tie the prayer ties that she would need to a stick. Having never been exposed to a vision quest before, Carole did not know the traditional structure of how these ties would be incorporated into the Ceremony. Left with her imagination, Carole created a multicolored rainbow replete with seven ties of seven colors for the seventh generation, including extra yellow and a single purple tie for herself. She was abashed when she saw the sticks made by the other initiates, who used only the four standard colors of the four directions: black, red, white, yellow. Convinced she had “done it all wrong” and showed herself “an idiot,” Carole nonetheless was guided to an appropriate location and completed the Vision Quest.

Upon completion of the Vision Quest, Carole was sent to Auntie Diane Crow Dog in order to debrief the experience and share dreams. Turns out that Auntie Diane had anticipated the arrival of someone who would inherit her responsibility to pray for the children, and had previously instructed the men to watch out for this person. Carole’s unwitting deviation from tradition singled her out for this honor; it also identified her as a contrary, a person who works with opposites, heyoka.

Auntie Diane adopted Carole in a private Hunka Ceremony, and passed her a medicine bundle. “I will be an expensive teacher,” she explained, “because you will have to call me long-distance every week.” Today, Carole misses those weekly calls, which she made faithfully until Auntie Diane crossed over in 2006.

Water is Life Walks

In 2011, Carole was experiencing high blood pressure and took the question into Prayer about how to renew her next four-year commitment to Sun Dance: should she dance only three days each year? A white earwig appeared during her Vision Quest, with the communication that it was time to switch the four-year commitment from the Sun Dance to Walking the Water. Carole did not delay: she completed that year’s Sun Dance and conducted her first Water is Life Walk that same summer.

The next year, for her second Walk (2012), Carole was ready to embark when her friend, Raven Redbone, told her that Josephine Mandamin would be speaking nearby at Evergreen College. Josephine invited Carole to wait a few more days so that she could participate in the special “Paddle to Squaxin” sea canoe event. Paddlers from 102 canoes poured water from their points of origin (not only North America) into the Budd Inlet at the Port of Olympia. Carole then collected water from the shore. She carried that water across the country, along the way collecting discrete amounts of water from 28 sacred sites, all the way to Indian Island in Penobscot Maine. There she “married the waters” from the East Coast, the West Coast and points in-between to illustrate the primary lesson of water: unity.

Once water is mixed with other water, it is indistinguishable: you can no longer separate out which water came from where. This is a lesson of getting along with each other that humans need to (re)learn: we are all one.

“We Are Water”

The 2018 Walk is along the Howsatunnuck River (Housatonic) with Headwaters in Massachusetts and New York, running down through the Berkshires and Central Connecticut to the Long Island Sound.

This river was suggested to Grandmother Carole by Micah Big Wind Lott, who was supporting actions against the illegal extension of a fracked gas pipeline in the Otis State Forest in western Massachusetts. It is mind-boggling to comprehend the poison in this river, given the pervasive gorgeousness of the landscape. Fishermen, kayakers, and tourists gawk at the beauty. But what do they make of the signs warning of fish you cannot eat and water you cannot enter, should not even touch?

Sachem Hawk Storm, of the Schaghticoke, admitting to his daughters that he licks rocks.
Sachem Hawk Storm, of the Schaghticoke, admitting to his daughters that he licks rocks.

One evening on the Walk, we were treated to a cozy dinner with Schaghticoke Sachem Hawk Storm and his family. Grandmother and Hawk spoke of many things, but mostly we laughed. Some of the more serious topics included the inadequacy of the English language for conveying the sacred nature of water, the absence of a discrete word for time in some indigenous languages, and being heyoka. At one potent moment, Hawkstorm emphasized that we (humans) are water. The emphasis on language—how to say things properly—seemed (to me/nerdy white grrl) similar to the prayer Grandmother has taught us to offer whenever we cross a waterway: seeking permission to cross.

We ask permission, she explains, because water can either be soft and gentle or hard and forceful. The gesture of asking could be literal, yet it is the ritual of asking that is most significant because it is about an orientation to the water. Seeking permission is a way of showing respect and remembering relationship—of affirming kinship and connection of humans and water. Language and language use is also about orientation: soft and gentle or hard and forceful.

For a few millenia, the hard aspect of language has sent us spiraling toward disaster. We must re-orient ourselves, somehow, so that we can slow and divert the onrush. Humans have two unique tools for this task: our languages and our cultures. Spending a month walking 220 miles in the company of a river will not automatically cleanse it of pollutants or free it from dams. But devoting such time to thinking about and caring for the water is a way to signal the intention of doing whatever it takes to ensure this water is clean and free-flowing for the next seventh generation.

Water is Life Walk of the Housatonic River, May 15 – June 13, 2018

I am honored and humbled to be a part of organizing this 8th Annual Water is Life Walk led by Grandmother Carole Bubar-Blodgett.

Please visit the Water is Life Walk website for more information, to volunteer, or to make a donation. Thanks!