Want to fix a problem? The first step is to name it.

Therapists commonly tell their clients that you need to name a problem before you can fix it, and this is just as true for social change as it is for individual change. Still, discussions about white supremacy often make we who understand ourselves as white uncomfortable. We often avoid that language, describing individual circumstances or problems without naming the system that causes them. This is even true among well-intentioned, left-leaning, progressive whites who believe deeply in human rights and who, to greater and lesser degrees, fight against racism. They may feel attacked when a term they associate with neo-Nazis is used in a way that sounds like it might implicate them. The term feels divisive and alienating, and makes it hard for them to continue conversations that are focused on dismantling a system of practices that frequently benefits them even while they, themselves, may be fighting for social justice.

I’m thinking about this all the more since yesterday, after Heather Heyer was killed and many were injured by a white supremacist in Charlottesville, VA. Heyer was part of a crowd of demonstrators protesting a group of white supremacists. The white supremacists were themselves protesting the removal of a statue of Robert E Lee, a man who fought to keep slavery in place, and who, like every confederate general, could better be understood as a traitor to the United States and not as someone to be honored with statues in US town squares and names on US military bases.

It’s easy for a majority of white people in the US to point to neo-Nazis and racist skinheads and use the term “white supremacist” to describe them. That’s why it’s jarring to hear the term “white supremacy” used to describe a system of power and oppression instead of a person.* The system doesn’t look like the neo-Nazis. It looks like all the taken-for-granted patterns in our society that benefit those who are understood to be white over others, or that oppress those who are not understood to be white. It looks like the dominant culture and institutions supported, frequently unthinkingly but sometimes consciously, by many of us who are understood as white. And we don’t think of ourselves as anything like the skinheads.

That’s exactly why we need to call the system what it is, though. We won’t see it for what it is unless we call it what it is. If we don’t name the system, all we can do is talk about individual pieces. Marilyn Frye, in an essay called “Oppression,” from her book The Politics of Reality (1983), pointed out that if you look at a bird cage and you focus only on a single wire, you will never understand why the bird isn’t free. If you see two wires, even if you see how they cross, you still won’t see why the bird can’t just fly around. You need to see the cage. If we see the cage, we need a name for it.

In the United States, the best name for the entire cage is “white supremacist capitalist patriarchy,” a term I first learned from reading Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center (1984), by bell hooks, when I was in college. Michael Eric Dyson in yesterday’s New York Times narrows the focus a bit and calls it the bigotocracy.

To understand why it’s important to see the whole system, take an issue like police brutality, something that’s been the focus of much deserved attention for several years now. If we want to address police brutality, we can’t look at individual cops as “bad apples,” or even at an individual police force. We need to see the connections between the militarization of the police, the over-policing of Black, Latino, and Asian neighborhoods, the so-called war on drugs, and the constitution’s support for slavery via incarceration. If we want to understand why people who are understood as white are less likely to live in those neighborhoods, we need to understand that for centuries Blacks were prohibited from owning property (because they were deemed property and not human), and thus people who are understood to be white have had hundreds of years head start consolidating and passing on property from generation to generation. We need to understand white flightredlining, racial steering, and the educational inequality that is grounded in that residential segregation and a school funding system based on local property values.

This is a system that benefits whites and is based on the idea that those with wealth and property are smarter, work harder, and are more deserving than others. The fact that most of us are taught in elementary school – no matter what neighborhood we grow up in – that in the US anyone who works hard to get ahead (meritocracy) is essentially white supremacy in action because it is an ideology that prevents children from learning about the way that the system privileges whites while oppressing everyone else. When parents in highly-rated well-off mostly-white school districts resist merging with under-resourced schools, they are thinking not of white supremacy, but of their children’s individual futures. Still, they are participating in white supremacy. When white college applicants protest affirmative action because they lose out on an admissions slot to a preferred school, they are not thinking of white supremacy but of their own individual futures. Still, they are participating in white supremacy. When neighbors sell houses because people of color begin to buy houses in the area, they are thinking of the value of the wealth they have tied up in their homes and not of white supremacy. Still, they are participating in white supremacy.

If we are going to fix this we need to see the whole system, call it what it is, and be willing to educate ourselves about how it works. Many whites do this work, but more of us need to, and we can’t let the discomfort of it stop us. We also need to support each other in the process. Loretta Ross, a longtime women’s rights, civil rights, and reproductive justice advocate who spoke at Woodhull’s Sexual Freedom Summit last week, reminded whites that white supremacy can kill our souls, too, and that if we care about human rights, we need to work to dismantle it not just to save people of color, but also to save ourselves. Willingly benefiting from the oppression of others erodes our own humanity.

What can we do if we want to work at dismantling white supremacy? To return to my example of the connection between housing, wealth, and education, we can demand a new funding structure for our schools so that their resources are no longer linked to the property values of their surrounding communities. We can demand the integrating of truly affordable housing into communities where the wealthy live so that we don’t have class-segregated, and thus racially-segregated communities and schools. We can at the very least acknowledge that we are benefiting from a system that is unjust, and we can sit with the discomfort that causes us when people call it by its name. Then we can learn more about how it works so that we can help those who are working to take it apart. Those of us who are progressive, who support human rights and social justice, might need to become uncomfortable enough to take actions more radical than we’re used to.

*For what it’s worth, if the confusion is just too much, I’d much rather rename the white supremacists “super-racist assholes” and save the term “white supremacy” for the system than concede the term as an individual label and be unable to call the system what it is. But, I don’t think that’s necessary. Most of us can grasp that Democrats are people who belong to a party, where democracy is a system that involves many other kinds of people. Most of us can grasp that we participate in capitalism even if we are not, ourselves, capitalists. I have faith that we can begin to understand that we are inevitably participating in white supremacy even if we are not white supremacists.


“big bird in a small cage” by Elia Scudiero is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Three things – 11/20/16: Identity and the election

This week I’ve ben thinking a lot about identity and the election. No surprise, I’m sure. Identity politics has been at the forefront of many election analyses in the couple of weeks. Racism, sexism, and heterosexism intersected powerfully in this election, and the voting patterns of whites, and particularly of white women without women college degrees, has been given particular attention for good reason. The emboldening of white supremacist groups by Trump’s campaign dog whistles – and his explicitly racist comments – signals a rise of identity politics on the far right at exactly the moment when we on the left are wondering whether we need to focus on economics over identity. I’d argue that we can’t separate economics from identity entirely. Class is identity. Race is identity. Discriminatory policies are often based on ideas about identities and the power and privilege that attach to them.

Here are three articles I’ve read that gave me different ways to think about identity in this election.

The End of Identity Liberalism,” by Mark Lilly, criticizes the tendency of we on the left to focus on rights and issues attached to specific categories or communities of people. Lilly, a humanities professor at Columbia University,  argues that liberals have lost track of the kinds of broad-based economic and local community needs that unite people across identity-based communities. While there is a degree to which this claim makes sense to me, I think he misses the ways that suburbanization and de facto class and race segregation in our communities have each done more to undermine civic discourse. I also think that Lilly underestimates the importance of identity politics in securing the kinds of fundamental human rights that protect ethnic, racial, sexuality and gender minorities. That said, broad based movements like the labor movement have at times done excellent work to fold those into a broader agenda. We certainly wouldn’t be in this mess if we had a stronger labor movement.

How We Broke Democracy, But Not The Way You Think,” by Tobias Rose-Stockwell on Medium.com, picks up on the identity issue by looking at the way that social media reinforces the fragmentation of audiences – groups of people paying attention to something – by filtering our information according to very micro-level patterns in our social networks. Taken together with the segregation of our physical communities, this online segregation is potentially devastating to cross-community discourse. If we look at the red-county/blue-county divide and see “two Americas,” this analysis actually shows us that there are millions of Americas, and they overlap in ways that reinforce bias and belief, and heighten our tendency to respond with emotion rather than reason.

An Open Letter to White Liberal Feminists,” by Rhon Marigault-Bryant, published on the web site of the African American Intellectual History Society, expresses a mix of disappointment and hope. Marigault-Bryant is a professor of Africana Studies at Williams College, and her disappointment is aimed particularly at those feminists whose focus on simple equality of opportunity in the workplace or in colleges and universities has often rendered invisible the structural racism puts the lives and futures of people of color at risk in ways that are much more fundamental than whether or not they’ll get equal pay at their law firm job. Her hope is that, at last, some of those feminists will realize that even their liberal agendas are at risk, but I have to say that in my own years of struggling against liberal feminism’s opposition to many human rights issues that matter to me as a queer socialist feminist, I’m not sure I have much hope.

As usual I don’t have answers, but I do know this. Identity is a powerful organizing tool, and communities are certainly affected differently – and targeted differently – based on identity-linked aspects of their members. When people say “we’ve neglected the white working class and their economic anxieties,” they may be implying that members of the white working class are not concerned about identity, but that would be replicating a mistake we make all to often: assuming whiteness as a standard, and class as purely financial. I know one thing for certain: Neither of those things is true.


“Lets Talk” conversation bubble image is by Ron Mader on Flickr and used under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike generic license.

Three Things That Helped Me This Morning


Image is of a dozen overlapping conversation bubbles in a range of colors with the words “let’s talk” underneath.

My initial reactions to Tuesday night were, in order, disbelief, anger, and hopelessness. Over the last couple of days I’ve listened, watched, and participated in a number of conversations about moving forward. Earlier today, I posted the following on Facebook:

We’ve come to the point where it’s about “survival” for 99% of us, but we 99% are divided about what survival requires. Those divisions are fueled by decades of residential segregation, fear-mongering, and economic exploitation. Trump’s middle-America voters who are hoping for that Carrier plant to stay open? They’re going to be angry and disappointed. Others whose bigotry has been emboldened threaten those of us whose skin color, religion, or relationships offend them, making it really fucking hard for us to talk to those who are mostly just worried about that Carrier plant. Many of us across the political spectrum stand to lose health care, access to education, and jobs. The 1% that remains in charge no matter who wins elections has the rest of us right where they need us.

That seemed to resonate with a lot of people, and it got me thinking about the small things we can do to contribute to the building of a future that truly sustains many more of us. I’m thinking about how our social media bubbles insulate us and harm us. I’m thinking about how our communities feel vindicated or threatened. I’m thinking about the fear-mongering and about the very real dangers many of us are facing. I’m thinking about how desperately we need to be able to talk across difference and about how hard that is when we feel more and more polarized and threatened. The threats are real and yet the polarization is greater than it needs to be. In my classrooms I work with students who are often for the first time interacting with a diverse group of peers. Facilitating conversation, even being present in conversation, when the underlying inequalities are so deep and yet often rendered invisible, is a challenge. That is a challenge many of us need to take up.

This morning over breakfast I read three pieces that helped me think about the complexities we face in trying to talk about this election and all that it touches. I want to share them, just as three possible levers to use in moving conversations about the future.

The first was a news article from The New York Times, “Can Trump Save Their Jobs? They’re Counting On It,” written by Nelson D. Schwartz, asking what will happen if Donald Trump can’t save the Carrier manufacturing plant in Indiana that he used as a central figure in his campaign speeches.

The second was a more personal piece with the title “What a Gay, Muslim, Pakistani-American Immigrant Learned Traveling to Rural Alaska the Week Before the Election,” written by Riaz Patel, and published on GlennBeck.com. Patel talks about the people he met while traveling across the United States, including a trip to Alaska, meeting and getting to know – and getting known by – exactly the kinds of white working class voters that have been so central to discussions about the 2016 election.

The third was an open letter from Our100.org, a coalition of leaders who are women of color and who are committed to continuing the work of organizing for social justice. They recognize that it is often the work of women, and often of women of color, queer women, immigrant women that pushes the nation to do the right thing, focus on on solutions and breaking down the politics of hate.

I’m sharing these three pieces because they come from very different sources and because they identify some of the ways that survival is at stake for so many of us.

I’m thinking of all of the small things we can each do to contribute to one another’s survival. One thing I commit to doing is to sharing three articles a week that were meaningful to me as I think about the issues we have to face. This campaign didn’t create the issues. Instead, the issues created the conditions for the campaigns we watched and the election outcome we’ve all just witnessed.

Here’s one small thing I’m going to do. I’m going to start a weekly email newsletter – just a very small thing – that will share three articles I’ve read recently that helped me think about and talk about these issues with people who don’t immediately share my perspective. I’ll include a brief summary (no more than what I’ve included above), that explains what prompted me to share the article. I might include a couple of questions that the articles prompted me to ask. And maybe a cat picture or some small bit of humor.

If you’d like to receive such a thing, SUBSCRIBE HERE.



“Lets Talk” conversation bubble image is by Ron Mader on Flickr and used under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike generic license.

No False Choices

I was reading with interest about the recent vote by California’s legislature to legalize physician-assisted suicide. Just as nobody should be free to take the life of another, nobody should be forced to live in pain when they no longer wish to. Opponents to the bill based their opposition on the concern that “death with dignity” laws would be used to coerce poor people into foregoing expensive treatment or care at the end of their lives. Here’s a passage from Ian Lovett’s New York Times article on the vote:

“As soon as this is introduced, it immediately becomes the cheapest and most expedient way to deal with complicated end-of-life situations,” Dr. Kheriaty said. “You’re seeing the push for assisted suicide from generally white, upper-middle-class people, who are least likely to be pressured. You’re not seeing support from the underinsured and economically marginalized. Those people want access to better health care.”

This is a classic example of a false dichotomy. This is not truly an either/or situation, even though it’s being portrayed as one. We should not be forced to choose between high quality affordable health care for all and personal autonomy over the ends of our lives. We must fight for both. Each is an essential component of a truly just system.

False dichotomies, or false choices, are distractions from the real work we need to do to make our lives happier, our communities stronger, and our societies better places for everyone. Worse, they often pit groups against one another when those groups would better achieve their goals if they worked together. Take a look at Dr. Kheriaty’s statement above. I’m sure that the demographic characterization is accurate, and certainly the outcome he is foreshadowing would be a terrible one. But to suggest that this is an either/or situation is to accept a level of injustice that none of us should be willing to accept.

Sharing Power: Buffy, Birthdays and Books

Mom in the hospital a few months before she died. She is wearing her favorite orange "Cuffed and Stuffed" t-shirt and using her grabber as if it is a rifle.

Mom in the hospital a few months before she died. She is wearing her favorite orange “Cuffed and Stuffed” t-shirt and using her grabber as if it is a rifle.

Yesterday Sophie Gilbert published an essay at TheAtlantic.com celebrating the 18th anniversary of the first episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. She describes the ways in which Buffy represented a conventional teen hero (pretty, blond, athletic), and then all the many ways in which Buffy the character and Buffy the television show were subversive in the sheer joy they took in displays of female power.

Today a friend posted a quote on Facebook by a different Gilbert: Elizabeth Gilbert, memoirist and adventurer – surely another powerful woman. In the post my friend shared, Gilbert is credited with saying “The women I love and admire for their strength and grace did not get that way because shit worked out. They got that way because shit went wrong and they handled it. They handled it a thousand different ways on a thousand different days, but they handled it. Those women are my superheroes.”

How cool to read these two very different reflections on female power, one day after the other, and at a time when I’ve been working on my own memoir about women, power, and, to quote Elizabeth Gilbert, “handling shit.” Continue reading