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There's something pressing on my mind and that is related to an essay by Jona Olsson.

Ms. Olsson is one of the first white people since Jane Elliott and Tim Wise who really has a handle on race in a way that allows her to explain it in terms that break it down into pieces that are easily digested.

She had written a lengthy essay titled "Detour-Spotting" subtitled "for white anti-racists" and it breaks down pretty much every single argument for why we haven't been able to have a proper discussion of Race in America and why racism still has a stranglehold on our country and its collective citizens. I can't recommend this piece enough because it really allows a better understanding from the perspective of a white person trying to grapple with the concept of "privilege" and "oppression" in our society, and is very worthwhile. Of course, the essay is not "new," it dates back to 1997, with updates in 2005 and 2011. But, the time has come to re-examine this piece, as I'm sure you will agree.

The link to her original essay is HERE, and it deserves to be read, in its entirety.

But I wanted to go it one better. Because of the massive size of the piece, and because some of the things she discusses really do need to be unpacked in a more complete and/or a more precise way, I thought I would go through and take each of her points, one at a time, and expand on them, giving you a better and more comprehensive view of what she is talking about. I'll post her portion of the essay, then give some commentary about it.

We begin with Ms. Olsson's opening comments... This first piece will be the longest of the bunch, as her opening gives you her background, her personal experiences and her reactions in being an "anti-racist."

For a white women living in North America learning to be anti-racist is a re-education process. I must unlearn the thorough racist conditioning to re-educate and re-condition myself as an anti-racist. I need knowledge, guidance and experience to avoid the detours and traps waiting for me on this journey.

There is little social or political encouragement for this journey of re-education. We are constantly tempted to change course by the racist propaganda of society and our own guilt and denial. In the face of society’s and our own resistance, sustaining the will to continue this journey takes bold and stubborn effort.

This journey sends us into unfamiliar territory; we have never been here before. No white person has ever lived in a non-racist North America.) None of us has ever been taught the skills of anti-racist living. Indeed, we have been carefully taught the opposite: how to maintain our white privilege. Racism, the system (of oppression) and advantage (for white people) depends on the collusion and cooperation of white people for its perpetuation.

Most of us first became aware of racial prejudice and injustice as children. As white infants we were fed a pabulum of propaganda. That early “training” was comprehensive and left little room for question, challenge or doubt. Our childhood games, rhymes and media conspired: “Eenie, meenie, minie, mo; Catch a n . . . r by his toe...” We played cowboys and Indians. All of us knew the Indians were bad and had to die. My WWII generation watched “Bugs Bunny” outwit evil Japanese cartoon villains.

As Lillian Smith acknowledged:

“From the day I was born, I began to learn my lessons... we learned the dance that cripples the human spirit, step by step, we who were white and we who were colored... These ceremonials in honor of white supremacy, performed from babyhood, slip from the conscious mind down deep into muscles and glands and become difficult to tear out.” (1)

Our generous child wisdom told us racism was wrong, but there was no escape from the daily catechism of racist teaching. We did not choose to learn those lessons. We resisted the lies, the deceit and the injustice of racism, but we did not have to skills to counter the poisonous messages. We could not resist forever. Our conditioning filled us with fear, suspicion and stereotypes that substituted for true knowing of people of color. We internalized our beliefs about people of color, ourselves, other white people and about being white. Those internalized attitudes became actualized into racist behavior.

Seeking to disguise the realities of racism, lies from history are re-conditioned and regurgitated to conform to contemporary language, images, norms, communication and learning styles. From the Negro slave rapist (played by a white actor) who drives the helpless white woman to her death in “Birth of A Nation,” to Presidential candidate, George Bush’s Willie Horton scare tactics - the stereotypes have changed little. The packaging is re-configured by political, military, economic moguls who seek the power and profit in fear.

It is this legacy of a racist society that people of conscience struggle to transform. Our anti-racist journey propels us toward a future when this legacy will no longer be inherited by another generation. We journey on unmapped roads, encountering obstacles. We are tempted by short-cuts; take wrong turns and detours that waste our time and drain

Most of the detours or obstacles facing us, as anti-racists, are previously learned attitudes and habitual behaviors birthed in those attitudes. Experience identifying and breaking harmful habits in other arenas of my life has helped me on my justice-seeking journey.

A few years ago a good friend evaluated a white privilege workshop I facilitated. At the end of her comments, she added, “You really should stop hitting your head when you say something you wish you hadn’t.” I immediately countered in my own defense, “I do NOT hit myself.” Righteously, I thought, a good feminist like myself would not commit such an act of internalized sexism, low self-esteem and intolerance for mistakes. I dismissed the whole notion as an aberration in an otherwise astute and thoughtful critique.

A week later during another workshop I noticed that I hit my forehead, just as I realized I had said something inappropriate. My shock of recognition was quickly assuaged by my thought, “Well, I’m sure that’s the first time I’ve ever done that!”

The next week, next workshop... You have moved ahead in this scenario, I’m sure. It has taken two years of attention to remove this behavior, I think, from my repertoire. It required passing through several stages. First, I had to become aware that I did hit myself. Then I had to acknowledge that it was a fairly regular behavior that had roots in my attitudes about myself and my mistakes. Next I had to pay intentional attention to it. For a while I was aware just AFTER I hit my head. Later, I was aware AS I was doing it. Eventually, I caught the initiating arm movement and could stop mid-trajectory. I had to deliberately scrutinize my internalized attitudes. Have I stopped this behavior from reasserting itself? In stressful moments, still, I may catch a flicker of movement. Clearly, I have more work to do.

As I continue my journey toward becoming a re-conditioned and effective anti-racist, I have become aware of “habits,” attitudes and their attached behaviors, which divert me from my intended goal. As I encounter each trap or detour, precisely the same stages mentioned above in the hit-the-head scenario, make the process of change possible for me. I must first be fully conscious of what I’m doing, the behavior and its consequences. Next I need to reflect on the behavior and its attitudinal roots. Finally, I determine the change I want to make and the best strategy for achieving it. Sometimes I need to remove the behavior from my personal repertoire. More often though, re-tooling will be necessary to replace the discarded pattern with new behaviors. It will likely take repeated attempts before I have fully internalized and externalized the prescribed change.

My head-hitting behavior has its origins in my own internalized sexism, part of the insidious experience as a female and lifelong target of sexism. I was conditioned as female to believe much of the sexist mythology and lies about myself and other women. Part of my over-compensation for the internalized lie that women aren’t as smart as men was /is an absolute in acceptance of my mistakes. As a woman, a target of sexism, I continue to struggle against not just sexism, but against the internalized messages and my own mis-directions and over-compensations.

As a white person, an anti-racist, I am required now to cross the line that separates my experience as target (women) to my place of privilege (white.) Here I must uncover what I have internalized about people of color, myself, other white people and being white. Then I have to identify how those internalized attitudes have been actualized into racist behavior. Like with the head-hitting, it is the behavior that signals the problem area. The behaviors will vary for each white person. I recognize that no two white people share exactly the same experiences and societal moldings. We learned racism in our unique and personal ways from different teachers and at different times. But we all learned the lessons well.

I have observed in myself and other white people of conscience, patterns of guilt, denial and defensiveness that appear regularly in our interactions with people of color and other white people. Below is an examination of several attitudes or behaviors that detour us from our anti-racist journey of re-education. Each one will be formatted in this way:

#) The Detour

Attitudes or behaviors that indicate a detour or wrong turn into white guilt, denial or defensiveness.

[A Note: Some statements, at first reading, may seem too obviously racist to be included here. I have found that even as I identify myself as an anti-racist, if I search deeply and honestly enough I still harbor attitudes on some level of consciousness, that sound very much like these. I am also painfully aware that earlier in my life I thought and said these things. That recognition of evolution may help me be an ally to another white person on her or his own anti-racist journey.]

Reality Check and Consequence

A clarification of the underlying meaning and consequence of this behavior pattern.

[A note about consequences: There are always consequences to our actions or inactions. Since our intentions have little or no bearing on these consequences, our unintentional racist behaviors will often have the same consequences as the intentional racism of a confirmed bigot. This is a tough lesson for white people of conscious. If we are doing our best, have good intentions, then we want everything to be made better. We, at least, want to feel better for the attempt. We want others, especially people of color, to appreciate what we’ve done. This is another trap for white anti-racists.]

I want to take a moment here before we get to today's issue because Ms. Olsson says something that is really crucial.

When she talks about the process of hitting her head when she says something she is embarrassed about, the points that are important to note are that she learned that behavior. How or why she learned it is unclear. Maybe she wanted to physically demonstrate that she knew she made a mistake. Maybe she hoped by hitting it would prevent her from making a similar mistake in the future.

What really matters about it is that instead of it being helpful to prevent her from doing something bad, she sublimated the behavior so she didn't even realize she was doing it!

And, when we talk about racism in America, this is one of those areas that is difficult to discuss: sublimated behaviors. Racism is ingrained in the fabric of our country. That means that there are many people who are performing racist actions, saying racist things, thinking racist thoughts, possibly without even knowing it. That means that even if you think you are doing well when it comes to dealing with race and racism, you really might not be doing well at all.

This relates to Ms. Olsson's note about consequences and appreciation. Unintentional racism doesn't make it any less racist. And good work on avoiding racism really doesn't DESERVE praise from people who would otherwise suffer from it. This is a trap that many anti-racists fall into: the expectation of reward for not being racist.

Nobody should be racist. So, if you're not being racist, you're being a normal human. Therefore, that doesn't deserve a "reward." Yet, that can be something that is expected, and if not received, may lead to resentment on the part of the anti-racist...

We'll come back to this point later. For now, though, let's move into today's first Detour.

1) I’m Colorblind

“People are just people; I don’t see color; we’re all just human.” or “I don’t think of you as Chinese.” or “We all bleed red when we’re cut.” or “Character, not color, is what counts with me.”

Reality Check and Consequence

Statements like these assume that people of color are just like me, white; that they have the same dreams, standards, problems, peeves that I do. “Colorblindness” negates the cultural values, norms, expectations and life experiences of people of color, and most importantly, their experience as a target of racism. Even if an individual white person could ignore a person’s color, the society does not. By saying we are not different, that we don’t see their color, we are also saying we don’t see my white-ness. This denies their experience of racism and our experience of privilege.

“I’m colorblind” can also be a defense when afraid to discuss racism, especially if one assumes all conversation about race or color is racist. Speaking of another person’s color or culture is not necessarily racist or offensive. As one of my African American friends says, “I don’t mind that you notice I’m Black.” Color consciousness does not equal racism.

More recently we have heard of people noting that it is wrong to be "colorblind," and let's face it, it is wrong.

As humans, we have experienced different things based on who we are, and as much as the phrase "you can't judge a book by its cover" gets bandied about, there's a whole lot of judging books based on those covers.

To claim to ignore a person's color is ignoring a part of who that person actually is, what that person has experienced, how that person came to cross your path, to share a moment with you, to be in your life. Some people call it "erasing," which is an apt name for it as well. You don't want to deal with the issue, so just look beyond it.

This kind of action does NOTHING to help with correcting racism. In fact, it's just another way of perpetuating it. If individuals simply overlook skin color, that won't make racism disappear too. And by doing that, you assure that you will not be participating in correcting this long standing problem.

But looking at this from the other direction, colorblindness means that white people refuse to acknowledge their place in society: that place that allows them the ability to say they can overlook someone's color. That's a privilege - to be able to just ignore color? If you are a person of color, you don't have that option.

On the other hand, I do want to address another point Ms. Olsson makes. The assumption is that if you are a person of color, you might not be just like white people; and not having the same dreams, standards, problems, peeves that white people do.

Just as it's not fair to assume that persons of color are the same as white people, it's just as unfair to assume that they might not be very similar. After all, we share the same country, we live under the same laws, we view a lot of the same entertainment, it's not unreasonable to think that there is some commonality in how we feel about what we want to do, where we want to go and how we want to get there.

The overall lesson of "I'm Colorblind" is:

1. No. You're not colorblind.
2. Being colorblind accomplishes nothing
2a. Except making you personally feel better about ignoring racism.
2b. And allowing you to step away from dealing with racism in any substantive way.
3. Colorblind is hurtful because it "erases" a part of who the person you claim to support is.
4. It doesn't stop the rest of the world from not being colorblind.

Finally, I wanted to make a note about discussing race and racism here.

These entries are called "thinkposts" for a reason: they are things I've been thinking about and I put them out there specifically to open a discussion about them. In that sense, there is no need to post rhetorical questions here, no need to assume that any comment made doesn't need an answer, or must have an answer for that matter.

The point is there are never conditions of that sort where the discussion is not wanted, or where you should apologize for any element that might be said, or unsaid. The point is a dialog, and without that, well, we'll just continue as is.

Ultimately, we have to talk to fix these things. Communication is the great hope of our world. This is how it has to start.


( 4 comments — Leave a comment )
Jul. 24th, 2016 05:34 pm (UTC)
Fascinating and insightful - thanks.
Jul. 28th, 2016 09:48 am (UTC)
I'm glad you're reading, Dave! Thank you.
Jul. 31st, 2016 12:42 pm (UTC)
Very interesting and also quite scary!

As a 52 year old from the UK, being colourblind was seen as the correct way in the 1960's, 70's and 80s to be seen to be actively and politically anti-racist! It was the complete opposite of how racists in the UK at that time acted. Time's and attitudes change and I'm realising that these days it is wrong and it's quite horrific to realise that I really need to unlearn this way of thinking and try to learn a third path that has only recently come to my attention, and a path that I do feel has elements that I grew up avoiding. But as you said...that's one of the points...avoidance.

But yes it is very, very scary, that those of us of a certain age in the UK have now become racists for growing up trying hard to be very anti-racist.

Edited at 2016-07-31 12:43 pm (UTC)
Aug. 1st, 2016 12:50 am (UTC)
Hi C, and thanks for commenting back.

Certainly you haven't "become" racist because what you used to do is now considered racist. Obviously, you were trying as best you could, based on how things were...

I think that communication and understanding are the big elements that cause such gaps. The problem is the geography: a lot of the time black people and white people do not live close to each other, or if they do, they may avoid each other. With that in mind, it's difficult to know or understand each other.

I don't think this is "scary," especially if you have a sensitive heart and want to participate in helping the process of ending racism. That's far better than many alternatives, believe me!
( 4 comments — Leave a comment )

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