Writing Samples – Barbara Beckwith http://www.barbarabeckwith.net Writer and Activist Tue, 06 Jun 2017 18:33:15 +0000 en-US hourly 1 https://wordpress.org/?v=4.7.5 Thanks for visiting my blog http://www.barbarabeckwith.net/2015/07/26/thanks-for-visiting-my-blog/ Sun, 26 Jul 2015 21:14:28 +0000 http://www.barbarabeckwith.net/2015/07/26/thanks-for-visiting-my-blog/ Welcome to my blog, which I use as a website, not for daily blog entries, which are not my style. I prefer conversation in person or via the printed word. Everyday Racism: Questions & Quandaries, my third collection of personal essays pondering everyday racism (including my own) is now in print. The racial justice publisher Crandall, Dostie and Douglass Books will distribute it starting this fall. Check out www.cddbooks.com for their full list of books including my two earlier booklets in what has turned into a What Was I Thinking? series. Or contact me at (BeckwithB@aol.com).

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Writing Process Blog Tour http://www.barbarabeckwith.net/2014/05/24/writing-process-blog-tour/ Sat, 24 May 2014 16:32:59 +0000 http://www.barbarabeckwith.net/2014/05/24/writing-process-blog-tour/ Earlier this month, on the National Writers Union book forum, I wrote that that all blog tours seemed to be expensive scams. I was mistaken: Sue Katz author of Lillian’s Last Affair, available on Amazon, responded that she was participating in a writer-organized Writing Process Blog Tour that is no scam; nor does it involve money.

A week later, Leslie Brunetta, who’d been invited by Katz to post on this tour (Katz also invited prolific writer/editor/publisher, Ken Wachsberger) and Adina Schecter to join the tour.

I of course agreed: Leslie’s quirky, essays inspire me, especially the way they spin philosophical and scientific insights together via metaphors that charm and clarify. One essay led to a book, Spider Silk: Evolution and 400 Million Years of Spinning, Waiting, Snagging and Mating, co-authored by spider scientist Catherine L. Craig (Yale University Press).

So what am I working on?

I’m struggling right now to convey my experiences with and thoughts about anti-Semitic stereotypes. It will be the final piece for my third booklet of essays. I started the series started with What Was I Thinking? Reflecting on Everyday Racism (2009) and then What Was I Thinking: Digging Deeper into Everyday Racism (2012). They’re distributed by the racial justice book publisher, . www.cddbooks.com.Crandall Dostie and Douglass Books

Why do I write what I do?

Because I’m white. Because racism is a white problem. Because I grew up never talking about it, and not until the 1980s did I act to counter it.

My essay topics come out of the issues raised in the workshop I took and now co-lead in Cambridge (MA) called “White People Challenging Racism: Moving From Talk to Action.” The course galvanized me to action in every sphere of my life. It also made me look back at my life as a white person (“Growing Up Oblivious”), and explore my failures of mind, heart and deed, with angst laced with humor and, hopefully, insight.

How does my work differ from others in the genre?

My essays ponder more than probe. When a question nags at me, I write to resolve it. One essay is about “aha” moments, when I’ve caught myself stereotyping. Another admits to misreading my mother’s attitudes toward eugenics, race and foster care. A third tackles the question: why read slave narratives? Others are about anti-racist jargon, nosy questions, and the power of a stare. One asks a question I continue to struggle with: as I listen intensely to others’ experiences, how can I stay honest to my own, although possibly flawed, understanding of reality?

I’m inspired by writers like Lois Mark Stalvey, who back in 1970 wrote The Education of a WASP, and more recently by Peggy McIntosh (Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack); Mab Segrest, (Memoir of a Race Traitor); Tim Wise (White Like Me), and Bernestine Singley (When Race Becomes Real: Black and White Writers Confront Their Personal Histories); and most recently, by Debby Irving (Waking Up White) and Lee Mun Wah (Let’s Get Real: What People of Color Can’t Say & Whites Won’t Ask About Racism).

How does my writing process work?

My ideas most often come to me in the midst of everyday life: as I drive in traffic that’s going 20 mph over the speed limit, as I race around a court with my racquet, pursing a ball, or as I stare into space at a noisy café. I jot down my idea fragments, and when enough snippets accumulate around a particular topic, like iron filings to a magnet, I freewrite. Then quickly, before my penciled scribbles become unintelligible, I type out my gangly sentences, ironing them out as I go. Then I revise. But since, in my view, cut-and-paste editing doesn’t give an essay a chance to “regrow” and deepen, I try to type each draft from the start. I never know how an essay will end: I write to find out.

Now, I hand off this blog tour to two writers I want you to know about:

Lisa Braxton is a kindred essay writer. I met her at a Meet the Agent event that my National Writers Union Boston Chapter co-sponsored with the Women’s National Book Association, and saw that she writes the kind of relationship essays worthy of The New York Times’ Modern Love column. We swapped essays via email and liked our mutual no-nonsense feedback. We’ve continued to run our essays past each other, and offer submission ideas. You can read some of her essays and short stories at www.lisabraxton.org. On her blog, she shares writer’s life experiences (with embedded advice), from planning a book party, to being part of a book club, to holding a book signing, to promoting your work, to the importance having a writing space of your own. Thanks to Lisa, I’ve learned about the indie bookstore, Frugal Books in Roxbury.

Terry Farish writes fiction for adults, young adults, and children. Her most recent book, The Good Braider, is written in free verse and in the voice of a Sudanese girl, but reads like a dramatic novel. Terry, who is white, has a long-term relationship with the Sudanese community in Portland (ME), and bases her story on their oral histories. “The Sudanese don’t talk about trauma, but I was a witness to it, and wrote this girl’s story as a way to honor her life.” She also produced a bilingual folktale, The Story of a Pumpkin, with Nepali-speaking refugees from Bhutan, and her next book will be a picture book about a Dominican family. Her blog www.terryfarish.com shows her commitment to community. On it, she invites students to write “the next chapter” to The Good Braider. She recommends other writers of “verse novels.” She also writes for the social justice and children’s literature blog, www.thepiratetree.com.

Speaking of community, participating in the Writing Process Blog Tour has made me feel part of a community of writers willing to share what, why and how we write, in the spirit of “I’ll show you mine if you show me yours.” I now pass that pleasure on to Lisa and to Terry.

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Misremembering Dr. King http://www.barbarabeckwith.net/2014/05/18/misremembering-dr-king/ Sun, 18 May 2014 13:41:08 +0000 http://www.barbarabeckwith.net/?p=424 Jennifer J. Yanco’s Misremembering Dr. King – Revisiting the Legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. is out from Indiana University Press. Don’t be scared off by her academic publisher: Yanco writes in clear, non-jargon language how “we” (she includes herself) so easily forget Dr. King’s core beliefs. It’s easy for us, she says, to remember Dr. King’s non-violent civil disobedience, which justice movements have used ever since. But it’s harder to remember his call for a guaranteed minimum income, his opposition to the Vietnam War, and his pro-union stance: he was assassinated while supporting a sanitation workers’ strike. She reminds us of “solutions” that backfired and kept power and money in white people’s hands: ending segregated schools led to the dismantling of Black-only schools, to thousands of Black teachers losing their jobs, to Black students being taught by white teachers who didn’t always want them to succeed. She also deals with what’s going on now: Trayvon Martin, the prison industrial complex, the Occupy movement, the fair pay struggles by fast food and other low wage workers. A great look back, and forward.

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Read This Memoir on Understanding Whiteness http://www.barbarabeckwith.net/2014/02/28/read-this-memoir-on-understanding-whiteness/ http://www.barbarabeckwith.net/2014/02/28/read-this-memoir-on-understanding-whiteness/#comments Fri, 28 Feb 2014 20:11:02 +0000 http://www.barbarabeckwith.net/?p=359 If you’ve been enlightened by Tim Wise’s White Like Me: Reflections on Race from a Privileged Son, or intrigued by my white privilege-related essays, do read Debby Irving’s memoir, Waking Up White and Finding Myself in the Story of Race, just out in 2014. The book’s cover is of a happy little girl at dinner, surrounded by silver, crystal, and gauzy curtains. The word WHITE stretches across the width of the book’s cover; the subtitle makes clear that although race isn’t real, biologically, the stories we tell ourselves about “race” result in powerful and damaging realities. Irving looks back at incidents in her life from age five on, as a way to understand her own race and class privileges, of which she was unaware until well into her 40s. When she did learn about race and class privilege, she didn’t do so entirely on her own. Throughout her memoir, she acknowledges the range of people she learned from, and profiles each in the mentor section of her website, www.debbyirving.com. She’s frank about her stereotyped thoughts; even as an adult she catches herself feeling mistrustful of her new chiropractor when she sees that he is a person of color. She examines her racial and class privilege in every area of her life but also learns that, since “nearly all of my thoughts are born of the culture in which racism is embedded,” it makes no sense to wallow in guilt. Irving manages to be witty about her own shortcomings, including missteps in speaking up against another’s racism: “I got all puffy and angry like I thought an anti-racist activist should.” As for class privilege, she learns most from her husband Bruce: his “talking to the nuns” story is particularly both funny and apt. She’s a great story teller, writing as if she’s talking directly to you. Her metaphors are as illuminating as Peggy McIntosh’s image of an invisible backpack full of unearned privileges, which white people carry wherever they go. Irving compares her years-long avoidance of authentic interaction with people of color to the electrical fencing systems people use to “zap” their dogs to train them to stay in the yard. “For decades the racially charged Zap sent me scampering back to my comfort zone. Rather than examining the source of the social tension I felt around people of color, I retreated to my social comfort zone – other white people.” I couldn’t put her book down because her stories made me think about similar incidents in my life. She ends each chapter with questions, in effect, asking the reader: “I’ve showed you mine, now you show me yours.”

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Why Read Slave Narratives? http://www.barbarabeckwith.net/2013/10/01/why-read-slave-narratives-2/ http://www.barbarabeckwith.net/2013/10/01/why-read-slave-narratives-2/#comments Tue, 01 Oct 2013 17:43:03 +0000 http://www.barbarabeckwith.net/?p=345 I bring an array of books to the People Challenging Racism class I co-lead, offering to loan them during the semester. These books include memoirs by formerly enslaved men and women. But that none of the students – young, old, white or of color – asks to borrow any of these personal accounts of bondage.

I understand their reluctance: I wouldn’t have either, until recently. Yes, I’d read about slavery. But I’d never considered going to the source: the wide range of slave narratives available both in books and online.

My avoidance dates back decades, to the Roots mini-series. I couldn’t watch more than the initial show, so appalled was I by the graphic scenes of whippings, and by a horrific punishment I could never have imagined: metal grills clamped over slaves’ faces that allowed them to neither talk nor eat.

I had also turned away from accounts of the Holocaust. In both cases, I feared that they’d be solely about bondsmen and bondswomen stripped of dignity, agency, and humanity.

My change of heart and mind started with a plaque I noticed in front of a house in my neighborhood in Cambridge (MA). Installed as part of my city’s new African American Heritage Trail, it marked the home of Harriett Jacobs, who, more than 150 years ago, self-published under the pseudonym Linda Brent, a memoir of her enslavement, escape, and life as an emancipated woman.

As a fellow writer, I was intrigued. So I put my qualms aside, and read Jacobs’ Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl Written by Herself, and then a dozen other books penned by men and women who had endured bondage.

I found that yes, they describe the horror of forced labor, rape, hunger, thirst, 16-hour workdays, illiteracy, and brutality. But they’re also a testament to endurance and resistance.

Jacobs wrote about being sexually harassed by her owner, a common oppression that was rarely acknowledged. It caused her to flee, hiding in the nearby home of her emancipated grandmother. For seven years, she stayed in its attic crawl space, watching her children at play, and writing decoy letters to be conveyed to New York City and re-mailed back South so that her master would think she’d reached a free state. She eventually did escape by boat to the North, although her owners continued to pursue her.

The wives of slave owners come off little better than their husbands in these “fugitive slave” memoirs. Jacobs was regularly beaten by her master’s wife, who blamed her simply for being the object of her husband’s lust. Wives often insisted that children born of such unions be sold to far away plantations. Many would use imagined infractions as an excuse to whip any slave their husbands forced into sex.

Each man or woman who owned slaves had a choice to treat them well or harshly. Frederick Douglass learned a few letters of the alphabet from his mistress until her husband told her to stop. Douglass then turned to Baltimore street urchins, trading pieces of bread for lessons and using Tom Sawyer-worthy stratagems. He’d declare: “I can write better than you can” and then copy whatever words they wrote down.

To my surprise, enslaved people not only found ways to educate themselves, they also often boldly fought back against abuse, despite the risk. Douglass, after resisting a severe whipping by a “slave breaker” overseer, bested his oppressor in a two-hour struggle and was never beaten again. The experience, he wrote, “rekindled the few expiring embers of freedom, and revived within me a sense of my own manhood.”
His memoir, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass an American Slave, is now considered an American classic.

Most slave narratives, I discovered, are not only testaments to resistance, they’re also gripping, even thrilling, accounts of strategically brilliant escapes. Light-skinned Elizabeth Craft disguised herself a white man and traveled by rail with her “slave” – actually, her darker skinned husband. She wrapped her arm in bandages to avoid signing her name, since she could neither read nor write. Henry Brown escaped slavery by arranging to be crated up and shipped, by wagon, railroad, and steamboat, to Philadelphia. His Narrative of the Life of Henry Box Brown, was published in 1949. The next year, the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act legalized slave-catching in free states. To escape bounty hunters, he fled to England, where he republished his book and gave hundreds of anti-slavery lectures.

One of the plethora of largely unread slave narratives is sure to be seen, if not read, by mainstream American. Solomon Northrup’s Twelve Years A Slave came out as a movie in 2013. Northrop was a free Black man living with his family in Saratoga Springs, NY — educated, employed, and an accomplished violinist – when two white men persuaded him to join them on an entertainment tour and helped him secure papers to certify him as a free black man. Northrup woke one day without those papers, chained in a slave pen, having been drugged and delivered to a slave trader. Northrup’s insistence that he was a free man was met with a flogging that nearly killed him. Sold at an auction block within sight of the White House, he spent the next 12 years abused by a series of plantation owners. His family searched for him fruitlessly: the slave trader had changed his name to “Platt” to deceive anyone trying to find and free him.

The man who finally did free him was a white Southerner who opposed slavery. He helped Northrup send letters to Northerners to confirm his status as a free man, and showed up one day with a sheriff to free him. Reunited with his family, Northrup became a fervent abolitionist, giving talks about his experience throughout the Northeast to gain support for the movement.

Why hadn’t I known about enslaved people’s resistance, or about the thousands of slaves who managed to escape? Why had I absorbed only their victimhood? Back in the 1950s, most textbooks focused on the politics and economics of slavery, ignoring the human cost. I grew up viewing slaves as degraded by their experience ala Gone with the Wind, just as I viewed Jews as compliant when herded into boxcars and gassed in ovens.

Just after reading Northrup’s harrowing tale, I read similarly eye-opening accounts of Holocaust survivors, including A Train in Winter: An Extraordinary Story of Women, Friendship, and Resistance in Occupied France. Caroline Moorehead documents how ordinary women in concentration camps resisted their captors and devised ways to help each other survive. They made paste that would put color in an ill woman’s face so she wouldn’t be “selected” for execution. They documented the Nazi’s atrocities on stolen paper that they hid in cracks between bunks. One woman, assigned to help with an experiment on the uterus of a Jewish woman, instead drugged her, reported that she was dead, and smuggled her into another camp. Assigned to forced labor in munitions factories, they committed small acts of sabotage, loosening screws, mixing salt into grease, dropping fragile equipment, and burning out motors: “We did all we could to be “intelligently stupid.”

Enslaved people resisted in parallel ways. They “forgot” to put out fires, sabotaged equipment, feigned illness, ran away for weeks — returning only when guaranteed better treatment. Some resorted to mutilating themselves, to suicide, or to killing their children to save them from life in bondage.

Accounts of survivors of both slavery and the Holocaust are testaments to the dignity and agency of people deemed less than human. “Those who were defined by law and custom as less than human literally wrote themselves into human existence,” writes scholar Richard Newman. We need these stories to balance our images of victims with counter images of resilience and resistance. And to know what forms of resistance we, too, are capable of, when humanity requires it in the face of inhumanity.

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My new booklet of racism-related essays http://www.barbarabeckwith.net/2012/10/23/my-new-booklet-of-racism-related-essays/ http://www.barbarabeckwith.net/2012/10/23/my-new-booklet-of-racism-related-essays/#comments Tue, 23 Oct 2012 19:29:43 +0000 http://www.barbarabeckwith.net/?p=317 My 2nd booklet of personal essays, Was I Thinking? Digging Deeper into Everyday Racism is just out and available from my distributor. The racial justice publisher Crandall, Dostie and Douglass Books sells it for $8.95 at www.cddbooks.com. Same price for my first booklet, What Was I Thinking? Reflecting on Everyday Racism (2010).
Here’s the Table of Contents fr my 2nd booklet:

Word Wealth: Messages From My Vocabulary Book: I looked back at my junior high school vocabulary book, Word Wealth, to see what words I learned back then, and what else I may have absorbed, unintentionally.
What IS This about Bloodlines? I had looked down on people who pursue their family trees and DNA test results – until I discovered what I was missing.
Reading My Mother: Eugenics, Race and Foster Care: After reading my mother’s 1920s college paper and 1930s orphanage report, I thought they showed her to be a bigot. When I read more closely, I saw something quite different.
My Circuitous Path toward Cultural Respect: I assumed that to be “culturally competent,” I’d need to learn everything about ‘other’ cultures. But I’ve found a simpler route: cultural humility.
Keeping My Integrity AND an Open Mind: As I learn to listen intensely to others’ experiences, how do I stay honest to my own, although possibly flawed, understanding of reality?
Seeing Institutional Racism: Where IS It? I seek to uncover hidden racism in health care, transportation, and sports, but seeing clearly is not always so easy.
Giving Jargon Its Due: I rebelled against the unfamiliar words used by my fellow racial justice activists, especially academics, until I realized that to change people’s thinking, we may need to create such new words.
Books that Matter to Me: I recommend these 18 books published between 2010 and 2012, written by white authors and by authors of color, in genres ranging from non-fiction and memoir, to novels, poetry, and personal testimony.

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Reconciled to Jargon http://www.barbarabeckwith.net/2011/04/30/reconciled-to-jargon-3/ http://www.barbarabeckwith.net/2011/04/30/reconciled-to-jargon-3/#comments Sat, 30 Apr 2011 17:46:24 +0000 http://www.barbarabeckwith.net/?p=238 Several years ago, when I sat on the diversity committee of the National Writers Union, we asked anyone attending our caucus to introduce him or herself as either a “person of color,” an LGBT person, a person with a disability — or an ally of one or all of the above.

I happily introduced myself as white, straight, “temporarily able-bodied,” and as an ally to all three of what we called “target groups.” But our in-group language turned some people off. Several refused to label themselves: they wanted to just sit and observe. Our caucus organizers insisted. Those otherwise sympathetic attendees never came to another meeting. Accusations of “nomenclature puritanism” and “oppression competitivness” followed. Mutual respect went down the drain. Ever since, I’ve been leery of jargon.

Now, as I try to understand persistent racial inequality in the U.S., I find myself reading dense books that are full of in-group language. The authors mix words I know in mystifying combinations like “racial touristing,” “aversive racism,” or “the racialized other.” They also create “neologisms” — academic lingo for new words such as  “positionality,” interiority,” “overprivilege” or “cyberwhitening.” My computer’s spell checker flags each of these as not words — seems that getting a PhD these days requires thinking up new words as well as new ideas.  

Ordinarily, I’d bypass books that use such terminology. And yet, I’ve been hanging in there: racism is too important to turn away from just because those who study it most closely use language that turns me off.

After a year of reading brain-straining books, however, I looked forward to an upcoming conference aimed at grassroots anti-racist people – my type of folks. But even then, confusing codewords cropped up. Take the conference title: “White Privilege,” a term that was once code for KKK attitudes: anti-racists now use it to name advantages for some that should be rights for all.

Some workshop titles with unfamiliar terms like microaggression, code-switching, and nadanolization, intimidated me. But I attended them anyway and did learn a lot. I even came home with a t-shirt that I chose for its bright blue color, tolerating its jargony saying on the back: “Interrogate your hidden assumptions.”

In fact, I’m finding that yes, jargon can be alienating, but it can also be catching. I’m starting to use it myself. I now co-lead an adult education course that talks of “systemic white privilege” as the underlying cause of racial inequality. To make that abstract idea real, we use an image from anti-racist educator Peggy McIntosh, of an invisible knapsack that gives white people, wherever they go, assumed credibility in intelligence, honesty, beauty, and access to people in power.

As I get comfortable with anti-racist terminology, I’m sometimes caught up short. Like the time I was shoveling snow with my neighbor and friend, who knows about my class. As we toss shovels full of snow from street to yard, the conversation turns to race. “I can’t stand it when folks say Black people can’t be racist,” he says. “Black people can’t be racist because they lack institutional power? That’s bunk.”

I am taken aback. He’s African American, and I take his perspective seriously. I’m one of the folks he’s objecting to.

I frankly admit that in my class, I use the definition of racism that’s currently prevalent in anti-racist circles: racism = race prejudice plus power. I try to defend the concept that without the backing of significant institutionalized power to oppress, prejudice is just prejudice, not racism. But he’s not having it, and I realize that I’m arguing for a cutting-edge theory that makes so much sense to those who use it, but which makes no sense to almost everybody else.

I’ve since tried to avoid anti-racist terminology that I’d gotten used to using — trigger words, target groups, code-switching, matrix of domination — but which elicits from most people a “huh?”

Jargon that’s grounded in the day-to-day is still okay by me. Take “gate-keeping,” a phrase that’s widespread in anti-racist circles. Yes, it’s jargon, but at least I can picture a gate, and a person who latches it or unlatches it. The metaphor works for me. It helps me see how people like myself have power to keep gates to closed to people unlike ourselves or to open those gates of opportunity to everyone – in our workplaces, our schools, or our neighborhoods.

I particularly welcome fresh images that give me new perspectives. W.E.B. Dubois’ visionary “double consciousness…. the sense of always looking at oneself through the eyes of others” shows me what it means to be Black in America. Ralph Ellison’s metaphor of the “invisible man” — “because people refuse to see me” — shifts my outlook, as well. And when Beverly Daniel Tatum describes “cultural racism” as an unhealthy fog that we — people of all colors –can’t see but we breathe in daily, I get her point.

So the next time I come up against a catchphrase, for instance “the problem is not Black underprivilege, but white overprivilege,” I’ll ignore my spell checker’s  irritation, and my own. Instead, I’ll look anew at what’s right, what’s wrong, and what we need to change.

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Integrity and an Open Mind http://www.barbarabeckwith.net/2011/04/30/integrity-and-an-open-mind/ http://www.barbarabeckwith.net/2011/04/30/integrity-and-an-open-mind/#comments Sat, 30 Apr 2011 17:40:58 +0000 http://www.barbarabeckwith.net/?p=236 Here I am, trying to move past my white-bread mindset, in hope of being able to listen with an open mind to the perspectives of people of color.  At the same time, I think of Shakespeare’s “To thine own self be true, and thou canst not be false to any man” and I wonder: how do I keep an open mind and my integrity, knowing how deeply flawed my “honest” reactions may be?

I faced this quandry when a friend of Korean heritage (I’ll call her Chang-sook) told me about a disturbing aspect of her experience in my city’s schools.  As a substitute art teacher, she’d expected her students would challenge her authority. But she did not anticipate what felt like a barrage of ethnic insults, from “ching chang chong” gibberish and eye-stretching into slits,  to remarks such as “go eat pork fried rice” and “konnichiwa ” said with a sneer.

What bothered her more than the behavior itself was the absence of sanctions. In just one school, the principal took unequivocal action: the student who called her “chink” was immediately suspended, and allowed back only after a satisfactory apology.  But at a different school, the student who called her “a slant-eyed bitch” got a mere talking to. As did another who made a veiled threat about having a knife in his pocket.

Out of frustration, Chang-sook compiled a list of 18 questions to which she would not respond to questions such as “Do you eat with chopsticks?” “Were you born here?” “Are you Japanese or Chinese?” She gave out the list in her classes, but her strategy backfired. The taunts escalated.

Fed up, my teacher friend took her complaints to the school system’s human resources office where, to her disappointment, she was met with inaction and “kids will be kids” dismissiveness.

Out of frustration, she wrote a letter to the local newspaper. The editor turned her complaint into a feature article, highlighting her dismay that most of the taunts came from Black male students who, she felt, ought to know better. The newspaper’s next issue printed a two-page spread of students’ “You’re the racist!” letters.

We met for coffee to talk over her upsetting experience, and Chang-sook acknowledged right off that her don’t-ask-me list was a big mistake. That misstep aside, however, she was sure that speaking out as she had done was justified.

To get some perspective on her account, I pictured it from another angle. Let’s say that a Jewish teacher’s students pepper him with “What kind of a name is that?” “Are you Arab, Jewish, or what?” “Were you born here?” “Why do you wear those little caps on the back of your head?” “Do you know Hollywood bigwigs?” “What do you think about Israel?”

And what if they were to call the teacher a kike?

As a former teacher, familiar with behavior control strategies, I found myself wondering: couldn’t Chang-sook have responded to her students’ stereotyped questions with pedagogical counter questions? How about, for instance: “No, I’m not Japanese or Chinese. How many other Asian countries can you name? If you can come up with five other Asian nationalities, I’ll tell you where I’m from.”

I offered this strategic alternative, but Chang-sook would have none of it. She’d seen a wrong and would not stand for it. Our conversation got heated and perked up the ears of nearby latte-drinkers.

Then she told me that several Asian-American parents had privately thanked her for speaking out. They told her that their children were frequently harassed, with no consequences to the harassers. So I had to acknowledge that there was a serious problem, one that needed a whistleblower — someone like outspoken Chan-sook.

By the time we left the coffee shop, I had offered, if it came to a discrimination hearing, to testify on her behalf.

 

In retrospect, I can see that my “what if ” caveats had clouded my ability to see a wrong that needed righting. My temporizing was like a fog that takes time to dissipate.

On another occasion, I managed to quickly grasp the distress provoked by a speaker’s remark at a National Writers Union program I’d organized. The guest presenter, a children’s book editor who was white, told the assembled audience that she welcomed multicultural submissions, “but only if they’re good.” One African American audience member was so outraged by the comment that she wrote a letter to the publishing company president. Her complaint was to no avail: the CEO responded by assuring her of his editor’s good intentions. This time, I had enough racial awareness to back up the union member. I contacted the guest speaker herself to make clear why an African American writer might be insulted by the editor’s suggestion that she might deliberately submit an inferior manuscript, hoping to get “a pass.”

I could “see through the fog” as well, when a white colleague posted a story on the Web about an African immigrant, emphasizing the blackness of his body in a way that some readers considered racist. I knew of my friend’s committed relationship to her city’s Sudanese community and did not think her racist. But I managed to explain to her why her wording could offend others.

Yet I did not immediately sign on when my union took a stand supporting re-trial for Black Power radio journalist Mumia Abu-Jamal, sentenced to death for the murder of a police officer. I knew that Black men are often set up, especially if they’ve exposed police misconduct, as he had done. But I’m a journalist: I need evidence.

So I read both the prosecution’s case and the defense’s: both were murky. The one clarity I had was that the prosecutors used Abu-Jamal’s political views during the penalty phase of his trial to argue that that he should be put to death. At the time, I saw the core issue as freedom of expression: I added my name to the union’s statement supporting retrial on that basis. Today, I would sign on as a death penalty opponent, my eyes having been opened to pervasive inequities, racial and otherwise, in death penalty sentencing.

But I can still see only so far. A small incident made me realize how narrow my vision still is. I was asked to be on a panel discussing  a Black writer’s short stories. To help audience members who might not have read the stories being discussed, I composed plot summaries to hand out. The author had done the same, so we used hers as handouts.

But later, when I compared our two versions, I was humbled. Mine had viewed each storyline as racial, while the author described her themes more broadly — as human dilemmas.

I’m reminded of what African American scholar W.E.B. Dubois called the Negro’s “double vision” — the sense of seeing yourself as American, but also as someone white people view with pity and disdain, leaving you longing for a single vision of a true self. I, too, yearn for a truer self, as I struggle, not with double vision, but with partial sight.

It’s not easy, peering through white fog.

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Everything You Need to Know About … http://www.barbarabeckwith.net/2011/04/30/everything-you-need-to-know-about/ http://www.barbarabeckwith.net/2011/04/30/everything-you-need-to-know-about/#comments Sat, 30 Apr 2011 17:35:41 +0000 http://www.barbarabeckwith.net/?p=233 When I became determined to free myself of group stereotypes based on ignorance, I first tried a shortcut, reading book with titles like Everything You Need to Know About Latino History, Everything You Need to Know About Asian American History, 100 Things Everyone Should Know about African Americans, or The Arab-American Handbook.

As for Native Americans, I’d read Tony Hillerman mysteries set on Southwestern reservations and thereby thought myself in the know about Navaho and Hopi cultures.

So when I made a date to speak to the head of Harvard’s Native studies center, I readied myself to shake hands with respectful limpness, as Hillerman’s Native characters did , and to speak in a soft, unmodulated voice to the person I expected to be soft-spoken, and pictured as wearing long braids and turquoise jewelry.

Instead, I was met by a hearty ‘Hi, how are ya?” from a young man with African American features, and a hip and casual style. So much for my attempts to learn a culture via short-cuts.

Years later, having graduated from book to real-life learning, I filled out a racial knowledge inventory from Overcoming Our Racism: The Journey to Liberation, by Derald Wing Sue. By now, I was more genuinely familiar with the cultures and norms of various heritage groups. I knew the meaning of Nisei, La Raza, the “one-drop rule,” and the infamous Tuskegee Experiment: I aced the test. Finally, I thought, I’m culturally competent – the buzzword for knowing all there is to know about cultures other than one’s one.

But in retrospect, by thinking so, I revealed myself to be at a dangerous blind spot in my journey toward multicultural respect. Yes, the cultural competency formula had become de rigueur in the medical field, as doctors and nurses studied various cultures’ ideas about health and illness, pain and pills, but it was now reversing itself. Cultural competency was now considered a trap. If you memorize how  Italians, Latinos,  Middle Easterners, Native Americans, African Americans or Cambodians tend to deal with pain, you may miss how the particular person you are treating deals with pain. Looking for imagined norms, it turned out, was likely to miss individual realities.

So a new idea had emerged, called cultural humility. What a doctor, teacher, social worker, or plain person like myself needs to know is our own assumptions, norms and prejudices. How do I interpret quietness, crying, criticism or eye contact? Sure, it helps to know that some Middle Eastern people may consider cross-gender touching improper. But it is more important for me to know how my words, my voice, my gestures, my expectations may affect my thoughts and behavior toward whoever I’m dealing with.

In other words, to be culturally savvy, I need to study everything there is to know about —myself.

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Reconciled to Jargon http://www.barbarabeckwith.net/2011/04/04/reconciled-to-jargon-2/ http://www.barbarabeckwith.net/2011/04/04/reconciled-to-jargon-2/#comments Tue, 05 Apr 2011 00:52:20 +0000 http://www.barbarabeckwith.net/?p=228 Several years ago, when I sat on the diversity committee of the National Writers Union, we asked anyone attending our caucus to introduce him or herself as either a “person of color,” an LGBT person, a person with a disability — or an ally of one or all of the above.

I happily introduced myself as white, straight, “temporarily able-bodied,” and as an ally to all three of what called “target groups.” Some attendees, however, refused to label themselves: they wanted to just sit and observe. Our caucus organizers insisted.

Accusations of “nomenclature puritanism” and “oppression competitivenss” followed. Mutual respect and support went down the drain. Ever since, I’ve been leery of jargon: I’d seen how in-group language can turn people off.

Now, as I try to understand persistent racial inequality in the U.S., I find myself reading books that are full of in-group language. The authors mix words I know in mystifying combinations like “racial touristing,” “aversive racism,” or “the racialized other.” They also create new words — “neologisms,” in academic lingo, such as “positionality,” interiority,” “overprivilege” or “cyberwhitening.” My computer’s spell checker flags each of these as not words — seems that my spell checker needs updating.

Ordinarily, I’d bypass books that use such terminology. And yet, I’ve been hanging in there: racism is too important to turn away from just because those who study it most closely use language that turns me off.

After a year of reading brain-straining books, however, I looked forward to an upcoming conference aimed at grassroots anti-racist people – my type of folks. But even then, confusing codewords cropped up. Take the conference title: White Privilege, a term that was once code for KKK attitudes: anti-racists now use it to name advantages for some that should be rights for all.

Some workshop titles with unfamiliar terms like microaggression, code-switching, and nadanolization, intimidated me. But I attended them anyway and did learn a lot. I even came home with a t-shirt that I chose for its bright blue color, tolerating its jargony saying on the back: “Interrogate your hidden assumptions.”

In fact, I’m finding that yes, jargon can be alienating, but it can also be catching. I’m starting to use it myself. I now co-lead an adult education course that talks of “systemic white privilege” as the underlying cause of racial inequality. To make that abstract idea real, we use an image from anti-racists educator Peggy McIntosh, of an invisible knapsack that gives white people, wherever they go, assumed credibility in intelligence, honesty, beauty, and access to people in power.

As I get comfortable with anti-racist terminology, I’m sometimes caught up short. Like the time I was shoveling snow with my neighbor and friend, who knows about my class. As we toss shovels full of snow from street to yard, the conversation turns to race. “I can’t stand it when folks say Black people can’t be racist,” he says. “Black people can’t be racist because they lack institutional power? That’s bunk.”

I am taken aback. He’s African American, and I take his perspective seriously. I’m one of the folks he’s objecting to.

I frankly admit” I use that definition, racism = race prejudice plus power, in my class.” I try to defend the concept that without the backing of significant institutionalized power to oppress, prejudice is just prejudice, not racism. But he’s not having it, and I realize that I’m arguing for a cutting-edge theory that makes so much sense to those who use it, but which makes no sense to almost everybody else.

I’ve since tried to avoid anti-racist terminology that I’d gradually gotten used to: like trigger words, target groups, code-switching, and matrix of domination.

But jargon that’s grounded in the day-to-day is still okay by me. Take “gate-keeping,” a phrase that’s widespread in anti-racist circles. Yes, it’s jargon, but at least I can picture a gate, and a person who latches it or unlatches it. The metaphor works for me. It helps me see how people like myself have power to keep gates to closed to people unlike ourselves or to open those gates of opportunity to everyone – in our workplaces, our schools, or our neighborhoods.

I particularly welcome fresh images that give me new perspectives. W.E.B. Dubois’ visionary “double consciousness…. the sense of always looking at oneself through the eyes of others” shows me what it means to be Black in America. Ralph Ellison’s metaphor of the “invisible man” — “because people refuse to see me” — shifts my outlook, as well. And when Beverly Daniel Tatum describes “cultural racism” as unhealthy fog that we — people of all colors –can’t see but we breathe in daily, I get her point.

So the next time I come up against a catchphrase, for instance “the problem is not Black underprivilege, but white overprivilege,” I’ll ignore my spell checker’s irritation, and my own. Instead, I’ll look anew at what’s right, what’s wrong, and what we need to change.

“Reconciled to Jargon,” appears in the Understanding and Dismantling Privilege issue (Vol. 3, no. 1) of the online White Privilege Conference journal, http://wpcjournal.com/. Scroll down to Creative Work and Self-Reflection.

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