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Doing Something About Racism

I’m still mulling over my post about what people can do to help eliminate racism. It’s a good question, but a very involved one. I want to make sure I get it right.

But one thing I do want to discuss is something that comes up regularly in comments here and elsewhere (see this LJ entry* and a subsequent comment* by the original poster for an example). The notion that blogging/writing about/discussing race and racism isn’t actually doing something. It’s… well, I’m not sure what these people think these actions are if not deeds. I guess they feel writing is equivalent to talking and everyone knows that talking about something is different from doing.

Except when it’s not.

When considering what people can do about racism, the first thing that comes to my mind is disseminating information. Educate people who have no clue about privilege, disadvantages, oppression, and subtle racism. Point out their blind spots. Explain your particular experience and views so that others can begin to understand. That, to me, is the place to start from. And if talking qua writing qua educating is not doing something, then what exactly is there to be done? Should I put on a play? Oh wait, that requires writing. How about having a march? Oh no, that requires talking. Fine, how about I just blow something up? That’s the ticket! Explosives for tolerance. Works every time.

Seriously, I am asking all those in the world who feel that blogging/writing/talking/educating isn’t enough or is a waste of time, what should we be doing, instead?


*ETA: the original poster has friendslocked (hidden) the entry in question. The comment I objected to in said post was:  “Blog against racism week. Can’t stand it. Can’t even get up the energy to complain about it” and the later comment was: “Well, do something about racism and then blog about it week would have required Too Much Effort.”

29 comments to Doing Something About Racism

  • Ericka

    Hey ABW,

    I think the problem is that people often *don’t* see writing or talking as educating. They see those activities as isolated self-involved acts instead of as communication.

    I think there’s an attitude that writers are either infallible impartial super-humans or they are wanking.

    The first attitude leads to the belief that any journalist who misses a fact in a story or gets something wrong is awful and biased and shouldn’t be doing that job. The second attitude leads to the belief that blogging or writing essays (especially on the web, which isn’t taken as seriously as print, I believe) isn’t “doing something” even though you can reach a much larger audience on the web than otherwise.

    -E

  • Jackie M.

    Well. My blood pressure is back down under 120/80. So I guess I might as well have a whack at asking that particular blogger to clarify…

  • I’ve read a couple of things this week by non poc prompted by IBARW and they kind of beg the question “Is this helping?” because some of them are just rehashings of things those people wonder about themselves, or rhetorical questions about whether hiring Mexican dishwashers is racist, and I cannot have those conversations again.

    However, I have been exposed to so many amazing writers (via your blog, which I was linked to via who knows where), and IBARW has exposed me to tons of amazing ideas and IDEAS can change the world, despite what the can’t be bothered think.

    Knowing that a different way is possible is a part of being an agent of change. So while I see some lousy blogging not changing much, people are trying things they don’t used to (and in your case and many others, doing what they already do against racism).

    I’m totally excited and inspired by some of what I’ve read this week.

  • filmicfoto

    My first post.

    Unfortunately ABW, most people don’t see what artist & writers do, as “helping others”. Unless the “helping” is physical in nature, most would rather see you as selfish – especially if you are a black woman. I am told by my family members that I am selfish because I don’t spend all day doing busywork for other people. As an artist/writer, I believe I am giving to others – new awarenesses, theories, ideas, identification, affirmation, beauty…

    So what are you doing about racism? You’re helping similar ABWs feel less isolated, more sane in an insane and unfair world. From one ABW to another, your blog let’s me know there are others like me. For a long time, I felt I was the only one.

    Thank you for existing.

  • Jackie M.

    I tried to get Chance to clarify, but no dice. Maybe go for blood would work better, because that felt… totally pointless.

    You wanna take a crack?

  • OK, I think I see both sides of this. On one hand, there’s no question that writing and art are important, and that antiracist writing gives people inspiration and hope, and spreads ideas and information.

    On the other hand, most people in the world and many in this country still don’t have access to the internet. And blogging, though it certainly has its place, isn’t by itself going to stop (to pick an example from Philadelphia, where I live) the police from shooting African-American kids on the street. An organized, multiracial campaign to hold the cops accountable for their actions would be much more effective. Blogging can help to build that movement, but probably not as much as community organizing on the ground in neighborhoods will. And when that movement does get off the ground, it’ll need writing and art to help it along.

    …my $.02…

  • I am going to be totally biased, since I obviously think blogging does help, otherwise I wouldn’t have helped with IBARW.

    The part I keep getting hung up on is the “instead.” Because yes, if you have to choose between blogging and organizing a campaign to help fund the Jena Six, frex, the second will have a larger “real-world” impact. On the other hand, I don’t think it is an “instead.” What I’ve been seeing is that people get more involved by doing small things first and then moving on to larger ones; change happens a little at a time.

    I know for me, if I hadn’t started blogging about this, I wouldn’t be deliberately reading up on racist things happening right now, and if I weren’t doing that, I wouldn’t know how to help in the “real world.”

  • therealpotato – I definitely agree that blogging/writing/education alone cannot ‘solve’ racism. There are always many components to fighting racism, and some of them have to occur in the world and not on the page. Still, I object to the notion that writing and educating is doing NOTHING. It’s doing something and, in conjunction with other efforts, make a difference. :)

  • ABW, it sounds like we’re on the same page. I agree with you. It’s a dialectical process, right? Writing/education/art feed movements, which then produce more writing/education/art… dismissing one or the other is missing the point!

    Also, for the record, I certainly think we all have a responsibility to fight racism in our own little corners of the internet, as well– safe space is important. Which is why it warms my heart that there’s such a community of people who care about racism and sexism in sci-fi. For years I used to think I was the only one! :)

  • I agree with those who think the problem lies in our cultural obsession with “talking” =/= “doing”. I just had a student in my office today who said her parents wouldn’t let her read Harry Potter 7 because they’re opposed to fiction — all fiction — on the grounds that it’s a waste of time. It was an attitude that shocked me, but it shouldn’t; the same attitude is behind the gradual erasure of art and music programs from our public schools….

    …er, but that’s a digression. Sorry.

    But all that aside, I think talking about racism serves several purposes, all of which “do” good things:

    -Yes, it preaches to the converted. But as every church in this country has discovered, preaching to the converted helps to keep the converted on-target and energized to go forth and do whatever they’re supposed to be doing. IBARW encourages me to keep fighting when ignorant or hateful people begin to wear me down. Seeing that I’m not alone encourages me.

    -By the same token, preaching arms the converted with weapons to go forth and convert others. I’ve used many of the definitions (“racism = prejudice + power”), terminology (agency), and concepts (empowerment) that I’ve learned in online discussions to help convince others.

    -Talking about racism raises awareness about issues. If people want to ignore racism when they see it, that’s their business — but they *will* know it’s there, because of people like the IBARW participants. They can’t claim they didn’t see it; they can’t pretend it doesn’t exist (though they can of course deny it). That makes them less likely to do more of the same in the future, if only to avoid unwelcome attention from people like me. =P

    -In these days of the internet, talking about something and getting others talking about it has the power of collective action. You’d better believe that corporate marketers and government agencies pay attention to what gets said in the blogosphere — they’d be stupid not to, because at the moment it’s the best finger on the pulse of the common person (let’s see how many cliches I can fit in here…) there is. And while an individual blog is a tin whistle in an 80-piece orchestra, a lot of blogs together can be heard, and (maybe) even change the overall tune.

    So those are my reasons.

  • Love this. Thank you!

    I think one of the issues is that many people are accustomed to only understanding action in terms of political economy, distribution of resources, unequal rights legislation and the like.

    They don’t get that injustice is also about ideologies, symbols, language, culture, etc. All of these things manage what we believe, what we think is true, what is acceptable and unacceptable, what conversations we’re even having or not having, who we recognize as human. And writing and art are actually one of the most useful ways to address this kind of injustice.

    But I think you’re also correct in identifying the writing-isn’t-doing-anything shit as yet another way of shutting down conversation.

  • If you didn’t write then a lot of people wouldn’t be changing their views on things. Well, at least one person. Thanks. Don’t give up.

  • [Momentary board jack]

    I just had a student in my office today who said her parents wouldn’t let her read Harry Potter 7 because they’re opposed to fiction — all fiction — on the grounds that it’s a waste of time.

    Wha-wha-WHAAAT?!!!

    [/board jack]

  • I’m with Oyce on this one, it’s not an either/or situation. One can both write and take direct action. For example, during my first-year at U.Va the on Grounds “Living Wage” movement kicked into high gear. There were many editorials in the school paper and plenty of flyering – to build awareness and encourage people to investigate the issues for themselves – and at the same time, direct action. Demonstrations, rallies, sit-ins, and whatnot. For their to be effective change, you need both, and people who ridicule writing and awareness building or sorely mistaken.

  • Well, how are people thinking racism evolved? It wasn’t through actions; it was through ideas. Actions are great, but there is nothing you can DO that will open someone’s mind and perhaps actually change how they think (and act). There are ideas you can present that might just do that.

    And at worst, there are a lot of people who follow the crowd. If enough non-racists shout loud enough to feel like a majority, some people will at least stop behaving as racists (not that you can rely on the convictions of such persons, as they don’t have any, but still).

  • Kit

    I think the writing and the artists come first. I am trying to make a difference on the streets but if I don’t have a handle on the complexity of the problem than I may be a tool for the wrong side. You are helping allies do some serious unpacking and I thank you for your effort.

  • Well, it has to be talked about and writing is doing something.

    I think the strong argument against “just talking/writing/blogging” is about feel-good talk among white people, where the main conclusion is, “we are hipper than those other, bad white people.” That’s what this article by Sara Ahmad on the “non-performativity” of anti-racism is about:
    http://www.borderlandsejournal.adelaide.edu.au/vol3no2_2004/ahmed_declarations.htm

  • You need to go look at the latest post on David Anthony Durham’s blog; he has an amazing post about “reading color blind” and the basic impossibility of that statement. Brilliant!

  • profacero, thanks for posting the Ahmad piece. It raises some important questions about a project I’ve been fairly invested in (critical whiteness stuff).

  • The posts on racism, including those linking to this blog, have helped in pointing the way on how to educate myself. That is doing something.

  • i think getting in positions of power in your respective field and starting programs, producing product,etc. that helps educate, as well as personally talking and helping people you meet. combine these things with your blog to further expand your fight. also you have to be able deal with all types of people, not throwing them out because of their views just cause it’s too ignorant or wrong, but showing them that they’re ignorant or wrong. the best bet is to follow the methods of the civil rights leaders of the past. what they did obviously worked so it’s a good starting point.

    any movement needs to find ways to get huge masses behind them. now in today’s culture where most people truly don’t think anythings wrong with racial relations, it’s going to be hard (which i know all of you are aware of).

    in the end i think actions in conjunction with words is a good combo.

  • E

    I shamefully admit to having said to a friend that blogging isn’t doing anything, although the topic in question then was far removed from race. I said that she was probably just preaching to the choir, and also opined that a larger audience would be needed to have any real impact. (I still think the latter objection was valid, if tangential, as I’m pretty sure the only people reading were her friends.) It also bothered me that she spent a good amount of time blogging but none on any other efforts.

    I’ve never thought that about Blog Against Racism week, though, for a couple of reasons; first, it seems like a community thing, rather than a single person’s isolated posts, and second, I’m not really part of the choir, since I’m white, but I’m reading a large percentage of the posts and finding them eye-opening. I think it’s a great thing you all are doing, and I would be participating if I had a blog.

    Perhaps I owe my friend an apology.

  • Hi there! A book that answers at least part of this question recently came out in paperback. It’s called Silent Racism. It’s basically about how even well-meaning white people contribute to racism which is the sort of thing that ultimately leads to racism at the institutional level. In fact, the book argues that there is no such thing as “not racist”, because even whites with good intentions have unconscious biases that are built into American culture. It’s fascinating. The author’s web site is silentracism.com if anyone’s interested in checking it out.

  • GJ

    I love this blog! So many viewpoints to consider. Since we’re just talking here, let’s explore the idea that our world could be a better place. Imagine everyone contributing to social and economic progress. I know that racism exists everywhere. So let’s approach this simply like an PR campaign. Let’s put out a consistent message. The message is that we CAN participate. No uncertainty in the message. Imagine a Crest toothpaste ad saying, “we think your dentist would recommend our product” because “we think it will work”. Nope, “we will be great contributors”, “hard working, helpful participants” and “respected in society for our achievements”. Honestly, I’m blind to color differences when I meet someone who really believes in themselves and exhibits these qualities.

  • Hello ABW:

    I actually found your website by doing some research on GEICO and their use of the Caveman. I happen to work in the marketing and sales area for one of their competitors. I will offer some comments on our perception(s) of their advertisements in another blog. I was sorry to see some of the horrendous comments made by some on that subject.

    It is with great interest that I read this section. It seems I am coming aboard late as these posts stopped in late August. Nonetheless, I would like to comment on some practical ways to combat racism.

    1) Educate yourself regardless of your backgorund. (Examples: If you are Anglo-Caucasian, then go over to the African-American Studies area of the bookstore and read. If you are of East Asian descent, read about Latin Americans in the U.S. May I also humbly add that nearly everyone can benefit from learning about the experiences of interracial couples and families in the U.S. – by the way, this is an area where most people, regardless of race and ethnicity, still fear to tread.

    2) This relates to the first one. Professors in many disciplines will challenge their students to “lay all their presuppositions (prejudices, opinions, beliefs, etc.) out on the table” before engaging in study. Review those presuppositions you wrote down six months after study.

    3) This relates to the first two comments. Reading and studying are safe – while they give you tools for change, they do not require you to change. Find a public university in your area that has student groups and professors who meet, engage in honest dialogue, and have public service opportunties. The reason I say “public” is because it is taxpayer-funded and you have as much right to be there as you do in a public library. Private universities can (and sometimes do) discriminate – but many will welcome you.

    4) Do not discount the non-profit sectors – The shelters for homeless, battered, abuse people – Places of worship that focus their outreach efforts on people of all backgrounds -Community Centers and camps that are geared towards reaching children by promoting a positive self-image, physical fitness, and a healthy lifestyle. The difference you make in settings like these may or may not be visible to you, but it will reveal things in your heart and life.

    5) Whether for leisure. education, or charity, travel outside the United States at least once in your lifetime. 80% of the U.S. population will never travel outside the U.S. in their lifetime(s).

    6) Realize that racism does take on many forms: From the attitudes that individuals and groups have to the institutionalized structures of discrmination that still exist. And, it is impossible to have been born and raised in the United States without being affected in one way or another by racism. The same goes for most other nations, however.

    7) I will repeat some advice that I have been given by those who are wiser and better looking than me: a) Never think too highly of what little you actually know when interacting with people with different backgrounds than you. b) Regardless of any pain or suffering you have endured, do not fall prey to believing you hold the market share. c) Always examine your beliefs – the things you consider worth living for should be the same as those you conisder worth dying for.

    ABW, my apology for the length of my comments.

    All the best,

    Adam

  • Jordan

    Wll blck ppl r gnrnt nd stpd. dnt pl th ptt gm nd f wrnt n trbl y wldnt b gttng rrstd. Blck ppl s wht ppl r rcst wll f ddnt p txs fr yr blck ss wldnt hv prblm. Bt p txs s y s blck ppl cn st n yr ss nd hv vrythng hndd t y. Y shld b trtd lk mmgrnts f y hv vrythng gvn t y n lf. Wll thts m pn by

  • Namae

    This topic is extremely relevant in our area of the country, Southern California. As an educator, I have thought and talked at length to children in nearly every grade level about racism. What I have observed is that ideas begin to solidify by 4th or 5th grade. By high school it is nearly impossible to change a negative view, no matter how many wonderful lessons or assemblies are presented. It’s frustrating. I can almost always tell how important the race issue is in the child’s home by subtle statements from students. Clearly, the home is the primary source of negativity.

    So what can be done? My suggestion is to start young but not only the way it is done currently. We have an overwhelming curriculum devoted to making everyone feel important- the emphasis being on differences rather than similarities. When I was a child, attending school in this current district, things were very different. We were still under the pressure of the “Melting Pot” idea set. It is my absolute belief that this directly led to the increase in iamount of inter-racial / inter-ethnic marriages in this county and the adjacent one. (Some studies I have read report figures close to 40% of all marriages are inter-something!) It was drilled into our minds that we were all Americans and should follow one set of rules regardless.

    Now, things are different. Excuses are made for everything including every failure. Priveleges are given to some groups disproportionately causing resentment. Sound familiar? Only the tables are turned, different groups. The pendulum on acceptable prejudice has swung the other way. Students frequently think it is acceptable to attack “majority” students. Since when is it ever acceptable to attack on basis of color / ethnicity?

    I respect that some people believe action must be taken. But what action?? Here, in Southern California, the wrong kind of actions are taking us further from the goal of tolerance! Instead, we should be embracing how similar all Americans are rather than focusing solely on differences, we will move in the right direction! Regardless of color, these people need to understand how they are more alike the people in their own neighborhood/ city than some ancestral group. Besides, what happens to all those “mixed” children? I try to emphasize that love may eventually conquer many of these problems.

    Personally, I’m tired of the ATTACK! ATTACK! mentality.

    I will end on this thought even though I was primarily focusing on the issue from the point of view that we want people to be well adjusted Americans. The biggest new threat is not Black / White at all.

  • A.

    I generally agree with that, however, it ignores the fact that different cultures exist in America.

    People should not have to give up themselves just to feed onto some American idea of “The Melting Pot” which will do nothing more than slap them in the face anyway because they are “the other.”

    Teaching sameness is basically an excuse not to have to teach or embrace cultural differences. There is nothing wrong with cultural differences, and a big problem that plagues America is that people think that there is a problem with anything different. We are not all going to live the same way, and to teach children otherwise does them a disservice when they get older – and manifests to a form of ethnocentrism.