Wednesday, September 4, 2013

A Love Letter to Middle Class White Folks

My beloved middle-class* white brothers and sisters,

I’ve been having hard conversations with many of you about race and racism.  It’s been made harder by the fact that we often have a very different understanding of white people and our history and why we all matter to each other.  Explaining what I think I know about race and whiteness in short snippets has hasn’t worked very well so I thought it might be most useful to write a letter.
Before I begin, I want to tell you how important you are to me.  You are good and lovable and I am pleased to be in your ranks. I didn’t always feel this way but that’s a separate letter.  Suffice it to say that I do now. Because you mean so much to me, I want to talk about why I think we are so important and why what we say and do matters in the world. 

Nemo Was a White Kid in the ‘Burbs
A lot of us are very well-meaning white people but our relationship to racism is like a clownfish to an anemone. Anemones are really toxic and dangerous for anyone who isn’t a clownfish but they’re perfectly lovely for clownfish.  Clownfish that grow up in anemones and don’t interact with other types of fish have NO idea that what surrounds them could hurt others.  Just like clownfish, you and I have such a symbiotic relationship with our environment that we often can’t see /feel/hear the thousands of tiny little toxic barbs embedded in our society that hurt and kill people of color.
Other fish can’t come into the anemone but we can bring our resources out into open water.  We may face a little more danger or have to give up a few perks, but if the other fish come into our anemone they will CERTAINLY get hurt. The ecosystem can’t survive with only clownfish and anemones, so telling the other fish to suck it up and keep trying to make it in a deathtrap doesn’t make a lot of sense for any of us. 

Trust Fund Babies
You and I have a really special relationship with the major institutions of our country.  Over 500 years ago, white people started putting laws in place to make sure we (middle-class white people) got and kept resources like land, money, housing and education.  It’s like our ancestors set up a massive trust fund that we’re all still collecting benefits from, whether we know it or not.

Here’s just one example of how the system has worked for my family.

In 1953, my mother’s working class father bought a small parcel of land for $10,000 in an area of North Dallas where cotton fields were turned into suburbs for GIs coming home to start families.  Actually, just white families. There were restrictions put in the deeds of the land explicitly prohibiting people of color from buying in the neighborhood. 

The schools were excellent and the homes appreciated at a very fast rate.   My mother’s family sold the property about ten years later at a profit but if they’d held onto it, today it would be worth 60 times what they paid for it. Now homes in the area are going for over $1 million and the schools are so good that George Bush’s daughters went to my mother’s elementary school.  In contrast, median price houses in places people of color could have lived such as South Dallas, West Dallas, East Oak Cliff and South Oak Cliff are currently going for $30,000 to $80,000. 
The sale of another parcel of similarly segregated (and appreciated) land paid for my father to go to a top private law school.  It also provided a down payment on a fixer-upper my parents bought in a poor neighborhood in Washington, D.C. The bank gave my parents a mortgage even though my father didn’t have an income and my mother was making about $7,000 a year.  While they did much of the work on the home themselves, the capital for the down payment and renovations came from the earlier real estate gains (white bonus) of our ancestors.  My parents sold the DC house for two and a half times what they bought it for and continued this pattern of buying property in areas that appreciated. My parents and their spouses now own 5 houses, including the one I live in now (and pay WAY below market rate rent for).   

That initial advantage from the whites-only law allowed my family to continue to buy into the “best” neighborhoods which consequently appreciated the fastest. Those neighborhoods had the best public schools which set us up to have a better shot at getting into top college and graduate schools. The profits from this pattern paid for our educations at top private institutions (and the social/professional connections that go with them). 
Sure, my family members and I have worked hard.  But we also got a ton of invisible advantages along the way- advantages that my friends of color and their families didn’t have equal access to. I grew up thinking racial disparities were the result of individual failings of huge masses of people of color instead of institutionalized racism.  It wasn’t any one person’s fault that I never knew the truth until adulthood.  We teach what we were taught. 

I Love a Parade!
About the time we started to walk, well-meaning adults began littering our path with big, stinky, nasty piles of crap. Through their actions, laws, words, and media, adults gave us messages about who to trust, who to fear and how to become a “success. Most of the time it was like walking behind a horse in a parade that’s just clopping along, dropping steaming, stinky piles of crap without even appearing to realize it.  We were boxed in with everyone else along the parade route, so we just had to step right in it and keep on moving.  What’s more, because all the white folks we know are smeared with this crap/racism, we’ve just gotten used to it.  Most of us don’t even notice anymore. 
Here’s what the crap I stepped in looked like.   

(Disclaimer: descriptions of racist thoughts/actions)
1. Until I was an adult, the only non-white adults I ever had connections with worked for our family as a nanny, gardener, handyman, etc.

Both my parents grew up in middle-class, white families in racially-segregated Texas. They grew up without social connections to people of color and repeated the same pattern with me.  As an adult, I often feel awkward and unsure of myself around peers who are people of color, including friends we consider to be family. It’s incredibly frustrating to try to learn these basic interpersonal skills as an adult and say/do dumb things to people I love deeply as I’m learning.

2. When I was in second grade, a bunch of kids started calling a kid with one black and one white parent, “Oreo”.  

I thought the other kids were really clever and I started saying it too. Adults heard us call him that name, but they never told us it was hurtful or to stop.  I wish a responsible adult had told me to knock it off the first time but this type of teasing was allowed.  I’d like to think the adults didn’t know what we meant, but I find that hard to believe.   I still find “OREO!” popping into my head occasionally when I learn someone has mixed black/white heritage.  It’s really irritating.

3. When I was 15 and learning to drive, a well-meaning relative told me to watch out for Asian drivers and then launched into a very complicated and illogical theory about eye shape and peripheral vision to back up their statement.

Now every time I see someone Asian do something stupid while they’re driving, I have to fight the voice in my brain that says my relative was right.

4. My first boss directly ordered me to monitor African American customers in our store as a way to reduce shoplifting.

I got my first job working at a clothing boutique.  The owner left me alone in the store on my second day with very little instruction.  After about a week, she came to me VERY angry because clothes were missing and demanded that I stop people from shoplifting.  (It’s telling that she never assumed I may have stolen them.)  She told me further losses would come out of my $10/hour salary.  When I asked her what to do, her only advice was, “Watch out for black people. They’re always stealing things”.  Desperate, I ended up watching black customers so aggressively that one day a woman whipped around and cursed me out for being racist.  And she was totally right.

I could go on, but you get the point.

I’m really clear on one this point: these adults weren’t bad people. They all thought they were being helpful by giving me the (often misguided and/or incorrect) information and advice THEY got as they grew up (mostly from people who grew up under segregation). 

Living Under Lock and Key

About 50 years ago, people of color (and a few white people) put so much pressure on folks in power that a few cogs in the machinery got taken out (Voter Rights Act and the end of legal segregation).  White people who saw this change thought racism was over because things looked cleaner, but pulling a few parts did not shut down the well-oiled machine that had been running for over 500 years.  The infrastructure set up to benefit us is still alive and well but so deeply embedded in the fabric of this country that it’s nearly impossible for most of us see that we’re still swimming in it.  We are like fish that can’t even tell we are wet.

This is probably why the term “white privilege” angers and irritates so many of us.  We can’t see how we are getting any privilege when it feels like we are just busting our asses each day to make a good life for ourselves. White privilege is really hard to see and can be hard to own, because we didn’t ask for it.  But we have it and it’s real.

This is how I have come to make sense of it:

Our son goes to a preschool with an electronic gate.  Each family is given a little key fob which is held up to a magnetic panel to unlock the door. White privilege works a lot like this.  Imagine our institutions were designed with special magnetic key pads.  White people, particularly white people with money, are born with the little key embedded in our skin.  We walk up to doors (apply for a job, try to buy a house, interact with a police officer) and they open without us having to do anything.

Most of us have no idea we have this special key. More importantly, if we are only around other white people, we never even notice that the doors don’t open as easily for some people.  Or, we may know a handful of people of color that have done that magic combination of things that earns them their own key so it appears as if there are equal opportunities to get through the door, but there aren’t.

Often we get really, really angry when we learn about this system. Some of us think that anyone who didn’t get in right away must have done something wrong.  Some of us don’t want to go through the door if our friends of color can’t enter.   Some of us are pissed when we learn that we didn’t have to do anything special for the door to open.  Working really hard or being really smart may help us go further once we walk in, but the door opening automatically? That was the magnetic key.

I don’t think white people need to feel guilty but I do want us to feel a sense of stewardship for this unearned gift.  Part of that stewardship includes talking about the ways we benefit and identifying places where we can use that privilege to create change. 
Which brings me back to the crap…
Clean Up on Aisle “White”
If you’re like me, you’d want someone to tell you that you have spinach in your teeth or toilet paper on your shoe.   So here goes. That crap we stepped in as kids?  It’s still on us and we’ve been tracking it ALL over the place.   We tend to fall into one of the following groups:

We think the crap is not our problem.  We are convinced that racism was fixed in the 1960’s and if people of color are still struggling, it’s their own fault.  We often say that people who talk about race are racist or complainers who need to grow a pair and MOVE ON.
We want the smell to go away so badly, we imagine the crap magically disappeared. We may say things like, “I’m colorblind” or “I simply don’t see race”.  Unfortunately, ignoring the continued impact of racism on people of color won’t make it go away. Sadly, it won’t clean us up either.
We are dumping gallons of perfume on ourselves to disguise the smell.  We might be focusing a LOT on helping people of color and still have a really hard time being close with white people (I did for a LONG time).  We tend to be overwhelmed by our own sense of guilt and often think we’re better than other white people who show their racism more.   We still say and do racist things all the time-our racism is just a little harder for other white people to see.
We are smearing the crap on everyone else. We don’t want to be alone with our funk.  We tend to say and do overtly racist things.  That, obviously, just sucks for everyone, although I have to say I don’t think this group is better or worse than any of the others. This group just shows the racism more.

We smelled something foul and decided to start the clean up.  We know we didn’t intentionally step in crap, but we are committed to stop spreading it around by working to get ourselves and other white people cleaned up.  It’s not always pretty but it doesn’t have to be gruesome.  
A.F.G.O. Is Not a Four Letter Word
When I realize I have just unknowingly said or done something racist to a person of color, I don’t get paralyzed with guilt. I know the situation is not hopeless just because I had a racist thought. It’s simply another reminder that negative messages about people of color are in my brain without my consent. What I *can* do is identify these thoughts and not act on them.

My experience is that racist thoughts are running through the brains of white people all the time without us even realizing it.  One morning as I drove to work, I saw an African American man stop on his bicycle and pour something into an opaque container. My first thought was “he’s pouring alcohol into a different container so he can hide it.” Mind you, it was 7:45 in the morning.

I was shocked when I realized he was pouring a fancy coffee drink into a tumbler, not alcohol.  I would NEVER have had the same thought about a white middle-class looking guy on a bike. The only reason I even noticed I had the thought was because reality contradicted my assumption.  I’m pretty sure I’m making assumptions like this multiple times a day without even noticing. Like this
I’ll Tell You What I Want (What I Really, Really Want)
My response wasn’t guilt.  It was more like:  “Huh.  Look at that.  There’s another one of those annoying thoughts.  AFGO! (Another Freaking Growth Opportunity).  I will try to remember this as I’m interacting with people of color today so I can try not to be an accidental jerk.”

I don’t want us to walk around on eggshells, hyper vigilant about saying or doing the wrong thing all the time.  I want us try to assess whether our judgments about people of color are true or just the tickertape of crap-filled movies and jokes and “advice” we all have.

I want us to stop going silent about racism and start talking to each other about the crap.  I want us to practice seeing racism and use that information to be less jerky.  I want us to remember the special key and be mindful about what we do when the doors open.  I’m not saying you shouldn’t go through those doors. We just need to pay attention to how we make use of our easy access (like this).

It was scary for me to start noticing how many racist things are said and done to people of color.  It was disorienting and uncomfortable to consider most of what I learned about race and my role as a white person is an illusion. It’s awkward to notice the unearned benefits and try to figure out what to do with them.  But there is a cost to white people not actively taking on racism as our issue.  

Most middle class white folks want strong communities, a strong public education system and a strong economy. We will never get those things while the old system is still running. Study after study shows that crime, poor performing schools, overcrowded prisons, a lack of qualified workers and so many other challenges in our society are driven by the institutional and individual effects of racism.  If you think ending racism is just an issue for bleeding-heart pinko liberals, think about what kind of community you want for yourself and your children.
People of color are not inherently more criminal or less intelligent or less healthy than white people.  People of color are not the problem. Five hundred years of systematically denying non-whites equal access to resources (education, jobs, loans, good places to live, and healthcare) is the problem.  If we want society to be more stable, we need to take things back to the studs.  We need to peel away layer after layer of denial and replace laws, policies and attitudes with something new.  Until we do that, I think the world we want for our children and their children will not be possible.

I want middle class white people to take on ending racism as OUR issue. By not understanding the history, by not recognizing our privilege, and by not challenging white people and systems to do better, we hold this whole thing in place.

I realize this call to action may fall on a lot of deaf ears.  You probably have a laundry list of things that feel more relevant and important. The best thing I can offer in such a case is a request from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.:

Make a career of humanity. Commit yourself to the noble struggle for human rights. You will make a greater person of yourself, a greater nation of your country and a finer world to live in." -Martin Luther King, Jr.

I want middle class white people to talk about this stuff, with kindness and passion and honesty and love. I want us to commit to making greater persons of each other.  Maybe this wasn’t the most romantic love letter you’ve ever read, but I want to make a greater nation with you.

If you’re feeling defensive or angry or overjoyed or like I’m a total moron, I’d love to hear why so we can have a dialogue.  If you’re feeling numb or don’t think this issue is relevant to you, I’d love to hear about that too.  Comment, email me, or talk to another white person if you don’t feel comfortable doing it with me.  Please just start talking about racism with other white people.  It’s the only way it is ever going to end.

With all my love,

Jaime Jenett
Where to learn more:


*I’m not ignoring poor and working class white folks. I am intentionally talking to middle-class (and owning class) white folks because I was raised with those particular sets of patterns and can speak out of that experience.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Can Lesbians Ethically Circumcise Their Sons?

My wife and I have had incredible intensity about this subject in every possible direction. We came to this issue from the perspective of sex positive lesbian feminists who couldn't imagine doing something to our son that would cause him pain or possibly diminish his sexual experience. At the same time, Laura couldn't imagine, despite her politics, having a Jewish son who wasn't circumcised. This is way more complicated than I can begin to explain in this blog, so I'll leave it at that.

As a non-Jew, I don't have any of the cultural and tribal associations with the procedure but really get how deep some of that is for Laura and many other Jewish people. Through this process, I made it clear to Laura that, while it's not 100% her call, she gets a lot of weight inthis one. We would never choose to do this for our son if neither of us were Jewish but we are a Jewish family. ALSO, I would not be contemplating this if, given the information I had, I thought it would be a horrendously traumatizing experience for him. I'll get to that later...

We went round and round but were just unable to make a decision. I was about 80% sure that I didn't want to (and she was probably that close) but we couldn't shake Laura's relationship to Judaism and the intention we have of raising our son Jewish and how circumcision is tied to that for her. We were definitely leaning further towards the decision not to but still, Laura really couldn't feel in her gut whatwas the right decision so we just started talking to everyone we couldthink of that might have something useful to contribute.

We talked to Jews who didn't circumcise (found a bunch) and lesbians who did (also found a bunch). We wanted to talk to men who had and men who hadn't been circumcised (chatted with a few). We obesessively read Berkeley Parents Network, both about how people decided to do itand not do it and about reports on Moyels in the community who might do ours. It became clear from zillions of posts and in person comments about Chanan Feld, that if we were to do this, this would be the guy. Parent after parent reported that at their son's bris, he cried when his diaper was taken off and barely flinched when the actual cut happened.

Honestly, I was shocked. This was nothing likeI had imagined- no reports of hysterical infants, lots of blood or just general awfulness. It definitely didn't sound pleasant, but at least the reports from those who worked with Chanan made it sound quick and relatively uneventful. I also have been thinking a lot about the work that has been done about the neurobiology of the trauma of circumcisions. I can almost guarantee that the studies were done on infants circumcised in hospitals, where they're taken away from their parents, in a cold room with strangers and have the procedure done by someone with less than stellar skills than most moyels. Hell yeah, that would be traumatic, but in my mind only a fraction of that would be because of the actual cut. That's part of what a bris is to me- a bringing together of community to support and surround this new person in a time of some discomfort caused by transformation.

We still needed more counsel, so we made an appointment with Jhos Singer, the FTM Rabbi who married us almost 3 years ago. It was during this conversation that we both got clear about a lot of things. Jhos has 2 boys so we talked about his decision making process with this issue and his own kids. We talked about Laura's very complicated relationship with Judaism. We talked about how this is just the first of so many decisions that we will have to make and to choose not to do something is also making a decision. We talked about what might happen 20 years from now, when our son comes to us, so angry that we made a decision for him and what would we feel better having decided and what we might say to him. We talked about Chanah Feld, the moyel we would possibly use, and about the collective experience of a bris versus a baby naming or other type of ritual. We talked for about 2 hours and at the end, we decided that the best decision we can make right now, knowing all that we know and feeling all that we feel, is to circumcise him. It might not be the right decision but it just might be and only time will tell for us.

We're also totally getting that this is just the beginning of hard decisions that we may have to make as parents that people won't always support. Vaccines, circumcision, TV, junk food, psych meds...the list is endless and so varied in terms of magnitude.

I write this, not to justify our decision, as much as to share our experience. The end result of this journey is not at all what I expected when we learned we were having a boy 5 months ago and I think Laura would say the same...

Monday, December 24, 2007

The Politics of Birth

It's such an interesting experience to be planning a home birth for our baby and to be working in a job that is directly linked to Obstetrics and a population that typically chooses a type of birth that is generally in direct opposition to that. Every time an associate (not in my direct work group, but outside educators, etc) asks where we are going to have the baby, I make a funny little smile with my eyebrows up, nod my head a few times and say "a home birth" in a tone that says "can you believe it"? They usually grimace involuntarily (I work with a lot of nurses) and say, "REALLY? WHY!?!". I had a very sweet L&D nurse literally beg me to have us do it in the hospital, promising that it would be just like home and she'd take care of everything.

I really think birth is one of the most polarized topics in America. When I try to explain to our friends who aren't familiar with this issue why we've had so much trouble with reactions (from our former Ob staff who stalled getting our charts to the midwives, from colleagues, etc) I explain that it's almost like the tension between Anti-Choice and Pro-Choice camps. It's a lot less visible but when you scratch the surface it feels like that kind of intensity.

The other funny part is that most of the nurse-midwives I know would choose a homebirth for themselves but L&D nurses and Obs are generally horrified. I think this goes to the fundamental difference in Obstetrics versus Midwifery (and L&D nurses are trained in the Obstetric model). Midwifery assumes that birth is a normal proces and all things will proceed normally unless shown otherwise. In contrast, Obstetrics (a specialty really for high risk births) assumes that something can go wrong at any minute and probably will. Obstetrics is a critical field and god knows I'd want an obstetrician (and we'll have one in reserve at the hospital) in case there are any complications. However, I just don't think normal births need to be monitored and attended by Obs.

When people ask me how I could take the chance that something could go wrong I just want to whip out all the statistics on the mortality and morbidity statistics on home v hospital births. The mortality rates are the same but the morbidity rates (injuries and complications) are significantly higher for hospital births. I'm WAY more afraid of birth in a hospital given all the unnecessary interventions that lead to more interventions that lead to complications.

Enough of that. Off to my job that I really love despite the apparent philosophical conflicts!