Monday, March 31, 2014

WPC15 Dispatch #4 - Friday Keynote Addresses

I ran out of time and steam to post anything on Friday, and had to hop in my car and drive back at the end of the Saturday institute I signed up for, so this is a catch-up post covering some highlights from Friday of the WPC15 conference. I have more processing to do and plan to post some additional reflections fairly soon.

First, I should say that the program and other materials posted on the WPC Website provide a much wider sense of research about and individuals doing anti-racism and social justice work than I can capture; my experience was just a small sample.

Friday morning we had the keynote from John A. Powell, a faculty member at Berkeley Law School, and Director of the Haas Institute for a Fair and Inclusive Society at Berkeley. The title of the PowerPoint was "Grammar and Race and Inclusion and a New Self," though the title in the program was something different. It was heady stuff, and difficult to capture in notes. He built on the thesis of the Thursday keynote, where the creation and maintenance of racial difference and racial identity can be tied to economic drivers historically, and he continued the thread by talking about the many ways and dimensions that race operates in contemporary society.

One point he made was that the identity of "white" as we experience it today in the United States is only 50 years old, and was created in part by the erasure of ethnic identities (such as Italian-American or Polish-American) which were maintained previously through neighborhoods and other culture-supporting institutions. The creation of the suburbs led to both a new white identity, and to a hardening of the new white identity especially against Blacks and Latinos.

He also mentioned the role of the "self" created first in the Enlightenment and especially highlighted in Protestantism (alone with God, no mediation), contrasted to the more communal experience of Catholicism, in part, and very much contrasted to the relationship-based self of African or Native American culture. There is also a connection between the Protestantism and the growth of capitalism. (This is a largely male "self," by the way.)

Race, Powell says, is both how we structure our society, and also how we experience our being. While race plays out differently in different social domains (language, social structures, individual identity), race is like air or gravity - we don't recognize it, as it is everywhere. So the task before us isn't so much to interrupt racist behavior, but to transform society at every level.

Because of how deeply woven into the social and personal fabric race is, challenging whiteness leads to "dramatically irrational behavior," such as the Tea Party efforts to shut down government and cause the nation to default.

Powell describes four primary domains in society: public (common good), private, "non-public/non-private" (a domain that is off the maps of general attention or concern), and Corporate, which included government. Now, businesses are claiming the protected rights of individuals in the private domain, and are using these rights to squeeze out actual human interests, pushing more people into the "non-public/non-private" domain - which currently includes disabled, ex-offenders, and non-documented workers, among others.

So, here is how I understand this is all going: psychologically, in terms of brain research, people are able to have empathy and respect for people who are understood to be within their "circle of concern." Corporate and political agendas benefit from reducing solidarity (divide and conquer), so contribute to pushing sectors of society out of the circle of concern of the dominant society (I am assuming by using images in the media). Those images and valuations influence feelings and behavior, largely on an unconscious level - and brain imaging shows that the operations of the unconscious are a much larger proportion of mental processing than Freud thought. Americans are always sizing each other up racially, and this happens instantly, beneath conscious intention, because of the soup of racialized values and images we swim in.

So - to solutions: he calls the approach we need "targeted universalism" - where we want the same good outcome for everyone, but recognize that it may take different strategies to reach the outcome for some. Equality isn't treating everyone the same, because people may need different opportunities based on their social location.

He warns us that we face tremendous anxiety as these structures of social control and meaning-making are shifting - we need to create new relationships.

Dr. Powell is joining others April 7-8 for a conference in Detroit on "Detroit Bankruptcy & Beyond: Organizing for Change in Distressed Cities" at Wayne State University.

The afternoon keynote speaker was Joe Feagin: "Racial Justice Efforts: How Social Science Can Help." Dr. Feagin (Ella C. McFadden Professor in sociology at Texas A & M University) has done research on how white people mutually reinforce and perpetuate their own identities as white, and their negative valuation of other racial groups, in part through racist jokes and political cartoons. He showed us a number of rather disturbing politically-based images that are widespread on the internet.

His thesis was that racism isn't a cancer on United States society that can be excised, but is foundational to the nation. Over 200 years of slavery, followed by decades of Jim Crow laws and customs (as well as the terrorism that supported Jim Crow) have deeply marked our society. He pointed out that, "whites have enriched themselves, and unjustly impoverished people of color for centuries."

He describes a "white racial frame," a world-view made up of emotions, racialized images, and narratives. There are two basic features of the white racial frame: the belief in the virtues and superiority of whites and the belief in the inferiority of racialized "others." This plays out in distinctive ways with different sub-groups - but at the heart is the belief of white superiority and virtue that is also the hardest to see. Whites assume that they themselves are the most civilized and virtuous, which leads to a general belief that "I am not a racist" - because that would be not virtuous, even when the individual behaves in a racist manner. There is always an excuse or explanation for the behavior. Some anti-racist activist groups have made use of this white racial frame in research and teaching.

Dr. Feagin showed us images conflating Black people and apes - very old images in our society - and images of Native Americans like the Cleveland mascot "Chief Wahoo," a grinning cartoon-like image. Whites get enjoyment and pleasure out of these images which mock others, and feel no need to consult the groups being mocked, claiming the right and power to say what is appropriate about other groups.  In addition to degrading and mocking political cartoons and the cartoon-like mascots, Dr. Feagan showed us commercial material that make use of racialized mockery, such as a t-shirt for a taco restaurant with the line, "how to catch an illegal immigrant," showing a box trap baited by (American-style) tacos. The makers of this image defended themselves when criticism arose. A sports page headline, when the first Chinese NBA basketball team player had a rare bad game, read, "Chink in the Armor" - using a repugnant racist term for the athlete. This also caused a protest.

With another scholar, Leslie Pickett, Dr. Feagan recently published a book about the research they had done with 625 white college students who kept diaries of racist events. They are now working on a book from the perspective of Black students. These white student diaries describe frequent occasions where white young people are together and trade racist jokes, some of them surprising in cruelty. Jokes are traded about Blacks, Hispanics, Asians, and Jews. The tellers of the jokes appear to get enjoyment out of using the most extreme imagery possible. The researchers collected thousands and thousands of these diary accounts from over 600 students.

Feagan argues that this activity perpetuates white identity: racializing groups of non-whites using stereotypes and narrative, triggering emotions (pleasure), and leaving the listener with memorable images - this all constitutes teaching and reinforcing the white racial frame.

As discouraging as this picture is, Feagan pointed out that the white racial frame is human-made and learned, so can be unmade and unlearned.  Personal action is called for - anti-racist listeners need to interrupt, call out, and act aggressively when racist jokes are made. "Did you learn this joke from the Klan?" - even young white supremacists don't like to be associated with the Klan.

It is also important to present a counter-frame, such as the fairness, liberty and justice frame - activate this frame, because it embarrasses those who perform racist actions, as they like to believe themselves to be virtuous. We need to start early - as white children start learning the "virtuous white" perspective very early. We also need to learn and see white racial frame in our own lives, and reframe with the liberty and justice frame.

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I'll plan to post an additional (after the fact) dispatch in the next days to say more about Daniel Beatty, the wonderful playwright and performer who presented pieces about his own life and struggles on Friday evening, and then the powerful film I went to Reflections Unheard, which presented footage of Black feminists during the civil rights movement combined with the contemporary personal accounts of six Black feminist activists (whom most people have never heard of) who were active in that period.

I'll also describe the Saturday experience of a day-long seminar on "Poverty, Race and Educations" facilitated by three Goddard faculty members, Theressa Lenear, Susan Fleming and Angel Reyes Romero. This turned out to be an unexpectedly insightful opportunity for my own reflection on how very much it matters to me to be seen as knowledgeable and virtuous - which I recognized as being right out of the white racial frame.

Here's a sample of Daniel Beatty's work: "Knock, Knock."

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