Monday, September 22, 2008

The message vs. the messenger

Last week Wednesday I asked an unanswerable question, namely why we don't call more things "racist" (aside from people--I'll get to that in a minute) or say that "such and such is part of the legacy of racism" (thanks for those who have already commented!).

Right after I wrote that I had the opportunity to see this in action. What I mean, is, I saw an instance of what it looks like when someone says quite forcefully, "This IS racist. This IS racism. This IS white supremacy."

And it was not pretty.

Let me explain. I attended an evening film screening at Southern U.--a series of 3 short films actually. The theme of all three was race; in obvious and subtle ways, all three films addressed issues of racism and discrimination and stereotypes, even while they also handled themes of romance, friendship, and career opportunities. There were two discussion facilitators, one the director of one of the short films, the other a community activist (yep, one of THOSE, an ORGANIZER!). Both were men of color and one of the men, the community activist, claimed to want a real discussion and conversation, but what followed after the very long film screening was the CA going into what I can only describe as a rant.

Let me also take a moment and tell you the demographics of the room. Because of the nature of the films being screened, it was a truly multicultural mix--I'd say over half the audience were undergraduate students of color (predominantly African American and Asian American) and the other half were white undergraduate students. There were at least one-hundred people, with a few older staff/faculty also in attendance (and perhaps a few graduate students as well). But the audience was overwhelmingly of color, and my guess is that the white students in the room were probably of the white ally/interested in race variety (although perhaps a few had been forced there by one of their professors, who knows--although that probably holds true for a few of the students of color as well).

Getting back to the rant. We were lectured at for a good twenty minutes. People began to leave as discretely as they could. Students of color were told that they were being marginalized and oppressed, and white students were told that they were racist. That by virtue of being white they were all racist, and that some of them could become anti-racist through hard work.

Let me pause and say that there was almost nothing that I disagreed with in the abstract. In other words, I agree that white people have internalized racism. But I also think that people of color have internalized racism too. And it's hard to generalize about the kinds of racism that both groups have internalized because individual people are complex so it really depends on other factors such as ethnicity, class, region, religion, and family background/peer network.

What made me distinctly uncomfortable, perhaps mostly as a teacher who works on issues of race was the strident tone and the judgment I felt coming from the CA. I mean, we had just spent an hour and a half watching these films. The flyers all said that the speakers would be facilitating discussion. What followed was the CA lecturing all of us about the evils of racism in this country--which no one disagreed with--but when he culminated by calling half the audience racist, I think that's when he really lost people. Because no one wants to hear that they are racist. It just wasn't the right message for this event. The films themselves did not have the tone which he took. They were more complex and nuanced than just "racism is bad and white people have caused marginazliation of all people of color and we need to band together to end white supermacy." And the CA's message wasn't delivered in a way that made people really listen to him and hear what he had to say. Because his message--that there is white privilege and white supremacy that has guided U.S. policies over the last few centuries, is one I think most of us would agree with. But what do we do NOW. And more importantly, how do we see these films reflecting that, and how can people do anti-racist work in coalitions across racial divides TOGETHER (because that certainly was one of the themes of the films, especially getting African American and Asian Americans to work together on issues of race/racism).

Perhaps the CA was trying to shake up the complacency of the students, especially the white students. Perhaps he meant to be provocative--to get into a debate and argument with some students about these topics, because oftentimes tension helps generate progress in certain controversial areas. Perhaps he's an old school activist from the 1970s who still uses a language of third world coalition buildling that emerged out of the late 1960s and anti-Viet Nam war organizers.

All I know is that as a pedagogical strategy for getting people to hear your message, it didn't work. In other words, the message got lost in the rhetoric of the messenger.

I'm not saying we don't call people on their B.S. But it was supposed to be a film discussion and not a lecture on racism and not a time to tell half the audience that they were part of the problem and not the solution (the brief allusion to the possibility for white people to become allies not withstanding, because he really didn't spend a lot of time on that issue and spent a lot more rhetorical energy emphasizing white racism and white supremacy). And I suspect that the fact that the white students were even there in the first place means they were open to the discussion that was going to follow.

[aside: Many of the white students continued to stay even after the rant--probably because the director's remarks and comments were more measured and interesting. When I wrote above that people left, I mean people of various ethnic and racial backgrounds beat a path out of the auditorium, and after I heard the CA take two more questions in which he chose to lecture rather than engage in dialogue/discussion, I also beat a hasty retreat because life is too short to be continually annoyed by someone who you think is doing a bad job]

I suppose this is why I've tried not to get into ranting in this blog. I mean, I've had my private moments. We all have. We say things in the privacy of our homes that we'd never (hopefully) voice in public. But as a teacher--as someone who wants to really have open discussion and dialogues about race, I found the CAs strategy to be a real failure in education.


Somebodies Friend said...

I hope this clown gets called out BIG...

Who does he think he is anyway?

Jennifer said...

Hi Sombodie's Friend,
To be fair, he's a good guy. And by that, I mean he has good intentions and as a community activist and anti-racist advocate, has done a lot of good work in his own community and across ethnic/racial communities.

Having said that, he's not a teacher. I mean, at least I don't think he is. So speaking to students in a college setting isn't his bread and butter like it is mine.

Should he have been able to read his audience better? Yes. Anyone who does public speaking on a regular basis should be able to do this and I believe he has done enough public speaking that he should know this. But he's also an old school activist of the 1970s and I'd hazard to guess that he probably finds most of today's youth an apathetic and apolitical bunch, so I'm, in some ways, not surprised by his tatics because I think he was fairly deliberate in trying to be provocative.

I don't think he meant to come across as pedantic and strident, but he did. And I also don't know how much feedback he gets at speaking gigs and whether he takes that into account because I think enough people appreciate the underlying message and his intent that they cut him slack on the delivery.

In answer to your last rhetorical question/comment, I think he thinks he is an anti-racist community activist trying to end white supremacy. I just don't know if he realizes that his rhetorical strategies alienate rather than engage audiences.

Thanks for leaving a comment!

CVT said...

If only more people were teachers . . .

This is the problem I generally have with "activists" of all sorts (whether it's a rally for the environment or against the war) - the tendency to piss off the other side and attack, as opposed to trying to have real dialogue. Because nobody learns from an attack - it just puts them on the defensive and makes them more likely to re-enforce their previous sentiments without truly looking at their actions.

Sad thing is, though, that I haven't exactly known a lot of teachers that are okay with true dialogue in their classrooms, either. You've got to be pretty solid and self-aware to be able to see past your own issues to have a conversation with "the other side" - and I don't think too many people (in any field) are really there. If that wasn't the case, I think we'd be a lot further along, and I wouldn't be so fearful about the upcoming election.

Anonymous said...

Thank you. Thank you. I cannot say thank you enough.

Since issues of privelege/racism/sexism/etc were brought to my attention over the past year, I've been doing my best to learn about this stuff, keep my ears open, and confront some of my own views. And yes, I've been able to recognize things I was ignoring before, including my own privelege and the degree to which racism/sexist (among others) still play a huge role in our society.

That said: being attacked for something I have absolutely no control over (being a straight white guy) does not encourage me to listen. You don't have to beat me over the head; I'm willing to deal with this. When someone wants to fix blame instead of fixing the problem, I'm not really seeing the positive.

And at the risk of sounding racist now, I often hear a stock response whenever any would-be ally brings this up. It's something like "Aw, you don't like being blamed for your skin color? Welcome to my world". Which is fair, to a point. But my response is " got the shaft, and now you just want to spread the misery around a little?" I think it sucks that people of color get judged by their skin color...but the answer is not to do it right back to white people.

I can understand (or at least try to) the hurt and anger some POC have at the situation...but while they might need to express that (and should be able to) I feel they should try to do it in a way that doesn't alienate people who want to help and understand.

uglyblackjohn said...

Is "The Tom Joyner Show" racist?
I think that if another ethic group made the comments that are made on the show towards Blacks - they would be called racists.
Is BET racist. I think that it is.
IMO - if we want the same authority, we need to have the same accountability.
Many times when people say; "Resist Racism" - what they're really saying is resist WHITE racism (without calling their own views into question).

Jennifer said...

Ugly Black John,
My radio is glued to NPR and my tv is almost always on BRAVO (I'm addicted to Top Chef & Project Runway), so I"m not familiar with the Joyner show or BET's offerings.

But I'm guessing, from your context, that they are promoting a type of black nationalism that believes in black pride and empowerment and that takes a hard look at white racism.

I think I'm wary of calling these shows, even in their narrow focus "racist"--certianly without hearing a program or two, but definitely in the abstract, ethnic nationalism, while problematic, doesn't always equal racism (in my book).

But I think your larger point--that those of the extreme ethnic nationalism/ethnic pride bent can be myopic towards anything but their own narrow agenda is well taken. The world is much more about nuance. And we shouldn't discount the complexity of power--the fact that yes, there were white oppressors and European powers were largely responsible for global colonialism and hence slave trade/other forms of oppression. But there were also white Euro-Americans who fought against powers that be.

Which brings me to Spartakos. I can imagine that as a white ally, you feel slapped in the face by POC telling you that as a white person you just don't get it. I'd like to think you are catching these folks on a bad day. Because when I'm having a bad day I can say all sorts of irrational things that I may or may not really mean. Or perhaps I phrase things in a way where people don't hear me.

What you are more likely encountering is being the 10th person to say that you are a 'white ally' and the previous 9 may or may not have really been walking the walk but simply wanting credit for being a white person who gets racism. I'm not excusing or justifying whatever responses you received by some angry POC, but as someone who often encounters white liberals who make a point of telling me about their Asian American friends or travels to Asia, it starts to feel like they're looking to absolve themselves through me and that is a yucky feeling.

Like everything else, finding the right forum is key--especially safe spaces where real dialogue can happen and people can ask each other questions without being jumped on.

Which finally brings me to CVT, because YES it's the RANT that is the problem--it's the lack of nuance and especially in this context, it's that he was talking to STUDENTS. I mean, yes they are college-aged, but they're still there in an educational setting and they were there to dialogue about some thorny issues. They didn't need a lecture. They needed a facilitator, someone who would talk WITH them and not AT them. So it was like adding insult to injury when he went into his whole WHITE PEOPLE ARE RACISTS AND EVERY ONE OF YOU WHO IS WHITE IN THIS ROOM IS A RACIST AND THERE'S NOTHING YOU CAN DO ABOUT IT EXCEPT EVENTUALLY THROUGH HARD WORK SOME OF YOU CAN BE WHITE ALLIES.

UGH. So AWFUL. I feel like he was undoing some good work that a lot of anti-racist activists work on all the time, especially trying to create a space and dialogue where ALL PEOPLE can talk about race.

And while I didn't reveal this in the actual post, my own arm chair psychologizing (and I could be way wrong and off) is that the CA is a Chinese American guy. In other words, he's at this event, held at the African American center, and there are a lot of African American faculty in the audience and the director sitting next to him is African American. And perhaps, subconsciously, he felt he had to be RIGHTEOUS and to speak TRUTH TO POWER and to actually be very hard core out of a sense that Asian Americans aren't politicized (the guy went on to give a mini-history lesson on Asian American contributions to America that devolved into ethnic nationalism at its weirdest--that we should be proud to be Asian American because Ah Bing invented the bing cherry. Huh?)

I do think there aren't too many of us (and I don't know that I do this all the time or as well as I can) who make our classrooms real space for dialogue. I try to. And I do play devil's advocate if I think students are just giving the PC answer and won't go to the more complex stances. But I think too man of us are afraid to say the wrong thing.