Posts Tagged 'Race'

What To Say About Stress

Well, it’s certainly the cause of my sparse posting lately. Sometimes, when your calendar/planner begins to look like mine does (below), it’s just not a good idea to spent two hours on a thoughtful blog post.

Radiolab produced an early episode on Stress (listen to the podcast here). In it, they discuss the evolutionary rationale for stress, which is basically: stress is the body’s biological response to being chased by a sabre-toothed tiger.

And that response ain’t minor: your body shuts down all non-necessary functions including ovulation, digestion (this is why you get a dry mouth when you get nervous, because you’ve stopped producing saliva for digestion), even growth itself.

Except– we don’t really have to escape saber-toothed tigers anymore. Instead, we have Important Deadlines and College Loans and Computer Viruses. Even before adulthood, we have to face Mean Bullies and Peer Pressure and First Kisses. The problem is that our body perceives First Kisses as the stress-equivalent to Sabre-Tooth Tigers. Which it’s not, unless you had a really bad first kiss experience.

But while a tiger is only a temporary threat (whether you escape or get eaten is only a matter of a few hours), deadlines and paying bills are perpetual, and this means your body is put into a stressful state far more often than it should be. This is why we end up today with stress diseases, which range from anxiety attacks, alcoholism, and high blood pressure, to heart disease and ulcers.

Based on this, you might think that the most stressed-out people are high-powered CEO’s, stock brokers, or politicians. But again and again, studies show that the population most affected by stress is poor people.
Frankly, the problems that come with being poor are closer to a sabre-tooth tiger: paying rent and putting food on the table are issues of survival. But the real reason why poor people are more prone to stress and stress diseases is that they can’t buy the therapy, massages, medications or vacations that CEO’s can.

And we wonder why all homeless people seem to be crazy. The relationship between homelessness and mental disorders is like trying to figure out the chicken or the egg.

Being poor will stress you out, but…

…so will being Black: it turns out that there’s a significant racial disparity in stress and stress-related diseases. Before you object, this isn’t just poor Black people who are stressed out. Wealthy, successful Black people are also far more affected by stress diseases than wealthy, successful White people.

In fact, there’s a significant gap in the overall health of Black and White Americans, not just in stress diseases. There’s this academic term called allostatic load, which refers to the way that social and psychological stressors build up over time and take a physical toll on the body. In the United States, this means people of color (of all economic classes) are more prone to disease and injury, and are less healthy overall than white people. Which is, I think, pretty good evidence that racism and racial discrimination is still alive and well in America.

Kinda stresses you out just to think about it, huh?

Thinking about this sort of thing did stress me out for a long time. But now, I welcome a stress that involves real thought about a real problem. Most deadlines and loans are sort of egotistical stressors: they’re issues of a privileged life, not of survival. And it’s always good stress therapy to step outside of yourself.

Coming Soon

My First Aurora Fountain Pen
Women at Work
How might Rural Design Differ from Urban Design?
A Gutsy Criticism of Breast Cancer Awareness Month
And, as always, More Watercolors

* N.B. Unfortunately, I can’t link to any of my sources because they’re in academic databases, but most of the data comes from academic and industry journals such as American Journal of Public Health and others.

Martin Luther King, Jr. Day of Dialogue

I’m a day late with this post, but I wanted to make sure to post about MLK day. I was on a student-faculty panel yesterday here at my college, which (after a week of anxiety and nervousness) went fantastically well. In fact, it went well enough that some people approached me for the text of my talk, so I decided it might be a good idea to re-post that text here as well. The title for the day was “With Great Privilege: Rising to King’s Challenge” and the title for the panel was “Race, Identity, and Privilege.”

I’m going to make a claim that might be arguable: most white people aren’t racist. We’re aware, in a vague sense, that racial inequalities exists, but racists, or our ancestors, are the problem, not us.

I should note that when I use terms like “we” and “us,” I am blatantly speaking for all white people. This might be offputting to white people in the audience, but most of the time when there is a person of color at a social or political discussion panel, she or he is expected to represent the “minority viewpoint” of all African Americans, or all Latinos, and so on. So here I am, Voice of Whiteness.

So, I attended the discussion forums last year after the infamously vague “racist incident” at Tafts. For those of you that weren’t there, I’ll give you a summary: …white people got defensive.

This defensiveness was understandable: we white kids aren’t used to being the racial minority in the room. It makes us a little unsteady. And when the conversation involves listening to small and large difficulties that students of color have experienced at Kenyon,  we think, “hey now, I’ve never done anything racist—these people are acting like it’s my fault they’ve had a hard time!”

So, herein lies the topic of my spiel: “not being a racist” is separate and distinct from “being anti-racist.”

Notice the prefix: anti. Anti-racist is the difference between passive and pro-active. The difference between not being racist, and fighting racism. Surely those experiences and difficulties that students of color have encountered at Kenyon are not because we have a secretly hateful and racist administration. The problem is that in a system of inequality, “not being racist” keeps that system alive and thriving unequally. It allows us to remain passive, and by being passive we remain privileged.

There are a lot of ways that white people preserve racial privilege by remaining passive. One of my personal favorites is the “Kenyon Bubble” ideology. When we think of Kenyon as being separate from the “real world,” that gives us an excuse to not see our actions as “real actions.” We can feel very passionately from afar about our government’s foreign policy, because there’s nothing “real” to confront here in Gambier. Another good example of this unconscious passivity is the way that white people just don’t talk about racism. We talk about race—definitely—but how many dinner conversations have you had about racism?

I think part of the reason we’re afraid to enter into a dialogue about racism and racial privilege is because white people are really bad at listening. We’re especially bad at listening when we are also afraid that we might be the target of anger. It takes a lot of humility to listen to anger, and let’s face it—racial humility is not exactly white people’s strength. We’re pretty used to talking when we want to talk, and the reason we’ve been able to do this is because most of the time we’ve been in the majority.

Listening is legitimizing other experiences than your own. This is true in any dialogue, but, for many reasons, it’s a lot harder for white people to legitimize the experiences  of people of color, than to legitimize the experience of your—white—best friend.

Being anti-racist means pro-actively seeking out that dialogue. It means learning to shut up and listen—and then, it means learning to speak up, to be uncomfortable, to feel passionately about racism, even when you are in a room full of other white people.

There was a grad student named Holly Hansen that did a research project on the racial attitudes of white anti-racist allies. She found that many white people only came to confront their own racial privilege and subconscious racism through a “critical event” or series of events. These critical events took many forms, but they often involved a turning the tables—being placed in a situation where they were the racial minority, and where they had to learn to listen. One woman, the wife of a US soldier, was placed for the first time in her life in integrated housing, and took a job where most of her coworkers were black. This new setting facilitated friendships and casual exchanges across racial lines, opportunities which aren’t available in predominantly white systems, such as higher education.

What I want to emphasize is that we white people will never experience those critical events if we don’t make a conscious effort to step out of institutions, communities, and social groups that are dominated by white people.

So what will your critical event be? How will you trigger critical events for others?

One of the things we talk about in our Discrimination Advisor meetings is the “outer limits” of our sense of anti-racist action. I would guess that most people in this room would be willing to call out a friend who makes a racially offensive joke. But do you speak up without the safety net of a friendship? When someone we’ve just met calls something “retarded”? Do you say something to your advisor when your classes consist of all white people? Do you even notice when your classes are full of white people?

A classroom of white people is not inherently racist. But being anti-racist means questioning what systems led to that imbalance, and questioning what you can do to change that. It means questioning why you should do something to change that.

What about when a group ahead of you walking back on Middle Path from the “Real World: Gambier “skits and says something along the lines of, “Yeahhh, Stephen had the best role; he basically got to rape a girl onstage and get away with it!”

…that last one is a true story, and I didn’t say anything. I expect this is because it was dark; they were a group of men, and I was one woman walking alone, or perhaps it was because I was exhausted from dancing onstage for two hours. So, are you more likely to speak up if the person making a comment is of the same gender? …if it’s a large or a small group? These are the questions that are necessary to cultivate an anti-racist, anti-sexist consciousness.

This sort of thing makes white people very uncomfortable. We really value our independence, and we liberal arts white kids like to pride ourselves on not judging others.  Nobody in the classroom chose to have a classroom full of white people—so why say something? In other words, let sleeping racism lie. But this “withholding judgment” is also a tactic for self-preservation. By remaining silent, we demonstrate our comfort with the lack of peers of color—and in doing so, we demonstrate solidarity with other white people. And, as we probably know already, white solidarity is a dangerous thing when it rests on oppression.

I also think it’s important to move past examples about “when your friend tells a racist joke…”. Being anti-racist means more than reacting to racist “incidents”—it means taking action against it, and proactively building a system where racist incidents don’t happen. If all the white students at Kenyon confronted the administration and demanded more people of color in our student body, that would have an effect. It would have an effect because, with our current inequality, having “all the white students at Kenyon” demand something means, “having almost the entire student body” demand something.            That’s a powerful thing.

White anti-racist allies do exist, and it’s important to expose ourselves to them and be inspired by them. However, right now, overall, white anti-racist allies are not organized into societies or institutions. My proposal is that Kenyon could be that institution.

If we are conscious in our actions and not just our intellects, if we make it an explicit goal to produce graduates who will critique both inside and outside the Kenyon bubble, we could tap into a political and social power that is simply unreachable, when white people remain sitting—remain silent—and fail to confront our own potential in positions of privilege.

Accents, Vernaculars, & Slang

I have some Strong Feelings about accents. And no, I’m not referring to a fetish for Italian accents (actually, accent fetishes are a pretty big pet peeve of mine).

I just discovered that, like African American Vernacular English (AAVE), Southern American English gets an acronym too (SAE)! Unfortunately, it’s the same acronym as Standard American English, which causes some problematic confusion, but it can be forgiven.

I’ve also been reading a bit on the linguistic overlap between African American Vernacular English and Southern American English, which makes sense for a couple of reasons:

1) The Southern United States is historically the area most reliant on slavery, and therefore had a much higher population of enslaved black individuals than other areas of the country. Historians are now discovering that other historical local cultures were far more diverse than we had previously assumed– cowboy culture, for example: there was a significant population of black cowboys who had escaped slavery and traveled west. Nonetheless, even after slavery was ended, various unjust laws meant that a large portion of the black population remained in the South. So obviously, there’s been linguistic overlap between black and white Southerners.

2) Both of these vernaculars are looked down on, if not outrightly ridiculed, in a similar way within the United States. Other accents certainly encounter tensions and problems as well– a woman with a Spanish accent is often suddenly transformed (at least in the listener’s mind) into a voluptuous, sexual, hot-tempered stereotype, and Asian accents are most ridiculed for being the most humorous and/or difficult to understand. But at least in my experience, Southern and Black vernaculars are the most clearly associated with being uneducated and unintelligent.

A fair bit of cultural attention has been given to the topic of African American Vernacular English (AAVE), from the 90’s controversies over teaching “ebonics” in school systems to questioning President Obama’s adoption of a “blackcent.” I remember watching a funny-ish (at least at the time) special on VH1 back in high school about the drastic difference between Tyra Banks’ accent and voice depending upon whether she was interviewing a black or a white individual.* I was talking to a friend recently who went back to visit her family’s farm in Alabama after her father’s death. She said that she and her daughter spent the entire time being harassed by the extended family for being impossible to understand. “I kept telling them, ‘we’re just speaking correctly, we’re just trying to speak well,’ but they wouldn’t stop.” A friend of mine from New Orleans told me about a professor friend at LSU, who has one vernacular– accentless, and with correct grammar –when he gives a lecture, and a completely different voice the rest of the time. I met a woman in Washington D.C. who rolled her eyes when telling me about all the savvy DC residents who assumed that she was uneducated and/or unintelligent because she was from the Carolinas.

Think about how you are likely to imitate someone who says something stupid. Almost all of the time, the imitator adopts some version of a southern accent– even if the original speaker has no ties whatsoever to the American South. Even I do this, exaggerating my own accent, and I always feel gross immediately afterwards. It’s clearly an accent associated with redneck and hillbilly stereotypes, but the accent-intelligence assumption extends even to the privileged. A southern belle, for example, is often white and rich and worthy of playing the babe in a few Hollywood movies– but she is not often portrayed as the most intelligent creature.

So I’ve picked up a bit of a drawl after having been back with my family for the summer. I didn’t notice it until I came back to school, where a handful of gracious people have taken care to point it out. Or to be more precise, have made fun of it. For a girl with Something To Say, it is very frustrating to have your statement ignored while your diction becomes the subject.

Many white people don’t realize that accents are heirarchical. I want to amend that statement, though, by saying that many Northern white people don’t realize this. Or perhaps, Northern educated white people. It seems like an increasingly small group, but it’s the group that dominates the majority of U.S. politics, economics, educational system, and mainstream media. And they don’t recognize the accent hierarchy because they’re on the privileged end of the diction spectrum.

My point is bringing this up is that, when people pay attention to the way you say something, they ignore what you are saying. I go to a fairly prestigious school; I feel like there should be a general assumption that any student or professor here is intelligent. It turns out, though, that a lot of rich white kids are dumb as hell.

Here’s a few things I like on this topic:

*I noticed also that when I googled “ebonics” (to try to find the link about the Oakland controversy), that of the 92 user-submitted definitions on urbandictionary.com, the one that shows up in the google results is “a poor excuse for a failure to grasp the basics of english.” If I were a kinder soul, I wouldn’t mention that this definition is actually grammatically incorrect (which I think undermines the already somewhat racist sentiment).

Good Hair

I am SO excited for this documentary.

Discussion about hair seems to be following me lately, from this post on RMJ’s blog (Deeply Problematic) to a wonderful conversation I had with a friend who is undergoing chemo and has been bald for a few years now. Hair is one of those things whose importance most people underestimate– and by “most people,” I mean people with “good hair.” And by “good hair” I mean “straight, shiny, blonde.”

Some of you may be familiar with my own hair excursions, including “the summer of the shaved head,” as I fondly refer to it. Perhaps that’s worth its own post, though…

Hate Crime in Mt. Vernon

I guess it’s ironic that all the news headlines are referring to the first Latina Supreme Court Justice, being forced to prove that “her identity won’t distort her decisions,” on the same day that Mt. Vernon is holding a Vigil for Justice in response to a hate crime that occurred last year, and was only recently brought to public attention.

Sixteen year old Robert Cantu, who is Hispanic, and a Caucasian friend, were walking to a Christian youth center, the Escape Zone, which is located at 316 S Main St, in Mt. Vernon, Ohio. While standing across the street across from the center, Robert observed a truck approach the area and come to a stop in front of the center. He heard the occupants of the truck make comments such as “we’re going fishing,” and “get the niggers.” At the time, there were a few African American boys in front of the center, who then began to run. The four occupants of the truck, including one later identified as Dale Klein, began to run after the boys. Klein caught one of the boys, who was able to fight off Klein and escape. Robert then froze in fear as he heard one of the four assailants say, “Get the fuckin’ Mexican.”

The assailants knocked Robert down and put a noose around his neck, and as they did so, they asked him if he wanted “to be hung”, called him a “spic”, and told him to “go back to Mexico”. The assailants dragged him down the road towards the truck by the end ofthe rope. While they were dragging him, Robert was able to put his hands between the noose and his neck to protect himself. During this time, they stated they were going totake Robert to a nearby park, Foundation Park, to hang him. Robert began yelling, and at that time, Robert’s friend and two other passer-bys intervened and were able to free Robert.

Only one of the four assailants (in the most recent attack) was charged, and ended up being sentenced to only 10 days in prison.

I would highly encourage anyone to read the original article which includes more details, especially about the legal process that followed.

I wish I had more commentary about this, but sometimes a summary is striking enough. What I can say is only a general desire that I’ve had for years: that I wish people would follow national politics a little less, and instead be actively present in their local politics. The issues that hover around Judge Sotomayor are explicitly physical in this case, and they can be directly confronted, or changed.

Hey! There Are People Different Than You

I went back to visit my high school today, where my sister has been going to The Jason Project, a science program for 5th-8th graders. She’s spent the last few weeks in the Resilient Planet program, visiting local creeks and focusing on ecological issues. A very, very cool program.

But that’s not the subject of this post. As I walked around the various rooms, talking to groups of students about their projects and learning about their experiments, I was struck with a feeling of familiarity which I realized has been lacking the past three years in college– the visual affect of so many different skin colors. I didn’t feel strange or surprised, exactly– this was my old high school, after all –rather, I realized that I’ve been surrounded by only one color ever since I left for college, and, well, it’s been bloody boring. It’s almost simple: the external appearance of an educational environment.

And yet it’s not simple, nor is it merely sensory. I would never in a million years have “noticed the diversity” (what a gross phrase) at my high school while I was attending. Skin colors were a part of my everyday life, the general social scene. It is only after attending college for three years– the last two years at a notoriously White Wealthy Institution –that I returned to the same atmosphere and “noticed” the racial diversity. Funnily enough, I remember feeling a similar sensation when I first arrived at first year orientation in college: something along the lines of “wow, this crowd is really… white. Hm.” And yet, over the past three years, higher education has been subtly training me to think that the world is as White as the campus. As in, “well, go visit the Multicultural Center if you want to meet someone Black/gay/international/etc., because everywhere else on campus belongs to the white majority.”

Which brings me to my point. Humans certainly learn the five senses as babies, far before they learn history, theory, or politics. The very first step towards a successful dialogue about racism and other institutions of oppression, and towards action, is the simple and instinctive observation that (hey!) there are people different than you. For years, French feminists have tended to emphasize early human development when forming theories of gender and oppression, pointing to the stage in which an infant recognizes itself as separate from its mother. While I refuse to get too Freudian in this analysis (or any other, for that matter), I do think that it’s relevant that recognition of difference is a natural and ongoing process. And frankly, it is unnatural when that process is stunted for those in power (read: white folks) while it is prematurely hastened for those who are not.

Maybe this is getting a little abstract. What I mean to say is, a White person could go her/his whole life without ever “seeing the other side” (a phrase I’m not a fan of). Rich White neighborhoods go through a lot of trouble to blind themselves to their poor/Black/Latin@ neighbors. Some white communities have recognized this and invented problematic ways of solving it; I’m primarily thinking of a family I once knew that sent their spoiled private-school son on a church mission’s trip to Honduras so that he could “realize how lucky he had it.” As though this [expensive, by the way] trip was invented entirely for his own emotional growth. Forget the Hondurans. And yet, most Black communities in the US are constantly exposed to White culture– in the form of teachers, administrators, law enforcement officials, political leaders, movies, television, commercials, billboards, …well, uh, damn, looks like it’s just about everywhere. Zora Neale Hurston, one of my favorite women writers, and a generally kickass lady, attributed her character to being born in what she calls a “pure Negro town”:

“I was born in a Negro town. I do not mean by that the black backside of an average town. Eatonville, Florida, is, and was at the time of my birth, a pure Negro town–charter, mayor, council, town marshal and all.”

When The Feminist Press put together a Zora Neale Hurston reader (I Love Myself When I am Laughing… And Then Again When I Am Looking Mean and Impressive, which apparently is not well-known enough to have a cover image on Amazon ***update: a commenter was kind enough to link me to the most recent edition on Amazon, which DOES have a cover image***), Alice Walker and Mary Helen Washington recognize that specific upbringing as part of what empowered Hurston. Hurston herself realized that this was due to the fact that Eatonville, Florida, was one of the “first attempts at organized self-government on the part of Negroes in America.” It took isolation to create self-rule, self-definition, and self-empowerment. What I want to point out is how an isolated white community tends to have the exact opposite effect: the preservation of an already-invisible power status.

But as I said in the beginning, this example is really personal (aren’t they all?). A lot of Kenyon students attended private boarding schools before coming to Kenyon. And sure, they know that some people are brown (mostly in the form of musical artists or athletes), just like they know that there is something called “the working class.” I don’t intend to draw a connection between skin color and lower economic class (without elaboration, which is beyond the scope of this post), other than that they are both susceptible to being turned into theory instead of reality. Especially in higher education.

I hate that I’ve let myself slack off, that I fell into the trap of defining the world by Kenyon’s campus. I am honored to have attended a high school that is considered “diverse.” The fact is, my high school was just about the most accurate representation of “the real world” that I could have asked for. Racial and economic tensions, confrontations, conversations, dialogues and changes: we were the normal ones, and it was the other school systems who were pretending.


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