Risk Without Reward

This morning, as I was walking across campus, my mind was racing with the events of the past few days. The murders of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, now counted among the continued, senseless murders of black and brown people; the swirling anger and vitriol that encompasses our national landscape–the blaming and finger pointing; the senseless killing in the line of action of Dallas police officers Lorne Ahrens, Michael Smith, Michael Krol, Patrick Zamarripa, and DART officer Brent Thompson; the violence that has occurred in Tennessee, south Georgia, and St. Louis. There is so much. There is too much. It is so clear that in a system of privilege and oppression, eventually, everyone starts to lose. 

But the thing is, at the same time that I can and should feel legitimate anger, fear, and sadness, the reality is, I still feel pretty damn safe. Because I am a highly educated, middle class white woman who lives in a predominantly white town, around a predominantly white university. My partner is white. My family members are white. So although there are plenty of things that I feel pretty awful about, the reality is that I still feel very secure for myself and the ones I love most.

The big issue that I’m dealing with this week is along the lines of “What do I say?” and “What should I do?” and, frankly “What about when I say/do the wrong thing and hurt/offend/piss off/oppress someone?” Never once in my life has it ever crossed my mind that I am going to be shot and killed by police while living my every day life. I don’t wake up in the morning or go to bed worried about what might happen if I get pulled over for speeding, or what might happen if my partner neglects to change a taillight and gets pulled over on the way to work at 4:30am, or if my sister might be walking down the street in Boston and might look a little “suspicious,” or if my Dad decides to have a bonfire in the backyard and the neighbors think it’s a problem. I never think about the result of my loved ones interacting with law enforcement being their sudden and tragic death. But people of color in America? They do have to worry about this. And the reason for this incredibly jarring disparity is white privilege.

And yet, against this stark reality check, I still struggle with questions about what to do and how to react to racism, oppression, and racial violence.  A lifetime of white privilege has made me feel that I’m almost always right, and if not, I gave it a darn good try and I should probably get a gold star for my efforts anyway, so it’s hard to admit that the root of the aforementioned struggle is the fear that I am going to potentially be utterly and completely wrong, shitty, and possibly racist in my thoughts and reactions. My friends, colleagues, and students of color are worried about getting killed and I’m worried about getting called out. The unjust absurdity of this is not lost on me, but that doesn’t change the fact that I need to deal with this to be part of the solution instead of part of the problem. This week is hardly the first time that I’ve reckoned with this, and if I know anything about the pervasiveness of white privilege and white supremacy, I doubt it will be the last.

Fears of being “wrong,” of being rebuked, of being accidentally racist, of not recognizing white supremacist attitudes and behaviors, of not having something good to contribute to the conversation…these can often deter white folks from entering into conversation and action as we start to understand and realize the impact of racism. Privilege tends to protect us from those fears, instilling in us that we have a “right”to be in charge, to be expert, and to be given a high-five for our contributions. (Side note: white privilege also often intersects with various forms of identity oppression, so I have plenty of fears of being heard and respected as a woman, but that’s a different blog for a different day).

It’s uncomfortable to start to realize things, to start to wake up to the fact that you thought you had life figured out but oh my goodness, you had no idea. To think that you’ve got the rationale and the logic and the explanation, but there are people looking back at you like you are just absolutely not even in the ballpark of objective reality. To be called out for any number of things. It feels like shit. But I’m a firm believer that sometimes we need to get up close and personal with shit because our world is so horribly messed up. The systems in place are so unjust, violent, and pervasive. And if you’re privileged, most of the time you get to float around and above it all, relatively unscathed. In some ways, experiencing that horrible feeling is an invitation into understanding, and if you are starting to experience that, I invite you to lean into it. Lean into it with some degree of self-care, forgiveness, and support and connection with other anti-racist white folks. I invite you to consider asking yourself how you can show up and take risks, be uncomfortable, be wrong, make mistakes, apologize authentically, seek understanding, and don’t expect any reward to come your way. Consider how you can do that in the pursuit of an equal and just society in which all individuals and groups are able to freely and equally participate without fear of being shot in broad daylight at a traffic stop.





Merry Christmas on Campus: A Real, Live Case Study

The University of Maine is apparently trying to ruin Christmas. 

I woke up this morning to an onslaught of Facebook vitriol from my fellow Black Bears following some questionable and sensationalized reporting from WABI news that the university was forbidding holiday decorations and had, in fact, taken all of the holiday decorations down after an email was sent to staff instructing them to remove them. So this is obviously the biggest issue facing UMaine alumni right now (not state-sanctioned torture and human rights violations, or police brutality, or the pervasiveness of institutional racism, or anything else at all…) But I digress; let’s proceed with our analysis.

WABI informed us that the email went out and then all of the Christmas trees that Alpha Tau Omega fraternity had put up for their yearly philanthropic fundraiser were suddenly gone. That all of the decorations on campus disappeared.  The way they, and many subsequent sharers, painted it, you would think that President Susan Hunter herself had sent out a message to the university forbidding any holiday decorations anywhere, personally knocked over each happy little Christmas tree in the Memorial Union, ripped up all of your Christmas cards, and set fire to every cookie in the dining hall in a fit of Grinch-like rage, surrounded by the swirling fumes of burning sugar and broken dreams. I don’t think that WABI did a very thorough job of actually investigating this matter before airing it, but I don’t know that journalistic ethics or decent reporting in general are really the forte of this particular local news outlet.

Of course, what actually happened is that the Assistant Vice President for Auxiliary Services, Dan Stirrup, sent an email to his staff (the folks who work in Dining Services, Housing, the Bookstore, etc), reminding them that winter decorations are okay, but holiday-specific decorations are not okay. His email read thusly:

Just wanted to remind everyone that Auxiliary Services is not to decorate any public areas with Christmas or any other religious themed decorations. Winter holiday decorations are fine but we need to not display any decoration that could be perceived as religious.

This includes xmas trees, wreaths, xmas presents, candy canes, etc.

What is allowed are winter themes, plain trees without presents underneath, decorative lights, but not on trees, snow flakes, etc.

If you are unsure, best to not use or ask me for clarification.

Regarding the removal of the ATO Christmas trees, their philanthropy event had concluded and so they took the trees down. Kudos to UMaine student organizations for collecting a bunch of food items for a local shelter. Way to go.

So here’s my thoughts on this email and the actual implications of it.

Within this email is a very, very broad interpretation of what “religious” means. I do think that this is one place in which Stirrup misstepped a bit. Legal interpretations of the establishment clause of the First Amendment (the part that tells us that the government can’t establish a religion) for public (aka government) institutions such as public universities generally consider secular items such as trees, wreaths, gifts, candy, etc to not be religious symbols. Putting up a nativity scene next to the card swipe station at York Dining Commons? That’s gonna be a religious display. Better not do that. But in a strictly legal sense, in terms of what a public university is allowed to do, putting up a wreath is legally protected. Just don’t put a giant cross in the middle of the wreath (catch my drift, here?)

Of course, there’s a big difference between what a university can do and what a university should do. So let’s dissect some of the cultural and climate-related implications of holiday decorations.

One of the common arguments that I have seen in response to this situation is that instead of taking down Christmas decorations, we should just put up decorations for everyone’s religions! Celebrate diversity! Now, I love me some celebration of diversity, but not when it’s done in a privileged, Christian-centric way with the implicit goal of allowing the dominant group to feel good about keeping their dominant holiday decor up. What do I mean by this? Well, for starters, it doesn’t really make sense to celebrate the significant holidays of all world religions at the end of December. Hanukkah is in December, but the Jewish holidays of Yom Kippur and Passover are generally considered to be more significant and meaningful. The important Muslim holiday of Eid, which is at the conclusion of Ramadan, was at the end of July this year. The Hindu festival of Diwali is in October. The most important Buddhist festival, Vesak, is in May. Jehovah’s Witnesses don’t celebrate holidays. So putting up a bunch of other religious artifacts next to your Christmas display doesn’t really meet the goal of promoting religious diversity and inter-faith exploration. It promotes you feeling politically correct about putting up your Christmas display. Political correctness is not the same thing as true understanding and dialogue. Other religions should not be treated as a cute accessory to the dominant religion. So if you are a proponent of the “celebrate diversity” stance, let’s please do it in a non-appropriative, humble, and authentic way. And if you’re not willing to fight the fight for inter-faith dialogue all year long, please examine your motivations.

Although I think that Stirrup misinterprets, in his email, the legal definition of what are actually religious artifacts, I believe that it is important to consider the impact of the secular symbols of Christmas on implicitly and explicitly supporting the assumption of a Christian-normative climate on campus. We know what a Christmas tree looks like. It’s different from a non-Christmas tree. We recognize a Christmas wreath when we see it. When we see wrapped presents under that Christmas tree, we know that they are Christmas presents. They aren’t birthday presents, or baby shower gifts, they are Christmas presents. During December, the symbols of Christmas are ubiquitous. The secular decor that indicates the dominance of the most important Christian holiday is everywhere, continuously asserting the supremacy of mainstream Christian belief in an endless cacophony of jingle bells, holiday hymns, and boughs of holly.

Let me take a moment to personally state that I really like Christmas, a lot. I look forward all year to this outpouring of holiday cheer that reminds me of wonderful childhood memories, supports the belief system of my entire family, and gives me a reason to put up a bunch of decorations. And that, my friends, is called privilege. So although the directive to use holiday decorations that are winter-themed instead of secular-Christmas-themed, and to not wish patrons a “Merry Christmas” is not legally required of a public university, I think that it is an inclusive stance that minimizes the microaggressions that non-Christians experience in their place of learning, work, and living. When you are a member of the dominant religious group (ie. Christian-identified) and someone wishes you a “Merry Christmas” at the bookstore or you spend your dinnertime sitting next to a display of Christmas baubles and gifts at the dining commons, you are entirely comfortable and pleased as punch because your belief system is being explicitly upheld by the symbols around you. When you are a member of the non-dominant religious group (ie. non-Christian-identified) and someone wishes you a “Merry Christmas”, you may not feel so kindly or welcomed (when was the last time they started wishing people a “shabbat shalom” at the bookstore?)

For Christians, is it so important to us to see the symbols of our religion and experience represented everywhere that we are willing to lose our shit over a more neutral stance that is not exclusive of people who have other beliefs? No one is coming into your living room to rip your tree out of its stand. No one is coming into your residence hall room to steal your Christmas pillow off of your twin bed. You are not going to lose one ounce of your ability to freely practice and enjoy the crap out of Christmas when the dining hall decorates with snowflakes instead of Christmas wreaths. So please recognize your outrage for what it is: privilege.

So keep on keeping on with the snowflakes, UMaine. Because if there’s any true shared experience in Maine at the end of December, it’s those snowflakes.

Oh, Racism…you are so pervasive.

This week, I’ve been thinking that this situation at the University of Illinois-Urbana Champaign , with students tweeting racist and sexist comments about their Chancellor, was a real hot mess. But at least, I thought, it reminds us that racism and sexism are alive and well in this country. We can see this clearly when someone is targeted on the basis of her race and sex for a decision having nothing at all even remotely related to those characteristics.

And then I read UIUC alum Greg Dehorst’s response in the HuffPost, entitled: Monetizing Racism and What the University of Illinois Really Taught Me. Now, Greg is displeased with the nature of these comments that were made, which he called “extremely insensitive”. But Greg also wants to assure us that this is not what UIUC is all about. Sure there are a few bad seeds, but that’s not how it really is there. And, of course, the reason this all got blown so out of proportion is that Buzzfeed manufactured the popularity of the story on the internet (and is making money off of those clicks).

I really disagree with this response. No, Buzzfeed is not manufacturing make-believe racism and sexism. Buzzfeed NOTICED the racism and sexism that is pervasive in our society. I’m not sure how the author is conceptualizing the “monetizing”of racism, but I’m pretty sure that racism is already making money… for white people…because that’s how racism works. These students didn’t make “insensitive” comments. They made hateful and biased comments, attacking someone based on her targeted identities for no good reason at all. If someone started a #fuckgreg hashtag about the author, compared him to people widely regarded as tyrants, including Adolf Hitler and Kim Jong Un, or said that he could “shove the weather up {his} wide set vagina”, would he find it “insensitive”?

Wanting to justify this situation and explain away this racist and sexist behavior is completely indicative of the author’s own privilege. Yes, I believe that he  learned things, helped people, and did generally good stuff while at his alma mater. I did a crap load of really good stuff at UMaine. I love UMaine. But that doesn’t make it less a part of the racist, sexist, heteronormative dominant culture. And it doesn’t make me less white, straight, middle class, or educated.

Does “rebroadcasting” these racist comments feel good or happy or comfortable? No. Does it make us all want to sing kumbaya together and talk it out about how we can overcome these societal ills? Not really. But saying that racism and sexism shouldn’t be dragged out into the public eye and showcased for what they are and how they exist is telling marginalized people that their pain doesn’t matter and telling privileged and bigoted voices that they will not be held accountable or made to feel bad about intentionally demeaning others. These tweets are acts of intentional, active racism and sexism.

No one deserves to feel comfortable about dehumanizing and demoralizing others. That’s exactly what privilege is. And when we suggest that instead of calling out that oppressive behavior, we should gently ease it into the joy and love of diverse relationships, we are missing the point. We are giving more privilege to the oppressors than they already have. We are putting the burden on the marginalized groups to play nice, teach their oppressors, and not be angry about being called #bitch or #cunt (or everything else). Here’s a newsflash (speaking from my woman identity): If someone calls me those words, I AM NOT HOLDING YOUR HAND AND TELLING YOU IT’S OKAY. IT’S NOT OKAY. Privilege, privilege, privilege!

I am not suggesting that we intentionally cause physical harm to people who post things like that, but I think that a good dose of emotional and cognitive dissonance is necessary. And when you submit your racist and sexist comments into the public sphere on the internet, you become part of the public sphere. So you’re about to get back what you dish out.  Oppression doesn’t deserve to have its hand held on the first day of school. Oppression can get thrown into the cold, hard, world and cry it out. No kumbaya and s’mores for racism and sexism here.