Saturday, November 29, 2014

On Racism at Thanksgiving

This is the season when a number of my students return from the Thanksgiving break with stories about how racism negatively impacted their time with family and friends in ways that they had not noticed in the past. They want to process these moments with me because, quite understandably, they are disturbed by them. In most cases, the students are white, and they talk about how, over the holiday, they were privy to racist comments made by people with whom they are close and, in many cases, dearly love. (The Ferguson grand jury announcement was ill-timed in more ways than we'd thought.) Even though I am an Asian American, I've been included in too many of these racist conversations over the years, and it has been this identity that has allowed me to process these moments with greater clarity. What follows is a critique of "Thanksgiving dinner" as a racialized event that might be experienced by some of my students at my PWI. In addition to the devastating impacts of European colonialism and genocide, what else can Thanksgiving teach us about racism?

Despite the racism in our society that so many of us see and live, there are still some behaviors that are generally agreed upon as unacceptable, such as openly and publicly voicing a sentiment suggesting the inferiority of a racial group. These remarks are usually reserved for private spaces where the speaker has a reasonable expectation of agreement from the audience, especially one made up of family and friends. Facebook, Twitter, and public blogs are havens of racism for this reason. As a social space, then, Thanksgiving is ready-made for people to say racist things that they haven't been able to say in other settings. In general, our family and friends feel safe and comfortable speaking their minds in front of us (all the more so if their social group identities--men, middle-class, white, heterosexual, etc.--are advantaged over our own, including parents who minimize the learning of their college-aged children.) Critiquing these feelings of comfort is more important to understanding this issue than critiquing feelings of prejudice or hate.

It is this safety and comfort that our family and friends take for granted at Thanksgiving and other holidays. They no longer have to check themselves or bite their tongues because there are no unknowns, no "outsiders" who might misinterpret what they've said and take offense. Let's begin by processing why they believe that we are "insiders" who would want to hear a racist story or comment in the first place. Sociologist Leslie Picca's book Two-Faced Racism reveals that white students say very different things about people of color when they are in mixed settings than when they are with only other white people. This kind of behavior has also been called "white bonding." So, these conversations happen not only because our family and friends hold racist beliefs but because they believe that we must hold them too. Why? Well, the same genes, last name, or skin color can make you an insider, but this is not always the case.

I've been including myself as someone privy to these moments because of personal experience. Because my wife and her family is white and because most of our professional colleagues are white, I have been to countless Thanksgiving and holiday gatherings where I was the only person of color in a room of dozens. When a racist comment was made around me, it usually had to do with black or Latino people, so I knew that people were paying some attention. What it took me a long time to figure out was why these family members, friends, and business associates felt as though they could say these things around me. I finally learned that it was because they saw me as enough like themselves to be an insider. (For those that I'd never see again, I may not have mattered enough to warrant any kind of self-consciousness on their part.) When I was younger, to my shame, I liked this feeling, even though I suspected that I didn't agree with the reason for it, so powerful is the need for white acceptance for many people of color. Make no mistake: even though people aren't white, they can absolutely support the ideology of white supremacy, often by saying nothing.

So, if you have ever had white friends and family say racist things around you at Thanksgiving, consider that it has as much to do with who you are as who they are. It is your whiteness or proximity to whiteness (model minority Asian Americans stand up!) that makes them feel comfortable around you. (When white people defend themselves against racism by claiming to have friends of color, I want to ask them how often these friends made them feel uncomfortable by talking about racism in ways that contradicted their own beliefs.) What is actually happening before your very eyes and ears is the centering of white experience and perception as normal and right. You are witnessing first-hand how a story becomes dominant in our culture. This is something that occurs in the world every day, to be sure, but in more institutionalized ways that disguise the discrimination. At Thanksgiving dinner, where it is comfortable, there might be little effort to disguise or qualify; consciously or unconsciously, white experience and perception are likely to assume their place as the centerpiece of any conversation.

One of the reasons why racism is so powerful is that most white people are allowed to engage it as a topic on their terms and schedule; there are almost no institutionalized, social consequences for white people not engaging with the topic of racism, save some college students. (In fact, I tell my students that if their only goal is to succeed materially in the professional world, they should stop talking about racism outside of my class right now. This goes double for students of color.) Racism is a topic that makes most white people uncomfortable, as it should, and as it does for almost all people of color. Meaningful conversations in mixed settings such as a professional work environment are rare, reducing to banality an event as significant as Ferguson with trite, worthless dialogue: "Such a tragedy" or "I hope there's no further violence." Unlike public spaces, Thanksgiving allows many of our friends and family to talk frankly about racism on their terms among those whom they trust. Among so many other things, white privilege is the ability to pick the time, place, and audience that you will talk about racism.

Thanksgiving turns out to be a prime occasion for racist conversations because of the assumption and expectation of personal comfort. Our friends and family do not expect to be challenged, least of all by those of us who might have just given thanks for their being a part of our lives! (In this way, Thanksgiving stacks the deck against those of us who want to talk about historical circumstances rather than our own personal circumstances.) So you can see why it is difficult to speak up, to make everyone at the dinner table uncomfortable. At some point, you will probably be accused of making the problem of racism worse by daring to bring it up as a suitable topic of conversation. However, at the same time that being an insider can make you the owner of a collection of horrible holiday memories, it is also an opportunity to do what is right. And we can all begin doing what is right by considering the cost of our comfort, this on a holiday that insists upon it more than any other (especially if you don't have to cook and clean up). We are asked to be thankful for this occasion to be comfortable. We are socially conditioned by this holiday to think that being comfortable is a reward or even a blessing.

But it is terribly difficult, if not impossible, to learn something new when you are comfortable. The cost of our comfort when we choose not to engage with racism or to do so on our own terms is dear: it is the possibility of authentic relationships with each other. Without access to authentic relationships with the people that we do know, the potential for authentic relationships with the people that we don't know must certainly be foreclosed. What these authentic relationships offer us is what Thanksgiving might have been: the real chance to be ourselves, white people and people of color alike, to be comfortable interacting with one another without the ideology of white supremacy anticipating and distorting every exchange between us. The sad truth is that we're not anywhere close to having authentic relationships with one another, but we should be thankful that Thanksgiving reveals this reality to us in such stark, undeniable ways. To paraphrase john a. powell, "We have to be okay with being uncomfortable with the present racial arrangement." There are no safe havens, not even Thanksgiving. Especially Thanksgiving.

I can't say what the institutional impacts of my students challenging the family Thanksgiving status quo will be. And I'm always a little anxious that they will come back to class on Monday and tell me how they tried to share what they learned in my class with their families, and all they succeeded in doing was making everyone uncomfortable and tense. But I still hope that they will try.