Guest Post – from Janis Bookout
This editorial was written by Janis Bookout, mother, environmental writer, and climate leader at 2020orBust.org
Introductory statement from Janis – This blog was not written in isolation. These ideas are not just my own. It is the result of listening to a variety of thoughts on the subject, and I am deeply grateful for those who shared them. Credits follow the post. That said, I am fully and independently responsible for everything shared here and do not represent any other group on this. My intention is primarily to share an experience for the value that a shared experience can provide. I am not pretending to be an authoritative voice on any subject other than my own experience.
This blog speaks to white people as a call to action. It is our responsibility to end racism, and we are not doing that — we haven’t come close. Since the FBI has started tracking hate crimes in 1996, approximately 151,262 hate crimes have occurred, with the vast majority based primarily around race. The large majority of these crimes have gone unpublicized. But it doesn’t end there. And most of the reactions I am reading are missing the mark.
When I notice my own initial shock over Charlottesville — it’s inauthentic. When I hear myself telling myself that “we cannot, as a society, tolerate things continuing in that direction,” I notice something else as well. In the background of that concern, something else is present – something, that when not addressed, stands solidly in the way of my dealing effectively with racism–that is, my urge to distance myself from the issue.
What happened in Charlottesville is an obvious example of racism. And the president’s response is frightening. But if you step back for a minute and listen to what concerned white people are saying, in the same moment we express outrage, we are also distancing ourselves from the people who are taking these actions. “I am so upset at what these NOT ME people are doing, and the NOT ME president’s response not only is unacceptable but makes it obvious that he is a NOT ME white supremacist.”
“Not me” is killing us, and it’s true right here at home.
Here in Austin, we love ourselves and our city so much. But arguably, that story has never translated to equity. I will say more about this later on, but according to a 2015 study, for cities of our size, Austin is number one in the country for economic segregation, and the history of Austin’s racial segregation is well documented. One might ask, “How could a city full of liberals continue to have have those kinds of results?” The discrepancy shows up in our school systems, our businesses, our policies – everywhere – and yes, the environmental community too. I have begun to ask myself — can I continue to tolerate that?
My intention here is to share what I am discovering as a white liberal (woman), with a hope that it will make a difference. My own complicity with racism constantly disappears from my view, and I cannot combat that which I do not see. And nothing in my world prompts me to notice or care, unless I choose to go beyond the superficial. And if I take the position, “I do care,” I’ve stopped questioning myself. Unless I keep disrupting that, it continues.
I do not want to identify with the man in this video who is talking openly about his concern over the disposition of power for “his people.” I want to shame him. What he is saying goes against what I know myself to believe. But the moment I shame him, I hide from myself anywhere that I embody, or at least participate, in the system that he advocates for. It’s pretense to hide the fear of being exposed in my own hypocrisy. Until I admit that, I cannot create anything else.
Last January, shortly after I posted a picture of myself looking empowered in a pink crochet hat, a friend of mine posted about the “white supremacy” she saw at the Women’s March. That statement shocked me. My internal voice went – “But I am liberal! Doesn’t that count for something?!”
Maybe, but why would I even ask that question unless it was to avoid dealing with the perception of me from a person of color who happens to be frustrated and angry about something I don’t understand, or worse, think I already do?
Side note: It is, I think, important to confront this question without diminishing anyone or anything about feminism. But when mass marches for liberal causes are not intersectional and only come together when the issue directly affects white people, is it just more of the same? Asking this question does not threaten anything I truly stand for, although it certainly threatens my ego. And exploring the answer will only add to what I stand for, not detract from it.
I got interested in where she and others who affirmed her statements were coming from. I started following links, reading articles, reading new books, following new hashtags, watching new documentaries. I did this with the intent of discovering whatever there was to discover about a viewpoint that I clearly had not cared enough to fully explore.
I saw how, even though I had always seen myself as being inclusive (like a personality trait), I was not doing the work of actually being inclusive. The issue of race was out-of-sight and out-of-mind for me when it was not in my face on my screen. Which is to say, I missed opportunities to take action, given that they never registered for me as actions to take.
I am not going to post those links, hashtags, and articles here. Many of them come from online communities intentionally not promoted to white people because we cannot help ourselves from making comments that make no difference. (I am speaking from personal, cringe-worthy experience.) If you are genuinely interested in having a deeper understanding, you will find them. Part of an authentic inquiry is doing your own homework. If that is not your intent, I am not willing to provide access to comment streams that we can clutter with ignorance.
I participate in a system that discriminates to my benefit–built on the shoulders of enslavement and genocide. If I move forward in my life without dealing with that, I am by definition complicit. And it does not benefit me to recognize it, either. So unless I wake up to what black people / people of color / indigenous people are saying, I will never even see the issue, let alone do anything about it. These voices overlap and are layered painfully with LGBTQ voices, Jewish voices, Muslim voices – many, many voices. But for now, I am talking about black, people of color, and indigenous voices, because of the unique way in which hidden racism – institutional racism – impacts them.
Our access to anything other than more of the same requires standing the heat and listening, even when it seems you are being personally attacked. Human beings don’t listen. And we usually don’t go where voices are saying something we haven’t heard or don’t want to hear. And we wonder why the world is the way it is. In particular, we often will not listen to voices of people of color that are yelling. But what if we did? What if we heard those voices and discovered why they are yelling in the first place? In our society and with each of us, what does it take for a voice to be heard?
This is not work that can be done superficially or overnight. If you are not serious about discovering your own complicitness, you may want to stop now and resign yourself to living a comfortable life of privilege protected by blissful unconsciousness of how your blessings are connected to discrimination. In fact, some consider the worst version of white supremacy to be the “white ally,” or the person who claims to be on the side of people of color, but would sooner drink our lattes and post our outrage on Facebook than be on the front line with Dre Harris.
Or, to bring it back home for a minute, what are you and I actually doing in the matter of what is happening in East Austin? Who among us is aware of the impacts still very much happening as a result of the overtly racist 1928 “Master Plan” and who among us is paying attention to what’s happening with CodeNext to ensure that we are not repeating a watered down version of the same thing all over again? This overview of the issue can give novices an access to beginning to see the varying and polarized perspectives on how Austin should grow. But one thing is sure, failing to fully understand how the various plans and solutions impact people of color, the default will be negative. And by the way, I am not and will not be laying blame on “the city,” for whatever failures may emerge. We ARE the city. This is on us. And, a fully comprehensive approach would certainly require a level of attention, resources and time from groups way beyond what the city can provide.
And this is not an “outreach” problem. It’s much deeper. It’s a being asleep and thinking I am awake problem. We are all sleepwalkers in some area of life. As human beings, when our personal interests are at stake, we tend to stop thinking beyond ourselves and our own view of what is important. And our brains are masters at finding justifications for all of that. Played out in the environmental space, this sometimes looks like siloed solutions from organizations that sometimes compete for resources rather than working to ensure that resources are used in a way that works for everyone.
If you are reading this and you are white, you may be feeling uncomfortable. That’s probably a good thing. You may even have anxiety about embarking on a journey that will almost certainly bring you face-to-face with complaints about you or someone just like you. You may know inherently that you will almost certainly face embarrassment and say something wrong that makes it worse. I get it, and it’s ok. Making mistakes is part of the process. It will take courage to confront yourself, to listen. Good for you. But please note that doing this work will not make you or I heroic or special. To many, it will make us barely tolerable.
And consider this — that your discomfort stands out to you is itself a privilege. Consider that many black people, people of color, indigenous people live in a nearly constant state of mild discomfort. Consider that the lack of awareness of these other worlds of experience is what liberal racism looks like. When my mind says, “but I’m not hateful,” my concern for being misunderstood on the basis of my skin is inauthentic. Setting aside the obvious irony, consider that in the background of that concern is the very definition of privilege and highlights what is a norm for white people — being heard/understood.
But, and I emphasize this, I recommend from personal experience that you do your very best not to make a person of color bear the burden of your mistakes. It is not their job to educate you, listen to your concerns, accept your apologies or forgive you. And guilt is inappropriate. Guilt is not responsibility, and in fact it deflects responsibility. Apologies, explanations, and superficial questions are often felt as forms of micro-aggression.
It is very uncomfortable to confront this, but setting aside our personal discomfort long enough to listen is greatly needed, and being defensive kills one’s ability to listen. Rubén Cantú, CEO of Level Up Institute says that not talking about this is making things worse. “We keep kicking the can down the line, and it surges again,”Rubén said as he was reviewing this piece. He also turned me onto Brené Brown’s Facebook live video, which makes this point so beautifully. When Rubén shares the impact on him and his family, you can hear the dehumanizing nature of the constant demand to justify one’s existence and fit into white culture, while knowing you are not fully included.
Carmen Llanes Pulido, local social justice leader and organizer of for Undoing Racism said once, “we are all dehumanized by racism.” This is a powerful statement. Hate is painful to all of us, but choosing to ignore it will deaden the soul. Because it is there. And building a bubble of superficial positive thinking (or negative thinking) only serves to hide one’s deadness from oneself.
As an environmentalist focused on climate change, I promote action to reduce our personal emissions. And, I participate in a lot of environmentally-focused events. We all have our lenses. This is one of mine. And I am proud of the efforts of the many groups and businesses in town to make the world a better place for all of us. However, just because I see myself that way doesn’t make it true when it comes down to it. How would I know that the “better place for all of us” part is actually happening?
I am not saying it’s my fault that the system is rigged. But when I stand behind, “It’s not my fault,” I pass on my opportunity to be part of a solution that works for everyone. And there are many, many issues that impact people of color right here in Austin, as with most US cities:
- Placement of toxic facilities – this map from the Central Texas Sustainability Indicators Project shows clearly that that the large majority of toxic facilities are located in East Austin. This is common everywhere.
- Climate change is having the worst impacts on people of color, right here in Austin. The Dove Springs flood is only one example.
- Food Deserts describe the lack of access to fresh food experienced by communities that have less access to reliable transportation and are not within walking distance of fresh food. Meanwhile, the most walkable parts of East Austin are the very locations being gentrified.
- Gentrification is pushing families out of East Austin and into areas with less services. And those who stay deal with the impact of significant construction in their neighborhoods, which causes stress and health issues from particulates.
- While Texas has made some surprising progress in the school-to-prison pipeline, it is very much a problem in Central Texas, with disproportionate dropout rates, disproportionate hiring and placement of quality teachers, and disproportionate spending on schools and outdoor spaces like parks and pools that support success in school. And the presence of officers in schools can have disproportionate impacts on people of color.
Austin does, indeed, have a task force to address these matters. The Spirit of East Austin and the Task Force on Institutional Racism and Social Inequities were established to address many of these issues. And the hard work of the task force produced this 70 page report on the state of affairs in Austin. But how successful can they be if the “majority” are not listening and vote for something other than prioritizing inclusion, diversity, and equity?
Being Accountable & In Action
One of the deadliest forms of denial is assuming that I am not part of the problem. The same, by the way, is true of climate change. There is an anonymous quote- “No raindrop thinks it’s responsible for the flood.”
As with all systemic issues, no one individual can be blamed for institutional racism. But we are, each of us, accountable for participating in it, whether we are aware of it or not. Making the choice to actually be accountable leaves you with the kind of power that does not come from privilege and does not require anyone else having less.
Meme Styles, President of Measure Austin, a company whose purpose is designing measures that build community trust, offers this –“The way in which we prioritize disrupting racism must change. Are you willing to sacrifice your privilege for the lack of my own? While many white folks have progressive intentions, our inability to elevate the dismantling of racist oppression is shameful. In many cases, it’s a symptom of an illness called liberal racism.”
The world does not need to know who you are not. The world wants to know who you ARE. What you stand for. What we can count on you for. I invite you, whomever you are, to consider that you are complicit. Start there. At the very least, you can be a recovering asshole like me.
A funny thing happens when you awaken to the unworkability that surrounds you and you confront your own culpability. At first, if you let it in, it’s heartbreaking. But if you are willing to have your heart broken, your heart can be opened. What is on the other side of that may be nothing short of miraculous.
There are so many people who have been generous enough to contribute their ideas to this conversation. I have actively sought ways to listen to a variety of voices, including those some would consider extreme. This was intentional, in order to be as inclusive as possible.
Thanks especially to Carmen Llanes Pulido, Meme Styles, Rubén Cantú, Richard Franklin, Brandi Clark Burton, Bakunzi Matemane, Ashely Flashe Gordon, and Olivia Overturf for their suggestions and support. Bakunzi Matemane provided the statistics from the FBI and offered support in making the language accessible to everyone listening. Olivia Overturf spent a lot of time challenging every word of mine that rang less than authentic, including owning the pronoun “I” over “we,” helping me seek out and address any vestiges of my own white guilt and heroism, and acknowledging that what appears to be growing overt hate crime has been here all along, just un-publicized.
Please note – editorials and sponsored posts are written by guest writers to inform and educate the community on a variety of different viewpoints, as well as to share information about local eco-friendly businesses and organizations. However, they do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Austin EcoNetwork.