Monday, November 14, 2016

On Safety Pins, Advocacy, Whiteness, and our field

I’ve been thinking a lot over the past few days.  Thinking about our field, and the White people in it.  To borrow from Dave Chappelle--we need to get our shit together.

So let’s start communicating in clear, non-bullshitty ways.  Here are my expectations for White people in the field (and to be even clearer, I am a White woman, and much of this I’m writing down to hold myself accountable).

White people, I expect you to study the history of race and racism, colonialism and white supremacy in the USA and in children’s literature, and to learn how all of the above are still alive and well today.

White men, I expect that in addition to studying the above, you will become experts in patriarchy and misogyny and how they are linked to White supremacy.

I expect you to learn about racism as a system that allots power disproportionately to White people, and our unique responsibilities as White people to dismantle that system.

I expect you to commit the time and money you can to this education process.  I expect you to read books, read articles, and watch videos.  A starter list: The Root, Colorlines, Latina Lista, Indian Country Today, Hyphen magazine, and The Aerogram.

I expect you to, if you possibly can, attend an anti-racist training.  I highly recommend The People’s Institute’s Undoing Racism Workshop, Border Crossers’ trainings, and SEED trainings.

I expect you to prioritize this education process over your yoga class.

I expect you to educate yourselves before you take actions, recognizing that one of the most dangerous things we White people can do is act without education.

I expect you to ask for guidance, to hold yourselves accountable to people of color and Native people, especially women.

I expect you to lift up people of color and Native people, especially women (and not just authors and illustrators--I expect you to lift up librarians and teachers and activists).  I expect you to thank them for what they have taught you.  Start with our blogroll.  Become fans of those people.

White men--I expect you to recognize that you are uniquely safe in the USA.  You have a shield that nobody else has.  I expect you to use that shield to advocate for others.

White women - I expect you to educate yourselves on White Feminism and take responsibility for organizing with other White women to interrupt it.

White men--I expect you to connect with other White men, to organize to undo White patriarchy.  Including the White men you feel you are better than, smarter than, separate from. Your life may not depend on it, but your humanity does.

I expect that when someone says “ouch” to you, you will apologize.  I expect you to expunge “I didn’t mean...” and “What I meant was…” from your vocabulary and to introduce phrases like “You’re right. Thank you for educating me” and “I clearly have some learning to do.”

I expect you to name racism when you see it.  When someone else names racism, I expect you to listen and back them up.  And when other people deny or erase their experiences, I expect you to say, “that is not OK.”

White people who are exhibiting safety pins, or their characters with safety pins, I expect you to stop and consider how you have responded to the work of people of color and First/Native Nations and their allies when it comes to naming racism in the children's book industry.  Too many of us ignore, dismiss, or actively undermine their work to fight racism.  Please do some soul-searching and ask yourself how “safe” you really are.

Here's something else to consider: not everyone finds the safety pins a meaningful symbol. For some people, they erase the very real reality that they aren't safe.

White librarians, teachers, bloggers, and reviewers: I expect you to stop merely advertising for books by/about marginalized groups and to prioritize advocating for them. Let me break this down.

Too many of us happily advertise for ourselves, for book creators, or for publishers when it costs us nothing and gains us rewards (like fancy dinners.  And free books.  And connections with authors/illustrators.  And fancy jobs.  And fuzzy warm feelings.)

Too many of us disappear when we are called upon to advocate for marginalized people, to put ourselves on the line when it gains us nothing (except our humanity) and could very well cost us something (like the above perks).

Too many of us trample people of color and Native people, especially women, in the field, in our field.  Too few of us advocate for women of color and Native women who are librarians.  Too few of us thank them.

Too many of us make light of the struggles of people of color and Native people. Too many of us utilize their struggles to get the laugh, to advance our brands. This must stop now.
(Make no mistake here--I am in favor of humor as a coping mechanism. But humor that makes a joke of oppression--and thereby strengthens the oppressor--is not OK. Good humor makes fun of the oppressor.  Better humor highlights the nature of oppression.  The best humor weakens the oppressor.)

Too rarely do we name our privileges as White people and White men in this field.  White people, I expect you to name your whiteness openly and frequently.

Too often, our White fragility and male fragility is activated when people of color name racism and when women name sexism.  Too often, we demand to be comforted in those moments.  By people of color and Native people, and by women.

White people, I expect you to make mistakes.  Over and over and over again.  I expect you to apologize for them, over and over and over again, without asking anyone--especially women, people of color, or Native people--to take care of you.  I expect this to be a struggle (it is) and I expect you to not give up.

You can no longer be passive, non-racist, "good" people; you need to work to actively dismantle this mess.

If it makes you feel uncomfortable or confused or guilty or shameful, sit with that for a while (those feelings won't kill you--I speak from experience), then help each other organize.

The thing to do now is soul-search.  Listen.  Read.  Talk to other White people who are a little further on this journey.  Let yourselves be educated about the special powers and privileges you have by virtue of being White--especially White men, especially now.  Challenge yourself to ally (verb) every day.

White people, including Allie, I expect and accept nothing less from you.


Unknown said...

This was great, thank you so much!

(It also sort of reaffirmed why I don't like Amy Schumer, Lena Dunham, etc. Something about them always seemed...fake.)

- Kate

Nancy Werlin said...

I wonder whether setting the bar of expectations in this way is counter-productive. Like with the comment above that finds validation in this set of expectations for deciding Lena Dunham, Amy Schumer, etc., are "fake."

I'd like to see as many people as possible to stand against racism, misogyny, hate crimes. I'd like high-profile people to stand up in this way and I am so glad when they do.

Even if some of them and some of us do it "wrong."

-Nancy Werlin

Unknown said...

That's a good thought, Nancy. Very good thought. We don't want to spend time yelling about what is right when we are not actually getting the right things done, even if they are hopelessly flawed. I will concede I was too quick to pass judgment (though I am not a fan of either, and that played into it). Thanks so much. :)

- Kate

Christopher A. Brown said...

Nancy, I agree with your point. I'm not saying that Allie is wrong (she is not), but I personally struggle with the constant you're-not-doing-enough rhetoric that I read regularly.

Full disclosure: I feel a little uncomfortable discussing this online as the anonymity of the Internet can be cold and excessively cruel. But it's been a long, long week since last Tuesday and I may be a little more worn down than normal.

I don't want my thoughts to be read as argumentative or flippant - they are not meant to come across that way at all. But when do we start celebrating the strides we've taken? I think overall we need more reassurances and support as opposed to orders as to what we're not doing right. Yes, we're doing a lot wrong. We get things wrong all the time. I get things wrong all the time. But where is the compassion and the helpful guidance that takes the sting out of realizing that you need to change your behavior/attitude/words? Can we cultivate that feeling again among liberals? I think it's needed.

Sam Bloom said...

Nancy and Christopher, I appreciate where you're coming from - I have a hard time when I first read something that strikes me as "harsh." But I've now seen several cases of people of color and First/Native Nations people expressing their discomfort with the safety pin (or with the role White people had in the election), and do you know what the overwhelming reaction is? The White folks in question comment on how they wish the POC/FNN would have said that nicer. Then (mostly other White) people jump in to comfort the White person. That isn't exactly what is happening here, but it has that "Man, Allie, can't you tone down the nastiness?" vibe. I personally am pissed off right now, and one of the things that has angered me is the way so much time and energy is being spent making White people feel better... in most cases, cisgender, hetero White people. The people who have the least to worry about right now. Not to make pain comparisons (and with the admission that I have no idea if these descriptions match yours, though your avatar leads me to believe you're White, Christopher) but I really think we Whites have to, as Allie says, "sit with our discomfort." And listen more than ask for people to be nicer.

Megan Schliesman said...

I see Allie'a words as a call to action at an absolutely critical moment in our history as a profession and as a country. So for me this isn't about shaming or discounting, it's about rejecting and seeing where and how I can step up, including working harder to understand

Megan Schliesman said...

Sorry -- I meant "reflecting" not "rejecting"

Allie Jane Bruce said...

"White people, I expect you to make mistakes. Over and over and over again. I expect you to apologize for them, over and over and over again, without asking anyone--especially women, people of color, or Native people--to take care of you. I expect this to be a struggle (it is) and I expect you to not give up...

If it makes you feel uncomfortable or confused or guilty or shameful, sit with that for a while (those feelings won't kill you--I speak from experience), then help each other organize."

Nancy/Kate/Christopher - the above doesn't address your concerns?

Unknown said...

Allie - yes it does, and I am sorry (to all here) if my comments were taken incorrectly.

As it happens, I just had a big fall down myself. I just finished writing a statement for ALA's New Members Roundtable on this election and in the first sentence, I used the term "grief" in a way that assumed that is how everyone was feelings and I just got called out on it on the listserv. Fortunately, I had enough time to edit for our blog.

I continue to appreciate your thoughts on this as I try to be better for social justice, even in those times where I am (to borrow from the movie Little Women) hopelessly flawed.

- Kate

Angie Manfredi said...

Nancy and Christopher:

Ask yourself why you continue to center White people in this conversation. Ask why you continue to center your White feelings of "but we are TRYING to help even if it's WRONG can't we get some credit for trying? Why are marginalized people being MEAN to us?" Ask yourself why YOU are centering YOUR hurt and YOUR fear instead of taking a moment to listen to marginalized people expressing discomfort. Allie's post asks us to de-center White feelings, which is needed now more than ever, and yet the first responses are "the bar is too high!" and "I feel like I can't do enough!" That is literally part of the problem.

You SHOULD feel like the bar is too high - it smacks FNN/POC in the face every god-damn day while we White people fall all over ourselves to pat ourselves on the back for, gosh darn it, caring! You SHOULD feel like you can never do enough - because we can't, which is why we have to keep trying, to make even the smallest dent. And we keep owning up to when we make mistakes or when we project Whiteness and comfort onto a situation where it doesn't exist for out FNN/POC peers.

We don't get to stop and congratulate ourselves, there's still too much work to be done. The question is: can you actively work to de-center your Whiteness to come along to do it?

ceelow-nyc said...

This is a comprehensive list that Allie has put together. Its sheer depth might be intimidating to those who are just getting started, but my advice to you would be to pick a couple things to start with and build on that. One word of caution re: the safety pins: while wearing one as a symbol of solidarity I have to stress the potential for putting yourself in personal risk. Coming to the defense of a stranger is the right thing to do, but any time you are inserting yourself into any kind of confrontation you have to be prepared. Some training in verbal de-escalation techniques and self defense would not be out of the question.

Elisa Gall said...

Struggling with whether or not you are doing enough or doing something the right way is a struggle many people wish they had the privilege of worrying about. Please consider how talking about this struggle might have an impact on people who don't share that privilege, who are struggling for survival. If you're feeling like this post is calling on you to think about how you might not be doing enough, what a great time to reflect on that. I also recommend the link to the White Fragility post Allie shared above. As for why we can't see where we are....I want to echo Angie's thoughts and say we should not get cookies or pats on the back for working to fight systems of injustice we collude with and benefit from, even as we work to fight and end them. I understand people might see the safety pins as a step to motivate action - but to me, acknowledging the limits and unintended harmful consequences of that symbolic gesture is the next step. I appreciate and believe Allie's insights and know they serve to keep White people like me, who are trying and making mistakes along the way, focused and accountable.

Susan said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Susan said...

I was asked by a gay, white person to wear a safety pin, so I am wearing it. Period.


IslesfordD said...

I work with refugees in an ELL program in Portland, Maine--a city that is rapidly getting a change in complexion literally and figuratively--much over the objections and awful threats of an openly racist governor. Recent immigrants to Portland have been feeling vulnerable for some time; now they are terrified. When I first heard about the safety pin movement, I interpreted it in a completely different way-- as a practical application, a way to identify myself as an ally to immigrants, refugees, asylum seekers, etc. in my community, should they need help. Yesterday I encountered a group of people from the DRC in a CVS store trying to purchase money grams. There was a long line forming at the register behind them, and the cashier was clearly unable to communicate with them. Everyone was frustrated. The crowd was getting impatient, and the cashier was harried. This is the kind of situation where the safety pin is useful. It is important, in a chaotic situation, for people who are scared and confused to know whom they can trust. It isn't all just about white guilt or privilege. Aside from helping the people with basic translation I spoke with the manager about options for translation services in the store. I also intend to explore this question further at town hall. Sometimes symbols like the safety pin actually facilitate action. Positive, helpful, intervention. Isn't that what we want?

Anonymous said...

I feel like Allie is suggesting I should not wear a safety pin because it's not enough. Well, I know darn well it's not enough, but within the political and social climate of my school, it's a small way of speaking out, of encouraging and inviting conversation on the topic. I'll keep wearing the pin, keep getting the right texts for my students and talking about the issues some present, keep speaking up and out when I can and always when someone needs me to, and keep trying to start the conversation. It's more effective than a baseball bat.

Sam Bloom said...

Susan, I don’t understand why you felt the need to leave your comment. If you’re being an ally to your friend, kudos. But your reductionist comment is counterproductive. Keep doing your thing, but don’t expect any cookies for it.

IslefordD, thanks for explaining your situation. If you are doing things to move beyond wearing a pin, great! That’s one important point here: as you said, action.

David, again: good. Wear the pin. Keep getting those books to your students. But your comment suggests hurt feelings and, while I’m sorry you’re feeling uncomfortable, I’ll just point to Allie’s comment about sitting with that discomfort. We all feel varying degrees of discomfort, I think.

Anonymous said...

I don't sense hurt feelings in these comments. I suspect that people are more likely frustrated by the scrutiny of their efforts. Because really, for anyone reading this blog site...the writers are kind of preaching to the choir. Yes, we're White (mostly); yes, we're privileged, but we're here because something in our lives—personal or professional—has woken us up to injustice and we are committed to trying to make change happen in whatever ways we can.

There's a big battle out there with folks who's mindsets are light years away from this place. Perhaps we should focus our efforts there and those of you who feel you are "farther along on this journey" as the writer says, can accept us as allies, as imperfect as we might be.

Lisa N said...

This debate is happening all over (including on my own Facebook page) so I am happy to see it explicitly come into the librarian world!

What I have been talking about with people is definitely all of the above, but then also about what do with feelings - ie tears, guilt, the need for cookies. Those things can't just be wished away or stifled. But they don't need to wielded all over the place, because they do feel like weapons to people experiencing oppression. You can process those feelings without making people of color carry your burdens, and practice feeling differently. At least, that's what I'm working through; learning to listen to myself and honor my feelings without doing so to the detriment of organizing/others. Trying to find my own humanity while also supporting others and tearing down the white supremacist capitalist patriarchy.

Megan Schliesman said...

I know that people wearing a safety pin know it's not enough. I know that feeling a sense of solidarity is important, and that's certainly something wearing a pin pin provides many. But I also know not everyone knows what else TO do, what comes next. I think Allie is providing some concrete examples of ways to move forward. She's asking that we do the hard work of self-reflection and self-criticism, not to get in the way of our good intentions--we so desperately need good intentions--but to strengthen them, deepen them. Good intentions are not enough. Safety pins are not enough. Everyone is right about that. So rather than arguing about whether or not we should be wearing a safety pin--which wasn't the main point Allie is making--I'd am trying to focus on what stronger, deeper intentions might look like in action.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for this discussion, everyone. Susan, I'm curious - what else would this friend have asked you to do? "Hey, will you start tearing down heteronormativity?" That is probably not a request most straight White folks hear on a daily basis. If we White people wait around for POC/LGBTQ/First Nations folks to ask us to take real actions against white supremacy .....well the wait could take more time than we have to make our society work for everyone.

One more way to engage in learning & action to counteract racism is the White Privilege Conference in April 2017. It will be in Kansas City, MO with the theme of

Organizing. Strategizing. Taking-Action.
Deconstructing the Culture of White Supremacy and Privilege:
Creating Peace, Equity and Opportunity in the Heartland

More details are available here:

This will be the second time I've attended the conference. Will I feel uncomfortable? Yes! I will need to identify the source of discomfort and listen through it. Will I learn as a result? Absolutely! Will I find new actions that could help breakdown white supremacy? I hope so.....

Unknown said...

Great article! I am an older white male who has worked privately (as a volunteer), as well as through the public education system with Native preschoolers & elementary kids, and kids of poverty. I don't want to get into any other "validations" to give credit to anything I say. I think the thing to understand is that while racism, etc. definitely exists in our culture as it has for hundreds of years, people today are "caused" to death. What I mean is everybody wants everybody else to take up their cause and support their issue. People have baggage & negative experiences that are difficult to overcome, and while many choose to bury that or act it out negatively, there are also a good segment of people who are working to overcome those issues. It took me years to acknowledge my own unconscious racism ("I have a lot of friends of color," or "my brother-in-law is from Uganda" etc.). The impression I got from this piece is that we should drop everything we're doing and take up this cause and work tirelessly to change our culture. Frankly, I think some people are too busy shopping at the mall, listening to their music or texting their friends, or just trying to make a living to pay the bills to really care about it or commit to what it takes to change themselves and their culture. I applaud you for writing this thought-provoking article. Everything you said needs to be said. However, realistically I think we need to first address the issue of apathy in our country with regards to everything you stated. Second, I think we need to accept the fact that not all people are ready or able to "join the cause" (for lack of better words). Thirdly, there is a segment of our population - and in my case, it is older white people - who already are tirelessly and humbly volunteering to overcome the issues you mention in this piece. They are unsung heroes who spend hours and their own money - in a personal, one-on-one way - to fight racism and poverty. They don't want credit. They don't want a news story about them. They don't even want a "thank-you." They only want to do what they're doing because they love the people they are helping and encouraging. At least, this is my world and my experience. While there are plenty of white men and women who need to get off their asses and change and do something, I know hundreds of white men and women who are simply loving children through their actions. Please, please, don't get me wrong about everything that you stated. I loved your article. I just want to bring a different perspective and maybe add to what you said. Thank you so much for your piece, and thank you for the reminder that I need to continually and consciously address any unconscious or subtle ways that I, personally, enable racism to exist.

Allie Jane Bruce said...

Yes, Paul, great comment. I need to lift up the people who've taught me, and the activist work they've done, including the (many) white people in my life who are doing this work. I will continue to mull on how best to do that without re-centering whiteness...

Most of the rest of the comments--I don't think some of these people actually read the post... If they did, they would see that the safety pin thing is just a small part of the actions I am calling us to, and that my emphasis is on asking people to "stop and consider" and be aware of the concerns, rather than giving any yes/no directives (I didn't, and that was deliberate). My guess is that several people saw the title (kicking myself for that), scrolled down, scanned the thing about the pins, then commented. It's a pre-emptively fragile thing to do (mobilizing fragility to pad one's ego) and that's not OK.

I haven't seen anyone saying "OK, I stopped and considered, and I concluded that wearing the safety pin is the right thing for me to do, because I will always intervene when I see injustice and/or danger and I have a specific plan for how to do that, so it's a true signal to my fellow humans that I am safe. I'm wearing it next to my Black Lives Matter pin." (To which I would respond: "Great! And let's trade notes on our plans to intervene, eh? Because maybe we have some tips for each other.")

Going forward on this comments section: Please read the piece by Robin DiAngelo on White Fragility before you comment. This piece + comments section in particular would make great fodder for anyone researching White fragility. This post is a list of expectations to which I intend to hold myself to, and I wrote it down as a call to action and as a tool for others to use as well. The defensiveness it's generated is a huge part of the problem.

And, I'd very much welcome any discussion about the rest of my post, in addition to the safety pin thing.

me said...

As a black person, I find this post ridiculous. Please STOP being obsessive SJWs and simply be "good non racist people." SWJism is maddening and is going too far. And "especially white men"? Do you have any idea how hard men have it? I wish akk the women who think men have it so easy could be turned into men. And this is coming from a girl.