Thursday, May 21, 2020

White Erasure of BIPOC People and Work

A note about the following: I wrote this post several months ago. It was originally scheduled to publish Thursday March 12; we decided not to post it then because the night before, COVID-19 news swept the nation and all attention was focused there.

I know that some of our readers, like me, have time and mental space to read this right now; some do not. Our email and DMs are open; please get in touch if there is any support we can provide, and take care.

On January 31, we published a Links Roundup post. While we published it under the group account, I (Allie) organized and posted it, so I’m primarily responsible for the mistakes therein—namely, that in promoting Lee and Low’s writeup of the 2019 Diversity Baseline Survey, I failed to name and credit Dr. Laura M. Jiménez, as well as Betsy Beckert, as co-authors of the survey. My mistake was part of a pattern in this specific instance (the Guardian also failed to credit Dr. Jiménez and Ms. Beckert for their work on this survey), but it is also part of a larger pattern of White erasure of BIPOC people and work. So with a healthy dose of humility that comes with recognizing myself as a big part of the problem, and with my (and our) sincere apologies to Dr. Jiménez and Ms. Beckert, that pattern of erasure is the subject of this post.

With full credit to the People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond, we here at Reading While White define racism as “Race-based prejudice coupled with access to systemic, structural power.” It is impossible to exist in the world without having internalized race-based prejudice, and Whiteness necessarily confers a privileged relationship to systemic and structural power upon White people. Therefore, under this definition, all White people are racist. And all White people working on anti-racist activism necessarily bring their racism into their anti-racist work.

It is an inescapable truth that I will bring my own Whiteness and my own racism into anti-racist spaces, and that I will often reproduce racism in those spaces. I can always work to do better, but part of doing better is accepting and sitting with the inherent contradiction of my being in these spaces at all, trying to do anti-racist work while not denying the fact that I am racist.

In a study on how White activists contribute to severe burnout among BIPOC activists, Paul C. Gorski and Noura Erakat identified patterns of White activists “undermining or invalidating the racial justice work of activists of color” and “taking credit for participants’ racial justice work and ideas” as major contributors to BIPOC burnout (among others). According to Gorski and Erakat, “white activists derived benefits from their involvement in racial justice activism at the expense of activists of color who, in turn, were silenced, undermined, disrespected, and eventually burned out.”

Specifically, in Gorski’s and Erakat’s study, BIPOC activists reported that White activists:
  • “appropriate antiracist organizations by usurping power from activists of color”
  • “Need… the spotlight, [which] led some to exploit activists of color either to acquire benefits—leadership positions or speaking invitations, for example—or to win validation from activists of color.”
  • “take credit for ideas they previously dismissed from [BIPOC activists]”
  • “accept benefits, such as credit and recognition, for ideas and work produced by activists of color.” (One interviewee offered, as an example, White Academics “who just want to get their name published with someone who is recognized for doing racial justice.”)
  • “take the work developed by marginalized people and ‘put their name on it.’ [One interviewee] explained, ‘I have white racial justice workers who ... even record me or photograph something I post and use it as if it’s theirs, without giving me credit ... as they coopt it and reappropriate it in a way that is dangerous.’”
BIPOC activists in Gorski’s and Erakat’s study described these White-rooted, within-community conditions as more intense and potent than external causes of burnout: “The racism that propelled participants into racial justice movements was reproduced within those movements. For many participants, this was a particularly disappointing and stress-inducing condition because they had entered movements hoping for a reprieve from the racism with which they coped outside their movements….” It stands to reason that White activists (including us at RWW) have done as much to undermine the anti-racist movement as any external force, and we (White people, including us at RWW) inevitably continue to do so.

There are different levels of White erasure of BIPOC work, from just ignoring it to actively appropriating it. Failing to acknowledge or credit BIPOC people for their work and ideas also erases their very existence and presence in activist spaces, a particularly noxious form of racism.

Big names in the White Anti-racist movement necessarily play a role in this problem. Tim Wise has been rightly criticised for how he dominates, profits from, and moves in general through anti-racist spaces; Leslie Mac, creator of the Ferguson Response Network and much more, wrote: “From Tim Wise to Dixon White - our pain is used for profit. And repeating concepts created by Black folks thru a white lens will always sell.” While I myself have learned deeply from, and am grateful for, the work of White Fragility author Robin DiAngelo, I recognize that she also benefits from White privilege within the anti-racist movement; the BIPOC people with whom she’s collaborated don’t have nearly the same level of national name-recognition, at least among White people (I saw Dr. DiAngelo present at a conference with Darlene Flynn in 2017; both were excellent, and I’ve been bothered ever since that Robin DiAngelo is a household name among White activists and Flynn is not).

We here at Reading While White fall into this category as well. Although we do not have the same level of mainstream attention nationally as Wise or DiAngelo, we do have a disproportionate degree of clout within the fields of librarianship and children’s literature, given that some of our BIPOC colleagues have done this work for more than twenty years (and we turn five this Fall). Ironically, given how I subsequently erased her work, Dr. Laura Jiménez pointed this out to me when I interviewed her three years ago:
The one thing that frustrates me the most--and I’m glad that Reading While White is doing what it does--is that if I say something about a book, if Debbie or Edi says something, we’re all told that we’re not giving the author a chance. That they tried. We are not believed. If you look at the traffic RWW get vs the traffic I get or Edi gets, even though we’ve been doing this for longer, you get more, and the only difference is that you’re White. To be honest, part of me resents that. And, I am glad that there are people willing to amplify our voices. If I write something, and you pick it up, that means so many more people will be willing to hear it. And that is paramount to my work. You get a lot of crap, the same criticism, but at the end of the day, you are heard and you are believed. Without White voices, our message can’t be heard. We are not believed. It’s good that your team realizes it.
I am glad that Dr. Jiménez was honest here, although she was much more generous with us than we deserve, i.e., we do NOT get the same crap; what we get is much smaller, and benign by comparison. I imagine there are many BIPOC people within the children’s literature field who feel similarly—or more strongly—and for good, valid reasons aren’t inclined to tell us that they feel that way (see: Gorski’s and Erakat’s study about burnout above).

You’ve probably heard that Black people—especially women—need to work “twice as hard for half as much” (mainstream White America can thank Scandal for bringing that maxim into our consciousness). Think about what this means for us as White people: We work half as hard, for twice as much.

How does this show up in children’s literature? For one, the bar to be published is infinitely higher for BIPOC creators; and even if you are published, the level of attention and spotlight from the vast majority of bookstores and libraries is disproportionately higher for White creators. While perusing my local Barnes & Noble the other night, I was angered by the number of mediocre books by White people, mostly men, prominently on display in the children’s section. There were several that I’d hazard would never have been published, let alone given the best display space, had a Black woman submitted the same text. This itself is a form of erasure—our insistence upon highlighting the same White men, over and over, causes and allows them to take up space that should belong to BIPOC creators, and by extension, BIPOC readers.

SCBWI Minnesota recently quite literally erased—that is, deleted—the work of Dr. Sarah Park Dahlen when she pointed out that the image they’d set as their banner was a stereotypical, racist image (link included with permission). They also erased the voices of many people who’d commented in agreement with Dr. Dahlen. Deletion of harmful posts is a common form of White erasure; in one fell swoop, the original poster can erase, rather than take ownership of, their mistakes, and can also erase the voices of any BIPOC critiquing racism. In this case, SCBWI Minnesota also decided not to clarify who was responsible for the deletions (link included with permission), thereby erasing their responsibility for that act of erasure and diffusing the blame for this act of racism. Such deletions gaslight the targets of racism (which compounds the initial racism). As Dr. Ebony Elizabeth Thomas noted in a thread about patterns of White erasure she noticed last year, “oppression justifies its violence and power by arguing that the oppressed's receipts are invalid” (quote included with permission).

(A point of clarification here: SCBWI Minnesota later posted screenshots of the deleted content. Another point of clarification: Screenshots that are not transcribed are not accessible to those who use screen readers.)

Erasure also shows up in children’s literature when White creators steal ideas from creators of color and present them as their own. This ranges from the constant entitlement White authors feel to tell BIPOC stories to outright theft and plagiarism. (If you haven’t read Jacqueline Woodson’s Who Can Tell My Story in a while, pause and re-read it now, and also make time for a re-read of Debbie Reese’s An oft-posed question: "Who can tell your stories?"—and actually, also read Maya Gonzalez’ My Story, Your Story, Their Story, Who Gets To Tell It before you read any more of my work). You may also have read David Bowles’ recent, expert pieces on the “harmful, appropriating, inaccurate, trauma-porn melodrama” that is Jeanine Cummins’ American Dirt, or Maya Gonzalez’ careful documentation of how White authors Brook Pessin-Whedbee and Kelly Storck, as well as their publishers (Jessica Kingsley Publishers and Instant Help Books/imprint of New Harbinger Publications, Inc.) plagiarized her work. Recently, Tangerine Jones wrote about how authors Katherine Alford and Kathy Gunst, plus their publisher Simon and Schuster, coopted and profit from her work—and the White aggression Alford and Gunst brought against her. White plundering of Native stories and cultural content for profit also echoes the history of colonial invasion. As Professor Rebecca Tsosie says:
Indigenous peoples have property interests, even if they don’t fall within the narrow definitions of Western law. This was a problem in the sixteenth century when the Doctrine of Discovery was applied as an international doctrine to validate the interests of European sovereigns in claiming property in the lands that were described as the “New World.” They said that indigenous peoples don’t really have property rights, they just kind of roam around on the land, and so it’s okay for Europeans to go and appropriate the land and say that they have title. Now that’s what we don’t want to do with intellectual property rights in the modern era... [P]eople can go and basically steal indigenous songs and stories, and then they can copyright them... the harm’s not merely economic, but it can be a cultural form of harm that could be very devastating.
(Many thanks to Dr. Debbie Reese for answering my questions on this subject, and for sending me that link.) All of the above are examples of the different forms that White appropriation and erasure of BIPOC work can take in the world of literature.

[CONTENT WARNING FOR THIS PARAGRAPH - discusses police killings of Black people]
But perhaps the most dangerous, destructive aspect of this erasure is the flipside. If White people leap to take credit and rewards for BIPOC work and ideas—and if we make those White names household staples, while erasing the names and existence of robbed BIPOC people—we also do the reverse, when it comes to blaming BIPOC people for their own murders while simultaneously erasing the White-owned guilt for those murders. I’m talking to White readers, now. You likely can name a slew of Black people murdered by police: Michael Brown. Eric Garner. Tamir Rice. Philando Castile. Alton Sterling. How many of their killers can you name, off the top of your head? They are: Darren Wilson. Daniel Pantaleo. Timothy Loehmann. Jeronimo Yanez. Howie Lake. Blane Salamoni. Yes, I had to look up most of those. No, they aren't all White, but their lack of mainstream name recognition still protects a White-dominant police force. None were held legally responsible for killing the above human beings. Why were their victims put on trial, their private lives plundered and exposed, by a White-dominant media and public desperate to find a reason to blame them for their own murders? Why have we (White people) done our best to malign their names and their legacies, exonerate their killers’, and erase those of women and nonbinary BIPCOC victims? In the interest of Saying Her Name: Meagan Hockaday. Tanisha Anderson. Mya Hall. Alexia Christian. There are too many more. We should know them.

All of the credit for anti-racist gains, none of the blame for racism… this is still the dominant narrative in every sector of the White community, from open bigots with sheets and torches to the wokest of the woke.

At the White Privilege Conference in 2017, Darlene Flynn and Robin DiAngelo said that “getting educated just makes White folks better racists.” BIPOC activists have raised concerns about White anti-racist activism for a long time; I recently re-read the famous excerpt from The Autiobiography of Malcolm X in which he advises “sincere” White people to “...find all other white people they can who feel as they do—and let them form their own all-white groups, to work trying to convert other white people who are thinking and acting so racist." This passage, among many other things, helped inform our thinking when we first launched Reading While White. I’d remembered the above words perfectly, but had conveniently managed to forget the following:
I have these very deep feelings that white people who want to join black organizations are really just taking the escapist way to salve their consciences. By visibly hovering near us, they are ‘proving’ that they are ‘with us’ … generally whites’ very presence subtly renders the black organization automatically less effective… I know that every time that whites join a black organization, you watch, pretty soon… a black may be up front with a title, but the whites, because of their money, are the real controllers.
What can we White people do, to be and do better? It’s possible to get stuck in guilt, when we reflect on how we can aid and abet racism despite our best intentions. It’s also tempting, while reflecting on this, to outright disengage from anti-racist efforts; and at times, we White people do need to step back, since our very presence can (as Malcolm X reminds us) automatically render BIPOC-led efforts less effective. And we should definitely remove ourselves when we’re told that we’re actively harming BIPOC activists.

White activists won’t, however, help matters by completely and permanently disengaging from the movement. We also won’t help by self-flagellating—especially publicly, which puts a lot of pressure on the injured people to provide forgiveness and absolution. There is no perfect science to knowing when to step up and step back, but we have a responsibility to keep trying to show up when it’s helpful to the movement, and to step back when it’s not.

The study I cited above from Gorski and Erakat suggests that White activists can improve by “policing one another around concerns related to credit- and spotlight-grabbing behaviors (such as coopting the ideas of activists of color) so activists of color do not need to expend energy doing so.” We must hold each other accountable to this, and we must fight the kneejerk defensiveness that so often comes when anyone—fellow White people included—try to hold us accountable. Inviting others to give us direct feedback (and sharing how they can do that easily) is a good first step here, and in that spirit, please always feel free to email us, We must remember, also, that asking fellow White people to hold us accountable should not be an excuse to ignore or dismiss BIPOC people when they do choose to expend energy to hold us accountable, feedback to which we are not entitled but for which we should be grateful.

We can also correct ourselves and each other when we start to subtly usurp and take control of BIPOC-led organizations, as Malcolm X warns is our default. Making finances, funding, and decision-making processes in organizations transparent, and making transparency the norm, can help; we also must listen and act when BIPOC people voice concerns about White leadership or processes. Patterns of BIPOC leaving organizations are almost always a signal that something is rotten in the White culture of that organization, and when we notice such patterns, we must self-examine and ask for help and education from our White friends and community. And above all, when we’re made aware that we’re impeding anti-racist efforts, we must remove ourselves, and commit to change and accountability, before we continue to inflict harm on BIPOC activists and weaken the movement overall.

Gorski and Erakat also advise White activists to “prioritize movement goals over their needs for recognition and validation.” Putting this into practice is easier said than done. Many White people are drawn to anti-racist work entirely for ego- or profit-based reasons; maybe a few are drawn to the work for entirely pure reasons and don’t care about recognition at all. But most of us fall somewhere in between (I include myself in that group). I need to learn, and practice, checking my ego (and letting others check my ego). We White people need to help each other actually do that work of prioritizing movement goals over egos—and this involves having very clear goals, as well as people we trust to hold us accountable.
(A quick N.B.: This language—“prioritize movement goals over your need for recognition and validation”—should never be used as an excuse to give men credit for the work of women and nonbinary people, to give cisgender or heterosexual people credit for LGBTQIA+ work, to give nondisabled people credit for disabled work, or to justify oppression of any other intersecting identity.)

We must also work on doing the flipside of all this. In addition to giving full credit to BIPOC people for BIPOC ideas and work, we need to work to take responsibility for White-owned and White-originated mistakes, harm, and damage. This means making apologies that don’t ring hollow, taking action to correct the damage we’ve done, and working to prevent similar mistakes in the future. This means we openly and eagerly educate fellow White people about our own mistakes, rather than covering them up from each other in an effort to be the best White person in the group.

Dr. Jiménez told us, three years ago, that one of the most useful things we can do at Reading While White is to pass the mic. We have to do a better job of passing that mic, and talk internally often about how we can do better (we’re always open to criticism and suggestions on this subject, as well). Our White readers can also play a role in this, by making sure that you hear what our BIPOC colleagues have to say when we do pass the mic. Read our kindred spirits, and read them before you read us. We make it a point to link to BIPOC articles, essays, and blog posts as often as we can—click through those and read them. If it means you have to stop reading us so you can read them, please read them. Like them more than you like us on social media. Amplify them more than you amplify us. And when they call upon you to take action, listen to them. Don’t wait for us to say “don’t promote books with anthropomorphic monkeys”—believe Edi Campbell when she says it herself.

I’m sorry to Dr. Jiménez—I shouldn’t have erased your work. All of us at RWW are grateful that Dr. Jiménez encouraged us to acknowledge and examine that act; it’s given us a chance to reflect and learn. And in the spirit of this work, we hope that these reflections are useful to you, too.

-Allie Jane Bruce

1 comment:

Admin said...

we also must listen and act when BIPOC people voice concerns about White leadership or processes