who’s the snowflake?

I was visiting in Sweden a couple of summers ago, and had to get up early for an appointment. On my way back I passed through a park. It was still early, probably before nine, and the air was cool the way it is in the summer when you know the day is going to be hot.

There were a couple of blonde girls raking leaves in the park. They looked like volleyball players, tall, and strong. I couldn’t figure out what they were doing, until I remembered that Swedish high school and college students often have summer jobs filling in during the regular staff’s summer vacation. (Swedish employees have 6 or 7 weeks of paid vacation time, and usually take 4 of those weeks back to back during the summer.) Outdoor summer jobs are the best, because, well, you get to spend all summer outdoors. When I was growing up you’d only get the outdoor jobs through connections.

Right now I’m also remembering an affluent young woman, one of my students in Silicon Valley. She had grown up on a ranch in Morgan Hill, in the south end of the San Francisco Bay Area. As an undergraduate she spent a semester studying abroad in London.

When she came back to school in California I asked her about her time in London. It was obvious there was something she didn’t want to say. It took some prodding, but finally she told the class that in London had been the first time she’d seen white people do manual labor. White people, looking just like herself, had cleaned, sold tickets to the Underground, worked in the supermarkets, and swept the streets. She’d never before experienced anything like it.

This Los Angeles Times story talks about how the California wine industry has such a hard time finding workers after president Trump’s proposed crackdown on undocumented immigrants that they are forced to pay way more than the minimum wage. From the story:

Some farmers are even giving laborers benefits normally reserved for white-collar professionals, like 401(k) plans, health insurance, subsidized housing and profit-sharing bonuses. Full-timers at Silverado Farming, for example, get most of those sweeteners, plus 10 paid vacation days, eight paid holidays, and can earn their hourly rate to take English classes.

The story’s headline? “Wages rise on California farms. Americans still don’t want the job.”


Earlier this summer I spent a few days in Ann Arbor, Michigan, attending University of Michigan’s National Intergroup Dialogue Institute. It’s an intense program, focused on some hard-to-tackle issues: Social justice, social differences, oppression, and on how to bring about dialogue. The time is about equally divided between workshops and big hall lectures/discussions. The workshop time was spent in smaller groups that stayed the same through the conference, so there was enough time to start getting to know the other participants a little bit.

We left California just as spring quarter was ending, and right before summer school was about to start. I was tired from a long stressful school year. I was tired of people, and I was definitely tired of people telling me what to do. And, having spent the past 15 years teaching about social justice, inequality, and prejudice, gaining plenty of experience guiding groups through difficult conversations in the process,  I overlooked the (obvious) need to prepare mentally for the four-day institute.

The first few meetings in our smaller group were interesting, and it was obvious that people came from very different backgrounds. I listened more than I spoke. Partially out of teacher-habit (the worst thing an instructor can do is talk too much when you want a group to share experiences), and partially because I know that my own white, educated, middle class, northern European, background is one where structures have granted me privilege, rather than caused me to struggle.

Over the few days the institute lasted, I grew increasingly frustrated. I’m writing this on August 9 – about a month and a half after we returned from Michigan. Today a couple of the pieces finally fell into place.

The first piece is something I once learned from a gay student. Having come out some time earlier, and agonized over the decision, he realized one day that the coming out process was never going to be over. As a gay man, he would have to keep coming out for the rest of his life. To new friends, new colleagues, maybe to their friends. He told me that he had gone to a gay professor for advice, and she had told him that he was right. It would never end. Exhausting, right?

I walked into the small group discussions in Michigan with a lot of experience from similar situations. But I failed to realize that no one knew that about me. No one knew me at all, as a matter of fact. What I was doing was assuming that everyone would take one look at me and automatically know that I was one of the “good” white people. And that is, to be honest, exceptionally annoying behavior. It’s self-important, and egocentric. And as a white, privileged, person you really don’t need to be egocentric in discussions about social justice and racism. When I see such attitudes in my students I call them on it. Yet I was blind to it in myself.

The second piece was a comment Tim Wise made today about the #blacklivesmatter protest at a Bernie Sanders rally in Seattle yesterday. Wise’s point is that racism upholds class differences in the US. So, when white leftists (like Sanders) want to deal with class issues first, and assume that after that racism will take care of itself, they are seriously missing the point. That’s the reason, Wise says, that “white leftists have to EARN the votes of people of color and white antiracists”.

And that’s when it dawned on me. At the conference in Ann Arbor I grew increasingly tired, irritated, and cranky, because I felt pushed to prove myself (AGAIN! the unfairness!) to people of color. And in that, I was so wrong. The truth is that I will have to prove myself, over and over again, to everyone around me, and to myself, for the rest of my life.

And the exhaustion I felt, and have been feeling since I came back from Michigan, that’s just how it is. As a white person I have the privilege of being able to take a break. But, there is no turning off injustices. There are no breaks for anyone suffering from oppression.

My exhaustion actually brings me closer to others. For once I too felt boxed in, judged, and limited. And I didn’t like it one bit.

for the swedish reader, a small rant

Spanarna, Sveriges Radios gamla goding, har sänts sedan 1988. Enligt hemsidan fick programmet nyligen det europeiska radiopriset Guldrosen i klassen Reality & Factual Entertainment.

Programmet, de flesta svenskar har antagligen hört det åtminstone någon gång, har ett enkelt upplägg: En panel om tre personer levererar varsitt inlägg, där de beskriver en “trend i samtiden”, som programledaren brukar säga.

Förra fredagen, den 19 september 2014, pratade Johan Hakelius om den tilltagande, och enligt honom oroväckande, trenden att låta folk själva definiera vem de är. Hans första exempel (inläggen i programmet har alltid tre exempel) var ISIS, Den islamiska staten i Irak och Syrien som ändrat namn till IS, Islamiska staten, därigenom läggande under sig ett teoretiskt sett oändligt område.

Han fortsatte: Och det här är ju ett allt vanligare problem i en värld där vi har lämnat iden på att det finns nån slags objektivitet eller objektiv sanning, /…/ någon rim och reson att pröva begrepp mot. Utan allting skall vara en fråga om självdefinition. Och om man inte får definiera sig själv så är det kränkande.

Därifrån går Hakelius till sitt andra exempel, som handlade om den sortens självdefinition som har med enskilda individers identitet att göra. “Är en man en kvinna, om han, eller hen, upplever det som om han är en kvinna?”, frågade han sig till exempel. Och “kan [någon] hävda att han är svart bara för att han känner sig svart?” För att riktigt stryka under det löjliga i detta spädde hans spanarkollega Calle Norlen på med “Jag ser mig själv som österrikare!”. Helfånigt, ju!

Men. Jag skulle svara obetingat ja på båda Hakelius frågor. En transsexuell människa känner sig som om hon, eller han, fötts i fel kropp. Personen kan se ut som en man, men känna sig som en kvinna. Lätt. En person med ljusare skinn än president Obama, och med gröna ögon och blont hår, kan vara svart. Lika lätt.

Det tredje exemplet handlade om Fotbollförbundet. Förbundet utan genitiv-s. Egen identitet, skapad i ett språkfel.

Hakelius gled från vad han kallade identitetspolitik till Fotbollförbundet på ett glättigt bananskal. Hela panelen skrattade och tjoade. Alla skrattade åt Fotbollförbundet.

Hakelius sa såhär: … jag har stor respekt för de här kinkiga fallen som har att göra med kön och ras etc. Det kan vi prata om tills korna kommer hem. Men, det finns fall som driver mig till vansinne och jag vägrar acceptera. Vi vet alla, och nu kommer det exemplet… 

Och där, övergick han till att prata om Fotbollförbundet.

Men det är något knepigt med början av det sista citatet. Efter att han talat respektlöst om svarta, och transsexuella, säger han att han har stor respekt för de här kinkiga fallen som har att göra med kön och ras etc.

Johan Hakelius säger att han har respekt, men har just visat att han inte har någon respekt alls. Han vet att han borde säga att han har respekt, så då säger han det. Det är vad som brukar kallas politisk korrekthet.

En fråga man kan ställa till någon som Johan Hakelius är varför det är så viktigt hur andra identifierar sig. Han vill ha mer objektivitet, och mindre subjektivitet. Begreppet hegemoni säger att i ett givet samhälle uppfattas som objektivt det som inte hotar status quo.

Jag tror det är såhär: Bara den som aldrig haft sin ras ifrågasatt, eller gjord synlig, tycker att rasifiering som begrepp är löjligt. Bara den som möts av respekt vart han går tycker det är löjligt att andra kräver respekt. Bara den som lever i ett samhälle som automatiskt definierar honom som naturlig och självklar skrattar åt andras behov av att själva få bestämma hur de vill kategoriseras.

american whiteness


Here is a fun read that came to me through Facebook: The Four Cutest Ways To Photograph Yourself Hugging Third-World Children. Number 3: While wearing traditional native garb, is my personal favorite. Angelina Jolie comes to mind, obviously. You can see her moving in on a little girl above.

I’m sure lots of people would disagree with me, but I do think white women’s tendency to wear traditional garb when traveling has to do with white people’s need to be somebody. In a society that takes whiteness for granted, white people often feel invisible. As if they were the only ones without culture, they have to seek out the cultures of others to get some sense of belonging.

All of this is backwards, of course, since whiteness in itself is a ticket to the ultimate belonging, the comfort that comes with being seen as ‘normal’. But, the first sign of privilege is that you are blind to it when you have it.

Some years ago I had a student, a white young man at the predominantly white Catholic campus where I teach. His name wasn’t Patrick O’Brien, but it could have been. In one discussion he told the class that, “Had I been Mexican, my life would have been easier.” The difficulty he experienced in his life was exactly what I talk about above. He felt that he didn’t know who he was.

Maybe at this point I should repeat the basic facts: A white young man, native speaker of American English, in college on a predominantly white campus founded on the religious principles shared by his own family, had a feeling of not knowing who he was in the world. He imagined that if instead he had been Hector Gonzalez, and his skin had been brown, his speech accented, he would have known his own identity.

Culture belongs to ‘the other’. Identity belongs to the brown, the gay, maybe to the women.

Another white young man wrote in an essay last quarter something along the lines of “seeing your own life played out in the media over and over again is addicting”. He was talking about a baseball movie he had seen as a child, that had featured kids that could have been any one of his friends, or himself.

Understanding that hegemony is addicting is a huge step forward from thinking that you don’t have an identity when you are white. Maybe there is hope, after all.

the magical negro

Here is a good piece for anyone interested in hegemonic media representation: a blog post about ‘Girlfriend Intervention’, a new Magical Negro show. The show will feature sassy black women helping white women with style choices, much like the help that gay men provide for straight men in ‘Queer Eye For the Straight Guy‘.

The expression ‘Magical Negro’ was coined by Spike Lee, and refers to a black character who guides a white character in TV or movies. The black character holds wisdom and power that sometimes, at least in my mind, sits awfully close to plain common sense. Here is a list of ‘Magical Negro’ characters in recent movie and TV.

One addition to the list could be the nurse Chantelle in Passion Fish, John Sayles’s film from 1992. Chantelle takes care of a self-destructive white woman after an accident. One scene from Passion Fish spurred a comment from a black student ten years ago that I still quote to all my classes: “I’m tired of seeing my people as magical healers.”

never ever read the comments if you want to keep your lunch

I read this story about the aftermath to the hate crime last fall at San Jose State University, and I think how hard can it be to get it right at a campus that is predominantly non-white, in a city, and a county, and a state, that is predominantly non-white. But then I read the comments, and I realize exactly why. Grown-ups are racist, and why would college age kids be any different?