I read the other day that after all the public discussion of the prevalence of rape and sexual assault on campus, colleges still have consistently failed to develop a system to hold sex abusers accountable. This is very disturbing, but not surprising. There is a natural tension between justice for the person victimized, and fairness for an accused victimizer. That tension will likely continue to inhibit the development of procedural remedies.
I believe there is something much deeper that we must consider when we look to change the reality of sexual assault on campus. Below is an excerpt from an essay in my 2010 book, Like She Is In Him: Selected Work from A Troublemaking Eco-feminist Punk.

Sparks Everywhere and The Struggle to Transform CAPSS

The most important event in my life to date took place in my early adulthood when I met Judy Wildwater Beckman, a radical feminist thinker and activist. She has been teaching me since. She introduced me to Andrea Dworkin, The Red Stocking Brigade, Mary Daly, Alice Walker, bell hooks, Audre Lorde, Marilyn Frye, Barbara Smith, Marilyn French, Carol J. Adams, and countless other feminist/womanist thinkers who have helped shape my view of the universe since then. Her expectations, demands, tolerance, and generosity have led me to become a powerful, loving man who I hope is getting better and better at challenging my sexism, racism, and other issues of oppression.

For nineteen years I have coordinated a community based, feminist oriented, volunteer run program to address domestic violence against women. Over twenty-five years ago I helped coordinate the child care for the first Take Back The Night March in Cleveland. In the early 1980’s I volunteered for the local rape crisis center. In 1985 I connected with the National Organization For Men Against Sexism, and became part of its leadership collective. I was communications coordinator for the first International Brotherpeace Day in 1986. I co-founded Cleveland Men Against Rape twenty years ago. As a teacher, a radio commentator, a columnist, an alternative TV producer, and a therapist, I have focused attention over and over again on sexist oppression, and I’ve done scores of other activities supporting women’s causes through the years.

I am proud of those things I’ve done, but does all of that make me not sexist in my daily life, make me a safe companion to women? I like to think it demonstrates a certain widening of consciousness, but I am a member of a privileged group who has been taught from the day I was born by almost every institution in my experience to engage in the oppression of over half the human race. I have been informed in thousands of ways, day in and day out about what my attitude is supposed to be towards members of the other group, and what my behavior as a member of the privileged group is supposed to look like. I learned early to enjoy that privilege–Enjoy that privilege, to experience that privilege as if it is natural.

Two of my closest friends belong to oppressed groups over which I hold privilege. No matter how close we feel to each other, I work to always stay aware that, in spite of being a victim of classism and adultism, and to a lesser extent, heterosexism, I can never fully relate to my friends’ conditions, and as long as we live together in the patriarchal, white male system, can never expect them to fully trust that I wont use my privilege consciously or unconsciously against them.

Recently, Judy Wildwater and I playfully came up with the term, CAPSS. It stands for Chronic–Acute Penile Supremacy Syndrome. Everyone in the culture is victimized by this insidious patriarchal illness. As I recall, Z Budapest said that comparing the cost of sexism for men to that of women, was like comparing a hangnail to an atomic bomb. While I agree with the sentiment, I believe that as this infectious dis-ease (CAPSS) has destroyed or virtually crushed hundreds of millions of women’s lives, it has contorted the very meaning of existence for boys and men. It has made us traitors to our own species, the biosphere, and by extension, ourselves.

Oppression has no logic–just a self-fulfilling prophecy,
justified by a self-perpetuating system. Gloria Steinem

It is gynocide that gives rise to genocide. Mary Daly

For we have, built in to all of us, old blueprints of expectation and
response, old structures of oppression, and these must be altered at
the same time we alter the living conditions which are a result of
those structures…. Audre Lorde

The animals of the world exist for their own reasons. They were
not made for humans any more than black people were made for
whites or women for men. Alice Walker

Thanks to the insights of a number of brilliant, generous women, for many years I have grown in the conviction that we live in a culture that is infected by patriarchy (CAPSS?) and speciesism. I believe that the domestication of animals for more than occasional “use” established the normalization of creating an other whom we had the right to control, to make to exist for our purposes. It is at least partially out of this process that the patriarchal illness has developed. I’m certainly willing to entertain other hypotheses, but this is one from which I currently draw much of my sense of the world.

All systems developed within that larger infected system also carry the infection within them. So, whether we are talking about family systems, government systems, corporate systems, knowledge organizing systems, culture generating systems, culture or government disrupting systems, or other relational systems, they are all distorted by, and suffer from, these life eating infections. Corporate capitalism, Leninist-Stalinist-Maoist interpretations of communism, most religious hierarchies are all particularly painful and damaging manifestations of this.

The dis-ease has infected and affected just about anyone within the reach of these words. Unlike many other diseases, an integral part of this dis-ease is the inability to identify that we are infected or even when the infection is affecting our thinking or behavior. From the beginning of this affliction, it directly affected men, and has since served to confuse at least that half of the species regarding the nature of power and the value of intimacy, comity, community, and balance. This confusion distorts not only our view of the world, but our experience in relation to it. The very nature of what constitutes threat, what constitutes safety and security, what constitutes emotional connection, what constitutes accomplishment, what is essentially important to our wellbeing, is distorted. This distortion creates an insecurity and paranoia so deep that most men live in an almost always scary unreality where there is constantly a dangerous other, separate, disconnected. Whether that other is identified as a part of ourselves, another individual human, another group, another species, the natural world, pain, or death, there is an assumption that it is natural that we must fight against, compete with, degrade, or fear that other. With this unrelenting fear of, and imbalance in, our world, there is an overwhelming, often pressing, need to find stasis through some level of control of, and power over this dangerous environment and those others in it. The fist must be formed, the walls built, the missiles manufactured, and the weapons aimed; the ropes fashioned, the chains shaped and linked.

The first victim is the estranged alienated self of every boy child born into this infected environment. As the infection grows, it increases the boy’s capacity to victimize others, to numb oneself to the internal distress and the external results, and to cooperate in a comprehensive process of denial. Women, and by extension, the issue of their great power, children, are the first others within the species to be victimized. This victimization continues in an ongoing spiral that results in such an alienation from the real world that we end up soiling our own nest and endangering the whole biosphere. Simultaneously, the boys and men within the group are rated and forced into the hierarchy under the threat of being labeled one of those others.

Since men are born into a system created and reinforced by the men who came before us and their self-hating women subordinates–a system within which we are alienated from women, children, our environment, our bodies, and ourselves, it feels better for men to belong, even within the tenuous conspiracy of oppression and control over others. It feels better to be accepted as a part of the group called men. Also, because of the all encompassing indoctrination, it not only is terrifying to not be considered a man, it is hard to conceive that there is anything else worth being. In fact, that feeling is so prized that often men will do the most hurtful or insane things to continue to be considered part of that group.

Sex abuse, battery, war, the norm of violence between men, the epidemic of addictions, most anxiety, most depression, heterosexism, racism, classism, and most other oppressions are symptoms of the dis-ease. The general society’s behavioral and cognitive responses to them are severely limited because the systems we have in place are so infected by the dis-ease themselves. As a result, most “good” works are at least partially sabotaged by the infected systems in which they take place.

Whether we’re executives, anarchists working in the streets, community activists, workers at the plant, small business owners, urban farmers, or social service workers, unless we are consciously challenging the messages we have been fed about the need to control the others (that there are really others) and the need to numb ourselves, our success at experiencing happiness or love in our lives, and our power to liberate ourselves and the planet will be limited.

Beyond that, not only have men oppressed women, but members of our group have spent millennia trying to convince women and girls and boys that the unreality stemming from the dis-ease is actually real life. That the world is really a naturally dangerous place filled with dangerous others. If a woman or girl or a man or boy openly refuses to acknowledge that distorted reality, an effort will be made to somehow make them or their ideas invisible, irrelevant, or some way unacceptable. Unfortunately, as a natural response to fear, many members of the men group will also do almost anything to prevent disruption of the tenuous security we feel. Some strategies include the mass murder of women, the systematic degradation of what is identified as the feminine, the societal wide acceptance of dominance and control. There is the always looming intimidation of rape and battering if women (or male allies) in any way threaten to disturb our stasis or confuse our unreality. When these methods are not effective, the system may create space to address individual violence, harassment, even discrimination within certain confines, as it continues to resist full awareness of the unreality and the actual illness that causes it.

This, for instance, results in the grudging acceptance of the push for women’s equality within the sick, dysfunctional system. This keeps us from uniting to pull the chains from the wall, to stretch, to reach for women’s liberation (and men’s) and the healing of this horrid dis-ease that has plagued us for so long.

And, now when four hundred generations of half the species have attempted to control what you do, what you believe, what you think, what you feel, it is hard to resist that. When you’ve been so exposed to the illness, some version of the sickness is bound to manifest itself within you. The fear, alone, is an extraordinarily powerful mystifier and indoctrinator. Yet, amazingly, in spite of some symptoms, many women and some male comrades have somehow passed down through the generations the knowledge of the actual reality in which our species lives. (This is the natural harmony with itself and the other species and eco-systems of our existence.) For many generations now women and their allies have been finding more and more ways to develop an immunity to, and a natural cure for the dis-ease. They are finding methods to resist it. As I write, we continue to develop strategies to reduce the symptoms as we strive toward strategies to wash it out of our system.

So Lyn or Jane or Dee, or Cousin Jeanie, or my mother spent or spend their lives paying the profound cost for my illness and privilege. The crazy dis-ease continues to rage on the TV or radio I will turn on tonight, in the book any of us may pick up at the library or the bookstore tomorrow, in a million places on the internet. In my brain. My training was just about as complete as most men’s in most societies on our earth. So was yours.

My minimum commitment to my clients as a feminist systems therapist is to bear witness and to help them redevelop a narrative that is true to their essence, that will help them heal and hold those who harm them accountable for their actions. My minimum commitment to the rest of the women of the world is to challenge myself and my brothers every single day, and to be open to account to every woman who comes my way.

PARTING RIFF: Boat Rocking, Trouble Finding, Bean Spilling

I believe that the concepts of father and warrior are artificial constructs–symptoms and enablers of the patriarchal illness, that lead to further symptoms and enablers. When we were living in the natural harmony within our species and with the rest of the species of our biosphere, there were no warriors. Even as the dis-ease developed over thousands of years, the construct of warrior was late in developing. The concept only exists as an eventual result of our dis-ease. I’m not interested in being a Warrior for peace or justice. I will strive with every ounce of my energy and blood to help heal and transform us.

More importantly, for most of the history of humanity, there was no father role, partially because there was no direct association of men with pregnancy. The role appears to not be natural to humans. We are all nurturers to our group. All mothers. All part of the caregiver family. Some with the blood-baby magic. Some without. How’s that for trouble finding? What do you think? Oops, I hear the music. Gotta go. I’ll leave you with this poem…..

Biogliding In America***

Invitation to investigation, indigestion, introspection,
instigation of an imitation of light–
Boys lying about the birth of Earth,
Birth of birth
of each and every notion–the motion rocked in the ocean when there was love in the water with the sharks,
when the Chalice wasn’t christian,
when mohammed had no mission,
when an angel could still pin the lying son of a son.
Those were the days when being Human was good enough,
when being buddha wasn’t such a hot idea—
No need to hide from half the race,
No need to control the gates,
because there were none.

Not that there wasn’t trouble.
Not that we didn’t create some rubble.
Not that we didn’t rumble, didn’t stumble,
But it was okay because we could make every movement
A Dance,
Every moment a chance to be music:
Biogliding, slipping, sliding, kissing Sweet Mother Eternity–
Long before the fraternity–
Just family flubs, occasional snubs and stubs,
Just cubs seeking manna from their mama.

I feel like dancing when I sing this song,
Feel like moving and jiggling free,
Feel like dancing, while we’re romancing
this splendendant ecology.

Watch me now…… fufupapadu papadu fufupapadu papadu…papadu fufupapadu………

River Smith is a poet, psychologist, and former co-chair of The National Organization for Men Against Sexism (NOMAS).

I almost set fire to the American flag a half dozen times as I spoke to my Liberation Brew TV audience year after year, asking the question, ”Why would someone want to burn the American Flag?” As I dangled the miniature flag in my hand, just out of reach of a candle flame, I would list the dozens of good reasons why someone might like to destroy this symbol of American power. I would also speak of the many reasons that people want to honor it. The United States represents a beacon of hope and perceived freedom to many around the world. Unfortunately, it also represents some of the worst oppression and genocide in the history of the planet.

How many millions have we enslaved? How many hundreds of thousands have we slaughtered? How many countries have we threatened or invaded? How many governments have we overthrown? Ask the Africans, the Native Americans, the Latin Americans, the Iraqis, The Haitians, the Cubans, The Iranians, and all the others our government and military have violated. They may be able to tell you.

Though I still have the TV show on local cable, I haven’t done a threatened burning in a while now. In part, that’s because I haven’t been inspired to. Perhaps a little history is in order here. Beginning in the late nineteenth century states passed anti-desecration laws primarily in response to the over commercialization of the flag. All kinds of companies were using it to link their products to patriotism, and a lot of people who considered themselves real patriots, didn’t like it.

There was little trouble and there were few incidents regarding desecrating the flag until 1963 when a man responding to the assassination of civil rights leader Medgar Evers was arrested for burning a flag. In the years following, as the Vietnam War unfolded, flag burning incidents and arrests became a common feature on the TV news, and were occasionally reported after that. Finally, in I989 the Supreme Court, citing the First Amendment, declared all laws against desecrating the flag unconstitutional. Even though local governments have found ways to charge people who burn the flag with public safety violations, that’s not been good enough. Between 1990 and 2006 our congress tried seven times to pass a constitutional amendment that would make desecrating the flag no longer protected speech.
While my little flag burning theatre was in response to these misguided legislative efforts, I am still tired of the reflexive flag waving that goes on now. I know it feels good to experience ourselves as a community. “USA! USA! We’re number one! We’re Number One!” It’s natural for people to want to belong, but nationalism is a sick concept that divides the world community. And the principle of “American Exceptionalism” which leads us to believe that The USA is always right and good is sicker still. Come on, shout it with me, “USA! USA!”

So, when are we going to face the truth: The United States is not the greatest country in the World. It certainly has the most powerful military, and at present, it is still the mightiest economic powerhouse. That sounds good, but what does it mean to the average American citizen, and how does their life compare to the life of citizens living in any one of the other industrialized democracies of the world?
Somehow, all the other industrialized democracies, outside the old soviet sphere, have managed to develop national cradle to grave health care systems that provide superior affordable health care to virtually all their citizens. And guess what? It has not destroyed their economies.

The United States may be the greatest country in the world for the wealthiest 1% of the population. It may be the greatest country for a handful of fossil fuel energy companies, corporate farmers, and hedge fund managers, who all get major tax breaks. However, according to The Social Security Administration nearly 40 percent of all workers in the country made less than $20,000 last year. That’s below the federal poverty threshold for a family of four and close to the line for a family of three. On average, these workers earned under $18,000. According to U.S. census data, half our population lives in poverty.

The old myth of the American Dream has been revealed for what it is. International surveys show that over a half dozen countries make it easier for a citizen to rise up economically than our nation does. In fact, studies show that in this country the greatest predictor for what economic class a person will be in when they die, is what class they were in when they were born. A survey by The Associated Press reports that four out of five adults struggle with joblessness and near poverty at some point during their lives. “USA! USA!”

On average, according to The World Health Organization, The United States has a homicide rates about seven times higher than the other industrialized countries. No country in the world locks up as many of its citizens as ours does. We have the highest documented incarceration rate, and we have the most people locked up. That’s about one in every one hundred adults—three times the rate of the next highest country. Come on, shout it with me “We’re number one! We’re number one!”
We are the only developed nation that doesn’t have legally mandated paid vacation. Our country is one of only five countries in the industrialized world that have no mandated paid family leave.

As we have been celebrating our political independence, driving over roads and bridges that are in greater disrepair than at any time during the last half century, can we face that we are not looked upon by international election observers as a model of democracy either? They all know that the presidential election of 2000 was stolen. That is not a “liberal” or “conservative” observation; it’s an objective one by independent observers. Come on, “USA! USA!” They know too that state and congressional districts have been gerrymandered to deliberately avoid having a simple one person one vote democracy, and that racist restrictions are being renewed to discourage large segments of our population from voting. “Okay, all together now, “We’re number one! We’re number one! USA! USA!”

Does anybody have a spare flag? I think I’ve got a lighter around here somewhere.

River Smith has been co-producer and co-host of Liberation Brew, a satirical news show in Northeast Ohio for about 20 years. A former local NPR commentator and talk radio show host, he also ran in the only all vegan democratic congressional primary, with Dennis Kucinich in 1998.

0908151254aSo I woke up this morning with another day of boys killing boys, boys killing girls, men killing men, men killing women, men killing boys and girls, and I cried. I cried because I felt the terror in a child’s, a father’s, a brother’s eyes. I cried because I felt the horror, the absolute impossible devastation as a mother’s heart sinks to unimagined depths. I cried when I thought of each conscious woman who has to contain or bury her fear that she might be next.

Whether it’s a block in Cleveland or a California street, whether it’s an Afghan village, a Nigerian home, or an Oregon college, hearts are breaking, lives are destroyed. Something is wrong. Something is wrong that we are the only species on the planet that so frequently murders its own. Why can’t the love we feel prevent this? Why can’t the moral codes of all the world’s religions prevent this? Why can’t all our preaching about peace and understanding prevent this?

The thing is, this isn’t exactly a human species problem. All humans aren’t out there killing their own. Over ninety percent of these daily killings are committed by men and boys. Over ninety percent of physical and sexual assaults are committed by men and boys. Not women. Not girls. Yes, they kill and maim, too, but not at these epidemic proportions. Overwhelmingly, violence is a man problem.

So, is there something in our DNA? Are human males destined to create this havoc, this ongoing tragedy? That’s not likely. Then, what’s the story? There are theories about bullying, or the existence of too many guns, family problems, isolation, poverty, and so on. Each of these may contribute in some way to the senseless slaughter, but none of them can account for the comprehensive violence that accompanies boys’ and men’s lives. The cause appears to be something much more fundamental.

Over the last four thousand years most cultures on the planet have developed what researcher and author Riane Eisler calls a dominator philosophy, rather than a partnership one. The original dominator cultures all followed a pattern that included the development of strict ruling hierarchies, rigid gender roles establishing women as inferior, wide differences in wealth, and spirituality that celebrated domination and the demeaning of the feminine divine. These cultures were convinced the world was a dangerous, fearful place. They tended toward violence, authoritarianism, with all freedom subject to those with the power to physically coerce or harm others.

Unfortunately, our own society is a direct descendent of these cultures. From the moment a boy is born he is being groomed through a thousand daily messages innocently passed on about what a boy, what a man is supposed to be. These messages create pressure for boys to perform in certain ways that identify them as deserving members of the male group. Boys that don’t fit are ostracized. We are taught to funnel our natural energy and occasional exuberance into focused aggression, e.g. war games, football, the armed forces, etc.

While this epidemic of men’s violence affects almost every society, our culture exemplifies the problem. We celebrate violence twenty-four hours a day through television, movies, video games, and much of our music. It is not an accident that over the last fifty years The United States has averaged the most murders per capita of any industrialized country. It is not a coincidence that our yearly defense budget is larger than at least the next twenty nations’ budgets combined. We are a nation that almost worships “justified” redemptive violence, celebrates warriors, and uses the language of violence to describe almost any competition. We are by far the most militarized democracy on the planet.

This mentality drives the man-as-warrior persona that permeates boys’ training, cautioning them, at almost all costs, not to act “like a girl.” This dominator ethic fuels our distorted attitudes toward women, ourselves, and the planet, causing everything from battering to global deforestation.
It is difficult to change all of this. It will continue to be a mighty struggle. As part of that we must face that our definition of Manhood must radically change. We need a manhood for the new millennium; one that makes us allies to women, children, other species, and the earth. If we fully face the hard reality of the sick, hurtful manhood we have been born into, then, together, we can create a new one.

River Smith
Dr. Smith is a psychologist, former co-chair of The National Organization for Men Against Sexism (NOMAS). He blogs at troublemakingpunk.org.

Yes, not all men harass women, but in so many sick ways, most men gain from that harassment because it decreases women’s comfort and flexibility when it comes to making choices about work and shifts, etc. Thank you so much for writing this. I want as many people as possible to see this.

I have so many thoughts on this, but I’m not ready yet to comment much. I really appreciate the earnestness and effort to sort this all out.
Just a quick note: I grew up in the lower end of the working class as a white male with almost no chance to attend college. I was mentored by a man of color with two masters degrees. I felt very far from upper middle class and rich white people.

Izzy In a Tizzy

I mentioned earlier that two weeks ago I went to an anti-racism training and my white privilege went unchecked for awhile. But ultimately I was able to (mostly) check it and I had a great experience that I am still processing and pondering and trying really, really hard to stay in this place of processing and ambiguity. Because I think an important truth is that learning is a process, not an end game. Wow that sounded cliche. But that’s how it’s felt for me and it’s felt great.

Since the training, I’ve been thinking a lot about how complex oppression is and how contextual and multifaceted oppression and privilege are. I’ve been doing some good old internet searches and the closest thing I’ve found to describe this complexity is kyriarchy. But even that doesn’t quite cut it for me. Not right now. Maybe I’ll feel differently in a…

View original post 1,959 more words

As I awakened this morning, the four young people shot down, and the others whose lives were changed by wounds at Kent State University 44 years ago, were on my mind. Their sacrifice carries meaning and a message across the decades. I have to admit, however, that I was surprised at the level of shock and outrage expressed by so many people at the time of the attack.

As someone who was beaten, harassed, and threatened with deadly force by police on the streets from the time I was thirteen years old, as someone who knew the feeling of being locked away in solitary confinement by an all powerful government, as someone who had friends victimized by the Chicago police riot of 1968, as someone who knew people who “committed suicide” while in police custody, I evidently had a different kind of knowledge.

As someone who knew about the lynchings and the government sanctioned, sponsored, or accepted murders of scores of civil rights and labor activists over the previous 150 years, as someone who consciously lived with the genocide of slavery and the near extinction of the First Peoples by our government, I was as saddened by the reaction of many around me, as I was by the shootings at Kent.

Over and over again in my head the words reverberated, “What in the world did we expect?”  I too was outraged by the National Guard’s actions, but not because the shooting was exceptional. It was because it was “one more time.” Within days Black students were murdered by state police at Jackson State University. The reaction to that incident never seemed to resonate with the intensity of the ongoing outrage that continues to be expressed at the Kent State shootings. Why? That is a discussion we need to continue to have.

I was saddened then because it seemed that those who were so uniquely outraged by the Kent State shootings were either oblivious to our history or had somehow not been able to see themselves in the lives of all the activists who had been murdered, beaten, maimed and tortured by our government right up to that very moment. I recognized an irony at the time that just 84 years earlier (exactly 128 years ago today) the “Haymarket Square Massacre” had taken place. The Chicago police marched into a labor rally that had been protesting the police killing of a striker. A small bomb was thrown that killed a police officer. The police then opened fire, shooting down seven of their own and a number of the rally participants. Who was held accountable for these killings? The police? Not a chance. Seven local labor leaders and a man who was known to have made bombs were arrested and charged. After a sham trial, four of these men were hanged. The bomb maker blew himself up, and three went to prison. None of them was proven to have had anything to do with the bomb. “What did we expect?” 

Our government has always maintained the right and the power to harm its citizens. The students at Kent were no exception. It is sad and it should always be outrageous that any government will attack its own citizens. Our government may not do it as often during some periods as it does in others, but we must never forget that, almost whoever seems to be in power, they will use it against us if they choose.

It is our job to know our history and to fill the streets with our humanity when necessary, trying hard not to forget that, “The people united, will never be defeated.”  See you at the barricades!

 

River Smith is a trouble making punk who was locked up as a teenager, and after all these years, he still can’t keep his smart mouth shut.

 Last week some old, white cheating cowboy fraud said publicly what he has probably said over and over to his friends. Another super rich white bigot’s private words were reported too. In many ways this really isn’t news. 

We live in a racist nation that has perpetuated derogatory stereotypes and promoted discrimination against people of color throughout most of its history. Thankfully, we have seen some hard fought changes occur, but do we really believe we can eradicate three hundred years of bigotry and ignorance in a couple generations? I heard a TV commentator say today that our nation “needs to have a conversation about race.”  Really?

“What do you get when you send a racist to college?”  My friend and mentor, Will Nichols used to ask that question of his Black History students at Cuyahoga Community College forty years ago.  A year earlier I met this decorated World War II veteran, who had worked his way through college on the G.I. Bill. He was teaching philosophy part time then, while working full time at the post office.

As a full time history instructor Will Nichols quickly became involved as faculty sponsor for a number of African-American student organizations, and he developed the Black history courses into ones that would require senior level work of junior college level students. His rationale was that he wanted the Black students in his classes to be able to perform at a level far higher than would be required of them elsewhere.  At the time, I thought it unfortunate that as a white student in his class I had to do this extra work too. 

As we groaned over doing 50 page research papers, Nick used to say, “I won’t do it for you, but I’ll wade in my own blood waist deep to help you up so you can do it.” True to his word, he was available 24 hours a day for consultation, inviting our study groups to his apartment on the weekends to work on our papers together.

There was no Martin Luther King Day then, no Black History Month, just the same clear need in our culture to have an ongoing dialogue about our nation’s shameful history and continued behavior of racist oppression. I wonder what Will Nichols, who’s been gone a few years now, would have to say about the often repeated notion that Americans need to have a conversation about “race.”

I believe he’d say that it was an important issue, but as he smiled, waiting for the answer to his original question, he’d tell us that the crucial conversation had to be not about race, but about racism. We Americans have still not fully engaged that dialogue.

Our primary problem isn’t about misunderstanding each other’s cultures (we’ve all been guilty of that at times); our primary problem is about facing the ongoing reality of systemic discrimination. It’s about recognizing the rationalizations and denial that occur in all situations of oppression.  When your culture does something that is unacceptable, such as kidnapping someone and imprisoning them and their descendants for hundreds of years, there is only one way to feel okay about living with that.  You must justify it.

The Romans justified their domination and enslavement of Europeans and others by depicting them as animal like. The British justified their control of the Irish by depicting them as savages or sub-human. Europeans, Chinese, Euro-Americans, and other colonizing cultures all depicted indigenous peoples around the world as savages or scary beasts. The Nazi death machine depicted the Jews and Eastern Europeans as sub-human.

The opinion maker apologists of each offending culture argue that because of some flaws in the victims’ humanity, the imprisonment, enslavement, or extermination of these “others” is in the best interest of everyone involved. Stereotypes are shaped and reproduced broadly, reinforcing the perceived inferiority of the oppressed group.

The stereotypes used to justify the enslavement of African-Americans early in our history were so deeply imbedded in the psyche of white American culture that many of them continue right into the present. It is not some random accident that independent study after study show that housing, job, and justice system discrimination is still rampant in our society.  Our rationalization and denial still keep us from addressing the reality of our culture’s racist legacy.

 So what was the answer to Nick’s question?  When you send a racist to college, “You get an educated racist.” It doesn’t matter what’s put in front of our eyes to see, if we refuse to open our eyes to see it.

We can change that if we as a culture continue to find the courage to face the reality of racism and its terrible consequences.

 

River Smith is author of the book, A Conspiracy To Love: Living A Life of Joy, Generosity, and Power, and co-author with Victor Lee Lewis and Hugh Vasquez of The Color of Fear: A Teacher’s Manual.