How is this Helping?

Let’s have a quick mid-semester review. In the very first class of the semester, way back in mid-August, we began engaging with the tools of narrative theory and critical reflection. Using those tools, we started the process of deconstruction as a tool of critical resistance.

As those of you who have worked with these tools before, you know that there is nothing inherently normative about either narrative theory or critical reflection. Narrative theory reminds you, as the story constructor or listener, to attend to the narrative elements – character, events, causation, normalization, masterplot, closure – as clues about the narrative’s underlying importance and power. Critical reflection reminds you as a powerful actor in society to attend to the situated power of the various characters involved in a situation, and assess that power relative to others.

In order to operationalize these theories – make them tools that can be used rather than theories to discuss – we need a normative framework – a system that guides our set of beliefs, values, understanding of the world. Part of what we do as lawyers, law students and critical resisters is make choices not only about how to use the tools of narrative theory and critical reflection, but also about what normative framework to use. And we must make those choices intentionally, and with an understanding of what our choice of tools and frame might mean – how, in other words, it might affect the story we construct or interpret.

Choosing a normative framework can be as simple as deciding to put on your race goggles. Or your gender goggles. Or your intersectionality goggles. When you put your race goggles on, for example, you are deciding intentionally to believe that everything that happens can be seen as taking place not only against the backdrop of a socially constructed hierarchy of racial categories, but actually driven by such a hierarchy. We might call this hierarchy White Supremacy. With our race goggles on, we understand and accept Coates’ assertion that race is the child of racism, and not vice versa.

With race goggles on, we apply the tools of narrative theory to identify the characters that populate and drive the system of White Supremacy; and we isolate and describe the traits of those characters. Narrative theory reminds us that characters might be the KKK and individual racist actors, but also and more importantly, characters in our system of White Supremacy include the institutions that make that system run: the criminal justice system, the system of gun rights and gun ownership, the police, the school system, neighborhoods, the media, etc. Critical reflection reminds us to attend to the relative power of these characters, which we can do by mapping their “traits” – one of which will certainly be the institution’s use, access to and source of power.

Putting gender goggles on as we did last week and will do again this week leads us to interpret and experience everything as informed by a socially constructed hierarchy where gender is binary, and one side of the binary is more powerful than the other. We might call this hierarchy Patriarchy. Having chosen the normative frame of critical gender theory or feminist theory, we put our gender goggles on and intentionally, radically believe – maybe just for this class or the time it takes for you to read this blog – that everything happens against the backdrop of and fueled by Patriarchy. We believe that as race is the child of racism, so binary gender and the corresponding gender roles are the child of Patriarchy, and not vice versa.

With gender goggles on, for example, we accept the proposition – with determined and intentional belief – that Hillary Clinton lost the election because she is a woman. Of course, there were other reasons and we can all argue about those; just as there were other reasons that Philando Castile was killed and we can all argue about those. But choosing the normative frame of critical gender or feminist theory requires us to start with the belief and understanding that we have to rule out misogyny as the cause for her election loss before moving to the other explanations.

If we accept that proposition – which my students did, readily and without much argument – narrative theory asks that we identify the characters in that system – the institutions that make it go. I had assigned the Dean Spade’s 2013 article on marriage (“Marriage Will Never set us Free” so that seemed as good an institution to start with as any. What traits does the character of the institution of marriage have? And layering critical reflection over our narrative theory inquiry, how does the institution of marriage exemplify, perpetuate and contribute to Patriarchy?

It did not take long for us to identify the operation of Patriarchy and its oppressive power at work in the institution of marriage. From its myriad state and federal financial and other benefits to its rules about “adultery” and monogamy and – only too recently – race and gender make-up, the institution of marriage drives the engine of Patriarchy.

We considered the simple – but significant – question of name changes. Even with their gender goggles on, the four cis women in the group said that they would probably change their names if they got married. Why? Because it would be easier for the kids; because they didn’t like their last names anyway; because their parents or grandparents or partner’s family or partner wanted them to; because of societal pressure. I channeled my wonderful mentor, Ann Shalleck, as I shrieked in mock (but actually quite real) hysteria “don’t you realize you’ll disappear?!”

Gayle Rubin’s famous “Charmed Circle” (from “Thinking Sex: Notes for a Radical Theory of the Politics of Sexuality,” in Carole Vance, ed., Pleasure and Danger (1984) describes the privileging of monogamous, heterosexual, pro-creative, age-appropriate etc. couples. Attaching social and economic benefits only to those who belong in the Charmed Circle does nothing about the Charmed Circle itself. There are still those who are accepted into the circle – and get the accompanying social and economic rewards – and those who are excluded from the circle. Thus the system of Patriarchy – driven, remember, by the Charmed Circle – remains intact.

My students described feeling hopeless and angry during and after this discussion. They are young, professional, ambitious people who want to get married – because that’s what young, professional, ambitious people do! Why does Patriarchy with its Charmed Circle engine have to ruin everything!

Unlike my students, I felt anything but hopeless during this discussion – angry, yes, but not at them. Their anger and frustration fuels my hope. While marriage is most certainly an engine and tool of Patriarchy – much as Coates’ American Dream is an engine and tool of White Supremacy, being aware of that fact is the first step in undermining both the tool and the system it animates. And you know what the second step is? Talking about it. Naming it. Making intentional choices about what to participate in and what to avoid.

So by all means, get married, reap the benefits, have a party. Yes, you will be participating in the oppressive engine of the Patriarchy, but since America is both Patriarchal and White Supremacist, it’s very hard to avoid participating in those systems. What you can do – and must, really, if you want to be a critical resister – is make intentional choices about how you are participating. Maybe, for example, make up a new name for yourself and your partner? Or maybe, talk to your kids about why you chose to change your name, and what it means to you.

Be intentional. Be vulnerable. Keep those goggles on.

Critical Race Theory in Action

The thing about practicing radical, intentional belief — or wearing your “race goggles” — is that once you start, it becomes increasingly uncomfortable; both to keep the goggles on, but also, interestingly, to take them off.

My students remarked on that as we went around and reported on our week of intentionally seeing race and racism everywhere and in everything.  From reality t.v. to neighborhood list serves to bridal party planning to grocery delivery men to NFL commentary, my students described their experiences of dissonance and discomfort at being both white, and aware of their whiteness.

Because it’s the awareness that is the key, right? Without our race goggles on, we don’t have to be aware of our whiteness because whiteness is something that just IS.  Like air.  It is only when something is other than white that we become aware of it.  Just as  we only notice air when it is smoggy, or full of pollen.

But whiteness is not like air.  Indeed can you tell me what whiteness is exactly? What makes someone white? What makes someone non-white? You see how easily we can go down an ugly path that leads straight to Dr. Josef Mengele and the Nazi Eugenics Program; or, closer to home, to our current Attorney General’s support for the 1924 Immigration Bill that restricted immigrants based on their genetic makeup.

Ta Nehisi Coates describes race as being the child of racism, not the reverse. Another way of saying that is that race is socially constructed in such a way as to support and maintain a hierarchy whereby the constructors of racial categories retain power, and members of the other constructed categories do not.  This is not a new or even particularly complicated idea.

But it is an important one for those of us committed to practicing radical, intentional belief. With our race goggles on,  we become aware of whiteness as a race.  We come to realize that far from being like air — something that just is — our whiteness is just as much a social construction as others’ non-whiteness. That is the dissonance and discomfort we feel, and why many people never put the race goggles on to begin with.  Because, as my students have come to realize, once they’re on, it is really hard to take those race goggles off.  Simply put, once you see  it, Race — yes, with a capital R — cannot be unseen.

Becoming aware and attuned to our individual experiences of race and racism provides the foundation for unpacking those experiences.  After all, if race is a construction of a racist hierarchy, all we have to do is identify, recognize and deconstruct that hierarchy.  Right?

If we start with the proposition that race is socially constructed, and that the United States is built on a construction of race that perpetuates the superiority and power of whites at the direct expense of blacks and other “non-whites,” we move quickly to the next proposition that the political, legal, social systems and institutions that make up what we think of as “the United States” are also built on such a foundation.  And here is where things need to get both specific and general.

Think about all the political, legal, social and other systems or institutions that intersected with Philando Castile’s life, as a black man living in the Twin Cities in Minnesota in 2016 — the police, the criminal justice system, public schools, National Rifle Association, neighborhood and church, family, etc.  What if we assume that every one of those systems was built and operates in the shadow of this racist hierarchy of White Supremacy? How does that inform our information gathering and understanding about each system and how it enhances or undermines the life of someone like Philando Castile?

We know, for example, that Philando Castile was pulled over for traffic stops or speeding more than 50 times in the 13 years he was driving.  That’s an average of more than 3 times a month.  How many times have you been pulled over?

There is no looking away from this.  We are not mere observers of a slow-moving, massive and ultimately fatal traffic pileup; we are passengers, we are victims, and in some cases we are drivers.  While it is clearly beyond any one of us to stop the pileup, let alone undo the devastation it has already caused, each one of us can try to slow it down, and work to mitigate the damage.  We do this by keeping our race goggles on and describing what we see — in stark, honest, and exhausting detail — no matter who listens and what they say.

Radical, Intentional Belief

We talked about race last class.  I mean, really talked about it.  My students had been assigned to read Ta Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me (2015) and Patricia Williams’ essay “The Death of the Profane,” in her Alchemy of Race and Rights (1991). (You should get and read both of these books.  To tempt you, here are excerpts: and ).  I also had them read Kimberle Crenshaw’s recent article in The Baffler, “Race to the Bottom.”

As always, we started the class by having everyone share one question or thought about the reading.  To a one, the students just wanted to talk. In particular, they said, they wanted to talk about their feelings about the material.  So that’s what we did.

Both because this is a law school seminar, but also because, as I explained to them, I believe it is important to know that we are all working from shared understandings, we started by identifying the theory underlying or constructed by the readings. Coming off our class last week, the students did not resist my statement that “America has a terrible, terrible problem with race.” Nor did they balk at the notion, described and illustrated by Coates and Williams and Crenshaw, that racism in this country is not only systemic — meaning, it exists in every structure and corner of our society — but also foundational — meaning it has powered and continues to power what we think of as the American success story, the American Dream.

They also seemed to understand without defensiveness that notions like “post-racialism” and “colorblindness” are not answers to our terrible terrible race problem.  They got that such ideas and practices actually widen the already yawning chasm between those who “consider themselves white” (per Coates) and those perceived or marked as not white.  Even affirmative action got some discussion — is it necessary to right centuries of wrongs; is it too little, too late; is it actually reinforcing the racist notion that non-whites need a hand out or hand up?

Wrapping up the first hour, our group had come to accept that our very Constitution and founding institutions not only benefited from, but were indeed built upon a racial and racist hierarchy with whites at the top. We understood that all that has flowed from those foundational documents and institutions — i.e. all of “American” history — is tainted by the drive to maintain that racist hierarchy.  For several minutes, we seven Americans who consider themselves white and one who has been identified as, and considers herself to be black sat and took in that uncomfortable reality.

And then:  what can we do about it?  My students looked at me expectantly.  I looked back at them, expectantly.  I shrugged.  They looked surprised and a little worried.  Like, “wait, you got us all to this point and you don’t have a way to get us out?” I laughed a little and admitted that I didn’t have any answers.  I told some stories.  I reminded them of our Discussion Guidelines (Group Discussion Rules for Critical Lawyering class).

I asked questions about white guilt and the burden on “non-whites” to represent and answer for all people of color.  We agreed that both of those powerful psychological forces undermine our efforts to understand and bridge the racial fault line in the American landscape, by either paralyzing us into inaction, or hardening the lines between us to make dialogue impossible.

And then I turned it back on them:  what is one concrete thing you can do, knowing what you know now, to “help”?  Here is what they suggested:

Put your race goggles on.  See everything through race.  It might seem wrong to think of someone as “white” or “black” or “brown,” but we have just identified that America sees everyone who isn’t white as something “other.” Failing to see race is a privilege only those who consider themselves/are perceived to be white can afford.  So put your race goggles on and see everything through race.  Just for this week.  Just until next class.

Have uncomfortable conversations, like the ones we had in class.  Call your friends, co-workers, family members on their questionable comments and race-based assumptions.  Be that person who is always bringing up race and racism.  Do this with humility; and be vulnerable yourself.  Start the conversation by telling a story about your own discomfort or racist behavior.  Do this every time you can.  Just for this week.  Just until next class.

Decide to believe other people’s experience of race and racism.  Do not assume you know what they’re talking about; in fact, admit that you do not.  Do not try to make comparisons, or to find non-race-based reasons for the behavior being described.  Ask questions to clarify your understanding, but not to undermine another person’s experience.  Don’t ever accuse someone of “playing the race card.” Practice radical, intentional belief.  Just for this week.  Just until next class.

We all agreed to do these things.  Just for this week, just until next class, we will put and keep our race goggles on; we will have uncomfortable conversations; we will ask questions and be humble; and we will decide to believe.

Why don’t you join us?

Choking on the Reality of What Is

I stepped away for a minute over the weekend to get my daughter settled in for sophomore year 1200 miles away from home. No biggie. Stayed with my own parents for two nights while there and felt the poignancy of perching between generations, as the younger needs me less, the older needs me more. And I resist the shift in roles on both sides: I’m not ready to stop day-to-day parenting my daughter, nor to start day-to-day caring for my parents.

It’s not like an obstinate, foot-stomping kind of resistance, but something I guess you would call grief, at times choking me with the inevitability, the naturalness of the passage of time and what that means. My daughter is almost 20, my parents almost 73 and 83. I am almost 51. Everything is happening exactly as it is supposed to be happening. But being awake to the reality of all that is, at this moment, for me, excruciating.

Many of you reading this are nodding and “mm-ing” in support and understanding. Many of you have adult or almost-adult children; or are adult or almost-adult children yourselves. Many of you have aging parents, or are aging parents yourselves. You can imagine what I am experiencing at this moment, as I prepare to board a flight that will take me back to my home halfway across the country. You have empathy, you have compassion, you have ideas and suggestions and wisdom that will help me navigate this particular transitional time. We have a shared understanding of my experience because it is or appears to be a universal experience – we all age, our kids grow up, our parents get old and eventually die. And so do we.

But accepting that inevitability is altogether a different experience. And one that many of us never do – which is, according to Buddhists – the root of human suffering. We cannot accept what IS, preferring instead to come up with other narratives, other explanations, other reasons for what is happening.  It is the dissonance between what we want or hope to be true and what IS true that is choking us.

In class last week, we tried very hard to figure out what IS when considering the police shootings of Philando Castile by Officer Jeronimo Yanez and Justine Ruszczyk/Damond by Officer Mohammed Noor. We examined the divergent experiences of, for example Diamond Reynolds and Officer Jeronimo Yanez in the hours following his killing of Philando Castile. She was treated as a suspect, separated from her 4-year-old daughter and held overnight for questioning. He was driven home within hours after the shooting and told to get some rest. What explains that difference?

We wondered about the divergent reactions by the police departments and government officials involved in the killings of Castile and Ruszczyk. Officer Yanez was kept on the force for almost a year before being offered a separation package that included tens of thousands of dollars in something like severance pay. No harsh word was spoken against him publicly by any government or police official. The shooting of Castile was portrayed as an unfortunate event.

We don’t know much about what has happened to Officer Noor. He declined to speak to the press or investigators – which is his right under the U.S. and Minnesota Constitutions. We do know, however, that the local police union disavowed Officer Noor almost immediately; and that the Minneapolis chief of police spoke out forcefully within days of Ruszczyk’s death, condemning the killing and calling it completely unjustified. “Justine did not have to die,” she said. Within days of that statement, she had been asked to resign, and did so. The Mayor of Minneapolis herself is being called upon to resign in the aftermath of the shooting.

We tried to graph the intersectional identities of Castile and Ruszczyk, Reynolds, Yanez and Noor. In so doing, we had to confront how deeply contextual such mapping can seem to be (but maybe, for some identities, is not).

Yanez – who is a Hispanic police officer — is treated differently from Reynolds – an African American low-income single mother. Why? Because of his badge?  Or because he is a man and she is a woman? Or because being Hispanic is just slightly more powerful than being black?

Yanez is treated differently from Noor – a Somali-American, Muslim immigrant. Why? Can’t be because of his badge – they both have badges. Because Noor is an immigrant? Because he is specifically a Somali immigrant? Because he is Muslim? Or because he is black and Yanez isn’t?

Castile – an African American man — is treated differently from Ruszczyk – a white Australian woman. Why? Because he is a man and she is a woman? But what about Yanez and Reynolds – he is a man and she is woman? Because he was armed and she wasn’t? Because his car smelled like pot and she was a free spirit out in the alley in her nightgown? Or because he was black and she was white?

We went around the room and imagined explanations for the different outcomes of the two shootings. And there are, indeed, facts that might go a long way toward explaining the differences. Just as there are facts that would allow me to avoid feeling anything more than a bit wistful when dropping my daughter off, and noting the decline in my parents’ energy and mental ability.

But those factual narratives fail to capture fundamentally what IS. As one of my students bravely asked, “How can anyone see the Castile and Ruszczyk differences as the result of anything BUT race?” And as another of my students bravely answered, “because I can’t believe people could be that horrible.”

Well, what IS, my friends, is that we all age and we all die, and we all watch those we love age and die too.

And what also IS is that America has a terrible terrible problem with race; and we always have.  I’m not going to argue this point here, nor am I going to cite statistics.  Rather, I am going to ask you to consider honestly and off the top of your head, the most obvious difference between the shooting and killing of Philando Castile and the shooting and killing of Justine Ruszczyk. He was black and she was white.  And the officer who killed her was black.

We need to talk with our parents and our kids and our spouses and our other loved ones and each other about the reality of aging, illness and death.  And we need to talk with our kids and our spouses and our other loved ones and each other about the foundational problem of race in America.

But before we get to the talking part, we need to sit with the deep, excruciating, choking discomfort that admitting those realities causes us.  It is devastating to accept these truths — but guess what, it is even more devastating when we don’t. Just look around you.  Only when we have the courage and humility to be awake to the reality of the American condition can we begin to have conversations that will allow us to move forward in constructing a different understanding of living in global community.

Keep yourselves awake through these truly awful moments.  Pay attention and be humble.  We are all in this together.