The second ring propping up racism: Gate-keeping

Dear President Trump,

After sending you that long, heavy list illustrating impacts of internalized racial inferiority yesterday, I feel the need to remind you of some of the things that the people of color at the Undoing Racism workshop said they like about being part of their respective groups. Every one of the four lists (Asian/Pacific Islander, Latinx, Native, and Black) included strong family and community ties and celebrated food and culture. People from several groups also identified things like respect for elders, resourcefulness, strength, inherent activism, and creativity. Obviously everyone needs at least some of these positives to make it in this world, but some need them more and need more of them than others because the burdens they carry are disproportionately heavy.

So as I relayed yesterday, the results of the toxic dyad of internalized racial superiority and inferiority form the first ring of racism’s defense, the inner circle of the fortress that protects it and keeps it alive and all too well. The dyad is what gives rise to the micro (and in your case, macro) racist aggressions that whites dole out all day, every day, sometimes consciously sometimes not consciously. It gives rise to the reality that many people of color have to make split second decisions about whether to call out these aggressions or pretend not to notice them or let them slip under the radar because it’s just too taxing to notice them all even if not noticing them consciously takes a toll on deeper levels.

The second ring that we talked about in the workshop more clearly resembles what we traditionally think of as a physical fort in that it’s focused on gate-keeping – the flow of information, resources, and people is controlled to benefit some people and not other people. However, the second ring of racism still isn’t as clear as the physical border wall you so desperately want; legions of white people can and will go their entire lives not having a clue that there are real, structural, strategically deployed barriers comprising this second ring that serve to keep people of color “in their places.”

I don’t know this for a fact, but I would be shocked if most white people living in predominantly white neighborhoods with kids going to predominantly white schools ever stop to wonder why this is or how it is that their cities and towns are so segregated along racial lines. For those who do stop and think about it, my bet is that most will chalk it up to the handy “birds of a feather” bullshit and “that’s just how it is, they probably want to be with each other” pablum we want to believe. Most of us who are directly benefiting from this strategic gate-keeping (i.e., white people) never dig down and learn about red-lining or the profoundly unfair distribution of VA housing loans after WWII or any of the other institutional barriers that serve to keep power and wealth out of reach for most people of color.

Basically, in conceptualizing this second ring of institutional barriers that prop up racism, gate-keepers are managers who have control and power that they mete out based on their judgments (often not conscious and always fueled by internal racial superiority and inferiority) of who is and is not worthy, who will and will not use resources “wisely” or in ways that are “prudent” and “correct.” Access is fiercely guarded, prioritized, weaponized.

That is until one steps back and decides to use one’s powers for good, to use one’s powers to become an accountable gate-keeper who is intent on opening things up in creative and subversive ways that fundamentally involve people of color (whether we are people of color ourselves or we are white).

In attempting to become accountable gate-keepers we have to ask ourselves questions like: Are we truly shaking things up and improving access or are we pasting on look-at-me, feel-good bandaids that won’t do jack? Are we engaging with power in ways that are reciprocal and respectful? If we aren’t, we are being abusive – not just risking being abusive, we are being abusive.

We’ve got to examine where and how decisions are made and who is making them. We’ve got to hang around to see what the impacts of those decisions are and if there are unintended negative consequences, we have to have the humility and grace to admit this and scrap what isn’t working. Ultimately, if power is not based in community, it is not accountable and it is therefore abusive. (I want you to know that I did not come up with most of these ideas – they are from my notes from the workshop.)

The day after Toni Morrison died Laura found this 2003 quote of hers in Oprah’s magazine. I think it’s a good way to close today’s letter:

“I tell my students, ‘When you get these jobs that you have been so brilliantly trained for, just remember that your real job is that if you are free, you need to free somebody else. If you have some power, then your job is to empower somebody else. This is not just a grab-bag candy game.’

May we be safe to gain perspective so we can see and name the rings of oppression.
May we be willing to use our powers for good.
May we see that a healthy society does not tolerate insular, self-perpetuating “good ‘ol (white) boys’ networks”.
May we make peace with the need to share the burden of unpacking, untangling, and undoing racism.

Tracy Simpson

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