Hi, friends: being so explicit about my thinking here unnerves me, because I might do it all wrong, and I really might, and I’m still going to do it because inattention finally (bleah) began to feel like complicity. So! To it.
My friend Shelley asked recently, with frustrated incredulity and without an expectation of an answer, “How can anyone say we live in a “post-racial” or “post-feminist” society?!” and I answered anyway: “Because they believe at some level either accessible or inaccessible to their conscious mind that women and people of color are less than fully human.” Because: faced with even the most blatant markers of unequal treatment–say, political representation or rates of incarceration–you either acknowledge that there’s a systemic/institutional/cultural preference for/bias towards white men,* or you think that these conditions of inequality (again: not even close to what we could list) are due to something inherently “less-than” about women or people of color.
And the very painful part for progressive white people who are really so sure we aren’t individually racist or gender-biased or heterosexist is that the society that created (and depends on) these conditions of injustice made us, too, and unless we were raised in a lab to observe and critique this, we have to learn to do it, and unlearn a bunch of white supremacist patriarchal assumptions–assumptions we don’t know we have, because we don’t know they are assumptions, because we haven’t been made to notice them, because these structures have worked in favor of our comfort. Yes, even if we grew up at protests, with Mao in the house, with Marxist parents. Even if whatever. And we don’t have a right to the comfort we get from not doing this; to operate as though we do rests on a presumption that the world is working fine the way it is, just with some mean people here and there, and if you think that’s true…well, welcome, because we’ve all got some reading and listening and self-education to do, and a moral obligation to do it, as individuals and as organizations.** And we’ll never be done.
So: “dismantle.” We use this mostly to mean definition 3 or 4(ish), don’t we? I would say when it’s used in the context of social justice work, that’s how it’s used; on the first page of “Dismantling Racism: A Resource Book” (recommended), it leads with this:
1. to take apart
2. to deprive or strip of apparatus, trappings, equipment, etc.
What Websters 1934 adds here is the idea of deprivation of cover or defense, and this seems a pretext for genuine dismantlement of racism, gender bias, heterosexism, etc, in a society where people with privilege can refuse to consider the systemic forces that shape all of our lives. If it’s going to be taken apart, first we have to uncloak it, and gently point: we have to say, “that.” “This.” “Us.” “Me.” AND: “These laws.” “This policy.”
Lexically, we probably have an entry in our heads for “mantle” as a noun–maybe we know it as a cloak-y type thing, or as part of “mantelpiece,” or as between 30 and 100 furs–and I’m aware that when I think of “dis-mantle,” it’s as a verb made from a noun, as in “take off” + “the mantle.” Look at all these mantles we could “dis-“:
But If you look back up at the etymology of “dismantle,” it comes from French des (dis)-manteler, and that -er is a verb ending, straight up. So it does come from the verb “mantle,” and looking at that one, I experience a much more visceral response to what it means to dis-mantle:
*note that this doesn’t mean we go to war against white men; as Rachel says, we go to war against cultural preference for a dominant group. If you would like to do some reading on the differences between individual racism and systemic racism (and why it matters that we start thinking, talking, and working more systemically than we do now), there’s a lot out there to read and encounter. Here is one resource I’ve liked:
** “Dismantling Racism: A Resource Book” is especially good on topic of racism in the context of organizations, if that interests you. A taste:
“Take an all white organization, for example. A diversity approach would combine prejudice reduction with some organizational development, perhaps resulting in revisions of the personnel policies, job descriptions, and hiring practices. Yet, very little else about the organization would have changed. Even if the organization is successful in bringing people of color on board it would be a shallow victory. Take a snapshot of the organization from year to year; you’ll see a few people of color in each photo, but the faces will be different each year. People of color might get hired but they won’t stay very long because they are being asked to fit into the existing dominant culture.
A Dismantling Racism approach with such an organization won’t start with the premise or suggestion that the organization must recruit people of color. Certain groundwork needs to be done before that is a viable or advisable goal. The organization might begin with a “white privilege training” rather than a diversity training. The goal is to create an organizational culture with a deep and shared understanding of racism where white people are committed to holding themselves accountable, and where naming racism and other oppression when it occurs is encouraged and not avoided. Without these qualities in place, people of color may find a harsh reality beneath the welcoming organizational veneer.
This resource book is also good for putting language to what it means to work as a white ally–not “here, here’s exactly how to do this!” but building and naming the attitudes that are part of allyship. A taste:
Characteristics of Anti-Racist White Allies: Attitudes and Behaviors
Adapted from 10 attitudes and behaviors which help us become Strong Anti-Racist Allies, developed by Grassroots Leadership’s Barriers and Bridges Program
- All white people are racist. I am a racist.
- I will never know what it is like to be a person of color in this country. While it is important to build empathy, I need to acknowledge that I cannot know what it is really like.
- I expect to be uncomfortable as a white anti-racist ally. Discomfort offers an opportunity for reflection and deeper understanding, which leads to change, which can be scary, but necessary and fulfilling. Because white supremacist culture allows white people to remain comfortable, I will need to actively seek situations that will provide me the opportunity to change and grow.
- I can love myself even though I am racist because I have made a commitment to fight my own racism and racism in the larger society. I expect to make mistakes, learn from them, and am compassionate to myself and others as I make this journey.
- Despite my best intentions I will still act out racism and people of color may have reason to be angry with me. I will not die from anger or criticism; in fact I will grow and become stronger.
- When people of color criticize what I say or do, I will accept it as useful information to help me in my learning without always having to explain to them why I said what I said or did what I did. I realize that sometimes my explanations leave the impression that the criticism is not heard and blocks further communication. I always keep the right to act on the criticism in whatever way seems most appropriate once I have had time to reflect.
- I do not expect or want to be ‘absolved’ for my racism by people of color. I am centered in my own commitment to fight racism, without needing that commitment to be acknowledged by others.
- I am always open to questioning my assumptions, even when I act on them because I must act. I realize that I will always have more to learn about how my commitment to fighting racism can be more effective.
- I am part of an active anti-racist, freedom movement which began long before I came and will carry on long after I am gone. I am proud to contribute to that movement and to be building a support community of white anti-racist allies.