Searching for nuance in conversations on race/equity (continued from BP article comment section)

Excerpted from this comment thread. Further discussion below excerpt. Others feel free to hop in!

Kana O.

Whiteness at this point has only a tangential relationship to skin color…I only bring this up because whiteness is actually about who access to power…and the preconceived notions that we all have about the people who were raised to believe they are white.

Hello, Kitty

“whiteness at this point has only a tangential relationship to skin color”

I believe this is true. I think if we chose a different word than “white” to describe this new expanded concept, it would reduce much of the petty argument that a racial term does and let people focus on the main idea of cultural normativeness.

Kana O.

I’m always up for exploring more nuanced ways of talking about complex topics, just as long as we don’t lose track of the fact that whiteness (in all its nebulousness) is an important explanatory factor in the disparities we see yesteryear, today, and likely tomorrow.

I appreciate that you try to escape the gravity of loaded terms, to invite others out into that field beyond concepts that come pre-freighted with connotations that lead people to close ranks around their cause (often for good reason). My knee-jerk is to resist that escape, as marginalized communities have done a lot of work to define and own terms in the realms of racial equity work. But if we can create reasons for those communities to trust those who often control framing and conversations, we can have more of these conversations where nuance can creep in without defenses coming up.

Hello, Kitty

I don’t want to control the framing of the conversation; I’m only suggesting a way that it can be more productive, and perhaps apply more universally.

By focusing on “white” and not on “with financial means”, the conversation has already escaped one if its fundamental, and quite powerful, explanatory factors. I understand these are not completely orthogonal concepts, but in many (but hardly all) situations, money seems to overpower race as an explanatory mechanism (a Minneapolis cop kneeling on your neck may not care about your wealth, but OJ Simpson was protected by his millions).

I know that this conversation will ultimately be argued about in racial terms, because, like that onion on your belt, it is the style at this time.

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I agree such an expansion might make the conversation useful to more people, but it might make it less productive for the specific populations I think we need to care more about.

It depends on the discussion we want to have. Are we wanting to look for ways to alleviate the parts of black and brown poverty and disenfranchisement that are distinct and impact their ability to engage with issues beyond securing the basics, or are we wanting to look for ways to alleviate poverty and disenfranchisement of people with fewer financial resources? I know I appear stubborn for drawing a clear line between those two (and any other approach which results in taking focus away from race even though more universal approaches/discussions also seek to address race-based disparities), but there are good reasons for this etching.

We can address disparities based on race and we can address disparities based on level of financial resources (and more!), but we should be aware that addressing one is not addressing the other. For decades we’ve had programs guided by the ”rising tide lifts all boats" mentality, yet these have done little to alleviate the plight of people of color; we still see significant disparities between outcomes for Portlanders of color and white Portlanders that keep people of color from being able to engage with many of the issues that are discussed here.

So it’s not either or, but I (and other equity advocates) am wary of moving the focus away from discussion of and solutions to race-based disparities because we’ve had the rising tide conversation and continue to have the rising tide conversation and it isn’t addressing the scale and type of problems our constituents are facing.

At the same time, ML King toward the end of his short life worked to expand the civil rights tent to bring in other disenfranchised populations (laborers, the poor); he recognized what you recognize about the intersectionality of disenfranchisement under capitalism—to a significant extent, income is predictive of many unfortunate outcomes in the same way race is and there is substantial collinearity between race and income levels.

I think more than a little nuance is lost if we substitute “relative financial status” for “whiteness”. For example, I grew up relatively poor - and white. Despite saddling myself with the consequences of years of unwise, self-defeating decisions, I eventually “got it together” and worked my way into a stable, middle-class existence. How much narrower and more unforgiving might the margin of error have been without the advantages afforded me by my whiteness?

This isn’t meant to offer insight into my personal experience so much as an example of racial imbalance in economic mobility in this country. Race may be a construct, but that doesn’t lessen its real world implications.