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Tanya Steele: A Call For Anti-Racism Work

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by Tanya Steele
November 4, 2013 4:10 PM
14 Comments
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The other day, I was chatting with a friend from Wisconsin. We shared stories about Halloween. I asked him what treats he would be doling out to the children in his neighborhood. He said, "bags of popcorn, I pop". I told him, when I was a child, on the Jersey Shore, we couldn't wait to 'trick or treat'. But, we were instructed to not eat anything that was not wrapped or packaged. I said, "If we received apples, we would accept them, wait until we got around the corner and then we would throw the apples. Sometimes, mischievously, on the person's lawn that gave them to us." He immediately chimed in, "That's why food deserts are allowed to exist. People grow up not knowing what to eat. People don't know how to eat right and make healthy choices." I said, "Well, we were taught that people hid razors in apples. That was the fear. True or not, I don't know. But, we weren't going to risk biting into an apple to find out."

Over the next few days, I thought about his comment. Why would he connect me with food deserts and people not knowing how to eat right? He is aware that I grew up on the Jersey Shore. My only unhealthy interaction with food came when I went to the supermarket. Sometimes, I would sit in the car as my Mom went in to shop. I would watch my Mom as she walked into the store. Inevitably, I would look at the car next to me and I would see a White person sitting in it. They would lock their door. Like clockwork. Never failed.

I grew up with my southern Grandmother up the street. A woman, who had 10 children, worked as a Nurse and cooked everything from scratch. Again, no food issues. However, my Mom, a single woman with three daughters, worked all day and was too tired to cook at night. Mostly, we ate out at restaurants. No, not McDonald's. Restaurants. To this day, eating at a restaurant feels like family time for me. So, "food desert" was not an issue for me- AT ALL.

I have always thought highly of my friend from Wisconsin. A former Jesuit, he left the order to pursue a "traditional life". He wanted a wife and children. But, he continues the Jesuit commitment to social service. This White man, who grew up on a farm in Iowa, goes around the country volunteering and offering his services to those in need. Recently, he drove from Wisconsin to the Mississippi Delta. He located a school where there were older Black women teachers. With the assistance of local residents, he would find out where these women lived. He would then go to their homes and fix something that required a carpenter or electrician. So, when they arrived home, they would be greeted by new porch stairs, a new porch light, a fixed garage door, or some such. He wanted to help those who took care of others all day and couldn't focus on their own needs. Noble, right?

This summer, he visited the East Coast. On some level, I guess he thought I was similar to the Black women on the Delta. He visited my home and it was sweltering. One of those hot NYC days. Next thing I knew, he went off for a bit and came back with a ceiling fan. He installed it. Mind you, I own two, delightful, air conditioners. But, apparently, a ceiling fan (which kept the heat in motion) conserved energy. I wondered about this act of kindness.

He was on his way to Greenwich, Connecticut to teach young people how to build trails in parks and keep outdoor spaces clean. I was ecstatic that he would be teaching the "well off" how to engage in community service. After a week, we talked. He wanted me to locate a man of color who could speak to one of the young males he was working with. The child, he said, was extremely smart but not motivated. Greenwich, I thought. A Black male? "Yes", he said, "His Mom works as a domestic and comes home and has very little time for him." I thought, hmmm, how on earth did this dude find the marginalized children of Greenwich, Connecticut? He was working with the children of servants in Greenwich. Okay, I thought, this is deep.

He spoke of the one month training period he had to prepare for the assignment in Greenwich. He spoke of a type of camp where there were others being trained to volunteer around the country. He asked me, "How do you get a person to change old habits?" I said, "What old habits and who is the person?". He said, "This kid from Chicago. He was there to train, like everybody else but, his eating habits were less than desirable." "Kid", I said, "Weren't you all adults?". He said, "Yes." I said, "Was this person there to be trained like the rest of you? Trained in how to care for the community, cleaning parks, outdoor spaces, etc.?" My friend said, "Yes." I said, "Is he Black?" He said, "Yes, his eating habits. He's going to be a community worker and he'll just be passing on the same old bad habits." "Whoa", I said. "Why don't you see him as a peer? Why did you see him as someone who needed to be educated?"

He continued, "He was eating garbage and he wouldn't listen to me. I tried to give him this book." At this point, I was insulted, "He was your equal. He didn't need you to educate him about anything. You were both there for the same reason. He is on his path. He is there to learn how to better his community. He is on course to learn about "food deserts" and all of that stuff in due time. Why did you feel the need to talk down to him?" Oy. Here I go again, encountering a White person's insidious, racist blind spot.

A few weeks ago, I read an article about "What's Killing Poor White Women" in 'The American Prospect' by Monica Potts. She wrote, "For most Americans, life expectancy continues to rise but- not for undereducated white women. They have lost five years, and no one knows why." Why isn't their a battle cry to help these women? Because the narrative of despair and poverty is reserved for Black America.

America is schizophrenic. Racist White America believes "Black people complain too much", "Black folks are violent, lazy and living off of us hard working folks". I believe our first Black President was speaking to them when he gave a speech about race, after the death of Trayvon Martin and the failed verdict. The goal of the speech was not to comfort the aggrieved Citizens. It was to explain to White people why Black people might be angry.

On the other hand, we have White liberals. Their narrative differs. It is more, "Black people need help", "Black people need to be rescued/civilized". Mind you, White boys are shooting up America. White folks are attempting to hurl us back to the time of "poll taxes" and archaic Voter ID laws. White males voted to decrease the "SNAP/food stamp" allowance and deprived poor American children of their right to be free of hunger. White people are dressing up in Black face and laughing as they mimic a murdered Black child. Who, exactly, needs to be civilized?

It appears, inherent in the will to "do good" in America, one must "rescue/civilize" Black people.

White people come from all corners of the country to work in inner city schools and civilize Black children. Here's a thought: why don't educated White Americans use their knowledge to educate the ignorant White folks that keep this country in a backward motion toward its  racist, hellish past? If I see one more '60 Minutes' story about Black children in the 'ghetto' being civilized through the benevolence of White folks, or through the Arts, singing, dancing or playing a violin, my head will explode. And, '60 Minutes' loves to dish this on a global scale. The stories about Africans being civilized by benevolent white folks in the Arts is their prized story. Either animals are being rescued from poachers or Black bodies are being civilized by "open hearted, white benevolence'. Give me a break.

Clearly, we are all aware (I hope) of the economic inequities in America. The levels of cyclical poverty, violence and under-education that plagues inner city communities is astounding. Continuing to do "missionary" work in Black communities is only addressing part of the problem. The main problem is the under-educated, archaic White segment of the population that keeps breeding racist and privileged children who become racist and privileged adults who occupy positions that continue the march toward the 1950's and before.

Let's start new "Freedom Rides". Find the region of the country that is mesmerized by the Tea Party. Target them. Educate them. How about the lower regions of Mississippi, where poor White children are in need of a "rescue", "new ideas", "new ways of seeing themselves". Americans who need to understand that they are global citizens. And, not apart of some white-skinned American dynasty that places them on a broken pedestal. Who is educating these children?

Certainly, with this novel idea of diversity, people of color are educating some folks in Ivory towers. But, I'm talking before the Ivory tower. This needs to be tackled at the root, in elementary schools and high schools. Offer White Americans a different way of seeing themselves. Seeing a different type of White person that isn't navel gazing and honoring all things vapidly White.

Until we begin this difficult work, the culture will not change. We need 'culture warriors' willing to do the work to change the racist and myopic thinking that creates narrow minded White people. So we don't have to create films about Slavery that help White people enter the narrative. So we don't have to suffer the consequences of injustice metered out by all-White juries. So we can stop producing generations of people who vote against their economic interests. Who is addressing these people? These people need to be "civilized". White Americans are in need of rescue from the belief that their White skin is some sort of badge or meaningful characteristic that exalts them above the rest of the world. This narrow minded thinking is dragging us down as a country.

I attended Fordham University as an Undergrad. There was an organization, the 'Jesuit Peace Corps', that many of my White friends joined after graduating. These students were assigned to "inner city" communities, there to educate the natives. One friend was from Buffalo, New York. Couldn't he have been assigned to Buffalo, NY? Perhaps, to educate the neanderthals that schlepped around Buffalo? Couldn't these 'bright-eyed and eager" graduates be assigned to the exotic farmlands of Iowa? We could even revamp 'The Peace Corps'. Instead of going to Africa, go to Italy and civilize the citizens who threw bananas at the first Black Minister of Italy. Send in folks to help the French treat North Africans with respect . And, while we're at it, assign a group to the staff at Barney's. And, send a team to educate the NYPD.

Men who batter women only take direction from other men. Put simply, they believe men are valid. So, the ones who have to do the heavy lifting to enlighten them are other men. The same may hold true for racist White folks. They have to hear it from other White folks who have done anti-racism work. Can you think of a greater service to humanity?

Imagine the contributions that an enlightened White America could deliver to the world - A CD "The Miseducation of Britney Spears". Anti-Privilege "sit-ins". It is clear that Tim Wise does not want to share his "anti-racism" pedestal but, isn't it time to dethrone him? Imagine an America where Kanye could rap about how happy Black America is, now that White folks "own their sh**".

The era of the Black Presidency has taught us many things. One of the valuable lessons we have learned is- there are still a lot of racist White people in America. The country changes, slightly, yet that remains a constant. Isn't it time we do something about it? Can we at least organize a 'Freedom Ride" to Washington, D.C. to avert the next government shutdown?

Thanksgiving is coming up, as a precursor, do some anti-racism work at the family dinner table.

Follow Tanya Steele on Twitter at @digtanya. Or on facebook at https://www.facebook.com/SteeleInk. Or visit digtanya.com.

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14 Comments

  • Jamie | November 24, 2013 2:35 PMReply

    As a white educator who works in a predominately African American school district, I want to thank you for this article. Anti-racist work is important to me and I think you are completely correct in saying that energetic white workers who care about changing the status quo can have a much greater impact in working with white children in racist communities. For some, this might be a much scarier job, than working in an area with high levels of violence and gang activity. Thank you again for writing and sharing this article.

  • Yvette Ganier | November 5, 2013 10:43 AMReply

    If ever there was a new battle cry formed to address racism in this country this is THEE one to pay attention to because it makes sense! Simple and direct and exactly what we need as it answers the obvious question. Why spend trying to educate Black folk about racism when racism is a white invention forced onto Black folk who have been the victims of the abuse? Turning the tables, Ms. Steele, to do missionary work on the young white minds of America is dope and a simple solution to a complicated problem. I hope we can latch onto what my mama would call, "The Bone Truth."

  • Charles Judson | November 5, 2013 6:01 AMReply

    How does this relate to cinema, filmmaking, or filmmakers?

  • CareyCarey | November 6, 2013 11:07 AM

    Good argument Charles, I see your point. It's true, to a degree it does appear as if Tanya is going out of her way (on a continual basis) to confront "racism" on a site dedicated to film and filmmakers.

    I think a response to your reply/concerns has already been stated by Nadia and Ms. Yvette Ganier. One states (in simple terms) that you do not have to read any of Tanya's articles. The gist of the other's says, " The imagination of the artist who reads Ms. Steele's article can go wild with ideas [...] her article goes beyond and yet includes the art of filmmaking."

    Charles, you've always been an advocate for keeping the conversation alive. That's my take away from Yvette's comment. Regardless if Tanya's topic is racism, women's issues or who's doing who, when filmmakers (artists) and film buffs read her posts, it's safe to say their imagination will be stirred and conversation will ensue. Granted, the ensuing conversations may not be as eloquent and concise as yours, nor will they always stay on "topic" (that's the nature of blogs) but somewhere in the mix they (some) will have a connection to films/artist/filmmakers. On the contrary, if the conversations stop, we are left with absolutely nothing.

    Hey, come to think of it, see how this works? You came back and dropped a bit of information which I can safely assume many can use. Had Tanya not submitted her article...

  • Charles Judson | November 6, 2013 3:01 AM

    Again. How does this relate to cinema, filmmaking or filmmakers? It's a serious question.

    Why should I come to a black film site to read a long winded op-ed piece about a white Jesuit priest and food deserts?

    CareyCarey, you should read more closely. Tanya says in that piece: "I will stop contorting my being to accommodate white neuroses. That's my new civil rights movement. Care to join me?" What is she doing but contorting her being when every post is about how white people see us or treat us.

    For fun, hit ctrl-f, search for the word black. Count how many times the word black is used to refer how white people see us. Count how many times she uses black in a positive sense. Count how many times she refers to filmmakers or black filmmakers specifically.

    Again, why would I come to a black "film" site to read a piece that is not about film? Why am I as the reader supposed to do the work and fill in the gaps? That's a neat trick. It goes against everything I learned as a communications major and as communications director for a non-profit. Why should I keep reading posts by an author who seems so joyless?

    For once, I'd like to read a piece by Tanya that celebrates something. I'd like to read more about how we can empower ourselves without ever once mentioning white folks or racism.

    So excuse me for being more interested in filmmakers and filmmaking than reading about how we need to be "culture warriors" to help white folks be better human beings. If that makes me an ass, I'll gladly wear that title, because I think I come by it honestly. Two pieces I've written so you see where I focus my energies. Check out some of the free webinars we've started hosting so we can demystify the festival submission process for filmmakers and help filmmakers make better films and how to improve their chances of getting into festivals overall. In fact, if you act quick, you can still sign up for the webinar we're doing tonight on Film Festival Politics at the Atlanta Film Festival website. It's free.

    Signed,
    Charles "FAT ASS" Judson

    Are You Getting Paid What You're Worth? Seven Tips to Avoid Going (Completely) Broke Producing your Film

    www .filmthreat. com/author/charles-judson/#ixzz2jqfi9mrf

    Kickstarter Has Biggest 3 Months Ever For Film. Why The Complaints? Why Aren't We Focused On The Big Picture?

    atlantafilmfestival. com/atlff-news/2013/8/28/kickstarter-has-biggest-3-months-ever-for-film-why-the-complaints-why-arent-we-focused-on-the-big-picture

  • CareyCarey | November 5, 2013 12:01 PM

    Okay, call me a dog piling on the rabbit but C'MON MAN! As Nadia implied, you (Charles) seem to have a personal thang against Tanya, but this is not the place.

    I ditto Yvette's comment. In fact, I am going to run with her following comment: " The imagination of the artist who reads Ms. Steele's article can go wild with ideas that might generate the next level of "race" films in this country" and " I, for one, am taking the article for what its worth as it applies to the big picture which affects us all [...] we need more voices like Ms. Steele's to come out and speak about racism".

    That leads directly to my (what I believe is a more relevant) question. Well, in Tanya's post "Black Folks, It's Time To Stop Taking Care Of White People" over ONE THOUSAND white folks showed up to vehemently protest against her claims on "racism". But today, ZERO! None have come back to refute her allegations. Now I am thinking either all of their PC have died or Tanya is speaking cold hard facts (truths) that some will run from, yet we all need to talk about.

  • Nadia | November 5, 2013 11:08 AM

    Seriously Charles? I've been reading this site for 2 years and I'm 1000% certain that this isn't the first post that isn't directly related to filmmaking. Come on now Charles. If I remember correctly, you went on a rant on Tanya's last post which you took issue with and with her. Your fly is showing. There are damn near 20 posts on this blog on a daily basis. If Tanya's are not your speed, that leaves 19 more that you can look through. And even if you don't see anything of value in the piece, she didn't write it for you only did she? I'm sure others will and some of them are probably filmmakers too who may incorporate the piece's message and themes into their work. Dude stop being an ass! *Sigh*

  • Yvette Ganier | November 5, 2013 10:56 AM

    Mr. Hudson. The imagination of the artist who reads Ms. Steele's article can go wild with ideas that might generate the next level of "race" films in this country. I, for one, am taking the article for what its worth as it applies to the big picture which affects us all. Filmmakers and artists are the ones who reflect our times; that carry the torch; that produce work that carries the message of what they believe in as instruments of change. Ms. Steele is a citizen of the world and her article goes beyond and yet includes the art of filmmaking. Artists putting themselves on the frontlines of our struggles is nothing new and, in fact, we need more voices like Ms. Steele's to come out and speak about racism. I am reminded of those that came before her who did so: Paul Robeson, Beah Richards, Harry Belefonte to name a few. Kudos to any artists who cares enough about the world we live in and not just their own interests. We need them!

  • CC | November 5, 2013 10:14 AM

    UT OH! **Tanya Steele sits in front of the congressional house committee on black filmmakers affairs. Will she take the 5th or defend her honor (and that of S&A's) by answering the question?**

  • CareyCarey | November 4, 2013 6:01 PMReply

    Ms. Tanya Steele, without a reason of doubt, you've killed this one.

    Who can deny or argue against your basic theme that white folks should first and foremost, educate white folks? From the cornfields of Iowa to the shores of the east coast, down to the Mississippi Delta, there's plenty of poor and ignorant and racist white people who need to be civilized and rescued from themselves. You drove that point straight into their hearts: "Men who batter women only take direction from other men. Put simply, they believe men are valid. So, the ones who have to do the heavy lifting to enlighten them are other men. The same may hold true for racist White folks. They have to hear it from other White folks who have done anti-racism work"

    Yep, that's so true. Now I am reminded of something my daughter likes saying. In respect to misbehaving children, she says, "if you show me an ignorant prick of a child, in time, in most cases, I'll be able to show you an adult assho*e."

    Tanya, you said it a little different but I heard you message loud and clear... "The main problem is the under-educated, archaic White segment of the population that keeps breeding racist and privileged children who become racist and privileged adults who occupy positions that continue the march toward the 1950's and before"

    Yup, you killed this post.

  • Tired Eyes | November 4, 2013 5:57 PMReply

    Great point but schizophrenic writing. Brevity and clarity, my dear.

  • Troy | November 4, 2013 11:09 PM

    So you don't read novels or long form journalism. Short doesn't make something sweet. Comic book learning is why people make easy decisions like being racist.

  • Michelle | November 4, 2013 5:31 PMReply

    Brilliant!

  • No | November 4, 2013 4:33 PMReply

    "If I see one more '60 Minutes' story about Black children in the 'ghetto' being civilized through the benevolence of White folks, or through the Arts, singing, dancing or playing a violin, my head will explode. And, '60 Minutes' loves to dish this on a global scale."

    If you think that's bad, you ought to listen to NPR's "Code Switch," were everyday is racial solving day. The problem, however, is that race only comes up when there's a presence of color and white is the universal solvent.

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