Monday, June 1, 2020

Respecting Boundaries: I Can Do Anti-Racist Work Anywhere

A white friend told me about an experience he had last week when he asked a white neighbor to maintain social distancing because his family is at high risk. The neighbor sarcastically said he had forgotten his tape measure and not to worry because he would stay away from my friend and his family.

One of the things I know from years of teaching Empowerment Self-Defense is that there is a wide range of responses when people set boundaries. Much of the time, people respect the boundaries others set but sometimes people push back or respond in a hostile way like the neighbor above did. 

The person responding, not a boundary-setter, is responsible for whether or not they honor a boundary; however, when people responding to boundary-setting act as if their social prestige, privilege, or power gives them the right to ignore, threaten or abuse boundary-setters, the community also has a responsibility. The rest of us have to make it clear that having prestige, privilege, or power does not let anyone off the hook for their behavior. Unfortunately, there is no lack of examples, but two specific situations have been highlighted in the news this week where individuals have responded to boundary-setting with verbal or physical violence, consciously or unconsciously assuming their power and privilege allowed them to disregard the safety of another human being.

“I’m going to tell them there’s an African American man threatening my life.” White woman Amy Cooper said, threatening to call the police when Christian Cooper asked her to leash her dog in accordance with the rules of the Ramble in Central Park.

“I can’t breathe” said George Floyd, an African American man, who was killed by Derek Chauvin, a white Minneapolis police officer, by kneeling on his neck for over 8 minutes. Floyd clearly stated and repeated his need for air which was ignored not only by Derek Chauvin who killed him but by three other police officers.

George Floyd was described by his brother Philonise Floyd as “a gentle giant.” Philonise Floyd also said “to know my brother is to love my brother.”  Christian Cooper is aware not only of the rules of the Ramble but also aware and appreciative of the beauty and song of the birds he comes to watch so asking someone to leash their dog is not only following the rules of the Ramble but caring for the larger environment.

As a white person, I have the privilege to distance myself from Amy Cooper and Derek Chauvin; I have the privilege to focus on their individual decisions to disrespect the boundaries set by Christian Cooper and George Floyd and not on the ways that my own unearned privileges contributed to their perceived social license to respond with hostility. But, as Chicago Tribune columnist Dahleen Glanton said in White America, if you want to know who’s responsible for racism, look in the mirror: “regardless of how much you say you detest racism, you are the sole reason it has flourished for centuries. And you are the only ones who can stop it.” So distancing from Amy Cooper and Derek Chauvin or holding them solely responsible does not stop racism.

Removing the racism woven into the fabric of our society for centuries is huge and can seem daunting; but because racism is everywhere, I can do anti-racist work anywhere. I draw inspiration from IMPACT and Empowerment Self-Defense to:

  • evaluate safety on the basis of others' behavior, not their presumed social position or appearance. To focus on behavior and to recognize and move beyond deeply embedded racism doesn't just happen; it means to engage in conscious self-examination, which may be very uncomfortable and unsettling.
  • regard respecting boundaries set by people of color as highly as setting my own boundaries. Pat Parker in her poem "For the White Person Who Wants to Know How to Be My Friend," offers the dual consciousness to cultivate: "The first thing you do is to forget that i'm Black. Second, you must never forget that i'm Black." 
  • be an active and engaged bystander and take action when other white people use white privilege to dismiss, undermine, threaten or abuse boundaries set by people of color. 
Martha Thompson
IMPACT Chicago
Admin Team Co-Leader


No comments:

Post a Comment