Racial Justice Roundup, MLK Edition

SelmaMartin Luther King Jr.’s day of remembrance seems to have arrived at a particularly opportune time of the year, given the heightened dialogue around black lives and race relations in the U.S. I watched the Selma movie this past weekend to put myself in an even greater mode of reflection about where we’ve been as a country and where we’re headed when it comes to race. I’d definitely recommend the film.

In the social justice world I often hear talk about how society has made much progress in racial justice throughout the years, but that we have a long ways to go. This is still true. We have to acknowledge both the past and the present.

With regards to the latter, here’s roundup of racial justice links I found interesting this past week:

  • Organizers took MLK day as inspiration for a weekend-long set of actions in various cities across the U.S. Here’s what went on in just the Bay Area, for example.
  • The best long-form article I read last week was on the making of Silicon Valley with respect to race and class. An important read, given the high intensity economic pressure that Silicon Valley and the tech sector exert on low- and middle-income residents throughout the Bay Area.
  • Speaking of income and neighborhood change, this video by a young man named Kai about the changes he’s seen in his home community of the Mission District in San Francisco is quite well-done.
  • As most people heard, the Oscars were pretty white this year. I’m also particularly surprised looking down the list of past non-white actor nominees to see very few Asian/Pacific Islanders.
Color Eye

Colorism in Literature

Color Eye

Photo: Andreas Levers via Flickr

Over the past year I’ve been thinking more about the ways that colorism (or the valuing of lighter skinned people over darker skinned people) comes into play in literature just as much as in film, modeling, and other more visual industries. Amit Singh, in a recent Media Diversified article does a great job of highlighting examples of colorism for the latter and why it is such a big problem. As he notes, “there is one set type of attractiveness that is sold to us and resold to us on a daily basis through popular culture and advertising.” He discusses how even the actors and models “of color” that are allowed to succeed are the lighter-skinned ones and the ones with more Caucasian features.

It’s not just on screen and in magazines though that we experience colorism — it happens in literature too, even though we might not get shown a literal image. In reading science fiction and fantasy, so often the darker-skinned characters are the ones with the evil magic or the worst intentions — the assassins and kingdom-takers. And in less-fantastical books the darker characters are still often looked upon with suspicion and fear, or at the very least set apart as different because of their dark and/or non-Caucasian features. How many times have we read “The Asian nurse did such and such” or “The guy with dreadlocks told me blah blah blah?” In each of those situations an author is choosing to define his or her characters by how far they deviate from whiteness, rather than choosing a more complex way to describe them.

I’m the first one out there to jump up and down cheerleading for authors that write diverse characters. If authors do intend a character to be a person of color I’d love to know. But it’s very important when we call those characters onto the field not to be using whiteness as the standard of beauty or the gatekeeper of “normal.” Authors have just as much responsibility as magazine editors and television producers to not be recreating the color value spectrum for consumers.

I think we are getting better in a lot of ways, but authors need to push harder on the work of diversifying their cast of characters in nuanced and meaningful ways. Likewise, we readers need to keep ourselves open to all the characters in the books we read, not just the ones that are seem the most like us.

For the Cause

Reading Up on the Panthers

For the Cause

In Oakland, moving in and out of social justice communities, it’s tough not to hear references on a regular basis to the Black Panther Party which had its roots here. A few weekends ago I was found myself watching a film at the International Black Women’s Film Festival called For the Cause, a fictional story about two ex-panthers and their daughter, Mirai.

Mirai’s father is in prison, convicted of murdering a police officer back in the heyday of the Panthers. Mirai has a strained relationship with him, and her mother won’t even talk about him at all. Throughout the film you start to get a fuller, complex picture of the parents’ history and what it felt like to be active back in the movement. There is also a great love story being told about Mirai in her partner, that gets tied up with the unfolding of the parents’ past.

I really enjoyed the history-mixed-with-story feeling of the film, and the spectacular acting from the full cast. I’m not sure where else the For the Cause film will be showing, but I would definitely recommend it to anyone interested in activism history in the U.S.

About a year ago I read a book by two scholars at UC Berkeley called Black Against Empire: The History and Politics of the Black Panther Party. The work gave a fairly comprehensive history of the Black Panther Party’s rise and fall, as well as an intriguing analysis about why it became so popular at the time that it did and why it didn’t survive. But, without giving away to much of the story from the film,  I’ll say that watching the movie made me interested in picking up another book — Elaine Brown’s memoir on the Panthers, A Taste of Power: A Black Woman’s Story, where she discusses her experience with sexism as a high-ranking member of the Panthers. While the Black Against Empire book touches on gender power imbalances, it doesn’t quite delve into them enough to feel satisfying, and Brown’s memoir might serve to shed some light on that aspect of the history.

Any other great social movement books I should add to my reading list?

Crowd at Millions March Oakland

What Shall We Call Us?

Crowd at Millions March Oakland

Crowd at Millions March Oakland

I am one to throw the term “people of color” or “POC” (for short) around fairly liberally. I use it when talking about the books I read, or the types of advocacy I’m involved with. In general, I like to think and talk about the ways that having dark skin or features that aren’t associated with whiteness creates a certain sense of solidarity. But it would be false to say that I’ve never questioned my own use of the word. In particular, I’ve always wondered whether Asian and Pacific Islander communities always identify with that term. This past week, through a friend, I found a great article on Black Girl Dangerous discussing the term “POC” and all the baggage tied up in lumping people together all the time.

In the article, “What’s Wrong With the Term ‘Person of Color'”, author Janani encourages solidarity across race/ethnicity groups, while making the important point that each individual minority community has a distinct history of oppression. Sometimes one group plays a role in oppressing another to try and get closer to acceptance, or a group may have internal oppression issues that are not the same as the internal challenges that other race/ethnicity groups have.

One particularly eloquent quote that I loved toward the end of the article summed up the overall argument quite well:

Black-Asian solidarity in the US, for instance, is hard to find and it will continue to be difficult to build if we continue to use the uncritical ‘POC’ label.  Rather, we can use ‘POC’ as a way of reflecting on our different racial histories and building coalitions in our struggles and their difference.  POC is a term for building solidarity between movements, not a movement in itself.  That distinction is important.


Lots of food for thought in a time of beautiful multi-cultural organizing around #BlackLivesMatter.

Art by Hank Willis Thomas

#BlackLivesMatter, Now and Always

I wasn’t expecting so soon after writing about Ferguson that we’d be hearing back on the conclusion of the Eric Garner case.

If I had been thinking about the Garner case much beforehand, I might have been predicting that the indictment would be affirmative. That finally this situation and this cop would go to trial. Because it was on video. Because the police used an illegal chokehold. Because the coroner called it a homicide. But of course if that’s what I’d believed I would have been disappointed.

I’ve been reading a lot of reactions and seeing a lot of memes and spoken word links floating around Twitter and Facebook as black communities and advocacy communities try to make sense of the decision. There have been some heartfelt expression pieces giving voice to those experiencing trauma and tragedy. There was a lot of talk about the uncanny way that the verdict coincided with Obama’s push to get more police to wear body cameras. It was uncanny in the sense that the Garner case immediately disproved the validity of this “solution” and instead forced us to focus again on the heart of the matter — implicit bias and the inherent harm of having a militarized police force.

I’m troubled by so many aspects of these deaths. I’m frustrated, saddened, and angered by the fact that it keeps happening, over and over again. But I what I actually find most frustrating and disempowering is the lack of understanding and the apathy that I see from a lot of non-black, non-advocate communities. I hear people focusing on the legal facts or the doubt surrounding the events of deaths or speculating about what facts were presented to the Grand Jury. I hear people hanging on the the uncertainties and giving the benefit of the doubt to the white police officers or to mostly-white juries. All of this is very hard to hear, and hard to fight.

For me, it keeps coming back to Eric Garner’s last words, where he expresses the pain he experiences at constantly being a target of harassment and suspicion:

Everytime you see me, you want to harass me. […] I’m minding my business, officer, I’m minding my business. Please just leave me alone. I told you the last time, please just leave me alone. please please, don’t touch me. Do not touch me. I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe.


To know that the man who said these words is no longer with us is deeply sad. It’s a constant struggle for me to articulate to others why his words matter so much. They point exactly to the heart of the profiling and the psychological toll of that profiling on an entire class of people.

It matters.

We matter.