Tag Archives: white privilege

Batman #44 and Why White Allies Aren’t Heroes

Rick Quinn lives in Nashville, TN where he writes and is part of the core team for The Encounter@Edgehill, a multi-racial movement of authentic community in the city fostering vital conversations, compassionate community, and life-giving action. He is a graduate of Vanderbilt Divinity School where he earned his Masters in Divinity and pursued graduate studies in theology at Vanderbilt University School of Religion. Rick has served as a director of Christian Education at the local church level, in the non-profit social service realm, and has taught in adjunct and visiting professor roles at Perkins School of Theology at SMU, Trevecca Nazarene University, and Fisk University. He blogs at RickTQuinn and can be found on Twitter @apophatic1

Even before seeing it, I think I have always resonated with the self-affirmation meme “Always be yourself, unless you can be Batman. Then always be Batman.” Batman is my favorite comic book hero. He is the pulpy, ink and pencil incarnation of a dominant American mythology. Bereft of super powers, Batman is nonetheless exceptional. The exemplary solitary individual, he transfigures his trauma into rigorous discipline, an unwavering passion for justice, and honor. Guided by his code, Batman confronts a violent world with measured violence; he will not under any circumstance take a life. He relies on his keen mind, his disciplined physical prowess, and always true moral compass in the service of redeeming Gotham City from the evil that plagues its streets. Never a victim, he is the noble hero who rises phoenix like from the ashes of tragedy to restore order to a disorderly world. Beaten back at times, he is never bowed.

He is America.

He is also white.

And he is enormously wealthy.

What I am proposing is that the Batman mythology coincides neatly with aspects of a certain American mythology. Mythology is the story we tell about ourselves to situate our lives and experiences within the wider world and to provide sense and meaning. It is an interpretive act and a fictive act. In his 75 year history as a pop culture character, Batman has embodied several traits endemic to the story we tell about ourselves. He is a self-made man. His enormous wealth is used only in the service of good. While prone to injury, he is, for all practical purposes, invulnerable. He doles out fierce, brutal punishment (always deserved) but never takes a life. What might look like torture or excessive force is really necessary enhanced interrogation. He is a vigilante but a real threat only to the criminal element. His extrajudicial activities have the tacit approval of the police powers. His interventions and preemptive strikes are seen as necessary excursions around red tape in the service of justice. His wealth affords him technological powers of surveillance, an electronic incarnational symbol of towering gaze from a perch on one of Gotham’s skyscrapers. He embodies our faith in the raw power of the solitary hero (or nation state).

Of course this is a sweeping overview. In recent decades pieces of this general mythology have been d troubled within the Dark Knight’s corpus. Various stories have toyed with the question of whether the appearance of Batman is a deterrent to crime or if his unilateral interventions unintentionally create more extreme villainous responses. Scott Snyder’s recent run as writer for the Batman title has sought to present a more human, conflicted origin myth where we see a hero in process and the process is often messy and gray. Co-written with Brian Azzarello, the most recent issue, while not breaking continuity, is a stand alone story. But packed within this stand alone piece is a powerful primer on the deeply interconnected causal threads of most social situations and a warning that many situations do not need the usual intervention of outside “heroes.”

Titled “A Simple Case,” it is anything but. It begins with the Dark Knight alone, investigating a dead body in the marshes on the outskirts of Gotham. The young victim has been shot multiple times but the puzzling cause of his death is injuries sustained after a catastrophic fall from enormous heights. The unnamed narrator delivers the comforting promise that faith in this powerful hero and his self-assured sense of justice will reward: “He will catch someone for this. He will punish the one who did it, and stop it from happening again.” This is comic book mythology 101. It is the driving narrative of our most precious myths and the common theme of most hero stories. Yet, it is this promissory note that Azzarello’s and Snyder’s story will deconstruct throughout this incredible book for the purpose of encouraging more substantive and sustained action rather than promoting cynicism.

This deconstruction is performed by a narrative mirroring as Batman learns bit by bit the story behind the death of Peter Duggio, the young black male shot multiple times who mysteriously fell from the sky. He is a kid from “The Narrows,” a neighborhood in Gotham blighted by urban decay. Like Bruce Wayne’s, Peter’s actions are spurred by a family crisis and impending loss. He takes the situation into his own hands and seeks to carve a solution through ingenuity, power plays and bargains. His tragic end could be written off as another unfortunate but expected occasion in a neighborhood gone to seed. Or, mirroring the narrative character shading that too often occurs in establishment media to young, black victims of violence, Peter’s story could have been “explained” by his poor choices and associations (he does reach out to the Penguin, after all) even though he is shot unjustifiably by a reactionary police officer. Instead, Snyder and Azzarello use Peter’s story to tell the story of “The Narrows” which is a story of Gotham, its white power structure and the deep interweaving of the narratives of systemic racism, redlining, urban decay and exploitation. It is unfortunately an all too American story.

The graphic medium utilizes its intertextual power to the fullest. Artist Jock along with color artist Lee Loughridge and Letterer Deron Bennett give life to Snyder’s and Azzarello’s complex story and social criticism in a way which only the medium of comics could allow. The color scheme is mostly gray, metaphorically critiquing Batman’s pursuit of the simple answer and solitary culprit to be brought to justice. Primary colors are shaded in certain panels with powerful effect like yellow, red, or blue filtering on black and white film. The narrative dialogue boxes and illustrations are overlaid at certain points by the inclusion of pieces of news clippings from Gotham’s history. These fragments, out of context with words obscured, serve as archaeological fragments that trouble any simple narrative rendering of this story. They are echos of the Penguin’s mocking observation to Batman’s black and white approach, “You..really don’t know anything about this city, do you?”

Through these snippets we piece together a powerful counter narrative of redlining, systemic denial of access to public goods and services, civil rights movements and the fierce response from the powers that be, police brutality combined with lack of training and disconnect between the police force and the neighborhood, and the not so benign effects of the paternalistic “benevolence” of gentrification.

Piece by piece as the story of Peter Duggio is put together, Batman’s mythology is called into question. Like white Americans (myself included) who rush into the battle against racism with a burning sense of justice and, if we are honest, a paternalistic messiah fantasy, we quickly find ourselves implicated in that which we seek to fight. Along with Batman we discover that our crystal clear sense of what counts for justice and ethical behavior is wrapped in privilege. Our judgments of others is blind to the complexities of their condition and our implication in these conditions through passive acquiescence. As the writer Ta-Nehisi Coates observed in a recent television interview, much of the pathology we identify with oppressed communities is a direct result of the “boot upon their neck.” To address the pathology is impossible without removing the boot on the neck. In this comic, Batman/Bruce experiences the painfully necessary discovery of the outline of his foot within that collective boot.

Like any truly honest narrative, there is no neat resolution to the story. There is no single villain whose tracking, pummeling, and capture can serve as the ceremonial scapegoat for our complicity. In a last brilliant ironic gesture, the writers and artists place the title of the comic, “A Simple Case,” on the last panel as an ironic critique of the tendency to ignore complex social situations. Batman though, decides to stay in the midst of The Narrows, but not as the hero. “Because he got it all wrong.” He stays to listen. Even if in that listening he is implicated and his mythology is decentered. In that sense, perhaps he demonstrates that white allies are not nor should not aspire to be heroes. In embodying that very lesson perhaps he is, to paraphrase Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight, not the hero white America wants, but the example that it needs.

silence and listening

“The LORD is in his holy temple; let all the earth be silent before him.”- Habakkuk 2:20

Generally in Scripture, there are several types of silence. During the experience of exile, Israelites and Judeans felt as if God was no longer speaking to them. Perhaps God was speaking in different ways than in the past. Maybe God was speaking through action and through divinely commissioned prophets they refused to listen to.

Silencing can also come from humans as well, and sometimes this is a good thing, and sometimes it is bad. It really depends on what context it is used in. All the way from pre-kindegarten to seminary, I chose to sit quietly, and listen to my teachers, and trust them that they were giving me a fair rendering of human history. I made this choice because I wanted to get good grades, and I wanted to get ahead in life. I only remember getting maybe one referral for behavior problems, and that was like in the first or second grade. Being well-behaved, civilized, doing what I was told, believing what I was told/what I read: these were the ideals.

Yet, inside I knew that something was not right during history lessons. In the third grade, I made up for being indoctrinated with EuroCentric views of history by reading the stories of Native Americans and African Americans, people I did not hear about in class except for during Columbus Day, Thanksgiving, and Black History Month. The only way I knew from church and school was the way of monologue.

But along the way in my spiritual and intellectual journey, I believe I have found a better way than monologue, of talking past others, of dismissing others’ experiences. Dialogue has become important to me, not only just a simple dialogue for dialogues sake, but dialogue for the purpose of justice and reconciliation. In given exchanges, persons can point to what I have written here or there, and say, Rod, what you write is not balanced. The question is never is asked of me, who am I listening to? Maybe I am listening to persons who are committed to Christian teachings of inerrancy or to the voices of Persons With Disabilities or maybe people from other religions outside of my own Christian commitments (which I am). Fellow Christians are, as commanded by Jesus, owed my love, certainly. That love however does come in a variety of ways.

This love can come in the form of solidarity, assertive correction, or even shunning. As an example, one leader in mainstream evangelical Christianity I have criticized over and over, I do wish for this person’s neoconfederate views to be not just condemned, but ostracized. It’s very difficult for this to happen when megachurch pastors endorse this man, but I will keep working, speaking truth in love. Jesus taught us to love our enemies, and truth telling (preaching) is a nonviolent way of resisting evil systems, and the sinfulness within ourselves.

I struggle with all of this myself, since we are all broken. However, I do not consider of tone-policing, which is concern for how one reader believes another writer feels is a form of listening. The language of “tones” and “emotions” just means the reader is far more interested in derailing, and make everything personal (centering your experience instead of letting anOther’s experience speak for itself).

I think it’s in that moment when we are all facing the temptation to make a person’s words all about us, it’s at that time we should take a seat, and be quiet. Listen, be patient, and maybe perhaps choose to respond minutes or days later. Perhaps give ourselves time to re-read offending posts.

Not so much to ask is it?

(un)Learning From Hugo Schwyzer & Tim Wise: How To Fight White Supremacy By Not being an Ally

Tonight, I end my three month long series on White Supremacy. It has been a revelation, it has been dramatic, and a joy. As I look back on this journey, I realize that I was not prepare for the reactions from close personal (some even former) friends (dating even back to high school). In spite of the derailing and trolling (which I expected), I never once felt like giving up. This is the longest blog series I have ever attempted, and it’s several blog posts long if you count Tumblr, and even more if you count Facebook statuses and Tweets. In the process, I found myself and my calling. But, enough about me. On to the exciting conclusion.

While I had fun disassembling white supremacist myths, this would all be for nothing if I did not offer my own constructive solutions. But the problem with the anti-racism industry, is, a little bit like the anti-sexism/feminist industry, it’s turned into a neo-liberal business to be exploited. Part of this exploitation is due to the fact that like Miley Cyrus, men like Hugo Schwyzer and Tim Wise sought profit from justice work on the backs of People of Color. Part of the failure of anti-racist discourse was the decision to adopt palatable terminology so that liberation works could be so watered down, that anyone could use the language for their own agenda. The case in point of Tim Wise, who loves to talk about White Privilege (a lot of white folks who lean liberal do too oddly enough) but weirdly they like to remain silent about the history of white supremacy. It’s like they want to avoid talking about it!

(Imagine a white anti-racist saying, “I’m going to use my white supremacy to help people of color.”) Nonetheless, white privilege has become the watch-word of the movement.

-Ewuare Xola Osayande.

The concept of “white allies” has been with us ever since the establishment of the colonies (De La Casas, William Lloyd Garrisson, John Brown), so really, the notion that whites can be anti-racist should not come as a surprise. Pretty much, this show how depreciated anti-racist thought is, and how the history of the abolitionists have been WhiteWashed on the tide of PaleoConfederate White Supremacy. It is this very whitewashing that Drew Hart pointed out, has led the Dominant culture to fortify itself against minorities and their contributions.

As an example, Tim Wise in his interactions with POC activists, has shown that he see himself immune to criticism, but in reality, he has his limits. In his work as a spokesperson for Teach For America, a problematic public program that is racially biased in favor of rich white students from elite colleges, Wise has shown that the Ally-Industrial complex is part and partial to the NeoLiberal colonial machine.

The fact is that someone like a William Lloyd Garrison, who did far more than Wise with far less than Wise, was critiqued way more harshly than anything I have penned here by his Black contemporaries. Maria Stewart, Frederick Douglass and others within the Black Abolitionist Movement always maintained an analysis that was independent of white abolitionists. Theirs was an analysis based on the life-and-death reality they faced on the daily.

For more, read Ewuare Xola Osayande’s Word To The Wise: Unpacking The White Privilege Of Tim Wise.

Allies can also colonize spaces of liberation by completely ripping off victims of oppression, and claiming said injustices for themselves. Take for example, Hugo Schwyzer, who was the Big White Feminist media darling and even hit up a number of Christian conferences and magazines as well. When faced with criticism for his racism and sexist ways, what does he do, but turn and play victim:

hugo lynching

Not only does Hugo claim that he is uppity (the racial insult for black slaves who refused to know their place), but also that he was being lynched; #sorrynotsorry sir, but lynchings were historical, political events that happened in flesh and blood, to keep People of Color from voting as well as intermarrying within the Dominant people group. Nooses still hang as “pranks” to frighten black people in schools and other public places.

Part of the problem with allies is that they presume to make those on the margins completely knowable, much like many evangelical Christians take the Bible to be all revelation without any mystery. As Andrea Smith put it:

“Native struggles then simply become a project of Native peoples making their demands known so that their claims can be recognized the by the settler state. Once these demands are known, they can they be more easily managed, co-opted and disciplined. Thus, the project of decolonization requires a practice of what Audra Simpson calls “ethnographic refusal” – the refusal to be known and the refusal to be infinitely knowable.”

In other words, allies are more like middle management, seeking to keep the “natives” in check for their neoliberal masters. I point above to Tim Wise and TFA, but there are other examples out there. With allies like these, there is no wonder POC cannot find safe spaces to escape from oppression. Or is this an incorrect way of looking at safe spaces?

Professor Smith adds:

“This kind of politics then challenges the notions of “safe space” often prevalent in many activist circles in the United States. The concept of safe space flows naturally from the logics of privilege. That is, once we have confessed our gender/race/settler/class privileges, we can then create a safe space where others will not be negatively impacted by these privileges. Of course because we have not dismantled heteropatriarchy, white supremacy, settler colonialism or capitalism, these confessed privileges never actually disappear in “safe spaces.” Consequently, when a person is found guilty of his/her privilege in these spaces, s/he is accused of making the space “unsafe.” This rhetorical strategy presumes that only certain privileged subjects can make the space “unsafe” as if everyone isn’t implicated in heteropatriarchy, white supremacy, settler colonialism and capitalism. Our focus is shifted from the larger systems that make the entire world unsafe, to interpersonal conduct. In addition, the accusation of “unsafe” is also levied against people of color who express anger about racism, only to find themselves accused of making the space “unsafe” because of their raised voices. The problem with safe space is the presumption that a safe space is even possible.

By contrast, instead of thinking of safe spaces as a refuge from colonialism, patriarchy, and white supremacy, Ruthie Gilmore suggests that safe space is not an escape from the real, but a place to practice the real we want to bring into being. “Making power” models follow this suggestion in that they do not purport to be free of oppression, only that they are trying to create the world they would like to live in now”

For more on the ally-industrial complex, see Andrea Smith’s The Problem With Privilege

Risk and danger is part of the process of creating places for justice. Safety, in this context, is an idea molded by a particular economic privilege, where assertive confrontation is looked down upon, and everyone from school wins a box of [ally] cookies. Perhaps anti-racist/anti-White Supremacist work should move towards a notion of Just Spaces to dislodge “safety” from its privileged throne. When the oppressed talk about their suffering, that is not safety. They are risking their lives to confront death-dealing structures. If I may wax Cornel West’s use of Adorno, “What is the condition of truth? To allow suffering to speak”
In conclusion to this series, I would like to offer several ways to combat white supremacy where ever it rears its ugly head (many of the suggestions are inspired by and modified versions of Michael Urbina’s 101 Everyday Ways For Men To Be Allies to Women and Louisa Davis’ Redeeming Privilege: How Privileged People Can Work For Justice.

1. Listen
2. Do away with the label of “ally.” The term “ally” in contemporary terms is a product of elitist, progressive academic circles; it’s inaccessible to the person on the ground or who has chosen not to have progressive political commitments. Instead, be a listener. A listener can come from any socio-economic and political background.
3. Listen. Really listen: Do not derail conversations when POC are sharing their perspective. Do not take their criticisms about institutional racisms personally. Do not work to try to immediately relate to POC’s experiences. Some things, you just will never know. The world does not revolve around you and your experiences. Accept that. Deal with it. Learn the power of silence and active listening.
4. Recognize your privileges, especially white privilege (or male) if applicable: Reflect, would this be possible if a Person of Color tried this or had this position? Make a daily effort to acknowledge and then challenge your white and/or male privilege. Recognize that your white privilege (among other privileges) may in fact fortify you from others’ experiences: So please, recognize this weakness and don’t take it personally when someone corrects you for overlooking something.
5. Listen: Allow people of color, women or members other oppressed groups to teach and especially lead you (since they usually have more crucial things to do than teach others) even when you think you might have “better” ideas. Of course, when you think you are really sure of something speak up. But listen for an alternative paradigm, often based more on relationship building and less on Western standards of “efficiency” in my experience. Additionally, read widely to supplement what you learn from personal interactions.
6. Enjoy popular culture with many grains of salt: Understanding that one of the greatest perpetrators of white supremacy is the media. The media as a power should be taken seriously. Be cognizant of media outlets and their racial exclusivity, but to continue to enjoy. Critical engagement isn’t easy but it’s worth the work.
7. Listen: Read blogs and books by people of color. But do not act like POC are here to educate you. That falls on your shoulders.
8. Be comfortable with being uncomfortable
9. LISTEN: Enjoy and appreciate the music and art work by POC. However, be ever aware that it is not the role of POC to solely entertain you. One of the pervasive white supremacist myths is that People of color’s lone gift to society is what they have to offer the sports or entertainment industry (well, sometimes these “gifts are stolen through cultural appropriate, but I digress).
10. Monitor your use of words./ Call out your friends on oppressive behaviors, jokes, or comments: Stop using words, telling jokes, or making comments that are offensive or could be interpreted as offensive. You can’t be a good listener if you hold onto to White Supremacist language and myths. You must check yourself.
11. Take an Ethnic Studies class: This only applies to people who live outside the state of Arizona.
12. NO, SERIOUSLY, LISTEN. Seek out and discover the intellectual talents of scholars of color. What are their findings? What makes them relevant to your life?
13. Pick up a book by a POC from your local Half Price Books or public library.
14. LISTEN.
15. DO NOT STARE AND/OR ASK TO TOUCH A STRANGER WHO IS A RACIAL MINORITY: Things like, “is your hair real?” “Can I touch your hair?” Or “Your skin is smooth, do you mind?” These are all microagressions. Please stop objectifying POC.
16. LISTEN.
17. Don’t be the hero, savior, or knight in shining armor: Respect the agency of People of Color.
18. listen.
19. When you read or hear a POC sharing a story of oppressive experiences, a day to day microaggression, or facts about institutional racism, DO NOT SAY YOU’RE SORRY: Instead, again, affirm the moral agency of POC, continue to listen, even repeat what the POC is saying back to them with empathy, use rhetorical listening, and dialogue about what needs to be done to address POC concerns.
20. listen: See step 19.
21. Support restorative justice/non-punitive practices in your schools and communities that hear the pain and needs of both victims and so-called perpetrators: This suggestion is very important to fighting the Prison-Industrial Complex. `Punitive practices in schools and prisons are racially biased because bodies of color are in need of “discipline” to be kept in check. A commitment to restorative justice and a revolutionary approach to education practices [to be written in a forthcoming post] is crucial to creating a more just society.
22. Listen.
23. Vote. Vote in local elections. They matter a lot. Redistricting is still one of the most heinous white supremacist practices that is unleashed upon POC. It allows resegregation as well as permits School districts to teach white supremacy.
24. Listen to POC children and their concerns as well.
25. Remember: Considering yourself an “ALLY” or Empathetic listener or having more than one POC friend or being a “PROGRESSIVE” DOES NOT ENTITLE YOU TO THE TRUST and PATIENCE OF POC AND ACCESS TO THEIR STORIES AND INSIGHTS. Trust AND Patience, like they are anywhere, are earned. This trust can be taken away at anytime. Person of privilege, you do not get to determine what reconciliation looks like. #sorrynotsorry
26. Listen.
27. FACT CHECK, FACT CHECK, FACT CHECK when people of privilege present you with Whitewashed versions of history. The reason why NeoConfederates can roam free in churches is because their false claims go unchallenged. Become familiar with histories of empire and oppression. Decolonize yourself.
28. Listen.
29. End. Tokenism. Now.
30. LISTEN!

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