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Who Counts as a Person of Color?

What portrayals of people of color become representative? Who has the power to do the representing?

May 31, 2019
 
 

Who counts as a person of color? Which voices of color are heard and magnified? What portrayals become representative? Who claims the power to do the representing?

As regular readers of this blog know, I am concerned that the dominant narrative about people of color in certain circles is the narrative of marginalization. Stories about black, native or immigrant life that emphasize other experiences (say, strength, gratitude or faith) are too often scoffed at as counterfeit, dismissed as coopted or quite simply ignored.  

Scott Shigeoka’s recent piece in Medium about the high profile Weave Conference, hosted by David Brooks and the Aspen Institute a few weeks back, is a striking case in point.

The piece reads like a lot of diversity progressive critiques:

  • The powerful people who ran the conference created a culture which marginalized some people;
  • The people who felt marginalized were people of color;
  • The category “people of color” is defined by the experience of marginalization;
  • In addition to feeling marginalized at the conference, people of color were not properly represented in the post-conference narratives written by those in power, notably this New York Times piece by David Brooks;
  • For people of color to feel centered and fully represented, only those who are woke enough to see how power operates should be allowed to participate in the Weave movement. Other people and perspectives should be excluded as they “zap energy” from the ones who really matter.    

When Shigeoka invokes the phrase “people of color” in his piece he is claiming a kind of legitimacy. I read him as in effect saying that he speaks for a large demographic group that had a uniform experience of marginalization at the hands of powerful people and they authorized him to be their spokesperson.

But here’s the thing, I’m a person of color, I was at Weave and I didn’t authorize Shigeoka to speak for me.

Moreover, as I read what Shigeoka wrote, I thought of the many many statements made by people of color in the large group session (for which, I imagine, he was also present) that he totally disregards. Here are just a few:

  • A person of color – the first speaker at the conference, no less – says his faith in Jesus inspires him to work with marginalized youth, and that he hopes to help them find their own connection to Jesus;
  • A person of color says his immigrant parents raised him to believe that he was stunningly fortunate to grow up in the United States and that it was his duty to work hard and give back so that he could ‘earn’ his place. 
  • A person of color tells the story of a coach in college who would hold practices early on Sunday mornings, make the players run wind sprints and yell, “The way you approach this is a decision. Every day you decide how hard you are going to go and what kind of a person you are going to be.” From that he learned that he should approach everything as a decision – and he was going to decide not to let anything stand in the way of his dreams.
  • A person of color shares that one of his closest mentors was (these are his words as I remember them) the old, Jewish, white, male, Republican pollster Frank Luntz, and from that he learned not to judge people by their age, skin color or political labels.
  • A person of color says white people need to understand how sophisticated the structures of racism are, but that they should not be held responsible for the racist actions of the past.

The point is not whether any of the things said above are objectively right or wrong, or whether you agree with any of them or not. The point is that they were all said by people of color in the plenary session.

None of these perspectives make it into Shigeoka’s narrative.

Every once in a while, there was a remarkable exchange between people of color about how best people of color should engage with the world.

For example, a young black man gave an Obama-style talk about the pervasiveness of racism and also the need for people of color to focus on their own thriving and bringing people together rather than fighting the shadows of the past. A black woman argued with him about his “forgive and move on” perspective and added that she did not see her thread in the weave of the conference. An immigrant woman argued as well and emphasized that not enough space was being given to deconstructing white supremacy and oppression. A black man argued with both of them and said that when he walked into the conference he saw a gold mine of opportunities and that the two previous speakers would do well to focus on opportunities rather than oppression.

All in all, a fascinating back-and-forth between people of color about how best to interpret what it means to be a person of color, including the experience of racism, and what to focus on moving forward. Such conversations took place out in the open, in high-profile plenary sessions, for all to hear.

And they were totally absent from Shigeoka’s piece.

Absolutely people of color shared stories of trauma and marginalization, as did many white people. The audience listened with deep sympathy. For sure these stories are real. And people have every right to interpret and narrate their own experience.

But why does Shigeoka erase the other perspectives - as if the people who shared them were invisible? How come those who emphasized empowerment, appreciation, grace, forgiveness and unity were exiled from the category “people of color”?

Sometimes, the banishment is mind-bogglingly brazen. For example, Shigeoka says that many people of color in the room were triggered by a session on race - without ever mentioning that the featured speaker of that session was a black man.   

Moreover, not only does Shigeoka omit a host of actual people of color from his definition of “people of color”, he goes further and says that certain exclusions are necessary as a matter of principle: “We shouldn’t allow people to ‘weave’ if they do not believe in this basic, fundamental truth … racial, economic and social inequity are real.”

I didn’t hear anybody at Weave say that inequity isn’t real, but some people did say that conversations about inequity shouldn’t take up all the energy in the room. The focus should be on other things – the decisions we make about our own lives, what Jesus can do for each of us, the relationships we form with others.

I’m not saying that I agree or disagree with any of this, but I’m struck that most of the people who I heard saying these sorts of things were people of color – the very category that Shigeoka claims to be representing in his piece. 

Ultimately, Shigeoka is concerned about who has the power to shape spaces and tell stories. He writes that he has no doubt that the Aspen Institute and David Brooks had good intentions in their launching of Weave, he is just concerned that they have too much power.

I think that’s right. When it comes to shaping spaces and narratives, you don’t get more powerful than the New York Times OpEd page and Aspen Institute convenings. And all people – being human – are limited.

And while I believe that Shigeoka’s intentions are also good, what is striking to me is that even as he publicly accuses others of telling an incomplete story, he himself tells a story so partial that I can only believe he willfully ignored a dozen or more speeches and statements made by people of color in the large group sessions.

In the process, he falls into a mode that I see with some frequency in diversity progressive circles. It’s the “I am a prophet who represents an oppressed people and has been appointed to speak truth to power” mode. For sure, this is not power of the kind that New York Times columnists have, but it is a sort of Moses-Speaking-Truth-to-Pharaoh legitimacy that is given special attention in our day and age.

Why not be more modest in your claims and characterizations?

Why not say you had some conversations with some people who felt like their voices weren’t heard at Weave, rather than suggest that you are speaking for an identity category, even as you clearly ignore many of its members?

Why not say that the political perspective that highlights oppressive systems and structural inequality was muted at Weave and you wished that it had been more central, rather than propose that all people who don’t share your political view be excluded from future events?

Why have I written a 2000-word response to a blog post about a conference?

First, I have no personal animus towards Shigeoka. He seems like a perfectly nice person and we actually shared a sweet moment at Weave (he had made an interesting comment about foraging mushrooms, and I thanked him for a perspective I’d never considered). 

I also hold no particular brief for David Brooks or Weave. I am warmly acquainted with David, although we are not especially close. And I want Weave to thrive, but only because I think it’s good for the nation, not because I draw a paycheck from it or anything like that.

So why am I so worked up about this issue?

I think it’s because I’ve spent a reasonable amount of time in spaces where some people claim to represent entire identity categories, like “people of color”. First of all, when you say “people of color” you are referring to something like 80% of the world (think about it – Asia, Africa, Latin America, significant numbers of North America and Europe). Should anybody really attempt to be speaking for more than five billion humans? Second, when it comes to the United States, studies show that most people of color are decidedly moderate on issues of racial ideology.

You wouldn’t know that by listening to the statements that certain activists make. “People of color feel marginalized here”. “People of color need to talk about their oppression.” “People of color are tired of listening to white people talk.” “People of color need safe spaces.” 

I hear claims like that on campuses and at conferences on a weekly basis. I have no doubt that that some people of color might feel those ways - and they have every right to, everybody has a right to interpret their own experience. But does everyone with pigment in their skin feel that way? Should the entire category “people of color” be understood as synonymous with “marginalized”? 

Often, people won’t say things after the activist has spoken. Say the words “people of color feel marginalized” and it is as if a spell has been cast. Alternative perspectives effectively get bullied into silence by a self-appointed Moses figure – someone who claims to be speaking the God-given Truth while doing righteous battle with Pharaoh on behalf of an oppressed group. Even if you have another view, or if you don’t want someone else speaking for you, it’s just not worth the energy or the fight or the potential cold shoulder you are likely to receive for airing it.

There are places that even have words for this. “No one wants to get ‘Sarah Lawrenced’” a student at Sarah Lawrence College said to me when I asked why she didn’t share her alternative perspective on the student protest that had erupted the day I happened to be on campus.

“Sarah Lawrenced?” I asked, confused.

“That’s when the activists just ice you out without telling you why. They just stop talking to you - and then everyone else does too.”  

Well, Weave was different. A whole range of perspectives were aired by people of color. There was plenty of white supremacy/oppression talk, but there was also Obama-style let’s acknowledge racism yet still come together talk. Also, there was Jesus Saves language, self-empowerment approaches, and other discourses as well. And there was a spirited conversation between these different perspectives.

As a person of color who enjoys wide-ranging conversation between different perspectives - and thinks that this variety not only best represents the broad category “people of color” but that little pieces of all of it are necessary for our thriving - I was thrilled.

And I think that’s why Shigeoka’s piece bothered me so much. Why erase these other perspectives? Why render the people who voiced them invisible? Why go even further and say that there are ethical reasons that alternative perspectives – including those voiced by people of color - should be excluded? How can you omit so many voices of color while suggesting that you are somehow representing the category people of color?

I liked Weave. I learned from the range of perspectives. I hope there is an even wider range in the future. That is the view of this person of color. I want it to be heard, not silenced.  

(After re-reading this piece several times, I found myself uncomfortable with the pointedness of some of my language. I did not at all want to come across as if I was attacking Scott Shigeoka personally. And I certainly did not want it to be an unpleasant surprise in his inbox on what might have been an otherwise pleasant morning. So I shared the piece with Scott and I’m happy to say that we had a really lovely conversation by phone. Frankly, I was blown away by how gracious he was. He encouraged me to publish the piece and said that he found it a constructive response to his own view, which he admitted was partial and also (usefully) reminded me that it was meant as a balancer of sorts to the NYT piece David Brooks wrote on Weave.

I can’t tell you how much I appreciated the conversation with Scott. He took the criticism part of my article totally in stride and basically said it was good for the world to hear multiple perspectives! Lots of people say that they are open to feedback. It’s been a long time since I’ve met someone who welcomed it with zero defensiveness and total courtesy. I am looking forward to “weaving” with Scott Shigeoka. More importantly, I think we are going to be friends.)    

 

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