Today's guest blogger is Dimitri Robert Dounas-Frazer, a frequent poster in the Equity & Inclusion Facebook Page, and a white man who allies as a verb. Dimitri earned his PhD in physics from UC Berkeley and he is currently a postdoctoral researcher at CU-Boulder working on physics education research.
When John asked me to write a guest post for his blog, he said, “Humans need to hear stories to make logical connections. We are storytellers. The story of your personal journey will help people start putting the pieces together.”
Here’s my best attempt to summarize where I am now, how I got here, and what’s on the horizon in terms of promoting equity and inclusion in Physics.
Part 1: My Whiteness
First, so that my fellow cis white men don’t feel alone when they make similar statements about themselves, it’s important to say this upfront: I have benefitted from, and contributed to, interpersonal, cultural, and institutional racism. And: I will continue to benefit from that oppression despite my best intentions and efforts.
Some brief personal history: On my father’s side, my family tree traces back to the pilgrim Paul Sears. My dad has a brass coin of some sort to this effect. When I was younger, I used to stare at the coin and think that my lineage made me a “real” American, one of the “first.” My colonialist understanding of American identity was (is?) a result of my socialization in a country where whiteness is normative and where American history starts with Plymouth Rock instead of the Bering Strait, with Purple Mountain Majesties instead of the culture and history of the Ute nation. Chimamanda Adichie calls this “The Danger of a Single Story.”
My mother was born in Greece. When she was finishing primary school, her family emigrated to South Africa. At the time they lived there, apartheid was still in effect, and my mom and her family were perceived and treated as white. My grandparents found work, saved money, and eventually came to the U.S. Thus, as is the case for my paternal ancestors, exploitation of people of color is an integral thread in the fabric of my mother’s and maternal grandparents’ history.
So, I benefitted from my whiteness even before I was born, as do all white people.
As a kid, I grew up in a family where my white parents and white grandparents owned their own homes. My neighbors were all white. Most of my childhood friends were white. All of us in my family and neighborhood had benefitted from racism in the housing market, something Ta-Nehisi Coates calls “The Quiet Plunder.”
I worked as a busboy at my uncle’s restaurant when I was in high school. My uncle forbade me, the only non-Latino busboy, from cleaning the bathrooms because that type of work wasn’t for “people like me.” Did he mean white people? Greek people? Family members? Probably all of the above. Thus, I was socialized in settings where my whiteness was not just normative, but better than.
I went to a small engineering college where roughly 75% of the students were men and 75% were white. In 2006--my last year of college--the college president announced a Diversity Initiative. Almost 10 years later, these trends are no different. And in that 10 years, the sexist slur “RIBS” is still a common feature of campus culture. In college, I joined a field (Physics) in which 80% of college degrees are awarded to men and 80% to white people--trends which, again, have been stagnant or worsening over the last decade.
My education has not only bolstered my perception that whiteness is the norm, but, in the words of philosopher Arianne Shahvisi, it also “reinforces the belief that [I was] special, or deserving, to start with.” Moreover, along the lines of psychologist Albert Bandura’s work on self-efficacy, witnessing the success of other white, male students enhanced my own confidence and motivation.
These are just some of the cultural, institutional, and psychological ways I benefitted--and continue to benefit--from my race. However, the point here isn’t to catalogue all of my privileges. Instead, John has asked for my story. So, now that the stage has been set, I’ll give brief overview of how I came to be aware of my unearned privilege and power.
Part 2: Awakening
In May 2014, a straight cis white man killed 6 people and injured 14 others in Isla Vista, CA. I was teaching physics in San Luis Obispo when this happened. Many of my students spent their weekends in the Isla Vista area. Having gone to high school in Lakewood, CO, during the Columbine massacre, the Isla Vista killings knocked something loose in my heart. I remember feeling a deep sense of dread and worry for my students and their friends.
The Isla Vista killings were different from the Columbine massacre in several ways. One of those differences was that, in the former case, the killer went on a murderous rampage because women weren’t giving him the sex to which he felt entitled. I couldn’t wrap my head around this motivation. In an effort to make sense of what happened, I found myself reading feminist blogs and engaging in lots of conversations with my friends and colleagues.
First, the ugliness: I found out that many of my male friends were blaming women and feminists for the killings. After a lot of challenging conversations with these men, I ended up parting ways with most of them. I simply couldn’t accept their mentality--certainly not in the context of the violence that just transpired so close to where I lived. This process was emotionally taxing.
Next, the less ugly parts: I learned about different types of feminism, including intersectional feminism. I remember one phone call in particular. This call was with a smart and passionate woman who I met in grad school and has since become one of my best friends and most trusted colleagues. “What does it mean to be a feminist?” I asked. “Am I a feminist?” She and I explored these ideas over the course of several conversations.
Looking back on that period of time and reflecting on those conversations, I feel like I deconstructed and then reconstructed myself. What do I value? What do I stand for?
Or, more importantly: Who do I value? Who do I stand for?
A few months after the Isla Vista killings, Michael Brown was killed by a white police officer. This tragedy happened at a time when I was still in the process of rebuilding myself and my values, leaving me me wide open to exploring other dimensions of oppression and marginalization beyond sexism. And so Brown’s death added a new layer to my ongoing learning about the inherent violence of white/male supremacy in the U.S.
Again, this process involved lots of reading, talking, and listening. Ezekiel Kweku’s blog post “The Parable of the Unjust Judge” sticks out as a particularly memorable reading from last fall. Around this time, a friend and co-teacher sent me a link to Jeff Duncan-Andrade’s TEDx talk in which Duncan-Andrade says, “One in three urban youth displays symptoms of mild to severe PTSD. And when you compare that data to the military data, you find that urban youth are twice as likely soldiers returning from Iraq to get PTSD.” Duncan-Andrade goes on to describe the concept of Complex-PTSD, which Wikipedia defines as:
a psychological injury that results from protracted exposure to prolonged social and/or interpersonal trauma in the context of dependence, captivity or entrapment (a situation lacking a viable escape route for the victim), which results in the lack or loss of control, helplessness, and deformations of identity and sense of self.
At the time, I was still in the process of reacting to, and learning from, the Isla Vista killings. So, issues of sexual violence against women and PTSD were fresh in my memory as I watched Duncan-Andrade’s TEDx talk. The concept of PTSD turned out to be a major link that helped me connect Isla Vista to Ferguson, a connection that gave me a foothold into understanding what “white/male supremacy” was capable of. Or rather, what white/male supremacy is doing:
White masculinity in the U.S. inflicts violence and lasting psychological harm on people of color and white women.
My white/male privilege initially made this hard for me to see and accept. It took me 30 years to really understand that race, sex, and power are intimately connected in the U.S., and that racism and sexism permeate every aspect of our lives. Now I know that where I live, where I went to school, what I studied, my ignorance of what hunger feels like, my ignorance of what a broken bone feels like, my ignorance of fear, even my embrace of the American identity... all of these things are facilitated by the unearned power and privilege that comes along with my white maleness.
Part 3 My Queerness
As a college student, I remember saying things like, “Well, I never owned slaves,” or “I never took land” in defense of my self-perceived innocence with respect to historical acts of racism and colonialism. Now, I know that such statements are, well, bullshit. Unfortunately, I don’t remember the details of the emotional growth that happened between then and now. But I’ll do my best to describe that process.
I came out as gay the summer before my first year of college. Towards the end of the year, a young woman who was also finishing her first year came to my dorm room and asked, “Are you the gay guy? My friends and I were talking about renting a house together, and we thought it would be fun to live with a gay guy.” Caught off guard, I told her that I was indeed the gay guy. After talking for a bit about our hobbies and interests (mine included rock climbing and backpacking), she said, “Actually, I don’t think this will work. You’re not the right type of gay.”
As an undergrad, I did research in the Chemical Engineering Department one summer. The grad student in that group was also gay. He had grown up in Laramie, WY--the same town where Matthew Shepard was beaten, killed, and tied to a fence. The grad student and I had several conversations about what Shepard’s murder meant for us and our safety on a campus that was pretty hostile to queer people.
So, as I started learning about patriarchy and white supremacy, about commodifying minorities, and about the violence of oppression, I had a reference point. My queerness grounded concepts which, for others, may seem abstract or theoretical. In addition, my queerness helped me dissociate myself from the motives of the Isla Vista killer, preventing me from identifying with him even though we were both cis white men.
Also, I had been engaged in outreach work for years before the Isla Vista killings and the murder of Michael Brown, so I had a foundation for understanding the systemic institutional and cultural roots of “diversity issues” (a term which I’ve since stopped using in favor of the terms “supremacy” and “oppression”). I’m sure my experiences teaching, mentoring, and co-working with students from marginalized groups helped me dive into learning about intersectional feminism in a way that didn’t immediately trigger overwhelming feelings of shame.
However, realizing that I was complicit in a system that inflicts damage on white women and people of color was still a hard pill to swallow. My queerness and outreach experience didn’t prevent me from, e.g., tone policing a woman of color when she called out a white man for blatantly sexist speech in an online forum dedicated to social justice in physics and astrophysics. Similarly, my queerness didn’t prevent me from experiencing white fragility the first few times I got called out on sexist and/or racist speech of my own.
Sexism is different from racism is different from homophobia. Being gay might have helped me empathize with the experiences of people of color and white women, but it certainly was no magic solution to my own problematic socialization. And it certainly doesn’t eliminate the feelings of embarrassment or depression that accompany learning about my role in oppression.
Part 4: What's Next?
Now that I am aware, what next? First, I continue to learn. Not only about racism and sexism, but also about ableism, classism, transphobia, and homophobia. I’m learning about intersectionality. I’m learning about how, as a queer person, there is a real temptation to cling to my white/male privilege. (In fact, as Christina Hanhardt demonstrates in her critical examination of gay neighborhoods, cis white gay men have a history of oppressing poor queer people, queer people of color, and trans* people in the name of “safety.”) I’m also learning that being queer doesn’t magically prevent me from doing and saying homophobic things, promoting heterosexist culture or policy, etc.
So. Much. Learning.
This learning happens through reading blogs, peer-reviewed articles, and books. It happens through conversations with people, both in-person and online. More recently, I have been trying to really listen to poets and songwriters like Venessa Marco, Denice Frohman, and Janelle Monáe who speak and sing about patriarchy, homophobia, and queer female role models.
For me, social media--and Facebook in particular--has been an incredible medium for learning. For instance, it was through Facebook that John recommended to me the book Seeing White: An Introduction to White Privilege and Race by Halley, Eshleman, and Vijaya.
One important thing to remember is that this learning often happens at the expense of people from marginalized groups. Over the last six months, a lot of my learning has been in response to being called out for problematic speech or action. This is different from making (and learning from) mistakes in a typical classroom context because these “mistakes” bear the weight of my white maleness and thus promote oppression. Moreover, I am often called out by the very people who suffer from the very oppression promoted by my problematic speech and action. Thus, people of color often do “double-duty” in the sense that they both persevere in the face of oppression *and* educate oppressors. Doing so comes at huge emotional, cognitive, and temporal costs--which means that the lessons need to be cherished and remembered.
To Be Continued
In this post, I’ve focused on my ongoing process of learning about white/male supremacy. But learning is only part of the story. As Chescaleigh says, "Ally is a verb. Saying you're an ally is not enough, you've got to do work" (see also Dr. Sarah Ballard's recent post). So I want to finish this post with a “To Be Continued” of sorts, because the story of my journey is far from over.