Author Archive | Jessica Alzen

Becoming a White Ally

Not enough white people have seriously thought about what it means to be a white ally. Too many white people think they are allies because they “aren’t racist”. “Not being racist” is a passive act that doesn’t make you an ally. You can say you think all people are equal regardless of their skin color and that we live in a post-racial society because we elected a black man as President. These comments are problematic, and they also don’t make someone a white ally.

First off, if you haven’t read it, check out “Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack“. Seriously, I think each white person should read this text. It lays out how privilege is inherent in society in very practical terms and that white people, whether they are out and out racist or not, benefit from the systemic racism that is alive and in many ways driving our society.

It’s important to know that being a white ally is an active part of life. It’s not a one-time event or simply being friends with people of color. It’s a way of life. It’s making an effort to be informed on racial events and the racial history of the places in which those events occur. It’s about actively discussing those issues in the correct context and challenging the popular media coverage. It’s about leveraging your privilege as a white person to advocate for marginalized people. It’s about being willing to be “that person” in your social circles on a regular basis, not just when there’s a hot news story. Racism is systemic and constant. If you think otherwise, you’re not a white ally.

It’s also important to fight feelings of defensiveness and the inclination to make the whole thing about you when discussing racism with people of color. What you, the white person feels, when a person of color tries to talk about racism with you, shouldn’t be the focus of the discussion. Listen and try to understand. Remember what’s in your knapsack that the person of color will never have. Do not make the discussion about you.

Finally, don’t expect people of color to do all the work for you. It’s not ok to go straight to one of your friends or acquaintances who identify with a marginalized group and ask them to tell you all about how to be a white ally. That isn’t their burden. Take the time and effort to read on your own. Ask informed questions. Be willing to be told you are wrong and do not understand. Listen and don’t assume that you know what you’re talking about. Learn from reading and learn more from asking based on your reading.

We can put this all into the Ferguson context. Suppose I am a white person whose initial reaction is of disapproval based on the way that some blacks have chosen to react to the killing of Michael Brown. I’ve watched news coverage and have seen several reports about rioting and looting. I may feel as though the reaction of the black community is inappropriate because of this coverage. A friend might tell me I am making the situation about me and my feelings, I am being distracted by one-sided media, and I am not being a white ally. I might be offended for being told this. I would argue that looting and rioting are wrong and destructive, and I am justified in my disapproval. My friend might say that I am still making it all about me, that I need to diversify my news sources, and that if I do some more reading I may start to understand more about what’s happening.

If I want to be a white ally, I should instead do my homework to try and understand why some people are reacting the way they are and be aware of how many peaceful protests are occurring. It is important for me to understand the racial history of Ferguson and what may lead people to act in rebellion before I start judging. If I did my homework from various and diverse coverage, I might start to understand that what mainstream media is portraying as looting and rioting is actually a justified reaction to police terrorization. I may also find out that the violent reactions are sometimes in reaction to police action and that the number of peaceful incidents are far greater than my normal news source may lead me to believe. In my research, I may also learn more about what I can do as a white ally. Taking the time to do this research might change my initial reaction to what’s happening in Ferguson. I might start to understand more of what is happening and why. I may find a variety of news sources I should start to read to get a well-rounded story. I may start to understand that becoming a white ally means that I actively work to understand the racism inherent in this society, that I do my homework from a variety of sources, and that I engage in conversations that might not make me the most popular. Being a white ally means being properly prepared to and acting on opportunities to use my privilege as a white person to fight the system of oppression.

The system is big, and it favors whites. White people who do nothing enable the system to continue to oppress people of color. We need to each be doing our parts. White allies are crucial to changing the system. Do your homework, be vigilant, and leverage your power to help others see the same.

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A Review Of There are no Children Here by Alex Kotlowitz

People have differing opinions on the effectiveness of No Child Left Behind. Regardless of your general thoughts on the legislation, one thing we can all agree on is that the data generated as a result of the act made the “achievement gap” public knowledge (See here, here, and here for statistics and general information). The achievement gap is the difference in educational outcomes between students from minority and low-income families and the outcomes of more affluent and Caucasian students. What is not as widely realized is that a large reason behind this gap in achievement is related to social justice. I’ve heard many people argue that “some parents” just don’t care as much about their child’s education or “some groups of people” don’t emphasize education “as much as they should”. In response to this sort of thinking, I generally recommend that people read a book called There are no Children Here by Alex Kotlowitz.

This book provides a window into the lives of two brothers living in the Henry Horner Homes housing project in Chicago. Readers become aware of the issues these young boys face at home and come to understand more of the experiences of many American youth. The effects of gang violence, domestic abuse, and human rights violations are undeniable. Reading this book can’t but help people understand that a leading cause of the achievement gap is not that some students don’t care about education, but that these students must focus their energies on mere survival and not if their homework is done each night. This book brings awareness to the living situations of many of America’s youth.

Some argue that the mother, LaJoe, is responsible for the situation of her children, but I challenge those readers to really think about what she has the power and ability to do given the situation she faces. While Kotlowitz focuses on the children, a follow-up or even ending chapter that addressed some issues at the parental level might help to address these criticisms. I also wish there was an elaboration on the methods used to collect the data for this narrative. While it would be distracting in the actual text, an appendix chapter giving the details would be nice for those who wish to understand more regarding how this book came to fruition. Despite these criticisms, with over 20% of America’s children living in poverty, it is important for society to be aware of the varied home life experiences of children. This book helps people to understand just that.

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Ramblings on Raising a Daughter as a Christ-Follower and Feminist

I recently gave birth to my first child, a daughter. This event has changed my life in many ways. One of which is what I notice in the news and media. A few recent events I took particular notice to include Beyonce’s VMA performance and the subsequent reactions, the release of the Ray Rice and Janay Palmer video and reactions to her marrying him, Jennifer Lawrence’s response to her nude photos being leaked on the internet, and Emma Watson’s speech for the UN regarding feminism and the HeforShe campaign. All of these events are tied to feminism and women’s rights. As a woman, this was all important to me before the birth of my daughter, but knowing I will help to raise a new woman in society causes me to think even more about events such as these.

In addition to all the hopes new moms have for their children, I hope that my daughter is flagged as having leadership potential rather than being called bossy; I hope that my daughter is complemented not only on her sharp appearance but also on her intelligence, ingenuity, and strength; I hope that my daughter never desires to give up sports for fear of losing femininity and that she is never intimidated by the weight room in a gym; I hope that my daughter understands that her dad is just as important in raising her as I am; I hope that my daughter will not be afraid of her sexuality because of how the church presents (or doesn’t) the topic of sex and sexuality; I hope that my daughter does not think she has to give up any education or employment for her family but also that it is ok if she makes those choices for herself; I hope that my daughter understands that being a feminist does not mean being a man-hater; and I hope that my daughter comes to realize that her father being the spiritual leader of our household does not mean that her father thinks I am lesser than he.

Some find it difficult to reconcile being a Christ-follower and a feminist.I think the terms feminism and spiritual leadership have become so emotionally charged that people don’t always take the time to consider the actual concepts very carefully. In our home, my opinion matters when important decisions are made. I share my thoughts, my husband shares his, and we process together. At times, my husband defers to my opinion on something. Other times, he considers both of our opinions and makes a final decision. Spiritual leadership here means my husband is who will ultimately be responsible to God for our family. He will be responsible whether we agree, he defers to me, or we disagree and he makes a choice counter to what I think is best. Feminism is the theory of political, economic, and social equality of the sexes. Could my husband abuse his position in our home in a way that would be oppressive to me? Of course, but his position does not mean that by definition.

We, as a society, reinforce or combat feminism in things as simple as the way we speak to our children and the choices we make in the home. Some families with stay-at-home moms only emphasize the same for their daughters, rather than professional trajectories. Boys are often not encouraged to develop things like cooking skills. We often compliment girls on physical appearance and boys on accomplishments. Most often, none of this is done with the intention of sexism, but it still occurs and can subtly perpetuate stereotypes. It is important that we identify valued characteristics and encourage all of them in our children of both sexes. Obviously, each person is not gifted in all areas, but a child’s sex should not define which characteristics they are encouraged to develop.

My daughter will grow up watching how my husband and I work together to consider decisions in our family. She’ll see me crossfit and weight lift and know that I hold a PhD in a field that uses applied statistics and computer programming. She’ll see me plan and prepare meals for our family, but also see how my husband helps with cleaning and cooking and other aspects of managing our home. Will we always get it right? Of course not, but awareness of sexism will help to assuage its effects. We’ll continue to learn as our daughter learns.

I hope that by the time my daughter enters the adult world, the media is filled with fewer incidences of gender inequality, but that won’t be true until those of us already participating in society stop perpetuating gender stereotypes and exploitation of women both inside and outside our homes. I also hope that when my daughter is older it will be normal to hear people say they are feminists and Christians.

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It Doesn’t Directly Affect Me, So Why Should I Care? – Apathy and Social Justice

I’ll admit that there was a period in my life when I pretty much avoided the news. It wasn’t because I was too busy or the news was too depressing, though that’s what I would sometimes say out loud. Instead, it was apathy. My mentality was that “those” issues just didn’t affect my life, so they didn’t matter. Wars across the globe, or injustices due to race and class in my own community, “didn’t directly affect me,” and I frankly didn’t really care. If I did happen to take in some news, I would comment on how sad an issue was and then turn off the TV or close the news article and move on with my life. Alternatively, I’d just flip over to the latest hit show and immerse myself in escapism, rather than wrestle with the truth of what I had just taken in. What I’ve learned is that many, if not all of those issues, did directly affect me. I just didn’t know it, or ignored it, or remained ignorant of it, because the way those things affected me were often by privilege. In many cases, I benefited from the injustice toward others (an example for a reader who may doubt this claim: Cheap goods available to me are often produced on the broken backs of sweatshop laborers in other countries). I’ve now come to a place where I’m uncomfortable and even ashamed with the comfort I had in that apathy.

I’m a middle-class, biracial female. I don’t have the full arsenal of privilege that my upper-class, white male friends have, but I will admit that I do hold quite a bit of privilege. Both of my parents and my spouse have college degrees. I am working on a terminal degree at a prestigious institution that essentially comes free to me. I have access to decent healthcare, feel safe most of the time, and even though I have debt, have never truly worried about how bills would be paid. My life has a notable amount of privilege. I could say “those” issues didn’t affect my life because my various sources of social, economic, and cultural capital protected me from being affected by them most of the time.

In all honesty, I truly believe there are folks who are simply unaware of their privilege. I hesitate to say “innocent” because I think it’s a responsibility to be aware of what privilege you have and to leverage that privilege to help others whenever possible. However, I know and was a part of systems that do not necessarily make folks aware of their own privilege, but instead simply reproduce the privileged structures from which these individuals came. They remain safely cocooned in that place of privilege and never really understand how privilege comes at the price for someone else.

All of this to say, social justice issues are everyone’s problem. If you are the oppressed, you are fighting a daily battle against injustice. If you are not oppressed, it is important to consider if you are somehow a part of or even an active player in being the oppressor. Even if we are not involved in the oppressive actions, it is our responsibility to consider ways we can use our own privilege to help fight these injustices. How do you spend your money and resources? Who benefits and who suffers as a result of the societal choices you make? How can you use your giftings to help change systems? How are you staying informed so that you can be a part of crucial conversations and use your democratic rights to influence the system? How can you raise awareness in your social circles? Social justice issues are systemic. They exist because those of us with power in the system allow them to be perpetuated. Considering these questions and others along these lines are first steps in changing the systems. It is why we write these letters; it is what we must do to ever see change.

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