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White women call out white supremacy

August 28, 2020

ASU’s Project Humanities brings women together to explore roles in anti-racism advocacy

White women have historically played a curious role in race relations in America, occupying dual roles as oppressor and the oppressed. 

While they benefit from racial privilege, they still suffer from the patriarchy inherent in systems of white supremacy. 

“Our role for 400 years has been to raise white children and help them develop the same set of beliefs of our heirs, and police and maintain the social hierarchy,” Karen Fleshman said in an Aug. 27 livestream event “White Women Dismantling White Supremacy,” hosted by Arizona State University’s Project Humanities. “To dismantle it, we have to extricate ourselves from the patriarchy and stop perpetuating those harmful beliefs and behaviors, and we have to exercise the intergenerational trauma that we carry from what our (white) forebears inflicted on other people.”

Fleshman is the founder of a workplace-workshop facilitation company based in San Francisco. She was one of six panelists in the virtual event, which drew more than 600 registrants from the United States, Canada and Australia. 

In addition to Fleshman, panelists were Kathy Shaw Johnson, an ASU alumna with degrees in African American studies and sociology; Lisa Powell Graham, a TEDx speaker, writer and life coach; Jessica Bhuiyan, community leader, volunteer and executive director of World Without Hate, a Seattle-based nonprofit; Kelly Baur, a documentary filmmaker, community organizer and ASU PhD student; and Lexie Gilbert, a doctoral student in linguistics and applied linguistics and a teaching associate with the writing programs at ASU. Maureen T. Reddy, a professor of English and gender studies at Rhode Island College, served as panel moderator.

screenshot of a Zoom panel

Panelists for "White Women Dismantling White Supremacy" included Kathy Shaw Johnson (top left); Lisa Powell Graham (top middle); Maureen Reddy (top right); Karen Fleshman (middle left); Jessica Bhuiyan (middle center); Lexie Gilbert (middle right) and Kelly Baur (bottom row). Screenshot by Charlie Leight/ASU Now

The event was the second installment of Project Humanities’ fall 2020 event lineup and part of its ongoing campaign, “Humanity 101: Creating a Movement.” 

“Project Humanities continues to respond to ‘the urgency of now’ with events and programs that focus on our fundamental humanity and that of others, fully recognizing humanity at the core of any and all justice and equity work,” said Neal A. Lester, professor of English and director of Project Humanities. “Against the backdrop of COVID-19 uncertainties and this summer’s global crisis in racial justice, our current virtual programs invite and challenge participants across the nation and globe to ‘talk, listen and connect’ with us around topics that affect all of us in one way or another — from environmental justice to the economics of U.S. racism, to the uses and responses to anger and white women’s unique role in dismantling white supremacy.”

Dismantling white supremacy and social hierarchies that perpetuate inequality can include changing one’s behavior, listening to others — and even social revolution. 

Before the panel spoke, Baur shared a metaphor she uses often for understanding white women’s role in complicity. 

“White women’s role in white supremacy is that we are the hand … that of the fist,” Baur said. “What’s the difference between the hand and the fist? It’s just the tension. It’s just the clenching.”

Bhuiyan said many white people have a hard time believing they’re racist and that you often have to start from zero to get them to understand how deep it goes. 

“Many people believe we don’t have any racism here in the Pacific Northwest and obviously, that couldn’t be further from the truth,” Bhuiyan said. “I’m middle-aged and I’ve learned things yesterday that I had no idea existed. And I’m meeting with folks in their 50s, 60s and 70s and not only do they want to change, but they’re still confused. I try to remind them, ‘This is where I was, too.’ Once we get there, then we must ask what are the actions that we can start taking from that point on?” 

Graham said that white women have maintained racist and white supremacist power structures for centuries, including calling the police on Black people and voting for candidates who divide the country.

She added: “I believe my role is as an ally attempting to be an accomplice. I need to be willing to risk my reputation, my career, my platform, losing likes, losing followers, losing dollars. We have to put ourselves on the line and be willing to speak out and take action.”

Academia and education should be the place to start changing minds, Fleshman said.

“Black lives are more important than white feelings, and I think that’s a statement that we all need to stand behind,” she said. “Education is definitely a starting place. Black people are dying, and white women form book clubs. We need to listen and learn from people of color.”

Gilbert said it will take nothing short of a social revolution to change behaviors when it comes to race.

“I think we underestimate the extent to which white supremacy as a system of organization can move around and adjust for whatever conditions it needs to be,” Gilbert said. “So for me, it’s revolution or bust. It’s abolition or bust. It’s no more prisons, no more police, no more detention camps, decolonization of the lands … white people shouldn’t be determining what it means to be accountable.”

Fleshman said demographics in this country are rapidly changing. She said millennials have now surpassed baby boomers in the workforce and that the majority of the United States will be people of color by 2040.

“I’ve never seen a generation of white Americans with as much to gain from dismantling white supremacy as white millennials because of the cost of mass incarceration, the impact of the subprime mortgage, job prospects, student loans,” Fleshman said. “I’m hoping that white millennials will stand up and become leaders ... and transform the whole system.”

In addition to leadership, Bhuiyan said another trait was desperately needed — empathy. 

“Whether you are a progressive in Seattle or if you are in a red state down south, just try and have empathy,” Bhuiyan said. “I want everyone here and beyond, not just those on the panel, to really think about the fact that our country needs an empathy revolution.” 

Project Humanities’ 2020 fall lineup will continue through November and will examine racism, gender identities, anger, anti-speciesism, co-parenting and environmental justice.

All events are open and free to the public. Like most other programming at ASU, Project Humanities transitioned to virtual events because of COVID-19.

Humanity 101 Creating a Movement: 

6 p.m. Sept. 8 — Money Matters: The Economics of Racism

6 p.m. Sept. 17 — Podcast Club: Gender Binary

6 p.m. Sept. 29 — Vital Voices: “The Uses of Anger”

Oct. 9–11 — Hacks for Humanity: Hacking for the Social Good

6 p.m. Oct. 22 — Humanity 101 On The Homefront: Co-Parenting

6 p.m. Oct. 29 — Podcast Club: Anti-Speciesism

6 p.m. Nov. 5 — Environmental Justice: Indigenous Communities

6 p.m. Nov. 12 — Podcast Club: TBD

Top image: Screenshot from the live Zoom event, "White Women Dismantling White Supremacy." Screenshot by Charlie Leight/ASU Now

Reporter , ASU News


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America is at a 'speak-up moment,' says W. Kamau Bell at ASU event

W. Kamau Bell: Racism is inescapable and is the bedrock of our country.
August 29, 2020

The comedian and TV host spoke about Black Lives Matter and racism during a livestreamed town hall

America is at a “speak-up moment” with racial reckoning, according to W. Kamau Bell, a comedian and TV host who spoke at an Arizona State University event on Thursday night. 

“I want to tell the young people now that there has not been a speak-up moment maybe in the history of the country like this, where white people have to listen,” he said. 

Bell, who hosts the “United Shades of America” docuseries on CNN, spoke at a livestreamed town hall called “Black Lives Matter and the Pandemic of Racism,” sponsored by ASU 365 Community Union.

Racism is inescapable and is the bedrock of the country, he said.

“It’s important to realize that every Black person on that campus experiences racism regularly. They just do,” he told the ASU audience. 

Bell’s talk was moderated by Colleen Jennings-Roggensack, ASU vice president for cultural affairs. She asked him, “Where do we start?”

“When talking about this country, we have to start with the fact that it started with the genocide of Native Americans and was built on the crime of the trans-Atlantic slave trade,” he said.

“Even for people on both sides of the aisle, that’s a hard fact to start with.”

Both Jennings-Roggensack and Bell talked about the pressures of often being the only Black person in the room. Bell said that when he was making the pilot for “United Shades of America” and was about to attend a Ku Klux Klan rally, there was no other Black person on the set to talk to about it.

“I didn’t have anyone to go, to say, ‘Am I crazy?’ ” he said. 

That prompted him to demand more Black staff on the show. 

“At times I refused to go forward if they didn’t do it,” he said. “They understood.”

Jennings-Roggensack praised Bell’s courage in confronting racist people on his show. 

“It was about traveling to places that people didn’t expect me to be, and nobody expected me to be at a Klan meeting,” he said. 

“I have a profound sense of curiosity that overwhelms my rational thinking. I want to know.”

The event included a panel discussion in which two Black ASU students expressed their frustrations with racism.

Aniyah Braveboy, president of the Black African Coalition, said her student group has been talking to university administrators about providing more resources for students. Braveboy said her group wants the university to provide a multicultural center, more faculty of color and more scholarships for Black students.

Cortney Jones, a student-athlete who is on the track team, described her reaction to being pulled over recently by a police officer while riding in a car with her boyfriend, who is also Black.

“I had a full-blown panic attack,” she said. “We had done nothing wrong.

“I’m supposed to be getting an education and living my life and you’re thinking, ‘I can’t be loud,’ ‘I can’t jaywalk,’ ‘I have to follow every little thing’ because this might happen.”

Jones said that Sun Devils Athletics is supportive of Black student-athletes who speak out and recently posted about Black Lives Matter on social media.

“And all through the comments, it’s, ‘This is politics,’ ‘I’m pulling my funding,’ ‘All lives matter,’ ‘You need to stick to sports,’ ” Jones said. 

“Well, sports were canceled for us this year, and we shouldn’t have to limit ourselves to being that. First and foremost, I am Black. We are not here for your entertainment.

“It can take a toll on your mental health.”

ASU Police Chief Michael Thompson told the panel that he has worked with his officers over the past year to raise awareness of systemic racism. 

“Our hearts are in the right place, but it’s not enough,” he said.  

“We have to work on our relationships and invite all of our students of color to the table and recognize that they have concerns and fears that are valid.”

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ASU Vice President for Cultural Affairs Colleen Jennings-Roggensack (top row, center) leads the "Live from ASU" virtual event "Black Lives Matter and the Pandemic of Racism: A Town Hall Conversation with W. Kamau Bell," on Aug. 27. The two are joined by Aniyah Braveboy (top row, right), president of ASU's Black African Coalition; Cortney Jones (bottom row, left), a student-athlete on the track team; and ASU Police Chief Michael Thompson.

Bell said that police should have metrics of success in fighting racism.

“Racism is a physical force in America. It’s not a feeling. It’s a force that exists and you can measure it,” he said.

“You can measure, ‘Are we being less racist this year than last year?’ ” 

One way is to rethink interactions with Black people. 

“In simple interactions with police, the person doing the hard work between the officer and a Black person is the Black person,” he said.

“For me, that needs to flip. The work has to be on the officer’s side and not on the Black person’s side to get through that interaction.”

Bell talked about why his show is successful. 

“When you’re trying to educate someone, you can’t say, ‘Here’s your education.’ You have to spend more time listening and letting people get out the hard parts and the bad parts. 

“Once they get it out, there’s time to go through it in a more friendly and congenial way.”

And it takes time.

“A lot of times, we get seduced into thinking that we’re one conversation away from change, and that’s never the case,” he said.

Mary Beth Faller

Reporter , ASU News