The Women Change Worlds blog of the Wellesley Centers for Women (WCW) encourages WCW scholars and colleagues to respond to current news and events; disseminate research findings, expertise, and commentary; and both pose and answer questions about issues that put women's perspectives and concerns at the center of the discussion.

Fighting Time to End Systemic Racism

Fighting Time by Amy Banks and Isaac Knapper

The following is an excerpt of a blog post written by Amy Banks, M.D., that appeared on her Psychology Today blog, Wired for Love.

To say that race relations were not on my radar growing up would be an understatement. In fact, in high school I was just coming out to myself as a lesbian and was preoccupied with the injustices in the LGBTQ community in the late 1970s. However, for my family, that changed in the spring of 1979 when my father traveled on business to New Orleans. On his first day in NOLA, after eating dinner in the French Quarter, he and a colleague walked back to the Hyatt Regency. At the entry to the hotel, they were held up by two young men, and my father was shot and killed.

Within hours, my family was told that “two Black men” had tried to rob my father and his colleague. Having grown up in Maine—which remains the whitest state in the U.S.—this was my first substantive exposure to someone from the Black community. My family was shattered by the murder and naïvely believed that the legal system in New Orleans would help us seek justice.

When the photos of the suspects, Isaac Knapper and Leroy Williams, popped up in our local newspaper, I remember looking at them closely and wondering what in their lives would have caused them to rob and kill. It never occurred to me that the prosecution would withhold exculpatory evidence at the trial and that one of the young men, Isaac, would be wrongly convicted for murder and sent to prison for the rest of his life. My family did not question the arrest and verdict for many reasons, but the biggest was that we were solidly part of the white, dominant culture. One does not have to be an avowed white supremist to be racist—you simply have to be brainwashed 24/7 by a culture that defines health and acceptability as the birthright of all white people and associates people of color with violence.


The traumatic memory of my father’s murder was exponentially more painful as it now involved the wrongful conviction of a 16-year-old boy.

When I found out in 2005 that Isaac had been exonerated in the early 1990s, I was shocked and sickened. By then I had become a psychiatrist with a deep interest in issues of social justice and was well aware of the gross inequities that exist in America between people of color and white people. However, until I learned of Isaac's exoneration, I had no way of knowing how entwined my own story was in America’s racism. The traumatic memory of my father’s murder was exponentially more painful as it now involved the wrongful conviction of a 16-year-old boy.

By 2015, I was both curious and furious. Eric Garner, Freddie Gray, Michael Brown—the killings of Black men by police just kept happening. I decided to take personal action to more fully understand the horrendous racist event that my family had unwittingly been involved in. With much fear, I reached out to Isaac (who had been released and was living in NOLA) and asked to meet. In December of that year, my sister and I met with Isaac and his wife in New Orleans. The meeting and our friendship have transformed my life.

What surprised me the most was how easy it was to be together—how we didn’t stop talking and sharing the entire weekend we spent together. What disturbed me to my core was hearing Isaac’s personal experience of police brutality. How much worse his experience had been than I could even imagine. He shared his violent arrest at 5:45 a.m. when he was awoken with guns pointing at his head, the brutal interrogation where police beat him to within an inch of his life in an attempt to force a confession (it failed), and the utter disregard for his humanity at every turn of the legal proceedings. Yet, despite all he had been through (and continues to go through as a Black man in this society), he also listened to our story and our pain with deep compassion and caring.


Feeling unspeakable pain may mean you have finally begun to feel clear empathy and resonance with the relentless agonies and indignities faced by people of color. You must walk directly into that pain to fully understand the price Black and brown people have paid for your/our white privilege.

One lesson I have learned from Isaac and his family is that the process of healing racism will hurt and at times, the risks you will need to take will be terrifying. But when you hurt so badly you feel you will die—pay close attention. Feeling unspeakable pain may mean you have finally begun to feel clear empathy and resonance with the relentless agonies and indignities faced by people of color. You must walk directly into that pain to fully understand the price Black and brown people have paid for your/our white privilege. If you can’t stand it, don’t stop feeling, find someone who can help you hold it.

Isaac and I have established a deep friendship—one that feels more like family. Within it I have had the opportunity to heal and to grow and to witness my own biases in a way that humbles me. We have chosen to write our story in an upcoming book, Fighting Time. In sharing our story we hope to inspire people to move into the fear and the pain of systemic racism and to have the conversations that are desperately needed to see and feel one another and to help our society grow beyond our tragically racist roots.


Amy Banks, M.D., is a senior scholar at the Wellesley Centers for Women and the director of advanced training at the Jean Baker Miller Training Institute. The book she co-authored with Isaac Knapper, Fighting Time, will be released on November 5 and is available for preorder now.

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How Asian Women (and Men) are Dehumanized

Professor Lee wrote this reflection the day after eight people, including six women of Asian descent, were killed at spas in the Atlanta area, and shared it with the Wellesley College community. It is posted here with her permission.

Stop Asian Hate photograph by Miki Jourdan. Blacka and white photo of woman holding sign that says Stop Asian Hate. DC Rally for Collective Safety; Protect Asian/AAPI Communities; McPherson Square, Washington, DC.Stop Asian Hate by Miki Jourdan. DC Rally for Collective Safety; Protect Asian/AAPI Communities; McPherson Square, Washington, DC. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 license. I spent much of yesterday in a spiral of grief, fear, and rage, thinking, among other things, about mace and bulletproof vests, wondering whether Wellesley should provide them for our Asian American students (do you know how many students of Asian descent we have? each one an individual, with their own hopes, fears, quirks, talents, ambitions, with their own sense of humor, their own way of experiencing the world)...

You may have seen or read about the news conference yesterday at which the Cherokee County Sheriff’s Office spokesperson (a monster who is in charge of communication and community relations, unbelievably enough) spoke lovingly and sympathetically of the man who hunted down Asian women in cold blood, driving miles to do so. Throughout the day, this murderer was portrayed by media as innocent, church-going, pious. He loves pizza, drums, going to church. Apparently also Asian women. He was just "having a bad day." Just reached the end of his rope. Poor, good kid! If only those Asian women were not so tempting! (“[It's] a temptation for him that he wanted to eliminate.")

The names of two of the four Korean women murdered have not even been released (what did they like to eat or do in their spare time, if they had any, I wonder; my 94-year-old Korean mother-in-law also loves pizza). To America (and, yes, even here at Wellesley), Asians are faceless numbers or bodies. Just faceless numbers or bodies: bodies that are sometimes grudgingly tolerated at the table for the sake of "diversity," sometimes held up like a shield to protect white supremacy or used as a weapon to injure other people of color, sometimes fetishized and lusted after, sometimes (most of the time, now) beaten, spat on, or shot. Getting back to the bullet-proof vest idea: I'm afraid to go outside.

To call things "microaggressions" (like being yelled at to "go back where you came from") is misleading. If you've ever experienced one, you know that it's only the tip of a gigantic iceberg of hatred that's coming right at you. Sometimes that hatred boils over; at other times, it congeals into a huge, massive, cruel indifference. Asians suffer or die—so what? Aren't they just funny little people (or sexy little people) who are meant to stand in the background, serve you, not speak or have opinions or lead, god forbid! Supposed to give you nice massages or paint your nails, get out of the way (or be gotten out of the way, with millions of tons of napalm if necessary), and, most importantly, weren't they put on earth to be the butt of jokes everywhere, in public and in private, among liberals and conservatives?

Aren't there just too many Asians, always too many of them? Are we not a horde, a tide, too many to even count? And for us, the psychic cost of knowing that hatred—well, just try to imagine it, if you are so fortunate as not to know from your own experience what it's like to be hated or despised. Reading Asian Americans write about their shame and self-hatred breaks my heart; I can't do it any more.

I am not asking for your sympathy. I'm an old, tenured member of the faculty, and I will be fine. But I needed to express some of this bitterness of soul, as I look for ways to turn my rage and grief and fear into action. I would ask you to think about the people of Asian descent you encounter (as individuals with distinct faces, names, and histories) and to think about how we can extend some of the love and sympathy that was lavished on the white murderer to members of our own community, who have been and will be receiving all the effects of the obscene legacy of Trump.

The police and the media still refuse to call it a hate crime. They take the murderer at his own word that he was not racist: as if to dehumanize Asian people into a trope of "sexual temptation" were not obscenely racist and misogynist. I ask you to please, please, stop denying that racism exists or that it rules our lives, determines where we can and cannot go, and suffocates human potential at every hour of every day for all non-white people (Breonna, George, Tamir, Travis...).

Please use the word when it's called for. Call racism by its name. Whatever your own race, you can call out racism when you see it. It's particularly urgent for white folks to do so; I can't emphasize this enough.

In case it wasn't apparent, some (though not all) of my remarks above are sarcastic. Also, I've been saying these things forever. Thanks for reading.

Yoon Sun Lee, Ph.D., is a professor of English at Wellesley College. She works in several fields: the eighteenth-century novel, British prose in the Romantic period, Asian American literature, narrative theory, and literary theory.

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Reflections on Charlottesville

Why has it been so hard to eliminate racism in the United States, despite concerted and valiant efforts, ever-growing numbers of people of goodwill, lots of good thinking about the issue, and some clear-cut progress and gains over the years? As a researcher and director of the Wellesley Centers for Women, a research institute with a demonstrated commitment to gender equality, social justice, and human wellbeing in all its forms, including ending racism, my mind turns more to questions than answers today, in the wake of what happened in Charlottesville this past Saturday, August 12.

Questions I am asking include things like: What are we doing that we think is working but which actually isn’t working? What do we need to do that we aren’t doing that would actually work? Which of the things we are actually doing do work and just need more time or more people involved? And, in what ways do we need to more deeply operationalize things we know to be true but tend to abandon to the realm of platitudes? How can we more effectively move from intellectual knowledge to concrete action to measurable social transformation?

Last week, I spent a week in retreat with members of my religious community, the Baha’í Faith. For two of those days, I led discussions addressing the elimination of racism, which Baha’ís refer to as “The Most Challenging Issue.” We gave thought to the inner (self-focused) and outer (public) actions and practices needed to truly eliminate racism, and we asked some hard questions about our own practices and the practices of others in the social change field. We reflected deeply on passages such as these, penned 1938 by Shoghi Effendi, who was charged with guarding the unity of our Faith as it grew from local to global:

“Freedom from racial prejudice, in any of its forms, should, at such a time as this when an increasingly large section of the human race is falling a victim to its devastating ferocity, be adopted as the watchword of the entire body of the American believers, in whichever state they reside, in whatever circles they move, whatever their age, traditions, tastes, and habits. It should be consistently demonstrated in every phase of their activity and life, whether in the Bahá’í community or outside it, in public or in private, formally as well as informally, individually as well as in their official capacity as organized groups, committees and Assemblies. It should be deliberately cultivated through the various and everyday opportunities, no matter how insignificant, that present themselves, whether in their homes, their business offices, their schools and colleges, their social parties and recreation grounds, their Bahá’í meetings, conferences, conventions, summer schools and Assemblies.”

“A tremendous effort is required by both races if their outlook, their manners, and conduct are to reflect, in this darkened age, the spirit and teachings of the Faith of Bahá’u’lláh. Casting away once and for all the fallacious doctrine of racial superiority, with all its attendant evils, confusion, and miseries, and welcoming and encouraging the intermixture of races, and tearing down the barriers that now divide them, they should each endeavor, day and night, to fulfill their particular responsibilities in the common task which so urgently faces them. Let them, while each is attempting to contribute its share to the solution of this perplexing problem, call to mind the warnings of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, and visualize, while there is yet time, the dire consequences that must follow if this challenging and unhappy situation that faces the entire American nation is not definitely remedied.”

Our takeaways from these days of contemplation and discourse left us poignantly aware that inner and outer work must constantly run parallel, allowing us to transform into beings who actually desire and actively create justice, peace, and harmony, from the level of our deepest gut feelings to the level of our highest spiritual aspirations. To think all the “right” thoughts and hold all the “right” values is not enough, because the transformation of society requires so much more.

As a developmental psychologist who works from an ecological systems theory framework, I know that interventions on racism must take place at every level from the most interior to the most distal, in order to be successful and sustainable. Yet, as a lifelong scholar of both African American studies and women’s studies, I also know that we must perpetually refresh our understanding about what kinds of social movement methods work, and we must stay tuned in to when and where they need refinement. Sometimes, our assumptions about what kinds of methods work and why they work (or don’t work) need to be questioned.

As a developmental psychologist, I also can confirm that babies don’t enter the world knowing hate. Hate is learned by imitation, but it is also absorbed passively through language and imagery, and stimulated by deprivation, hardship, ridicule, and trauma. While unchecked power and privilege, often conferred by birth circumstances, also have the power to accelerate hate, these alone are not sufficient to create it. There is a complex calculus to how hate is created – which means there is also a complex calculus to how it can and must be uncreated. We are sophisticated enough now as a society to figure this out and execute on that knowledge.

A big part of my talk at the Baha’í retreat centered on the politics of invitation, the notion of inviting others to a better world, as differentiated from the politics of opposition, which rely on fighting and struggling our way to a better world. If unity is the goal, opposition cannot logically be the means to that end. And we now know that, psychologically, opposition to people and their views only entrenches them further in their views. So, what other methods might we consider if we want to eradicate racism and promote justice, peace, commonweal, and amity?

All of us can take small everyday actions to eradicate racism, and some of us can take sweeping, expansive actions to catalyze the eradication of racism on a broad scale. What’s stopping us? Please share your questions and thoughts about how we can genuinely eliminate racism from our country and the world!

Layli Maparyan, Ph.D., is the Katherine Stone Kaufmann '67 Executive Director of the Wellesley Centers for Women and Professor of Africana Studies at Wellesley College.

 

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Recent Comments
Guest — Stacey Smith
My guess is that fear of doing "hard work" (having the hard conversations and self-examination) is what is stopping us as a nation... Read More
Tuesday, 15 August 2017 07:57
Guest — Jean
What would be some good sources for learning more about the politics of invitation as mentioned here? I want us to engage more in ... Read More
Saturday, 19 August 2017 15:44
Guest — Layli Maparyan
Jean, the basic ideas undergirding the politics of invitation are laid out in my second book, The Womanist Idea, and I have been r... Read More
Monday, 21 August 2017 15:25
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Views expressed on the Women Change Worlds blog are those of the authors and do not represent the views of the Wellesley Centers for Women or Wellesley College nor have they been authorized or endorsed by Wellesley College.

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