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This Week’s 5: B.I.R.S.

Author's Note: This Week's 5 is a weekly collection of stories designed to provide insight into how racism works and serve as an easily accessible resource for people trying to have nuanced discussions about these issues. For more explanation on how This Week's 5 works and descriptions of each of the categories, click here.


I’ve never been great with acronyms. Right now, I’m workshopping a variation of KISS (Keep It Simple Stupid). Version 1.0 is BIRS, or Blackface Is Racist Stupid. Every year around Christmas, we have to have the same discussion of “racism or tradition” when it comes to the Dutch mascot Zwarte Piet. According to the “tradition,” Piet is Santa’s helper who gets really dirty when going down the chimney. Let some defenders tell it and Piet isn’t even supposed to be Black. The thing is, his name literally means “Black Pete” and people dress as him wearing afro wigs and exaggerated red lipstick. For those keeping score, that’s blackface. It doesn’t matter if it’s a tradition passed down from generation to generation. It’s still exceptionally racist and gaslighting people with the chimney explanation only makes it that much worse. Perhaps nothing captures the absurdity of it all like the annual story of Zwarte Piet cosplayers running into actual Black people. To be fair though, anti-Blackness is an extremely popular global tradition. Read more from the Root.


Communication infrastructure is something millions of us take for granted. Consider spectrum, the radio waves that transport digital info from cell towers to smartphones. The Federal Communications Commission regulates spectrum by auctioning the licensing rights to use it in different portions of the country. In 2015, the FCC auctioned 1,611 blocks that earned $41.7 billion. Many of these blocks are on tribal land, yet the tribal communities aren’t allowed to manage their spectrum and, as a result, don’t see any economic benefits from it. Furthermore, the FCC’s auctioning process to large telecommunications companies shuts tribes out, often resulting in big companies buying land in less populated tribal areas and simply refusing to offer spectrum. Six in ten rural, tribal areas lack broadband internet connection, which can negatively affect education, economics, and emergency services, among other things. Read more from Indian Country Today.

Critical Race Theory

Tone-policing. Constant microaggressions. Weaponized fragility. These are all unfortunate, yet all-too-common characteristics of Black life in white-dominated spaces. Over the past week, Gabrielle Union’s firing from America’s Got Talent and the subsequent wave of support she received have resonated with many Black people, and Black women in particular. According to reports, Union was let go because she complained about racism and sexism in the workplace. Many of these complaints came from remarks made directly to Union that were “racially insensitive” and/or provided “excessive criticism of her physical appearance.” In one case, she was criticized for having too Black of a hairstyle. Union also spoke out against racist jokes made about others, yet got little action from human resources. Ultimately, she was labeled “too Black” and “too difficult.” While ratings usually outweigh everything in these decisions, the fact that Union demonstrably boosted AGT’s ratings and was the show’s most popular host on social media apparently wasn’t enough to counteract the glaring bias of the producers. Read more from the Root.


Dec. 4 marked the 50th anniversary of the assassination of visionary Black Panther leader Fred Hampton. Hampton and fellow Panther leader Mark Clark were murdered in a 1969 Chicago police raid. Although the story was initially reported as a shootout, evidence later proved that Clark fired the only shot for the Panthers, which was a shotgun blast into the ceiling after being shot to death upon police entry. The loss of the two leaders was tragic, not just because Hampton and Clark were 21 and 22, respectively, but because they had incredible vision for organizing. Hampton, in particular, demonstrated a talent for uniting disenfranchised people from various backgrounds and rival gangs in Chicago. His charisma and organizing savvy made him both a rising star and a prime target for the FBI’s COINTELPRO program, which sought to infiltrate and destroy political groups and was particularly oppressive towards Black civil rights and empowerment organizations. This campaign included surveillance, discrediting, and disrupting through violence. While Hampton’s spirit lives on, many can only wonder what he would’ve accomplished if his life wasn’t snuffed out at such a young age. Read more from the Chicago Sun-Times.

The Fragility Breaker

I often consider keeping a tab open on my phone with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” just in case I happen to be bombarded with white liberal foolishness. For those unfamiliar, in this letter, King takes white moderates to task for being just as, if not more of an impediment to civil rights than the overt racists. He laments them for caring more about “order” than justice. Both then and now, these moderates often run interference for both overt racists and structurally racist systems, ensuring they maintain their privilege and very little, if anything changes. You can generally identify these individuals by their quickness to protect their own comfort (and usually ego) over the safety of people of color. They master (or at least focus on) the art of saying the right thing when it’s easy. Yet, when real pressure arises or a situation threatens any of their privilege, these moderates rationalize excuses for protecting white supremacy, or at the least, not doing anything meaningful to oppose it. What makes it worse is that, as a society, we often empower mediocre moderates to feel entitled to leadership by praising neutrality as a virtue. Read more from the Root.

#thisweeks5 #overtracism #institutionalracism #criticalracetheory #history #fragilitybreaker #respondtoracism #lakeoswego

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