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Checking the ‘Race’ Boxes

Applying for a social security card for my daughter, my hand stops over the voluntary ethnicity section. I know that these categories have changed over time (the boxes used to say ‘free’ or ‘slave’ or ‘mulatto’) and reflect a global system of white supremacy.

While I know this history, when I fill out forms for myself I rarely think twice. But this time I am answering for my daughter. I check the boxes for “White” and “Hispanic” and then I stop.

What is the government going to do with this information? Will my daughter be targeted if I make her visible to the government in this way? I think of “Operation Wetback” in the 1950s, of the ICE raids in Portland in 2007, of the families who are still, this moment, in danger.

Then I think about affirmative action programs and college scholarships. I think about my hometown near LA and its increasing Latino majority.  Isn’t it important to be visible?

I’m acutely aware that all of my angst is about the box labeled “Hispanic.” I don’t feel any uncertainty about checking the box labeled “White.” I’ve never had to think about these boxes before and how they relate to me or my family. There was never a box for “German-American” or “Rural Poor White Class.”

If I refuse to give this information, does that mean that I am ashamed of my daughter’s heritage? Paranoid about racism? Trying to opt out?

As I reflect, I begin to wonder if I am using my daughter to examine my own complicity and place in the system. Is that fair to her or helpful to me? I don’t know.

After much internal debate, I print out a new application. This time, I don’t check any boxes. I leave them all blank.

What do you do when you fill out these types of forms? I’d love to hear your thoughts or insights.


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Raised to be White

While I’m writing about white supremacy in Christianity for school, I’m also caring for our baby daughter (now nearly seven months old). So as I’m reading about how we become white, I can’t help but think of how she is becoming white, even at this young age.

We talk about gender in our house and how we influence that for our daughter Elena, from the proverbial pink and blue blanket dilemma to baby nail polish (not yet), ear piercing (maybe) and fluffy dresses with layers of crinoline (yes!). We’re intentional about ethnicity, from celebrating the German-American traditions of my family to learning Spanish, choosing bilingual toys and embracing Elena’s Latino heritage.

When she’s older, I will teach Elena that race is a socio-political construct, a tool of white supremacy, and not a biological fact. But until she can understand “socio-political construct,” what else am I teaching her? How am I passing on to my daughter MY white superiority in ways I don’t recognize?

I wonder about things like:

  • Entitlement: these are “your toys,” “your kitty,” “your car”, “your house”, “your park”
  • Superiority: “you are the smartest girl ever!”, “you are the cutest in all the world”, “you are the best”
  • Centrality: The children in the book of poems I loved as a child are all pale-skinned, except for one brown boy. We have a book “Baby Colors” that teaches colors and has children with different “colors” of skin. How do these images reinforce race as a “biological fact” and white as “standard”?
  • Borders & Intimacy: We move through the world together, mama and baby. I know Ellie can feel how I relax or tense around strangers, how I am “too friendly” (in the way that white people are) with brown-skinned babies and their parents. All those unconscious ways I am white, I am teaching it all to her, without using words.

Maybe I’m over-thinking it, but my intuition says that I need to ask these questions. I’m aware, too, of the class status that gives me the free time to notice, ponder, and write this while still making it through the day.

I am, of course, concerned with making sure that our daughter sleeps, eats, plays, poops, cuddles, sings, and has all her physical, emotional and spiritual needs met. But one of those spiritual needs (in my world view) is the need to be whole. And I increasingly feel and know that whiteness is soul sickness, and I want my daughter to be healthy and free.

What do you think? Are there ways pale-skinned people can raise our kids to be less white? How do we do that?


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Doing the Work, Part 1

You can’t get there from here. That’s what I think about this academic stuff.

It only goes so far, and then it runs out, like an asphalt road built along the surf line. The ocean does not work with asphalt roads. You need a boat, a tree or something that will float. You need your body, your arms and the motion they make against the waves, pushing you along, a little speck in a great sea. Don’t be afraid. All things that are wild have your heart at the core. 

I began this work because I wanted to heal myself and my people. My people (white people, German people) created this system of injustice and I need to do my part to destroy what we built, what we keep on building.

But how do I destroy this system, the house that I’m living in, the one that shelters and protects me? I must be a lunatic.

I fight with my ancestors at night when I’m lying in bed not sleeping. “Be quiet,” they say. Then louder: “SHUT UP. HOR AUF.” But I can’t stop. How can I?

I’ve seen the pictures: people, parents and children, their bodies stacked like firewood, naked and ashen. This is mine to fix. (It is yours, too.)

“Not our problem,” some of my ancestors hiss. They left their country. When war changed the borders, they moved on.

What kind of fiction do we have to invent to make this history okay?

A big BIG story. An underbrush, a thicket, each lie overlapping lie.

My ancestors came to this continent, carried inside my father, but they didn’t know about me yet. I am what came next. I feel it here in this country, in the forest by the ocean that looks like our old home. All the people whose land this is, they talk to me.

Maybe I wouldn’t be able to hear them if the forests weren’t clear cut. But I do hear them, at night when I am arguing with my ancestors. They whisper: “You don’t belong here. Be useful or go away.” Some of them are angry. Some are gentle. Some look at me like they know who I am.

Where does it come from, this need to make it right?

I have to make it better for myself.

I can’t live here anymore, in this house I’m trying to destroy. I know it has stout, wide-timbered walls, but it is not my home. Yet it is SO big. Where can I live where I am not under its roof?

I go small and I gather friends. I am part of the resistance.

And there is a bigger part of our life, one I know…even though no one has told me it’s true:

Our Mama God, Mother of the Cosmos, is bigger than this house, this roof we’re living under. Nothing the germans (or english or french or spanish or dutch…), nothing any of us could make, even hundreds of years old, is bigger than the

BODY OF OUR MOTHER.

You can’t contain her.

She will hold us all, she will shelter us, when the house finally comes down.

Look…a hole in the roof! I can see the stars. LOOK! There’s proof.

None of it is hopeless.

All of it is worthwhile.

Don’t stop.

Don’t be quiet.

Step up, speak out, keep moving.

This is the first half of a meditation I wrote recently while struggling through my thesis on white religious racism. I am trying to find a vision for what sustains me to do my work for racial justice.


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What Color is Your God?

What color is your God? I envy my friends their relationship with rocks and rivers, ocean and trees. God for me will always wear a human face: Our Lady, blessed mother of the world, and Jesus.

I’m knee-deep in a thesis for my master’s degree about racism and White Christianity. Womanist scholar Mukti Barton writes that while feminists have asked if a male God can save women, white people have yet to ask:

Can a black God save white people?

Because regardless of what you believe about whether Jesus was divine, as a historical flesh-and-blood man, Jesus wasn’t white. Some scholars even point to our use of “Middle East” as a convenient way of avoiding the reality that Jesus came from a peninsula in eastern AFRICA. Jesus is from Africa, people. Jesus is a black man.

I’m trying to write about this and feeling stuck, because I know exactly how my body feels about Jesus as a black man.

I’m afraid of him. I’m a white woman, raised to be afraid of black men. Kelly Brown Douglas has a brilliant book in which she explains that to demonize a people you first have to sexualize them. My nervousness around black men is rooted in the lynchings in the American South. To imagine a black man saving me has an edge of erotic danger. Racism alive and well in my white female body.

I can look this in the face without becoming overwhelmed by guilt because I remember that I did not invent this. I carry it, name it, and resist it.

I’ve been invested, in this blog, in looking at the costs of racism to me as a white woman. Not to minimize the costs of racism to people of color, but to find motivation for me to resist and call my people, white people, to resistance.

One cost of racism is that we white Christians have made God in our image. Malcolm X told us long ago that white Christians aren’t worshiping God, we are worshiping whiteness. We’re worshiping ourselves.

I definitely don’t mean to suggest some romanticized ideal where black people rescue white people from white racism. (And there’s a whole other correlation between the crucifixion of a black Jesus and lynching of black men in the American South…I’ll write more on that later.) We need to do our own work.

I think we can start with refusing to display a white baby Jesus in our nativity sets. And as naive as it sounds, I think we  white people have to confess our racism as sin and commit ourselves to a new relationship with a new God….one that perhaps has yet to be revealed in our hearts and lives as white people.


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Changing the Story

I’m a coward. Tonight’s class was full of cultural appropriation, racism and silencing. I said something, but not enough, and I drove home thinking of all the things I could have said if I’d been clever, clear-witted and focused instead of angry, hurt and sad.

Theatre of the Oppressed gives the audience a chance to re-write a real-life example of oppression and do it over. The rules are that you don’t get to change the person being an oppressor (because that would be easy) and you don’t get to change the person being oppressed. All you can change are the bystanders, the allies. That would be me, the silent white girl who says too little too late, there at the edge of the room by the door.

So here is the real-life scene as it occurred just hours ago, along with the interventions I thought of in the car on my ride home. (STOP! indicates an intervention I could have said.)

Setting: Classroom at Marylhurst University. 11 White students, 1 Native American student, 1 White teacher.

Terry, white lady from Sisters Oregon: So for my presentation I am going to play a fun game that will show us how stories in oral tradition get changed over time. First we have to send two of our tribe members outside the room. Then I’m going to be the elder and tell you our creation story. This story comes from the Quinault Indians.

STOP! Wait, so we’re pretending to be Quinault Indians, is that right? Wow, that’s offensive. I’m not going to “play Indian.” I’ll wait outside. Let me know when you’re done.

Terry: (reads her ‘creation story’ from a sheet of paper) Okay, so now that I’ve told you our creation story, let’s call the tribe members back. Now one person tell the tribe member our story from memory. You get the idea — it’s a lot like Telephone.

STOP! Wait, Telephone…you mean the child’s game where you whisper a nonsensical sentence down a line of people to see how messed-up and incomprehensible it becomes by the end? I don’t want to disrespect another culture’s sacred story by treating it as a game. Does anyone else think this is disrespectful?

Terry: Wow, that’s funny. Isn’t it funny? [many people were in fact laughing] Grey Eagle. Ha! It was Great Eagle. And the daughter didn’t have a name, you added that. See how the story changed? This is just like how Christianity was spread in Rome by the early Christians. A merchant told his wife who told her neighbors who told…

Me: Oral tradition isn’t telephone. It is a sacred practice in which stories are held by the storykeepers and passed on to those who must learn them precisely and carry them. I don’t think you can compare a sacred story from a Native American culture with word-of-mouth gossip.

Terry: Well I had to use a Native story. I couldn’t use a story from the Bible because you would all know it.

STOP! I don’t think everyone knows bible stories. Not everyone in this class is Jewish or Christian. An indigenous creation story is just as sacred as the biblical texts and should be treated with respect. Could you have made up a story?

(end scene)

Writing this, I realize that I’m changing the story to make myself feel better. Re-writing it now doesn’t remove the pain of this experience for my friend who sat there while the culture of her people was mocked and trivialized. But I want to re-write the story. I want to do theatre and absolve myself. Play the game. How am I any different?

The idea with Theatre of the Oppressed is that you get to role play the scene over and over until you come up with strong interventions that short-circuit oppression and open understanding.

But a sacred story isn’t a commodity, a trinket, a souvenir.

And surviving oppression isn’t a game, a play-acting script, make-believe.

Only my whiteness lets me see it that way. That’s what I learned from class tonight.


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