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Wait, I’m Not “Special” Because I’m White? Thoughts on Internalized Superiority

downloadI was privileged to have a conversation recently with a young Black activist who I deeply admire. I was surprised when she suggested that there is nothing remarkable about the white part of white supremacy.

In different cultures around the world, in the past and present, groups have acted in similar ways, creating and maintaining brutal, dehumanizing and oppressive control of others. Those groups did not use the label “white” or come from european backgrounds.

Part of me recoiled as I listened to her talk.

I felt myself wonder: so we aren’t special? There isn’t something inherent in whiteness that makes us oppressors?

While I know that whiteness was historically constructed, an identity placed on me for the purposes of social control, rather than a cultural identity (like my German-immigrant-ness)…it still feels as though white is something I am.

To think that I could be white, and white could just as easily be the social label for people who are enslaved, denied culture and language, profiled, targeted and incarcerated….my brain-body-self couldn’t process this idea.

As I sat with it, I realized my defensive reaction was related to my internalized sense of being superior. That internalized superiority was embedded in my sense that there was something about my identity that makes me especially suited for holding the role of oppressor. Even as I denigrate and mock it, I simultaneously cherish and claim it.

What if the talk that whites do around racism and white complicity is a means of reassuring their internalized superiority?

Whites bemoan their complicity. Catalog the list of their privileges. Study whiteness, attempt to deconstruct themselves. Call out other whites for racist behavior. Roll their eyes at white culture. I do this.

Whites “re-imagine” history by noticing all the terrible things white people have done, rather than by listening (without interruption or re-interpretation) to histories that have not been told. Whites remain the authors of their lives, the shapers of the narrative. That they have changed the narrative to less explicitly mythologize white dominance doesn’t mean they have stopped being dominant. This is me.

Whites succeed at shaping and controlling a set of stories about racism and their participation in it that does little to shift the center of power. Saying “I am a racist” or “I participate in racism” doesn’t, in and of itself, reduce internalized superiority. In my experience, whites can say that and go on believing that there is something special, unique about them that makes them suited for the role of oppressor.

In fact, the anti-racist work that whites do, can in itself be an exercise in maintaining white dominance. Several times in anti-racist workshops I’ve noticed that a conversation that was supposed to be about racism turned into a conversation about what it meant to be white. (As if whites were the only or most important people in the room.)

Since I started this blog as a way of being transparent in my consciousness around race, I have become more and more uneasy with addressing only whites. So in this post, I have changed the way I use “we” and “our,” noticing the way it is different when I address whites as a subgroup rather than as my primary audience.

Whites that I’ve met in activist circles seem to carry a kind of white self-consciousness about them. I think many whites understand anti-racist work as an opportunity to deepen their understanding of themselves.

Certainly, I pursue anti-racist work because I want to see myself more clearly and be more authentic. I have tried to deconstruct what it means to be an oppressor, in hopes of driving a wedge of anti-racist consciousness into the routinely racist thoughts and actions I commit.

So I seek out conversations and relationships with people of color, listening for the parts of reality that I miss, the things I can’t see. But am I listening for myself in those conversations? Am I filtering everything I hear by how it applies to me? (This articles seems a case in point…ARGH!)

Perhaps some of that self-absorption is baseline human behavior, a survival instinct, a need to find recognition and belonging. Yet I believe that racism is about power, and giving up power is difficult.

Maybe I need to work on listening and being present for the primary purpose of affirming the speaker’s humanity, without an agenda of making it useful to me. There a difference between “I am listening because I want to learn” and “I am listening because you are worth listening to.”

 


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When Talking About Race Hurts

I’ve been challenged recently to hear that some of what I’m sharing on Facebook is experienced as hurtful or polarizing. I’ve been thinking deeply about this, trying to sort it out, and want to share some thoughts.

I think part of what’s happening is that it is hard to stop racism. Racism isn’t just about the system out there: the US government, global imperialism, etc. The system is also inside us. Which means at least two things are happening when we talk about race:

1) Power is being challenged/changed and it doesn’t feel good.

When my friend Kathleen Saadat answers the question, “where do white allies fit in?” by saying “if they can’t figure out how this struggle is in their interest then they can go home. I don’t need ’em. I don’t need anybody coming to save me,” white folk may feel OUCH. From my point of view, what I see Kathleen doing is resisting racism (in general and within the question).

She’s resisting the racism that happens when black people take care of white people by making us feel good about ourselves. If she had answered with “here’s what you need to do,” whites would have added that to our task list and felt good about being able to help. And that would perpetuate the problem. Because that helping is how racism works…if the struggle for black liberation is only (or primarily) the task of black people, and white people pitch in here and then but never challenge ourselves to change how we’re part of the system, then the system within us continues.

Because we are the system, changing the system means changing ourselves…changing something inside us. For me racial justice work is spiritual work, transformation work. An ouch is an invitation, an opportunity to sit with feeling hurt and reflect on my feelings without getting defensive and shutting down and blaming or shifting the conversation elsewhere. When I feel confused (which happens often), it helps me to pray or meditate, to notice how I’m afraid and remember that I’m loved, and to try to let go of not making mistakes and figuring it all out.

2) I think another thing that’s happening is that whites are being judged and judging ourselves. Another article I shared recently by Rachel Hackenburg was in the format of the “dear white people” letters making their rounds on the interwebs. Setting aside obvious rudeness and name-calling (never okay), I’m curious about the ways our feelings are hurt reading these. Many of these, like Rachel’s piece, are judgmental.

As we start to realize that we are the system – the system lives within us – we name, label, distance and judge that part of us. White folk are trying to find a way to call other whites to accountability for what we’re doing wrong and to stop doing it. This is hard because what whites are doing wrong is so deeply embedded into our way of being in the world that it feels like we’re being told we ARE wrong: our approach, our ideas, even our questions are bad.

That’s not true. White people are not bad people. We’re beloved and worthy and complicit and well-meaning. We’ve learned, at a very deep level, a way of being in the world that perpetuates an injustice we want to stop. So we feel stuck. We feel afraid that talking about race means confessing a bunch of sins we haven’t committed, or even worse, sins we committed against our will and are powerless to stop.

But even if we feel despair, it isn’t hopeless. I promise. We can do this. We ARE doing it. Our discomfort and hurt feelings and confusion are evidence that we are engaged with the conversation, and if we can not take it too personally and sit with it, it will get easier. It will get easier to be uncomfortable and confused and hurt, because we’ll remember that power is changing and we are the system and so we are changing and change is HARD.

I whole-heartedly believe that it is possible to talk about race and be loving and kind. I know this because some incredible mentors in my life have been (and continue to be) kind to me when I am excruciatingly vulnerable, when I ask well-meaning but racist questions, when I make mistakes.

My friend Vanessa Timmons says our spiritual task is to meet change with the best of ourselves. Let’s bring our best. Let’s be kind and courageous and forgiving of mistakes and committed to challenging injustice and dismantling racism.

I’d love to talk more about this, privately, or publicly on facebook or my blog, so that we can learn together.

Yours in love and struggle,
Liz


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?


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.


Who Determines Racial Identity?

I’ve been away from this blog for  months now, busy being a new mama. Now that my daughter Elena is nearly three months old, we’re settling into a routine that includes nap time aka mama-blog-time. I’m excited about a new campaign by Showing Up for Racial Justice, a non-profit that organizes white people to be visible for racial justice. I downloaded their education toolkit and got ready to snap a pic of me and Ellie being visible for racial justice.

Then I remembered that my daughter isn’t (all) white. She has pale skin, which is to say, she looks white.  My daughter’s racial and ethnic heritage includes a grandfather who is Latino and a great-grandfather who immigrated to this country (undocumented, thank you very much) from Mexico.

When my wife and I adopted Elena, we wanted to honor her birth family and their ongoing presence in Ellie’s life. So Elena has a Spanish surname as part of her name, and this has prompted people — brown people, white people — to ask us: so IS she Mexican?

Recently a friend shared with me the perception by people outside the US that our American obsession with percentages in racial identity (i.e. “half-white”, “25% Black”, etc.) is shocking. “We only talk about racial percentages with animals,” the friend said.

Questions from friends about Elena’s race are hard for me to answer. I can talk about Elena’s great-grandfather, because that is a story which involves revolution and border-crossing and courage. Being an immigrant’s daughter myself, that story rings in my bones. But I don’t know how to answer the question of who Elena is racially.

I know the impetus behind my friends’ questions is to determine how to relate to my daughter. She looks white, and both of her moms are white, so I sense that other people will feel more comfortable if we just live as a white family.

But while we carry pale skin privilege, we aren’t a white family, because Elena isn’t (all) white. Having a close friend who was raised by her adopted parents to be white (just chuck that “other” heritage out the window because we don’t know what to do with it), I flat-out refuse to minimize, obscure or “%” Elena’s indigenous Mexican heritage.

I’m suddenly aware that generations of parents do this for/to their children: they shape how their children see themselves racially. I model for others how to see my daughter’s race, even as the public assumes something based on our skin. Being able to choose what to claim in racial identity is itself part of white privilege.

What if my daughter regrets our insistence on her indigenous Mexican heritage as she gets older? How MUCH heritage do you need to have before you become a person of color, anyway? The “One Drop” rule comes painfully to mind. Is it just skin color? What about language and community? Am I Elizabeth-Warren-ing my daughter?  I don’t know. This is tricky and I’m a sheltered, privileged novice.

I will raise Elena with awareness of her pale skin privilege, because that’s what I do know how to offer. But I also want to give her role models for navigating a racial identity that is complex and multi-layered. So I need you, my allies. I need your stories of passing-for-white, I need your thoughts on how we talk about racial identity, on how we respond to assumptions based on skin color.


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