I 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.”
Last weekend as I left the house for church, I slowed down because the boys at the end of our street were playing basketball.
They stood back as I passed, and a racial epithet – one my father used frequently through my childhood – leapt into my mind. Annoyed at myself, I pushed it away, thinking as I did so that the “boys” were actually young men. Thinking of them as young black men made me nervous, a white woman paranoia that I’ve learned to name as racism. Pushing THAT thought away, I thought of Ferguson, and felt a wash of shame and despair.
Then there was traffic, and my worry about being prepped to teach Sunday school, and my thoughts moved on, until Monday, when I walked into the ladies bathroom at work and heard an unexpected noise. It took me a long minute before I realized that the sound was a breast pump: a female co-worker in the wide stall at the end of the row was pumping her milk.
I’d been holding it together in my new job until that moment. It’s been three weeks since I left my daughter at home to work full-time. Her absence is a deep ache in my body. The first week I felt so disconnected, like I was in a dream living someone else’s life. That has faded, but I still have a strict two minute limit on tears.
But in that moment, it hit me hard: the ache for my daughter, and immediately on the heels of that, I thought of Mike Brown, of Mike’s mother, and all the people who love him. Ohmygodohmygodohmygod:
They are killing our children. Our children.
Heartbroken, I cried in the bathroom, letting the whirr and hiss of the pump cover my sobs. Eventually I stopped, splashed water on my face, readjusted my armor and went back to my desk. I need to keep this job.
On the drive home that night, I let myself think about them again: first my daughter, and then Mike. I remembered the bit I know of history, and it felt like this. I know where my people are, in that picture, I know whose side my ancestors are on. And I thought:
We are killing our children.
And in that moment, I was suddenly so F—ING FURIOUS I could barely drive.
Enough of your voice in my head, Father.
Enough of pushing away kneejerk paranoia and shame about feeling it.
Enough of there being nothing I can do.
Haven’t I learned, at least a little, that the way to meet shame is with courage and responsibility?
WE are killing our children and we had better well f—ing stop. RIGHT NOW.
What is my church doing about this? Who do I know in Missouri, do I know anyone, who could I call?
I let the fury carry me into plans and actions, and I wondered:
Why did it take me SO LONG? A week of reading the news on facebook, late at night after my daughter was finally tucked into bed, but none of it really penetrating, none of it connecting with my heart, moving me into action.
Maybe I’m preoccupied…new job, big transition. Maybe I’m desensitized…there have been so many deaths, not only from police violence but the war on Gaza’s children, the refugee children at our borders. And maybe it is uncomfortable and easier for me to act as if it isn’t my children, our children, who are being murdered.
This post is to help me remember to stay connected, to stay present, to not let change and privilege lull me into isolation.
How are you responding to the systemic racism of police violence? What helps you stay connected?
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.
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.
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?
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.