Waking Up White: A Book Recommendation

I have been reading and writing a lot about race lately.  The Black Lives Matter movement got me going.  Trump’s presidency stoked the fire of urgency. Over winter break I finished, Waking Up White, and Finding Myself in the Story of Race by Debby Irving. I highly recommend this book.  In fact, I wish every white person would read it.  Irving does such a good job highlighting issues of race that people of color deal with every day, but to which we white people remain oblivious.  Irving’s tone is not teacherly or patronizing, even though she is a diversity educator.  Instead, she is autobiographical and self-effacing.  She shares stories of mistakes she has made in her efforts to become a more racially-aware person.  Some of these stories made me cringe, because I have made similar mistakes.  But the only way to learn is to face these mistakes.  Here are just a few of the valuable lessons I gleaned from this book:

White people need to educate other white people about race.  Honestly, before reading this book, I thought I could only learn about race from people of color. (I’m embarrassed and ashamed to have just typed that sentence.)  White people often fail to recognize that “white” is also a race that we need to understand.  If we can understand whiteness and white culture, then we can better understand the challenges we pose to people of other races when we expect them to act like us, speak like us, learn like us, etc.

Irving, whose suburban upbringing was a lot like my own, helped me identify a variety of beliefs and behaviors indicative of white culture, such as: conflict avoidance, emotional restraint, a sense of urgency about time, a habit of asking social locator questions like “What do you do? Where are you from? Where did you go to school?” to determine what box we should put people or gage the level of success they have achieved.  I am guilty of this white judgmentalism and am determined to break this habit of asking “social locator” type questions.

Fair does not mean equal.  Equality starts with equity.  “Equity,” Irving writes, “means both holding people of differing needs to a single expectation and giving them what they need to achieve it.”  In other words, equity is a way to level the playing field and equality cannot be achieved without it. She illustrated her point with a hypothetical:  If there was a test that involved students writing their answer on a line on the board—a line five feet above the ground—what would you do for the shorter students who couldn’t reach the line?  You’d make the test equitable by giving the shorter students a step up so they could meet the same expectation as the taller students.  Such steps—like affirmative action—level the playing field to make it more equitable.

When it comes to racism, there’s no such thing as neutral.  Irving writes, “When it comes to racism, there’s no such thing as neutral: either I’m intentionally and strategically working against it, or I’m aiding and abetting the system.  As historian and activist Howard Zinn said, ‘You can’t be neutral on a moving train.’”  Irving correlates this idea with her antibullying training as a teacher.  “Antibullying pedagogy describes three distinct roles: (1) bullies, (2) victims, and (3) bystanders,” she writes. “Traditionally the approach has been to reprimand the bully and console the victim while ignoring the bystanders, those who witness but neither partake in nor stand up to the bullying.  More recently, however, educators and psychologists recognized that the real power rests in empowering bystanders to become allies in the fight to eliminate childhood bullying.”

I am convicted by Irving’s words, realizing that I have lived most of my life as a bystander, as someone who has aided and abetted the system of racism because I was SO unaware and because I lacked the courage to do anything about it.  Irving shares that her ultimate goal is to interrupt racism, advocate against it, and educate without doing more harm than good. Even though I know I will make lots of terrible mistakes, I’m committed to this goal as well.  The burden to right this wrong is on those of us who benefit from this unfair and inequitable system.  Will you join me?  Reading “Waking Up White” with your friends, co-workers, or church groups is a great place to start.

[The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) Co-Moderators, Rev. T. Denise Anderson and Rev. Jan Edmiston, have invited churches to read and study this book.  They’ve also published this curriculum to guide and encourage your study.]

Tired of Talking about Privilege

Last Sunday, during a program at my college about how to create needed social change, I observed a few of the white students tuning out.  One fell asleep.  Another started texting a friend.  Another tried to pay attention, but her eyes kept wandering to the floor, the window and the faces in the room other than the presenter.  The students of color, on the other hand, were engaged in the topic.  They asked and answered questions and contributed to the discussion.

After this observation, I decided to lead a program on privilege thinking it would be helpful for more of our white students to understand the social, economic, and political advantages they have over people of color.  When I shared my idea for the program with one of my more thoughtful white students, though, she told me that her peers were tired of talking about privilege.  “It’s everywhere, Teri.  Sure, it’s important.  But people are just tired of talking about it.” I was grateful for this student’s honesty, but also wondered how I could stoke the fire of this important conversation.  I decided to go ahead with my program.

In my planning, I came across Peggy McIntosh’s essay, “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack.” McIntosh (who is white) helpfully unpacks the invisible knapsack of unearned assets she can count on cashing in every day, but about which, she says, “she was ‘meant’ to remain oblivious.”  Because of the color of her skin, McIntosh says she can count on the following:

  • I can go shopping alone most of the time, pretty well assured that I will not be followed or harassed.
  • Whether I use checks, credit cards or cash, I can count on my skin color not to work against the appearance of financial reliability.
  • I can swear, or dress in second hand clothes, or not answer letters, without having people attribute these choices to the bad morals, the poverty or the illiteracy of my race.
  • When I am told about our national heritage or about “civilization,” I am shown that people of my color made it what it is.
  • I do not have to educate my children to be aware of systemic racism for their own daily protection.
  • I can do well in a challenging situation without being called a credit to my race.
  • I can be pretty sure that if I ask to talk to the “person in charge”, I will be facing a person of my race.
  • I can remain oblivious of the language and customs of persons of color who constitute the world’s majority without feeling in my culture any penalty for such oblivion.

This last example helped me better understand the disinterest and weariness of my white students.  There are no real consequences for a white person’s apathy, disinterest, or weariness of talking about privilege.  In fact, the system of white dominance and white supremacy that our country has been built upon rewards such passivity. If white people remain oblivious to our unearned benefits, then we cannot be expected to share, give them up, or work towards a more equitable system. It’s hard to hold an oblivious person accountable.  Thus, the system of white dominance is perpetuated.

Through the programs I lead and the relationships I develop, I hope to keep this conversation going.  I hope to keep learning how I can live faithfully with the unearned assets I have inherited and encourage others to do the same.  Jesus keeps calling me to the most disadvantaged.  Although it’s painful to acknowledge that my unearned advantages play a significant role in keeping others disadvantaged, I’ve got to face that harsh truth to have any hope of righting what is wrong.

[Feature Image: Elias Schewel]

 

Getting to Know my White Privileged Self

5002004994_ab6c32ebbe_oA new essay is rising up within me. This is what it feels like when I know I have something to write about but don’t know exactly where this “feeling of an idea” is leading. It’s an exciting journey of discovery—exciting because I know I will learn and grow a lot in the process. But I also know this journey will require a lot of intense work, dedication, and a willingness to confront some painful and disturbing truths.

The topic of this new essay will be race. The journey towards this topic began last winter while reading and discussing Michelle Alexander’s book The New Jim Crow with a group of students at my college. Whenever I bemoan how busy my chaplaincy keeps me and how much I desire to have more time to write, reminding myself of all the rich experiences I am offered to learn and grow along with my students keeps me grateful for my career. The fact that I serve a racially diverse college as chaplain is an extraordinary gift that will deepen my exploration into the topic of race and positively influence my ministry with and among our students of color.

Reading James Baldwin (extraordinary! Can’t get enough of him!) Kelly Brown Douglas, and Ada Maria Isasi-Diaz has taken me further in my understanding of the particular human experience of people of color. I have been confronted and awakened to the disturbing, evil ways white people have oppressed, marginalized, and disempowered Native, Black, and Latino peoples in our society. But as a privileged white myself, I cannot write about race from the perspective of Baldwin, Douglas, or Isasi-Diaz. That would be disrespectful and dangerous. I cannot even begin to assume I could write about the experience of marginalized people. That, to me, would epitomize white ignorance. But I cannot ignore or set aside this issue of race—that would also be irresponsible as a person of faith seeking to live into God’s justice. So I needed to find another way in. An essay by Eula Biss called “Relations” opened the door to a helpful approach.

Biss, a middle-class woman from Iowa, writes about race from her white perspective.  After researching her own family history she writes, “It isn’t easy to accept a slaveholder and an Indian killer as a grandfather, and it isn’t easy to accept the legacy of whiteness as an identity. It is an identity that carries the burden of history without fostering a true understanding of the painfulness and the costs of complicity. That’s why so many of us try to pretend that to be white is merely to be raceless.”[1] At another point in the essay Biss directly challenges me and all white people by writing, “We do not know ourselves, and worse, we seem only occasionally to know that we do not know ourselves.”[2] Here, was my way in. A challenge to get to know myself as a white person, to explore what my race has given me, how it has privileged me, and as a result of that privilege, how it has disadvantaged and oppressed others.

So I have begun my research on what it means for me to be born white in American society. My theologian husband has, as always, helped me deepen my thought by turning me to the work of philosopher Shannon Sullivan who has explored the racial habits of white people in two books: Revealing Whiteness: The Unconscious Habits of Racial Privilege and Good White People: The Problem with Middle-Class White Anti-Racism.  I’m not sure where this journey into race will take me, but I feel its significance, at the very least, for me, to write about and articulate.

As I progress Thomas Merton’s well-known prayer from “Thoughts in Solitude” feels appropriate:

“My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road, though I may know nothing about it. Therefore I will trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.”

 

[1] Eula Biss, “Notes from No Man’s Land”, (Graywolf Press, Minneapolis, MN, 2009), pg. 32.

[2] Ibid, pg. 31.

[Feature Image: tobiwei]

What makes a man like Muhammad Ali?

Muhammad Ali Quotes

Muhammad Ali Quotes

In his essay, Notes of a Native Son, James Baldwin wrote about a chronic disease he contracted as a young black professional after being refused service at a New Jersey diner. Hearing the racist rationale that, “we don’t serve Negroes here,” Baldwin was overcome with:

“a kind of blind fever, a pounding in the skull and fire in the bowels. Once this disease is contracted one can never be really carefree again, for the fever, without an instant’s warning, can recur at any moment. It can wreck more important things than race relations. There is not a Negro alive who does not have this rage in his blood—one has the choice, merely, of living with it consciously or surrendering to it. As for me, this fever has recurred in me, and does and will until the day I die.”[1]

After Muhammad Ali won a gold medal for the United States in the 1960 Olympic Games, he returned home and was refused service at a “whites only” diner. Enraged, Ali left that diner and hurled his gold medal into a river.

Muhammad Ali is not remembered for his rage. But perhaps he should be. All of the retrospectives I watched after his death focused on his generosity, his playfulness, his poetic trash-talking, his supersized personality, his joy in living. But Muhammad Ali was a fighter, in the ring and out. And I can’t help but think that the rage that Baldwin says lives in every African American, wasn’t the fuel for Ali’s fire.

When asked in an interview what Ali wanted to be remembered for, he responded, “That I never turned my back on my people.” Indeed, Ali was a black activist who in his twenties was not so beloved. He was radical and outspoken—rejecting his “slave name” of Cassius Clay for the name given him upon his conversion to Islam. He refused to be drafted into the Vietnam War, calling it immoral, saying he had nothing against the Vietnamese, and that all the war was about was “kill, kill, kill.” He took this fight all the way to the Supreme Court. History would reveal Ali to be ahead of his time, a man of conviction who was willing to fight indignities and injustices that others were not.

Baldwin referred to his rage as a chronic disease, but this was not to imply it was ill or unwanted. In fact more of us could stand to contract such a disease—or at least a dis-ease with the injustices to which we bear witness. Mohammed Ali’s legacy will best be honored by those who are fueled to fight such injustices and become the champions we so desperately need.

[1] James Baldwin, Notes of a Native Son, (Beacon Press, Boston, MA, 1955), pg. 96.

[Feature Image: Joshi Bhavya]