Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Conversations about Race, Part II

Lyndale United Church of Christ, the congregation that Göran, Glen and I attend together, is joining other United Churches of Christ congregations in on-going "conversations about race."

When Pastor Don Portwood introduced the subject on Sunday, May 11, he handed out a couple of essays. One of these was an excerpted version of Peggy McIntosh's "White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack". The other essay was Robert Jensen's reflection on Peggy McIntosh's essay, entitled "White Privilege Shapes the U.S."

If the notion of "white privilege" is an alien concept to you (and it very likely is if you are white) I recommend you read these essays. If you can only read one, I recommend you read McIntosh's first. But both essays are relatively short, sweet and to the point, and they spell out in terms anyone can understand how and why racism still shapes all of our experience, to the detriment of all of us.

I was introduced to the concept of white privilege as a first year graduate student at the University of Minnesota. (We certainly didn't read McIntosh's essay or discuss white privilege at BYU in the 1980s. Perhaps some of you can attest whether the Lord's University has evolved since then.) So I've been intellectually aware of it (though -- nature of the beast -- paying attention to it only sporadically) for something like 20 years. But now that I re-read these essays, I'm left with the same questions I was left with 20 years ago, "So now what?" and "Where do we go from here?"

Here's the problem. As both McIntosh and Jensen point it out, you can be aware of white privilege and even deplore it. You can do all the "consciousness raising" you want. But it still doesn't make it go away. White privilege seems immune to awareness, which it constantly conspires to reduce to oblivion in any event. As a white man in a relationship with a man of African descent, I am aware of the fact that my white privilege didn't evaporate because of my relationship; nor does he gain white privilege through me. It doesn't work that way. When the two of us walk into a store or a restaurant, I am still treated differently than he is.

Yet, despite the seeming imperviousness of white privilege to individual awareness and effort, in my life I've proceeded with the assumption that in fact awareness can make a difference. My personal awareness may not put a dent in the overall system of white privilege, but it can make a difference in the relationships I am a party to and in the systems in which I have real power and influence. When I am in a room full of white faces, and I see a complexion of a different color, awareness of how white privilege operates in such a setting can help me to behave in such a way as to increase the degree to which all in that room are included and empowered. Awareness can educate my political behavior (how I vote) and economic behavior (what I consume and where I buy it). I think at root, if we didn't believe this, why would we bother to share and discuss articles like McIntosh's?

The challenge for white folks is not to rush on to the conclusion that just because you've been "educated," you're set and the problem is solved. It helps to acknowledge that even with the best conscious efforts, we will continue to act in a white supremacist manner in many unconscious ways. So reminding ourselves and continuing to study the issue -- continually striving to elevate unconscious reflex to the realm of conscious action -- is crucial. It also helps to acknowledge that we can only solve a very minuscule part of the problem as individuals. So the work will involve evaluating collective behavior and seeking to link up politically and socially on a local, regional and national scale. In other words, it may require political organization.

But my final observation is mainly theological. Our awareness of interlocking systems of oppression -- racism, sexism, homophobia, the class system, systems that privilege able-bodiedness, etc. -- has grown out of efforts by individuals to speak their personal truths. Women speaking out about sexism. Racial minorities speaking out about racism. Gays and lesbians speaking out about homophobia. Disabled people speaking out about inaccessibility. Aren't we all hungering for "accessibility" in some meaning of that word? But these are personal and individual expressions, the truth of the world seen "from the ground up."

The reality that shapes all of our individual experience to devastating effect "from the sky down" is the concentration of world imperial power in the hands of a few, who manipulate regional and global economies and who wield devastating military power. Those "powers that be" have created global heavens for the few "haves" and global hells for the "have-nots," and purgatories that keep the rest of us living in fear, thinking that our selfish clinging can prevent us being cast into "hell." Does this not resemble the demonic reign of the "powers and principalities" the Apostle Paul wrote of? Spiritual evil in high places? Can we cure any social ill until the rule of demonic powers is overthrown? So part of me feels that, while we need to be engaged with hand and heart and all we've got, nothing can be solved without opening our hearts to the Millennium, cultivating faith in and submission to the God whose method of resisting evil is to teach us how to resist it, but who has also promised to come again to save us.

For those of us caught in the gears of the machine -- whether because of our race or our sex or our sexuality or because of the configuration of our bodies -- isn't the moment of salvation when the Spirit teaches us that we have a Divine birthright that transcends the worldly systems that define us? A birthright shared by those who are fooled by the system into contributing to our oppression. Even if we cannot free ourselves of the effects of an unrighteous system, that knowledge frees us in powerful ways nevertheless. It can fill us with an empowering peace and resolve. But we can't fully enjoy that freedom if we exercise any degree of unrighteous dominion over others.

That is why I am also aware of the power of theologies that remind us how evil cannot be overcome without repentance and humility and submission to God. In the face of racism, we white folks are like camels, trying to figure out how we can fit through the needle's eye. We need help if we are going to pass.


Michelle said...

I've been reading your blog for sometime now and enjoying it all along the way. My partner and I (two former Mormon white gals) enjoy your perspective on life, love, and faith. Anyway, just wanted to share how encouraging this post is to me. Race in America (well anywhere I suppose) is complicated, to say the least. Brilliant perspective; thanks for the willingness to write about the hard stuff.

J G-W said...

Michelle: Thanks for your comment, I appreciate it.

My first post on this subject was an attempt to share my thoughts about "how to" converse about race in America.

My second post was a response to some readings about "unpacking white privilege" and my thoughts about the general problem of racism as it currently exists.

But I still haven't gotten to the meat of the conversation yet! In my next post on this subject, I want to talk about my own history with race and racism (which includes being raised in a church that refused to ordain black people until the late 1970s).

Still, I long for more people to comment on and post about and discuss this... One woman I know attempted repeatedly to post, but experienced technical difficulties with my blog. Later, she emailed me privately and said she's concerned about "political correctness" dominating such a discussion.

Fair enough. White people are generally scared to death to talk about race, because they are afraid of looking bigoted or dumb. So we cautiously say what we think is the "right thing," or we keep silent.

I'm longing for conversation that goes beyond that...

Maraiya said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Maraiya said...

I am a 32yo, white straight female, raised LDS. I have a Japanese background (my grandmother) but my looks are such that I have never been treated as other than a white girl.

That said, what should we say on a conversation on race? I must admit that as a white girl I feel that I can say nothing and really just listen. When it comes to black/white racism, I am even more uncertain as what to say given that I was raised in AK and have lived in the Pacific Northwest and as such I have never met many people of African descent. My "minority experience" comes from Filipinos, Native Alaskans and Latinos. I have experienced white privilege among them; most notably with Native Alaskans and the sterotype/thought that they don't have integrity. It's interesting to me that certain negative situations, which created the above thought, in regards to races other than white, are then labeled to the entire race as opposed to just the individual or organization who committed the offense.

I discussions I am appalled when I hear modern stories of discrimination. I am aware too that I propagate some of that when I sit, tongue-tied, in the presence of a minority. So often I am unsure of what to say or do, not wanting to offend. I do not feel that I can just be myself because I do fear saying the wrong thing - what does this say about "myself?"

I read the first of the articles you posted and I found that some of her points I am oblivious to, some of her points are points of racism that I have seen or heard of from others' experiences, and some I am very conscience of: seeing my race on TV or in books as well represented and not feeling the need to "represent" for white culture; knowing I can speak or act and that I am speaking and acting just for myself, not for all white culture. These are things that I feel may be shifting but they are still predominately white privilege. I also wonder about the shift - is black TV welcome or is it welcome so long as it fits in the white paradigm?

I don't know if this is helpful or part of the dialogue you want to start but I must admit, as I leave this message, that I fear I have just branded myself a racist even though I believe racism to be a horrible evil.

Maraiya said...

My next thought, sorry if I'm being long winded, is how do I, as a white girl, not pass down white privilege to my children?

J G-W said...

Maraiya - Thanks for bravely sharing your thoughts.

I think a LOT of white people do scratch their heads and say "What's there to talk about?" From the perspective of most white people, racism is something "out there" that affects other people, and is perpetrated by other people (by faceless "white racists"). Most white people think of themselves as compassionate, justice-loving people, so when the topic of racism comes up, they want to do (and say) the right thing. But we typically draw a blank and can't think of anything to say. So, as you put it so well, we'd prefer to just listen to what others have to say.

Thanks for acknowledging what should be more and more obvious in today's America -- this is not just a "black-white" issue. Of course, American culture has in many ways singled blacks out for special treatment, so the black-white dualism has a kind of iniquitous cultural logic. It is part of the problem. If Americans can break out of that black-white dualistic framework, we will be a long way toward embracing a more humanizing vision of all of us.

Racism is a system that has organized our society for something like three hundred years. The American race system began to be organized around 1675 or so and was well established by 1700. The racist system was re-organized between 1865-1880 to function without slavery. In many ways, the most racist period in our history didn't take place till after slavery ended. Since the 1960s, when the last remnants of legal discrimination were ended (formal, legal segregation and electoral disfranchisement), the main struggle has been against the informal, extralegal and cultural system of racism. It is a more amorphous struggle, but no less real.

White folks might think we have "nothing" to say about racism, but we actually have a lot to say. We just have to take some time to think about our role in this moment of that 300-years-old history. Which is what I want to do in my next post on this subject... Tell my story.

J G-W said...

Maraiya - I was just re-reading your post and thought of something else. You said you have a Japanese grandmother, but that your "looks are such" that you have never been treated as anything but a white girl.

You've put your finger on one of the key elements of the American race system. The fact that it immediately categorizes us on the basis of our "looks." Is your Japanese ancestry less significant than your European/Euro-American ancestry?

The race system says, Yes, so long as you can pass and "become" white.

Whiteness may or may not have anything to do with our ancestry. We become white by categorizing ourselves and categorizing others and then structuring our self concepts and our interactions based on that categorization.