With a few edits, I wrote the below piece before the shooting at the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina. It expands on my previous post and shares the path I traveled when it came to beginning to understand racism, white supremacy and my place in it all. It is my hope that as white people grapple with what it means to be white in the United States, and to publicly speak and act around it, that this account may be helpful.
When I was 17 years old, I went on a student exchange trip to Mexico. I ended up having a fantastic time and was perplexed by that. I was overwhelmed by the hospitality of my host family and the ebullient friendliness of so many others I met. In looking at why I was surprised that I enjoyed the trip, I uncovered a world I was previously unaware of. I realized that outside of my conscious awareness I had formulated negative stereotypes and expectations about Mexico and Mexicans. I was racist and didn’t even know it! How did this happen? Prior to the trip, I knew no Mexicans personally, so I couldn’t have had a negative experience, and in my home environment racism was frowned upon. Yet here I was with these deeply disturbing attitudes. Upon further examination, I came to understand that my beliefs, about Mexicans in this case, had been formed bit by bit, societally and culturally, until by the age of 17 I held racist views yet was unaware that I held them until they came into conflict with reality.
At that age, I had no real understanding of the functioning of race and racism in U.S. society, though I did adhere to the idea that racism = bad. It shook me profoundly to come to the realization that despite opposing racism, I was racist. And on top of that, I enjoyed social and economic privileges based on my skin color. As I began to learn more about white supremacy and other systemic forms of oppression, I felt a sense of betrayal and anger towards the institutions which I had placed much trust in growing up, such as school, church, and community. They had 17 years with which to craft me, and instead of emerging with knowledge about how society functions, I just came out racist and had to learn about what was really happening on my own and with the assistance of very patient and compassionate comrades.
Due to how I was psychologically constituted, I took this knowledge and personalized it into guilt and shame; mostly shame. I believed I was a bad person due to my whiteness, maleness, sexuality, class position, nationality, etc., and due to the unearned privileges that went along with them. No person of color or woman or anyone else instructed me to do that. I took it on myself and that guilt and shame very much informed my political and personal activities over the course of many years. On the one hand, having that knowledge was beneficial in that it led me to engage with and support worthwhile efforts and causes. But I also used it to beat myself up and to negate my own experiences and traumas by declaring them moot and unworthy due to the fact of my privilege. (“This person is such and such and faces much worse daily than what happened to your white, male self; so suck it up and stop complaining.”) I pathologized my privilege into shame, which had a devastating impact on my mental health as I denied my own subjectivity and became fairly useless to myself and others in the work I was doing.
I don’t share this for pity or praise but because I know I’m not the only one to get wrapped up in the privilege-guilt-shame cycle and that it’s an unpleasant and unconstructive place to be. How I got out of it is a long story. But, in short, it involved being willing to acknowledge what I was doing with my awareness of privilege, to look around and see no one was telling me to beat myself up – in fact just the opposite – and then to begin to put down the stick and to stop eviscerating myself for being born into circumstances outside of my control. I tried to reframe myself first as a human being with valid subjectivity, and only after that as a beneficiary of current social constructs. I’ve learned it is possible to desire to smash racism and not smash my core self at the same time.
This has led to a shift in the role privilege plays for me. Instead of serving as a vehicle for self-centered shame and guilt, it serves now as a motivator. Being aware of privilege and institutional oppressions, and also assuming randomness in the circumstances I was born into, leads me to have a sense of empathy and also a sense of obligation – not to save anyone – but to acknowledge the privileges I have, which are born out of the subjugation of others, and to work for their systematic elimination.
In my experience, this means first and foremost being quiet, listening and learning about how privilege and oppression manifests for those on the other side of the equation. That is then complemented by anti-oppression work. For me, anti-oppression work appears as engaged solidarity developed through the aforementioned listening. It also looks like educating and reaching out to others in the privileged class(es) with an eye to organizing collective movement for the transformation of this society. And finally, it is continuing the internal awareness and growth around racism and privilege that began for me at the age of 17.
In a piece in The New York Times recently, Professor Nell Irvin Painter suggested a rebellion against “the monolithic definition of whiteness” and for working to abolish white privilege. As events are held around the country to stand with the victims of the Charleston shooting and reaffirm that Black Lives Matter, a component piece is the recognition that “white silence is violence.” I view this short post in that spirit, but do not pretend my obligation ends here. As a white person, it is incumbent on me to speak and act – in the appropriate time, place and manner – in opposition to white supremacy. I do this now not from a place of shame or guilt, but as human being aware of my privileges and moved to act in concert with others for an egalitarian, non-coercive, liberatory society.