Whites Challenging Racism Journal by Rosemary McMullen
February 23, 2008 We met for the first time Thursday the 21st. I had printed out Peggy McIntosh’s essay (“White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack”) and I’m beginning to open up to the concept of revisiting “all this” (emotions and analysis around racism) sigh…realizing I the enlightened one have slipped far away from my conscience as my guide. Now will I be able to shift my own consciousness? There were several surprises: with the exception of Betty, everyone is in their 20s and they are gay/lesbian in majority. So I am in a group where I am definitely a minority on those two counts.
After absorbing the video and readings, I see this movement like yeast or leaven among questioning whites who are strong enough to do the work, starting things going toward more authenticity around race. It is heartening to find this core of young people who will dedicate themselves to wading into this horrendous territory. Will their company make a difference? I hope so.
Questions: Will the consciousness shift be the only change? Of course it will make a difference, and we will spread it in our circles of acquaintance. If we do not work on keeping it conscious daily, consistently, will we white individuals slip back into our comfortable privileged slot in US society and continue as part of the problem rather than spearheading the solution…?
Speaking up in social situations: don’t worry about being nice….is there a contradiction with non-violence? Can we re-frame our interventions as counter-violent exposes of embedded unconscious social behavior so skillfully that it’s effective, not a bomb exploding in everyone’s faces insultingly? How to circumvent defensiveness? Denial?
Excerpt from my Family History Told from the Perspective of White Privilege
I started to expand my racial consciousness age 21 once I was out of Chicago in Champaign-Urbana and especially once I started teaching freshman English age 23. From the beginning I had multiracial students and felt obliged to have us read writers of all kinds. Black American writers (Eldridge Cleaver’s Soul on Ice a notable case) opened my eyes to the realities of past and present oppression. It was the Vietnam era. Every male 18 and older was draft-able. Militarism, racism, sexism, classism, capitalism and imperialism were seen as ideologies and institutions of oppression in our local Students for a Democratic Society chapter. We were visited by national SDS organizers and Black Panthers and traveled to large gatherings in Chicago and other cities.
My own experience of white privilege is totally consistent with the advantages my parents and their parents received from being white. As skilled educated Europeans they were accepted as members of a viable strong community supported by the systems local and federal, of which they were part, no questions asked. Yes, I can look and act like a middle-class educated white person and get the respect that carries. I discriminated against? Not that I can remember. Have I never been accepted as a tenant in an apartment? No. Have I ever felt slighted or taunted because of my skin color or appearance? No. Have I sensed danger, discrimination, otherness, or dread on a daily basis walking most places in mainstream America? No. Perhaps the main advantage of being white in the USA is that people pretty much let you alone to be you. Plus, the line crossed to bad behavior is ten times farther than that for people of color. We white people are freed from critical hateful streams of consciousness, since we live mainly amongst our own as the majority; we meet deferential accommodation from the “lower” echelons who are dependent on white patronage.
When I married a person of color in Puerto Rico, there was very little tension because of the multiracial and warm character of Latino Caribbean culture. Traveling with him into white circles (family and professional) in the mainland USA was always strained and sometimes evoked bitterness. I never took my husband to meet my family on the south side. When we went our separate ways six years later, I was privately relieved on that account. However, I do appreciate and miss the warmth of Latino ways.
When my parents were nearing retirement, they bought a lot in coastal Georgia and built a house on it for their winter residence. Selling their house in Park Ridge at a huge profit, they also had considerable investment wealth mostly managed by my mother. When my parents died, they were able to leave each of their four children a considerable legacy which enabled one sister to pay off the mortgage, others to gain assets, and for me to live independently for almost ten years. I already had access to literature and the humanities through academia, but this economic freedom allowed my education and skill sets to expand, and this is still the case. I learned to live more freely because of my parents’ good fortune and good investment history.
What should one do in response to recognizing her life advantages because of white privilege? This now occupies my imagination as a burning question.
March 2, 2008 On February 28 we went over Peggy McIntosh and Bel Hooks. It was revealing to see what grabbed people. Joy, who teaches philosophy, noted that Bel Hooks is listed in a book about the 10 most dangerous professors in the USA and that she aspires to be on that list someday. Acknowledgement of racism by a white person in a multiracial social context (about an upgrade dispute on a plane) and looking at what action to take was one long discussion. After brainstorming reactions and possible actions, we gravitated toward the non-violent solution of giving one’s seat up to the white man without a lot of fanfare. We also noted the taboos against those holding privilege acknowledging it or working to rectify it (male privilege, white privilege, heterosexual privilege). Youth privilege or elder privilege is yet to be discussed.
Living under taboos seems to derive from unconscious socialization and exercises its power over individuals in varying degrees. Why then do some wake up at various times in their lives and start to work to unravel that socialization process? I remembered a black woman I shared an office with in NYC who became open enough with me to share her view that domination of black Africans and other peoples of color (from East India, China, Southeast Asia) by whites was a conscious, consistent “conspiracy” from ancient to modern times. Did I believe it happened? Yes. Did I believe it was planned on a long-term basis? No. My working theory is that the suppression of rebellion was done on a case by case basis, and gradually became standard procedure in the military hierarchic system. Of course I have not done the research, and I’m sure it’s a minefield.
Isn’t the skewing of history in several directions by all interested parties to be expected? As pointed out in the Argentine movie “The Official Story” by a high school student character: “history is written by assassins.” Knowing that your ancestors were assassins, torturers, slave owners, slave ship builders, slave traders, financiers whose capital rests on profits from slavery and exploited workers of any color, rapists of the defenseless, collaborators or at least silent watchers of social crimes against innocent people— this would be taboo as a subject for discussion, way beyond the comfort zone for people living behind the buffers of money, safety and privilege. Those who point out these realities in groups of whites who consider themselves moral, “normal” and good might well eventually be excluded or punished. At the very least they would be subjected to hours of haranguing about the strains of hermeneutics running through history, evidence twisted, conundrums of philosophy, language, cloudiness of documentation.
Literature escapes so many of these constraints because it rests in the accuracy, autonomy and experiential specificity of one human voice describing life as he or she lives and sees it. The best writers are seldom without a larger scope of social consciousness and the pain attending it. William Faulkner, for example, was in excruciating pain over white and also class privilege and his stories often reveal the psychic costs of those benefiting from it. He was awarded the Nobel Prize in literature. If you survey the winners of this prize since it began, you will find the winners are often, like him, critics and strugglers with the taboos against seeing clearly and living in accord with one’s conscience (and indeed the social mores of most religious and spiritual streams). The artistic perception, reflection and re-framing processes can use the pain of perpetrators, victims and their descendents to empower others to see and live into long-buried truths driving whole cultures unconsciously.
But isn’t it cowardly just to stop there? Our work as writers and artists is not only to express ourselves, know and be known at a deeper level of experience. We carry history with its crimes and struggles in our own contexts of time and space. Let those truths sink in. What taboos do I live under? Am I ready to look at them and peel them away? Will I be a deceptive sneak even with myself as I continue to reap unearned benefits, letting the less fortunate bear the burdens of oppression without even acknowledging it? Do I wonder why mental illness, addiction, the creation and consumption of pornography are exponentially-growing symptoms of the prosperous whites (mainly English-speakers) of the world?
March 6, 2008 We will meet tonight and I just spent several hours reading about sexual abuse of Indians and people of color, centuries-based economic advantages of white skin and class meritocracy, how all whites benefit from the racist-slavery based styles of life…. systematic deprivation of land belonging by treaty to Indians and given to whites.
I am going to visit my quite wealthy siblings and their children over Easter and two of my oldest friends who both own homes in one of the highest-priced real estate markets of the world. Could any of them imagine living without wealth and the prospect of its growth? Maybe I will have the courage and find the right words to bring up the subject. I raise the possibility that what drives the white elite to money and power also drives them away from life genuinely lived in moral rectitude, much less real love of the other, into a twisted psyche of denials, lies and “blissful” ignorance, in which flourish mental and physical illness, drug addiction, failures of relationships, depression and apathy.
My personal wealth is not great but by association I have gained and retained safety and in certain circles I even have status. It is easy for me to gain respect from just about anyone over twenty-one. I am older, ready to downsize, and because I lived “rough” a few times in my life, I am not paralyzed by fear of poverty. I know one can survive poverty, but it is not a comfortable experience. But what about the “affluenza” crowds of all ages? How can they begin to see the need to give up that millionaire entitlement dream? The reparations debate for indigenous people and the descendents of slaves will take a long time but bring it up we must. It has been done in Germany and in Japan regarding war crimes. Can we begin a less privileged, sharing economic model with the Global Marshall Plan and the local living economies kinds of work, tempered with zeal to do the right thing?
The socialization of males into the culture of violence needs acknowledgement. Remember that in Europe, particularly England and its martially-annexed dependents Scotland and Ireland, boys as young as eight were routinely “pressed,” ie kidnapped or forced by intimidation to be soldiers and sailors. They were raised in a society where disobedience was punished by humiliation, brute force or death. These kids and their descendents in the USA became soldiers, hired killers of Indians, slave owners and slave overseers. Militarism is consistently present from the beginning of the world historical record, and slavery a consistent component. The rapacious frenzy of war, violence and blood, delight of the vanquisher, abuse of the vanquished, stems from far back when humanity was less evolved….Roman crucifixion, stoning, grisly tortures, dismemberment …. Demonic forces streamed into the military while the victories and officers in charge were draped with honor and glory, a “classic” double bind (see for example Gladiator, Ridley Scott’s film starring Russell Crowe).
Returning to our own time, resignations of one military leader after another in the USA missions to Iraq and Afghanistan and the growing number of veterans against war might signal a genuine shift. Perhaps humanity is tiring of sacrificing its sons’ bodies and souls (and now even daughters in some countries) to this violent syndrome. Perhaps those invested in the benefits are looking in other directions for ways to live. Would you want your son or daughter to be in charge of or part of a death squad? An interrogation team allowed to use coercive methods? The Academy of the Americas near Fort Bragg, Georgia has been training military from Latin America for over thirty years to do just that. I was once in a study group with a young man whose father was an officer there. He seemed to think it was normal to keep several radios and TVs on while sleeping.
March 28, 2008 Last night we were joined by a reporter from Citi Paper. Noah put up the flip chart paper and we constructed definitions of “a racist” and “racism.” It was a good way to recapitulate thinking and feeling patterns in process, appreciate what each brings as an individual, spin off each other, regroup and set off in new directions. Today as I reviewed what I’d written so far and observed myself thinking and feeling, their contributions were so helpful in opening me up in new directions. At one point Mike said “maybe we’re ready (to challenge white skin privilege) because we’ve experienced being oppressed.” My experience of oppression is almost nil. It would have been the unspoken derision white society focused on me and my brown husband. So I still hold as an open question: why are we in our Whites Challenging Racism group ready to take it on while others deny and run away as first defense?
Can the circle widen with convincing by example our friends (writers, artists, activists and teachers) to work on racism like us? If someone is working on the Common Good for the Commonwealth, is he ready for the wringer of unwinding white privilege? Maybe I could interview Matt and James from Faith in Public Life and see the carryover. Creative sprouts are arising.
April 1, 2008 Yesterday sold the Olds to a black man in hopes this will be beneficial to his business and family. I could have hedged but the work I’ve been doing here made me take the opportunity.
April 10, 2008 Last week I didn’t have a chance to read most of the articles on cultural appropriation. I told the group about my sweat lodge experience and honoring Jamie Sams as a guide into native spiritual/cultural territory. An Arab-American woman wrote about the unaware unskilled appropriation by whites of a Lebanese drum her mother used to play. Native and women’s studies scholar Andy (Andrea) Smith seems very angry about native spirituality being for sale. The men’s movement used sweat lodges and other tribal lore extensively but Robert Bly and others adapted and invented songs and stories from multiple cultures. The key distinction is appropriating unthinkingly, out of the white class privilege reflex, in an unethical way. That will be context dependent.
April 20, 2008 Tonight we are gathering at Noah’s for a potluck with the first group and Eli. It should be good. The book Wanda loaned me Inheriting the Trade should be useful: the exposure and contemplation of Christian principles reversed by church establishment side by side with old money based on slave trade. The families awake and share their journey of their discovery and decision to create a curriculum and a video documentary (Traces of the Trade) for participating Episcopal dioceses.
Afterword: Our last meeting was April 27. Most are dispersing for the summer. Everyone shared how deeply he or she had changed, how bonded we felt with each other and how grateful for having met and shared this journey.