Are we white people redeemable?

I am a white woman trying to heal the harms white supremacy has caused in my life so I might be a part of changing our racialized capitalist/white supremacist systems; I’m doing my imperfect best to work with other white people in our healing so we can be authentic partners with all humanity on the path toward collective liberation. My posts here are written to other white people, though of course I welcome all readers.

When I think of myself as a white person coming to terms with the truth about white supremacy in the USA, I have spent a lot of time considering myself to be at about a preschool level in terms of my development. After these approximately 30 years of working on it (I’m 52), I may be about at a kindergarten or first grade level now. I use the analogy of school grades to help me stay clear about my social location and how that impacts my knowledge, experience, and understanding of racism.

Keeping in mind that we are all individuals with our own histories and responses to life, I believe that most Black, Indigenous, and other people of color living in the USA are at least high school graduates when it comes to understanding racism—and many have multiple Ph.D.s. Black and brown-bodied people, broadly speaking, live their lives facing the truth about racism every single day. For the most part, they have had to be multilingual in the ways of our dominant culture (set by whiteness). For hundreds and hundreds of years Black and Indigenous people in the USA have had to develop skills to cope with the ugly, violent, and seemingly hopeless state of our world while also—for surviving and if they are lucky, thriving—finding joy, vulnerability, and celebration.

The lived experience of the oppression of racism is an education most of us white people have willfully refused. I say “willfully” because despite decades of work on my own racism I am still coming to terms with the fact that the truth has been available to me all of my life, but I had chosen to ignore it. I am still trying to face and accept and grow out of my denial. This process of coming to terms is one that adds layers of complexity to the work I must do as a white person committed to a path of collective liberation.

I recognize how frequently inaccurate and risky it is to use such a broad brush when discussing “all Black people” or “all white people.” There are Black people with limited racial analysis, and there are white people with deep understandings living in solidarity and community with people of color. But, generally, I think we white people have a lot to learn when it comes to staying in the truth about the brutality of racism and our part in it, as well as our limitations when it comes to being in community. I know I’m not alone when I look at my lack of skills when it comes to personal connections and building real community with other people. Some of that is my individual story, much of it is capitalism’s drive to keep us apart, and a great deal of it comes from whiteness.

While Black and brown-bodied people’s lives are at stake, taking time to focus on how to be a better human in general as a white person feels like a relatively unimportant project. But James Baldwin said it well, “…I do not know many Negroes who are eager to be ‘accepted’ by white people, still less to be loved by them; they, the blacks, simply don’t wish to be beaten over the head by the whites every instant of our brief passage on this planet. White people in this country will have quite enough to do in learning how to accept and love themselves and each other, and when they have achieved this—which will not be tomorrow and may very well be never—the Negro problem will no longer exist, for it will no longer be needed.”

We white people are fragmented and afraid; we are untrustworthy in part because we don’t trust. Whiteness as a tool of white supremacy and racialized capitalism has blocked us from learning how to be truly in community. We don’t have a “culture,” after all, (yet!) that isn’t rooted in the oppression of others. Our imaginations are mostly too limited to even call to mind a way of being that is built on love (justice in action) and kinship.

Ruby Sales builds on Baldwin’s theme saying, “it’s almost like white people don’t believe other white people are worthy of being redeemed.” We white people need more than book clubs, though books (some are problematic) can be useful tools. We need to practice living differently. We need to learn how to be fully human, and that means living with truth and using our imaginations. Ideas about kincentric ecologies, abolition democracy, or other non-violent alternatives to capitalism are just a few examples worth exploring. The future of the earth and all of our siblings and cousins—the earth, fire, air, water, and all beings in every form—are depending on us.

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Image by Marc-Olivier Jodoin via Unsplash

Skip the zero-sum game and shoot for something better

How do you see the world? Is it an either/or, zero-sum game? Have you considered “both/and?”

Recovering from my addiction to whiteness (aka the “culture of white dominance,” aka “white supremacy culture”) requires that I practice living in new ways. I need to build new pathways in my brain, practice being different than I am when I’m swimming in whiteness, not noticing the water.

In my recovery from alcoholism, I found that sharing my personal experience with recovery is one way for other alcoholics to see their own alcoholism/addiction more clearly so they can find a path to recovery. When I write about racism, I tend to use a similar communication style. That is, I write about me and my experience of recognizing and recovering from my addiction to whiteness. I am not speaking for anyone else (whiteness wants me to assume everyone’s experience is like mine). That said, I have talked with enough white people about these issues to know I am not alone in these experiences. It turns out that holding conflicting truths and even conflicting ways of being in my head, heart, and body at the same time are skills I have needed to start practicing as I work on getting out of the water of whiteness.

White supremacy and racialized capitalism do not want me to learn these skills. Our systems of oppression want me to stay in an “either/or” framework, not a “both/and” framework. The dominant culture here in the USA wants us to believe it’s either you or me who will prosper. In The Sum of Us, Heather McGhee writes about the “zero-sum” way of viewing the world and how it harms all of us. She breaks down many of the practical losses we all suffer at the hands of systemic racism. It is clear that viewing the world as “us or them” hurts everyone and most of us—especially those of us who are white—don’t have much practice thinking in terms of both/and.

Add to that the fact that even within the “both/and” thinking, there are nuances and complexities that binary pairings don’t include. To address this, I am trying to relax the grips of perfectionism as I practice new ways of thinking and feeling and being. I want to break free from habitual patterns that keep me locked up in white supremacy.

Some examples of the simple “both/and” ideas I practice holding: working hard is important and resting is important; I’m a good person and I need to be better; and, it’s possible to feel both exquisite joy and deep sadness about the same thing.

Slightly more complex ideas are a part of my practice of “both/and,” too. Such as: mindfulness can be a powerful tool we can use to live in more embodied ways, in solidarity with people from all social locations and mindfulness has become a commoditized product supporting denial of oppression—a dangerous tool of white supremacy.

Then there are also other, deeper, nearly unbearable conflicting truths I practice holding. The absence of a clear binary is especially apparent here. For example: at any given moment, thousands of people across the world are dying of starvation or disease and my life is stable and comfortable; I am a good and loving person who believes in my core that everyone deserves dignity, love, respect and the systems of oppression that are literally killing Black and brown-bodied people were built for and continue to serve people like me and I have welcomed the protection of those systems (I am complicit) and I am doing what I can to break down those systems and my work dismantling white supremacy will make very little difference in the wider world and my work dismantling white supremacy can be transformational for me and those around me and, and, and, and, and…

In “Embracing Both/And: A Response to Linda Burnham,” Alicia Garaza writes that “liberation is rendered incomplete by an unwillingness to free ourselves from the very structures that we claim to abhor.” She continues, “to achieve freedom—and that requires work, a change of ingrained practices, habits, and ways of being that uphold the status quo.”

Using “both/and” instead of “either/or” may seem like an insignificant practice, but it has already had a profound effect on how I interact with the world. This simple change also has been surprisingly challenging, like it’s bending my brain!

But, by using this language and these thought processes I acknowledge immediately that there are many realities existing at the same time. Thinking about the world using the framework of “both/and,” brings a relational quality to my mind and body.

We are all interconnected. There are vast and multiple truths at every turn. In using “both/and,” I touch an openness and freedom I believe is connected with the larger indefinable spiritual powers that will bring us all together on the path of liberation, justice, and love.

If this piece or this blog resonates with you, please consider a one-time “tip” or become a monthly “patron”…this space runs on love and reader support. Want more BGIM? Consider booking me to speak with your group or organization.

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Accusations of racism: Is it the content or the delivery that upsets you?

It wasn’t so long ago that hearing a politician accusing someone of being a white supremacist might’ve made me think poorly of the person doing the accusing. And, like many of the white people I’ve talked with (or seen talking about it online), I know I wasn’t alone in that response.

These days, when a Black person or another person of color says, “This person has caused racist harm,” I start with the assumption that they are telling the truth. I hear what they are saying. How they are saying it, or what context they’re saying it in, doesn’t matter to me.

So, when newly-elected Charter Commissioner Nasreen Sheikh-Yousef tweeted that Portland, Maine, City Manager Jon Jennings is a white supremacist, I wondered who this guy was and what he had done to attract such an accusation. I also immediately feared for Sheikh-Yousef’s safety, because I know how violent we white people can be when we hear accusations of racism. And, yes, I thought it was not necessarily a sophisticated or “savvy” way of getting out a message. But I applauded her (in my mind and in a tweet of support) for being so bold. Even talking about racism in a “polite” way for people of color, especially Black people, can have scary consequences—threats of violence, losses of jobs, and personal attacks both online and off.

If you are upset by Sheikh-Yousef’s tweets, why are you upset?

Accusations of upholding white supremacy directed at white leaders shouldn’t surprise us. Our system was built on white supremacy; we white people have almost no culture that isn’t steeped in white supremacy culture, and people holding power in our current systems will inherently be supporting white supremacy. This is true of anyone holding political power, no matter their race. It’s a both/and situation. For example, a person can be a liberal, progressive, lefty politician and also be a part of a racist institution.

I can write things like this without getting death threats (I’ve only received indirect death threats due to my writing about racism in the last 10 or so years). I can write things like this and not risk my job. And I can write things like this without fear of retribution from the media or other power-holders. Of course, I don’t hold public office. So, are you upset because people holding public office should only say things you agree with? I doubt that is directly the case. Consider this: Is it how directly this elected official said it that upsets you?

It’s been my experience that many of us white people get really riled up when people break the rules of how we are “supposed to” say things. Meaning, if people don’t follow the unspoken rules of white supremacy culture, the rule-breaking disturbs us more than the content of the communication.

The way it used to happen for me is a recent memory, and I’ll share it in case it sounds familiar. A politician who is a Black person, a Latinx person, or another person of color—or any member of an oppressed and marginalized group, really—says something really loud (relative to what I think is “appropriate”), really direct and blunt, or really shocking. I feel myself tightening up. If I pay close attention to how I’m feeling, I feel a little scared. Immediately, I think I’m scared for them and their political career. I’m a progressive white person, after all! I want BIPOC politicians to succeed! When I dig into that, however, I realize I’m bothered by how they are not speaking in the way they “should” speak. It turns out that this bother has a domino effect inside me that I didn’t know it had.

The dominoes go from “bothered about how messages are shared” all the way to a fear that the systems that are designed to take care of me will go away. I’m only beginning to see that truth and how deep those fears are, but it’s those fears that would’ve made me upset. And here’s one of the places we white people need to get to: the idea that someone might be directly upholding white supremacy—something that actually kills people—is what should be upsetting to us. We should listen to the people with more practice recognizing it, no matter how or where they say it. You’ve heard the term “disrupt white supremacy,” right? Learning to hear what someone is saying instead of how or where they are saying it can be a part of that work.

As always, I would like to remind readers that I am a white woman practicing talking with other white people about our racism, the part we play in upholding white supremacy in the USA and across the world, and, least talked about: how racism harms us.

If this piece or this blog resonates with you, please consider a one-time “tip” or become a monthly “patron”…this space runs on love and reader support. Want more BGIM? Consider booking me to speak with your group or organization.

Comments will close on this post in 60-90 days; earlier if there are spam attacks or other nonsense.