Sunday, January 28, 2007

Whiteness: my inheritance

Since this blog is a space for us white people to discuss our pursuit of anti-racist parenting, I want to talk about what whiteness means. As I sit here, I'm just beginning this journey, thinking about the work I must do internally first. Acting against racism and white supremacy is an imperative, but I can't help but feel "underprepared" to take action. (Yes, discussion is my first and feeble attempt at action and I don't want to stop there.)

A part of that little procrastinator voice inside my head is just my own insecurity, part feeling overwhelmed with the largeness of the issue, part white privilege which allows me to sit on the sidelines, but a part of it is definitely ignorance. I know so little about the history of this country, and thus the history of Whiteness and White Supremacy. Reading about these topics is important, because this information contextualizes the anti-racist work ahead of me. It will help me perceive the systemic nature of racism and help me understand my collusion with the types of privilege and oppression benefiting me. All this awareness must not paralyze me. The challenge is to take all this information and use it to help dismantle the system of White Supremacy, though that process may take generations. We can start with our inner selves, but as Barbara Flagg, professor of law at Washington University and expert on Constitutional Law and Critical Race Theory writes, "Action [must] be directed at systemic social oppression. Individual and/or local action is not adequate to challenge either the material or the ideological reality of White supremacy.".This makes sense, but what can one do on such a scale that it will make a difference? These thoughts are a bit premature for me. Raising my own awareness and that of those around me is the first step.

I was not born or raised in this country. I came here as a teenager from Europe, the Czech Republic to be specific. It has taken me years to begin to understand this society. I live here now, and though I want to sometimes say these problems are not my problems; I am not from here, I do have to take ownership of the things I'm inheriting and benefiting from in this society as a white person and in relationship to the rest of the world as an American (and as a person originally socialized in Europe, the cradle of racism). This anti-racist work, after all, does extend beyond national boundaries.

On this blog, I would like to share what I learn about Whiteness and White Supremacy.

In this posting, I will just share this definition of White Supremacy by the Chicana activist and writer Elizabeth Martinez:

"White Supremacy is an historically based, institutionally perpetuated system of exploitation and oppression of continents, nations, and peoples of color by white peoples and nations of the European continent, for the purpose of maintaining and defending a system of wealth, power, and privilege."

And a little bit of history as written by Martinez:

"The first European settlers called themselves English, Irish, German, French, Dutch, etc. -- not white. Over half of those who came in the early colonial period were servants. By 1760 the population reached about two million, of whom 400,000 were enslaved Africans. An elite of planters developed in the southern colonies. In Virginia, for example, 50 rich white families held the reins of power but were vastly outnumbered by non-whites. In the Carolinas, 25,000 whites faced 40,000 Black slaves and 60,000 indigenous peoples in the area. Class lines hardened as the distinction between rich and poor became sharper. The problem of control loomed large and fear of revolt from below grew.

"There had been slave revolts from the beginning but elite whites feared even more that discontented whites -- servants, tenant farmers, the urban poor, the property-less, soldiers and sailors -- would join Black slaves to overthrow the existing order. . .

". . . Their solution: divide and control. Certain privileges were given to white indentured servants. They were allowed to join militias, carry guns, acquire land, and have other legal rights not allowed to slaves. With these privileges they were legally declared white on the basis of skin color and continental origin. That made them 'superior' to Blacks (and Indians). Thus whiteness was born as a racist concept to prevent lower-class whites from joining people of color, especially Blacks, against their class enemies. The concept of whiteness became a source of unity and strength for the vastly outnumbered Euroamericans -- as in South Africa, another settler nation. Today, unity across color lines remains the biggest threat in the eyes of a white ruling class.

". . .In the mid-1800s, new historical developments served to strengthen the concept of whiteness and insitutionalize White Supremacy. The doctrine of Manifest Destiny, born at a time of aggressive western expansion, said that the United States was destined by God to take over other peoples and lands. The term was first used in 1845 by the editor of a popular journal, who affirmed 'the right of our manifest destiny to overspread and to possess the whole continent which providence has given us for the development of the great experiment of liberty and federated self-government.'

". . . Manifest Destiny is a profoundly racist concept. For example, a major force of opposition to gobbling up Mexico at the time came from politicians saying 'the degraded Mexican-Spanish' were unfit to become part of the United States; they were 'a wretched people . . . mongrels.' In a similar way, some influential whites who opposed slavery in those years said Blacks should be removed from U.S. soil, to avoid 'contamination' by an inferior people (source of all this information is the book _Manifest Destiny_ by Anders Stephanson, Hill & Wang, 1995)

". . . The doctrine of Manifest Destiny facilitated the geographic extension and economic development of the United States while confirming racist policies and practices. It established White Supremacy more firmly than ever as central to the U.S. definition of itself. The arrogance of asserting that God gave white people (primarily men) the right to dominate everything around them still haunts our society and sustains its racist oppression."

So, how where do I stand in relation to this history? I live in the Pacific Northwest, an area where not so long ago Europeans settled, committing unspeakable violence against the Native peoples of the Northwest. Those that came before me on the Oregon Trail paved the way for me to live on this plundered land rather comfortably and effortlessly. And what a beautiful corner of the world this is! I think about the violence that occurred here often and it is so painful. I not only think about he violence done against the people here, but also against the earth. The magnificent forests that were here once, the streams that are now buried or polluted with industrial waste ... all of that rips my heart apart.

I want to close this post with something that I remembered unexpectedly. It surprises me how I get from point A to point C or X or Z sometimes. Here is a quote from a man whose book I read and whom I saw speak once, Martin Prechtel, a man who lived in Guatemala amongst the Mayans as a shaman:

"Our ancestors weren’t necessarily very smart. In many cases, they are the ones who left us this mess. Some of them were great, but others had huge prejudices. If these ancestors are given their due, then you don’t have to live out their prejudices in your own life. But if you don’t give the ancestors something, if you simply say, 'I’m descended from these people, but they don’t affect me very much; I’m a unique individual,' then you’re cursed to spend your life either fighting your ancestors, or else riding the wave they started. You’ll have to do that long before you can be yourself and pursue what you believe is worth pursuing.

"The Mayan way of dealing with this is to give the ancestors a place to live. You actually build houses for them — called 'sleeping houses' — and put your ancestors in there. The houses are small, because the ancestors don’t take up any space, but they do need a designated place, just like anything else. Then you feed your ancestors with words and eloquence. We all have old, forgotten languages that our languages are descended from, and many of these languages are a great deal more ornate. But even with our current language, we still have the capacity to create strange, mysterious, poetic gifts to feed the ancestors, so that we won’t become depressed by their ghosts devouring our everyday lives.

"If we can get past the prejudices of the last ten thousand years’ worth of ancestors, then we can find our way back to our indigenous souls and culture, where we are always at home and welcome.

". . . People’s longing for each other and for the terrain of home is so enormous that, if you do not weep to express it, you’re poisoning the future with violence. If that longing is not expressed as a loud, beautiful wail, a song, or a piece of art that’s given as a gift to the spirits, then it will turn into violence against other beings — and, more importantly, against the earth itself, because you will have no understanding of home. But if you are able to feed the other world with your grief, then you can live where your dead are buried, and they will become a part of the landscape in a way."

And so perhaps even weeping and recognizing the pain of our inheritance is a form of action that in a spiritual way may help undo the violence our people have committed.

1 comment:

Susan said...

Tereza, I like that you bring the history in here as that is so key to all of this. I also like the idea of the ancestor houses - the space where who we have been over lifetimes is acknowledged. It totally gets at the annoying "slavery isn't my fault, i wasn't here, don't complain to me about it" white cliche.