Wednesday, August 24, 2011

grappling with whiteness

Every time I write out my thoughts on racism, I feel self-conscious, presumptuous and self-indulgent as a white person. But writing helps me process my thoughts and move forward. Also, it is clear that white people need to talk about issues of race more. Otherwise, for us, race is the perpetual elephant in the room and nothing will change. In fact, one thing I am committed to is to consistently bring the topic of racism to the forefront with the white people in my world.

So, here goes my latest two cents...

Taking it in

Since my early years in this country, I have been concerned with issues of race and racism, a topic close to my heart, perhaps because some of my strongest initial bonds in the US were with friends and lovers who happened to be people of color, and who opened my eyes to their experiences. As a white person, I have wrestled with trying to grasp how the reality of living in a racist society impacts me and how I can be useful in efforts to counter and not collude with the oppressive system that exists. This process has taken on a special significance for me since I have become a mother of a white child whom I want to raise with an antiracist consciousness. More recently, I have also become a stepmother to a biracial child, and, again after many years, I am now involved in a black-white interracial relationship.

I spend time every day learning about the inner workings of interpersonal and systemic racism and its impacts on people of color, as well as the meaning of whiteness in all this. I listen with an open heart to my friends' and strangers' stories, read about and watch videos discussing issues of race, I participate in interracial dialogues and workshops. I monetarily support community and civil rights organizations I believe make a difference and occasionally attend protests. Last year I completed a human rights fellowship in Europe, listening to and writing about the struggles of people of color there to educate the international community as well as my white circles in deep denial. I need to know how life is for people of color in the motherland, in this heavily stratified society, and in my overwhelmingly white city. I feel the need to compare how other whites grapple with white privilege, and the responsibility it bestows on them, on us. All this in order to grow and be able to be a good ally; to even perceive injustice, let alone challenge it.

While I process all this, I feel the pain of racism people of color share with me deeply, although it will never be first-hand since I am white. Simultaneously, I get frustrated at how invisible and ungraspable the traps of whiteness are to me. I get impatient, often admonish myself for being slow to understand and, moreover, for not doing enough to upset the status quo interpersonally, and on a larger scale, institutionally.

Parenting right

As a white person who hasn't come across many effective everyday antiracist role models, to use the words of Kerry Ann Rockquemore and Tracey Laszloffy in their book, Raising Biracial Children, I am not sure "how to approach parenting in a way that explicitly acknowledges the omnipresence of race in daily life." I want my family to be one in which "active attention [is] devoted to addressing and explaining race, and where children are encouraged to assume an antiracist stance;. . . where [my son] learns the meaning of [his] whiteness and [learns] to critically challenge notions of white supremacy." I certainly don't come from a family with such a conscious upbringing, so this feels like an uncharted territory. But I know there are valuable resources, such as this article on how to talk to kids about race, available for parents.

In order to provide my children with clear guidance that helps facilitate healthy racial identity development, I feel it would be helpful to form a group of those dedicated to our own growth as antiracists and antiracist parents. That is my next task. (One model I found out there is White Noise, a group of white parents with white children who have been meeting for two years to learn together and support each other in ending white supremacy.)

Claiming whiteness

In my own journey towards racial awareness, being of Jewish heritage (specifically, the granddaughter of concentration camp survivors) and an immigrant whose family was poor for many years, I am still having a hard time claiming my whiteness and claiming US history as my own, even though on an intellectual level I grasp the fact that I am now a part of a racial hierarchy stemming from a very particular historical past, from which even I, a white person who didn't grow up here, benefit tremendously.

I only say this to acknowledge my particular vantage point and history; not as a cop out, keeping in mind the words of Bonnie Berman Cushing and Jeff Hitchcock in their book Accountability and White Anti-racist Organizing: "In an increasingly multiracial society, the historic and present baggage of whiteness and white privilege lead many to eschew a white identity. Yet the privilege remains."

On a cognitive level I grasp that. I am familiar with Peggy MacIntosh's Invisible Knapsack of White Privilege. I get that I have advantages in this society because I am white. For instance, I never get racially profiled while driving or walking down the street. I don't stand out visually in most places in my predominantly white city. I don't generally get followed around in stores as a suspected thief or questioned about items I'm returning with or without a receipt. I am not feared or harassed by the police when in public in a group of my white peers. My skin color makes me seem financially reliable when I pay for merchandise. I don't get called racial epithets. Statistically, I can count on better quality health care and more longevity than people of color. I am aware of all that, but, to be completely honest, there is still a resistance in me in letting the reality of white privilege sink in. Why?

Part of the resistance to claiming my white identity stems from the immigrant and the Jew in me having resisted assimilation so strongly in order to preserve my authenticity and sanity, that I have eventually found comfort, even pride in inhabiting that "otherness" ascribed to me here of someone foreign, someone with an accent; about living psychically on the margins of American society. But when it comes to racism, as a white person I am in the oppressor group. I benefit from the system, and like most white people with whom I have had conversations about this, I have a hard time deeply acknowledging that. For me in particular, it is scary to be associated with the WASP (White Anglo-Saxon Protestant), middle class mainstream influence which I have so vehemently tried to filter out of my life and my identity because, in many ways aspects of that culture have felt empty, hegemonic and oppressive. Clearly, this disassociation on my part needs bridging, which can be found, for instance in the commonality that for US-based whites, it is key, even if profoundly upsetting, to acknowledge that in American society, we automatically get the benefit of the doubt while we stand on the shoulders of men and women of color whose land, cheap or free labor and lives were (and continue to be) taken from them, seen by whites as nothing but fuel for this capitalist beast in whose belly we now find ourselves.

What a history to inherit.

Untangling race at home

Now I'm in a relationship with a man of African slave ancestry. I don't know how to make sense of our different histories coming together yet. Conversation about racism is a daily occurrence. I am learning so much from him and at the same time continuing my own work. While it is true that every intimate relationship is intercultural, to a degree, since the partners almost always have differences in backgrounds, communication styles, and world views to meld, in a black-white interracial relationships, the weight of history and the reality of everyday racism sometimes plays itself out in a more pronounced way. This is especially true, I'd venture to say, in geographic locations where people of color are disproportionately outnumbered and highly visible in a perpetual sea of white faces (as one blogger described in her piece, What does an all-white room mean?). As Randall Kennedy writes in his book, Interracial Intimacies: Sex, Marriage, Identity and Adoption, "at the dawn of the twenty-first century, a wide array of social pressures continue to make white-black marital crossings more difficult, more costly, and thus less frequent than other types of interethnic or interracial crossings."

Our most visible differences aside, my partner and I do have some experiences in common. Both of us are immigrants, acutely familiar with being uprooted and on the margins in this society. We are both deeply rooted in our home cultures since we moved to the US as teenagers. We share similar political views. We are "blended culture" people who each speak several languages and are widely traveled. We are both college-educated, both divorced, each a parent to one child of the opposite gender from us. Although race is blatantly salient in our relationship, so are gender, class and culture. All these are so intertwined that it becomes quite a puzzle to try to untangle or isolate them to get at the core of differences or conflict. But it's worth trying. We have overcome several big points of friction already, and excavating the sources of the disagreements has been key.

Longing for healing

But back to the impact and implications of living in a highly racialized society on my experience as a white woman. I have come to recognize that my domain of impact in this life is not organizational or political; it is relational. As law professor and author Randall Kennedy argued when explaining why he chose to write about interracial relationships:

People usually expect talk about regulation of laws at the workplace, the regulation of race with respect to housing markets, the regulation of race with respect to education… People don't think about spending a lot of time on the regulation of race with respect to marital intimacy, sexual intimacy. Though if you think about it, if you think about how people get jobs, if you think about how people conceive of themselves, if you think about how people learn about the world, these sorts of relationships are incredibly important. Friendship as an institution, dating as an institution is incredibly important. One thing that drew me to this subject was the extent to which actually people did not talk about it and thought of these relationships as rather trivial. . . This topic is actually more important in social consequences than some of the other institutions upon which we focus much more time.

The place where I connect most intensely around how racism impacts me as a white person is the pain of loss. I am keenly aware of how racism can cause friendships and close bonds to rupture and fall apart or to never form because of mistrust in the first place. On an emotional level I get how racism divides us. And that is the place that spurs me on; it's the desire for this society to become whole, for us to heal, to find each other alive and breathing under the rubble of centuries of injustice, and to feel the richness, vibrancy and joy in bridging the divide. Only when we come together being our authentic selves, speaking and hearing each other's truths, can we create long-lasting change.

So, I'll keep doing the work of learning and engaging with others … for that; for the love that was, is and that could be.

1 comment:

Dianne said...

Tereza, I was so happy to meet you this summer, so impressed with who you are as a person. Now I see this blog, and I see that you've been writing it since 2007. And I read your passion. Your heartfelt commitment. I read your knowledge, the breadth and depth of your reading, research, and learning. Your HUMILITY, which is so unfortunately rare today. And I am sooooooo privileged and grateful to know you!!!! You go, woman! Help us make this world a better place! Help us learn to raise children who can do that for us!