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on race and being white

I’m white. I also live in the United States, a society that elevates upper middle class white culture as the normative ideal. I enjoy a number of advantages simply because of the color of my skin. I can choose to live in a predominantly white neighborhood, associate with mostly white people, worship at a white church, shop in majority white neighborhoods and bask in the insidious illusion that I deserve all that I have accomplished. I can pretend that my own intelligence and merit and hard work have brought me to the place I am today. The problem is, it’s all built on a lie. Once you stop to examine the institutional racism that pervades every aspect of our society and our world, the conclusion is clear: the deck has been stacked from the beginning in favor of those with white skin, money and power. But as a white person, what can I do about racism? As long as I don’t consider myself a racist, I’m okay, right?

Because I am part of the group favored by the lie, I can choose to pretend it doesn’t exist. In fact, media, culture and society all push me toward acceptance of the status quo with a matrix-like obsession with false fulfillment, so long as I buy into the system. Once you recognize the system and begin to challenge its ideals, you are no longer seen as a good citizen. In classes, I have challenged the selection of readings or pedagogical approaches, offended by the lily white course offerings, only to be asked why I would be offended by this, because usually only ‘those’ students complain. That I may take issue with the perpetuation of majority white viewpoints in classes intended to instill within future ministers the ability to draw congregations further into the reality of the Kingdom of God is puzzling, somehow, when coming from a white woman. Challenging racist practices in academia, church and society is sometimes seen by white people as a practice only undertaken by people of color. Why would I speak about racism when I myself might be called a racist, or accused of being the oppressor?

To be clear, I agree with Becky Thompson’s statement in A Promise and a Way of Life that “There would be no significant white antiracist struggle or cultural practices were it not for the resistance of people of color.” Power is at once seductive and blinding and without the critical lens of resistance, without relationship that allows both to see each other with the humanity of beings created equally in the image of God, why would one group choose to give up the privilege that dominance and oppression of another group brings? I would further state that the Gospel itself calls all who identify as followers of Christ to be the first to resist, the first to speak, the first to repent of privilege and oppression, and the first to advocate for a Kingdom equality that counters the cultural norms reinforced by our society and our world. Bluntly, white people who consider themselves Christians must embrace the identity of someone who “daily vigilantly resist[s] becoming reinvested in white supremacy.” (bell hooks in O’Brien, 2002)

Personally, I have felt called to participate in anti-racist work as a white person on a systemic level since college. Learning more deeply about issues of race, class and gender opened my heart and mind to the reality of our society and to my own complicity in creating and maintaining that reality. In the thirteen years since those classes, I have been personally compelled, again and again to repentance and turning away from complacency. I have failed many times in speaking out against those very systems that give me privilege and oppress others. I continue attempting to learn through action what it means to walk alongside as advocate and ally, knowing that my own liberation is inextricably entwined with that of my brothers and sisters. Like the rich young ruler of scripture I cannot approach the Kingdom, I cannot follow Christ, if I am unwilling to give up my own privilege for my own sake, and work toward the coming of the Kingdom “on earth as it is in heaven.” At times, the most difficult part of this journey has often been sharing the road with other white folks. Honestly, we are often defensive, indignant, ignorant and unwilling to acknowledge our own place in the system of racial injustice. White folks are likely to say things like “it’s so hard for me to do anything about racism, because it makes me feel bad.” And just as ridiculous, “I don’t get enough practice talking about race, so I feel like I can’t speak out about it.” White people need to stand up and take issue every time racism and racial injustice rear their ugly heads, we need to repent of our own apathy and complicity, and we need to recognize that it is a big deal for all of us. There will be times when it seems overwhelming, when it feels like you say the wrong thing, or you feel that you’re learning. Embrace the discomfort as a sign that you’re actually starting to see and experience the system, and step outside of the privilege that has constructed a comfortable society for you. Join with others who are on the same journey and never assume you have arrived, or finished your own heart work. Instead of always calling in a person of color to speak about diversity, how can white folks also speak about power and privilege in way that sends the message that racism is something white folks care about, stand up against, and will no longer practice.

This post is a very limited attempt at approaching a multifaceted and complex issue, and I will be addressing further thoughts in upcoming weeks. In the meantime, there are many white anti-racist leaders who have provided role models for the work we must be doing. If you’re reading this as a white person, look up Anne Braden, J. Waties Waring, Mab Segrest, Virginia Foster Durr, and Tim Wise. While their resistance has not been widely publicized, they are only a few of the white anti-racist leaders who have been active in speaking and acting against the systemic injustice of racism. What are you called to do?

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Discussion

9 thoughts on “on race and being white

  1. Thank you for sharing this burden with me. I am so tired.

    Posted by lbykim | October 22, 2009, 7:59 pm
  2. Thanks for this. I needed to be reminded that it will be uncomfortable, but that I can never use that as an excuse not to speak.

    Posted by Grace | October 23, 2009, 12:04 am
  3. leah- thank you for writing this. your passion for equality and justice really shines through and your words are illuminating.

    Posted by mellocello | October 23, 2009, 2:49 am
  4. Leah- Thanks for this. It is difficult for most white people to hear one of their own stand up for others on race issues. That needs to change.

    Posted by jeremiah | November 18, 2009, 5:56 pm
  5. Leah, I have a new one for you. I was having this discussion over email in the context of explaining why the Church needs to strive to reflect the Kingdom of God with representatives from all races. Also in the same email was a quick synopsis of the conversation with Zondervan over DV. The person responded by calling me a racist for giving a crap about what colour people are and a racist bully for what Asian Americans did to poor Zondervan.

    Posted by Terri | December 4, 2009, 8:15 pm
  6. Terri: that’s messed up. zondervan’s own ignorance and irresponsible editing got it into trouble, they should have pulled the DV stuff before it ever saw the light of day. especially since Christian publishers have a well known history of publishing racially offensive materials in the past few years, notably the “Rickshaw Rally” VBS curriculum. blaming Asian Americans and others who spoke out against the DV materials is like saying that it’s an African American person’s fault that whites lost money when minstrel shows were deemed offensive.

    i’m sorry the person responded to you in that way. giving a crap about the Kingdom of God and affirming that God created us with particular identities that all should be reflected in the church is a huge part of the Gospel message. Sometimes privilege allows people not to see that…has your friend responded again?

    Posted by leahklug | December 4, 2009, 8:39 pm
    • Leah,

      I was very shaken by the comment. He wasn’t really a friend but more a new acquaintance so I don’t think he’ll bother responding. The whole conversation started about what church I attend (he’s pretty new in town and is looking for one). I talked about Quest having solid teaching, striving to fight injustice and become multiethnic, etc. and the first response from him equated racial reconciliation to affirmative action. Then he brought up the woman at the well and how Jesus treated her just like everyone else…basically, he comes from the colour blind mentality that is so early 90s. Why I even continued the conversation is now beyond me…I think I was just amazed at the response.

      Posted by Terri | December 4, 2009, 10:02 pm
  7. wow. yeah, it sounds like his world view has been pretty monochromatic. i hope that whatever church he does visit, he hears the same things you were speaking…and starts to realize that IS the church after all.

    Posted by leahklug | December 4, 2009, 11:18 pm

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About Me

wife, partner, daughter, and sister. traveler on the journey of faith. rage against the machiner. sometimes pastor.

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