Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Race Immersion (or, Learning How to See Whiteness)

My white liberal hypocrisy meter has been on high most of my life
Until the last four or five years, I thought my whiteness was neutral.

I knew violence happened towards people of color more so than towards white people, but since I didn't enact any of that physical or verbal violence, it wasn't really my problem. I thought if I didn't say any racist attitudes or thoughts out loud, they didn't exist in me. I thought proximity to people of color--in my jobs, in my personal life--meant friendship. I thought that if I was doing advocacy work for (white) LGBTQ people, I was doing social justice work for all. I thought "racist" and "racism" were major words, only to be used in extreme circumstances. And I never, ever, wanted anyone to call me a racist.

I now know that all of these priors beliefs were wrong, were screens and lies I told myself to keep myself from seeing my own racism. I was playing the part of being a "good white liberal" or a "good activist" without actually doing any of the self-work I needed to do to surface the racist attitudes and beliefs that I have been taught to have by our society, by our media, by people close to me. To begin to surface and acknowledge my embedded racism, my internalized white dominance, was the first step to dealing with it honestly.

And oh, it has been an eventful past four years! As the Rev. Dr. Jamie Washington shared last week at the Social Justice Training Institute--it can be painful when the Novocaine of societal messages and false truths wears off. It has been painful to realize I have not earned everything I have attained. That I have been hired in positions that more qualified people of color should have gotten. That I frequently ask for exceptions and special treatment and am granted them because I am white. That it is much easier for me to move in the world as a queer white woman than any of my queer and trans people of color peers. That "social justice work" without leadership from people of color, that doesn't focus clearly and constant on anti-racism, is not social justice work. That there is such a thing as "white culture," and I have grown up in it in all the predominantly white institutions and neighborhoods I have been a part of.

Attending the Social Justice Training Institute was intense and so necessary for me in my process of learning to see my whiteness. The structure of the five day Institute includes three days of "race immersion," and from morning to evening, the 50-person cohort of multiracial mostly higher ed professionals from around the country engaged in deep, passionate and painful discussions about race and racism in our lives. We did this in the large group, in groups of 6, in pairs, and in race-alike caucuses.

I am still turning over each moment of the week, because I have never before been so extendedly immersed in my whiteness. Which itself tells you something about our society and how white dominance functions--I'm guessing many of the Black, Latina/o, Mixed race and Asian people at the Institute have never seen their race or ethnicity as neutral. I'm guessing they are regularly immersed in their race, because they are forced to in a country where on the street, in their workplaces, in their friendships with white people, and in the news, they are frequently micro- and macro-aggressed and reminded very clearly about "their place" in a society where white people carry just about all of the power, money and influence, and assimilation to white culture is important for mainstream success.

Although there is still much more for me to reflect on, one major takeaway that my white colleagues at the Institute helped me understand is that especially in social justice spaces, I had been pushing away other white people and seeking to scapegoat other white people. Not only that, I was sickly delighting in white people "messing up" and saying something racially insensitive in mixed-race spaces. I now understand that that impulse is me right back in my "good white liberal" space, the very same space I know is unproductive and is itself full of white dominance. When I am competitive with other white people, trying to get more recognition from people of color, I am not doing anti-racist work. I am doing some bullshit, and just performing to be liked.

If I'm not authentic in trying to learn my role in anti-racist work, I will not be effective, I will not be a change agent, I will not be contributing to a more just society.

My commitment and my challenge to other white people is this: let's work to de-neutralize our whiteness. Let's work to see how race and racism is functioning in our lives--in meetings, in the news, in our conversations with family. In those moments where we want to say, "oh, that's not about race..." let's see what it would mean if it were about race, if it were racism that we were seeing in ourselves or others. I think in the long run, it's better than the Novocaine.

Image from sodahead.com

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