“People were good. My family was good. I was good, right?”
Here we have the crux of the problem that white people have with racism. We have been taught that racism is bad…but we are not bad people, and the people we know are not bad people, so therefore we cannot be racist.
In chapter 17 of Waking Up White, Irving begins to delve into the identity and perception problem that is ultimately at the core of the ways we perpetuate racism–usually unknowingly.
“America’s use of racial categories seemed fraught with unfairness, cruelty, and dishonesty. Yet my parents’, grandparents’, and entire extended family’s life philosophy, as I understood it, had revolved around fairness, compassion, and honor. This was my legacy, the one I took the most pride in passing on to my children. Discovering I’d been complicit in perpetuating a system that was so very terribly bad flew in the face of all I’d understood about myself.”
This is why dismantling white supremacy is so difficult: because we get defensive when we are told that’s who we are. We want to believe the story about ourselves that doesn’t involve race at all…and we don’t see how that is a privilege reserved for the powerful majority. We have many generations of narrative that tells us we can’t possibly be the problem…when in fact it is the narrative itself that is the problem, and we are unwitting participants in it. And, as Irving points out, “If you can’t see a problem for what it is, how can you step in and be a part of its solution, no matter how good a person you are?”
Once she began to see the narrative with clearer eyes, Irving tried to imagine her life if one parent had been non-white. She quickly realized that the life she had known as a child and young adult would have been impossible, and her current social and economic status would be much different due to historical factors well beyond her control. And then finally, at the end of chapter 18, she begins to realize what “color blind” really means–it means willfully ignoring a major part of someone’s life, experience, family, and history. I confess I wish she had gone further down this road, because I think her two sentences still neglects a serious problem with being “color blind”–that even as it professes to be a philosophy that “just sees the person” it in fact dehumanizes by insisting that a defining characteristic of someone’s embodied presence in the world is irrelevant or even non-existent. Claiming not to see color means we do not see the person.
As part of the evidence for this truth, I submit chapter 20, in which Irving describes how she spent a fair portion of her career “helping the inner city youth.” Her white savior syndrome was strong–so strong that she wouldn’t even go into “those” neighborhoods where the kids came from, but didn’t recognize that they might also feel uncomfortable in her neighborhood. She spoke with other organizations about what they thought “those” kids lives were like, but “never once did I sit down with a group of these kids, their families, or their teachers”….as I read, I felt like I was reading a history of colonial missionary work rather than an account of someone my parents’ age. She was describing the very thing that many of us have been working to undo–the idea that we can decide what other people need and do it for them. And then she describes her likely reaction had someone told her she was part of that pattern:
“The idea that my world might feel uncomfortable or even dangerous to someone else would have been inconceivable to me. Had someone tried to point out to me that I was part of a national pattern of white people deciding what people of color needed, and white people holding the purse strings, I’m guessing I would have silently smiled while thinking How Ungrateful.” (from chapter 20)
Bumping up again on “I’m a good person,” it seems.
A key component of the anti-racism journey is to learn to separate our understanding of ourselves from the reality of the larger systems we benefit from and perpetuate. Defensiveness will get us nowhere–and worse, it actively harms our neighbors. This is 100% our work as white people–no one else can do our internal work for us, but when we don’t do it, it’s everyone else who suffers.
All that is necessary for the triumph is evil is for the good to do nothing. ~Edmund Burke
Questions for Reflection & Discussion–please join in the comments below or in our Facebook group! (note: there is a reflection question at the end of each chapter, as well, and we’d love to hear your answers to those, too.)
- When was the most recent time that your reflexive thought in the midst of a situation was “but I’m a good person”? What was happening? How did the situation play out as you offered that response? How might you catch yourself next time before getting defensive?
- Have you ever been uncomfortable or afraid to go to a particular neighborhood? How do you think residents of that neighborhood would feel in yours? Why do we have these gut reactions to each others’ “home turf” (as it were)?
- Have you ever claimed to be color-blind? How does that philosophy (which, admittedly, many of us were taught over the past several decades) affect your relationships with people of color? with other white people? with yourself? Can you imagine someone saying they don’t see or take into account something so visible and defining about you? How does that feel? (i.e., “I don’t see gender.” or “I don’t see disability.”…)
- Irving describes (in chapters 19 & 20) two colleagues who were black–the first, Herb (whom she met when she was young, just starting out), she says “made it impossible to ever again buy into the idea that black people are lazy, less intelligent, dangerous, or any other sweeping malignment.” The other, Nan, she hired because her skin color would allow her to be more effective at working with partner organizations…and because it would get her (Irving) off the hook for actually going to black neighborhoods. (We won’t even go into her calling them by only their first names when in the previous section she learned about the importance of using titles and last names as a sign of respect…) When you look back on your various experiences, do you see any of this kind of cognitive dissonance in your own life? How might you be more intentional about living consistent with the values you profess when it comes to race?
- related: for those who read Trouble I’ve Seen, how does this set of experiences compare to Dr. Hart’s description of being the black man who changed nothing about his friends’ perceptions of other black students? What might account for that disparity?
“Seeing myself in a system with people as opposed to a sympathetic observer on the sidelines changed my relationship to the problem. I understood then that it was possible to be both a good person and complicit in a corrupt system.” (from chapter 17)
About the RevGals Anti-Racism Project: As a majority white organization incorporated in the United States, the leaders of RevGalBlogPals feel called to confront systemic racism in the U.S. As a global ministry, we feel called to oppose minority oppression and racial injustice in all nations. We hope this book discussion will be a step toward awareness and away from unconscious centering of whiteness.
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