I caught this Pokemon the other day with my son. The thing that I noticed was its attack/defense moves are transform and struggle. In the game, I could not really care less about these things (don’t tell my kid, please!), but the idea of these as primary motions made a connection in my brain with Debby Irving’s thoughts in the section “Leaving my Comfort Zone”. In order to actually become more aware and sensitive to her internalized racism and racist behaviors, she had to choose between struggle and transform.
It is certainly a reality that retreating into white privilege reduces struggle considerably, but it definitely takes transform off the table. Additionally, retreating into privilege is always going to have an element of struggle. One can deny the existence of privilege or tell others to “g
et over themselves” (or history), but there is a constant looking over one’s shoulder. If a person expects to ride the bus of privilege forever, one has to be constantly vigilant against those who may want a seat on that bus and one in the front, no less. Maintaining privilege will be a struggle.
If a white person decides, like Irving, to do the work toward transforming- it will be work. Irving describes a conference she attended in which she was, as a white person, in the racial minority of the conference attendees. Yet in one of the sessions, she slipped into her comfortable role of “[white] person who knows how to help”. I put white in brackets in that last sentence because Irving had to learn, as do many of us, how she was viewed by the other people in the session. Her race could not be separated from how she had acted. She had to learn that just as she had done that for many years to other people, now it was being applied to her. (And rightly so.)
The trick for me has been learning to stay in the conversation long enough to get to the other side, where niceness gives way to authenticity, understanding, and trust, the ingredients necessary for social stability. (214)
White people have had the power and privilege for so long that it is extremely easy not to realize how quickly we offer advice when 1) we haven’t been asked, 2) our advice mistrusts or discredits the real, lived experience of people of color, and 3) what we offer often attempts to make that experience or expression more palatable to white eyes/eyes/tastes, rather than acknowledging the panoply of possibilities in experiences of culture, truth-telling, food, or anything else. We have to learn to listen, to absorb, and to sit with discomfort. This is not only because it is the experience of people of color all the time, but because the world does not actually revolve around us or our ability to understand. White privilege has made an idol of white comfort.
Here is my confession: I try to follow as many people of color as I can on Twitter and I pay attention to the timelines of PoC on Facebook, as a friend or a follower. I realize this is a step removed from actual engagement, but my engagement is neither necessary or expected in these arenas (unless requested, on occasion). Instead, I am trying to learn about how things look to eyes that are not living with my privilege. (Oh, how I wish the “p-word” didn’t apply to me, but it does and I have to learn to live with that and to exploit it for good and not for evil.) Paying attention to these streams of conversation has helped me to understand more about daily micro-aggressions, the way the dominant culture teaches history (especially around holidays), and the ways PoC push back on line and in real life. I take cues from this on how I can grow as an ally. I have to watch and listen. And I have to sit with truths that are not mine, but hurt me none the less.
In this section, Irving reveals how she learned that feelings and expressing them is an actual thing.
It’s true; not all white families adopt the dominant WASP culture as thoroughly as mine did. However, for centuries, people have learned that in America’s classrooms, boardrooms, and public place, those who most often succeed are those who conform to the dominant culture prototype, which demands emotional restraint. (205)
Rather than face feelings like anger, embarrassment, or guilt head-on, my first reaction usually involved an urge to run, defend myself, blame someone, or have a stiff drink. (204)
Her cultural experience is not mine. There were many things expressed through yelling and tears and swearing in my family of origin. However, I was also taught that doing those things could “undermine one’s argument”. This is something that I often hear about #BlackLivesMatter protests or actions- that stopping traffic or blocking official buildings or destruction (NOT a sanctioned activity of #BLM) undermine the requests of the people involved. I don’t think so.
How many times have you found yourself yelling (or raising your voice) and the person to whom you are speaking is affronted by the loudness, though you know they did not respond the first 2 – 57 you spoke to them? Similarly, people of color have striven to draw attention to white privilege, to the imbalances of power, to the daily and life-long oppressions they face and have not been heard or have been ignored or have been given a list to “achieve” before changes will occur. The time for yelling has arrived. Dealing with the emotional blowback of years of oppression is not on the oppressed, it is on the oppressor. It is time to struggle (work to maintain the status quo) or transform (do the work of changing society, understanding that nothing will be the same).
- What did you learn about expressing feelings in your family of origin or from your social group growing up? How were grief, anger, frustration, or pride viewed and responded to? How do you think race, class, and personal histories affected those responses?
- Have you ever been in the racial minority in a conference, class, or community event? What was that experience like for you?
- “White privilege has made an idol of white comfort.” This can often be seen in congregational life? What does that look like in your community? If you have worked to counter this, please share that experience.
- What kinds of actions have you taken to be open to the experiences and stories of people who are different from you (in a variety of ways)?
- What is your experience with wanting to “fix” the stories of people of color or “help them understand” something that is happening? What have you learned by listening to stories about social norms or realities from people who are of different races, national origins, or classes?
Please join the conversation in the comments below, and/or in our Facebook group! If you are interested in a video chat discussion of the book, mark your calendar for Wednesday, January 18, at 2 p.m. Eastern time. Details will be available in the New Year.
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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