Where Are All My White People At?

5 Mar

Photo credit. wyso.org

A friend suggested I jot down 10 random questions on a sheet of paper, instead of simply sitting down and trying to think of what my next blog post should be about. The questions became prompts. Of course, the very last question was the one: Will us white people ever look in the mirror like author James Baldwin refers to in The Fire Next Time?

What Baldwin knew when he wrote that book in 1963, was that us white people did everything we could to avoid acknowledging anything to do with our own history, and our past and present behaviors. We didn’t, and we don’t, want to acknowledge how this country was not founded on the principle that “all men are created equal.” It instead was founded on stolen lives and violence, through slavery, and through stolen land and genocide of the Indigenous people of North America.

The made up construct of race, with a hierarchy of whiteness seen as superior, and everyone else as other, and inferior, was put into place in order to create and sustain the systems of power and oppression that exist to this day. We white people implemented Jim Crow laws which legalized segregation, and set up laws and policies that allowed white people to live where we wanted to live, obtain a job without worry of discrimination, go to well-resourced schools in our own neighborhoods, work where we wanted to work, conveniently shop where we wanted to shop, take out a business loan or home mortgage with fair interest rates, and take advantage of the GI bill to again, afford to buy a home in a “nice” neighborhood and get that mortgage. Over one million Black veterans at that time were shut out of having the same access and opportunity to those benefits which allowed white families to continue to build even more generational wealth through home ownership.

Yes, when various groups of immigrants arrived in America from Ireland, Italy, and Jews from Eastern Europe, we at first faced discrimination too. But we were allowed to “become white,” and were subsequently afforded all the privileges of those who were called white before us. We got to live The American Dream. We all believed the American motto and individualist myth, that if one just works hard enough, they can achieve whatever it is they want in this country, and if they don’t, it’s because of their own laziness, lack of ambition, and moral inferiority.

We kept, and sill try to keep Black and Brown people from voting. We started the War on Drugs, and allowed crack cocaine to flood Black communities, which led to the mass incarceration of Black men and women, while white men and women either were let go, or served much lighter sentences for the same offenses. We kept and keep corporate boardrooms white, and are more likely to pass over resumes with names that sound Black. We are good as long as our kids get to go to the diverse enough public schools in our neighborhoods, but don’t want to send our kids to under-resourced schools in neighborhoods we silently think of as “too diverse,” of low socio-economic status, unsafe, and inferior in their academics. We don’t blink an eye at how we so easily see ourselves represented in our movies, museums, magazines, teachers, neighbors, co-workers, and we don’t notice who is not included. We pat ourselves on the back for making our workspaces or schools more diverse, but don’t secede our power, or ways of whiteness, thereby not changing the culture, or ways of interrelating and opening up to all perspectives of seeing and deciding on things, and so these spaces stay bound to white supremacist culture and conditioning, and unwelcoming, and block advancement to those who are not white.

And we really, really don’t want to look in the mirror and see all of this, and we don’t want to look into our souls and find all of this history residing there. Even, if our families arrived here in post-slavery times, we have this dust in our souls, and we have all of the heavy footprints of colonization, and white supremacist systems, institutions, societal norms, privileges, and racialized thoughts and behaviors, in every step and breath that we take.

Which brings me to the present. Many of us in this country feel, now is a time of reckoning in regards to race and racism in this country. Many white people are finally waking up to the violence committed against Black men, women and children, primarily by police officers and self-appointed white vigilantes. We have finally heard the call of Black Lives Matter, which fell on our deaf ears for 400 years prior to Trayvon Martin’s murder in 2012. We are finally waking up to all the ways we have oppressed, and continue to oppress Black people in this country.

And so after I jotted down that question about looking in the mirror, I expanded upon it. I free-wrote: will us white people do the work ourselves to unpack our whiteness, heal our rage and trauma that has to do with the racial atrocities we committed, and will we acknowledge, and do the body work, healing work–break it all the way down with, as Resmaa Menakem advised us, with our own selves, and our own white “guru,” not a Black guru, or Indian guru, so that we can truly acknowledge, reconcile, heal and take part in creating a fair, just, equal, equitable, integrated society without white people above any more, but have us truly living side-by-side in society?

Now, I can’t claim to be all woke to therapist and author, Menakem’s work just yet, including his book, My Grandmother’s Hands, Racialized Trauma and the Pathway to Mending Our Hearts and Bodies, because I am not. I just purchased his book, and have listened to him talk in two podcasts. His work focuses on internal generational racial trauma healing through not only working with our minds, but also somatically, through our bodies, where trauma resides. While listening to him, and you should listen, one of the things he said that stood out, was about how us white people really need to do our own healing, and that it has to be with us, and not, as I paraphrased above, by seeking out “Black or Indian gurus…” He went on to say this is going to take a lot of work, and take a long time, but that it must be done.

Which brings me to, doing the work. Where are all my white people at? I know a lot of us, as I’ve noted in recent posts, have been doing a lot of reading about the history of race and racism in this country, reading the works of Black authors–literary works, and works focusing on the work of anti-racism, as well as getting involved in racial justice community actions. I also continue to hear from fellow white people, and from Black and Brown people about white people, whether friends, or on social media, of us still posing the question of “what can I do?” or saying, “I should be doing more.”

Which brings me to: do the work.

Yes, I need to do the work. You, fellow white person, need to do the work. We all, all of us white people, need to do the work. And, what is the work? I’m just a middle-aged, white-skinned Jewish woman on a journey also trying to figure out what that means for me, for us. I am not a scholar, or expert to think I can tell you what to do and how to do it, but here are some thoughts and things I am doing, and striving to do.

The first thing we need to do is look in the mirror like James Baldwin didn’t hold onto hope that we could or would. We can’t do anything without acknowledging the reality of the totality of American history, and the violence and systems of oppression we created and continue to uphold.

Then, we can begin to educate ourselves, which many of us are finally starting to do through reading, and conversation. We have to be willing to get uncomfortable in the conversations we have with Black, Brown and Indigenous people, and to make mistakes, and allow ourselves to be corrected. We have to learn and practice not getting defensive, not over-apologizing, and not shedding white tears. We need to talk amongst ourselves, too, and hold one another accountable, and support one another in this work.

In considering all that needs to be done in educating ourselves, I was reminded of the ideas taught to me through teachers in the metalsmithing and woodworking classes I took, yet, I know this to ring true across all art forms. I remember my metals teacher especially, saying, as students we needed to learn and perfect our technique to the highest level, and then forget it, so that our authentic artistry and creativity could come through.

I believe we need to educate ourselves as fully as we can about racism, and about our own whiteness, and to deeply reflect on ourselves and the way we and those that came before us, have been moving through this world, and only then can we have the tools, and be in touch with our authentic selves, and be able to live the work of being fully human, take ourselves out of being white, and as world renowned author, poet, activist, and spiritual, transformational leader, Sonya Renee Taylor says, ” learn how to live in right relationship” with Black, Brown and Indigenous people in this country.

The Body Is Not An Apology author, Taylor, whose 2nd expanded edition I just purchased, beckons us to begin with “radical self-love.” Another book I am eager to read, I have gained much from following her on Instagram, and in listening to her conversation on the podcast, Eyes on Whiteness. Just the other day, I appreciated her talk on IG about white people taking responsibility. To put it in context, Sonya, who is American, just moved to New Zealand, after having previously split her time between there and the Bay area. I suppose after she announced her move this week, some white people chimed in to say they wish they too, could leave this country.

This talk came right on time for me. It seems lately I’m not only continually waking up to the ways of my own whiteness, but to the ways I have not taken responsibility, or done the work in other areas of my life. I’ve often been instant gratification girl. I want things to just happen. Like the time I urged my friend to send me the chanting meditation cd she had been listening to. A talented artist and poet, my friend had spent some time living in an ashram, practiced yoga, was doing her own spiritual work. She has always been a focused, intense, disciplined person. This was over ten years ago, but I remember her telling me that she was practicing the chanting while visualizing herself winning this poetry publication contest she submitted to. Well, she did win first place, and got her poetry book published. I can’t remember what I was hoping I’d win by possessing the cd, but I knew I just couldn’t get my hands on it fast enough. When it did finally arrive, I was thrilled. Now I’d be more spiritual, and more stuff in the universe would come to me. I don’t think I ever took the plastic wrapper off the cd set.

I say I want a lovely home, but don’t put in the time cleaning, painting, or de-cluttering. I say I want to be in love, but haven’t been consistent in making the effort to put myself out there, and to be fully present with the men I have met. Divorced for 8 1/2 years now, I know I sometimes hope that something magical will just happen, and I will live happily ever after. Cutting myself some slack along with all of you, for just trying to make it through this pandemic while working full-time at a psychiatric hospital, and hoping I’m holding up my two daughters’ spirits as they move through all of this too, I recently came to the revelation of still needing to put in some energy and effort. I need to do some work reckoning with my past, and open myself up to be able to give and receive love, so I can move forward and be present to the possibility of having a relationship. I am certain I will also need to practice the radical self-love that Sonya Renee Taylor speaks of to find my way in this.

See my pattern, and what I’m getting at? These things are much lighter than doing the work of breaking down racism, but I bring them up because we have to be willing to do the work. It will not be easy. We will not achieve enlightenment, or rewards, for doing the work we should have been doing since we first arrived in this country. But it is our responsibility.

In Sonya Renee Taylor’s talk, she said that some white people think, “the responsibility for solving issues of white supremacy delusion is on Black people’s shoulders.” She went on to say that it is white people’s responsibility to fix this. We created it. We need to figure out how to fix it, and fix it. She also said, that we have the “inhumane luxury” to propose to Black people that they make their needs or demands in a way that is comfortable to us–that we want it said in a certain way, a way that can’t sound angry–that we try and get away with simply having hope. That we say things like “I believe in the possibility of change,” but then do nothing. Or we say, “its too hard, or too slow, or too depressing.” Ultimately, as I shared above, Taylor says, our responsibility is to “make right relationship” with Black, Brown and Indigenous people here in America. We don’t, as Taylor says, just get to, up and leave America because we don’t like it here, and let racism and its systems of oppression continue to fester and rule, and then go run off to some other country where we can continue to live out our exploitive, gentrifying, white supremacist ways in other lands.

It is interesting to me that both Sonya Renee Taylor’s and Resmaa Menakan’s books relate to working to liberate ourselves through working with our bodies. As someone much more in tune with my emotions and instincts–heart over head–I am looking forward to taking my time with both of these important works.

We won’t fix racism or cure ourselves of our whiteness overnight, but we can’t afford to take any more time to start doing the work of fixing ourselves, and undoing racism and racist systems. We can’t wait until we think we know everything. We will never know everything. This is a journey, and we need to, if we haven’t already started, to start right now. Educate ourselves, and be hypervigilant about how whiteness is operating within ourselves, within other people, and within the spaces we find ourselves in.

Have the uncomfortable conversations. Make mistakes. Accept responsibility. Strive to do better next time. Speak up at your child’s school when you see how the white-led PTO is not including the voices, concerns, and desires of parents of color. Speak up at your workplace when your white co-worker makes a micro-aggression, or note the fact your non-profit organization’s administrators and board of directors does not include anyone representative of the community you serve. Get to know who the Black leaders in your community are. Find out ways you can support Black leaders, and Black-led organizations, without being a burden by asking them to tell you exactly what you should do. Share resources, either dollars, volunteering of time and/or skills, and show up at community events. Find out what the voting rights are like in your community, and get involved if things need to change for the better. Join an activist organization like Standing Up For Racial Justice, a movement of white people who come together to learn about racism, activism, whiteness, and fight for racial justice. There is so much we can, and need to do. There is so much we must do.

Are you ready? Where are all my white people at? Will you join me? May I join you?

2 Responses to “Where Are All My White People At?”

  1. Richard Alan Scott March 5, 2021 at 8:37 pm #

    Undoing 250 years of wrong-headedness is a tall order. We have to work at it for the rest of our lives, no question. I support Democratic candidates that will push our agenda ahead.

    • Wendy Jane March 7, 2021 at 5:14 pm #

      Yes, Dick, it is a tall order, and we will have to work at it for the rest of our lives, and those who come after us will continue the work, as those that came before us, too, did the work. We will keep having to push on our Democratic politicians to truly do the work and change policies and legislations that move things forward.

      Thanks for reading the piece and for your reflections. I appreciate it.

      Wendy

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