Wednesday, May 24, 2017

But I'm not a ...

Yesterday I promised that I would return to one of the most frequent responses people who identify as white have to the use of the term "White Supremacy" as the way to describe the dominant culture in which we, to borrow a phrase, "live, and move, and have our being.'  For those outside the "bubble," the Unitarian Universalist Association, the denomination in which I serve, is being asked to examine how its hiring (and other practices) perpetuate a culture of white supremacy.  And there is, predictably, an uproar in response.  Primarily from people who identify as white, we are hearing things like:

  • How can you paint us with the same brush as the KKK?
  • We're committed to anti-oppression work.  How can we be "white supremacists"?
  • If we use the term "white supremacist" for us, what do we call people like David Duke and Richard Spencer?

Yesterday I addressed the "appropriateness" of using the term -- both because it is actually a more clear and accurate way of describing the systems and structures of racism, and because it is the term that a great many People of Color are asking that we use.  (Since People of Color are, after all, far more intimately effected by racism than are we white folk, they probably have a more clear understanding of what it is, how it works, and how it should be described.)

Yet even with all that said, there still is the issue of what it means to use the same term to describe we large-hearted, well-meaning, liberal white folks that we use to describe Neo-Nazi, torch-carrying, alt-righters.  My answer may disappoint some of my friends and colleagues of color who, until now, have generally found my writing to be a fairly useful distillation of the things they have been saying for decades ... for generations.  (I believe that as a white person I can develop an intellectual understanding of the way racism infects the dominant culture and all that is touched by it, but I realize that I will never have the in-my-cells, present and generational, experience of it.*  That means that pretty much all I know and, therefore, all I can say, I have learned from People of Color who have given voice to their experiences and their learnings.)

With this post, though, I may well disappoint some, because I am going to say that for me the answer to the apparent dilemma is to say that I don't think we should use the same word to describe the average Unitarian Universalist -- or other well-meaning white person -- and the Grand Dragons of the world.  I would say that those folks are, without doubt or question, white supremacists.  I would not say that about folks like me and (hopefully) most of you.  I would say that we all participate in, and (even if unconsciously and unwittingly) we unavoidably perpetuate, the culture of white supremacy.  In other words, I make a distinction between white supremacy, and white supremacists.

Here I do break with some of the voices I have heard from People of Color who say that we should use that same, later, term -- white supremacist -- to refer to any person who identifies as white who, by virtue of that identity, perpetuate the systems and structures of the culture of white supremacy, even when we don't realize it, even when we try to actively work against it.  And I think I do understand their point.  I recoil from it, not surprisingly, but I think I do understand it.

Nonetheless, though, I do make this distinction.  It's possible, of course, that I make it because of my own discomfort -- I do, after all, have a lifetime of hearing and understanding those words in a very particular way, and I have spent my life trying to be the antithesis of what I've known those words to mean.  So I also recoil at the thought of them being used to describe me.  Yet I have learned that there are a millions of ways each day that I do and say things that reinforce the systems and structures that perpetuate the elevation of whiteness as "supreme."

I've redrawn the graphic that's often called the "White Supremacy Triangle" to hopefully more helpfully make it clear that it's also a "White Supremacy Iceberg."

Above the waterline there are things that are clearly and unambiguously part of what I've known as "white supremacy" -- the klu klux klan, neo-nazis, cross burnings, etc.  Yet as with any other iceberg, what's on top is supported by what's below.  So I know that there have been times that a Person of Color has described an experience and I've instinctively questioned whether their interpretation of events was right.  (Was it really a racist act, or did that cab driver really simply not see you?)  And I was definitely raised to think that a "colorblind" approach to combating racism is the way to go.  (Let's not see any difference but, instead, focus on our common humanity!)  And I absolutely have in my head all sorts of inaccurate information about, for instance, U.S. history, because I was exposed to a Euro-centric curricula that presumed white experiences were more important than those of African Americans, Latinos, Asians, Indigenous People (and, for that matter, all other historically marginalized groups).

I know that I have -- unconsciously and unintentionally -- silenced People of Color by responding to their stories with my own as if they are the same.  I've insisted that the way I see things, and my analysis of a situation and how to respond to it -- including what words to use -- make the most sense, even when what I'm talking about truly is outside the realm of my experience.  I know that I have often -- and even still recently have -- responded to a situation with what I thought would be the most helpful thing, without even pausing to consider that maybe I should first ask the people I'm wanting to help what they think would be the most helpful way of responding.

And what has been hard for me to hear, and hard for me to really even understand, is that each of these things -- and so, so many unnoticed more -- serve to reinforce the culture of white supremacy.  So I understand that I am part of, participate in, and unwittingly perpetuate this white supremacist culture.  Yet I also do think that it is helpful to make a distinction between the David Dukes and the ... well ... me.  "Above-the-line White Supremacist" and "Below-the-line White Supremacist" makes clear our relative positions on the iceberg, but they are sort of a mouthful.  "Overt White Supremacist" and "Covert White Supremacist" is a little easier to say.  Yet I do understand the need to include the words "white supremacy" when talking about either the above-the-line or below-the-line kind.

For now, the best I can come up with is that the torch bearers are White Supremacists, while I participate in and perpetuate a culture of White Supremacy (or, a White Supremacist culture).  As I said, this may be because of my own discomfort, or the limits of my understanding, but it's the best I can do at this time.  And none of us -- we who identify as white -- will ever do this work "perfectly."  All we can do is keep trying our best, keep stretching ourselves, keep moving into places that feel uncomfortable and make us struggle, and keep learning to see the world through the voices of those who have lived in a world so very different than mine.

Pax tecum,


* -  It's been pointed out to me that saying, "I will never have the in-my-cells, present and generational, experience of it" could be used as an excuse not to do the hard work daily of increasingly making this a real part of my life.  As the person wrote on Facebook, this "gives permission to not try to get it into our cells by demanding of ourselves to see the every act of our lives as part of white supremacy and to learn to disrupt it."  In other words, it could be read in a kind of defeatist way:  I'll never get this, so why try?

That's actually the opposite of my intention.  I'm glad to learn that those words might confuse my message, so that I might attempt to be more clear.  I would stand by the statement that I will never have a "cellular" understanding of the way(s) white supremacy works in the world, and the way(s) it works in and through me.  Yet that doesn't suggest to me that I shouldn't try, but that I should try harder.  So much of the culture of white supremacy is invisible and inaudible to me because the experience of it, and its effects, are not already in my cells.  That means I must engage in a herculean and never-ending effort to learn to see it, and to listen to those voices to which I have been preciously deaf.

And recognizing that "I will never have the in-my-cells ... experience of it," also insists that I never fool myself into thinking that I've become some kind of "expert," that I can claim some kind of complete understanding.  I can't.  I can speak first-hand about what I am learning about how the culture of white supremacy effects me, as a white person, and the ways I am coming to see that it works in and through me.  And I can try to help other white people come to see this in their lives, too.  (Which is why I do so much writing and speaking primarily to white people.)  What I can't do, though, is fall into the trap of centering my own voice.  Because I will never have the "in-my-cells" experience of the way(s) the culture of white supremacy has effected People of Color, I must always make sure that I center their voices over mine, that I listen carefully and deeply to their analysis, their perspectives, and the stories of their lived experience. Print this post

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