Acknowledging the Racist Within: confronting my white privilege and ignorance
This was first shared on the Living Inquiries web site, as “The Freedom of Truth Telling: My Journey into White Denial”
“It’s in the act of having to do things that you don’t want to that you learn something about moving past the self. Past the ego.” bell hooks
“In a time of deceit, telling the truth is a revolutionary act.” George Orwell
Do-gooding Instead of Deeply Feeling
I run a small Facebook group. The group, set up for intimacy and safety, is where I sometimes post things that leave that me dumbfounded or enraged. Last year I came across an interview between a white supremacists and a person of color. I was I was somewhat shocked in abhorrence. The person of color was poised and in integrity throughout the interview. In contrast, the while supremacist was filled with hate, righteousness and certainty.
I was shocked by how overt this white person was about their supremacy . These kinds of overt displays of racism were so taboo in my family of origin that I had been shielded from them, which means I had never really sat in the discomfort of them.
Watching the interview, I found myself flooded with feelings. Deer in headlights, I posted the interview in the FB group. No, I dumped it into the group.
I say “dump” because I didn’t think about what I was doing by posting it nor how it might impact others. I didn’t sit with how I was feeling or what it was bringing up in me. I didn’t safe port (warn) the members of the group on what was in the video. I didn’t even offer my own reflections or share what was going on within me as I had watched it.
I dumped it into the group, and I did so from a place of privilege and ignorance.
I dumped it because as a white liberal person I’ve been taught that I am entitled to dump my stuff all over the place, all the time. White people’s level of entitlement is so thick we can’t see it. We learn of injustice and we complain, get angry, and feel bad, we even get distraught, but then we often do nothing. This lack of accountability and self-responsibility (and passive-aggressive behavior) perpetuates the status quo. And we don’t see it, because we’re the status quo!
Caught in our liberal do-goodness, we don’t stop and feel. Instead, we too often pat ourselves on the back for spotting badness/bringing others’ attention to it. Said another way, we get disgusted with racism, know others will be disgusted, and then we sit around, all disgusted together, like good, white liberal people.
I didn’t see it at the time, but this is what I was up to: I was going to share my disgust with my friends, and we were going to be disgusted together, saying things like “omg I can’t believe this kind of stuff is still happening. This is horrible!” We would be angry but unwilling to have an honest look at what was really going on. I was going to stay shielded in my white, ignorant world and stay in my comfortable role of being righteously aghast at the level of hate “out there.”
And gosh darn it, I would have gotten away with it, except that there was a person of color in the group.
And she courageously nailed me on it.
Privileged to be ignorant
Over the course of my life my white, privileged culture has shielded me from being educated on atrocities of my white culture. While I had learned a little bit about racism, and that it was “bad”, I never was taught about the historical creation of racism. I was never confronted with the abhorrence, the extreme violence, and the devastating impact of institutional racism. I never learned about the micro-aggressions that white people violently perpetuate and Black/ Indigenous/ People of Color (BIPOC) experiences’. I had never considered the complicity of my race of origin, and certainly not my own complicity. I had never truly contemplated and leaned into the pain and suffering BIPOC experienced, at the hands of white people. Privilege and ignorance shielded me and kept me from looking racism in the eye, my entire life .
Without even being aware, my ignorance fed my own internalized racism, and in doing so it disconnected me from humanity: others’ and my own. The violence in that is extreme, and what I didn’t understand is that the impact leads to the suffering of all people. There is no freedom – for anyone – when there is denial and disconnection.
Can you see?
I had been in denial of my internalized racism my whole life, and – double whammy! – was ignorant of that. Sure, I was able to spot blatant racism, and act accordingly. Of course I was disgusted by racism. But I wasn’t able to sit with the truth of it. I wasn’t able to look it deeply in the eye. I had never dared to go there and my sense of entitlement to not have to, enabled that.
I was so blind that I treated the one black woman in that FB group just the same as everyone else. I don’t know about you, but I thought I was supposed to treat BIPOC just like everyone else. Wasn’t that anti-racism? I had been pretending to be color-blind all my life, thinking that was the right thing to do. Guess who teaches that? White culture, of course.
I didn’t understand that I had become complicit in perpetuating racism by buying into the various mind viruses: be color-blind, treat everyone as equal, don’t mention skin color/talk about it, don’t make other people uncomfortable. Note that all these approaches are guised as being for the benefit of BIPOC but they are really for the benefit of white comfort. (Having said that, for the love of god please don’t misunderstand me to be saying that we need to make BIPOC the center of all conversations. Please be sure to be mindful of context.) In the context I was in – a small group designed for intimacy and safety – I was not acting in safe or intimate ways with my BIPOC friend. I was being color-blind, at her expense.
I am a white person with privilege that I have been born into. It does a disservice to my brothers and sisters of color- but also to myself– when I do not wake up to the violent ideology of color-blindness. White culture is based upon the invisibl-ing and unworthy-ing of BIPOC, so when I purport to be color-blind, I am continuing to uphold the ideas that white is the norm, white is important, white is all that matters – and everything else is less than. In a sea of whiteness, if I don’t see BIPOC as distinct in their experiences, gifts, and struggles, I am oppressing those very people. The lack of equity for BIPOC has been insidiously impregnated into every aspect of our culture. As a member of the race who literally created racism and oppression, I can have a role in dismantling that. In my experience, there is a deep empowerment in doing just that!
Having said that, it has been quite a journey, one I am still in the midst of.
From conservative racism to liberal racism
I was raised conservatively – religiously and politically. So, you guessed it, I was raised racist. Not KKK racist, but I’ll get to that in a second. It wasn’t obvious to my parents, nor my grandparents, but it was obvious to me. Being the good liberal do-gooder that I am, I’ve always tried to be aware of my racist upbringing, not wanting to be like them. In getting my Masters of Social Work, I had to take a look at some of my familiar biases, which was somewhat helpful in discovering hidden pockets of racism – but that was 20 years ago. It wasn’t until I had became good friends with a black woman last year- who was brave enough to call me out on my bullshit- that I realized, despite all my best efforts, I was racist as f*ck, but just didn’t know it.
Not racist in that overtly asshole kind of way – it was way subtler than that. In fact most people would never think of me as racist; I’m self-aware, heavily into social justice, have a degree in social work and routinely speak out about oppression. Here’s the thing though: I hang out with mostly white people, people like me. Liberal white feminist America – where no one thinks they are racist but only because the viewpoint is so radically self-referential by default.
As I began to listen and read what women of color were writing about, I very slowly started to spot my racism. I did a lot of deep inquiry and discovered more. Turns out, I wasn’t racist merely because I’m white, I’m racist because I’m a white person in a culture created by white people, for the benefit of white people, to the detriment of non-white people.
At this point you will likely be doing one of three things: nodding your head up and down emphatically saying YES!, waiting for me to say some more so you can catch on, or thinking I’m full of shit. At the risk of being repetitive, I’m going to Lisa’splain. Please stay with me.
People who have my skin color (white) have designed the culture I live in. All the rules, mores and keys for success were designed by people who have my skin color (white) for other people who have my skin color (white), and ONLY for people who have my skin color (white). The world I live in was designed for me, a white person. I’ve been privileged, but never necessarily knew I was, because of my privilege of being in the dominating class. I didn’t realize I was racist because I never had to confront my internalized racism – and so I never really understood that it existed.
When we’re not confronted with our privileges (white, male, hetro, etc) head on, there is rarely a reason to look at them. So, in the world of inquiry, for example, we might inquire about everything that has come into our personal experience, but we may never inquire about our white privilege, for example, as it’s just not “come up” in our personal experiences to be looked at. When it comes to race and gender, we live in a culture that is built upon – and actually created – racism and sexism. So, when we are a part of that group that the power comes from, there would be no motivation or need to inquire into it. This has kept white people – and men especially – complicit in oppression, which we can see quite dramatically in the media right now. The cat’s out of the bag.
Do I really have to confront my racism ?
Why would I need to confront my racism? I’m not (consciously) suffering because of my skin color. My child and I don’t get singled out wherever we go because of the color of our skin. We don’t have to worry about people constantly doubting our good intentions, our intelligence, or our worth because of our skin color. Moreover, we aren’t at higher risk for poor health/medical services, poor education, being killed by the police, higher rates of HIV and STIs, or higher chance of incarceration – because we’re white. I’ve got it pretty good, so why would I need to confront my racism?
I don’t. I don’t have to, ever.
Except that I’m in the business of waking up and heart work, both inviting me to become aware of what had previously been out of attention, and attend to that. In my reality tunnel, waking up and heart work brings along with it the inability to ignore, stay asleep, or tune out to that which is systematically creating separation and pain for living creatures. Waking up and heart work, by its very nature is inclusive, which means that if my brothers and sisters are treated poorly, even when I am not, something is not right. Because we are all connected, if I can, it is right action that I do something about the racism that exists.
But it gets more real for me than that. Here’s why it’s really imperative that I do something about it. As a white person, if I do nothing, I benefit by keeping people of color separate – and so it is me who is doing harm to people of color. Not indirectly doing harm, directly doing harm. If I do nothing, then I am the one who is violating, harming, and creating pain for people because of their skin color. As the “privileged class” , it is up to me. As such it is pertinent and imperative that I continue to look at things I’ve never needed to – and consciously seek to understand my roles in oppression and related topics as they relate to waking up and freedom.
If I do nothing, I can no longer say I’m in the business of waking up or heart work. If I don’t consciously look, I can no longer say that Love matters to me. If I stay ignorant, my heart cannot truly be open wide. And if my heart cannot be open wide, then I am not free. So you see, it really is true that if some people are not free, none of us are, because all of our hearts are linked together. This has been my direct experience, as it has been that opening my heart wide necessitates deep somatic inquiry… into everything.
But what about me? I’m white, and suffering. (I.e. How can being privileged feel this bad?)
Yes, I hear you. If you’re a while female, yes, I *so* get that you may be suffering. And if you’re a white male, yes, I absolutely understand that you’re likely suffering too. And I understand why. We, as white people, suffer because of how our culture oppresses others. When one group of people oppresses another, they will always suffer in their association with the dominating class. Oppression is built upon a sense of fragility, which is why white, male fragility is a common topic these days. It can be debilitating. A side effect of oppression is that it oppresses the oppressor.
Dealing with my own trauma, and all the darkness that has come up with it/in it, has paved the way for me to be able to (start to) sit with my white fragility and privilege, and not hide from it or deny it. I have always been aware that sitting with my own trauma has allowed me to be deeply present with others as they journey through their own trauma, but this is something different.
Not having to turn away from pain that I have been complicit in, and that my race has created and perpetuated… it’s empowering in the strangest of ways. It’s counter-intuitive and goes against what the new age rhetoric often shallowly and violently proclaims.
It has allowed me to See deeply, to Feel deeply, and to Know deeply that when one group is oppressed, we are all oppressed, and that when we turn away from looking at others’ oppression (or our own darkness), with honest and willing hearts and minds, we are oppressing our self. One might think this would be burdensome or debilitating, but it is not. There is nothing that is more freeing than truth of Love. The heart can hold it all, and grows in magnificence and simple wisdom the more it cracks open.
Implicit Bias and So Much More!
A lot of what I’ve been referencing in this blog post but haven’t named is “implicit bias.” I will write more about implicit bias in future blog posts. In the meantime, if you’d like to learn about your own implicit bias, you can take a test here. I found these tests fascinating; as were the results from a few of the tests I took!
Stay tuned for more. I’ll be writing about the link between our internalized racism and our internalized experience of oppression. I’ll share more on my journey of how safely journeying into my own internalized oppression has opened me up to others’ oppression, only to discover their intrinsic link. I’ll explore the shame and guilt that has been a part of my deep looking. And, as always, I’ll be offering up practical resources and practices that will support you in your own unique journey in of exploring racism.
I continue to learn every day about myself. I look forward to writing more on this topic and learning alongside you. I’d love to hear your responses to this blog post. What has it brought up in you? What would you like to know more of? What challenges have you had, and what freedoms have you experienced in deeply looking? Thanks for reading, and I look forward to connecting and learning together.