Waking Up White: Chapter 17

Chapter 17: My Good People

The Reading

Every fiber of my being had once believed that the rule makers and system operators in America were good people, leaders who looked out for everyone, who would never make selfish decisions.

I knew executives, real estate moguls, media guys, and politicians – people who ran stuff. I loved these men. They were family, friends, and neighbors I never questioned that the white guys in charge were good people…

Maybe it’s just timing.  Debby Irving returned from her college jaunt to Europe just before I graduated high school, so perhaps we’re just an example of pre- and post-Nixon teenagers. I didn’t see people in terms of this kind of “good/evil” but just as another species of animal, whose behaviors depended on what they felt was necessary for them to survive and/or thrive.

Learning about how racism works…was completely contradictory information a 180-degree paradigm reversal, flying in the face of everything I’d been taught as a child and had believed up to this moment.

If I didn’t get it, and the majority of the white people I’d been speaking to didn’t get it, could it be possible that the system was being in part perpetuated by white people who also thought of themselves as good people without any connection to racism?

This has been my more recent learning – that racism goes so far beyond the immediate and visible acts of hate, to the manner in which it is woven into our systems. I always knew the systems were “stacked” against the little guy – I just didn’t realize how much of that was really about stacking it against people of color, in ways that also impacted other “little guys.”

Unlike Irving, I haven’t experienced a 180-degree challenge to my paradigm – but it is a shift, nonetheless. My core belief – still – is that it’s about the little guy, and race is just one way to quickly and easily sweep a mass of people into that end of the pool.  That same system, to me, works similarly against homosexuals, disabled people, and scores of other groups. The shift for me has been in the recognition of how much of our system was willfully, intentionally set up to do this to people of color.

It took the ADA to be sure that a hallway was wide enough for a wheelchair, and government buildings had a way in besides stairs, for example. I don’t think those were actively intended to prevent a paraplegic from getting into  courthouse. Just a side effect of oblivious design. Understanding that race bias is not always “just a side effect” has been a change in my understanding of my environment.

The Study Question

How would you complete this sentence? I never thought I could perpetuate racism because I am _______, and I believe_________________.

because I am not in a position of power, and I believe that I have little influence over the barriers in my own life, much less those presented to others. That the system is stacked against us both, in ways both similar and different, and that we are fighting the same uphill battle to break the shackles that we started with.

So when I reached a place in my career that I felt represented a position of influence, one of my choices was to go to work for an agency whose mission is focused on dismantling systemic racism. I have not been bolstered by that choice, honestly.

My organization focuses a lot of attention on admonishing me, as a white staff member, to work harder to understand how privilege has advanced me at the expense of people of color, and to recognize that, by not violating any and every law that seems inappropriate or is recognizably grounded in racism, I am actively complicit with and supportive of racism. I must choose between identifying as a revolutionary intent on wholesale overthrow of a government indelibly entwined with racism, or as a racist. I must recognize that nothing I have achieved in life is wholly deserved or earned, as no achievement exists without the taint of privilege and the recognition that being white was a significant factor.

It’s easy to be discouraged by the constant beat-down and poking-finger-in-the-chest reminders that the fact that I no longer live in poverty is due wholly and solely to the fact that I have white skin, and any success or good fortune is not only “not my own doing” but “something actively stolen from someone who deserves it more than I do.”

Since coming to this place, I sometimes feel less committed to creating the kind of change I think is needed in this country – not because I believe in it less, but because it seems that in order to pursue it, I am expected to apologize for and surrender every gain I have made in life,  accepting that the childhood I lived is nothing more than my due.

But then, perhaps they’re just trying to “teach me a lesson” about the kind of discouragement that is inherent in being a person of color in this nation.

While that method may be producing some unintended results – at least they’re trying to do something. Since it isn’t really something that has been successfully done in this country (to my knowledge), I suppose you have to figure that there will be ‘more’ and ‘less’ effective methods along the way, as they strive work to learn what actually works.

The same thing could be said for this blog challenge and the exploration that goes with it. But in both cases – at least someone is trying.  That has to be a step forward in and of itself, right…?

Waking Up White Blog Challenge

Stephen’s Chapter 17 post

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4 thoughts on “Waking Up White: Chapter 17

  1. Wow, this is a very revealing post, and I appreciate your honesty here–although, for as long as I’ve known you, you’ve always been this way–honest and open to those whom you trust.

    You mention that it’s tempting to revert because it feels like there’s a continual poke to feel something, and to feel somewhat guilty of your own place in life. I think that that itself is something to examine more. I see it in myself when I say “but how much do I need to go into this?” For me, the answer is “until when you dig there are no more rocks.” (Left unsaid is the apprehension that there are a lot of undiscovered rocks yet to uncover…)

    One of my groups that I’m in says bluntly that we need to sit in our place of discomfort until we process our feelings, and not rush to leave it because ye gods who wants to feel bad about themselves? The feelings of discomfort are our feelings, and feelings tell us something about ourselves that our words and awareness do not. When I shared with you my own recent nadir it was to share that my feelings were uncovering some hidden assumptions and judgments, and my feelings were telling me that my overt values required me to take overt actions. I hate it when that happens — “I’m a good person!” — but I appreciate that my own self is struggling to align with my values.

    I appreciate that you feel these things, that you see these things, and that you share these things. I think we’re all going to go through some times when our emotions are raw and this isn’t an easy thing to do. I value that you’re continuing.

    1. I had to go back and reread to see what you meant about “tempting to revert.” If I found the right reference, then I didn’t make myself at all clear. 🙂

      I said “it’s easy to get discouraged” and “having joined these people with the sincere mission to make change, I am sometimes *less committed.” The inference of that wasn’t that “I am tempted to give up” but rather “if the people who care most are incapable of going about it anything but a denigrating and destructive way, then I simply can’t imagine how they will succeed, or draw people who care the least into the effort.”

      I was excited to see a place that really wanted to dedicate itself to this change, and disappointed by the realization that the most positive and hopeful (on this topic) group that I found couldn’t find a way to do that other than “we will make a place at the table, by driving the people who ARE there away.”

      I get that they deal with a lot of white fragility, and a lot of pearl-clutching, hand-wringing “I can’t possibly be responsible” bullshit. You know that’s not me – I am certainly blind to things I need to learn, and happy to learn them when someone is able to offer me an insight. I don’t have the personal-guilt complex that makes these conversations feel accusatory. But I’ve watched fragile people come and go because working here made them feel too disrespected, unwanted, and even attacked. (That last is a bit extreme, and I consider it a huge white-fragility response that exceeds the stimulus. That doesn’t keep me from seeing how they came to that place). When I got this job, a friend I used to work with initially responded with “How did *you get hired there? I thought they *hated white people?”

      They are good, well-intended people who are experimenting with ways to get to their goal. I support them whole-heartedly. I also – frequently! – despair that if this is the best effort our society can muster – there is no possible way that what they are doing can expand out of a militantly determined core. That doesn’t change my belief in the need to make change. It certainly makes it challenging, some days, to smile and support the effort as it is being carried out in my workplace.

      Some of that, surely, reflects on me, and elements of what they are doing that I just don’t understand, or don’t get the need for, or otherwise fail to see. But my friend’s question made it clear to me that some if it has nothing to do with me. That reputation existed when I walked in the door. I’ll keep working to support the effort, and keep looking for things that can be improved or made more effective – it’s not a perfect process, but at least someone it trying to build a process. That doesn’t prevent me from recognizing the imperfections – and, being human, some days those imperfections weigh more than others. On those days, it’s tough to believe the effort will yield any real result. But.. I refer you back to my original Waking Up White post, and the poem “Stubborn Ounces.” 🙂

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