Tuesday, November 15, 2016

My Learning Edge: Dealing With Being White

So much has been written about the presidential election of Donald Trump. People are surprised, shocked, pleased, sad, angry, frightened. Some rejoice. Some join protests. Some are acting out.  Some are giving Facebook a rest and turning to other interests.  

Me, I'm trying to come to terms with being white.  I never thought much about it before.  White was the cultural norm, in which I grew up.  My family is white.  The community where I lived in Appalachia, the church and school I attended were white.  The television shows and advertisements were about white people.  The first black person I met was an international visitor who visited my church and ate at my family table when I was a pre-schooler.  I couldn't stop looking at our guest's hands, black on the top and white on the bottom palm side!  The next black person I met was a fellow tenor at a Westminster Choir College choir camp in Princeton, NJ when I was 16.  Sadly, I don't even remember his name.  I do remember thinking, he is not so different than me.

I've come a long way since then, as has America. Or so we thought. The Civil Rights Movement changed things.  Martin Luther King, Jr. and his legacy is marked by a National Holiday.  Generations of kids have grown up watching Maria and Gordon on Sesame Street.  Bill Cosby, Will Smith, Denzel Washington, Morgan Freeman, Oprah, Brian Gumble, and Robin Roberts normalized our seeing people of color regularly on television. When President Obama was elected president, we thought look how far we've come!  Then we witnessed him being treated unlike any of his predecessors.  His political opponents plotted from his first day in office to oppose every and anything he proposed. He was shouted down as a liar by a congressman during his state of the union speech!  His place of birth and legitimacy to be president were questioned even after birth certificate was provided.  A person of color in such a position of power was/is inconceivable to some.  Whether acknowledged or not, whether overtly claimed or subconsciously driven, racism has raised its ugly head among the white electorate.  This, along with the demographic growth of Hispanic voters, alarms some white Americans fearful of becoming a minority, losing power.  Add to this the post 9/11 concern for terrorism in America, the term "homeland" entered our consciousness and in the Federal Government with the "Homeland Security Administration."   Fear of "the other" reached a crescendo in president elect Trump's campaign rhetoric.

The long ugly presidential election season is now over! Votes have been cast and counted.  The pollsters were fooled, pundits dumbfounded, most everyone shocked!  We have a president elect, Donald J. Trump.  Now we wonder what will this mean?   Will the hate language, the demeaning of whole groups of people continue and be codified?  Given what has been said, what does this mean for people of color who already suffer police profiling and harsher sentencing in our criminal justice system, and who fill unproportionately for profit prisons?  What does this mean for undocumented immigrant families, for those living with disabilities and mental illnesses, for Muslims, for girls and women, for LGBTQ persons, for interrogation protocols, for access to health care, for foreign alliances and treaties, for the environmental justice and global efforts minimize human impact on documented climate change?  What does it mean for the role of data, science, speaking the truth, emotional intelligence, integrity?  What does this mean for the constitution and the rights and protections it affords all in our nation?  Alas, I digress.

My intent for this post is to refocus attention from what is happening in America, which you and I cannot control, to what is happening in me and possibly you,  which we can control.  I can't speak for others, but as for me, I am on a journey of awakening to my whiteness.  

Last fall I was introduced at a leadership training to the privilege I have for simply being white.  I am not profiled by police. I do not fear being shot when I am pulled over by police.  The community where I live is not regularly patrolled by police.  I never felt the need to lecture my children to keep their hands in sight when pulled over, so that police can see them for fear they would be shot, nor did I instruct them to lower their gaze, and avoid looking others in the eye, but to look at the ground.  I was not aware that the post war GI Bill was for white veterans only.  My access to loans is privileged by bank policies which historically gave loans to preferred (white) communities, business and persons, or at a better interest rate.  Society norms have afforded me other advantages as well because I am a man, straight, protestant and have a European heritage.

I spent a day in October with Jennifer Harvey, author of the book, "Dear White Christians" at a conference sponsored by ECCL (the Ecumenical Center for Christian Leaders).  What struck me most that day was my realization that I need to come to grips with my own white identity.  Like most white persons, I don't think of myself as being white.  I am not a minority.  I am part of the culturally dominant white America.  White is normative.  Minorities are identified by this cultural norm.  Because of this, most minorities work to strengthen their racial esteem and celebrate their ethnic identity.  There are Kwanza celebrations at Christmas celebrating African roots and traditions, Native Americans Pow Wows, Gay pride parades.  All these lift the esteem of a subculture.  Everyone becomes Irish on St. Patrick's Day.  The Cooperstown and Montauk Schools, which my children attended, held an annual cultural day celebrating a designated people. The goals of these celebrations were to built up the esteem of a minority, and to increase understanding by the rest.  One year the school celebrated Brazil, the country of origin of my adopted daughter, Leana.  She was different than the other students.  It gave her cause for pride, and helped her classmates understand her better!  BUT Jennifer Harvey helped me realize my own ambivalence about my racial identity.  When I think of a white pride parade, I cringe.  Confederate flags, swaztikas, and hooded men in white robes come to mind, symbols of white supremacy, that white is better, and white people should be in power over others. This taints my sense of self.  I feel wounded by this!  To be whole, I need healing.

Healing begins with confession, forgiveness, and repentance.  I am no better or more worthy than any other.  I am white, male, straight beloved child of God, just as those who are not are also God's beloved children.  Although I have benefited from my whiteness, I now need to stand up for others.

My education continued at the Polity Conference of the PC(USA) just a few weeks ago.  The plenary leaders were guests from Crossroads, an anti-racism education group from Indianapolis. I learned how white dominance is not only the aspiration of white supremacist groups, but America's historic cultural norm.  In a workshop, I was introduced to an Anti-Racism Impact Assessment Process for decision making in institutions similar to Environmental Impact Assessments prior to construction projects.  I also was introduced by our GA Co-Moderators to Debbie Irving's book:  "Waking Up White."  Irving's book is her memoir as an upper middle class white woman awakening to her privileged position in society due to her race.  Jan Edmonston and Denise Anderson call the PC(USA) to a denomination wide read and discussion of this book as an entry point to the spiritual work Presbyterians, who are predominately white, need to do.  This is not the work for our black brothers or sisters.  This is the spiritual work of white persons to do.

So this post is an invitation to join me in this journey of awareness and repentance, particularly if you are white. The election is over.  We wait and watch as the Trump administration forms.  But let us with God's help  through the grace we know in Jesus Christ, and empowered by the Holy Spirit, take control by naming our own demons, making our own confession, turning around/repenting from our own behaviors, and transforming our institutions, including our beloved church.  And as we do so, may the peace that passes all understanding be with us.

2 comments:

Paul Tomlinson said...

John, This was a wonderful and insightful statement. I believe all of us white Christians need to reflect on our being white and what that means. I believe we are all called to work for change in our world and to strive to bring about justice for all.
I shared the link to this blog on Facebook and will share with others to increase dialogue on these issues.
Thank you for your thoughts.

Amazon4God said...

I was talking to a white male minister that I know the other day. He said that the didn't know anyone who was afraid after the election of Trump. I was a bit shocked by that confession, but I told him that he desperately needed to make some minority and lgtbq friends and that he needed to earn their trust by listening to them describe what their life was like every day and especially now after the election. When he argued back that he never sees any minorities, I almost pulled my hair out in frustration. I asked him if he ever ate at any Mexican or Chinese restaurants. He admitted that he did, but then added, "But I would never talk to them about anything."