Thursday, September 12, 2013

Say It Out Loud, It Won't Kill You: I Am Culpable For Racism

This summer at NCORE I was able to attend a screening of “The N!gger Word”, a film by Dr. Eddie Moore, Jr. At the time I didn’t know who he was: the creator of the White Privilege Conference, among other things. I’m a little glad that I didn’t, otherwise I might have been too intimidated to speak up during the after-film discussion.

You can watch a trailer for the film here:

There were probably over 100 people at the screening, most of them Black and most of them appeared to be 30 years old or older – there were quite a few people who looked to be in their 50s and 60s.

After the film, a discussion started – what did people think? Opinions were shared, and there was quite a bit of disagreement. Some felt that the word was part of their culture, that they had given it new meaning and that there wasn’t a problem saying it. Others felt that there is no way that word could ever be made positive and that no one should ever use it. (Seriously, if you didn't watch that trailer yet, watch it - you'll see a lot of people sharing their opinions of the word).

At some point, a young (college student, likely) White woman spoke up and said something about racism being wrong, etc etc etc. Dr. Moore asked her a question. He said he was really interested to know how she came to the viewpoint that racism was wrong – how did she get to that viewpoint from the starting place of believing that racism was a good thing? The young woman seemed flustered by the question and I don't think she gave much of an answer. Another white woman, probably in her late 30s, maybe early 40s, stood up to respond to Dr. Moore about how she had evolved from "woo hoo, slavery rocks!" to "fight the power!"

She talked about how she's Jewish so she's known oppression which is what made her begin seeing the oppression of others. (She was also tall, thin, White, blonde, pretty, and wore standard upper middle class clothing). Out came the list of the stuff and people she's studied under, activism she's been involved in, etc. Basically, she gave her anti-racist pedigree. She did stop short of telling us that some of her best friends are Black.

I was sitting there, boiling, the whole time. It really took me some time to articulate to myself what the problem was. I felt like she was full of shit but I couldn't figure out why. I mean, she answered his question - this is how she got from thinking as an oppressor to thinking as someone who fights oppression . . . but it just sounded so self-congratulatory. I'm sitting there, all testy, and finally it becomes clear to me why what this lady said didn't sit well with me. I raised my hand and said something along these lines:

"You asked how a White person makes the transition from being accepting of oppression and enjoying the fruits of it, to knowing it is wrong and fighting against it. Well, there was no transition for me. My self-perception, because of how I was raised, has always been that I NEVER accepted oppression and that I NEVER benefited from it. My self-perception has always been that the only thing I've ever done is fought against oppression. Now, how I have perceived myself and the reality of my life are two very different things. But for most of my life, I had no concept that I held any culpability in the oppression of others. I didn't identify with people who owned slaves and I've been taught that those people were bad, I was good, and I AM NOT THEM. From day one up through my adulthood, and even still today, when I express remorse or pain or anger over injustice that has been done to someone else by a White person, someone pats my hand and tells me “You didn't do it, there's no need to feel bad. YOU DIDN’T DO IT.” This is what my schools, my parents, my church, my community have taught me. Even People of Color teach me this and tell me what a good White person I am and how I should not feel responsible for the sins of my ancestors. I am coddled and protected by everyone. My entire world has worked hard to ensure that I don't see myself in the faces of slave owners and cross-burners and to ensure that I live my life believing I'm one of the “good ones”, especially now that I actively speak out against oppression. So if you ask me how I moved from one to the other, I can't tell you, because I never perceived myself as being in the first group at all. That's the obstacle I'm fighting now."

Dr. Moore didn't say anything, but he nodded at me. I had to go to another session and felt like I would be asking for cookies if I waited for him to ask what he thought of my comment, so I didn't press it. I did, however, see the White lady a few times and though I smiled at her, she just stared at me. Ah well.

I know that I’m not the only one who has experienced this – been taught to disassociate from the actions of our ancestors and the people who paved the way for our privilege today. I encourage you to look closely at how your life might be different today had White people not created our society, and Whiteness, as they did. I encourage you to look at how you perpetuate what they created. I encourage you to feel the pain and anger that comes with admitting you have benefited from the pain of others. Stop telling yourself that YOU didn’t do it, and examine ways you might be doing it, after all.

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