NOTE FROM BGIM: While much of the content at BGIM Media is definitely for the education and mobilization of white people to fight racism, I have tended to reserve the space for “feelings” primarily for Black and other people of color. There is a need for safe spaces for white people to “work out their shit” but it is not my ministry to provide such space (nor should that generally fall to any person of color; that’s white people work). That being said, it probably bears reminding to some people that white people striving to be anti-racists do have significant internal struggles and do pay prices for their efforts. And so with that in mind I run this latest post by Heather Denkmire, with the caveat that even more so than most of her posts, this is primarily aimed at the white readers of BGIM Media.
We white people need to have more conversations among ourselves where we process what it’s like to be effectively anti-racist. The costs can be small at first, but they can feel big. I suppose this is a kind of a trigger warning for Black and Indigenous people as well as other people of color: This post will be addressing my white-person feelings. In future posts, I will address some of the larger prices we white people might have to be willing to pay as we practice being anti-racists.
Recognizing that I can benefit from racism and still be a good person was a complicated process that I’ve already written about. It’s ongoing. I have to remind myself regularly that while I’m trying to break free from the whiteness that has been my reality for all of my life I’m also still benefiting from other people’s oppression. There are many resources available to explain what “whiteness” is, but Nell Irvin Painter’s piece in the New York Times is an excellent primer. So, one price I pay is space in my brain for a lot of cognitive dissonance: good person but benefitting from a bad system. Both are true.
At some point in my racial identity development, a bell rang that hasn’t yet stopped ringing. I can’t just watch television, listen to songs, attend social events, hear about my daughters’ days at school, sit in a coffee shop—all of my everyday life is permeated with awareness of how white supremacy has built it up, how whiteness rules most spaces, and how it used to be easy to not know. It’s not the same as when I started to be aware of my own racism, it’s not something that makes me socially uncomfortable most of the time. It makes me angry, frustrated, and it sometimes makes me feel helpless. Again, this is uncomfortable. I have had to do some grieving now that I am keenly aware that almost everything I know is infused with white supremacy.
Grieving the loss of once-pure parts of our lives certainly isn’t a whites-only experience. In great part because of Tarana Burke’s #MeToo movement, many of us have had to change how we view people we used to hold in high esteem. Would I ever consider watching The Cosby Show again? Not enjoying a television show certainly seems a small price to pay, but when awareness of racism means just about everything is now tainted with the stench of white supremacy, it requires some adjustment. It also requires emotional and intellectual effort to not adjust in the ways white supremacy wants me to: numb it out, minimize it, look away, change the topic, somehow pretend it’s not so bad. Or maybe make a big deal about it, get outraged and furious and tell everyone how awful it is to continue enjoying [insert latest #MeToo disclosure] person’s work. Sometimes excessive outrage can be another way to distance ourselves from the ugliness.
Similarly, a price I pay is the awareness of white supremacy coloring how I experience so much of what I have loved in my life. For example, my daughters’ beautiful childhoods were extraordinary in part because of the ways I benefit from white supremacy. With this new lens, can I still feel sweet nostalgia for the days when I sat with my young children on the edge of a stream (on occupied Wabanaki land) by an old farm home (purchased family wealth passed down for generations, built on white supremacy’s slavery and segregation) breathing in the fresh and clean mountain air? Being an antiracist surely doesn’t have to mean throwing away everything in my life, does it? These kinds of questions are complicated and require a lot of thoughtful consideration, and sometimes lead to changes in my behavior.
Even just writing this out has my mind going in so many directions. Is this self-serving navel-gazing? Does it seem like I think I’m special because I have thoughts and feelings about white supremacy? (The answer to that is no.) Is it centering on whiteness in a way that’s inappropriate for this blog? I mean it to be an example of what I experience as a white person addressing my racism and becoming an antiracist. I know that relative to the daily violence racism forces on people of color, it is a walk in the park. But I feel strongly that if we white people don’t “process” what’s going on inside of us as we try to figure out how to be white without supporting white supremacy, we’ll keep slipping back into the relative comfort of ignorance.
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