Reflections on living in a white skin
Many years ago, back in another century, I was animating a two-day seminar with young adults exploring the landscape of their social activism in a time of ongoing community upheaval. The setting was a Summer Institute in Community Development, hosted for several years by Concordia University in Montréal. The 15 or so participants were self-selected, women and men, racially-diverse and polyglot, most from Québec, but a few from elsewhere in Canada and the United States. We were using an inductive open-agenda process that took us places unexpected, wide and deep, as the comfort level and trust built into a rare mutuality of experience and purpose.
On the second morning of the seminar, we began, as always, with an open check-in, folks spontaneously sharing how they were feeling to start the day. It is a languid process, with each new voice separated by an easy silence before someone else chimes in.
And at one point, about half way through the circle, a young man—a local community organiser and cultural activist—spoke: “I woke up this morning, and as I lay there, it was almost 30 seconds before I remembered that I was black.”
That sentence doesn’t say it all; but it says enough to occupy a thinking, feeling person a long time.
It makes me want to stop writing right here.
Just be quiet. Let that sink in.
But the whole point right now is to break silence, to speak. A few weeks ago in the wake of a mass murder in Nova Scotia, I wrote about the need for men to speak out—to acknowledge and condemn—the pervasive, broad-based norms of misogyny and murderous male violence against women, in Canada and around the world.
A similar imperative, and not unrelated, pertains in the matter of white racism. White people need to speak. Not just about what is happening in the world; not just about racism-in-the-abstract, out there. We need to speak about our own minds, and hearts, and souls, and what lies there. To do this, we need to see into our hearts and minds, to acknowledge what we already know, and to delve deeper to discover what we would prefer not to find.
White people have got to start waking up in the morning, every morning, remembering that they are white.
And then we need to remember what that means—to be white—for ourselves, and for others. We need to expose those elements and facts that mean things that we don’t like, in ourselves, and in the world—things that we need to work to change. And that change itself begins with self-examination, and public revelation.
White people have got to start living in our own skin, and be candid and public in what we find there. It won’t necessarily be easy, or comfortable.
Shree Paradkar explores several of the most common tropes that white folks use to defend and rationalize white attitudes and behaviours—that is, to put things ‘in context’, and remove us at least a few degrees from guilt and shame.
Reading Paradkar (and I urge others to do so), I recognized in my own defenses almost every single diversionary ploy she describes, none of them new or original.
Of course there are nuances aplenty in a world rife with inequality, hatred and violence. Of course, white people do not have a monopoly on bigotry or racism or ethnic hatred or religious exceptionalism and sectarian violence. Or any form of human stupidity, for that matter.
But here and now, white people do have a monopoly on power and the instruments of coercion and official state violence, including extrajudicial murder. We do have a deep intransigent privilege—indeed, an assumed supremacy. We still determine the standard by which every thing and every person is judged; and we control the instruments and institutions that invisibly impose and make those judgments.
That is what systemic racism is. That is how it works.
So…am I a racist? I am white and I collude in what it means to live in a ‘white’ world. And I tend to see others’ colour without seeing my own.
Many people say they that they not racist, claiming a non-discriminatory, live-and-let-live sort of stance—you do your thing, I’ll do mine. But separate is not equal. And certainly not equal when one person has the choice and the other does not.
In accepting without resistance the privilege of one’s own whiteness, we enforce the non-whiteness of others. We enforce race. And the distinctions of race. And the privilege and insults of race.
Who gets to decide? It is obvious, so very obvious, even in the stream of events of this week, including the much-celebrated white solidarity in response to the ongoing events in America, that it remains white people who get to decide. It is white people who get to offer dispensation and belonging. Who get to decide even what ‘belonging’ means, including the terms, the symbols and the norms of belonging.
That’s not good enough. White people have to reject the racism of our own skin. If we are not against racism, we are for it.