Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Shedding My Whiteness

I wrote this blog earlier this spring (specifically, March), mostly trying to process a handful of thoughts, books, movies, and experiences I'd been fortunate to have the months prior. I delayed in posting, feeling more passionate than thoughtful. After a quick re-read and minor edits, here it is.

Like many Christian colleges, the community within which I live and work has a white majority and the resulting culture reflects that in many ways. There's clearly work to be done in terms of creating a more just and equitable racial and ethnic environment that seeks not only higher representation of people of color, but more inclusive operating at every level. I say this as I also know that we at Messiah are striving for racial reconciliation* in real and meaningful ways, for our faculty, staff, and student body. As manifestation of this and among a variety of other factors, this year alone, I've been impacted by multiple book groups (Bryan Stevenson's Just Mercy & Jim Wallis's America's Original Sin), a lecture by Rev. Dr. Kelly Brown Douglas, a service trip to D.C. with Messiah students involving a workshop on race and a visit to the National Museum of African-American History & Culture, and personal professional development reading Messiah's professor/alum Dr. Drew G.I. Hart's Trouble I've Seen. So while not perfect, I have appreciated the ability to grow in my understanding of issues of race in this environment.

Each August, the good folks in the Intercultural Office lead an exercise for the in-training RAs, having them take five-minutes to write their story. Where they're from, the traditions their family has, their hometown values and routines. Everyone writes their story out on a piece of paper and posts them on a wall, creating a collage of miniature life-stories. While it's always nice to recognize the nuances and variety of backgrounds, the exercise gets at the idea that we all have a particular story. This is oftentimes especially helpful for majority students as it's easy to fall into the mindset that, if you're from the suburbs and have limited experience in diverse settings, that your story is normal. Heck, I've been through this exercise five times and I always have to fight the urge to recognize that while my story may be a common one in the room, I cannot categorize it as normal. My path has given me a particular set of formative experiences, impactful people, and exposure to ideas that has left me with a particular set of bias, worldview, and perspective.

This leads me back to what I mean when I say "shedding my whiteness." When I check "white" on any form, I do so reluctantly but honestly, knowing that "white" is a messy conglomeration of certain European immigrants and descendants that have made their home here in the US from which I am a result. And, as I continue to learn, "white" is and almost always has been in the position of oppressor, and those with a light skin tone have always been welcomed into the "white" club with the perks of having certain advantages and avoiding other disadvantages. Broadly speaking, avoiding slavery, segregation, and mass incarceration. And then there are countless more specific examples of oppression (e.g. redlining or microaggressions). So while my direct family line may or may not have been directly involved in many or any of the systematic forms of oppression, I can't totally shed the group from which I come because my family line has always been able to check the "white" option on the forms. Hopefully my actions and words work towards a more equitable present and future.

One major take-away that I had from Dr. Drew G.I. Hart's book, Trouble I've Seen, is the imperative to the white church to not trust our guts on issues of race. In looking back at our country's history, there was a solid majority of nice, white Christians who were trusting their instincts that slavery and segregation laws were moral. Just like I have to check myself every time I consider my story as normal, I cannot trust my instincts because there's no way I've unlearned the bias that hundreds of years of oppression has ingrained in the culture in which I grew up. So, whenever there's a racially charged incident nationally or more locally, I need to first recognize that I have a bias on the event and then I need to listen to others who come from perspectives other than mine. Or, as another example, the first half** of the movie Get Out speaks brilliantly to a black guy's experience in a predominantly white (and liberal!) environment. Time after time, the protagonist endures the well-intentioned stereotyped conversational assaults from his white girlfriend's family and friends all the while having to justify and prove that the impact is exclusionary in nature.

So I am trying shed my whiteness. This takes intentionality. And work that doesn't immediately further my own standing as a person doesn't always feel rewarding. But I think it is rewarding in the long run and it's something that is in line with the kingdom of God and a more inclusive life really does benefit both myself and others. I'm looking for the next step. Or maybe just trying to be faithful in my current operating roles as husband, friend, residence director, consumer of culture, etc. In any case, I'm trying to have open eyes and ears to the world around me.

*I know the term "reconciliation" is a misnomer as there's no amiable racial relations to revert back to in this country/culture. Is there an alternative phrasing that's preferred?
**The latter half of the movie also obviously speaks to issues of race, just in a more direct and horrific way.


As reference, these are all great:
Dr. Drew G.I. Hart's book, Trouble I've Seen: Changing the Way the Church Sees Racism 
Bryan Stevenson's book, Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption
Jim Wallis's book, America's Original Sin: Racism, White Privilege, and the Bridge to a New America
I haven't read Rev. Dr. Kelly Brown Douglas's work but if her lecture was any indication of her books, she's worth investigating
The movie Get Out fits within the horror/thriller genre so beware... but it is excellent, even to someone who doesn't naturally enjoy the genre
The National Museum of African-American History & Culture in D.C.

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