Sans Cilice

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White Anti-Racism: No Hairshirt Necessary

Reflection as Repentance is Worse than Worthless

UPDATE: Below is the first post of  Sans Cilice. The ideas have changed and expanded, but the initial motivation is still relevant.

I don’t care what Diplo says about white kids talking about race on the internet.

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“it might be earnestly meant in some cases, but something about the whole “examine your privilege” deal ends up becoming a way to focus on one’s own hairshirt process as opposed to, y’know, what the other person actually needs.”

I wish I could find the original source of this blog comment. She certainly deserves credit for inspiring the title of this blog. (update: http://guerrillamamamedicine.wordpress.com/2009/03/17/we-dont-need-another-anti-racism-101/) Anyways, I think that she is correct to an extent; sometimes an examination of one’s white privilege and the subsequent guilt (felt sincerely or not) is tool for personal absolution nothing more. If the examination is hasty or cautious, no good will be contributed to society, and there is even the risk that the examiner herself will end up as a less mindful person. But, this needn’t be the case.

In this blog, I will examine my own white privilege (amongst other things) but not as a ‘hairshirt process.’ My examination of my white privilege will not be a posthumous (and entirely insufficient) repentance for the unjust actions of my ancestors. The racism of my ancestors and of almost every other white person’s ancestors, and the privilege they afforded themselves and each other are deeply ingrained into every aspect of our country’s history. Through a “racial contract” ( the very useful phrase coined by Charles W. Mills in his 1997 book ) whites agreed to privilege themselves and to rationalize racial inequality by completely denying the salience of whiteness throughout all of American history. This is despicable. Though I know I have reaped the benefits of being white, and though I know that is unfair, I am incapable of meaningfully repenting for the system of inequality upon which our country was built; my own repentance would make absolutely no difference, beyond satisfying me personally. But much more importantly, in repenting, one aims to be delivered from their sins such that they no longer need to pay attention to them. For a white person to repent (i.e. to consider white privilege only by lamenting their relation to it) and to feel that repentance was successful (i.e., that through their thoughts they have been delivered from the sins of past injustices) is tantamount to renewing the racial contract and to agreeing that racism and its effects are no longer relevant just because the injustice is acknowledge. Afterall, hasty and unprobing logic would suggest that if you think X is wrong, and have repented for X in the past, that you will not participate in X in the future.  But, whether or not you intentionally like it or are totally mortified by it, if you are white, you have been, still are and will continue to be the beneficiary of white privilege.

I’m a white woman from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. For years I have been grappling with the implications of my own whiteness on my own personal life. I haven’t much focused on my families’ history though. I don’t think my ancestors were any more or less oppressive than any other whites, though I do know that many on my father’s side were active members of the Quaker abolitionist efforts, most notably Lucretia Mott. While these few ancestors’ actions and attitudes are laudable, I’m sure I have other ancestors who either didn’t care about racial oppression or were unabashed beneficiaries of it. This likelihood makes me feel no worse, no more guilty, than does the history and construction of our entire country and society. The private reflections of white people on their race related privilege will never be enough to dismantle the racial inequalities of our country.

In this blog I will examine my own relation to race and share my reactions as a white anti-racist to whatever piques my interest, but not because I think that doing so will minimize the presence of white privilege, even by an infantismal degree. Instead, I intend to continue to ‘race’ my consciousness in hopes to become a more effective ally. As a white person, I have had the options to almost completely ignore the implications of my race, or to acknowledge that white people’s identities (my own included) are just as racially constructed as those of people of color. My decision to ‘race’ my consciousness is motivated by my hypothesis that if white anti-racists choose to acknowledge the salience of race within their day to day lives, that they will be more inclined to see the legitimate problems faced by POC and the necessity of resistance efforts–on all scales– already started by POC.

White privilege is a reality, one which has been concealed by distracting and flawed discourses for centuries. If white people such as myself are to be truly supportive of people of color, we must be willing  to prioritize the needs they identify as opposed to the agendas we see most fitting. And, we must recognize that our attempts to understand our own race are only useful as anti-racist methods to the extent that they enable us to better understand non-whites and to break the consensual silence that allows white privilege to continue unquestioned. More simply, if you, as a white person feel that you have taken the time to understand what it means to be white, and have taken the time to understand the varied manifestations of racism, and if you have come to these understandings because you dislike racism ( I grant, these are not all understandings achieved overnight), then it is time to focus on ways to be helpful to those we claim to care about.


3 Responses

  1. Virginia Episcopalian says:

    What a wonderful purpose and passion you show in building this blog. The equal treatment and mutual respect for everyone regardless of race, religion, physical condition, gender, eye color, on and on (the reasons we in our humanness separate others from ourselves is countless) is an essential for so many reasons. Not only is it critical for harmonious and peaceful living, but in my view it is also essential for us to grow personally.

    You state: “…I am incapable of meaningfully repenting for the system of inequality upon which our country was built; my own repentance would make absolutely no difference, beyond satisfying me personally. But much more importantly, in repenting, one aims to be delivered from their sins such that they no longer need to pay attention to them.” I don’t know that I necessarily agree, however, with your point that your personal repentance will make no difference. Isn’t it your personal repentance that has caused you to start this blog? Isn’t it your recognition of the injustices you see around you that has sparked the flame of passion to address this injustice? Isn’t it the recognition of the sin of your ancestors that has stirred your heart to be different and do something about it rather than turn a blind eye? That isn’t just satisfying you personally, is it? No it’s much, much more…it’s taking action, standing up to be noticed and being willing to cry out about what you know is a wrong that needs attention to begin healing. If not you, who? If not now, when?

    You mentioned in your posting about the AME Church of your schooling at St. Peter’s and your attendance at St Joe’s. In some ways the Jesuits and the Episcopalians agree, in others they don’t, but as a former Roman Catholic, trained by Jesuits in my formative years and later coming to the Episcopal Church I can see and appreciate the differences. Although copied from the Book of Common Prayer, I know my Jesuit friend agree heartily with this view of sin, it says:

    Q. What is sin?
    A. Sin is the seeking of our own will instead of the will of God, thus distorting our relationship with God, with other people, and with all creation.

    Your condition as a white, privileged young woman isn’t a sin. Having the benefits of the situation you found when brought into the world, isn’t a sin. Your parents obviously loved you and tried to provide you a broad exposure to a range of cultures and experiences (your mother bringing you to the AME church alone is evidence of her consciousness of how important it was to open your eyes at a formative age) and it is because of this exposure that you have seen the injustices first hand. None of this is a sin but what you do when you recognize the wrong, no different than the first two travelers who passed the injured Samaritan, is what matters. Your action to do what you can as an individual who sees a wrong, by starting this blog, by being outspoken in your community and workplace and by not allowing the flame of your passion to be extinguished are exactly what needs to be done to right this wrong.

    Finally, you also state that you are an atheist. Your passion, your righting and your defense of your arguments hardly come from an ‘God-less’ world view. Injustice can only be recognized when compared to a system that prizes and works for justice. Left to our own devices, our humanness drives us to look out for ourselves alone. Society does not on it’s own create justice…look at God-less societies around the world, are they just? It’s the strength of the Judaeo-Christian ethic that our forefathers held dearly so that caused the Declaration of Independence and Constitution to be written with such a strong foundation for justice.

    Thank you so much for stepping out and standing up for the injustice that you see around you in Philadelphia, the United States and the world at large. Great things start from single seeds…you are planting a seed by starting this blog. Who knows how large an oak (or mustard tree) you will grow. Having the courage to start is usually the hardest step to take…Congratulations and I look forward to seeing how your blog develops!

  2. virginianepiscopalian says:

    You state: “…in repenting, one aims to be delivered from their sins such that they no longer need to pay attention to them.” I don’t know that I necessarily agree, however, with your point that your personal repentance will make no difference. Hasn’t your personal repentance lead you to start this blog? Isn’t it your recognition of injustices you see around you sparked the flame of passion to address this issue? Isn’t it recognition of sins of your ancestors that stirred your heart do something about it rather than turn a blind eye? That isn’t just satisfying you personally…it’s much, much more…it’s taking action, standing up to be noticed and being willing to cry out about what you know is a wrong that needs attention to begin healing.

  3. virginianepiscopalian says:

    I don’t know that I necessarily agree with your point that your personal repentance will make no difference. Hasn’t your personal repentance lead you to start this blog? Isn’t it recognition of injustices you see around you that sparked the flame this passion? Isn’t it recognition of ancestors sins that stirred your heart to do something rather than turn a blind eye? That isn’t just satisfying you…it’s much more…it’s taking action, standing up to be noticed and being willing to cry out about what you know is a wrong.

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