Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Food for thought

Hi all,

As we move forward towards our third week of our Bible study on race and white privilege, I would encourage everyone to continue to look around in the news and in their world for everyday examples of racism (even first time blog readers and those not attending the study - I invite you to share your observations in the comments section). I would also invite everyone to continue thinking about the question: How is everything about race? (Push back question: Is everything about race?)

That said, author Joseph Barndt remind us in Chapter 3 of Understanding and Dismantling Racism that if we want to study the results of racism we can turn to people of color but if we study racism itself white people are the ones "who need to be investigated carefully" (p.85). Of course, this is remembering that Barndt defines racism as prejudice + the misuse of power by systems and institutions (for more background on his definition, check out chapters one and two).

So that said, we are turning to study Barndt's chapter on white power and privilege this week. As homework, I am posting one of the exercises he uses to help white people think about these concepts in their lives. If you have push back please post it. Thinking about being white can be really challenging - how often do we, as white people, really talk about it? Yet what is striking is, as Barndt says "being white is probably the most significant feature of our identity that makes it possible for us to live the way we do, even more so than gender, class and nationality" (p.88) - and yet how often do we talk about it at the dinner table? Personally, I may talk about being female (especially when I am around feminist friends), I talk about being straight and having a male partner, I can tell you I am going to college and am middle class - these are all prominent parts of my identity that I can name and talk about. Yet, when it came to identifying myself as a "having a white racial identity" (what, white is a race?), it took me twenty years to be able to understand that being white was part of my identity. The key question here then is: What does it mean to name and claim our individual identity as white persons, and our collective identity as white people? What does it mean to say: "I have a racial identity, I am part of the white race"? What makes us white? If we continue with our definition of race as a social construct, this means we have had similar social experiences as the "white race". We lets continue to dig deeper, what are our similar social experiences??? If you say you are white and I say I am white, how can we relate, what can we relate to? These are all questions I would challenge you to think about this week.

Below I am quoting Exercise One: Tracing your Family History from Understanding and Dismantling Racism. It can be found starting with the last paragraph on page 100 and it continues to page 102.

"This exercise is designed to help white people get in touch with the benefits and advantages we are still receiving as a result of the momentum of history. Chances are, whatever you and I have in life - our educational achievements, our economic class, our social position, our community status, our professional competence, our attitude toward life, and our self-esteem - are all tremendously influenced by our inheritance of white power and privilege.

[Barndt - white power "is held collectively and passed on collectively from generation to generation as an inherited birthright"; it is " the product of historical intentional design, and is still inherently present within our systems, institutions and culture today" (p.90). Barndt defines white privilege as the individual result of white power (p.90)]

For many people this exercise is not overly difficult. There is a direct correspondence between with their parents and grandparents had and did and what they as the inheritors have received and what they have been able to do. For such people, white inheritance is easy.

Other people are not able to see the correspondence quite as directly. They may have made great advancements in educational, economic, or societal achievements far beyond those of their parents and grandparents. For those people, it is easy to deny the white inheritance. They may say things like, 'I pulled myself up by my own bootstraps,' or 'I earned everything I have in life by hard work and personal initiative.' Even if such direct inheritance is not obvious, we need to see that the collective power and privilege has made possible these great strides forward over the last generation.
1. The first set of questions is based on your family's history and status in life. How far back can you trace your family history? Choose from the following scenarios the one that most fits your reality and answer the questions connected with it:

-You have inherited wealth and position because your forebearers arrived in this country as rich immigrants, or they became well-to-do long ago in past generations. If this describes your history, here are some questions: If they arrived rich, how did they use and pass down their wealth? If they arrived poor, how many generations did it take before their descendants achieved greater status in life? Did anyone in your family ever have slaves? Did they take advantage of westward expansion and homesteading on Indian lands? What other historical factors in their lives have brought you advantages in your life?

-Your family is relatively well-off, but it was only in this generation or in recent generations that they escaped from lower-class status or from poverty. If this describes your history, here are some questions for you: How did that escape take place? What advantage did being white play in those achievements? Did they get housing through the G.I. Bill?

[The G.I. Bill is a bill following WWII that offered returning soldiers some of the lowest credit terms for houses in our nation's history ... relators refused to sell to people of color and so, because of this overt racial discrimination, it was only white people who became home owners and moved out to the newly built suburbs ... these white people were then able to build collateral and transfer both the house and capital to future generations]

Did they move into white suburbs that were designed to exclude people of color legally [think redlining]? Did they enter professions that discriminated against people of color and in favor of white people? Are there other advantages designed primarily for white people that helped our family in this recent entrance into greater security and stability?

-You are among those white families in this country who are still either poor or relatively poor and whose lives are insecure and unstable. If your history fits this description, here are some questions for you to work on: On whom does your family blame their condition? Who are the models that provide images for their aspirations to be other than poor or lower class? How do they relate to people of color who are also in struggle against the same forces of poverty and oppression? Even in their insecure setting, what advantages does your family have over families of color?"

Interesting that Barndt says that, just by thinking about and analyzing white privilege, the system of racism starts to fall apart ... Does that mean that the system of racism need us to be silent and unaware? And, if so, are we going to comply?

Food for thought. I am really looking forward to our Bible study discussion this week.


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