written by Amanda Gross
This week I read an article entitled “White People Have No Place in Black Liberation.” by Kevin Rigby Jr. and Hari Ziyad. The period at the end of the title adds weight to the finality of white people’s place in Black Liberation and so as one of those White People, I approached reading the article with the appropriate trepidation. And it was a hard one to read.
The authors write:
“We want whiteness banished to history—to an other-space of that which is unknown and impossible. There is no way in which whiteness can move that is freeing or liberating for Black people, so there is no way for white people to free or liberate. Whiteness is indivisible from white people. To identify as white is to claim the social structure of whiteness, is to always wade in the waters of anti-Blackness…. White people cannot exist as white and do anything to address racism, because whiteness in action is racism.”
This I can follow intellectually, but to let myself feel what it means is painful truth. Race has never been neutral. It was constructed as a hierarchy in order to oppress. White people can’t be separated from whiteness. As a white person, I can’t be separated from whiteness. My existence as white is racism is the barrier to Black Liberation not part of the process.
Last night I was in conversation about cultural appropriation with a group of white ladies who are collectively working to undo racism. We sat around my dining room table and reflected on the ways we’ve been part of culture stealing and identity claiming in part to fill our own void of culture and identity. The typical white lady questions ensued as we unpacked this realization – What exactly did we do wrong? How could we do things differently and better? Is it possible to live in this world as us and not culturally appropriate? (No.) If not, then what can be done?
Rigby and Ziyad speak to this too.
“There is no answer to the question of what white people can do for Black liberation, but racism veils reality so easily and efficiently. It is anti-reality. It makes the impossible seem not only possible, but a worthwhile endeavor. It truly does keep you, as Toni Morrison said, “from doing your work. It keeps you explaining, over and over again.
The dilemma of what white people should do to address racism has the same exhausting function of racism, because this dilemma is racism. Because for white people “to do” anything means that whiteness must be centered in a way that would perpetuate its oppressive essentiality. There is nothing redeeming or redeemable about whiteness—by definition. Only the radical negation of it is helpful or freeing.”
This the deadly oxymoron of being one of the White People. That whiteness stands in direct contradiction to personhood, to being human. That doing anything centers whiteness and perpetuates oppression, while not doing anything means the same, because the agency of Whiteness is more of the same oppression, and so is the denial of that agency. What this really means is that all my good little white girl strategies are blowing up in my face. That all my white liberal good intentions are toxic. That my attempts to be better at anti-racism as a White Lady are a failure before they even begin.
And if this realization about the violence of my agency isn’t scary enough, the authors offer only one specific example of a white person being an effective vessel for Black Liberation:
“Even John Brown, the white abolitionist who was executed in 1859 after leading an insurrection against pro-slavery forces, furthered the legacy of the likes of Nat Turner and other Black folks who fought and died for their own freedom before him. We must be sure in recognizing that dying for freedom did not begin with Brown, was not his legacy to create. Though perhaps in death, in a significant sacrifice of self, he and those like him have shed light on what it could mean to give up whiteness for good. When whiteness is so seeped into your being, might giving it up necessitate a threat to one’s safety and existence?”
Thanks to this article and the work of countless writers, artists, organizers, educators, and mentors of color who have contributed to my evolving understanding, I am just beginning to peek at what this might mean. And more importantly, I am beginning to feel it. To sit with the painful reality of whiteness being seeped in my being, and to resist the urge to throw myself a big, giant, life-long pity party, with cake and all my best white lady friends and tissues and balloons. But instead of pity parties, I am stepping into a journey that might lead me to John Brown’s shoes. In working to give up my whiteness, I am choosing a threat to my own safety and existence in a physical and existential way.
Who am I? That is the question that I am grappling with on this journey. The more I learn about the ways I’ve internalized white supremacy, the more I identify how I’ve been shaped by it and the ways it has informed my personality, my actions, my decisions, my preferences, my sense of self, the more I struggle to separate myself from whiteness, because I quite literally embody it. The carefulness and perfectionism I have learned through growing up the good little white girl in the corner of a predominantly Black classroom is one external layer that both makes me who I am and keeps me from being me. The self-righteousness of Mennonite Humble that I learned weekly at church and daily at home is another layer of collective identity that gives me a culture beyond white, but is also where my deepest lessons about faith-based, do-gooder colonization and the superiority status of knowing The Truth come from. Some say Mennonites can’t dance, but every day I dance the white American Mennonite legacy of intentional self-effacing and humble self-righteousness lacking the confidence to shirk off both and act from my intuition. The ruthless winner and unique artist are inside me too and make up layers of my internal tissue built on individualism and competition that distort my own humanity as I act them out through distorting the humanity of others. Inside me, whiteness is already a threat to my spiritual safety and existence. It threatens my humanity, my spirit, and my soul inside of me everyday.
But it’s also not possible to just do this work on the inside. The temptation of me trying is where middle-class whiteness takes the lead. Whiteness was a trade with the devil for material benefits (often very little), or in the case of poor whites, for the illusion of the potential of material benefits, in exchange for our souls.
In Noel Ignatiev’s book How the Irish Became White, Ignatiev describes Philadelphia County in the 1830s in which “black people, Irish, and native poor could literally live on top of one another.” In painting a picture of this point in history, Ignatiev tells a story of two families living side by side, one Black and one Irish where “the women wash clothes together at the well they share in the courtyard, and exchange news, complaints, and household advice. In emergencies, they care for each other’s children. Both families are desperately poor…”
“A riot breaks out and a mob sweeps through the miserable street like some natural force. The word reaches the Irish woman; if she puts a burning candle in the window, her house will be spared. She does, and it is. The next morning she comes out to discover her next door neighbor weeping at the pile of rubble in front of her door that was once her bed, table, and dishes. What can the Irishwoman say to her neighbor? That she is sorry? When the black woman looks at her reproachfully because her home was spared, will she feel guilty? And if so, how long will it take for her guilt to be replaced by resentment and rationalization?”
The Irishwoman’s choice is clear. She chooses the physical safety of her home and family over collective struggle, simultaneously separating herself from and elevating herself above her neighbors. In lighting the candle, she activates her privilege and suppresses her human empathy. At the end of the back in the day and often in the course of one generation, people who could choose to become white to protect their physical safety, and existence did so actively. And while most of today’s white people didn’t make that explicit choice, we have inherited its legacy and it is ours to undo. Giving up whiteness means giving up material privilege that whiteness has afforded us. And for many poor white folks, those material goods were the promise of whiteness yet to appear.
I know not all white people were brought up on Jesus, but many of us were, including me. After reading Rigby and Ziyad’s writing, it occurred to me that this is a resurrection story. My Mennonite faith tradition cannot be dissected from the evils of whiteness that 300 years of being of European descent on this colonized land brings. As my awareness of structural violence within my historic peace church has grown, I have distanced myself from my own faith tradition, but now I am slowly starting to reach for what inside of that mess might help restore my humanity.
Part of the mystery and the beauty of the resurrection story that I was brought up on is that death didn’t happen with the assurance of resurrection. The resurrection story is flinging yourself off of the cliff without knowing if there’s water beneath because flinging yourself off of the cliff is the only thing to do.
In destroying our whiteness, we must destroy a part of our selves, but we are destroying a part of ourselves so that we can have life. This is for me a very important and necessary reclaiming of the resurrection story – a story that has been used to justify individualism, self-righteousness, and corporate greed. One that has been used to justify colonization and the non-profit industrial complex, and white teachers in urban public schools, and international adoption. This for me is a reclaiming of a tradition and faith that is my cultural legacy. It is part of my history. The resurrection story is not an excuse so that someone else can do our work for us, or there so that in self-sacrifice for others we center ourselves in the glory of martyrdom. Understanding the resurrection story as an American White Lady in 2016, this way gives the resurrection story real meaning for my own salvation.
There is no resurrection without crucifixion. There is no whiteness without white people.