Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Creating a Positive White Identity

There is a hole in anti-racism work: positive white identity. Unfortunately, white identity in anti-racism work is vulnerable, commonly taking on the labels of: oppressive slave owners, creators of slavery, building a culture on slavery, hate criminals, the 'guilty' ones, the 'bad' race, culturally ignorant, cultural appropriators, and even void of a culture at all.

How can 'white' people take part in a conversation about racism under the accusatory burden of these labels?

First of all, our U.S. culture in general needs to educate itself honestly about our multi-cultural struggles and victories. We need to understand the role that our 'white' cultural heritage has played in racism. We also need to connect the dots between our struggles, and struggles throughout human history all over the world.

One poignant part of the Undoing Racism (R) workshop I took was when an Asian woman spoke up against the definition of race provided by the The People's Institute. The workshop leaders claimed that race was a construct that favored 'white' people (scare quotes are mine. See my reflection on the Undoing Racism workshop here.) The woman spoke up to say that other cultures use the same construct of race for power around the world, and she cited examples from her cultural history.

The 'white' race is not the bad race, though it is often said to be so, even by white anti-racist activists.

Before I went to the Undoing Racism (R) training, I prepared by doing research and trying to find others' accounts of taking the training. I found one account challenging -- an account of being asked in a round, "what do you like about being white." I felt like this was a trick question, to reveal some white appropriation of our inherent multi-cultural heritage. After all, my family is American, and we don't have unique cultural recipes, religions, rituals, or holidays passed down from our grandparents. My grandfather was Mormon, and left his church, and my grandmother was an orphan. The closest thing to a passed down recipe is snack of bread in milk, or fried oatmeal (both are very tasty).

What I found, after mulling the question over for a while, was a lot. A lot that is attributed to western culture and western philosophies. Now, I won't say that western thought and philosophies had no non-white influence -- after all humans have always traveled, shared great thoughts and discoveries, and grown from it. But, what has always driven me to have a deep conviction for human rights, equal rights, and faith in humanity, are ideals of liberty and governance set forth by Greek philosophers like Plato, and Socrates; furthered by enlightenment writers like Locke -- all of which set the basis for our U.S. Constitution, and the reforms of governments around the world toward freedom.

I am glad to be from a culture -- our U.S. culture, that is rooted in the fight for freedom of individuals, and dedicated to goals of tolerance, liberty, and a just balance between the individual and collective good. Rooted in the belief that no one man can own another, or take ownership of another's work. In fact, it is these very roots that have driven me as an activist for human rights and equal treatment under the law, and just laws.

I recently watched a TED talk on the Cyrus Cylinder, which I had never heard of: this is a scroll that is widely influential, throughout history, and throughout the world. It sets an example for inclusive, and tolerant governance:


Personally, I am happy to have grown up in U.S. culture, an amalgamation of cultures in which we have all benefited from sharing knowledge and discoveries. I grew up in Southern California, and Mexican food like quesadillas, burritos, tacos, guacamole, churros etc. are part of my history and culture. As is Chinese food, and Confucianism. My grandma took me to downtown LA as a kid, and sat me at a Chinese bar until I learned how to use chopsticks, sternly telling me, "it is time." According to an online religious quiz, my religious beliefs most closely align with Buddhism, though I think of myself as not religious.

I have lived in Central PA for most of my life now, and so have added things like funnel cakes, perogies, Fastnaght Day, falafel, and halushky to my own, intimate, cultural experience. I no more think of my enjoyment and identification with these multi-cultural elements as cultural appropriation, than I would consider people around the world wearing suits, surfing the net, eating burgers and fries, fighting for western style democracy, or listening to Beethoven as appropriation. Humans have always traveled, shared, and grown.

From western philosophy, to Enlightenment leaders, to US abolitionists, civil rights instigators like John Brown, and the freedom riders...'white' history is full of fight -- fight for the good, for equality, liberty, freedom and justice. These words are not just slogans, they are values paid over and over again in blood and strife -- and we will keep on fighting, and we will keep on growing, not alone, but as the product of continued exploring, sharing, and learning from one another.