White Identity

This summer has been one of self-discovery, growth, accountability, and learning. I have been grappling with what my white identity means and how to have a white identity that is not unhealthy and destructive, both for the sake others and for my own well-being. Part of my white privilege is not having to think much about what my white identity means. Thus, I can articulate what my Mennonite or student or female identities mean, but I am still figuring out how to articulate what my white identity means.

This summer was an abrupt awakening to the violence my white self commits against People of Color. I quickly realized the importance of understanding what my whiteness means in society. It is violent and steeped with advantages. It became clear that other identities I have for myself have been immensely shaped by my whiteness and the advantage that comes with it.

There have been many difficult lessons about white identity that I have learned, but one in particular stands out as especially challenging to grapple with: Learning about the things that I like about being white on the social front (social because race is a social construction, not genetic construction). All the things I like about my whiteness (safety, representation in media, good treatment in health care, knowledge of how to navigate the school system, etc.) are directly in contrast with things other groups of people may not have access to. Plus, the reasons those groups may not have access to these things is precisely because of whiteness. I am certainly grateful to have those things, but it feels icky (a strange word, but certainly how I feel) that me having those things has been at the expense of others. I have begun to understand how harmful my whiteness is, and that feels quite discouraging.

I know that this realization is incredibly important for the understanding of my own identity and history, as well as for anti-racism work. However, to maintain a healthy self-image I cannot only have my identity be based in something that is harmful. I need some other options. I know that the first step is to form an identity based on learning about the history of harms my ancestors committed, recognizing the benefits I receive for being white, understanding how racism is within me, and having accountability partners who are willing to call me out for mistakes I will inevitably make. However, I still do not feel like that gets to the heart of my white identity.

Maybe I need to take all of that into account, then form a more fully-encompassing identity. Maybe I need to accept that I may not like certain parts of my identity because of the harm it causes others (and myself). That does not mean that I should despise my entire identity, though. I am proud of other parts of my identity, and maybe I should allow those parts to keep me in a healthy mindset. However, I am realizing (as I write this) that my white identity needs to keep me uncomfortable. I need to feel a constant nudge and discomfort because that will keep me motivated to fight racism. Maybe part of having a healthy white identity means accepting that that part of me has done harm. I don’t like that feeling or knowledge. But allowing myself to sit with that discomfort is necessary to become more whole and fully present in a society that has for so long told me that my whiteness is the norm. Perhaps disliking my white identity is not such a terrible thing but is a necessary feeling to keep me moving forward.

All of this sounds internal, which is important because that is where all of this starts. However, I have learned that it cannot only be internal. My thoughts and feelings and identities must cause outward action. Otherwise, I continue to uphold racism. This work certainly requires a balance of critically looking at oneself and acting in ways that support undoing racism work.

One of the most important lessons I have learned this summer is how incredibly important it is to recognize that this is all a journey that each of us are on together. I will mess up, and so will you. We need to give ourselves grace with that. But knowing we will mess up is part of what being in accountability with others is for. For me this means asking those I am in relationships with to challenge me when my words or actions are harmful. We can lovingly and compassionately challenge each other to further anti-racism work and further the holistic health of ourselves.

My white identity (and all my other identities) have not been formed by myself. I have had a community and society around me that assisted in those identity formations. If our unhealthy white identities were formed with one another, then we must seek to find a healthier way to be white together, too.

 

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Keeping on

As my official internship with Mistress Syndrome comes to a close Amanda has asked me to reflect on what learnings from this summer I will take with me into my future work. I have learned a lot this summer:

  • I’ve become more aware of my internalized racial superiority and how I learned it.
  • I’ve begun to notice tenants of white supremacy culture and consider alternatives to these ways of being.
  • I’ve more comfortable and confident naming and discussing the violence of whiteness – in institutions, culture, and my own self.
  • I have a deeper sense of what it means to “show up” for the work.
  • I am learning to feel pain, anger, and other emotions instead of just thinking about them.
  • I feel more committed to anti-racism out of a sense of personal liberation.
  • I’ve built relationships that buoy a sense of hope in our future together.
  • I’ve been practicing knowing myself well enough to care for myself well.

So overall, how do these learnings go with me forward?

  • My gatekeeping workbook is already helping me use my power to open (and possibly close) doors in a more thoughtful way at Candler.
  • My relationships will help hold me accountable for the work I say I want to do.
  • My discussions here will flow over into future discussions with friends, family, professors, co-workers, etc.
  • My practices of self-reflection here have primed me to see myself and my environment with new eyes.

If I’m totally honest, there’s part of me that just wants to go back to Atlanta and take a nap. Wake up and pat myself on the back and say, “Wow, you learned a lot this summer. That was a lot of hard heart work. Good job.” And then just go about my day. But that would be kind of defeating all the things I say I’ve learned.

On one hand, you can never un-see or un-think so it’s impossible to just “go back” to the way things were but on the other hand it’s easy to slip into old habits and relationships and ways of being. I think the real challenge of returning home comes in the creative application. Atlanta isn’t Pittsburgh and I can’t ask it to be. Instead it must be it’s own, new, thing.

And I must be myself. I’ve been thinking a lot this summer about the weird ways that people get different places in life. The way a clothes dyer ended up saving thousands of people from the Holocaust. The way an art history student with a passion for perfumes became my favorite ice cream maker. The way two men’s children inspired them to use their home building, land development, and engineering skills to create a new, inclusive water park. All of these people took what the skills and passions they had and transformed them into something new. They didn’t try to become someone else or implement someone else’s program. They just did what they knew and what they loved. Their unique mix of skills and passions and experiences led them to create change. So the question becomes not how do I recreate what I’ve learned this summer, but how do I take it and make it mine? How do I live as authentically me? What truth lives in my soul and needs to be lived out?

Emilie Townes defines ethics as the “art of doing the work our souls must have.” This phrase has been lingering in my head for a few months now. I like it. What must my soul have? How do I make that work into an art? I’m not entirely sure yet but if there’s one thing my self-reflection from the summer has taught me is that I won’t find the answer in someone else’s rule book. The first thing, the continual thing, I’ve got to do is to keep going looking at myself. Keep seeing my racism. Keep finding my passions. Keep learning my history. Keep being curious. Keep finding my liberation.

The moment I take a nap, pat myself on the back, and stop looking at myself I’ve stopped doing the work. When I stop seeing myself in the problem and in the solution I’ve made something active, passive. I’ve separated myself and will not find wholeness or health. So my challenge is to keep looking, even when I want to turn away. The challenge is to not opt-out. The challenge is to keep going. The challenge is being close enough to listen to my soul, find the art, and do the work.

 

Shifting Shadows

Recently I’ve been thinking about how often I give my power away because of fear. These fears can be big or small. I fear that someone won’t like me. I fear that someone will disapprove of a decision I’ve made. I fear that someone will find out I’m not as smart / good / nice / humble / anti-racist as the image I’ve made for myself. When these fears spiral out of control I fear that if people really knew me they would stop loving me. I fear that if they find out who I really am they won’t want to be around me. I fear that I’ll end alone and lonely, shut off from the world.

And so I hide those parts of myself – the things I think others won’t like. I hide my mistakes and I work hard not to make any new “mistakes”. I am really good at making myself small. It’s a skill I’ve perfected over the years – putting others’ needs (whether physical or emotional) in front of my own. I’ve learned implicitly that my worth is based on the value I give to others and/or other’s evaluation of me.

But recently I’ve been thinking about how unfair this practice of basing my actions around other’s evaluations is to myself. When I’m so afraid to share my whole self because of what others will think, I sacrifice my humanity to cover the cost of others’ comfort. No one’s dignity is worth this.

Much of the time this practice is so internalized that I don’t even know I’m equating my sense of self with my perception of others’ perception of me. It’s like I hide in shadows of half-truths and misconceptions. It feels safe in the shadows because no one can see the real me. Sometimes the shadows are long and I have so much room to move in the shadows that I can forget that I’m hiding. But other times the sun shifts directly overhead and the shadows get shorter and shorter till I’m stuck, glued in one place with no where to move unless I’m willing to step out into the sun. Step out into the truth. When the shadows are short (as they’ve been in the last week) I must face the truth that I have been living in is fear. That I have let some arbitrary lines on the ground determine where I can go, what I can do, who I can be, who I already am.

Alice Walker once said, “The most common way people give up their power is by thinking they don’t have any.” When I stand in the shadows of fear I give up my power to whatever person/idea under which I hover. I think of babies and how they just keep screaming until they get what they want. They know intuitively that no one can make them do anything they don’t want to. They don’t shrink into themselves and hide in shadows.  Their survival depends on making sure they get their needs met whether or not their parents want to sleep, whether or not crying would disrupt the quiet prayer time, whether or not the folks on the plane will be annoyed at them. Babies might be small in size but they are not afraid to claim their power.

In this way I want to be more like an infant. I want to know my power and not shrink from it. I want to step out from the shadow of fear where I’ve boxed myself in. I might be able to scrape by in the shadows but I can’t thrive there. I can’t be my best self when I’m living inside a lie. Doing so hurts me, and those around me. Logically I know this. I know that I can’t make everyone happy and that love based on fitting others’ expectations isn’t love at all. But I still put pressure on myself to diminish myself everyday. I think the goal for me right now is to become more aware and just see where and when it’s happening so I can interrupt the cycle. The goal is to interrogate my fears. Why am I afraid? Is that something to actually be afraid of? Do I want to give away my power, my humanity, to fear so easily?

Living life out of the shadows doesn’t always mean a big hurrah. Sometimes it’s a small step. Writing a vulnerable letter. Ending a harmful conversation. Taking care of myself. Generally the reason I stay small and in the shadows is I’m afraid of loss – loss of favor or reputation or relationships. But as Jeannie reminded me today, who’s to say all loss is bad? And who can predict what may be gained when I step into the light? When I face my fears and let myself be seen? When I take up space?

Maybe I’ll gain a new reputation or some great new relationships but that’s not the goal. In this process of stepping out and showing up the thing I’m looking to gain is both the simplest and the most difficult thing. I’m just looking to regain myself.

Worthy

In the week or two leading up to this month’s 2-day YogaRoots on Location teacher training, I found myself having some self-confidence issues. Some of them were little that I don’t even remember, but some were more potent, like looking at myself in the poorly-lit dressing room mirror and feeling disappointed and upset with the body I saw. These were some of the thoughts and feelings I carried with me into the training weekend.

A portion of the training was devoted to processing traumatic experiences. Everyone had something. It was incredibly humanizing, and I was grateful to be in a space that was so vulnerable. The trauma I shared involved a harmful relationship that occurred over three years ago. I thought I had processed it and it was part of the past. However, my emotional reaction to reliving some of that trauma showed me that there is processing, remnants of hurt, and feelings of not being good enough that I still have to address.

The following day of the training included a portion devoted to self-love/self-care. For me, this was even harder than the trauma part. I had begun to realize that I had some things to work through with my self-worth, but I could try to ignore them before this. On this day at the training I had to directly face them. We were asked to write a letter to ourselves about self-love. As I wrote the letter, it was clear that there is some type of block deep within me that won’t allow me to genuinely and deeply love myself. The only way I was able to write the letter was if I pictured myself giving a friend advice. For some reason, I logically know and truly believe that a person’s self-worth is not dependent on others – and I can tell other people that. (I can even do an entire ceramics project with worthiness messages to others.) But I don’t know how to tell myself that in an honest way. Some part of me feels like it is far too self-centered to love myself.

Recently, my lack of self-love has been most clear in the context of body image. I think a big part of that is due to social media, so I’ve started doing a bit of a purge. I also plan to incorporate art into my body-love process. I have found that when I draw portraits, I have a new appreciation of individuals’ features when I look at them. I focus on the details and love how the shadows and lines and wrinkles form a human being. I want to do that for myself, too. I plan to sketch parts of my body that I generally don’t feel good about. My hope is that focusing on them will allow me to see the beauty in these parts of me, rather than thinking of them as flaws.

My self-worth issues are about more than just body-image, though. I have always pushed myself to do well, whether in school, sports, relationships, choir, etc. Knowing that I’m doing well in these activities depends on the reactions of others. My whole life I have found my worth in the approval of others. That feels so demeaning and restrictive. I don’t feel free. It limits my self-expression. Plus, the constant desire to perform perfectly means that I have to feel better than everyone else. (That’s a white-supremacy-culture thing.) And I don’t want those feelings any longer. I want to simply love myself and find my worth in being human. In simply being.

Maybe what I need is a new frame. Maybe instead of seeking approval, accountability is what I need. The reality is that everyone’s lives are constantly going to be shaped and shifted by those around them. Instead of seeking that perfect grade from a teacher in order to feel good about my paper, maybe that grade can be a way that the teacher holds me accountable for learning and challenging myself. Getting a bad grade on a paper does not mean that my worth is decreased, nor is the worth of my work decreased. Maybe it is just a new opportunity for accountable growth.

As I write this, I’m realizing how much of the process of truly loving myself involves letting go. It requires letting go of the expectation that I am going to be perfect at everything I do. Letting go of the desire to please everyone. Letting go of the need for people to like me in order to feel worthy of love.

I am worthy of self-love and the love of the Divine because I AM. It depends on nothing and no one. I mess up, and still I am worthy. I feel ugly, and still I am worthy. I am worthy. Period.

Logically, I can say that loving myself is an important step in loving others. I think for most of my life I have tried to ignore that step and leap a few ahead. It’s time for me to love others and love myself. These don’t have to be mutually exclusive, as I once thought they did. I thought that by loving myself too much I was being selfish and giving up love that should be going towards others. But love is not a scarce commodity that needs to be divided up. It is abundant and ever-flowing, and there is plenty for me to show myself and show others.

As we say at the end of each yoga class with Felicia, “We are one.” Namaste: The Divine in me respects the Divine in you. The Love in me respects the Love in you. Loving and honoring myself means I can, at the same time, love and honor others. We are one.

When being in community with all becomes dangerous

I recently found out that a self-proclaiming white supremacist couple (Lana Lokteff and Henrik Palmgren) moved in less than a mile from Eastern Mennonite University, the college I attend. This is obviously troubling for multiple reasons, but particularly because our campus has students of color, students of different religious backgrounds, and international students.

I am in a leadership role at EMU and feel that with that role comes a responsibility to address this situation. I was having a hard time processing this and thinking about how I felt the university should respond. At first, I didn’t think that naming the individuals would be helpful. I feared that calling them out and naming them as white supremacists would eliminate the possibility of ever being in loving community with them. This hesitancy I think stems from my Mennonite upbringing, with the message always shared that being in community with all people is something Jesus demonstrated, thus is something we should try to recreate.

When I was processing this with Amanda (my supervisor for my time in Pittsburgh – here’s her website) she understood where I was coming from as she too grew up Mennonite, but pushed back on my desire not to call them out. She helped me understand that this couple poses a literal threat to many of the students on campus. She asked what approach I would find appropriate if instead of white supremacists moving in, it was a sex offender. I pretty easily said that I would want students to be informed of who this person is and where this person lives for the students’ own safety. White supremacists can take the place of the sex offender in this example. Students could be in danger if they are not made aware of who Lana and Henrik are.

After sitting with this for a bit, I still feel a slightly nervous about naming this couple. Why? Part of me is fearful and wonders if by naming the couple, they would retaliate against the university. I also wonder if by calling them out, they would feel personally attacked and further reinforce their beliefs.

My tendency towards silence is something that upholds white supremacy culture. With systems that were literally built on white supremacy, saying nothing means I help these systems stay in place. In this case, my silence (and the silence of the university) puts students of color in danger. It is often a joke among Mennonites that we avoid conflict at all costs. This probably stems from our pacifism stance (a stance which I am proud of and hold on to, but recognize how it can be counterproductive). I often see silence in the face of conflict within the Mennonite church. For this reason, I am a bit worried that EMU (The “M” stands for “Mennonite”) will stay silent with this issue.

Thus, after further processing and understanding where my hesitancy to name Lana and Henrik comes from, I have come to a place where I feel confident saying it is important for students to be made aware of who Lana and Henrik are. A colleague and I plan to ask members of the university’s faculty and staff how students will be kept safe and how they intend to address this matter with students. I understand now that student safety needs to be the number one concern here, not keeping the door open for being in community with white supremacist individuals (such as Lana and Henrik) who represent a threat to members of our community.

* At first, I didn’t want to use the names of Lana and Henrik or EMU. Even as I wrote this, I found myself wanting to protect all parties. That shows how in this specific instance, even after lots of processing, I still have a tendency of avoiding conflict! That isn’t something that will go away quickly, or possibly ever. It’s all a process and requires many accountability partners to check me when I mess up (such as staying silent when I shouldn’t have).

A story of two angry white ladies

Today I was riding the 88 up from the Strip watching an older white woman (maybe mid-late 60s?) in front of me. She’d caught my attention because she raised her hand to pull the bell but hesitated, leaving her arm in mid-air, for long enough that I had time to check the stop on the sign, look out the window at the upcoming street, notice that she still wasn’t pulling it as we quickly approached so I assumed she was just waiting to pull the bell after we passed that stop so she could get off at the next one (Penn and Negley).

At the last second she pulled the bell, the bus driver stopped at Negley. The woman stood up and walked to the front of the bus. As she was about to get off she turned to the driver, “I pulled the bell for the last stop now I have to walk up that hill!” I thought this would be it. Technically she was right. She had pulled the bell and she did have one up-hill block to walk. The driver, a black man with graying hair, calmly explained to her that she had needed to pull it sooner. He couldn’t stop safely in the amount of time between her pull and the stop.

This angered her. “You could have!” she yelled. “I always pull the bell and I never have any problems.” We were stopped at the light and she demanded he turn the bus around and drive her back to her stop. The light turned green and we kept moving in the same direction.

The woman kept yelling. Then she was screaming. Before we got to the next stop she’d called this man, who was not too far from her age, “Young man!!!” When we got to the next stop the man said, “That’s it. I’m going to have to ask you to get off here.” She refused. Now she was in full blown rage. People got off the bus silently while this woman continued screaming at the top of her lungs in the driver’s ear. He kept driving calmly while telling her she didn’t need to yell. “Young man!…Young man!”

I couldn’t take it any more. I saw she was refusing to get off and would keep up her tirade for as long as long as she could. No one else was saying anything, so I stood up and approached this woman. I knew her anger would turn on me but I also knew I had less at risk than this driver.

I don’t remember exactly what I said. I was flustered. I’d never done anything like this before. I said something like, “Excuse me ma’am. I know you’re upset right now but you don’t need to scream at this man like you’re doing. This man is elder – he’s not elderly, but he’s an adult – and you don’t get to call him ‘young man’ just because of the color of his skin.”

Now her attention was fully on me. She told me I had called her a racist (which I hadn’t but I certainly agreed) but if she was a racist she wouldn’t live in Friendship! As if that was a “get-out of jail card” for her behavior. I said, “I didn’t call you a racist but there is a historical precedent in this country of referring to fully grown black men as “boys” and it’s demeaning. You don’t have to agree with the driver, but you do have to respect him.” She told me I didn’t understand. To her I was just a young woman without real world experience.

Finally, by the time we were at East Liberty Presbyterian she told me I needed to “F**k off!” Then turned around, huffed off the bus, and walked across the street to get a bus back up a much larger hill than she’d faced before.

There was silence on the bus. I felt a little shaky. I was almost to my stop. I pulled the bell. The driver turned to me and said, “I see we both got cussed out today.” I laughed. I wonder how often this happens to him. He was pretty un-phased.  He said, “I can see you got a little fight in you.” On one hand, I did feel like a bit of a badass for being the only person on the bus willing to confront this lady. On the other hand I had felt like I had no idea what I was doing. I introduced myself and shook hands with the driver before departing the bus.

Immediately I saw one of the YROL teachers, a woman of color. Then I went into Target and picked up a few things. My cashier was also black. I noticed something funny happening in my soul. My white lady ego, my IRS, was trying to elbow it’s way in full-force. I wanted recognition and gratitude from people of color. I’d just been verbally attacked by this other white lady. Didn’t they see how much I’d sacrificed “for them?” Ha! Being a decent human shouldn’t earn us any awards. And what I’d chosen to step into is nothing compared to what the driver and other people of color do not chose to, but must, endure daily. Who was I kidding?!?!

But I wasn’t thinking any of this at that point. I was angry I wasn’t getting the recognition and comfort I thought I deserved. I don’t usually recognize my anger because it wasn’t a valid feeling for me to express growing up. I learned that my holiness, especially as a female, was based on keeping anger far away and distant. Pretending it wasn’t there and kind of just floating above it. The good part I suppose of this float above it training is that I’m really good at staying calm in the face of the others’ anger – like the irate woman on the bus today.

I’ve been taught to keep my anger so distant and suppressed that now it lives as just a very light subtle shadow that’s hard to notice, but I’m learning to recognize it better. And so I recognized my anger in the bitterness and hatred I was projecting onto people of color. An anger that had absolutely nothing to do with them, but everything to do with another white lady. This is how whiteness kills all of us.

But then I had this breakthrough moment. I realized that all my feelings were grounded in lies of Internalized Racial Superiority. The primary lie being some semblance of a white savior complex (among other things). I hadn’t stood up to confront that woman in order to “save” the bus driver from her and I wasn’t some “savior” for getting her to leave the bus. My breakthrough was this – I stood up on that bus because doing nothing would have killed my soul. I cannot say day after day in yoga class that “we are one” and then sit in silence. I can’t argue that God created us human in God’s image and then watch a man be dehumanized without knowing that this betrays God’s plan. If I didn’t approach that woman I’d have been letting her dehumanize me too. I’d be dehumanizing myself as her conspirator in silence. The health of my soul requires me to be a co-conspirator with radical love.

When I realized this, all the other passive, barely recognizable to myself anger I’d been carrying around was suddenly gone. I didn’t need recognition because it wasn’t about anyone else’s thinking about me or any invisible standard of what type of person I should be. It was a choice I’d made for me – my soul and my humanity. I’m the only one who owns my humanity and I’d make the same choice again any day even if there was no one else on the bus watching, even if there was no one else in the world to tell the story to.

I don’t feel like I’m explaining it well and maybe this doesn’t sound like a big breakthrough, but I finally get – in a lived, bodily, way – why everyone is talking about the need to do this anti-racism work from a self-centered place. I do my best to live anti-racism because it’s about me and my soul. It’s about being human. It’s about being whole. When I let IRS tell me anti-racism is about saving and looking good and being perfect, my subtle, shadowy anger will show up and come out in dangerous and hateful passive aggressive ways towards people of color.* People I love. People I like to say I’m for.

Today I worked to liberate myself and no one else from whiteness. Today was for me. Today I am more free, and therefore so are we all. We are one. We are one. We are one!

*A sincere thank you to Bekezela, Amber, and Heather for challenging me this past weekend to think more about my anger (and white lady anger in general), where it comes from, and how it shows up in destructive and life-destroying ways for people of color.

** I struggled with if I should even write this post because I don’t want to be praised for doing what some would consider praise-worthy. I chose to post it because it was a really powerful moment for me. I ask that if reading this post made you want to put me on some pedastool, please ask yourself two questions: 1) why do you want to praise/complement/etc.? where did you learn this behavior? and 2) where do you relate to the emotions in this story? where are you in it?