This being a private blog (for the moment), I am writing to myself as a way of helping with my preparations for my fall preliminary exams. So rather than waste the time that I should be studying on Facebook or other websites, I can login here to actually be productive (that’s the goal, of course). So here is my first blog to help me digest some of what I’ve read today:
Janet Helms’Black and White Racial Identity has been my go-to text for several years in talking about how white people can talk about racism. My research interests are in helping white preachers preach about racism in white congregations, and her work has been really helpful in identifying stages through which white people travel on their way to becoming non-oppressive Whites.
Now to be clear, “White” is not a term that is defined by Helms, and in my other readings, issues of ethnicity and class have been raised to argue against the polarizing and generalizing term “white.” But yet I included it in my blog title…Why is this? Why do I call myself “White” and what do I mean by that? In explaining my use of the term, I hope to explain a bit of what Helms means as she describes white racial identity development.
To describe myself as “white” is to begin with a confession, an acknowledgement that my personal history alone does not account for places I’ve been and the successes I’ve achieved across my lifetime. There have been certain advantages I have had that have enabled me to be where I am today: a middle-class, well-educated person who can move to a new location and buy or rent without worrying whether the color of my skin will make the property values around me go down. Ok, so I’m already getting on my soap box. But before I backup, I need to be clear that I’m talking about “white privilege” in a way that is closely linked with “middle-class privilege.” While racism and classism are two separate problems in our society, they are also closely linked. Poor whites and whites from immigrant families will not automatically receive the same “privileges” given to whites with more financial stability. So calling myself “white” is a way to say, I am the recipient of a long historical tradition of benefits accruing to some and not to others based on my white skin. That being said, I’m also a woman and fully aware of the discrimination faced by women still today in our society, though white women are considerably better off than women of color. I call myself a “scholarly mother” because I think of my role as a mother as part of my scholarship, and my role as a scholar as part of my mothering. (My children are constantly learning “lessons” whether they ask for them or not, and fortunately, they generally seem pretty interested so far. But they are only 5 and 2, so I may be in for a short time of this…).
My coming to awareness of being “white” happened steadily throughout my life, though there were moments when this realization came more abruptly than others. Being friends with an African American boy while in middle school and getting a comment from a relative, “you know, you will never be able to marry him…” which seemed an odd thing to add parenthetically to a girl only in the seventh grade. But my first serious boyfriend in high school was Lebanese American, someone who seemed every bit as “white” as I was, though I sensed our relationship made another relative a little uneasy. Finally, in seminary, I discovered feminist theology, but it wasn’t until I took a course exposing me to the theologies of non-white women theologians that I recognized the normalizing tendency of “whiteness” in my life. That is, what I took for “normal,” or “women’s experience” (as in the early feminist theologies), was specifically the experiences of white people rather than a broader population. This sense of injustice overcame me, helping me to see throughout my life a history of “normal”-ness made normal only by my white privilege: not being regularly pulled over by police when driving in a nice neighborhood, not wondering myself or having my classmates wonder whether my good grades and accomplishments were due to affirmative action or hearing the expression that “I was a credit to my race,” or remarking at how smart I was for a white person. While I suffer other “handicaps” for which I have received comments, being a woman, being rather short in stature, being a mother while also a doctoral student, none of these have dramatically affected my economic opportunities or health care or treatment in a department store.
Since the “awakening” I experienced in seminary, I spent a year working as a chaplain on the US-Mexico border in Arizona, seeing first hand the tragedies resulting from high-speed chases of INS agents and persons trying to enter the US via “coyotes.” I then worked for two years in a church that bordered a neighborhood of African Americans but aimed its advertising towards other areas if the city. My experiences working in admissions at a prestigious seminary also called to my attention the continuing dynamics of race and racism. I felt a vocational shifting, wanting to immerse myself in studying more about this issue and how to communicate about ways whites can change in our attitudes and behaviors. Since my background has been in religion (I’m an ordained minister), I felt like the context of preaching would be the logical avenue for me to study.
Thus far, I’ve told a “story,” explaining my interests in narrative form, how my own life has changed as a result of individual experiences and encounters. I am convinced that “revelation” occurs only within our life experiences, not in abstract terms or generalities, but in how it impacts our own historical contexts. Sermons that are meaningful to listeners are not meaningful in a generalizable way, but only in the specific way that a sermon somehow connects with who we are and what is happening to us, and in a specific way it is able to speak to us something of who God is and who God is calling us to be. This understanding of revelation comes from my recent reading of H. Richard Niebhur’s The Meaning of Revelation. Talking about revelation does not help you receive revelations or proclaim revelations exactly, but it does help you identify some of the common characteristics that may be present when persons experience something of a revelation.
Analogically, the stages of racial identity development help to describe how persons experience themselves as racial selves in a context of historical racism. The stages do not suggest ways people move from one to the next, but rather provide general tools for helping persons understand what has happened or may happen in their journey to becoming anti-racist or more independent from the racial assumptions that pattern our thinking. For instance, persons of color learn what they might experience by way of resulting emotions and attitudes when they begin to identify with a positive understanding of what it means to a person of color living without internalizing the racist attitudes that surround her. Similarly for whites, the stages help whites see that guilt, shame, and denial are common reactions to learning about racism, but that these emotions are not the end goal but must be worked through on the way to becoming an anti-racist ally. Thus, these stages do not tell you how to move towards the goal but rather identify signposts that you might be getting there.
The signposts of my journey I have chronicled here briefly, since my own narrative is central to my way of thinking and my projected future interests. As I continue to write and reflect, I hope this blog may be helpful not only for my own preparation for my exams this fall, but also for others…