Sunday, September 13, 2009

A Racial Type of Original Sin

I've often heard it said that white people are incurably and innately racist. The idea is that no matter how hard individuals may try to not be racist, the very skin we were born with makes us racist because white-dominated Western cultures give us un-earned advantages that people of other races just don't get. We are tainted from birth and nothing can change that.

I find that idea to be deeply hurtful even as I understand its source. From our history, you'd think that white people are the real root of all evil, that the love of money doesn't even begin to enter into it. It often seems like we've created practically everything that's wrong with the world today. Other races may not be perfect—after all, we're all human and therefore likely to make mistakes of varying degrees of severity—but because of the dominance that white people have had over the world for so long, we've been in the position to do the most evil for the greatest amount of time. And yet, every time I hear this assertion, it hurts me. I have friends who are people of colour. Some of my cousins are half-Ojibwe. One of my mother's friends, a woman who I grew up thinking of as an aunt, was chief of a Cree reserve for several years. These are people I love, and the thought that I'm oppressing them just by being white is painful to me. After all, who likes to think that they're hurting any of people they love simply by existing?

In many ways, the idea of white people as being born incurably racist reminds me of the concept of original sin. It's not anything that any baby, even a white one, asks for or does anything to cultivate. It's something that they inherit from their ancestors and it's something that no amount of good works can save them from. But unlike original sin, which is traditionally done away with by the sacrament of baptism, there can be no absolution from this sin. Even the best white ally of POCs is, at the end of the day, still white and therefore The Enemy.

Initially, I became a Neo-Pagan because I wanted to distance myself from the Roman Catholic Church because of the more oppressive aspects of its past and present. I wanted more power to do good in the world than the severely restricted role of women in the Catholic Church would let me do. I wanted to understand the natural world better. I wanted to feel its energies. I wanted to do more to help it than hurt it. When I felt a pull to my Catholic past, I resisted because I didn't want to go back to something that I perceived as being innately negative. You don't have to look any further than the Pope's stance against contraception, the pedophile priest scandals, the excommunication of women who were ordained as priests (and the bishops who ordained them) and the Spanish Inquisition to see my reasons for that perception. I didn't want to be one of Them anymore. Acknowledging my remaining Christian leanings was very painful to me at first, and as things like the Rosary and prayers to various saints crept back into my spiritual life, I increasingly became alarmed with myself. It wasn't until I realized that it didn't have to be a one-or-the-other choice that I really made peace between what I had been and what I had become. I changed, and my somewhat unconventional spiritual life has been incresingly rewarding even in its difficulties ever since.

I can't do that with my race. I could dye my auburn hair and my pasty skin (I don't tan very well—I burn after more than 15 minutes in strong sunlight). I could have surgery to change my facial features and I could wear dark contact lenses to change the apparent colour of my blue-green eyes. I could learn other languages and totally immerse myself in a non-white culture. With a lot of work, I might even start to blend in, kind of like Archie Belaney when he became Grey Owl. But underneath all the artifice, I would still be white. I would still have grown up with a modicum of white privilege. (Until I reached high school it was curtailed to some degree because although most of my classmates were white, they were also mostly of Italian descent. I am not, and I learned very early on what a "mangiacake" is and why that's not a very complimentary term.) I would still assume that I had the right to basic decency from white people, even though I might not actually present as one anymore and even though as a white person I've sometimes been on the receiving end of white people's vitriol for Existing While Fat and/or Existing While Female—and even just for Existing, period. I may not have been born with these things, may not have been born with a concept of whiteness, but in the nearly 27 years I've been alive, I've absorbed it. I don't like it—but I don't have to like it to be part of it or to benefit from it. I just have to be. No amount of protest or work or attempts to even out the playing field will ever change that.

Obviously, it's an issue with which I have a lot of conflict. Any space that includes me is by default not a safe space for anyone who isn't white, perhaps not so much for my whiteness as for the way I struggle with it. Sure, there are things about me that I don't like, but at the most basic level I see myself as being a decent person. I was raised to think of racism as an evil thing and to think of racists as evil people. So perhaps it's not a big surprise that when I first heard someone say that white people are all incurable racists from the day we're born, it immediately felt like a heavy blow to the solar plexus with a spiky iron glove. I couldn't deny the history. I couldn't deny that racism still existed at the time and I certainly couldn't deny the damage that it was still doing, just as I still can't deny it, or the ways in which systemic racism still benefit me today, whether or not I like it. And you know, I don't want to believe that simply Existing While White makes me a racist any more than being bisexual makes me a closeted lesbian who wants to hold on to straight privilege. That would mean that just by being alive, I'm an instrument of evil who's hurting some of the people I love the most, and that the white people who are among the kindest humans I've ever known are also intrinsically evil. We're in a pretty unique situation, because we do not have to explicitly embrace the evil of racism to be part of it or to benefit from it.

There's got to be a middle ground. There's got to be a way to acknowledge and yet neutralize white privilege without condemning every last person who has it. Can you benefit from racism, whether or not you like or ask for it, without actually being a racist yourself? Can a white person totally eschew white privilege? Is being a racist more than holding racist opinions and acting in racist ways? Is it possible for someone who's a racist in every way it's possible to be a racist to change?

I want to believe that there's hope of some kind for people of my race. Otherwise, it means that we're all really just worthless, and that all other races would be perfectly justified in throwing us all into modern-day equivalents of the Nazi death camps. And because of my belief in an ultimately loving and forgiving Goddess and God (even if They frequently have to be stern with us), and my belief that there's some good in nearly everyone, I find that I can't quite give up on the idea that maybe someday we white folks can redeem ourselves, and that at heart, most of us are neither better nor worse than people of any other race.

1 comment:

  1. You said, "I've often heard it said that white people are incurably and innately racist. The idea is that no matter how hard individuals may try to not be racist, the very skin we were born with makes us racist because white-dominated Western cultures give us un-earned advantages that people of other races just don't get. We are tainted from birth and nothing can change that." Well, if we're going to agree w/ THAT statement, we might as well, say that the way men are born and raised makes them all sexist. Or makes all heterosexual people, heterosexist. All true statements to some degree. And what about African-Americans who hold anti-ethnic bias against Latinos/as? I'm white and was raised in a society that favors white folk... it's my responsibility to fight against that system, and all systems of oppression for that matter. But 'I' or you should not feel guilty... it's a waste of valuable time. Most African-Americans 'I' know don't want whites to feel guilty... they do want to see whites be by their side say in the 'Black Lives Matter' movement. For a Christian understanding of the webs of various oppressions I suggest Miguel De La Torre's book "Reading the Bible from the Margins"... very readable... I've used it in a mixed race small group.