In a recent small group discussion at church on the role of race, specifically whiteness, in systemic racism (no, it was not an easy Sunday School lesson), a friend offered an amazingly succinct summary for understanding our current struggle: race was created by racists.
John Biewen and Chenjerai Kumanyika do an amazing job of describing this in their Scene On Radio podcast series entitled, “Seeing White.” Ta-Nehisi Coates most notably spells it out this way in his captivating book and letter to his son, Between the World and Me:
But race is the child of racism, not the father. And the process of naming “the people” has never been a matter of genealogy and physiognomy so much as one of hierarchy. …this is the new idea at the heart of these new people who have been brought up hopelessly, tragically, deceitfully, to believe that they are white.”
Since listening to this podcast and reading this book several years ago, I have been on a journey of understanding how I had been brought up to believe that I am white. My parents, having been raised in the context of explicit racism, tried to raise us to be colorblind, which meant preserving the whiteness we could not see and wishing everyone would also remain blind to their race and culture. “ColorInsight” is Rhonda Magee’s alternative to colorblindness, one that calls us “to resist the temptation to normalize racism, or bypass it, but to stay in the struggle for multiracial, democratic justice in courageous fellowship with others.” What a beautiful call to action.
Now that I have begun to see whiteness, how do I respond? How do I move to a place of ColorInsight? I do not defend whiteness or withdraw from seeing its power. I do not want to be a part of the legacy that created it; however, I cannot deny that I am white. Or, as Coates says, I was brought up to believe I was white. The difference in saying “I am white” versus “I have believed myself to be white” is the difference between maintaining the legacy of whiteness (even if unintentional) versus recognizing its legacy but with a desire to undo its power, privilege, and comparative legacy of hierarchical differences.
Magee encourages each of us to consider the ways we have been “racialized” or taught the myths about race and the meanings that have been assigned to these understandings of race, so that we can move a place of ColorInsight.
If whiteness is a part of your racialized identity development, how do you understand the belief that you have been white and what is a new belief that might replace it? You are typically more reluctant to consider the meaning of your own race and less in touch with the role it plays in your life and in our society because of its predominance.
In addition, she says that people of color are also racialized, but more commonly learn about race over the course of your lifetime as you participate in and respond to the dominant white culture, and as you regularly experience racism individually and in multiple systems. These serve as constant reminders of what it means to identify as a person of color.
“Racialization” she says, includes “the personal, interpersonal, and systemic processes by which races and their social implications are made and remade daily, monthly, yearly, in each generation.” These processes are perpetual and it takes time, work, and reflection to see these things.
The journey of advent is an opportunity for reflection and growth as we engage this work. It is also historically a season of penitence. I lit my candle in a spirit of penitence and hope last week. Together, these allow me to journey from liberal guilt to Godly grief, as Jemar Tisby writes. This week my candle has been focused on penitence and peace. I remain focused on understanding the legacy of a culture that created race and racism, that taught me to believe I was white. And, I focus on finding peace in this journey that can so easily overwhelm us. The most common criticism among white people for not doing the work of antiracism is believing it only promotes guilt and shame. No one thinks guilt is helpful; the practice of penance in the church is not about guilt, but is a gateway for grace. And, for peace. How do we develop a spirit of penitence, coupled with hope and peace?
Magee teaches us a mindfulness approach she calls “Racial Emotional Awareness Practice,” a contemplative practice to create a spirit of peace, for all of us, as we have all been affected by systemic racism.
She invites us to begin the meditation being quiet, centered, present, and aware of our body and our breath. She asks us to consider:
- What thoughts, emotions, and sensations come up when you are asked to turn toward the topic of racial disparities when you are alone? What comes up when you are in mixed company?
- What are some of the stories you tell yourself to explain these disparate outcomes in the world? To what extent are these based on actual facts?
- What insights on race are you aware of now that you may not have been aware of before beginning these practices?
- Now release the thoughts, emotions, and sensations that arose as you looked at this issue.
She invites us to move from these reflections to a lovingkindness meditation and closes with these words:
Notice the sensations, emotions, thoughts, and reactions that arise within you, especially any tendency to move away from what you know. As you bring this meditation to a close, offer appreciation, love, and kindness to the part of you that brought you to the willingness to know and to grow.
May you experience the peace of Christ as we work together for equity and justice in our world.