Unpacking Race

My middle daughter and I took the Unpacking Race Workshop put on by Philly Theater of the Oppressed during the month of March. She had done it before and spoken highly of it. I wanted a different angle on racism; TO (Theater of the Oppressed) uses theater games, many of them wordless and involving body movement. It was tough in some ways; 40 seemed too big to me. About 2/3 white and 1/3 People of Color, nine of us Quaker. At 64, I was the oldest person there! Most were in the 25-35 age range. The first 4 sessions were a bit disappointing, with occasional bright spots. The 5th and final one was, great, which helped me see how the parts that didn’t seem so great may have led to the success of the final session. I am especially grateful to the People of Color who attended, their intelligence, their caring and their honesty made a difference. A big shout out to Nolwazi for reminding us that white people are only 10% of the world’s population. (I’m not sure why, but I find that reassuring!)

I learned/experienced new things, but also stuff that I already knew became more solidly a part of my understanding.  A deeper knowing that white supremacy and its system of overt and covert racism and white privilege is a social construct with the sole purpose (from its beginnings in Virginia in the early 1700’s) being to maintain the status quo, which was  that all the power was held by a few wealthily, land-owning men of English extraction AND to ensure the continuation of the flow of wealth towards those at the top, by creating divisions among those without power and to keep them from, together, creating their power.

This next part feels a bit risky to say-mostly because it can be taken the wrong way (and , of course, I mean it only in the right way!)  I also have come to think that there is no such thing as ‘the white race’, nor white culture. I am not white, I am American of European descent, and I have benefitted from the system of white supremacy and white privilege, as have all people of European descent. Our history has been obscured. The poor, often indentured servants of European descent and the enslaved people brought from Africa, back in the colony of Virginia, had begun to find common cause; there were uprisings and rebellions. In response, the men in power came up with a plan to divide the poor people, in order to retain their wealth and power. Essentially the plan was convincing those of European descent that they were different (better than) the enslaved Africans and offering them (a few) rights and privileges in exchange for keeping the enslaved Africans in place at the bottom. This continues today, but is obscured by the layers of history and culture which seem to confirm the differences and hide the bargain and the privileges.

I have come to the conclusion that I will not longer call myself white, but neither will I deny that I have benefitted from white privilege. I will use the terms of European descent, European American, or maybe Caucasian. I do sincerely hope this is not playing into the hands of those promoting white supremacy and privilege!

The experience of Unpacking Race has given me a greater respect for my parents, who essentially made an attempt to live, work and raise their children in an antiracist manner (way back in the 1950’s & 60’s).  Although I believe, they did not fully understand the enormity of the task, I applaud  their sincerity and belief that all people are created equal; that there is “that of G!d in EVERYONE”.  They left behind, middle class job security and the suburbs for low paying social service work and an intentionally integrated housing coop in the “inner city”. I am grateful for their efforts and for the positive things that this created, and I no longer blame them for the negative things, because there is always a price to pay for resistance and rebellion, even nonviolent rebellion.

I now also see that while those of us of European descent have benefitted materially from the bargain white supremacy offers, we have paid most dearly for it.  It was truly a devil’s bargain, though it was not our souls we lost, but our hearts! (Well maybe our hearts and our souls!) At the very least it damaged our ability to love anyone fully, even ourselves, when we agreed to oppress others for personal gain (or for any reason). But when did we do that (?!) you may ask. Let me be clear, no child of European descent can be blamed for an already functioning system of oppression/privilege. Every one of us had to be coerced and sometimes beaten into conformity in some way; ostracized, threatened with exclusion, if not literally beaten. However, as adults we have consciously or (mostly) unconsciously  agreed to go along with the way things are, rather than resist or rebel against it- that is accepting the bargain! The system that we exist in is unfair, cold hearted, punitive (even if it is “better” than other countries/systems) and down right genocidal towards people of color, and we of European descent have benefitted materially from it, both over generations and in our own lives. Somewhere deep down we know it and it eats away at us!

A conundrum remains: there is a cost to resistance against a system which has created such staggering material wealth and power (increasingly concentrated in the hands of  a smaller and smaller number of the rich). But I am now seeing/feeling that the cost is so much greater not to resist. There is the personal cost, the damage to our ability to love and to our integrity. But, there has been a great social cost as well. Make no mistake, every endeavor for social uplift, for real democracy, for the rights of women, for the environment… has fallen short or failed in this country because racism/white privilege has divided us and diminished our power.

A transformation is coming. We, 10% of the worlds population that are European/of European descent, can get onboard, or not. Getting on board is not only the right thing to do, it is in our own interest, as members of the human family. Carpe diem!

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