Until we are all free, we are none of us free. (Emma Lazarus)
As a white person, I always wondered, 'how does the freedom of others affect my freedom, when I'm already free?' And while I thought I understood the idea that racism has a cost for all of us, I never understood the cost it has to my own humanity until I attended a session led by Overcoming Racism.
Overcoming Racism is an organization dedicated to helping partners develop a greater capacity and orientation towards equity, which in turn allows them to create institutions that dismantle systems of oppression in their work. The Founder of this organization led a number of professional development sessions for my organization, all of which were both heart breaking and heart expanding (huge recommendation if your school organization is actively working towards becoming anti-racist, they run an incredible race and equity professional development program). The last session focused on the history of whiteness, and ended with a powerful exercise that fundamentally shifted my lens.
As it turns out, I'm not free at all. I've just been living in a white-dominant world that would have me believe that I am free––so that I stay in line and continue to perpetuate the white supremacist ideals of white identity, racial superiority, and the elite class. Let me help connect the dots from that day. We're an organization of a few hundred in the session, white and predominantly BIPOC teammates. The moderator began the exercise by asking us to think about what we like about belonging to our racial group, and what benefits might come with that belonging. We started with us white folks and I have to admit, it was a slightly uncomfortable few minutes while we all shared publicly and candidly our answers about what we like about being white, and how our white privilege begets certain benefits not afforded to others. The mood was somber as we checked off the white boxes one by one:
Ability to trust cops. Not having to think about being white. Protecting our kids from people who might not like them. Generational wealth. General sense of security and safety. Receiving the benefit of the doubt in life. Access and opportunity. Skin color not an impediment. Not asked to be a spokesperson for other white people. Can expect people to be polite. Don't have to consider where you're traveling. Don't have to worry about other people being suspicious. Can blend in and be 'anonymous'. Can move to new school communities and feel welcome. Experiences aren't questioned. Actions are 'excusable'. Access to financing, credit, housing. Benefits in the health care system, particularly maternal health. Can opt into nationality when advantageous.
Ok, whew. I was oddly glad when that was over. And then the conversation moved to our Black team members. What did they like about belonging to their racial group, what benefits did it bring them? Immediately, the mood lightened, became joyous almost. There was camaraderie, connection, sister and brotherhood, as they laughed and collectively recanted their list:
Resilient. Hair. Athletic. Strong-minded. Strong-willed. Creative and creators. Culture movers. Intelligence. Multiple languages. Communal. Rhymes and rhythm. Strong and protective. Melanin. Talkative. Black joy. Black pride. Ability to build and cultivate. Dance. Music. The nod. Older black folks and their wisdom. Telepathy and the ability to have entire conversations without saying a word.
I was struck by not only the change in tone, but the sense of community and the nature of the emotional responses connected to humanity. Onto our Latinx team members:
Family values. A sense of community. Loyalty. Spirituality. Bilingual or Trilingual dialects. Linguistic value. Food. Representation. Traditions. Music. Culturally diverse. Hard working. The ability to adapt. Respect for elders. Perseverance. Common language. Melanin. Problem solvers. Art and Dance. Resilience. Bravery.
Again, the same uplifting tone among the team, and I had the same feeling of, well, I think it was loneliness. Our Asian American and Pacific Islander team members were next:
Extended family is your close family. Food. Family capital. Industriousness. Traditions. Community-based. Different languages. Music and dance. Poetry and philosophy. Spirituality. Tradition of scientific discovery. Appreciation of culture. Hard working. Different contributions that other racial groups benefit from and enjoy. Communal meal times. Community build through food. Belief in the collective good. Sense of community. Respect of elders. Generally perceived as non-threatening. Some access to tangible benefits that our white group mentioned.
And our Indigenous team members followed:
Resiliency and strength. Connected to the land. Communal value. Conservationist. Multiple languages. Persistence to maintain language and traditions even though both are targeted generation after generation. Storytellers. Rituals. Oral traditions. Dress. Jewelry. Traditional attire. Never claim to own land, solely protectors of the land. Ancestral power. The belief that knowledge is transcendent. Belief that everything and everyone is related.
I wasn't sure where this was all going, but I knew how I was feeling. When I looked at the white list to which I contributed, I felt sad, a bit guilty and shameful, lucky, and ultimately empty and disconnected from who I am, what I value in life, and anything that means everything to me. But what was so strange was that when I looked back at the ‘white’ list, there wasn't anything 'negative' on that list that should have made me feel any of those things. But yet I did. And I then realized that I was feeling the weight of white supremacy.
It also became clear to me that White people –– in our lack of identification of actually belonging to a racial group ––aren't really part of any 'community' per se. Nor do we benefit from that beauty and solidarity that community brings to humanity. Our race is connected to the benefits we receive in society, not who we are, what we value or what is human about us. Now, that doesn't mean that I couldn't identify with so many of the attributes from the other lists, I do share so many of those values and ideals, but I just don't identify them with being white. In that moment, I understood that to belong to this group, I've traded off my humanity to uphold supremacy.
Our race is connected to the benefits we receive in society, not who we are, what we value or what is human about us.
Another enlightening perspective brought into the zoom room by our moderator related to shared cultural wealth. So, if white people want access to any part of any of what it might mean to be BIPOC –– hair, music, food, language, traditions, culture movers –– the system of white supremacy gives us permission to do so, anytime. But if Black, Indigenous, Persons of Color want to come on over and tap into any of what it means to be white –– the trust of cops, protecting children, access, opportunity, safety, security –– white supremacy says "No. You can't have those things, you can't appropriate, even though we can." Highlighting the epitome of injustice, and a pretty definitive lightbulb on why cultural appropriation, among other things, can be so damaging.
It's hard to imagine a world in which the cultural wealth of all groups are shared because white supremacy has socialized us to believe that white privileges are a zero-sum game. If you don't protect them, you'll lose them and Black, Indigenous, and Persons of Color will somehow take them. Sounds absurd; we all know these 'benefits' aren't necessarily in short supply. So where does this zero-sum mentality come from? Heather McGhee talks about it in her amazing book, ‘The Sum of Us', but essentially, we've been socialized to believe that whatever helps Black people hurts whites. This sentiment is so pervasive in our culture, so strongly embedded in right wing messaging, that poor and working class whites have been socialized to perceive any 'advantages' given to African Americans (or any community of color) as something taken away from themselves.
It's hard to imagine a world in which the cultural wealth of all groups are shared because white supremacy has socialized us to believe that white privileges are a zero-sum game.
But it's not true. Of course, there's enough for everyone. Diversity is our super power. The benefit of different perspectives lifts us all. Cultural appropriation could become more of a cultural exchange if we would only share our unearned privileges, value all differences, embrace all communities, be unafraid of the differences in language and traditions among us, know that we are all on the same team and value a common humanity, 'if only we're brave enough to see it. If only we're brave enough to be it.' (Amanda Gorman).
Truth is, white supremacy is a con and we've all been pawns in this game for centuries. The original 'divide and conquer' strategy of the rich, land holding elites, to discourage dissent and prevent Black and white people from uniting on common ground has always been, and continues to be, the driving force that keeps us divided. But it's unfounded. And, it’s intended to distract our attention from the real reasons why we live in a country with glaring inequity and disparities in wealth, healthcare, employment, housing and justice. Because if we're busy fighting each other, we won't be focused on the rise of the plutocracy, the corporate culture of greed, a political culture dominated by lobbyists and special interests, and economic policies that favor the wealthy over the masses, the few over the many.
If we're busy fighting each other, we won't be focused on the rise of the plutocracy, the corporate culture of greed, a political culture dominated by lobbyists and special interests, and economic policies that favor the wealthy over the masses, the few over the many.
As a white person, bound to upholding the system, I have traded off meaningful relationships with others, shared cultural wealth, and self-love to participate in it. It's time I stopped trading-off what makes me human for 'privileges' that all of us should have, recognize that all of our freedom is intertwined, and that we are all bound up in the oppression of white supremacy. It's time we said no to white domination –– not only because the system is morally evil, but because we refuse to be manipulated by the not-so-veiled intentions to divide and conquer us.
Until we are all free, we are none of us free.