Undoing Racism, part deux

Always wanted a chance to say “part deux.”

In the second day of this training by the People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond, we learned about:

The false equation.Think back to the last time you were rejected by someone whose approval you really, really wanted. What would happen inside you if that devastating rejection took place not once, not twice, but constantly, on every day of your life? What if you were made to feel that the rejection was due to the unacceptable color of your skin? Mahdi called this “the false equation.” If your brain perceives your skin color to be a problem, it sets about stubbornly, obsessively solving this problem that does not really exist (the real element in the equation is society’s racism, not your skin). This sense of inferiority is internalized racial oppression, and it gives rise to any number of dysfunctional behaviors: denial, distancing, mimicking, anger, colorism, and the like.

For white people, it works in reverse, with an internalized sense of superiority. Come on, you know the drill: individualism, competitiveness, fragmentation, paternalism, entitlement, the universalizing of one’s own experiences. (Diana said that most groups of white people, presented with the first day’s revelation that all white people are racist, react with alarm; it makes her uneasy when a group reacts as calmly as we did, because it means that the idea of white privilege has become part of our intellectual-elite vocabulary, and we aren’t really taking it in.) Either way, this internalized racial oppression is designed to keep us “out of the game,” in the bleachers of our own heads, taking up time, energy, and emotional courage that could otherwise be used to dismantle racism.

The emptiness of “white.” Diana taught us that the process of becoming white is a historical one rooted in the beginnings of this country. Whiteness was legislated to divide oppressed populations from each other and prevent them from joining forces. For example, indentured servants deemed to be “white” were given lesser sentences for infractions, thus driving a wedge between them and their black fellows. Three hundred years later, in Takao Ozawa v. the United States, the Supreme Court ruled that Japanese immigrants were not white, blocking them from naturalization and continuing the process of setting Americans against each other.

The purpose of the process, of course, is to preserve resources for the privileged white group. Remember, racism is a tool for holding the class system in place. In fact, for me the greatest revelation of this training (save one, for which see next post) was the knowledge that racism is a mechanism, consciously engineered, which deliberately excludes an artificially determined segment of the population from wealth and opportunity.

And because this is an ongoing process, groups of (non-black) people who were previously denigrated by the system can rise to the level of whiteness, as Ozawa was seeking to do. Or, as Diana put it, “Not everybody became white at the same time.” The most recent groups to gain white status, she said, were the Jews and the Italians. However, to reap the rewards of whiteness—the opportunities for education, enrichment, and advancement—a group of people must leave its own ethnicity behind.

As it happened, I heard a perfect illustration of this from a friend a few days after the training. She and her partner were talking with a contractor, an Irish immigrant, who was doing renovations on their house. When he learned that her partner’s name was Keefe, the contractor commented, “I know lots of O’Keefes, but no Keefes.” My client’s partner replied that his family had dropped the “O” back in Ireland. “Oh,” the contractor said, “you drank the soup.” And he explained that the English, during the Irish Potato Famine, had offered free soup to any Irish who were willing to drop the “O” or the “Mc” from their surnames. If you clung to your ethnicity, you starved.

The whiteness of wealth. We watched an excerpt about the history of housing from “Race: The Power of an Illusion.” It explained redlining, the process that, among other harmful effects, barred people of color from the new Levittowns of the 1950s. This section of the training was something of a rain of facts, and Diana recommended “When Affirmative Action was White” as important supplementary reading.

This discussion shed a sudden light on something in my own life that has been puzzling me for a long time, to which I’ll devote the next post.