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“All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.” - Orwell
"Everyone's a little bit racist." - Avenue Q
We, as a nation, do not value all human life the same: Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, North Carolina; Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Freddie Gray and so many others; North Carolina’s drama around taking down the Confederate Flag. Privilege comes in many packages, but few so clear and tidy as whiteness.
All people aren’t equal even in Jurassic World. Watching it, my friend and I had a running joke that whenever a minority actor was on-screen (which happened maybe five times) they were going to die next. The only exception was Omar Sy, whose character survived only because the white guy saves him. This is actually true. And this is a totally asinine example, but it indicates just how deep our built-in public thoughtlessness about racism goes.
Sadly, thoughtlessness feeds national crises. Yet Tina Linford in the Huffington Post argues that it is in fact this very principle that can offer us a road to redemption: “The path of healing this national issue is the same process with which we must engage as individuals. We must first acknowledge the national hurt sustained. Then, we must recognize and challenge our wound-causing thoughts. And lastly, as a country, we must rewire our default racist beliefs, interpretations and assumptions. This process takes time.”
Can I, a small and specific person, really change the world with my brain? Can individual thoughts compound to national healing?
When I was younger I was so idealistic I was blind. It didn’t occur to me that Jesus was probably not the sandy-blonde Germanic-looking fellow in my grandfather’s Catholic art, or that such a representation was suspicious. It didn’t occur to me to ask my Romani friend if using the word “Gypsy” was problematic, or to ask my Tolowa classmates what they felt about Columbus Day, or to think it was weird that we had maybe only three African-American students at our high school. I didn’t experience cultural appropriation, discrimination, or hate from others because of my skin color.
Because I’m white.
Yet my story, my identity – just like everyone’s story – cannot be reduced simply to the color of my skin. To be human is to be more than one thing at any given time. As an artist, I am constantly asking myself what it means to be human, what we all share in our common nature and essential spirit. I love to sniff out unity, universal external truth, beauty, and kinship. I am tempted to lock myself up with my pleasant ideals and interpretive-dance my way through life with nary a care.
But how can I meaningfully contribute to the discussion of what it is to be human without truly understanding my own identity, or even what identity means? And how can I tackle identity without thinking about race and privilege?
In a recent interview titled Looking White in the Face in the New York Times, (black) philosophy professor George Yancey asks (white) philosophy professor John D. Caputo some interesting questions. One of my favorites was this: “Given that you claim…that white philosophers can not responsibly ignore the subject of race, what do you think must be done to get them — and the ways they understand philosophy — to change?”
Caputo’s response clicks with me: “More often than not I do not analyze race explicitly unless I am asked to…one solution is to do what you’re doing now — ask us! Interrupt us. Stop us and ask, “To what extent is everything you just said a function of being white?” There’s a fair chance we never asked ourselves that question.”
Wow, I certainly never ask myself this question. I like this question. Let’s tackle it now: to what extent is everything I just said a function of being white?
Well, probably everything I just said is a function of being white. Because I am me. And I am white. What a concept. How can I separate whiteness from my understanding of everything? I cannot actually extract myself and my thoughts from my body, my skin color, my experiences. How could anything I say or think not be a function of being white?
It’s simple, but easy to not just think about. Because privilege.
And Caputo’s interview, to me, begs an even more basic, uncomfortable question: what does being white even mean? What racial privileges do I accept day to day without thinking, and what are the consequences of my thoughtlessness? What can I do to practice justice and compassion more faithfully? What do the ideals and dreams I cherish mean if I try to disentangle them from my whiteness? What is whiteness?
For me, these are hard questions. I’m not a philosopher: I am an artist. But now I’m even re-thinking the ideas behind some of my favorite books. As a tween I loved Colonial British literature: Kipling, Bronte, Conrad; the dangerous adventures had, the faraway places described, the foreign cultures (mis-)represented. Colonialism may be evil, but dang those imperialists could write! They conjured for me a simultaneously simplistic and rich worldview, a stark duality in rich imagery that I was able to grasp; there was a philosophical value system under the surface, an assumed universal Manichean reality and connective web of concepts assumed to be true: good was Good, evil Evil, all ideals were capitalized and every extreme had its equal opposite: every Sherlock Holmes had his Moriarty.
Everything was Black and White, pun intended.
And Caputo points out something creepy: in many philosophies and schools of thought, the color white is typically assigned to positives. Reason is white, chaos and emptiness black; purity is light, corruption dark. Even in the Bible this color scheme is surprising reinforced, with righteousness white as snow and sin staining dark. These subtle ideas percolate outward, whiteness rising to the top.
I had never gone the extra step and bothered to ask what those ideas I’d treasured – Justice, Truth, Beauty, Reason – would mean once loosened from whiteness...until now. What if Reason were colorless? What if God were truly, as James Baldwin so evocatively wrote, the color of water? What if I thought more about how my experience of whiteness influences my perception of reality, and took a step toward birthing an actual awareness of my own latent racial understandings?
It’s been shockingly frustrating for me to apply this question to my life, to question whiteness everywhere and face my privilege. I had been so determined to look past whiteness that it got to the point, for me, when people would talk about race and white people and the terms “we” and “us” and “them” would get thrown around, and I’d be thinking; “We, who?” I SO wanted to just identify with Humanity with a capital H and skip the necessary steps of dealing with ethnic identity to get there. Empathy and imagination alone, I reasoned, were all I needed to put myself in to other peoples’ shoes.
But it just doesn’t work that way regarding race. And, here’s the irony. You know how you put yourself into other peoples’ shoes? In acting school, they taught us that the first step is to stand in your own shoes.
My shoes are white.
Actors talk a lot about “living truthfully under the given circumstances.” It’s a technique, meant to lead to believable, fresh, vital action in a performance, and it’s very simple; just acknowledge reality, and then react like a believable human being. It’s surprisingly hard to do. What if I were to do that in my day-to-day life and not only on stage, and live truthfully regarding the circumstances of racism?
What does my own identity rise from, and what does it teach me? What does my being white have to do with the character I develop in the context of my times? How, as a white woman, do I ally helpfully with my neighbors to change the world for the better? Is it possible for my imagination and empathy to help me uplift and feel what George Yancy called the “ethical weight” of others around me, instead of just whitewashing ideas? Can changing my own internal thinking about race really make a difference in the suffering of others?
I’m trying to connect all I’ve learned as an artist with all I am trying to learn as a human, and I’m realizing it is not until I first identify and then face, head-on, the functions of my whiteness that I can even begin to live truthfully under the given circumstances, to use my own specificity of character and identity as a microcosm of human nature at large. To do that I have to deal with the specifics that separate me from others, and not try to appropriate their experiences. Only then can I “seek justice, reprove the ruthless, defend the orphan, plead for the widow (Isaiah 1:17).” Only after I take down the picture of blonde Jesus from the wall can I begin to look for the real thing, to look in the mirror, to look for the Truth with a capital T.
And I must to look, hard.
#Real #Race #Racism #White #Whiteness #Philosophy #Color #Art #Identity #Humanity #Equality #BlackLivesMatter
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