Change the meaning of whiteness

Reading “My Grandmother’s Hands” by Resmaa Menakem and Pr18A

Most of the anti-racism group work I have done has been in nearly all-white New Hampshire or (via zoom) the tri-state area (NH, Vermont, Maine.)  I have often heard white people say they can’t do anti-racism work because they don’t know any black people.

It’s difficult to convince people that racism is a problem for white people to work on with other white people. Menakem is insistent on that point and good at explaining what the work is.

He says, “Your white body was not something you chose, but the imaginary construct of whiteness is something you can change.” How?

1.       Understand that your privilege is not benign: it comes at a cost to someone else. Become aware of your privilege and how it functions.

2.       Name it when you see it or hear it. Do not cooperate with it. Whether it is a behavior, a dog-whistle or euphemism  or a racial myth, challenge it. Confront it.

3.       When you confront the privilege, notice what happens in your body. Notice your physical discomfort. Learn to calm or settle yourself so that what you do next can come from your best self and not from (what Menakem likes to call) your “lizard brain.”

4.       Take responsibility for short circuiting white privilege and look for ways to share your privilege with others.

Change the meaning of whiteness from “oblivious and fragile” to “responsible and resilient.”

Can we do this work in mixed black and white groups?  Menakem says, “No, not yet.” To try is to set everyone up for failure because until we have done the work we need to do in our own groups — white and black — we will just keep triggering the trauma in each other’s bodies.  Ultimately, Menakem hopes that white and black people, working in their own groups, will give rise to new cultures which systematically teach and celebrate the rejection of white supremacy. “Change culture” Menakem says “and you change lives.”  

I am grateful for this book. After three rounds of “Me and White Supremacy” and one of “Sacred Ground,” I was feeling at a bit of a dead end. This book helps me see a way forward. Perhaps another “Me and White Supremacy” group with an equal emphasis on “My Grandmother’s Hands” for its open-ended positive approach and do-able body-work exercises. We’ll see.

Where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them. Mtt.18:20

Sometimes people share our values. Other times, as Jesus says, we just need to let them and ourselves move on. As Jesus says elsewhere, “shake the dust.” (Mtt.10:14.) Not to be mean or judgmental, but because we are looking for people who see what we see.

For the casual stuff, casual friends are enough. But for the challenging work, we need the support of people who share our vision and hope. Find two or three people like that and we’re good to go!

Photo by Charlein Gracia on Unsplash

I’m stepping aside from the camino for a week. See you on September 22!