Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Liberation Work

In July, my friend Grace Valenzuela, Program Director for the Office of Multilingual and Multicultural Programs of Portland Public Schools, asked me to speak at a class she was teaching at the University of Southern Maine, "Linguistic and Cultural Diversity in the Classroom." I spent an hour with her class of mostly teachers talking about one of my favorite topics, being white.

I started off by sharing five assumptions which undergird my thinking about race and eradicating racism:

1. The process of socialization forms learned patterns of attitudes and behaviors, often unconscious. Socialization includes systems of oppressions such as racism, classism, and sexism.

2. Racism is harmful to everyone. Though the impact of racism is experienced quite differently depending on where you are placed in its hierarchy (and may be nearly invisible to those cast in the power role), it's a systematic oppression. Teaching a person (often unconsciously) to devalue other people based on race is dehumanizing.

There's a James Baldwin quote I love that expresses this: "This is the place in which it seems to me most white Americans find themselves. Impaled. ... (T)he history of white people has led them to a fearful baffling place where they have begun to lose touch with reality - to lose touch, that is, with themselves."

3. Racial identity is formed by "what is made salient," the mirrors that are held up for us, as we grow up. (For a wonderful exloration of this topic, see "Why Are All The Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?" and Other Conversations About Race" by Beverly Daniel Tatum.)
This is one of the reasons why most white people in this country, the norm as they grew up, aren't as conscious of race as most people of color in this country, who grew up being defined as "different."

4. Our various group identities interact. So someone raised white, poor and Catholic has a very different experience of being white than someone raised white, middle-class and Jewish, or white, wealthy and Protestant.

5. Patterns can be unlearned with curiosity and a lack of judgment. We didn't ask to be taught racism. So though we're responsible for our attitudes, behaviors, and actions, we're not to blame for the system. We have much to gain by unlearning the patterns we absorbed, but that's hard to do if we feel guilty and defensive. Instead, we can choose to get really curious - "Where in the world did that thought or impulse come from?" and, like a detective, go looking for clues in our own experiences and background.

I've experienced the liberation of identifying pieces of these patterns in myself. Once you know they're there, and recognize them when they appear, you can make the choice not to act on them. As you release yourself from the unconscious control of these patterns, you're more and more freed to be yourself.

If you want to learn more about identifying and letting go of these patterns, one great place to get assistance is the trainings offered by the National Coalition Building Institute.

No comments: