Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Being White in a World of Color: Groundwork

Thirty-nine years ago this fall, I was a first-year studio art major at Mount Holyoke College. I'd come to South Hadley, Massachusetts from my family's home on a rural island off the coast of South Korea, so I was experiencing deep culture shock, though I had no language for it at the time.

Somehow I found my way to a campus workshop on racism, presented by Judith Katz, a UMass-Amherst professor who was developing the material that became her 1978 book, White Awareness: A Handbook for Anti-Racism Training.

Katz led the workshop participants through a series of exercises designed to help us see how we as members of the dominant group were socialized in often unconscious patterns of behavior, and participated and benefited from a system that gave preference to whites. I was introduced to the definition, "racism = prejudice + power." The goal, according to Katz, was to become "anti-racist racists" (one can see why the term didn't catch on).

It all made sense to me. The crowds of curious onlookers who gathered around me on childhood forays to the open-air market had made me highly conscious of my race. The shocking gap between our family's prosperity and the poverty of postwar, early 1960's Korea had been a troubling experience of the color line and the class line. And the chosen segregation by American missionaries from the people they had come to "save" had been a clear demonstration of white supremacy.

Everything Katz taught us that day was a revelation, an answer to questions I hadn't even formed yet. It was the conscious beginning of a lifelong pursuit to unlock the puzzle of race, culture and human difference.

Over the years, I've observed that white responses to such descriptions of white racism tend to fall into three predictable categories:
1. Adherence. A small but growing number of whites consider definitions like Katz's to be anti-racism orthodoxy.
2. Resistance: "Don't try to make me feel guilty for the sins of my fathers," "Don't try to pin this on white people. What about all the things that African-Americans do that are racist?" or "How can you paint all white people with the same brush? That's racism, too."
3. Defensiveness and guilt. Many white people are committed to racial equality but want reassurance that they're not personally part of the problem.

In my experience, none of these responses (all of which I've recognized in myself) really move us forward. I've heard innumerable testimonials that the hardest people to deal with are liberals who believe that they are in solidarity with people of color, but may be blind to the ways they're still operating within racist patterns.

The assurance of being right can appear as, and so quickly become, self-righteousness.

The only consistently useful approach I've found in nearly forty years of exploring the topic is to keep my focus on what I don't know. The other day I had a conversation about this with writer Catherine Anderson, in which I found myself stating my intention "to start from all the places where I have got it wrong."

That's what I'll be trying to do here.

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