Friday, June 11, 2010

The Myth of Innocence

More than a decade ago, I participated in an "Undoing Racism" workshop run by the People's Institute for Survival and Beyond.

During a workshop break, I had a conversation with an African-American woman about the phenomenon of white people being so unaware of the bias they carry and their frequent passionate defense that since they didn't intend to do anything racist, it couldn't have been racist. Yet the impact of their attitudes or actions remains harmful.

In the course of our discussion, this woman challenged my characterization of this process as being completely unconscious. She commented that it was a willful blindness, that people were capable of seeing their bias but chose not to. I've been pondering this idea ever since.

I suppose that this aspect of white conditioning is like an addictive pattern. My understanding of the process of freeing oneself from an addiction is that one must first become so aware of the harm one is causing that the pain of continuing is greater than the pain of letting go of the addictive substance or behavior. This is the catalyst for change and the beginning of recovery.

Anyone observing from the outside the devastation caused by full-blown addiction would find it hard to believe that the addict could be unaware of the impact. Denial is an essential cog in the machinery that maintains addiction. The same case could be made for the ways in which white people spend so much time defending and justifying our behaviors (and our books) rather than examining and working to change them.

Of course I was innocent when as a child I began to absorb the patterns of whiteness. But as an adult, whether or not I've been complicit in my lack of awareness, I always have the option of choosing to see. The most useful response when someone points out the gap between the intention and the impact of my actions is not to defend my intention but to invest my energy in closing the gap, to do whatever it takes to ensure that the impact matches my intention.

My deepest commitment and most engaged work to free myself from White Mind began once I realized the harm I was causing myself, how much of me I had lost in allowing these patterns to speak and act for me. I wanted my self back. I've discovered that my journey is furthered by two inner companions: one, a fierce and relentless warrior whose eyes are always open; the other a wise companion who reminds me to reach for my own goodness and humanity.

My journey is fueled by my knowledge of the ways white patterns dehumanize others and myself, and lit by the hope that I can break free of them. And I have discovered that, moment by moment and day by day, when I choose to see these patterns, they become visible.

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