As a woman of European descent, what's become clear to me over time is that the allyship work I can most effectively do is talk to white people about whiteness, and try to make the costs of white identity a little bit clearer. I can try to make the moral choice of "whiteness" a bit more transparent – to make the costs, and the benefits, a little more obvious. I honestly didn't come to that conclusion until I was a grown woman, and I'm still thinking about it, changing, and realizing new things about myself and my relationship in and to the world on a daily basis. I grew up in a majority white community, went to majority white schools my entire life, and now teach at a predominantly white institution (PWI). Trying to work for racial justice means a daily struggle against the programming that schools, families, and other institutions of white supremacist daily life throw at those living in the United States each and every day of our lives.
I often recognize myself in the defensive reactions of those who "think they are white," to quote James Baldwin. Baldwin’s point is that while people who identify as white have all sorts of rich ethnic and cultural backgrounds, those backgrounds have to be distinguished from this category of “white” that was explicitly adopted out of fear and to subordinate the Black community. When I was a child, my parents taught me to cross the street when I saw a Black person coming, but in the same breath claimed that they were "color blind." As Baldwin discusses in his essay "On Being "White"….and Other Lies," embracing whiteness is a moral choice that has profound consequences for all those who choose it. And the cost of that choice, the "price of the ticket" comes at the cost of the "power to control and define themselves." Whiteness is an identity of fear, of escape from reality, an illusion that threatens to collapse. So, in struggling to figure out my way forward in the world, I've come to realize that the cost of embracing whiteness is too high a price to pay, but learning to reject it isn't easy either. And, both in my personal and professional life, I think my job is to try to show that giving up whiteness makes things better for everyone. That may sound naïve, or silly, I realize, but I think fear makes it quite challenging for white people to give up an identity that has given them so much power over the years, and that meant the loss of so many other alternate identities. I think about my father-in-law, who came to the United States from Italy and paid the “price of the ticket” – he became white, he became wealthy, but the American dream of safety, security, prosperity, and ease eluded him. And he gave up so much for that elusive dream: language, culture, history, family. To achieve whiteness. A whiteness that has "brought humanity to the edge of oblivion."
A desire to become capable of allyship, I have come to believe, needs to start with a serious investigation of both the history and of an individual’s personal relationship to white supremacy. For me, one event that crystallized this came about when I was writing a history book on the treatment of Romani people. I began to realize that the deep racism I could see so clearly in a European context was something I was blind to in my own country. It was really only in my teaching position that I began to read deeply and critically against the grain of the history I had been taught throughout my extensive education (up to and including graduate school). James Baldwin and bell hooks transformed my life, and the way I see myself in the world. I began teaching a course with a theologian friend of mine called "race and theologies of liberation" about 8 years ago, and it was my first attempt to not only transform myself, but to learn from and dialogue with students at my PWI about these issues as well. I still remember reading James Cone's Black liberation theology and reacting very defensively to his instruction that white people must in fact, "die to whiteness" and be "reborn anew" to struggle "against white oppression and for the liberation of the oppressed." He tells us that "white converts, if there are any to be found, must be made to realize that they are like babies who have barely learned how to walk and talk. Thus they must be told when to speak and what to say, otherwise they will be excluded from our struggle." Well, those are hard words to hear. And I processed those words with students, and after years of reading and re-reading them, I don't automatically feel as if they are an attack on me. Now, I certainly haven't met Cone's standard of conversion, but I've come to learn that my defensive reactions come from my own fear – my fear of change, my fear of the unknown, and my worry that I'll lose my own little corner of the universe that I (increasingly less often these days) feel somewhat comfortable in. And that fear is stopping me from embracing my humanity, and therefore the full humanity and dignity of those around me. It's also keeping me from the fullness of what it means to really love other humans. And Cone's words made sense – taught to fear Black people from the time I could walk – my job is to listen, to try to understand and to try to transform – and learn to love.
Several years ago, I read a beautiful book that transformed my relationship to my spiritual life and helped me understand what Cone was saying. In The Christian Imagination, Willie James Jennings outlines in painstaking detail how a religion centered on the real, enfleshed Jewish body of Jesus Christ lost sight of itself through the confusion of Christianity with capitalism and slavery (my students have a love/hate relationship with this book – it's a toughie, so save some serious time if you want to tackle it). The book transformed my relationship with faith and demonstrated how we have forgotten about our own bodies, their own enfleshed nature, in favor of a spiritualism which supports false constructs of whiteness, white supremacy, and the relentless pursuit of profit. My job is to listen, to learn, to awaken to all the things that were missing from my own education, and to make visible another way. There is another option, and it's beautiful. Sometimes, what we are taught to fear is in fact beautiful and hopeful, but we have to take the leap.
James Baldwin grew more despairing about the ability of US citizens to recognize the damage we've done to our country by refusing to see our history and ourselves in the full light of day, but one of the things I love most about his work is that he thinks there is another way. He was an optimist with a hard edge. In his essay, Baldwin ends by pointing out that the key to understanding the crisis in white leadership (he's talking about the Reagan 80s here) is to understand the Black experience. The survival of the Black community in the face of such seemingly insurmountable odds as those thrown up by the United States means that survival is possible, joy is possible, through understanding Black survival and Black experience. And in fact, that kind of learning may mean the end of whiteness itself – and must mean the end of whiteness. Being an ally is living into the enormity of seeing oneself differently and defeating fear – through the act of defeating whiteness.