By Gwyn Barley, PhD
As 2018 closed, I awoke on a cold gray morning thinking about Christmas dinner, where my dad read a part of one of his sermons from years past. My dad was a Presbyterian minister for most of his career. He saved all his sermons in boxes and, as older people are prone to do, started tossing out stored-away boxes—only to find this treasure trove of sermons.
In rereading them, he has been discovering the many chapters of his life’s happiness and pain. One sermon came out for his Christmas dinner reading. It was from 1993, a sermon he preached in Kalamazoo, Mich. He highlighted a quote attributed to the author Henry James:
Three things in human life are important:
the first is to be kind;
the second is to be kind;
and the third is to be kind.
As he read the last sentence, he broke down in tears. A range of emotions and thoughts surfaced for me, too. First, my self-critical voice spoke, as always, reminding me of how many times I have not been kind enough to too many people. Then my thoughts turned to work, and what it means to be a white ally, to dismantle the harsh realities of racism and oppression in this country that reveal themselves every day in my life and my work. How does being kind fit into that?
I found myself rereading, for the umpteenth time, Tema Okun’s piece called White Supremacy Culture. I am always startled by how much it reflects me and how I have practiced my leadership.
White supremacy is often thought of as white nationalists and extremist hate groups marching with torches and protesting the removal of Confederate statues. This definition obscures the reality of a larger system at work. White supremacy, as a term, captures the assumed superiority of people defined and perceived as white and the actions and practices based upon those assumptions. White supremacy, in this context, does not refer to individual white people and their individual intentions or actions, but rather to an overarching political, economic and social system of domination. As Ta-Nehisi Coates says in his essay “The Case for Reparations”: “White supremacy is not merely the work of hotheaded demagogues, or a matter of false consciousness, but a force so fundamental to America that it is difficult to imagine a country without it.”
Naming white supremacy changes the conversation. It makes the system visible and shifts the locus of change onto white people, where it belongs. It also points us in the direction of the lifelong work that is uniquely ours, challenging the complicity with and the investment in racism.
The characteristics of white supremacy culture, according to Okun, include perfectionism, a sense of urgency, defensiveness, valuing quantity over quality, worship of the written word, belief in only one right way, paternalism, either/or thinking, power hoarding, fear of open conflict, individualism, the belief that I’m the only one who can do this right, the belief that progress is equated “bigger” and “more,” a belief in objectivity, and claiming a right to comfort.
These are traits I have been directly rewarded for, whether monetarily, with promotions or with access to power. And they are traits that keep racism and oppression alive and functioning in this country. There have been countless times, in my quest to act consciously, in which I have found myself considering what it would look like to dismantle the culture of the predominantly white supremacist organizations I have worked at throughout my career.
And I come back to kindness. For me, that has meant learning and practicing an entirely different skill set, which includes the centering of people’s often untold stories of lived experiences, never-ending relationship and trust building, listening for real pain and fear, allowing time and patience, honoring culture and community that has been buried and ignored for its difference, being open to ideas that have gone unheard, healing and acceptance.
As we at The Trust are also on a journey to dismantle white supremacy and share our power and privilege, I have often wondered what a workplace that is not built on the culture of whiteness would be and look like. I get excited thinking of a place where people treat each other as equals, with deep respect for lived experiences, with uncompromising safety and trust, and allowing for sharing and being vulnerable. A place where kindness and love are the core values for which to measure success. We have a long way to go, as the “rubber band effect” of being snapped back to practicing white supremacy is very hard to undo. And it simply has to start and continue with us white folks who maintain these traits day in and day out.
While anti-racist efforts ultimately seek to transform institutionalized racism, anti-racist education may be most effective by starting at the micro level. The goal is to generate the development of perspectives and skills that enable all people, regardless of racial location, to be active initiators of change. Since all individuals who live within a racist system are enmeshed in its relations, this means that all are responsible for either perpetuating or transforming that system. However, although all individuals play a role in keeping the system active, the responsibility for change is not equally shared. White racism is ultimately a white problem and the burden for interrupting it belongs to white people.
It’s 2019 and the work only grows. I know that I have many blind spots and unconscious investments in white superiority. My investments are reinforced every day in this society. I have contributed to maintaining this system. It unfairly benefits me and I am responsible for interrupting it. I am honored to work and serve at a place where I can say these things, and strive for a different world where equity is the driving force.