Friday, November 11, 2016

How whiteness recenters itself again and again

We really lost some ground when Euro folks stopped believing that it was ok to talk about ghosts and spirits. This fierce focus on the rational, on what can be "proven," as though facts are not themselves reliant on belief systems, has made it much harder to attack white supremacy.

Whiteness does not exist. It is an abstraction, like money. It's something that only exists as a set of belief systems and then cultural practices that maintain those belief systems.  It is real in two ways. First, in how it has hijacked the survival systems of Euro-descended people so that any attack on whiteness literally feels like an attack on their lives. And then second in how it has created and maintained systems that exist to "prove" over and over again that those hijacked survival systems have a reason to be afraid. Think policing. Think education. Think "Make America Great Again." Think mainstream news and television, how many churches operate, how neighborhoods are segregated and redlined, how employment is parceled out.

We almost had it different. When those early Anglos first came over, they brought with them centuries of class division. Poor people trusting rich people? I don't think so. The separation on the basis of class was built into what it meant to be English. This worked fine for early settlement with indentured servitude being how poor and working class Anglos were brought to help clear and farm this land so that the English system of land ownership and serfdom could be maintained. Things were going along great until those indentured servants started building alliances with freed and enslaved Blacks. In response, the survival system of family wealth, an Anglo belief system that for most of its history believed that it had been ordained by God /to be rich, did was survival systems do under threat. Made some shifts and changes in order to ensure that it kept surviving. In this case, that meant slightly widening its circle to build on the centuries long intimacy between rich and poor Anglos by creating an "us" against a "them." This would not have been possible without this intimacy. Rich landowners knew the vulnerable points of the families they had been overruling for generations and so those buttons were pushed and over generations, whiteness was solidified.

This is intimate. This is personal.

Whiteness does not exist but white people exist. When I first became a bodyworker in the early 2000s, I almost immediately noticed that, while race is a social construct, racialized bodies are not. We become who we are through this conditioning. And while there is no single version of any particularly raced body, there are things that are true about bodies that have been raised for multiple generations within a particular culture. As John Mohawk (Seneca) said, "culture is a learned means of survival". We become who we are because we are raised within a culture that teaches us a whole bunch of shit including why the world around us is like it is and the best way we have to survive it and to find connection within it.

Except for whiteness. There is no "there" there.

The image I get for whiteness is of heavily guarded empty space. Whiteness says you don't need to know your ancestors, what they did or how they got here. Whiteness says that you should leave all of that because if you work hard enough, then you can create your own future that is separate from all of that uncomfortable past. Obviously, this only fully works for those who experience no contradiction to this in daily life. Most of us conditioned to be white experience some kind of contradiction. But that's where the whole system comes in, constantly triggering the survival system through fear (whether it's the fear of the other or the fear of not getting it perfect or the fear of being seen as being a failure or racist or not a good Christian or not a good friend etc) so that the body just wants to work harder to be safe.

But if whiteness is emptiness, then what does that mean?

Whiteness finds its identity through doing. Imagine an empty circle. The only reason that empty circle is not floating through the air is because it tethers itself to other people, ideologies, stories, all kinds of things to hold it stable. The tether varies based on the kind of white you are. Some tethers are: being a good Christian, being anti-racist, protecting the second Amendment, being green and recycling and eating organic food, being a good parent. These tethers are not without good solid grounding BUT it's the connection to them that is problematic. If an empty circle holds itself steady by having strong tethers to a range of things it believes in and identifies with, then what happens when something shakes those tethers? Like when you get afraid that someone might take your guns away? Or call you out for being racist? Or notice that you are wearing sweatshop clothes even if they are organic? This isn't just about a differing view point. This is about survival; survival that is grounded in keeping some balance with all of those tethers. This is true for everyone except that what is different about whiteness is that there is nothing else to ground into. We gave all of that up when we handed off our rich and complex cultures that had evolved for generations for something that had no roots.

Here is the ultimate contradiction which is why I think we keep not getting anywhere with ending whiteness. Because in order for this to shift, those white bodies have to experience themselves. They have to start filling up that empty space with their own histories, feelings, memories, actual flesh. This is a process of reconnection so that whatever needs to come - the grief passed down through generations of assimilation, the experience of being a baby and young child who is conditioned to not trust yourself and other people, the rage, the despair, all of it has to have the space to be witnessed and integrated. And this takes time. And this is how whiteness keeps winning. Because those of us who identify as anti-racists also resist anything that is about a deeper recentering of white people.

When I hear "white people take care of your own," this is what I understand. Taking care of our own is not about  bullying or organizing or somehow being the light on someone's "ignorance," it's not about missionary or charity work, but it's about this deep intimacy, this personal thing that says, right here and right now, I am going to take the time to go here with you, into our shared grief and rage, so that we can get past it and start surviving for something much bigger than our own sense of balance and stability.

Which also means putting our bodies in front of the police, at Standing Rock, in front of ICE raiders, and anywhere where indigenous folks, Black folks, immigrants, refugrees and other folks of color ask us to show up, under their leadership, on their terms. Always always we have to first stop the violence, work our asses off to make sure that every individual and every community has the space and time to heal, to do their own version of this work or whatever other work or play or story they determine is right for now. It is only recentering whiteness yet again to do the work of coming back into our own homes while our very whiteness is preventing others from being safe in their own.

What does this mean practically? I will be talking about that on this blog but for now: do not read a single piece of news media or literature about this election without asking how your family line helped to create this present moment. This is about the original wound that unites us all here on this land and in this time...and our gender, sexuality, class, ability and so on exists within this context. Period.

And when you read and respond to what is happening now ,noticing your own family line's participation, also notice what happens for you when you do this? What sensations do you feel? What emotions? What does your body want to do? What stories, defenses, regrets, assertions run through your mind? Just notice them as information. Write them down. Share them with me if you want. And then do it again. You are watching for patterns, in between the times when you are working your ass off to stop the violence. Back and forth, each feeding the other.

Who I am and what I am doing with these posts

This writing is an offering without ego attached (or with a promise to deal with my ego/sense of control when it comes roaring up so you don't have to). It is an offering, a conversation about how to shift white conditioning and its security system of white supremacy with racism as its strategy.

This offering is not about getting it right, it's about saving my life, the life of my child and her maybe children, the life of my partner, my family, and my loved ones ,those known and unknown, those of you whose lives were already targeted before this election. It is about finding better ways to fight, about being rigorous for all of the ways in which whiteness keeps recentering itself in my own body and the world around me, and it's about remembering that if I try and do this by another more personal progressive version of the police state, then I might get short term gain but zero long term transformation.

This offering is grounded in my own sense of purpose, my understanding of what it means for me to be in this life. I am the child of my ancestors and their decisions, whose survival choices and lack of choices were part of creating the world that I inhabit today. I am here because they lived. We are here because they helped build or else stood by without acting or withdrew from the struggle for justice. We are here because sometimes they fought and stayed in but it wasn't enough.

And so I call all of them: my father's two different Italian family lines, the Grappones who lived for generations in the town of Gesualdo, and who came to the US at the turn of the 19th century to the 20th, settling on Lenni Lenape land. I particularly name my great uncle Romolo who, although I did not know him well, once told me that if he had his choice, he would have gone back to Italy because, as he said, this land is not our land. I am not white, he said, but my children are and I don't know how to stop it.  My father's other family line, the Raffos, came slightly earlier and were from Sicily originally and then migrated north to Genoa. I have met a Raffo family who, upon first arriving in the US, looked along the racial line and said, well, we are more like them than them and so married into families in the Black south. That was not my family line.  I have stories of anti-Italian bias experienced by my family. I have stories of struggle. But by the time my two Italian family lines got to my generation, we were already well in the trade off of culture/language/history for the empty promises of US whiteness. First, these families benefited from colonization as new settlers, living in cheap New York housing for new immigrants, land that was only cheap because of how it had been taken. Both of these family lines benefited from the  racial policies of the 1950s where actions like busing and changes in public education helped to consolidate this generation of immigrant descendants into white people. 

I also bring in my mother's two lines, the German and the Anishinabeg/French Canadian. I am the great grandchild of the Sieferd's and Friedel's, German Catholics who came in the mid to late 19th century, settling just outside of lands that are the traditional lands of the Erie people, what is now Cleveland, Ohio. Buying land as farmers and, for the space of a generation and a half, becoming rich off this land through what it produced and then later through its sale. Being German and based on when they emigrated,  their access to whiteness was more immediate than the Italians. Many of them then used this access to join and become leaders in the powerful labor unions of the early and mid 20th century, participating in the class consolidation around whiteness, when unions fought to keep out the Black workers who had come north with the Great Migration. This is just one of the ways that my ancestors participated in the ongoing evolution of white supremacy. I particularly bring in my great Grandmother who had the Sight. I am the child of this family line that, today, shows up as pissed off white working class midwesterners looking for someone to blame for their pain. 

And I am also the grandchild of my maternal grandfather, a man without a birth certificate who told me stories when I was growing up about his parents as they left their reserve at the turn of the century to escape the boarding schools being set up in Canada, left their home/culture/language/land in order to keep their children. I am the child of the stories he told in secret, not shared across the family as stories we all had in common, some of us having pieces and some of us having more. These are stories I also didn't share until a Native friend looked at me and asked, Susan, do you want the genocide to win? Ever since then I have worked to find out as much as I can about my grandfather's people, about my people, the Anishinabeg, and to not use my whiteness to turn "Indian" into a nice box that I get to claim but to instead, be in deep relationship to this history, listening and waiting for right action, so that, as with all of my family lines, I can do the repair that caused harm.

I claim all four of my grandparents and their parents before them and I am responsible for and accountable to what their choices and lack of choices created. I am their child..

In each of my family lines I am either the 3rd or 4th generation from arrival into this country or from beginning the journey of hiding.  This telling is also my own, not necessarily how my  brother or mother or other family members would tell these stories. This is part of what is broken. It matters when we don't know who we are and where we come from; who our people are and what they have done. White supremacy thrives on the confusion this not knowing brings.