Beyond the Invisible Knapsack

STORY:           “It’s Not Fair,” Amy Krouse Rosenthal and Thom Lichtenheld

READINGS:    “sam,” Lucille Clifton and “Liberty,” Langston Hughes

 

REFLECTION          Elliot Altomare

I’ve been asked to speak about why I, a white person, feel the call to do anti-racist organizing in my community. I’ve known for a while that this would be a difficult question to answer- it’s not a topic of conversation that comes up very often, and I am wary of falling into a white savior complex, so I’ve been quiet about it. But I’m trying to find that solid ground where I can share my story and be honest about why I'm doing this, and what follows is where I’m standing now.

I have been told many myths in my life, often tied to being raised in a Christian household. I was raised seeing bible stories as sources of ultimate truth, and I was told that some of those stories said that gay and queer people were going to hell- that they were sick, and confused, and probably under the influence of the devil. Sometimes those messages were told explicitly, and other times they were told by silence, or exclusion, or in coded language that I didn’t fully comprehend until later. No matter how they were conveyed, they were the water I swam in, and I absorbed those messages. The fear they instilled stayed with me long after I left the church, and it took years for me to admit that I didn’t identify as female. It took even longer for me to take that first step in my transition, to begin presenting- to myself and to the world- as a man. 

Gender is a complicated thing, and everyone has their own relationship to it. For me, it’s a mixture of social expectations and how I feel inside. I grew up surrounded by messages about how god intended gender to work, but it was never something that my parents talked to me about. When I came out to my family, some were worried that I didn’t think I was pretty enough. Others were worried that nobody would ever love me, because I’d be too confusing to everyone. But before my transition, I would sit in my apartment alone, get a little drunk, and cry about my body. I had spent a very long time not being able to love myself, and I couldn’t do that anymore.

Transitioning was something I had to do for my survival, but it is possible to be transgender and transphobic at the same time. All the hurtful messages I learned about gender are still inside of me, and still part of the lens I use to look at myself and the world.

It wasn’t until I experienced incredible love and support from the community around me that I began to reject those messages. As of today, they haven’t lost all their power, and I don’t know that they ever will. But I can see them, and name them for the myths they are, and not let them determine my actions- which is what allows me to be here today.

There are even more myths our society tells, and when I don’t live under their shadow, they are harder for me to see. I don’t feel the injustices they cause in my heart in the same way, and if I chose to ignore them, my life would feel largely the same. But I can’t deny that they’ve influenced me in very deep ways, and I know enough about myself to admit that I’m racist. I was raised in a racist society, in a lot of mostly-white towns, and it’s something that I’ll work my whole life to unlearn. 

I work in a progressive nonprofit organization, and have been able to hear discussions about racism on a regular basis, from people of color as well as white people, all determined to address injustice. 

I’m also having these discussions here, in Northampton. Through these conversations, I get to talk with other people about recognizing our racism- which is not a comfortable thing to do. Initially, this work involved a lot of guilt, but feelings of guilt don’t fix anything. 

To paraphrase a line from “why are all the black kids sitting in the cafeteria together”, I have to work to feel good about my whiteness in the context of a commitment to a just society. This requires two tasks- the abandonment of individual racism, and the recognition and opposition to institutional and cultural racism. 

Those are systems of oppression that were supposed to be invisible to me- and when I first heard about them, I wanted to deny them, because the truth was contradictory to everything I’d been told about the place that I live. It seemed impossible to me that a black person is murdered by cops or vigilantes every 28 hours in this country, and it seemed impossible that the median wealth of a black household is 5% that of a white household. I was raised in communities that didn’t talk much about race, but told me that we lived in the land of plenty, with justice for all. To accept the truth meant that I had to reject what I’d been told my whole life, and realize that everyone who told me those messages had been wrong. 

As I’ve been a part of these discussions, and learned how far we are from justice, I’ve had to choose whether or not I’m going to engage in the issue, or just watch and see what happens.

And while I no longer wear ‘what would Jesus do’ bracelets, that call still has meaning to me. I was raised with the stories of a radical healer who put himself in front of stones and lifted up the voices of the downtrodden, and that’s an admirable thing to aspire to be. Today, I've chosen a faith in our ability as humans to take care of one another- as Jesus took care of others, and others have taken care of me. That faith calls me to play an active role in addressing those injustices, even if I don't always feel the impact of them in my heart, or know what I should write on a protest sign. 

At the environmental rallies I’ve attended, we chant, “all our injustices are connected”- which means that our collective liberation from oppression rests on us working together to support each other’s struggles. I would not be able to do this anti-racism work had I not been supported and loved while I was being crushed by the myths I’d been told about myself. 

And so I believe in the power of radical love and intentional community.  I believe that we can support one another to do this work, better take care of each other and ourselves, and celebrate what is good while still being committed to make things better. I'm grateful to be doing that here.

 

 

REFLECTION                      The Reverend Janet Bush

Racism is hard to talk about. My husband Booker is black, our sons describe themselves as half-black. My Filipina granddaughters have been taught to stay out of the sun, because it will make them darker, and dark is not a pretty as light. None of that makes me an authority on racism, nor does it make it easier for me to talk about.

 

 

 

There are words like Liberty
 
That almost make me cry.
 
If you had known what I know
 
You would know why.                                              Langston Hughes, “Liberty” 

 

 

I do not know what Langston Hughes knows.  Our experiences shape what we know. Elliot has shared, beautifully, how his experiences have shaped his commitment to learn about racism, and do something about it. And I agree with Elliot when he says that our injustices are interconnected.

 

When children like those in our story complain, “It’s not fair,” their grown-ups sometimes find themselves saying “Fair doesn’t mean exactly the same.” Fair doesn’t mean the same. Fair does mean that the playing field, drawn large, is basically level.  We read earlier, from a poem called “sam,” by Lucille Clifton:

 

...
if he
could have gone to school he would have learned to write
his story and not live it.
if he could have done better
he would have.  oh stars
and stripes forever
what did you do to my father


In the late 1980s the feminist scholar and activist Peggy McIntosh wrote a groundbreaking paper called “White Privilege, Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack.” It is she lists 50 conditions which confer unseen and unacknowledged advantages on people in this country whose skin is white. Here are a few of them:

  • I can, if I wish, arrange to be in the company of people of my race most of the time.
  • If I need to move, I can be pretty sure of renting or purchasing housing in an area which I can afford and in which I would want to live, where my neighbors will not harass me.
  • I can go shopping alone most of the time, pretty well assured that I won’t be followed or bothered.
  • When I am told positive stories about our national heritage or about "civilization," I am shown that people of my color made it what it is.

There are 46 more, and she has added to the list since the paper was first written. A long list of conditions describing some of what makes the playing field uneven.

http://www.deanza.edu/faculty/lewisjulie/White%20Priviledge%20Unpacking%20the%20Invisible%20Knapsack.pdf

 

Two weeks ago Booker and I found ourselves in the Philadelphia airport. We were trying to get home from San Francisco, and we had made train reservations for the next morning, to get back to Logan airport in Boston and rescue our car. Philadelphia was the closest city United Airlines could detour us through that had been unaffected by that weekend’s snow. At the baggage claim, an older African American man approached us. “Are you going downtown? Do you need a ride?”

 

The day before we had visited with Booker’s brother Mike in Oakland. We talked about many things, including Uber. Uber is a somewhat controversial alternative to licensed cabs – a system that links drivers to riders via a cellphone app. It now operates in major cities around the world. I asked the man if he was an Uber driver. He wasn’t.  No matter.  We took him up on the offer.

 

You might wonder, or guess, why this African American freelance taxi driver had chosen to approach the two of us. We asked him about Uber in Philadelphia. “My brother uses it all the time,” Booker told him. “He knows that the guy or woman who comes will actually give him a ride.” Booker’s brother Mike is a business consultant. He has very dark-skin. More than once, an empty cab in Boston or New York has shut off its lights when he has tried to flag it down, only to turn them on again and pick up a white customer on the next block.

“Some cabbies won’t pick up some kinds of people,” our driver said. His cap reminded me of Booker’s father.

 

Racism is hard to talk about.

 

Peggy McIntosh writes:

 

(Before I began to look at the invisible privileges associated with being white), I did not see myself as a racist. I did not see myself as a racist because I was taught to recognize racism only in individual acts of meanness by members of my group, never in invisible systems conferring unsought racial dominance on my group from birth.

 

Racism exists in invisible (or hard to see) systems that grant racial dominance to whites.

 

I asked my brother-in-law Mike if I could talk about him today, and he said it was fine (although he did suggest I send him a percentage of the plate collection.) Mike is very funny. He is also very independent – and an entrepreneur. Being entrepreneurial fits his personality.

 

But there is another reason he has gone out on his own. It can be difficult, and soul-wearing, for a black person to cut an upward path through large institutions with invisible systems that confer advantages on people whose skin is light.

 

Mike has designed medical supply systems and set up international networks of cell-phone towers. He once consulted on a project to harvest ancient timber from the bottom of an African lake. He teaches, and he coaches small business owners and managers of non-profits.

 

A year or so ago, his business dried up. His phone stopped ringing. Prospective clients didn’t return his calls. “They say a drought can happen,” he said. “And it did. For months, nothing. I thought, ‘Maybe this is it. Maybe I’m done.’ My friends said, ‘Face it, Mike, you’re fifty-six, and you’re black.’ ”

 

Our injustices are interconnected. And racism, especially the invisible, institutional kind, is hard to acknowledge and talk about. For many reasons – some having to do with ignorance, some to do with fear and shame. Those of us who are white might prefer to believe that racism has been eliminated from our institutions through civil rights legislation and affirmative action. We might acknowledge that people of color historically have been held back, while also believing we ourselves got to where we are today without benefit of any special advantages. We might believe, as Peggy McIntosh once did, that racism is mostly a problem of someone else’s bigotry.

 

We’d be mostly wrong.

 

She wrote:

… I was taught to think that racism could end if white individuals changed their attitude. But a "white" skin in the United States opens many doors for whites whether or not we approve of the way dominance has been conferred on us.

 To redesign social systems we need first to acknowledge their colossal unseen dimensions. The silences and denials surrounding privilege are a key political tool. They keep the thinking about equality or equity incomplete, protecting unearned advantage and conferred dominance by making these subjects taboo.

 

No wonder racism is hard to talk about. Our injustices are interconnected, and talking about what perpetuates them is taboo. Was Mike’s business drought related to his color? Who knows? Today he has more projects than he can handle.

 

We need to find the courage to have the taboo conversations. We need to listen to people like Elliot, who are trying to learn, and to share what they are learning.

 

The Unitarian Universalist Association has made a commitment to becoming an anti-racist, multicultural organization. It will take time. Mistakes have been made and will continue to be made. But we need to believe that things can change.

 

We need to believe that things can change. As Elliot has told us, we can support one another in learning more about ourselves, and in trying to understand and confront the hidden systems of privilege. Elliot has organized a small group of people who are doing that together, here. You can join them in the Parlor this afternoon at 4:15. Another group is reading and talking about Naomi Klein’s book This Changes Everything. Because our injustices are connected.

 
There are words like Liberty
That almost make me cry.
If you had known what I know
You would know why.                                              

 

We need to have hope, and to refuse complacency and complicity. We can learn, explore with one another, listen to those who know, and then decide what each of us can and will do.