Conference Workshop: “How Did a White Boy Like Me Get to a Place Like This?”

Dr. Stephen C. Nelson will be presenting a conference workshop at the upcoming Overcoming Racism Conference. This highly interactive session will address the difficulty in discussing issues of race and racism with family members and work colleagues. “We will discuss specific barriers to this work through my personal story of awakening and with audience discussion. Together we can take command.” – Stephen C. Nelson, MD Children’s-Minnesota, Hackman Consulting Group

An Inside Job

This morning, as I sat down for a few minutes of contemplation and quiet, I began reading the forward of Thich Nhat Hanh’s Peace Is Every Step, written by H.H. the Dalai Lama. I didn’t get very far because the first line of the forward read, “Although attempting to bring about world peace through the internal transformation of individuals is difficult, it is the only way.” Only? Only. Intellectually, this was not new information. Physically and spiritually, however, I was a bit overwhelmed. Given all of the suffering and layers of personal pain each of the 7.5 billion of us might have to work through to get there, how can we possibly achieve peace if this is the “only” way. Almost immediately, I felt myself start to shut down.

Structural change is critical, of course, but from the above point of view it is a necessary triage but not the solution. Not for its lack of efficacy in creating some form of change, but for its inability to get to the heart of the problem – the internal disposition that we each take regarding issues of oppression. By disposition I mean the ideas, stereotypes, narratives, ways of being, norms, rules, expectations, mental frameworks, or whatever you want to call the constructs that oppression is built on. And, it has to change. Case in point, while I laud Governor Jerry Brown’s decision to no longer use grand juries in determining whether police should be prosecuted in cases of use of force, if I am reading the research correctly (Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow, The Guardian’s reporting on numbers of shooting deaths by police in 2015, etc.) there is something happening in the U.S. criminal justice system that no amount of structural change can fully address. There was something internal going on for the White people who shot Tamir Rice, who decided it was a just use of force and any “reasonable” person would have made the same decision, who decided not to prosecute based on the preceding “expert” testimonial, and who therefore decided that while it was “sad” there was truly nothing that could have been done differently. Yes, of course, there is something that could have and can be done, but it is the very thing that everyday White folks simply cannot even conceive of let alone do as a group – profoundly and completely change internally.

And by this I do not mean simply gain new information, I mean exploring a deep and fundamental change to the way White folks (and dominant group members in general) live in this world. It is one thing to have an “open” mind where I am willing to take in new information about race or gender or class, but that does not guarantee that the previously established mis-information will be uprooted and discarded. In trainings I often refer to this as akin to building a house on a Superfund site – you can have the best architects and builders for that new house, but if the soil in the foundation is contaminated with nuclear radiation and chemical toxins, they will inevitably seep into the foundation and eventually kill you. That is why superficial diversity trainings on “race” will never, ever change the nature of a police department’s long-standing approach to racial realities in this society. The centuries-old and toxic ideologies of race, racism and Whiteness will consistently seep in and literally kill unarmed Black men. The solution, therefore, is for White folks to completely displace these ideologies and the concomitant views that White people act on in every areas of our lives. This is incredibly deep work and it means that the ways of being for White U.S.-ers must transform. Importantly, this work cannot be a side project, or an “I’ll get to it later”. Rather the amount of energy, time and commitment that White folks have toward this must match the level of the problem.

As His Holiness indicated, this is no easy lift. So much of White peoples’ world view is attached to Whiteness – so much we cannot even perceive as being connected – family structures, owning property, what is considered social etiquette, the communication styles that are valued, the dress code, the ways of interacting with others regarding personal space, etc. So much of U.S. White lives are connected to Whiteness that it can be overwhelming to know where to begin. And yet, if Whites in this country do not undergo this kind of deep internal change, we simply cannot escape this racial nightmare. Every structural change will be undermined by the constancy of our socialization in and loyalty to the system of Whiteness. It will seem almost atavistic in how we keep reverting back to the ways of Whiteness. Again, I’m not knocking structural changes – we must change policing with body cameras, changes in prosecutorial power, changes in the ways police are trained, the demilitarization of our police departments, and so on. All that, however, does not undo the deeper currents of racial ideology that have so thoroughly saturated the minds of even the best White police officers.

The prosecutor’s decision regarding the Tamir Rice case was duly representative of how the systems of laws in the U.S. have responded to the racism directed to People of Color and Native peoples for over four centuries. This is not new. All of the absurd “decisions” by structures of power regarding race over the last two years are not new. What might be new is the recognition on the part of some White people in this country (the more the better) that the typical White liberal approach of supporting a few new laws and having taxpayer dollars go toward a new “training series” for police officers is not and never will be enough. Instead, White people (all White people) in this country need to undergo deep and profound internal changes, we need to reorient our moral, ethical, spiritual and social compasses, we need to upend the world as we know it and ultimately change if we have any hope of Tamir Rice being the very last unarmed Black male to be publicly murdered in this modern form of lynching.

It is time for White people to surrender our allegiance to Whiteness and be willing to admit that the corrosive thread of White privilege and White supremacy lives in each and every one of us. The source of this problem is the colonized elements of US White minds, bodies and spirits. This is not the problem of POC/N although it lands on their bodies and in their communities constantly. This is me, it is my issue, and it is squarely my responsibility to address it.

If you are White, please do not slip into White guilt and shame and trundle off feeling bad about your Whiteness. Also, please do not read this with an “amen” but then not act – I do not want to be your source of intellectual absolution but effectual inaction. Nor is this the time to deepen the centrality of Whiteness through a narcissistic reframe and endless navel gazing. This is a time to simply surrender and change.

And so what does this look like? Well, if I had that answer (or if anyone did) in some trite and “easy to read and do” format, we’d be out of this mess by now. I do, however, have a few thoughts to share on it and thus over the course of this year will be writing occasional installments of a series entitled “Surrendering Whiteness”. I frame it that way because it is really just that – I must let go of this thing that I perceive to give me safety and comfort (because on the surface it does, but in the long run it will destroy all of us). The change we seek has not come about because too many White folks simultaneously want racial oppression to end AND want the comfort of their lives to stay the same. I have felt that too at points in my life, and yet that is simply not possible given that the very comforts I crave and seek to protect have arisen off the backs of POC/N and at the lived expense of POC/N communities. As such, I must surrender my hold. Surrender – to agree to stop fighting, hiding, resisting, etc., because you know that you will not win or succeed; to give the control or use of (something) to someone else.

In closing, I want to be very clear that I do not pretend to have answers – the hubris of that is thankfully apparent even to me and my White self. But, I am in this struggle and so will share what happens with respect to my desire to surrender this Whiteness and what gets in the way. I am an average White person and have an average education about these issues, a lifetime of socialization into my role as a White person, a long history of dutifully playing that role, and find that the ways in which I enact my Whiteness are still largely invisible to me. Parallel to that, however, I am someone whose heart wants that internal peace, whose colonized body wants justice, and who can feel in my soul that this system is killing all of us and will surely be this society’s undoing. My values and beliefs are set against this system and yet my actions do not always manifest as such. And so I am a deeply flawed, wildly imperfect White person who will simply be sharing the struggle for the kind of internal change the Dalai Lama speaks of.