Talking about Whiteness in Whole Foods

Oh man, nothing makes me more aware of my privilege than typing on my iPad in Whole Foods Uptown New Orleans.

Please note the sparkling water. 

I drove in from Pensacola yesterday afternoon and spent the day lounging around in my family’s Uptown home and grabbing snacks from Whole Foods down the street.  I sprawled out on a cushy bed, wrapped up in cool, clean air as I binge-watched episodes of Gilmore Girls and deleted pictures from my new iPhone while simealtanously checking Snapchat, Instagram, and Facebook. Dear Lord, just typing that makes me crave a digital detox and major perspective check. It also makes me feel a little embarrassed and guilty. 

I move into the YAV house in a couple hours and orientation in Stony Point, New York is coming up in just a couple days. I’ve been reading a lot of articles and watching videos related to the topic of privilege and race in preparation for orientation. It’s something I’ve become very interested in learning about this past year so the content is firing me up even more. I’ve been trying hard to educate myself in order to steer away from white ignorance, denial, and avoidance. I’ve been railing against my own learned “colorblindness” and becoming glaringly aware of my frequent biases. It went from revalationary to uncomfortable to burdensome to despairing to frustrating very quickly. I feel like I’m now at a point where I can do the work with at least a little clarity. 

Something I really love about YAV is the commitment to not coming in as a “white helper” but instead getting on the level of the people in the community and actually doing good work without some grand illusion of being a savior. It’s not always this explicit and I think most people don’t realize when they are playing a role that enforces institutional racism. I think this is why knowledge is so important. All I can do is work on my own thinking and write about it so maybe other people will start examining their privilege and engrained ways of thinking as well. 

I’ve been listening to so many podcasts, reading so many articles, and just having so many conversations this past year, but I know I’m probably still on the edge of the abyss. I’ve got 24 years of thinking to unlearn and then reshape. That may sound dramatic to some, but I swear, I’m more aware every day and it’s terrifying. It’s so tempting to take the easy way out. It’s scary for me to write about out of fear of being judged. Though the fear seems to be fading quite a bit lately. I’m not sure I care much anymore if someone disagrees or gets angry. I’m willing to hear them out and consider their viewpoint seriously. It’s just that staying silent is no longer an option. I will not be complacent in my thinking or complicit in the system, no matter how comfortable and safe it has become. Oh, how easy it would be to stay surrounded by people who look like me. Who are of the same class as me. How comfortable that would feel. How cushy, yet empty and utterly unfulfilling. Empty and unfulfilling because now I know what I’m made from. And I’m hungry for something different. 

In a couple hours, I’ll be living in the YAV house, starting my year of simple living and service. Yes, my car is overpacked. My iPad will stay with me. I won’t deny my privilege or my Whiteness (not necessarily color but the system of it). I will remain aware of the foundation on which my life has been built, a foundation that I did not choose but that was set underneath me before birth to keep me secure and safe. I will not give away all my possessions or resent my skin color. But I will accept that the guilt will probably remain until the day when all people of color are liberated from oppression. This year, my goal is to work on my own liberation from Whiteness will also accepting that it is a part of me, it is the system that shaped me, and a fragment will always remain. 

Here are some excepts from the article “Greiving the White Void” by Abe Lateiner (one of the readings for orientation), which inspired this post:

“I cannot face the flames if I think that I’m in this on behalf of someone else. Comfort and safety await me the moment I turn back. It makes no sense to abandon that. Only faith, a belief that beyond the veil of Whiteness, I can be forged again, can steel me for the leap through the flames.

Once burned and reforged as a fighter for my own freedom, I will no longer retreat when the struggle becomes risky. When I see the fight against White supremacy as a fight for both the lives of people of color and White souls, retreat ceases to be an option.”

“I am no longer going to waste incredible quantities of energy and time trying to be the “exceptional White person,” the one who magically isn’t also complicit in systemic racism. Such dissimulation makes me a White infiltrator, taking up space and dispersing the momentum of racial justice efforts with my ego-driven posturing. Instead, I can allow myself to close my eyes and breathe into the reality that is my unavoidable complicity in White supremacy. There is no need to frantically and furiously deny it. I was born into this mess, which isn’t my fault, and now it is my responsibility to fight for freedom from it.” 

The work I’m doing this year is not to “help” people of color, as if my Whiteness and privilege is the remedy for their struggle. It’s to share the gift of education (which is a resource) with people in poverty, who are disproportionally Black in NOLA, while working on my own liberation in community. I am there to listen to people, but not to “fix” them or prove myself as the “good White person”. 

Agree or disagree, I encourage you to read the article I linked and make up your own mind. I’m also linking to a TEDx talk by Camara Jones that explores race and racism through story, which is a good place to start. These resources were shared with me by the YAV program. I’m sure we will be exploring these in much more depth. I promise to take notes and share more after orientation. I know you’re pumped… I am :)

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