Superman, Jupiter and White Privilege

photo credit: johnathan backman

photo credit: johnathan backman

On July 4th, I had that melancholy again that I’ve been increasingly having on certain national holidays, i.e., Thanksgiving. I was on vacation, just a “staycation,” my new favorite thing, nothing fancy. I was in a bit of a half conscious news and social media black out while trying to retrain myself to not check work email. You know this problem, I am sure I am not alone. #firstworldproblems, yes? Consequently, I hadn’t heard yet about the killing of Alton Sterling that same day.

What I was looking at on the Fourth, instead, was a piece of writing a friend had shared called The Dilemma of the Fourth of July by a Navajo man, Mark Charles. In his article, Charles reminds the reader that the Declaration of Independence, the document that most symbolizes our holiday, includes racist language in referring to “the merciless Indian Savages.” Here’s the document in case you don’t believe that:

United States Declaration of Independence

United States Declaration of Independence

He shares the wise words of Georges Erasmus, an Aboriginal leader from Canada: "Where common memory is lacking, where people do not share in the same past, there can be no real community. Where community is to be formed, common memory must be created."

In this country, in mainstream education and culture, there continues to be little to no acknowledgement of this country’s history, built on enslavement of peoples and theft of lands through “discovery.” Consequently, we have entire races and ethnicities whose history is ignored, left out of the national narrative and the official national collective memory. And our dominant understanding of our own history is only a partial truth based only on the truths that benefit those in control of the narrative.

In Charles’ words: “As a nation, the United States of America does not share a common memory, and therefore struggles to have true community.” This struck such a chord for me both personally and also professionally given how deeply Healthy Gen’s work is entrenched in the power of community.

It was another 2 days before I became aware of the sickening killings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile by police. I avoided the video feeds, I knew I couldn’t handle that. I don’t know if I am ashamed of that or proud of my ability to manage a safe boundary for my heart. Then the Dallas shootings occurred.

Like many, I struggled with these latest tragedies. What can I do? How can we ever heal? I had no answers. I cried. My daughter and I talked about it. Then I started going online to read what others were saying. I was saddened by how much divisiveness I saw around the Black Lives Matter movement and the continued lack of understanding about why “All Lives Matter” as a response demonstrates a big misunderstanding on the part of those proposing it as a more effective rally cry. 

This comic by Kris Straub made the rounds pretty heavily and pretty much sums that issue up:

Comic by kris straub - full version available by clicking on this comic 

Comic by kris straub - full version available by clicking on this comic 

Then I happened to see a post by a black activist to the effect of “if one more white person quotes MLK at me…” This really stopped me. Had I done that? No… not this time… probably in the past. Why was that problematic? I had to dig into that a bit more. The gist of the various replies to this post echoed the sentiment and also pointed out the majority of folks were quoting the fairly iconic “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” I love that quote. I bet you do too. It is beautiful. It is also one of his more “comfortable” quotes for white people.

This led me to go back and reread Dr. King’s famous Letter from Birmingham Jail, in which he expresses some of his struggles and frustrations. This helped me hone in on what I was seeking: an opportunity to support a greater sharing of our true history as a nation, as we must accept and acknowledge this before we can build true community. I feel that my call to action is to more actively and intentionally use my position of white privilege to advocate for an anti-racist movement and to work towards justice in our systems, laws and hearts. Dr. King wrote about the problem of white lack of commitment:

I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro's great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen's Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to "order" than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: "I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action"; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man's freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a "more convenient season." Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection… 

Human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability; it comes through the tireless efforts of men willing to be co workers with God, and without this hard work, time itself becomes an ally of the forces of social stagnation. We must use time creatively, in the knowledge that the time is always ripe to do right. Now is the time to make real the promise of democracy and transform our pending national elegy into a creative psalm of brotherhood. Now is the time to lift our national policy from the quicksand of racial injustice to the solid rock of human dignity… 

Perhaps I was too optimistic; perhaps I expected too much. I suppose I should have realized that few members of the oppressor race can understand the deep groans and passionate yearnings of the oppressed race, and still fewer have the vision to see that injustice must be rooted out by strong, persistent and determined action.”

-Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Letter from Birmingham Jail, April 16, 1963

You’re probably aware of the concept of white privilege. Much has been written about it in past decades, although I would say it has not yet gained the mainstream acceptance that is required to move towards true equality. I recall an old Toni Morrison interview in which she calls for the next phase in the racial equity movement to come from whites who need to examine the corrosive impact of racism on the white person. I fell in love with Toni Morrison’s writing in college and have ever since considered her to be one of my teachers, although I have never had the great honor to meet her in person. #MelsBucketList…

At Healthy Gen, we regularly discuss internally and with partners the issues of racial equity as a critical component of our mission to create enduring health equity. Our leadership team has a keen awareness of the difficulty of being a largely white led organization focused on health equity. Three of our senior team including myself are white women and our 4th senior team member is a Latino man. Our staff overall is constituted just over 1/3rd of people of color. It is a routine thing for us to raise this issue during internal strategy discussions and impromptu problem solving sessions. I am proud to have seen our board composition increase to 44% people of color under my time as Executive Director.

And yet, still. This weighty question has hung over me for some time. There must be something more or different that I and we can do. Some way to have bigger impact, because look at what is happening in this country. It is a despicable mess.

To even have the space to be thinking about these things is a classic example of privilege. I have some limited mechanisms to gain empathy on the experience of being black in America, but they are indeed limited. I have experienced bias due to being a woman. I have experienced the fear of a parent sending a child out into the public sphere because a young woman in this country has much to fear on public streets, in high schools and on college campuses (we aren’t at the college phase yet, but, sure, I’m pretty freaked out). I commiserate with other parents of daughters who say, it’s so much scarier than it is for boys. These are, of course, white parents mostly. Because the truth is, it’s probably scarier to be a parent of a black boy than a white girl. At least that’s how it feels to me.

So for me, I go back to what I know is true about me. I am driven, sometimes in a painful way, to be of use, to be of service. The painful part comes in the form of never ending analysis of what’s the bigger lever? Me and Archimedes… There’s always a bigger lever… get more impact… do more… be MORE useful. I feel I have a personal path I am following in this regard.

image by techydad 

image by techydad 

So, what is a lever I’ve been underusing? Well, frankly, probably my white privilege, in fact. I also have class privilege as well. I have a lot of unearned advantage as Peggy McIntosh would say. McIntosh wrote a paper about unpacking white privilege in 1989 that has become often cited.

Try this quick quiz to check out your own privilege, across various categories, not just race or ethnicity.

My friends know I am a big fan of superhero mythology. I have always loved Spiderman’s credo “with great power comes great responsibility.” Well, white folks, we’ve got a lot of power and it’s time to start using it more responsibly, more intentionally. I don’t know what I think about all the labeling terminology floating around about what this means I should call myself. Am I an ally? That feels kind of passive to me. Am I an accomplice? Can I be a comrade? I have longed for the Beloved Community to be manifest for so long in my heart and soul, I would like to take as active a role as is appropriate. I am ready to accept that the privilege I have was stolen, generations before me and I am ready to give it up, and see it redistributed equitably. I must not turn away in frustration or even disgust from my fellow whites who don’t accept or understand my viewpoint. I must turn and face them and ask them to join hands with me. To get to work to create a better world. I am inspired by the lifelong civil rights activist, Congressmen John Lewis’ wisdom on living every day as if the Beloved Community is here, now, already. It makes me think of Rilke’s “live the question.”

There are many places to start. If you’d like to start within yourself, consider taking the “check your privilege” quiz from above or try one of the research based Implicit Assessment Tests. These tests will tell you the degree to which you carry internal, unconscious stereotypes that occur outside of conscious awareness and control. A great majority of Americans have these unconscious biases even though they do not consciously believe in racist or other biased attitudes. If you find the results interesting, share with your friends, talk about what surprised you.

Consider also this fantastic new video resource from john a. powell (he deliberately spells it without capitals) at the Haas Institute for a Fair and Inclusive Society on the Circle of Human Concern.

There are more links at the bottom of this post to articles and resources on white privilege and ideas for white people to engage more intentionally in racial equity work. 

After all, we can successfully send a space ship to Jupiter. Juno is in orbit there now after launch in 2011. You didn’t think we I was gonna leave you hanging on the Jupiter thing did you? Not a chance! If we can do that, we can do this, right? Let’s get moving! Let’s make our own home world a better place!

Are your Spidey senses tingling yet?