If I was ashamed of being white, I might take down the portrait of my Appalachian ancestor hanging in my apartment hallway. “My aunt gave me this,” my grandmother told me last Thanksgiving, pride in her eyes. “You can have it.”
I can’t tell whether James Boone — my grandmother’s granduncle — was ashamed or proud. He was a real estate dealer in the heart of West Virginia’s coal country. Did he falsely claim, like many white Americans in Appalachia, to be a descendant of the frontiersman — and slaveowner — Daniel Boone? Was he in the mob who lynched John Turner, a Black man, in a nearby town in 1889?
But as a meditation teacher trained in mental health counseling, I know that shame is counterproductive. Instead, I feel solidarity with Black people demanding justice for the police killing of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and far too many others. Their fight is mine too.
“As long as people of color can be written off as expendable, and therefore acceptable victims of the most extreme inequities, none of the basic injustices of our society will be addressed; they will only get worse,” wrote the Civil Rights activist Anne Braden, a white woman raised in the Jim Crow South.
If I were ashamed, I’d be writing myself off as expendable. “The experience of shame — feeling fundamentally deficient — is so excruciating that we will do whatever we can to avoid it,” writes the psychologist and meditation teacher Tara Brach. If I felt fundamentally deficient — worthless — why even try to change?
In fact, shame triggers the sympathetic nervous system in the same way that fear does, leading to a “fight, flight, or freeze” response, the body’s chemical and physical reaction to danger. In other words, rather than encouraging us to act — which is what ending racism requires — shame often keeps us stuck on self-blame.
“Internalized feelings of inadequacy are a massive block to moving forward in a good and healthy way,” writes English literature professor Naava Smolash, under the pen name Nora Samaran. Her book about rape culture, “Turn This World Inside Out,” helped me understand the inadequacy of shame when it comes to social change.
“To completely transform this culture of misogyny, men must do more than ‘not assault,’” she writes. Rather than feeling shame, men must heal ourselves and other men. “The truth is that you already are good enough. You always were. Your actions can be not good enough, and your essence remains good.”
This doesn’t mean that men — and white people — shouldn’t be held accountable. Some actions should be shamed in public, like catcalling or waving a Confederate flag. But what we do — good or bad — isn’t indicative of who we really are. We have the ability — and responsibility — to change because, as human beings, we are worthy of changing.
If I felt particularly worthy — if I felt pride about my whiteness — I might cling to the story of Hans Jacob Weber, one of my grandmother’s ancestors. A grape farmer, Weber fled Germany’s wine-producing Palatinate region in 1708 during the War of the Spanish Succession. Led by a prominent Lutheran pastor, he, his wife Anna, and their two children escaped to England, where immigrants — particularly Protestants — were increasingly unwelcome.
They were fortunate that the English needed cheap labor across the Atlantic. In exchange for working off their debts, the Webers were shipped to the British North American colonies and eventually given a plot of land in what is now Newburgh, New York.
To know that Hans made do with the sandy soil on the banks of the Hudson River gives me resilience. To know that Anna gave birth to a child while aboard a ship gives me strength.
But instead of pride about any of that, I feel solidarity. To know that my ancestors were refugees gives me empathy for the Honduran father or Salvadoran child crossing the U.S. southern border. To know that the Webers traded their German traditions, community, and way of life to become “white” makes me hate white supremacy.
The word “solidarity” expresses a sentiment — camaraderie, another French word — that is foreign to our Protestant-influenced individualistic culture. Instead of camaraderie, many white people look for what they, personally, should do about racism. We should learn Black history, read books like Robin DiAngelo’s “White Fragility,” and shop at Black-owned businesses. We shouldn’t let family members get away with racist language. These are good things to do. They’ll help us get along better with friends, neighbors, and coworkers of color. They’ll likely decrease the harm we cause others.
But focusing solely on changing individual behavior doesn’t challenge the root causes of racism: laws, norms, and institutional processes. Aware of our privilege, we must act. Yet, we must do more than call out other white people and buy books by Black authors.
We must, as political scientist Adolph Reed writes, shift our focus from the “ultimately individual, and ahistorical, domain of prejudice or intolerance” to the “social structures that generate and reproduce racial inequality.” We must disrupt, dismantle, and reimagine the institutions that feed off of racism for their existence. We must defund the police, divest from prisons, and publicly invest in education, housing, good paying jobs, and other basic human needs. We must demand what Martin Luther King Jr. called a “radical redistribution of economic and political power.”
This requires solidarity — and, to be effective, solidarity requires being organized. Every day, people across the country strategize in groups like Black Lives Matter, meet as political organizations like the Democratic Socialists of America, work alongside fellow union members, protest outside immigration detention centers, and provide mutual aid in their neighborhoods. Often, organized people support other organized people because, ultimately, they share the same goal: a free, dignified, and safe life. That’s politics. That’s what creates the conditions for the massive protests we’ve seen in the past months, which in turn have created the political conditions for substantial policy, legal, and electoral change.
Shame doesn’t sustain such bread-and-butter politics. We need to recognize what would be in it for us if racism were to be rooted out and destroyed. “White people need to be real about which aspects of humanity they will gain by abolishing whiteness,” writes Aaron Goggans, cofounder of Black Lives Matter DC.
Before we were white, we were English, Irish, Italian, Polish, Hungarian. Some of our ancestors led the colonization of the Americas. Others owned slaves.
But the odds are that most — like the Webers — suffered oppression somewhere along the way. They toiled in fields owned by feudal lords. They languished in jails simply because they were poor. They exhausted their bodies in factories during capitalism’s early days. Two-thirds of all who came from England, Scotland, and Ireland to American shores during the 17th century came as indentured servants — an astounding figure given the cartoon story our culture tells about the Founding Fathers.
As anti-racism educator David Dean writes, “Some European immigrants did come to the British colonies, and later, the United States, fleeing religious persecution and violence but most were running directly from … economic deprivation.”
Yet, our ancestors also established traditions, celebrated together, performed rituals, connected with nature, and fought back against the powerful. Most if not all of this wasn’t simply forgotten — it was bargained away for the shallow protection of whiteness. In the first two decades of the 20th century, laws were passed in over 30 states mandating participation in “Americanization programs” run by state and local governments, civic organizations, and corporations. “They were no longer to be Polish-Americans, Hungarian-Americans, or Italian-Americans, but simply ‘white’ Americans,” writes Dean.
Knowing this history doesn’t inspire me to reclaim my German-American identity. Nationalities are just as socially constructed as races. Instead, the more I’ve learned about what’s been taken from me by what historians call “racial capitalism,” the more reason I’ve gained to be in the fight.
The more I’ve discovered the humanity I’ve lost by being “white,” the more whole and grounded I’ve felt at protests, political meetings, and strike picket lines — what Dean calls finding “roots deeper than whiteness.”
The more I’ve realized that whiteness doesn’t serve me either — or if it does, only in narrow, material ways — the more I’ve recognized that the struggle for Black liberation is my struggle too.
Previously published on medium
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