Two years ago around this time, I committed two public acts of racist whiteness in close succession. The first involved a grocery clerk, a young black man, with whom I had awkwardly interacted and later written a note apologizing for microaggressions, a thing I had recently read about and felt I had done to him. He quit working there not long after, probably wearied by me and other well meaning yet still harmful white people gentrifying his neighborhood.
The second was even more egregious and involved what I want to call a borderline drunken racist slur, but I truly offended and hurt the gentleman I slurred and that is the only truth about it that matters. He was graciously tending his own bar, we were talking, he told me about his family name and background, and I said, 'Oh, so you're a Jew.' Not 'Oh, so you're Jewish.' His face fell and I knew immediately that I had weaponized my whiteness. I came back a few days later and tried to apologize, he gave me the out of being drunk, and I have worked since to understand and own the parts of me that feel it's acceptable for me to practice bigotry for any reason.
Doing so has unearthed a lot of unsavory things that I have been wrestling with since, like I used to wonder if I had blackness in me, for some pretty ignorant
reasons such as I have curly hair and tend toward muscularity. I can now recognize this as an attempt
by my white guilt to make myself a member of the oppressed and a desire to escape my role
as potential oppressor.
I used to wave a confederate
flag proudly and have worn an iron cross belt buckle, thinking I was
celebrating proud heritage or being contrarian in a rock and roll
reclamation kind of way, but I now believe that contrarianism is a deeply
insensitive and selfish luxury afforded me because of my white skin. I accept that brandishing any symbol that has been involved in the
promulgation of hateful behavior is going to be painful and
offensive to some of my fellow human beings and that doing so puts my
character in a position open to unfavorable interpretation.
What I am slowly owning about myself is that I am a white person raised
in a white supremacist society, and that as such, parts of my DNA are
racist and white supremacist, regardless of the beliefs I now hold on race and equality; it's the principle of osmosis manifesting humanly. I must accept that it is entirely up to me to ensure that my actions align with my beliefs, and the best thing I can do when I fail at that is to own it and examine it, not deny the fact that I did it. White people have been coddled in this country, we ruin ourselves with this system intended to unilaterally uplift us, and we have insulated ourselves from consequences by rewriting our history and inculcating our children with a narrative that absolves and ignores our very worst sins.
I have some family roots on my maternal side in the
deep south. It is my firm belief that
most of us with southern roots have some potentially
unpardonable actions for which our families need to attempt to atone. This is the part where my whiteness wants to say things like, 'We were too poor to own slaves. We were barely better than slaves ourselves,' which is exactly what people who have never been enslaved would say. There is no comparison between being poor and being owned, and there is no sidestepping the fact that some of my poor relatives were enthusiastic members of the KKK and possibly participants at lynchings. I
desire generational healing for my family and it is my hope that being honest about our roots may begin to metaphysically redeem the parts of my family tree that need it; redemption is only possible in the presence of truth.
Last year, I adopted a dog who looks like a larger version of a dog I loved and lost in a breakup; I saw her face and was immediately in love. As it turns out, she is also a breed favored by white supremacists, a coonhound, something that I probably would have known had I grown up in Arkansas rather than just being born there. To be honest, I had heard the name once or twice in my life and automatically assumed it was racist slang. The fact that coonhound is an actual breed recognized by the United Kennel Club is a fine object lesson in how white supremacy works: it gives an air of legitimacy to illegitimate things. Yes, dogs of this type were bred to hunt raccoons and other such prey, but they were also used to track and return runaway slaves and enforce segregration on the backyard level in the south. I expect I am not the first of my family to own one. I was told by the pound that she was 'a type of hound' and they were glad she was being adopted. Now I understand why and also the terrified and disgusted look a black woman gave her when we passed her in a public park, and why two white women wearing Georgia football sweatshirts came over with sly smiles to compliment me and my dog on the same day; being her owner once again puts my character in a place open to unfavorable reading. At the same time, she is healing me on some visceral levels; I have struggled to support myself, much less any other living thing, financially speaking. Adopting her was a huge step for me, but I also accept that she may be an avenue for partial metaphysical familial healing too. She is such a good, sweet dog and is herself innocent of any wrongdoing. I am choosing to love her and accept her love and to send love back through time to any of my clan who may have used her relatives to subjugate other human beings. We get to define our relationships with the dead as we see fit; my maternal grandmother and I have been working together on
the spiritual plane for the past couple years on other aspects of family healing; perhaps this is a place where I can offer her roots some metaphysical healing in return.
For the entirety of my life to this point, I have believed in my utter inability to be redeemed, having committed what feels like unpardonable sins at the very beginning of my life in childish reaction to some potentially unpardonable sins committed against me. Holding this belief about myself has made me particularly susceptible to committing sins of oppression, to both falsely feed my low self esteem and to reinforce my belief that I don't deserve love or goodness. I have a record of fine self-sabotage that righteously isolates me from the circles in which I wish to move. I am aware of an animal self who loves to compete and assert dominance, who is furious at all men (read: patriarchy) in some moments and is not above using any means to predicate itself, even if they are evil. These public racial failures have forced me to confront this pattern in myself. I accept that the belief that there is worthiness within me in the face of indefensible failing is mine to build. I accept that marginalized and discriminated against people owe me no absolution or forgiveness for my failures when I lean on white supremacy to prop myself up.
The easiest thing for me to do would be to go quiet, to take the target off my back that comes with visibility so that my unpardonable failures could be less observed and I could be less embarrassed. What I am going to do though, is marshal up my nascent resilience and own my failings in all their ugliness and do the work it takes to repair my character. This, I believe, is what is required of my whiteness in this country, and it is also the work that will free me from the opinions held by myself as well as those judging me by my failures, whether or not they have the right to do so.
It is human nature to look for and call out hypocrisy, to make imperfection disqualifying. This can be both justice in action and a reason to resist change. I am committing to a new practice this new year: I resolve to give up my appetite for scandal and to continue shedding tired religious programming that preaches empty redemption supplied by another. When I hear of failings in those working for good, may I have the compassion to ask questions and leave room for a redemptive answer, and may I continue to build true self esteem by believing there is goodness in me, whether or not it is visible in any given moment.