Sunday, January 13, 2019

What does redress even mean - learning how to live with my whiteness....

For most of my life I had no concept of my whiteness.  That only started with me becoming a mother to children who are black. 

Still, my whiteness  did not make me feel  guilty, instead it became  a feeling of something being wrong without any fault of mine, like a birth-defect, a still dormant dis-ease that once diagnosed, simply needed to be managed to avoid it breaking out and ruining my life.

I thought I could do that. Manage it, make it less toxic, maybe even walk away from it completely. 

At first it was  like wading through an ever deepening body of sand,  away from my white socialisation,  towards a new white voyeurism (when we start becoming aware of racism and ask black "friends" to explain and emote it's impact); for a while I found myself in a particularly sticky patch of white privilege, when I thought I could be the "Good White": unshackled from my German Nazi ancestry, and un-scathed by the white guilt of apartheids enablers, I was providing jobs and handing out loose change at traffic lights. 

Then my  children grew from tiny cuddly babies ( "brown, green pink, who cares what colour they are" ) into little people with minds of their own.

Their questions (“can a person my colour ever drive a fancy car”,)  made my wheels spin for a while in the space of “white benefit”, where I woke up to a set of issues around race and privilege yet unable to stand for anything other than my children’s immediate well-being, which I thought I could ensure through their proximity to my whiteness. 

Through getting involved with our dialogue group (starting out with a few women from so called diverse backgrounds talking about race) I got pulled along a little further. I soon discovered a desire to be seen as “different” (see me, I am not racist, I am here, willing to learn and asking questions you should be glad to answer), seeking validation from people of colour,  another sticky patch known as “white confessional”. 

I  even understood some of my own inherent racist thoughts, ideas and transgressions – but generally I distanced myself from racists, I even made black friends to prove it.

I started reading more and threw myself into the work of white critical, at times taking it up a gear into white traitor mode.  Being vocal for something I believed in felt good, and now that I had the ammunition, it was easy to be righteous in my anger and speaking back to whiteness.  

But in the background something happened to me that I had no words for at first. 

As my children grew,  so grew my fear for them, a fear I now know will always be a part of me. It has grown unnoticed at first, alongside and intertwined with my love for them. As soon as I put words to my fears, most white people  called them over-reacting or being dramatic, some found them offensive to their good intentions (not all white people...)

I know it today as the fear black mothers, sisters, partners and daughters carry with them from the moment they are born, a hundred-fold through generations of oppression. 

I also realised this was not the kind of fear that I could hide from behind the walls of my big house or by running away to another country. Instead it asked questions of me that I had  no answers to.

Where do I belong, where do I stand, where do I position myself as a white mother, when all my instincts tell me I only belong to my children? What should I, could I do to address, or rather redress the reality of my lifelong and ongoing advantage? How am I supposed to understand, voice and live with my fears, when I carry that privilege with me like my skin inadvertently triggering people whenever I step outside of its strict white boundaries?

How can I model to my children a different picture, connect with black mothers and learn to heal from my white socialization?

What does redress even mean? ( Other words for redress are :  address, correct, remedy, rectify, put to rights, compensate and make amends for)

In the context of  whiteness, redress becomes  a universal responsibility and at the same time a deeply personal experience, which by definition would be a fair compensation for something that I have taken either without asking or because the system is unjustly set up to benefit me. 

Redress is not an act of charity, without introspection or connection, it's sole purpose to make myself feel better about myself  and my life of privilege.

At the same time redress is not about giving up my economic and social power and live a life of poverty alongside the disadvantaged and dis-empowered. 

Instead redress challenges me to share myself and my resources in a way that is neither patronising (charitable) nor pretentious (we are all the same, I don't see your colour) . 

Redress is also different for everybody, forever restricted by our remaining blind spots and sometimes by our inability to step out of our comfort zone. Sometimes it may feel too overwhelming to even start somewhere. 

Lets start somewhere today.

We can start with sharing access to education,  to networks and other (white dominated) spaces that control and determine social and economic capital. We can start by  challenging those spaces.  

In practical terms, we can start with getting to know the needs and circumstances of the people who work with us or for us. We could start with paying for somebody's child to go to school, give an employee time off to study, pay a decent living wage, facilitate their access to money and other resources so they can buy land and places to live, or open an account at a local shop so that homeless people in the area can get groceries and other basics without humiliation. We could start by showing an interest in somebody else's story. 

Redress also means being uncomfortable a lot of the time without self-pity and always moving forward. Sometimes it means to live with and simply acknowledge our guilt about the money we spend on our children's private schools, our weekly grocery list, our big houses. 

Redress means to stop our willful ignorance (rainbowism)  and stop distracting from our underlying guilt (oftentimes covering it up with narratives of how hard it is for white people) and instead become aware of and welcome our twinges of shame as a vehicle  to overcome our inertia and propel us towards change.  In our own families, communities, networks. 

I haven’t found the formula to balance my acts of redress with my state of luxury – maybe I never will. Feelings of shame and guilt are daily companions when somebody rings my doorbell asking for food or cash or clothes, when I stop at traffic lights and keep my window up against the person begging. 

Sometimes those feelings turn into frustration towards that person "bothering" me in my white world. Then the guilt sets in and the need to distract myself so it doesn't become unbearable. I cannot even imagine the daily trauma of living without food security and not knowing if I can send my children to school the next month. 

For me, redress has become an opportunity to connect with people whom I have been socialised to stereotype, ignore, fear, or otherwise feel superior to. 

Redress is therefore not possible without listening to  and getting to know somebody who not only looks different from me but who grew up in radically different circumstances. It is about changing my social circle and getting out of my comfort zone. It also means that I have to redefine my understanding of friendship and relationship in the context of ongoing power imbalances. 

I have to get used to rejection. And then try again. Maybe (most likely) I won't be met with open arms and congratulatory shoulder claps for my efforts. I will have to prove myself first. Repeatedly. 

When we are trying to sustain relationships where pre-existing power imbalances are a factor, we (white people) have to make sure that we are not  voyeuristically exploring somebody's friendship  to make our whiteness look better. Or rather we have to learn how to move beyond this motive (which is always a factor as soon as we have looked our guilt in the eye and feel the need to prove how far along on our non-racist journey we are).

We will also  have to understand and accept that we  will mess up.  We have to learn how to apologise and name the thing that we have messed up without getting defensive or centering our  feelings. Sometimes that means crying by ourselves in a corner or under a duvet. Sometimes we may have to be vulnerable in front of a black friend . Sometimes we won't know which is the right thing to do and get it wrong.  And try again. 

Because in the end it is about working towards something bigger than my burst bubble or hurt feelings. It is about re-dressing and fundamentally changing generational patterns of abusive relationships, about taking the first wobbly step so my children (and their children) can continue to forge a way out of this mess that my  ancestors got us in. It is not about getting everything right but to keep on trying and keep on going. 

Until one day the penny drops and I realise that I am not "rescuing" anybody else with my acts of redress, but only myself; when I find myself belonging and committed to this path; when I look at my black friend and see that same commitment to "us" and a future where "we" will be our children's new normal.

When we become friends against all odds,  you are no longer an-other person triggering my guilt and more on the outside of my life but somebody I love . Your well being is my well being. When you allow me into your personal space, when you love me back and trust me enough to tell me where I mess up and where I need to step up, when you love my children fiercely and model to them how to be confident and strong and stand up to racist bullshit – you rescue me in a million different ways.  

All I can give you in return is my belief in your greatness and my unconditional support whenever you need me to step up. 

By letting me be your backup and fight your corner you give me back myself, because only when you allow me to use my power in this way can I begin to learn how to live with my whiteness.

Very important edit: After reading this piece my (black) friend pointed out to me how I had inadvertently perpetuated at least three white privilege narratives:

1) White people only need to adopt black children to prove they are not racist as this will automatically send them on a journey of self education and discovery about race and racism at the end of which they arrive as better people.
2) The experience of the black child in white families is not addressed in my piece and as such gets misrepresented as a vehicle to enhance the awareness and "wokeness" of white parents, once again centering the white adoptive view point.

3) Even though I imply  in my text that I received and continue to get support from my black friends and dialogue members in my journey to white self awareness I failed to sufficiently and explicitly address the great labor that went into educating me in the process of us becoming friends.  Ironically in my piece on redress I failed to sufficiently acknowledge and value the continuous, daily and never ending  "black labor" that goes into relationships with white people (which is simply expected of black people). 

For these blind spots and transgressions I  apologise,  and once again commit to doing better tomorrow. 

And to the friend who called me: thank you from the bottom of my fragile white heart for your black labor today when you took it upon yourself to point out my blind spots. I know I owe you. Big time. 


Further reading: The 5 stages of white privilege awareness

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