Guest commentary by Tracy Howe Wispelwey
Last week, Denise Anderson’s guest commentary, “How white supremacy hurts white people,” reminded us that our country’s history is deeply rooted in white supremacy. She also shared personal stories of internalized racism and called white people to publically and personally confess their racism. Linking racism directly to the continuing legacy of white supremacy gives us some practical direction for dismantling it. In fact, an incredibly practical series of antiracism study guides were also released at the General Assembly. However, the series also illuminates our complicity as white people benefitting from colonialism and present injustice. This must be accounted for and repaired.
For those of us who were raised in the post-civil rights era with a false ideology of “colorblindness,” we most likely balk at the idea that we are in a white supremacist society, let alone that we have internalized white supremacy to deal with. Perhaps we also balked at the phrase “Black Lives Matter” the first time we heard it because it didn’t seem inclusive to our “progressive” ears. But now, in the pain of our brothers and sisters of color and the light of history, we see clearly that despite emancipation and integration, we have not addressed the engine of racism.
Anderson writes, “Let me be very clear: One does not have to be malicious or hateful to be racist. One needn’t even be intentional about it. White supremacy is so pervasive, insidious and thoroughly woven into the fabric of our society that it is quite easy to be racist. In fact, it’s difficult to not be racist.” I see it this way: Practically speaking, I am a white supremacist; I have internalized the world around me. Consider, in the same way, that I am a practicing capitalist. As long as I am living in the United States, rooted, formed and defined by capitalism, I am a capitalist. In order to not be a capitalist in this context will take some very radical and creative, subversive even, community development. Likewise, liberation from white supremacy will take intentional, subversive, radical community work.
Thursday morning, another bystander video of a police officer shooting an unarmed black man (lying on his back with his hands in the air no less) was making rounds. The black man, a caretaker for an autistic man who had wandered into the street, asked why he had been shot. The officer responded, “I don’t know.” Millions of people have watched the video now. Millions of white people have watched the video and are no doubt deeply disturbed and again asking, “Why is this happening?” We have been talking about white privilege and systemic racism, but all of this is the legacy of white supremacy and white people internalize this white supremacy just like black people internalize racism. We internalize the fear and hate of black people. We don’t notice it because explicit racism and explicit white supremacy are no longer tolerable (supposedly), but it is everywhere. When this white supremacy and its legacy intersects state sanctioned violence and force (as it did with the officer in Florida), this is what we have.
Let’s start confessing White supremacy so that, as Anderson writes, “It cannot hide. It cannot pervade. It cannot thrive.” I confess my internalized fear and hatred. Forgive me God. Forgive me my brothers and sisters of color. Forgive me my white sisters and brothers for perpetuating it around you. Lord, show us the depths of who we are so we can see who we are in you. Give us eyes and ears anew to see clearly the hate and fear implied in media narratives, rhetoric and images. Help us resist what our cities, segregation and poverty tell us, that white lives matter more. Let us be free of needing our own pain and concerns addressed before listening to those crying out for justice here and now. Guard us from judging what we do not understand and words and organized actions and protests that make us uncomfortable. Let us instead be uncomfortable with our lives that hide and sustain white supremacy. Let us live justly and beautifully even as we resist and struggle to bring that justice and beauty. Lord we pray, Amen.
With this I humbly offer a second step for those of us white people seeking to resist and dismantle the white supremacy we have been complicit in: to shed the spiritual role of the colonizer. A colonizer always places the other in his/her/their narrative. You ARE who you are to ME. A radical subversion by white people in the movement to liberate us all from racism and white supremacy would be to make a permanent spiritual practice of allowing ourselves to be placed in the narratives of the oppressed. This is hard and deep work, but our intent is to root ourselves in solidarity – not the privilege brought from colonial history. I might think of myself as a conscientious white person because of my involvement in social justice issues, but day to day, in the eyes of my black brothers and sisters, maybe I am the one who did not redirect the store clerk who automatically asked me first if I had been helped, despite the other people of color who clearly had been waiting before me. To my brothers and sisters of color, maybe I am the one who quoted one of the many celebrated white supremacists who founded our present democracy in a graduation speech without critiquing him and contextualizing him as such and inadvertently alienated my classmates in the process. Oh Lord, show me the depths of who I am so I might see the depths of who I am in you.
If the truth of the gospel is that we belong to one another and to God, it is not only true that all those suffering in violence and oppression belong to us, but that we belong to Philando Castile and his family. I belong to Sandra Bland and her community. If we are white, confessing our white supremacy and shedding our spiritual legacy as colonizers by seeing ourselves in the narrative of those seeking justice, the protesters, the oppressed, is where we must start. We are not done. This is hopeful and good news because God is surely at work.
A congregational prayer of confession
Triune God, Community of Love, we confess that we have made ourselves the center of history, the center of our communities and made a world that served our interests and suffocated those different from us. We have arrogantly ignored injustice and history that benefitted us and diminished the humanity of the poor and marginalized to explain away all the inequity and disparity we see in the world. We have accepted our own reflection, which dominates media, determines priorities and maintains white power in the world, as normal and good. We cannot fathom all the suffering this has caused and reaped in history and in our present world. We cannot bear the burden. We humbly repent and ask that you would shine brightly so that wherever the sin of white supremacy remains, we might be part of dismantling it. Wherever wounds remain open, may we offer ourselves, our time and our resources to their healing. Wherever injustice remains and communities of resistance cry out, let us listen and root in solidarity with them.
Have mercy on us, forgive us and renew us, in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. Amen.
TRACY HOWE WISPELWEY is associate pastor of campus ministry and mission at Westminster Presbyterian Church in Charlottesville, Virginia. She is the founder of Restoration Village Arts, a cooperative of artists and Christian peacemakers who produce creative advocacy resources, music, worship and liturgy in support of peacemaking work.