Article by Gwyneth Jones, WTR Facilitator, Coach and Connector. Resposted with permission from: https://gwynethjones.coach/blog/confronting-white-privilege-and-colonialism
As part of my training as a Work That Reconnects facilitator, I was asked whether I had ever undertaken any anti-colonialist or anti-racist work.
Back then, I had no idea what that really meant – I mumbled something along the lines of “well, um, I have a lot of non-white friends and I hate racists”.
I used to bristle a little at the term “white privilege” – it felt to me as if I was being accused of benefitting unfairly purely because of the colour of my skin. I felt that I was being told that I didn’t deserve any of the qualifications, possessions or respect that I had because it had been afforded to be purely by virtue of being born with white skin.
My Welsh grandparents having grown up in abject poverty, their ancestors discriminated against for being Welsh, I felt that my own culture and history was being erased with the all-encompassing label “white” – I felt that it was being implied that they had enjoyed the exact same luxuries and privileges that the upper classes of England had enjoyed, by virtue of their pale skin.
I bring this up, because acknowledging these internal reactions with honesty is all part of the work of confronting the beliefs, biases and self-protection mechanisms that we have breathed in from the moment that we were born.
Then, I took the six-week course Before We Were White, by the group White Awake – and it completely turned my world around.
I learnt how the concept of “whiteness” had been completely fabricated during Europe’s invasion and colonisation of Turtle Island (aka North America) as a way of ensuring that the indentured and enslaved would not band together to overthrow the elites.
“As the decades continued, Africans, English laborers and displaced Native people would escape their plantations to form maroon communities in remote areas… Linebaugh and Rediker write, “The very existence of the multi-ethnic maroon state was a threat to Virginia, whose governor worried that “hundreds of idle debtors, thieves, Negros, Indians, and English servants will fly” to the liberated zone and use it as a base for attacks on the plantation system.”
The greatest threat to this system however were the laborers still working on tobacco plantations in Virginia and the nearby colonies. In a multitude of organized revolts, first noted as early as 1663 and peaking in 1676 with an armed struggle lasting over a year, this multiethnic coalition came together and attempted to upend the colonial system that oppressed them.
As the seventeenth century neared its end and fear of overthrow progressively grew, plantation elites responded with a strategy to divide and conquer the alliances by manipulating the identity of the European population, my ancestors, and giving them membership within an exalted racial group to change the way they found meaning and sought freedom in their lives.” David Dean, Roots Deeper Than Whiteness (blog post)
Through the course, I found myself wondering how much of this applied to me. Having never lived in the US, it seemed that I was learning more and more about how messed up things were over the pond. And yet, over here in Europe, my brain told me “well, this doesn’t really apply here”.
Until I realised.
I had never really met a person of colour until I was 19 and went to university. My entire life had been lived in a bubble of whiteness; the main tension being between “Welsh” and “English”, the only non-white people I saw working in Chinese or Indian restaurants. I had heard countless jokes and “harmless” racial stereotypes being bandied around by people who had probably never met any of the people that they mocked.
I live in Prague – one of the most “white” cities I’ve ever seen. And while I feel that I am able to have a pretty free and easy life here, my non-white friends here have experienced plenty of discrimination, abuse, and “random” police checks. I am able to walk around, blend into the crowd, and more or less do whatever I want.
While I may have had poor grandparents, my country was rich because they had exploited, raped, colonised almost the entire world. I didn’t grow up in a ‘nice house’ just because my grandfather had worked hard to get himself from cesspit digger to primary school teacher and homeowner – his ‘rise’ was possible only because it coincided with the entire country’s rise in wealth, which would never have been possible without Britain’s “empires” (I feel a huge internal resistance just in writing that word).
All that moral supremacy, the idea that a certain group was inherently better than another and therefore deserving of more, all the beliefs that justified racism and slavery and genocide – that was the British. Well, the Europeans. And of course, it goes back deeper than that – the further back we look in history, the more we will see that slavery and racism and dehumanising the ‘other’ are not new concepts.
But we cannot deny the atrocities committed in the name of “Empire”, or the benefits that we now enjoy as a result. Being white and British – I can hop from country to country with one of the most powerful passports in the world, not stopping to ask why. I can make money from teaching a language that I was given from birth without stopping to think of the Native Americans who were beaten and abused for speaking their native tongues instead of English.
I may not have had a perfect life, free of adversity or disadvantage, but none of that adversity came my way because of the colour of my skin.
That is one big thing that many white people fail to grasp – nobody is trying to tell you that the things you’ve suffered don’t matter, didn’t happen, or weren’t bad. It’s just that you weren’t given the extra burden of living in a society that somehow, consciously or unconsciously, saw you as somehow ‘less’ because of the colour of your skin.
The other major source of resistance is that nobody wants to be labelled a “racist” – it is almost as ugly a word as being called a facist or Nazi, and for the majority of well-meaning white people, the mere suggestion that they have ‘accidentally’ said something racist causes them to completely shut down.
“But I’m not a racist, I treat everybody equally / I have a black friend / I’m a nice person”, they will argue. Or, perhaps, they will argue that we live in a progressive society now where we have equal rights and racism no longer exists.
We must be careful. Studies show that guilting people into environmentally-friendly behaviour by shaming them for their choices is largely ineffective. I suspect that a similar thing is at play here – people who feel that they are being called a bad person simply for being white, people who have NOT consciously felt the benefits of their whiteness (because they have suffered greatly at the hands of ableism, homophobia, classism, or sexism, perhaps), or people who do not realise what it really means to recognise one’s internal supremacy, will usually shut down and become defensive.
In her talk Deconstructing White Privilege, Dr Robin DiAngelo examines the belief that many of us hold – that “racists” are bad people, usually uneducated, nasty, bigoted, and “maybe drive a pick-up too – so there’s some classism thrown in there”, while the “good” people are educated, left-wing, liberated (and ‘woke’?), and therefore cannot possibly be racist.
As long as we hold this distinction in our minds, we shut down conversation and become immune to hearing feedback about how we may be unwittingly perpetuating a culture of white supremacy.
In The Work That Reconnects, we work to identify our internal biases and ancestral beliefs, but also to learn about the full, far-reaching effects of colonialism and colonisation.
In practice, this may start with simple things, such as making sure that we do not perpetuate patterns of inequality within workshops – meaning that the people who usually take up space, interrupt and talk for longer than others are called out and asked to give space for other voices to be heard.
But the more you delve into the full impacts of colonisation on your mind and heart, you realise that this goes much deeper.
The fact that I think it’s OK for me to drink coffee, knowing in the back of my mind that children are being beaten and enslaved to pick the beans? Would I care more if those were white children in Europe? I want to say of course not, that it is equally heartbreaking, and yet I am still drinking my coffee.
The fact that most of us continue to do things that we know exacerbate climate collapse (aside from when it becomes illegal or impossible), such as flying to tropical destinations for a quick break, in the quiet knowledge that the worst effects will be felt by the Global South (in other words, largely non-white people)? Or that we turn a blind eye to disasters unfolding across the world until one white British or American tourist is harmed?
The fact that we condemn protests because it may increase our likelihood of getting the coronavirus – we are, whether we want to admit it or not, suggesting that our lives and comfort is more important than justice, peace, and the right to life for others.
These things happen unconsciously, and perhaps we are wired to put our own comfort before that of another group’s. The work of deconstructing these messages and beliefs is painful, uncomfortable, and takes a lot of time.
Instead of lashing out with a response, of saying “yes, but…” and trying to find a reason that proves that you don’t have an ounce of racism or privilege or white supremacy inside your blood, why not just sit with it for a while?
And if you find something you don’t like, do not switch to self-hatred. You have taken in messages from the day you were born about race, gender, class, religion, nationality, sexuality, and ability. Acknowledge the things you find with grace and openness, and try to feel gratitude that you have been able to shine a light on them, so that you can now start to move through and challenge them.
Decolonisation work, when you start to follow it, goes far deeper than examining our beliefs about race. For me, it took the idea of ‘nature reconnection’ to a whole new level…
The focus on progress, ‘growth’, profit, and individualism has been implanted in our brains through decades of messaging. We have bought the idea that we are disconnected from nature and should seek to conquer it, using the soulless pronoun “it” to refer to the natural world, and swallowed the message that societies living in harmony with nature and respecting its limits and cycles are somehow “primitive” or “savage”.
So what can I do now?
Right now, I see a lot of well-meaning white people being very vocal on social media about how you are a racist if you do X, Y or Z. They are calling each other out, arguing over what the right course of action may be, throwing around accusations of racism, and generally taking up a lot of space – I have barely been able to see what my black friends want to say on my newsfeed because it is drowning under white self-righteousness.
It is great that we are trying to confront our internal racism, privilege and supremacy, but can we do it without that old, familiar stench of moral supremacy?
Not everybody can get to a protest. Not everybody has the physical or mental capacity to attend, yet everybody can be part of the work of slowly untangling the threads that have held the status quo in place for so long.
We can start by being honest with ourselves about what we are feeling. About the internal resistance that we might feel if somebody calls us out on privilege. Instead of immediately leaping to our own defence, we can ask ourselves – “What am I feeling in my body right now? Why did I have that reaction? How can I mull over what this person has said and consider whether there may be some truth in it, rather than jumping to my own defence without pausing to think?”
It seems to be a big move right now to reach out to our BIPOC friends and to ask them to educate us on how we should behave, what we should do to remedy the situation, what books we should read. This can also be a huge burden on people who have already been trying to speak and tell us what they want for centuries – there are plenty of resources already out there. Listen, really hear what your non-white friends have to say if they want to share, but do not push them to teach you things that you can learn by yourself or expect them to help you navigate your emotions.
Here are some things to get you started:
Black Lives Matter put together this “Antiracist Allyship Starter Pack” (this alone will give you a few weeks’ worth of reading)
Mukoma Wa Ngugi: What Decolonizing the Mind Means Today
In her talk, Robin DiAngelo talks about how she asks her audiences – “what would your daily life be like if you could simply give [white people] feedback when we step in it… and have us receive that with grace, reflect, and seek to do something different?”
After a pause, one man of colour in the audience gave the answer “…it would be revolutionary”.
In the interests of the revolution, I remain open to feedback, and will always seek to do better.
You can see more of Gwyneth work here: https://gwynethjones.coach/blog/