White supremacy culture is on full display day in and day out in America. You don’t have to strain to see it—the President’s recent comparison of the impeachment proceedings to a lynching is the latest example.
Of course, even such an extreme example is still defended by white people of all shapes and sizes: senators, voters, talking heads, and the offender himself. The grotesquery of such a distorted perspective is emblematic of a sickness in our country to be sure.
But there are even more sinister forms of white supremacy that afflict our collective lives. They are harder for many white people to see. And they are, therefore, harder for us to believe. This kind of whiteness is the whiteness that blinds us. This is the whiteness that creates the conditions for the extremes to be mistaken for the whole problem. But more importantly, this is the kind of whiteness that creates the conditions for whiteness to be even more tenacious in some dangerous and annihilating ways.
I just returned from a pilgrimage to Montgomery, Alabama with people of faith who have set our intention on dismantling white supremacy within ourselves, within our congregations, and within our communities. The Legacy Museum and The National Memorial for Peace and Justice are potent and impactful. They are constructed in unique ways and carry with them a visceral invitation to truly take in the magnitude of the racial terror that has helped to define American culture.
For me, the trip was another step on the journey of holding myself, my family, my community, and my country accountable to the truth of not just our history, but of our present day. The Legacy Museum draws a clear line between chattel slavery and mass incarceration. Our for-profit prison system is slavery by another name. And the Memorial for Peace and Justice takes the concealed history of lynching and lays its weight on our collective shoulders. White people need to feel it–we need to grieve and we need to repent.
The clarity of the history is beyond something we can debate about or claim competing perspectives. Denying the terror inflicted by chattel slavery, convict leasing, lynching, Jim Crow, and mass incarceration is morally untenable. And more and more white people are getting on board with the fact that our past is still at work in our present, and not something people need to “get over.”
The harder part for white people to take in and respond to is how white progressives have helped to prop up these systems of violence and oppression with our very way of life. White progressives can easily lapse into wondering how “the white supremacists” can be filled with such hate. We are blinded to the ways that our passivity, niceness, good manners, avoidance, “white solidarity,” over scheduled lives, and denial hold these systems in place.
Being in largely white spaces or even in diverse spaces where white ways of doing things are the norm, progressive whites are easily lulled into thinking white supremacy is someone else’s problem.
I’ve been blind to many aspects of whiteness—blinded by the very dynamics of whiteness itself.
The more I realize it, the more resolved I am that my life and my relationships have to be disrupted. That’s the only way whiteness will be disrupted. As a carrier of the disease, healing means I cannot just keep going in my life as if nothing is wrong.
One of the most tenacious aspects of whiteness that keeps these systems in place is our feigned fragility. Robin DiAngelo’s book, White Fragility, helps make clear these dynamics of being socialized in a white dominant society. At the same time, naming fragility as a mark of whiteness can run the risk of normalizing it–seeing it but not disrupting it.
The hardest part for me might be trusting my relationships with other white people enough to stay engaged with them in an honest way. Being busy and being stressed are part and parcel of being fragile I have found. The busier we are, the more stressed we are; the more stressed we are, the more fragile we are. And so, white dominant institutions normalize and valorize being busy. And white dominant institutions normalize and valorize being stressed.
And so we all wish we had time to be more resilient, to take care of ourselves, to take time to get grounded and do the deep internal work. But, our days are full and our bodies are tired and there are so many things we should be doing that we feel we don’t have time to be doing.
The scales falling from my eyes means I have realized that if I don’t change the way I live my every day life, then the intermittent pilgrimages and book discussions and conferences won’t seep into my deepest self-understanding. So much of disrupting white supremacy is really about disrupting my own sense of self, not just my sense of others or my sense of my culture or my community.
And yet, I hear over and over again, my white siblings mistaking our work as white people for simply being about our need to be more welcoming to others and to better understand the plight of others. While radical hospitality and compassion are certainly necessary marks of beloved community, I feel like whiteness appropriates those things for its own thriving as well.
White fragility morphs into patterns of pity and “helping those in need” as the available modes of welcome or even of transformation. Such patronizing, paternalizing ways of encountering people is repulsive to white people when it is directed toward us. Little makes a white person (especially white Presbyterians) more uncomfortable and even angry than being perceived as needy by someone else. White people are often terrified of being gentle with ourselves. We take pride in being “fine” while we’re actually falling apart. That’s not fragility, that’s denial, defensiveness, and avoidance.
Again, white supremacy takes these valorized behaviors and capitalizes on them. Why be honest when you can be good? Why spend time reflecting on yourself when you can be focused on the needs of others? And just like that white supremacy creates virtue around avoiding a profound layer of human life—the capacity to be self-reflective and the capacity to be held accountable and to hold others accountable.
I pray that I can get better at seeing. Because seeing is believing, and hopefully seeing is changing, too.
Marcia Mount Shoop is an author, theologian, and minister. She is the Pastor/Head of Staff at Grace Covenant Presbyterian Church, Asheville, NC. Her newest book, released from Cascade Books in October 2015, is A Body Broken, A Body Betrayed: Race, Memory, and Eucharist in White-Dominant Churches, co-authored with Mary McClintock Fulkerson. Marcia is also the author of Let the Bones Dance: Embodiment and the Body of Christ (WJKP, 2010) and Touchdowns for Jesus and Other Signs of Apocalypse: Lifting the Veil on Big-Time Sports (Cascade, 2014). Find out more at www.marciamountshoop.com