Unraveling oppression and white privilege starts here
by Kelsey Blackwell
“But all our phrasing—race relations, racial chasm, racial justice, racial profiling, white privilege, even white supremacy—serves to obscure that racism is a visceral experience, that it dislodges brains, blocks airways, rips muscle, extracts organs, cracks bones, breaks teeth. You must never look away from this. You must always remember that the sociology, the history, the economics, the graphs, the charts, the regressions all land, with great violence, upon the body.” — Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me
Racism is about bodies.
It is a visceral reality that can be tasted, seen, and felt.
And yet, as I devoured Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me, where the physicality of discrimination is honestly and vividly conveyed, I felt a curiosity arise in my own body. As a bi-racial girl who grew up in Utah, what was my physical experience of racism? The violence, ineffective schools, and codes of the streets Coates describes in the Baltimore neighborhood of his youth–this was not my reality. I grew up in an upper middle class white neighborhood. I was a cheerleader. Neighbors brought over bundt cakes and peanut brittle during the holidays.
Seemingly buffered from the harshness of the ‘hood, my ruminations on racism were nil. White privilege? My 14-year-old self had never considered such a thing. Plugged into the larger social consciousness of my white community, I often forgot my own heritage. Race relations? No problems here! Everyone gets along. Everyone is white.
And then I woke up. (A tale for another time)
I’m not the only one with a story like this. Given where we now find ourselves socially and politically, anyone who’d never heard of white privilege (whether you agree with this term or not), or anyone who believed racism was essentially a thing of the past except in podunk southern towns, is now getting an aggressive shake. Personally, I see the pain of my own dis-integration—a self-inflicted pressure to fit in, to be liked, to make myself a certain kind of beautiful. Collectively, I see this in all the ways we’re now grappling to understand—rates of incarceration, breast cancer incidents in Black women, minuscule representation in Silicon Valley, etc.
I’ve heard many whites bristle with resentment at the mere idea of white privilege. Who is anyone to say they are privileged? They had a hard life! Grew up poor! No one gave them anything! Others tiptoe around topics of race fearful of inadvertently saying the wrong thing. They don’t consider themselves racist (who does?), but have not done the hard and uncomfortable work of looking at why they fall where they do on our nation’s racial hierarchy, of looking at how that impacts where they work, who they befriend, what they support, and how they think.
I do not blame any of us for our challenges in contending with the grave realities of racial oppression. We are products of a country that structurally relies on us keeping our heads in the sand to protect the precious status quo.
Our methodologies are forged within the default mindset of colonization, capitalism-as-religion, corporation-as-demigod, domination over people and planet, winner take all, rape and plunder as spoils of victory, human and natural resources taken as objects of subjugation to the land-owning, resource controlling, very, very privileged.
Unless you support the truth, the clash between the world in which we live and your own personal ideologies must be felt on some level – even if you’ve learned to stuff these feelings deep into your being in order to “get along.”
Some of us have the privilege, due to the color of our skin, to not reckon with injustice in our day-to-day lives. But we are all in this together. Whether you agree with it or not, the impacts of racism touch us all on a fundamental level. To begin the work of unraveling this complication, we must start with whatever we feel about this situation. We must start with the body.
This work must be done in community.
If this is at all intriguing to you; if you would like to explore what this may mean, I invite you to participate in a workshop that holds this very premise at its heart. Because racism is a collective issue, it will require the wisdom of the collective to see its undoing. We will explore this on a body level on Feb. 4th and 5th in Oakland, California.
Changing the Race Dance will use the birthright practices of movement, storytelling, and song to weave and unweave our own understandings and confusions around race. This invitation is for all bodies: black, white and all shades between to come together and rest in our collective confusion. This is where we must begin. More information can be found here.
I will also co-teach a book study of Rev. angel Kyodo williams’ most recent book, Radical Dharma, starting in March. This will not be your usual sit, discuss and drink tea kinda book club. To begin contemplating racism, oppression, and white privilege, an examination must happen on the body level. We will discuss concepts, systems, provocative calls to action and we will also feel them using the tools of movement, writing, music and more.
For my friends who are not able to engage in either of these practices, I hope you’ll consider this invitation for personal inquiry. Where is white privilege held within your own being? Consider a time when you’ve experienced it in relationship to your world. What is its taste, texture, smell and color? Where is it felt in your body? It is by intimately coming to know this presence that we might begin to recognize when it surfaces in our day to day – and it will surface. From this place, we can start an examination of just how much we’re impacted by the structures that be. These are the questions and insights to begin.