By Conference Minister Diane Weible
A colleague recommended a book to me that I am currently reading. It’s called Learning to be White by Thandeka.
I’m not very far into the book yet but I have already read two things I want to share. The first is an “aha” moment about the socialization of being white and the second is a challenge that I have accepted and want to invite others who are white to join me.
The “aha” moment was when Thandeka told stories of several white individuals who recalled experiences from their childhood when they first realized they were white. One story that stood out for me was when a woman spoke about how her parents, social justice advocates and engaged in the civil rights movement, became angry when she brought home a black friend. After the friend left, they told her never to bring that friend home again. She was confused and her parents reaction did two things—introduced her to the categories of “white” and “not white” and made clear to her that if she didn’t want her parents to be angry at her and wanted their love, she would have to choose white over “not white”. She stopped being that child’s friend.
The challenge piece I mentioned was what Thandeka shared next. She was asked by a white colleague one day over lunch, “What is it like to be black?” Thandeka decided not to answer right then. Instead, she wanted her white friend to be in a place where she could understand her answer so she created what she now calls “the race game.” She challenged her colleague to play the race game for the next seven days and in one week they would meet for lunch again and she would answer her question. The challenge? Every time you describe a person who is white, use that as part of your description: My beautiful white daughter, my white husband, my white friend, my white colleague, etc….
Her colleague didn’t keep their lunch appointment the following week. They’ve never talked about it since.
Since then, every time she is asked to speak to a group (and the kinds of groups she meets with could easily fit the description of any UCC group), she challenges the participants to play the Race Game and then email her to let her know they did it. She presented this challenge many times before someone finally followed up with her to say he did it. She said she wanted to meet with him face-to-face to hear how it went because she wanted to see his face when he talked about it. They went for a walk in the park and he told of how hard it was and how it was so uncomfortable that he “forgot” for a short time to do it but then began again.
As I read I was shaking my head and saying, “yes, yes!” The reason? I know how hard it will be to do it and I know that this is a missing piece for me. I am very conscious when I describe someone anymore, leaving out the descriptive that is skin color or ethnicity because I am aware that if they were white, I would not say “white” or “Euro American.” And, even though I have that level of awareness, I always feel as if I’m leaving an important piece of that person’s story out of my description, which has been confirmed on more than one occasion when a white colleague has said, “I’ve heard you talk about that person before but I didn’t know they were black (or Chinese or Filipino, etc…)”
When I read about the Race Game, I realized that the problem is not describing someone as African American or black or Chinese or Japanese, but the problem is NOT describing someone else as white or Euro American. The assumption is that if I don’t describe the color of skin, the skin must be white. That is a privileged assumption that dates back to the first time I was aware that somehow white is “normal” and anything not white needs to be described because it’s different or “not normal.” I don’t remember a specific instance when I learned that white is what is important and therefore not necessary to say and if the person is not white I need to explain it, but make sure I whisper it as if somehow it’s a secret. Honestly, that’s messed up.
If we own and celebrate our diversity describing the color of a person’s skin should be no different than saying they are tall or short or have blond hair or black hair or purple shoes. It is when we place judgement on those descriptors that we make judgements about what is “good” or “bad,” “acceptable” or “unacceptable,” “right” or “wrong.”
Awareness is not enough to change it. We have to practice it.
To play the Race Game is an opportunity to begin to undo a habit that is part of the waters I have been swimming in all my life in order to dismantle assumptions that influence every aspect of my life. If I can describe white people as white people and stick to it until it stops being uncomfortable, I believe it will change my awareness about my privilege in profound ways. If we all do this together, it can begin to change and shape systemic attitudes about the value of the dominant culture and the devaluing of human beings who don’t “fit in” to that description.
I hope you will join me.