For the next two Sundays at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Gwinnett, we will be working with some painful issues of race and racism that have arisen in our Unitarian Universalist Association around the practice of hiring and advancement in positions of leadership. What is emerging in our discussions, so far, are the varying levels of pain and suffering around racial equity. They affect us differently. People of Color have stories to tell of treatment and the use of language that offends, misunderstands and excludes them from human dignity at every level of society, including life in the church. White people are often caught off guard and are immediately disturbed by the stories that People of Color tell and often enough that white disturbance is based in so much of what we do not know–about People of Color and about ourselves.
It’s the latter that I want to explore in large part because it makes most sense for me as a white person and for those of us who are white to do some serious work on what we don’t know (by definition, that’s what ignorance is) before trying to do anything else but listen when People of Color speak–however tempting it might be to offer our opinions.
Peggy McIntosh, Senior Research Associate in Women’s Studies at Wellesely College, published a paper in which she investigated what she calls the “Invisible Knapsack” or those daily conditions which white people live in that we may remain largely ignorant of but from which we benefit much. In this excerpt of her published work, she lists 50 of these “items in the invisible knapsack.” I am going to post a few here each day for the next few days for our consideration. To begin with, McIntosh makes three areas of my own ignorance clear to me in these items in the invisible knapsack–in my community, in what I see and in what I hear.
I can if I wish arrange to be in the company of people of my race most of the time.
I can avoid spending time with people whom I was trained to mistrust and who have learned to mistrust me or my kind.
I can be pretty sure that my neighbors will be neutral or pleasant to me.
When I am told about our national heritage or about “civilization,” I am shown that people of my color made it what it is.
I can be sure that my children will be given curricular materials that testify to the existence of their race.
I can be pretty sure of having my voice heard in a group in which I am the only member of my race.
I can be casual about whether or not to listen to another person’s voice in a group in which s/he is the only member of his/her race.
As McIntosh notes, we who are white have been taught to see racism only in individual acts of meanness. But, what about the invisible system that is in place everywhere, all the time which gives to us who are white a dominance that never has to be named? This is what we are being asked to see as the white supremacy that continues to operate whether we acknowledge it or not.