Tag Archives: whiteness

Unacknowledged Cousins: “White” Womanhood Reimagined

Unacknowledged Cousins: “White” Womanhood Reimagined  —by Jinny Batterson

My early upbringing stressed that I was “white,” as opposed to a few “black” students who began when I was in fifth grade to attend the same Maryland public elementary school I did. Whiteness has benefited me in many ways. For much of my life, it has also partially blinded me to the violence and discrimination visited on those who are “not white.” 

As I’ve aged, the whole notion of “whiteness” has become suspect. Much of the history I was earlier taught “whitewashed” the impact of enslavement and supported the myth of white supremacy, upholding both slavery and its more contemporary descendants—Jim Crow, mass incarceration, jingoism, xenophobia, disenfranchisement.

Partway through my work life, I had an opportunity to spend a couple of years in an African country, as junior member of a project supporting small-scale local consumer cooperatives. I noticed that my African colleagues and neighbors were generally darker skinned than most African-Americans I encountered while living in the United States. Once I returned to the U.S., I was advised by an African-American neighbor that most people who self-identify as “black” in the U.S. have at least some “white” ancestry. 

That got me to thinking. For much of my work life, I lived in central Virginia. The history I’d been taught as a child idolized Thomas Jefferson among the founders of our republic—author of the Declaration of Independence and the Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom, Governor of Virginia, Ambassador to France, Secretary of State, President of the United States. Several times I made a pilgrimage to Jefferson’s “retirement” home of Monticello just outside Charlottesville. Little of the story of Monticello as it was then told related to Jefferson’s position as a slave holder. Over time, I began to read and learn more about the seamier side of a slavery-based economy. A few years ago, long after I’d left Virginia, an exhibit was mounted describing the life of Sally Hemings, who in addition to being enslaved, was likely the mother of several of Jefferson’s children (https://www.nytimes.com/2018/06/16/us/sally-hemings-exhibit-monticello.html). The exact nature and complexity of the Jefferson-Hemings relationship remains controversial, but it’s fairly well established that Hemings was a half-sister to Jefferson’s white wife, Martha Skelton Jefferson, and that after Martha died, Jefferson and Hemings were involved in some sort of relationship for several decades.  

Jefferson and other white men whose historical contributions I’d been taught to venerate may very well have been engaged in non-consensual sexual relations with enslaved black women. Might I have African-American cousins who were the result of some of my white male ancestors raping their female slaves? It seems not entirely unlikely, though difficult to prove. An African-American friend recently explained that genealogy in black families is hard to do, because record keeping was skimpy and generally did not include enough information to fully identify an enslaved person. 

“Most of us can’t go back further than a couple of generations,” he said. 

By contrast, the most thoroughly documented part of my northern European ancestry traces back a dozen generations to the Dutch tavern keeper who late in life resettled in what was then New Amsterdam, along with several of his adult children. Other parts of my lineage are less clear. Some of my Scots-Irish ancestors were likely outlaws, fleeing across the Atlantic to escape retribution. One of my Southern great-grandfathers (in a family with long generations) was born in South Carolina in 1820. By the time my maternal grandfather was born near Carthage, Mississippi in 1869, his family were former slaveholders. I remember my “Pop-pop” as a white-haired old man who spat tobacco juice out the back porch door and hated his ill-fitting false teeth. I remember stories retold to me by my mother of how frightening he’d found it as a small child to live in a Mississippi home that also billeted federal troops.  

During the 2020 election season, there’s speculation that an African-American woman will be named as a vice presidential candidate on the Democratic ticket. Certainly, there are many highly qualified African-American women politicians—Muriel Bowser, mayor of Washington, D.C.; Lori Lightfoot, mayor of Chicago; Kamala Harris, U.S. senator from California; Keisha Lance Bottoms, mayor of Atlanta; Stacy Abrams, voting rights advocate and former Georgia legislator—to name a few. The challenges faced and overcome by such women have helped forge a strength that most of us “white”  women have rarely had to summon. The mythology long fed to “white women,” especially in the American South, that white men were needed to “protect the sanctity of white womanhood” was hypocritical at best, if not deliberately misleading and damaging. 

A white woman of my parents’ generation, Anne Braden, whose work I recently discovered, put it eloquently. In the early 1950’s, after reporting on the execution of a black man, Willie McGee, for the supposed rape of a white woman, Braden wrote:  

“I believe that no white woman reared in the South or perhaps anywhere else in this racist country can find freedom as a woman until she deals in her own consciousness with the question of race. We grow up little girls – absorbing a hundred stereotypes about ourselves and our role in life, our secondary position, our destiny to be a helpmate to a man or men. But we also grow up white – absorbing the stereotypes of race, the picture of ourselves as somehow privileged because of the color of our skin. The two mythologies become intertwined, and there is no way to free ourselves from one without dealing with the other.” 

The work of freeing ourselves of preconceptions and misconceptions is the work of all. However, in this era of divisiveness and government sanctioned disinformation, it is especially the work of “white” women. May we dedicate ourselves to continuing this work. 

 

Complicity

Complicity    —by Jinny Batterson

Never once have I used the “n” word.
I’ve supported worthy causes,
Occasionally even put my personal
Safety at risk. I’m not like those bigots
Who can’t seem to understand
That, deep down, we are all one.

Yet I live where sirens are rare, where
Police are rarely present or summoned.
The officer who came last Sunday to
Investigate the fawn lying prone
On our sidewalk was friendly,
Bemused, not overbearing.
No verbal threats. No tasers.
No weapons drawn.

The economic system that nurtured me
Valued brain over brawn, and
Whiteness over everything else.
It diminished the dignity of manual
Work, replaced those with fewest
Connections with robots, or with
Off-shore call centers, while
A privileged few profited, assuming
They merited special consideration.

“Who you knew” became nearly
As important as what, and
Everyone cheated, if only a little.
Getting ahead became a mantra,
Though it was never clear what
Exactly we were getting ahead of.

This house of cards is collapsing.
Will I be buried under it, or
Will I help find a way to make explicit a
Rebuilt society that shelters and
Protects a multifarious polyglot of
Worthies, whatever our skin color,
Skills or connections?

Racism: A Chronic Spiritual Wasting Disease

Racism: A Chronic Spiritual Wasting Disease    —by Jinny Batterson

The mostly “white” religious congregation I’m part of in Raleigh, North Carolina has lately become more visibly concerned with reducing racism. Our local intensification started amid a national denominational crisis about discrimination in hiring practices. It increased after a 2017 murder at a Charlottesville, Virginia “unite the right” rally.  Our renewed efforts to grapple with racism (and other related isms) is a positive step. During 2018-2019, we’ve slightly adapted the workshop curriculum “Living the Pledge” and held multiple sessions for congregational leaders and members. Over the course of these workshops, those of us privileged to be “white” have gotten a more complete understanding of our unfair advantages, based on centuries of overt chattel slavery and then at least another century’s add-on of explicit and implicit discrimination against “non-whites.”  During a particularly intense role play, it dawned on me how unlikely it would be for me to fully shed my “whiteness.” Despite my best efforts, my earlier conditioning, sometimes unconscious, could continue to trip me up sometimes. Racism, I came to believe, was not an acute condition that could be cured with a good dose of anti-racism training. Rather it was a chronic spiritual illness requiring lifetimes of work to reduce and eventually eliminate its damage. 

In addition to the workshop materials, I studied on my own—a frequent recourse among highly formally educated Unitarian-Universalists. By the time I tiptoed into it, Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me had spent over a year and a half on the New York Times non-fiction bestseller list. His epistolary account of growing up as a “black” male in Baltimore reminded me of 1950’s childhood outings to eat and shop in what was then predominantly “white” West Baltimore, before fear-based real estate block-busting changed the complexion and economic resources of the neighborhood. I immersed myself in Michelle Obama’s Becoming, getting a “black” woman’s perspective on similar changes in the southside Chicago neighborhood that helped form her. I read a confessional analysis of the holdovers of “slaveholder religion” by “white” North Carolina-based pastor Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove. In his 2018 book, Reconstructing the Gospel, Wilson-Hartgrove explains how a skewed interpretation of the Christian gospels can continue to favor “whiteness.”

During an early spring 2019 trip, I had a chance to visit the museum and monument in Montgomery, Alabama, created by the Equal Justice Initiative to dramatize the connecting threads of racial violence through slavery and the period of terror-based lynchings to current mass incarceration. Recently I viewed the film The Best of Enemies, chronicling a cross-racial friendship forged during a two-week period of skillfully facilitated community discussions and soul-searching about school integration in neighboring Durham, North Carolina in 1971.    

Once we’ve studied, though, what do we do differently from what has come before? How do we learn to treat each person as an individual with “inherent worth and dignity,” as stated in our denomination’s basic documents?  How do we work toward dismantling institutional racism? How do us “whites” get beyond “white guilt” to become more effective in the struggle?  A clue came from a “white” woman activist who’s become a late-life hero of mine, “subversive Southerner” Anne Braden.  In an interview at her namesake education center in Louisville, Kentucky when she was in her late 70’s, Braden was clear and succinct: 

“I don’t think guilt is a productive emotion. I never knew anybody who really got active because of guilt. Now there’s plenty for white people to feel guilty about but they’ll sit around and they’ll feel guilty then they’ll go hear a real militant black speaker beat them over the head for an hour and go home and think they’ve done something and not do anything for a year. I’ve never seen it move anybody. I think what everybody white that I know has gotten involved in the struggle got into it because they glimpsed a different world to live in. The meaning of life is in that struggle, that human beings have always been able to envision something better.”

Racism is a chronic spiritual waste. Part of the work of  religious community is to harness the spirit to work persistently to reduce such waste, helping build the beloved community.