While it is impossible to walk in another person’s shoes, there is value in actively seeking to understand the experiences of our neighbors who have different lives. Empathy begins with being open to new information.
Our Living Into Inclusivity group spend 90 minutes recently diving into what it means to be part of the dominant white, male-dominated culture and begin to educate ourselves about what others face. An important part of that effort is coming to grips with the advantages that come with being part of the dominant culture in this country.
For our educational backdrop, each of us listened to a powerful podcast interview with trauma therapist Resmaa Menakem conducted by Krista Tippett of Onbeing.org.
“So the premise of the work is predicated on the idea that there was a certain time where the white body became the supreme standard by which all bodies’ humanity shall be measured,” Menakem told Tippett in the interview, adding: “If you don’t understand that, everything about America will confuse you. Everything about racialization will confuse you.”
What Menakem points out is that we are socialized in a culture in which being white is the standard and, in his view, other bodies are automatically considered deviant. The death of George Floyd in Minneapolis illustrated this. A white police officer had his knee on Floyd’s neck without any observable concern in the world, and it cost Floyd his life.
In our dialogue, our group focused on these questions: 1. When did you know you were white? 2. What was your initial reaction to the term white supremacy? How does it change with Resmaa's term white body supremacy? 3. What resonated with you in this interview? What do you still have questions about?
To a person, all of us grew up in circumstances in which there were very few minorities and race was something that described other people, not us. We only noticed difference when we encountered people of difference, such as Rev. John Coleman Campbell’s experience as a Peace Corps volunteer in Africa, and Karen Rutherford’s family trip into the South and seeing separate public services for white and “colored” folk.
When we got to the question of white Supremacy vs. white body supremacy, some interesting conversations emerged. All of us had a negative reaction to the term “white supremacy,” perhaps conjuring up the specter of the KKK, lynchings and the like — bad people doing bad things.
But when Menakem talked about white body supremacy, that was a different way to think about racism. This goes to the notion of considering oneself “not a racist” without considering and acknowledging that there are systems in place that maintain the supremacy of those of us with white bodies. As Rev. Dave Haven put it, there is a “hierarchical system where if you are on top and you are supreme, it’s really difficult to know what it’s like below you.”
That perspective flies in the face of conventional wisdom in this country that we are in a post-racial period and that there is a level playing field for everyone and that the only difference in life outcomes is the result of individual effort.
For all of the good work of the civil rights movement, Menakem says, we have not changed ourselves from the inside. “While we see anger and violence in the streets of our country, the real battlefield is inside our bodies… all of our bodies, of every color.”
It is very uncomfortable to be talking about race and, as Menakem points out, when white people are nervous, bad things happen to people of color. “When white people get nervous, people lose their jobs,” he said, adding: “When white people get nervous, people get hung from trees.”
This summary barely scratches the surface of our conversation. You can access that dialogue by searching for Living Into Inclusivity Session 2 on YouTube. Here’s the link: youtu.be/pHpsOZ-hcHQ