Something Very Strange: the Work of Reclaiming Our Humanity

Something very strange happened to me. I was born white, male, and middle-class in the United States of America. I was miseducated into a system so entrenched, so deep, that to extricate myself from its illusions is a full-time job that does not pay. To extricate myself from the necessary illusions and downright lies of a white supremacist culture requires critical thinking and relentless self- and social-examination within a milieu that does not support that kind of reflection. At every turn, I was and am met with the message to look the other way. I was and am offered bribes in the form of the status quo. I was and am reminded of how good I have it.

And yet, the “good” that I have does not feel so good. It’s empty, inauthentic. It’s plastic and tarnished metal, rust. It’s a warm house and stocked fridge counterposed with belching fossil fuels wreaking climate change. It’s social neglect, and racism, and starvation, and war.

And so I dropped out. I pursued poverty, took minimum wage jobs with my college education, for years. And even my pursuit of poverty was inauthentic, because when, years later, I shifted back into the mainstream, that was possible for me. I was able to shift from service and retail work to social work. And I had the intention of working from within to create change. Yet the position I held was entrenched so deeply within the system that it was remedial. I was addressing a problem that had been created by complex forces of a dehumanizing economics, and my job was to assist in managing the problem.

The root of the problem is not being addressed. The root of the problem is not only an economics of dehumanization, but an overarching culture of dehumanization.

I have come to believe that people of conscience must work to create a whole new culture. I have work to do along with others who are repudiating a culture of dehumanization. This is deep work and has been going on since before the shores of the so-called New World were invaded by colonizers. It has been and is and will continue to be work of resistance.

We also must push beyond resistance into new territory. We must push beyond repudiation to replacement. We must build. We dismantle white supremacy and the larger culture of dehumanization to build something that we don’t yet have the words for, something that cannot be comprehended through the systems that we have. We have to build a new culture, a culture of love, not possession; a culture of union, not separation; a culture of cooperation, not competition. The culture that we build must be dynamic.

We have to be the work and pass the work to others and work with others and be willing to listen and see with the eyes of others. And this is hard work. This is real work. This is not a function of an economy, but a function of humanity. This is the work of being human and this is how we reclaim humanity from those who have, and do, and will continue to dehumanize.

We must first be human to have a human culture.

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3 comments

  1. Thank you Charles. You are right. This is deep work and it will take time. Shortly after Katrina struck New Orleans, we packed up our kids and drive to New Orleans to help out with Common Ground Collective. Volunteers from all over the country, mostly young people and mostly white, had come to help but before anyone put on a hazmat suit or picked up a shovel, Common Ground made everyone in their work group participate in a workshop on White Privilege. They understood that nothing will change unless the change within comes first. I can honestly say that there was a lot of discomfort in that room and heated discussions ensued but, for me, it was transforming. They were right.

  2. Discomfort is essential, and it’s very hard to come by. Most white people I know shy away from confronting whiteness. I think even within white privilege conversations, we often have insular conversations about race. We may acknowledge privilege without exploring the flip side of privilege, the actual oppression that is historic and ongoing against non-white people. One of the most powerful things that I think white people can do is attend openly to the experiences of Black people, and all people of color. Most of what I’m able to do in that regard comes through reading. I’ve found opportunities to engage in person-to-person conversation about race with anyone, regardless of color, to be rare; and due to the social taboos about talking about race, I’ve found that opportunities to engage in person-to-person conversation about race with people of color are extremely rare.

    Re: Katrina, Walidah Imarisha wrote a powerful essay that reinforces what you described in your comment. I think it’s especially important because she writes as a Black American interviewing other Black Americans active in the Katrina relief effort. Non-Black people are given the opportunity to view that situation from the perspective of Black Americans, and that’s a valuable opportunity that we should take.

    The essay is “From the Ground Up: Race and the Left Response to Katrina”: http://www.walidah.com/node/103

    1. That workshop was also the first, and to this day the only, workshop that addressed the complexities of biracial folks. As someone who is biracial, I was so grateful as were the few other biracial folks there. Being half white, I was never accepted in either world and always felt like an outsider, an observer, which is btw, not always a bad thing but it is an isolating experience. Being biracial, however, does not spare you from racism. That experience has had a profound affect on me. No one has ever thought of me as a white person although I certainly cannot deny my own privilege.

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