This week I’ve continued to ponder the impact of racism on our culture and my life as I read further into the book White Fragility that we’re using as the starting point for our weekly online conversations at St. Philip’s. As we approach our annual remembrance of Independence Day in America, I’ve found some interesting threads weaving together in my mind and heart. I thought I’d share at least some of that process in my post for today.
Robin DiAngelo, the author of the book above, writes that there are cultural assumptions woven into our lives of which we are normally completely unaware. Some of these in America include assumptions about the inherent goodness and importance of capitalism, consumerism, and individualism.
Now, over the decades of my adulthood, I have read my share of critiques of capitalism and consumerism. Mostly, I have encountered these in the context of Christian critiques of our culture. Mostly, I have agreed in theory with the problems (social and economic inequality, a focus on the material in contrast to the spiritual, overuse and abuse of the earth’s resources). Mostly, I have only taken some small baby steps to make changes in my own life (donating to causes that support the less fortunate, writing about the spiritual life, recycling).
However, the inherent Western focus on and belief in individualism was much more hidden from me until a year or two ago. I first began to become aware of it when editing Richard Rohr’s book What Do We Do with Evil? In this book, Richard exposes and addresses the systemic levels of social evil in which we are all complicit, and to which we are mostly blind because they have formed the underlying fabric of our lives. He illustrates how Christianity, over the centuries, has focused on individual sins while allowing various corporate and social evils to thrive unchecked.
Racism is one of those social evils (although Richard doesn’t focus on it in his book). Because of the ways whites in America are raised, we are taught very young that white is the norm and other colors are the exception. We learn that white is the standard and everything else is, at some level or another, substandard. We learn what white looks like—and it turns out to have nothing to do with what makes us good people, or good Christians. But by absorbing and integrating the lies about exceptions and inferiority, we also begin to believe that “good” only applies to individuals, not to communities and social structures.
Ironically, by focusing on individualism, the powerful in America have gotten us to focus only on what individuals can do. America’s history is filled with tales of successful individuals, not of the powerless people they enslaved or paid substandard wages and overworked in order to gain that “success.” Individuals are lauded when they rise to the top, regardless of how many people they have stepped on to get there.
But individuals, individually, don’t create systemic change. For one thing, individuals who benefit from a system have no incentive to change it. For another, individuals who don’t benefit from it don’t have the power to change it—unless they find a way, collectively, to grab hold of that power. That’s what makes for revolution.
And revolution paved the way for America’s Independence Day. That vaunted American individualism is not what created America. It was the hard work of a large community of dedicated people. In fact, George Washington didn’t want to be president. He saw firsthand how dangerous it could be to place power in the hands of a single individual—in his case, the King of England. While he and his colleagues were certainly products of their own culture (and therefore inherently racist), they did understand how wrong it was to give power to one individual. That’s why they crafted three branches of government, with “checks and balances” on each other—a system, by the way, that our current president and his cronies are working diligently to overcome or unravel.
But I digress…and this post is already plenty long. So, you’ll have to wait until next week for the conclusion to these reflections. In my next post, I’ll ponder at least some of what I believe that we can do—collectively and individually—because Americans always want to jump to action and fix things (another cultural assumption).
In the meantime, I invite you to spend time this week reflecting on your own assumptions about capitalism, consumerism, and individualism—and if you’re Christian, whether any of those were important values in Jesus’ teachings.
Well you solved a mystery for me: I could not remember where I had seen/ heard the encouragement to read White Fragility…. now I know! I ordered the audio version and am slowly working my way through the book – embarrassed at times by my lack of awareness and grasp of history. I will look forward to “the rest of the story” as Paul Harvey used to say, and in the mean time think about Jesus’ teachings…. I think he would be even more embarrassed than I am at what we have become.
So glad to solve your mystery, Joyce! Yes, I think all we whites have some challenging and embarrassing moments ahead…and the key is to live through them and stay on course, trusting that beyond our discomfort can be a better community for all of us…. Thank you for engaging!
As a Christian existentialist, I might suggest that there will never be a ‘moral society’ but we can chose to be ‘moral individuals’ (I am following the ideas of Reinhold Niebuhr here). The idea that individuals who benefit from systemic injustice will never be moved to change it seems false to me.
Certainly Dietrich Bonhoeffer benefited from the wealth and privilege he enjoyed as an upper class, very well educated German with a brilliant future ahead of him. Yet he chose to oppose the Nazi government and worked to overthrow it, an activity that cost him his life. Each of us are also more than “white” or our other societal identifications. As individuals, we can choose to see the racism and injustice in our society and work to improve our broken world, even when we may have enjoyed ‘white privilege’.
At the end, Bonhoeffer was alone, without even the opportunity to correspond with his friends and family. Yet his faith did not waver. In prison and and at the gallows, he resembled Jesus. Both men’s individual choices mattered. I might not remove the possibility of a genuinely moral individual.
Thank you, Diana, for this thoughtful response. You are right that some individuals who benefit from systemic injustice will be moved to change it. Otherwise, our conversations at St. Philip’s mean nothing. Very seldom, however, do I believe that those who have risen to have a lot of power within that system will be willing to change it—because they have grabbed the power and do not want to let it go. I do think there can be a significant difference between privilege and power.
I also fear that you might be right about the impossibility of a moral society—if it’s all up to us. Fortunately, I believe God can work in and through us to make changes we could not imagine on our own…. But we have to let go of our own smaller version of control and power in order to let God in, and let God act….