Un-packing Racism an interview with Rev. David Billings, D.Div.
As a black woman, it has taken me a while to began to understand that de-constructing and eradicating racism does not solely rest on the shoulders of black people. I know this might seem obvious to many people, but, for me I have been living with the impact of racism for so long it has been very difficult to step out of “reactive” mode and embrace anti-racist work that is being done by “like-minded” people from other cultures, including white people.
Recently, I had the opportunity to chat with Rev. David Billings, D. Div., a “white” anti-racist trainer, and learn about the work being done at The Peoples Institute for Survival and Beyond. This organization is committed to de-constructing racism by educating people, both white and black, on the negative impact of racism in American society.
At this time, I would like to share some of my conversation with Rev. Billings with you…
When did you lose your culture as a white man or when did you discover it? (Izzie J)
I never lost my culture. I have always been acutely aware that I was white given the circumstances of my birth and the particular era in which I grew up which was the 1950’s and 60’s, all in the southern U.S. and in Mississippi and Arkansas in particular. It was an extremely race-conscious period. I was reared in the tenets of white supremacy some of which was subtle and much of which was overt. White supremacy was a given, rarely questioned, and rarely officially discussed. It was not until the 1980’s that I began to study the nature of “whiteness”—what it was and when and how, it was created. White culture thus was the way of life of a race-constructed society. White was taught as normal, universal and even transcendent. From what were deemed the classics of literature and fine arts to the depiction of Jesus as being European in appearance were all a part of white culture—the underpinnings of a white supremacist way of life. None of this required bigotry or individual acts of meanness (although often it did, of course). It was life as I knew it. White was dominant, supreme, ordained, and made into law.
Why is it important for white people to unpack racism? (Izzie J)
Racism robs white people of their humanity. A mentor of mine said “To the degree one sees another as anything less than a full human being, to that degree one is out of touch with what it means to be human.” Thus whites are disconnected from an understanding and knowledge of self. It creates barriers between ourselves and 90% of the world’s population. If whites don’t know how we became white and what white means then all else we think we know is superficial, shallow and as Neely Fuller says, “only tends to confuse you”. Because whites are not required to face our racial nature, our attempts to develop real relationships with people of color are destined to fail. Racism can be “unpacked”. If something was done, it can be undone. Race is inherently specious, false, but it has power in a race-constructed world order.
What is the price that people of color pay for assimilation in America? (Izzie J)
This is not for me to say as a white person. I will say that the first racial constructionists, white meant the absence of black. All others, under certain circumstances, might mix across racial lines. Not white and black. This is the famous “one-drop rule”. Any “black blood” made one “Black”. White and Black were the twin pillars of racism/white supremacy.
Do you think “white” America, owes “black” America (and Native America) something? Reparation? (Izzie J)
In one sense white people owe black people and Native Americans everything. The wealth of the nation was created by the combination of free Black labor and the seizure of lands from the indigenous. The wealth accumulation was staggering beyond calculation. The United States is the wealthiest Nation in the world has thus far known even if you combined all the wealth of all other nations heretofore. The politics of this “debt” are just as daunting. It is hard to fathom. I would say most white Americans feel that Blacks have been “given” too much already. As heartless, even as ludicrous, as this might sound, this is the nature of white supremacist thinking and worldview.
How does one develop an anti-racist framework? (Izzie J)
The Peoples Institute for Survival and Beyond, of which I am a part, believes that racism can be “undone”. It takes a collective approach. It involves organizing, discipline and study. It requires a study of the racist framework that has governed us for so long and its replacement even conceptually at first with anti-racist framework. Professor Y.N. Kly authored a small text titled “The Anti-Social Contract” which lays it out pretty clear. This nation could develop such an arrangement. To say it will neither be easy or quick, however is a vast understatement.
Is there such a thing as “White Culture”? (Izzie J)
Certainly. If culture is a way of life then there is a white culture. It is not based on ethnicity or geography or biology, but on “race”. It is made manifest through the institutions “sanctioned by the state” historically speaking to this day. White culture is taught in the schools, embedded in the judicial system, health care, finance, and dominant-culture religion. It has trademarks or a value-system. White culture prizes individualism, dichotomous logic, the self as the center of consciousness and many other dynamics that can be delineated over time. Any person of color with street smarts or a Masters/Ph. D. knows what white culture is. Such knowledge is necessary to survive or succeed in this country. The only persons who are discouraged from recognizing white culture are white people. This is another tenet of white supremacy. With work and commitment whites can identify white culture. It is just difficult for us at first.
Describe ways that racism masquerades as something else? (Izzie J)
Systemic outcomes are one way. There are no institutional outcomes in this society that do not conform to the racial pecking order. These can be predicted from afar. The educational system, criminal justice, employment, home ownership are all examples of how race manifests itself in society. Whites can be in denial about this because the institutions speak for us. Because of individualism, whites don’t have to be self-critical about race. It often makes us appear disingenuous when in discussion with people of color. Of course, political discourse is fraught with racial code-words and innuendo—calling the President the Welfare President, in questioning his birth records, in his re-election sparking a cessation movement. There are more subtle ways that Whites are given to changing the subject when race is put forward. You can see this in college curriculum Race never stands alone—it is usually race, class, and gender or race and an all other oppression’s These are distinct phenomena, but when grouped together, race will fade into the background as a rule.
How do you walk in your whiteness and be true to the Civil Rights Movement? (Izzie J)
It is the only way to be in the Movement. People of color can easily spot those of us who are in denial or who are confused by our racial identities. Whites don’t have to be perfect. We need to be vulnerable to what race has done to all of us. Self-knowledge chops away at the savior complex. In a deeper sense whites in the movement are expected to work with other whites around the “un-packing” of racism. This is the hardest work of all. Many of us want to live vicariously through people of color, but the real challenge is to learn how to work with other white people. This is what will ultimately “undo” racism.
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