Tuesday, May 31, 2011

What's my culture?

Back in 1992 I attended a 3-day training on "Undoing Racism" by The People's Institute for Survival and Beyond. I credit those 3 days with starting a journey in my life to understand racism. It laid a powerful foundation for an ongoing process of learning that has now lasted for almost 20 years. As an aside, not too long ago I learned that the same training launched Tim Wise's career in this work.

While on a break during that training, I posed a situation I had just experienced to one of the leaders and asked for his advice. His answer has been something I've pondered ever since. First, let me tell you about the situation, then I'll let you know about his wise advice.

I had been asked to sit on a committee to give our city's mayor some feedback about what to look for in a new police chief. One day while the committee was meeting one of the older African American men was pontificating (sermonizing if you will) about the very real needs in his community and wound up saying "Black men are the most oppressed group in this country."

That didn't sit well with me. Not that I would disagree about the oppression of Black men. But what about Black women, or Native American men, or...?

Since then I've heard this kind of thing referred to as "oppression olympics." That was part of the problem I had with his statement. But I was also very aware that there were no Black women or Native American people in the room - whether or not they would have spoken up at that point, I don't know.

But I didn't say anything. And it haunted me afterwards. On the other hand, I'm a white woman and didn't really think it was my place to say anything.

So I asked this training facilitator (a Black man) what he thought I should have done. His answer floored me. He said, "When you know your own culture and have confidence in that, you'll be able to say anything you need to in any circumstance in which you find yourself."

What did he mean by that? I've been pondering it ever since.

I'll just add that the next day one of our assignments was to bring something from our culture to share with the group. It was interesting to watch the reaction of participants. Most of the people of color were thrilled at the idea and had fun talking about what to share. The white people went into a panic...MY culture? What culture is that?

To date what I've taken from that exercise and his response to my situation is that one of the biggest aspects of white privilege is that we don't have to spend much time contemplating a concept like culture. Ours is the default...the air we breath. Whereas people of color are always being confronted by the reality of their culture - in opposition to the default. In many ways, its what sustains them.

The facilitators were telling us white people that there's no such thing as "multicultural" until we come to terms with our own and have something to bring to the table (something other than privilege).

Doing so is one of the ways we begin to recognize what white privilege is all about.

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