Growing up Irish-Catholic and going to Catholic schools from kindergarten through 12th grade I couldn’t help but think about my soul, often. I remember Sister Bev leading sex ed class in 8th grade. It was essentially her telling us to leave each other and ourselves alone or we would go blind. I remember confessing everything from swearing to premarital sex and feeling so relieved while saying my ten Hail Mary’s. I thought about my soul often. And, while I am no longer Christian, I still find myself thinking about my soul. Thinking about our soul.
I was leading a workshop on white privilege a while back as part of Poetic Assassins. I had read Tim Wise and some others and was pretty confident I was prepared to lead this workshop. I did the workshop and felt pretty good about it. After, one of the the participants asked me what whiteness was. I was taken aback by the question. Not because it is a bad question. I was taken aback because I realized I did not have an answer. At least not one that was good enough. I don’t remember my exact answer to him, but I remember leaving there with an understanding of the work I needed to immerse myself in: understanding whiteness.
As I read about whiteness a familiar feeling came over me: concern for my soul. It became clear to me that this work was, at its core, work that was spiritual. Not in the hippy, new age, spacey kind of way; this work was and is spiritual in the most concrete and real ways I had ever known.
Whiteness can be summed up with that one word: disconnection. The initial disconnection being from the creator and creation. As whiteness has matriculated and evolved into the global system of oppression we currently find ourselves subsumed by we must understand that it is disconnection. While humans have been bickering and fighting with one another and separating themselves into hierarchies for millennia never before has the disconnection been so complete and so thorough as the creation of whiteness.
Whiteness is a uniquely American invention. Yes, people with white skin have existed for centuries, but whiteness is relatively new. I should be clear it didn’t just happen out of nowhere, there was build up and warning signs i.e. colonization of Ireland which Ronald Takaki calls practice for the genocidal colonization of the Western Hemisphere. But in Virginia and Maryland and the other colonies, whiteness is born.
The need to rationalize slavery and maintain the economic social order led our ancestors down a path of disconnection from which we have yet to recover. And, I fear we may never recover. We are just now experiencing the slightest collective consciousness around the way the police kill brown and black folks with impunity. That ain’t new, just the cameras are. We are so disconnected from our brothers and sisters that collectively we have ignored, or blatantly refused to acknowledge, the reality they have been telling us about. We talk about the wealth gaps, crooked politicians and corrupt CEO’s and bankers as if they are natural phenomenon that must be tolerated as opposed to the logical outcome of a system built on genocide and slavery which murders and steals to protect its interests everyday. Still, the clearest example of how utterly disconnected from humanity and creation whiteness has pushed us comes in how we are treating the earth.
The earth must be sacred. Whiteness, though, has commodified and exploited it with no regard for the consequences. Our disconnection is so thorough we are actually killing ourselves and resisting the calls to stop. While I am certainly talking climate change, which has real and immediate effects hurting us all right now, I am also talking about the lead in our water from Flint to my hometown Minneapolis (and everywhere else). I am talking about the daily destruction of the rainforests, the historic drought in California, and the islands of trash in our oceans. Most presently, I am talking about oil pipelines and cutting off water to Native Tribes protesting the Dakota Access Pipeline.
“The past is never dead.It’s not even past.”
I’m sitting here at 4:45am thinking about my ancestors. I’m thinking about the Standing Rock Sioux and the other tribes protecting what is left of their land from the insatiable appetite for destruction of whiteness. I’m thinking about the disconnection and legacy necessary for the Army Corps of Engineers to actually say the Standing Rock Sioux “failed to describe specific cultural sites” that would be damaged by the pipeline. As if the water and land is not a “specific cultural site.” I am thinking about our soul.
How did we get to this place? How do we return?
As a kid, I always appreciated the relief I felt after going to confession. I think we need something like that. We need to begin with truth-telling and then work at reconnecting. We need to understand if the earth isn’t sacred, nothing is. It will be a journey, this reconnection, but it is one we must pursue with urgency. Jack Forbes calls whiteness an illness: the Wetiko Disease of Exploitation. I do believe whiteness is a sickness. I believe this is first and foremost a spiritual sickness. I also believe there is a cure. Go out with an open mind and heart to learn and love others. Ask questions and listen to the answer. Be in community. Find out what matters to others and why, then have it matter to you. Reject the individualism of whiteness. Reject the disconnection. Our souls depend on it.