Colonialism

Living in Non-White Whiteness or White Non-Whiteness or ...

Kathleen's 6th Birthday

"What do you like about being white?"

The anti-racism training facilitator chose me to go first. My view of myself as multicultural Latinx, with indigenous heritage and light skinned privilege, was discounted a room full of other participants. Every struggle of not being white enough, or Latina enough flew up to my throat into a knot. I could not get past the word "multicultural," because the facilitator, an African American man, kept interrupting, insisting I was white. I thought my story about my grandparents and great grandparents had explained who I was the day before. The Latina facilitator said in a stage whisper, "She's Latina." The white facilitator said in a stage whisper to the Latina, She's white!" Whispering ensued between them. The facilitator who asked the question more than once said, "Fine, let's move on. We'll get back to you." I sat in shock. The next white individual, somewhat understandably, did not want to claim he was white either.

When I had gone to a people of color retreat last summer, the speaker, Zenju Earthlin Manuel had brought up an example that made sense. In 2013, Black Girl Dangerous blogger, Janani, published, "What's wrong with the term 'person of color?'" In it, they wrote about an exercise about race in an anti-oppression youth camp in the South, in which they, along with two other Asian attendees, were put in the white group rather than the black group. Janani wrote,

I want to return to that moment of racial ambivalence, and why it happened. That moment was unsettling precisely because even if Black and Asian kids had a common experience of being racialized, we didn’t have a common racialized experience.

It seems as if it should be obvious, but upon hearing it the first time, my heart opened with more compassion for we of whom are not of the dominant culture. In our workshop, every single person had been racialized as a consequence of living in the United States. Each one is racialized based on their geography in the country, in addition to the relationships to friends, relatives, loved ones, institutions and society. Not one person's early soul tenderness was battered by racism the same way. I have no claim to the experience of being black, but navigating La Frontera, the borderlands as explained by Gloria E. Anzaldúa, is its own experience. I grew up occupying that liminal space of in between, not pale enough to be white, but without the Spanish language, unable to navigate in the Latinx sphere either. How you were treated could turn on a dime. Especially, if your name changed from European to Hispanic or back. I was punished a whole school year for a surname change and return. My mother experienced it, and my sister, who has fairer skin than mine with dark hair and eyes, experienced it.

As the daughter of a Mexican American mother with the black hair and beautiful brown skin of her father, I was the first of sixteen grandchildren with the black hair and dark brown eyes that favored him. Unfortunately, he died before the year before. As the daughter of my Irish, Scandinavian, Northern European father, I'd never quite fit in. The McGregor family loved me anyway, often pointing out how smart I was, or tall I was, even though my build was more solid, and I tended to be chubby and darker. My heart and self-esteem suffered each time others were disparaged for gaining weight by the weight and look obsessed white women in the family, or how "Mexicans" or worse, "wetbacks" were disparaged by my new German stepfamily, most often by my stepmother.

If I had been asked a different question, the rest of the workshop might have gone differently. Instead, I became the female example of white denial. The trainer said to the group, "We people of color see you as white. You are not fooling us." My shutting down served as another sign of whiteness. In truth, I was in shock. Every misgiving about not being a person of color enough, was laid bare. I did not speak out about myself, nor with anyone else, the rest of the workshop. So, was he right? In a way, yes. And in a way, no.

I have much baggage: growing up in colonialized geography, feeling less than, being a widow of a small, dark, non-gender conforming, Filipina, a raw recent falling out with a relative, being enraged by my late beloved's treatment in the world, the traumatic death and aftermath, being an outcast accused of being unfeeling because I was white, and as such, had no culture, a coopted memorial. To say anything would have sounded like an excuse, or worse, as if I was trying to divert the discomfort, to make the conversation about my feelings, or separate myself from other whites by claiming I had suffered more, or that I had my own oppression, and therefore understood people of color's experience. Diversionary tactics are not new, and I've witnessed each one more than once.

For the evening and the next day, memories of scenes in the hospital, the funeral, and the aftermath haunted me. PTSD is real. When the other facilitator discussed what ends up lost to whites for opting to participate in whiteness the next day, I still could not trust myself to speak. When she blamed herself, her white privilege and ignorance, for the early loss of her own spouse, I just felt ill. I'd just managed to work past the survivor's guilt, stopped finding reasons to blame myself for my beloved's early death.

Going in to anti-racism work the decade before, I needed to be clear in my identity. I considered myself one of the mestizaje, on the border. After much discussion with my minister of color, I took on "person of color" identity as a political statement. That meant the battles are mine. Every single day, I choose not to walk away. My liberation is inextricably woven into the fabric of all people of color. Although there are days I hate the injustice too much to be healthy, I am committed. I'm committed to being open, learning, and to defer to the leadership of those people of color most affected by the intersecting issue at hand. I'm committed for all the multiracial children who do not quite fit into either family, and do not understand why race is such a big deal. I'm committed for gender nonconforming people of color, who are the most vulnerable, the most in danger, in our society. I'm committed for queer people of color, who are nearly as vulnerable. I am especially committed now for queer and gender nonconforming immigrants .

I'm grateful to have recently married, to a partner who works with me and learns with me. Still, I have married back into white privilege. So, what do I like about being white? I like that in passing, I can use the privilege I do have to speak out, protest, agitate, and put my body on the line for those who cannot. I like that in passing, I see and hear white people for who they are with each other. I like that in passing, my privilege can be used for the common good, rather than to get ahead in the capitalist white cultural narrative.

Contradictions and Juxtapositions at Standing Rock

Drawing of the Camp

In early November, I flew to Minnesota to join a delegation of clergy vanpooling from Minneapolist to the Standing Rock Reservation, in North Dakota. The Minnesota Unitarian Universalists Social Justice Action Alliance, or MUUSJA, or Moose Jaw, for those of you who are familiar with the UU's tendency to reduce everything to initials. MUUSJA is the equivalent of the Unitarian Universalist Justice Ministry of California, organized and funded a good part of the trip. The local Episcopal priest, Father John Floberg called for clergy to help the Sioux tribe, with members from more than 300 tribes across the Western Hemisphere in solidarity, protest the building of an oil pipeline near the Standing Rock reservation. What is at stake is their only source of water at risk of being poisoned by the Black Snake, the Missouri River, which is a tributary of the Mississippi River. *And* this company building the pipeline is notorious for leaks. Drinking water for millions of people are at risk.

My decision to go was a spiritual one. How could I with my presence be helpful to the Native women who are up there, prayerfully fighting for their land, and by extension Mother Earth and all of us. It helps to be aware of one's social location, especially when going into another culture, which in going to the reservation we were told again and again that the culture was different. My own social location as a Mestiza, or mixed European American and Mexican American, including indigenous heritage, queer woman. Part of my lived experience is having lived on the White Mountain Apache reservation in Northern Arizona when I was young, where I went to Head Start rather than kindergarten, and the first grade. I'm a Unitarian Universalist candidate for ministry who practices Zen Buddhism on my spiritual path. I have had a profound love for nature as far back as I can remember. In holding these identities in tension, social location certainly informed my experience while I was there.

Standing Rock is at the center of numerous intersecting issues. Going forward,Unitarian Universalists need to start thinking about issues, beyond single issues, such as environmentalism, rather through the lens of "intersectionality", a word coined by Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw that recognizes and names the fact that there is no single issue. Environmentalism is a popular issue with UUs. What gets overlooked more often by those who have environmentalism as their issue is that communities of color most often deal with toxic dumping, factories, or chemical or petrochemical storage or pipelines with unhealthful tendencies that are put in that area because white communities do not want them and have the power to demand that they are placed elsewhere. Not in my back yard(NIMBY). Plus, you have women who are affected by the chemicals and possibly that affects reproduction. The water is affected so there is external health effects, as well as internal. In this example, environmentalism intersects with racism, feminism, and it is systemic in that those in power in the government are deliberately making laws to limit companies to be near communities of color rather than white predominantly white communities.

This Dakota Pipeline protest is about the Black Snake going through their land and ground water, but it is also about the way that Native Americans continue to be treated by the US government informed by racism, and corporations having explicit, there for systemic backing by the state and US government. It is about the threat to water, our most precious communal resource. It is about power. The pipeline was originally supposed to go near Bismark, but the citizens, white citizens, would not have it. It is about Christianity. The Pope of the Catholic Church issued a bull in 1493, called the Doctrine of Discovery, shortly after the "New" World was discovered. This document declared that all land was to be claimed, and any people on the lands were to be converted to Christianity and enslaved or killed. This bull is the basis for court decisions to this day, regardless of what is written in the numerous treaties. Treaties that have been broken time and again, not by the Native Americans, but the white European Americans that greedily stole land. The protest is a Human Rights issue, the right to water and indigenous sovereignty.

Unitarian Universalists passed a resolution to repudiate the Doctrine of Discovery at General Assembly in 2012. The Episcopalians preceded us in 2009. Our Unitarian Universalist Service committee has based one of their programs on the Human Right to Water. The UU Justice Ministry of California has centered work around water. We, as Californians, know or should know how critical water is too life, but are especially aware in a desert that has been stricken by drought. We're not out of the woods yet. Thich Nhat Hanh Plum Village Line Zen Buddhists' with concern for the Mother Earth have formed an Earth Holder Sangha, of which I am apart. The One Earth Sangha, a multi-Buddhist environmental group is concerned about Standing Rock.The Christian intentional community of which I am a friend, Urban Village, was concerned enough about Standing Rock that they and friends funded my trip. I went to Standing Rock, as one person, knowing that I represented the solidarity and well wishes of members of all of these communities, as well as the UU communities I am involved with. Those are JUUstice L.A. with whom I had a travel mate, Neighborhood Church, Unitarian Universalist Church of the Larger Fellowship. Around sixty UU clergy traveled to Standing Rock for this particular call.

The group of over 500 church leaders met in the gymnasium the night before the event. I had weird a sense of deja vu having gone to non-sporting events in the gymnasium on the reservation. I began to feel like I was having an out of body experience observing. We learned about the history of the region from one man, and heard one of the women speak of the struggle. Native women are doing the lion's share of organizing and support in this struggle, much like women are doing the organizing for Black Lives Matter. One woman who spoke the night before, told the assembled clergy that the camp looks just like a camp to non-native Americans. She said those of Native American heritage would feel like they were coming home. When we drove over the rise the next morning and saw the camp bathed in the light of a truly spectacular sunrise I was overwhelmed with love and longing. Love for the land and people, and longing for their ill-treatment to be over. Metta prayers.

For the ceremony the next day, the priest offered a copy of the Doctrine of Discovery, in it's original Latin, to burn in the sacred fire that continuously burns in the camp. Those representing the tribe chose to burn it in an abalone shell outside the sacred fire. The water warriors did not want to contaminate their sacred fire with the ugliness of the source giving permission for European colonization. I liken it to the profoundly offensive practice when white people dump their loved one's ashes at the source of springs and rivers. These headwaters represent life and people come to that sacred space and pollute it with death. There is a long way to go for a cultural understanding of just how sacred the earth and it's elements are, and/or a respect for nature.

I saw the burned out vehicles, the planes and the helicopters circling overhead. Too, I saw the most beautiful sunrise in my life on the day of the protest ceremony. Yet, I also saw a ceremony that was ostensibly interfaith be performed with a profoundly Christian view. As that person who straddles borderlines, I had a hard time reconciling that the religion of the oppressing group, was also the focus as we walked behind a cross to the river. That people with other symbols were "welcome" to process in front as well, felt strange since it other faith's are not about elevating their symbol above all. This is a case where members of the colonializing dominant culture, while apologizing for the past sins of their faith, reasserted that faith in that Native American space.

Repudiating the Doctrine of Discovery is a step in the right direction. A young Buddhist asked if he should repudiate it since this was not his religion that issued the bull. I did not hear what the answer was, but my answer is yes. As a U.S. citizen, he is benefitting from the legacy of that papal bull. I, as a US citizen, am benefitting from that legacy. The Standing Rock Dakota Pipeline protest is emblematic of indigenous struggles against state supported corporations, U.S. supported corporations, up and down the American continent. I met a young Tinglet woman from Alaska. She was unlikely to be born when the Exxon Valdez ran aground; yet, she has grown up with the consequences. She came down from Alaska to protest in solidarity so that what happened in Alaska would not happen in North Dakota.

The struggle is just beginning if we, as UUs, are to do something more than symbolically repudiating. Clergy were asked to return and educate. I pledged to return and educate. We do not necessarily need more UUs going up to Standing Rock, unless it's to deliver supplies. We need people to use their skills. Fundraising? Social Media? Political Savvy? Legal? Communications? Too, the water warriors need warm clothes and sleeping beds to endure the winter to come. They are committed to saving the water, by continuing the protest and camp through the often brutal winter.

Meg Riley, the minister of the Church of the Larger Spirit writes, "Hope is born in the communion of struggle." Many struggles are and will continue to be upon`us in the coming days. Bill McKibbon reminds us: "History offers us no chance to completely erase our mistakes. Occasionally, though, we do get a chance to show we learned something."

Identity, Heritage, and Allyship

Thinking about Pope Francis' apology on Thursday for the Catholic Church's offenses against indigenous peoples, contrasted with the expectation that the pontiff will canonize Junipero Serra when he visits the US this September. The other big story in the news today is of course that South Carolina is removing the Confederate flag from its State House, but not before a long, heated debate in which defenders of the flag appealed to history and heritage. Gov Jindal of Louisiana supposedly even weighed in, claiming the Confederate flag as part of his own heritage (but it turns out the story is not true).

Many on the Left, including some friends, jeered Jindal for those supposed remarks. Likely they saw it as another example of him trying to erase his color and pass as white. Given other things he's done and said, I can understand why folks felt that way (and why so many of us believed the story), but I also thought I understood the sentiment.  While my parents are from China, I grew up in California and identify as a Californian - Californian heritage is part of my heritage.  So while Jindal's parents are from India, I could see him feeling that Southern heritage is part of his heritage.  Just because Jindal is of South Asian descent doesn't mean that he can't identify as a Southerner – to argue otherwise is to argue that Asians cannot truly be “American” even if we grew up here; it's to suggest that we are perpetually “foreign.” I invite my left-leaning friends who ridiculed the supposed remark to think about that.

Why am I talking about this in connection with the Pope and what the Catholic Church has done to indigenous peoples? Because as a Californian, I grew up being taught to revere Junipero Serra, the founder of the 21 Spanish missions that run up the length of our coast. We learned about him in history class. There is a prominent roadway named after him that my family frequently uses. He remains one of two Californians honored in the US Capitol Building. For better and for worse, the state that I love is in large part the result of his actions. So the first time I heard indigenous activists protest the beatification of Junipero Serra, I was deeply torn. Two parts of my identity were in conflict with each other. It isn't that I supported the enslavement and genocide of Native Americans under Serra - it's that I perceived him to be part of the heritage of my state, and thus part of my identity.

The knee-jerk reaction would have been to defend “Father Serra” (as I'd grown up hearing him called), to make excuses for him. Thankfully, I did not go with the knee-jerk reaction, and instead bit my tongue and sat with the internal conflict.  Faithful ally to Native Americans versus proud Californian.  I wanted to be both.

Of course, the world does not revolve around what I want.  While Gov Jindal may not have actually claimed the Confederate flag as part of his heritage, many people have done so this week. They wanted to maintain a symbol of their identity despite the pain that it causes others. And to them, SC Rep Jenny Hornes had this response:

"I’m sorry. I have heard enough about heritage. I have a heritage. I am a lifelong South Carolinian. I am a descendant of Jefferson Davis, okay? But that does not matter. It’s not about Jenny Horne. It’s about the people of South Carolina who have demanded that this symbol of hate come off the statehouse grounds."

Being an ally means recognizing that it's not just about you and what you want. 

When confronted with the horrors of history – whether that of state, region, or country - one approach adopted by many progressives is to try to completely disavow themselves of the history/heritage. To say, “That's not my history.  I had nothing to do with that.” This is particularly easy for those of us who are not white to do, especially if our families came to America more recently. But it strikes me as overly simplistic and not entirely honest.  Unless all your ancestors are indigenous to this land, you are here because of that history. (I recognize that many ancestors were forced to come to this land.) My ancestors did not participate in the enslavement and genocide that built this country, but they could not have immigrated here without it. If Junipero Serra had not done what he did, it is highly unlikely that my family would own a home in San Francisco right now. Highly unlikely. I don't think being a good ally to Native Americans means pretending that we don't have the privileges that we clearly do have.  So... I can't control what others do, but to me it feels disingenuous to simply say that California history is not my history. It is.

And of course, one doesn't have to actually choose between being a good ally for racial justice and being a Californian (or USAmerican).  I bet that at least some of the Native Americans protesting Serra's canonization also identify as Californians.  What was required was that I rethink the story inherited from school and our state culture. I didn't have to accept the story that I inherited – painting Junipero Serra in rosy, fatherly light - in order to be a Californian. There are other, more multi-faceted ways to tell our state story. Ways that honor all our voices and experiences. We can recognize that Junipero Serra was integral to the history of what is California and at the same time recognize that he is not who we want to lift up as an example for others to follow.  He is not the best of who we can be.  And after all, isn't that what a saint is supposed to be?

When I read this morning that Pope Francis apologized for things the Catholic Church had done against indigenous peoples, my first reaction was to think, “If he's sincere, then he won't canonize Junipero Serra.”  And I am still a proud Californian.

 

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