Today is Saturday, June 12, 2020, Sewing Machine Day! Sewing machines originated in France in the 1830’s and were patented in the U.S. in 1846. Before sewing machines, all clothing was hand stitched. For this reason, they were an amazing, time-saving invention. If Clemencia’s mask-making is any indication, sewing machines have been getting much more use since late March than they’ve gotten in a long time.
Privilege Mixed with Power
Yesterday I wrote about Kennedy Mitchum, the recent Drake University graduate who convinced the editors at Merriam-Webster to change the definition of “racism” in their dictionary. She has been doing a lot of interviews since the story broke. You can watch or listen to several of them here: WBUR, KMOV, CNN, New York Times, The Guardian, BBC, Good Morning America, MSNBC, and more. I have included the interview from MSNBC in this post because it was the most exhaustive and substantive of those I’ve already listed.
The phrase that Kennedy used in her interview with The Des Moines Register (reprinted in The Burlington Hawk Eye) to define systemic racism is “privilege mixed with power.” I’ve been ruminating on that phrase ever since I first saw it yesterday.
It is an elegant definition that really packs a punch. At an individual level any person can feel a sense of privilege. We’ve all run into those folks, right? They are the ones who park in the handicap spaces without a tag or in the space in front of the store marked “do not park” because they “are only going to be there a moment.” They are the ones who use money to buy their kids’ education at a university with a “good name.” At the individual level, any person, regardless of race, ethnicity, status, religion, gender, etc. can demonstrate a sense of privilege.
However, unless they have power, they cannot make their privilege “the way we do things here” (institutionalization or enculturation). That is what makes systemic racism so dangerous. It is what makes Kennedy’s definition so important. Systemic racism is when people, on the basis of their race, have privilege and they also have the power to institutionalize their privilege. Hence, systemc racism is “privilege mixed with power.”
That brings us to the issue of white privilege. In American society it is very hard to deny white privilege. Actually, the evidence is so overwhelming it is rationally impossible, though that doesn’t prevent some people from trying. Historically, being white in America has not only meant privilege, it has also meant that we’ve had the power. What Kennedy’s definition does is remind us that that is a dangerous combination. As white people with privilege and power, we can create a system that prefers us over any other group. This is exactly what we have done. We’ve created a system, based on our white privilege and our positions of power, that prefers our race over any other in the country. Hence, systemic racism. We built the system, we own it, and it is badly broken. It is past time to tear it down.
Maggi, a regular reader from Pennsylvania, sent me an article from Sojourner’s magazine that I want to quote here and also encourage you to read. The article is an interview by Rev. Romal J. Tune (a black minister) of Father Richard Rohr (a white contemplative Franciscan). I was introduced to the work of Richard Rohr by a colleague in Florida a few months ago. Since that time I’ve been receiving his Daily Meditation from the Center for Action and Contemplation (this link will take you to a page where you can sign up for it as well). In this interview, Rev. Tune talks with Father Rohr about the issue of white privilege. The first quote I want to share is Rohr’s definition of white privilege:
White privilege is largely hidden from our eyes if we are white. Why? Because it is structural instead of psychological, and we tend to interpret most things in personal, individual, and psychological ways. Since we do not consciously have racist attitudes or overt racist behavior, we kindly judge ourselves to be open minded, egalitarian, “liberal,” and therefore surely not racist. Because we have never been on the other side, we largely do not recognize the structural access, the trust we think we deserve, the assumption that we always belong and do not have to earn our belonging, the “we set the tone” mood that we white folks live inside of — and take totally for granted and even naturally deserved. Only the outsider can spot all these attitudes in us. It is especially hidden in countries and all groupings where white people are the majority.Father Richard Rohr
What it is important for us to take away from this definition is that we white folks cannot see our own white privilege, at least not to the degree that we can fully understand it. We need others, looking at us from the outside, to help us see what we cannot. This, of course, reminds me of the Johari Window.
The Johari Window helps us understand that there is an aspect of ourselves about which we are “blind.” We just cannot see it. We are dependent on others to help us see that which we cannot see. Ideally, we are self-aware enough to ask others to tell us what we don’t see. When we aren’t so self-aware, they may have to tell us for our own good what we are unwilling to see. This is the function of protests and movements – they help us see what we need to see but cannot or will not.
The “unknown” part of our lives are a bit more challenging for us to explore. Typically, it requires us to consider other’s observations of ourself alongside our own self-discovery. Rohr offers an insight about how that self-discovery can occur:
Some form of contemplative practice is the only way (apart from great love and great suffering) to rewire people’s minds and hearts. It is the only form of prayer that dips into the unconscious and changes people at deep levels — where all of the wounds, angers, and recognitions lie hidden. Prayer that is too verbal, too social, too external, too heady never changes people at the level where they really need to change. Only some form of prayer of quiet changes people for good and for others in any long term way. It sustains and deepens the short term wisdom we learn in great love and great suffering. Forgive me for making that an absolute statement, but I believe it from years of working with people.Richard Rohr
Kennedy Mitchum’s elegant turn of phrase, “privilege mixed with power” has been a focal point of contemplation for me this week. It has helped me understand more clearly the meaning of systemic racism. It has helped me more clearly understand, too, how my white privilege has contributed to that system.
the view from jeff
chickenman – episode 57
Well…this is a stranger than usual episode of Chickenman. It finds him turning down the Police Commissioner’s cry for help to deliver a basket of food to his grandmother in the woods. A noble undertaking to be sure but…what…?