What I Learned about Racism and White Guilt – Karen Katamy

thomas110_1027092In the coming weeks We Talk. We Listen. will be hosting a series of blog posts on intersectionality, defined as “the interconnected nature of social categorizations such as race, class, and gender as they apply to a given individual or group, regarded as creating overlapping and interdependent systems of discrimination or disadvantage.” Our first post is by LSTC student Karen Katamy, and the insights that she gained upon reading lesbian black scholar Audre Lorde in my class “Identity and Difference: The Intersection of Race, Ethnicity, Gender, Class and Sexuality.”  Read, comment, and share!

Rev. Dr. Linda E. Thomas – Professor of Theology and Anthropology, Chair of LSTC’s Diversity Committee, Editor – “We Talk. We Listen.”


Recently I took a class at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago on “Intersectionality” by Dr. Linda Thomas.  This was hands down the most powerful and emotional class I have ever taken. But at the end of the one week intensive class, I was struggling with the emotions that I felt and wondering, where do I go from here?  How do I, an older white, middle class, heterosexual female, make a difference in a world where I am privileged and many are marginalized? Are my emotions from guilt for being complicit in the suffering of others, or because God is calling me to make a difference and I don’t know where to begin?

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I felt I needed to explore these emotions a little bit more and went to the library and found a book published in 1997 on racism titled Race: An Anthology in the First Person, edited by Bart Schneider, and began reading some of the stories and lectures by various authors.  I finally found one that addressed what I was feeling and helped me to understand.

The entry was a speech given by Audre Lorde as a keynote presentation at a Women’s Studies Conference at the University of Connecticut in 1981.  Yet this speech could easily still apply today.  The anthology gives this background on her: “Audre Lorde was born in New York City in 1934 and died of cancer in Saint Croix, the Virgin Islands, in 1992. She was a poet and essayist who worked as a librarian and creative writing professor. Her books include Zani: A New Spelling of My Name, Use of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power, The Cancer Journals, Sister Outsider, and The Marvelous Arithmetics of Distance, which was nominated for a National Book Critics Circle Award in poetry. A powerful writer and speaker, Lorde articulated with a passionate anger, the reality of being a woman of color in America, and made clear the relationship between racism and sexism. She was an inspirational individual and social leader who wrote important essays on lesbian mothering, the erotic, and surviving cancer.”

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Audre Lorde (1934-1992)

Audre Lorde’s speech is titled “The Uses of Anger: Women Responding to Racism.”  In her speech, she says this:

“My response to racism is anger. I have lived with that anger, ignoring it, feeding upon it, learning to use it before it laid my visions to waste, for most of my life. Once I did it in silence, afraid of the weight. My fear of anger taught me nothing. Your fear of anger will teach you nothing, also.

Women responding to racism means women responding to anger – the anger of exclusion, of unquestioned privilege, of racial distortions, of silence, ill-use, stereotyping, defensiveness, misnaming, betrayal, and cooptation.

My anger is a response to racists’ attitudes and to the actions and presumptions that arise out of those attitudes. If your dealings with other women reflect those attitudes, then my anger and your attendant fears are spotlights that can be used for growth in the same way I have used learning to express anger for my growth. But for corrective surgery, not guilt. Guilt and defensiveness are bricks in a wall against which we all flounder; they serve none of our futures.”

Ms. Lorde than lays out some examples of encounters that she has had with white women, which shows how clueless and insensitive white women can be sometimes (myself included – trigger the guilt and shame).  Then she pointed out another factor, which can still be true today:

“Mainstream communication does not want women, particularly white women, responding to racism. It wants racism to be accepted as an immutable given in the fabric of your existence like evening time or the common cold.

So we are working in a context of opposition and threat, the cause of which is certainly not the angers which lie between us, but rather that virulent hatred leveled against all women, people of Color, lesbians and gay men, poor people – against all of us who are seeking to examine the particulars of our lives as we resist our oppressions, moving toward coalition and effective action.”

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So, getting now back to that guilt and shame that I am feeling, where do I go with that?  Do I pull back into my white privilege bubble and ignore what I see happening around me?  Or can I use that constructively?  Here is Ms. Lorde’s response:

Guilt is not a response to anger; it is a response to one’s own actions or lack of action. If it leads to change then it can be useful, since it is then no longer guilt but the beginning of knowledge. Yet all too often, guilt is just another name for impotence, for defensiveness destructive of communication; it becomes a device to protect ignorance and the continuation of things the way they are, the ultimate protection for changelessness … Guilt is only another way of avoiding informed action, of buying time out of the pressing need to make clear choices, out of the approaching storm that can feed the earth as well as bend the trees …

But the strength of women lies in recognizing differences between us as creative, and in standing to those distortions which we inherited without blame but which are now ours to alter. The angers of women can transform difference through insight into power. For anger between peers births change, not destruction, and the discomfort and sense of loss it often causes is not fatal but a sign of growth.”

Guilt then can be the beginning of knowledge.  And so my journey begins!


3696194Karen Katamay is a Master of Arts in Ministry student at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago, studying to be a deacon in the ELCA.

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