I recently met with a man who some years ago recognized some of the privileges his life had afforded him. Both his parents were professors, he had the benefit of an excellent education, of growing up in a “safe” suburban neighborhood, all leading to a stellar career in the business world. He decided it was time to do some charitable work in a city program. Soon after he walked into a classroom of young African-American kids he was to mentor, one of the kids said to him, “You’re not one of us.” This shocked him, since he himself is a Black man (Did that surprise you?). “Why do you say that?” he asked the boy. To which the student replied, “You smile too much!” I asked him how he reacted to that. He soon left the program, somewhat peeved at the lack of gratitude for his willingness to help.
To his credit, a couple of weeks after our conversation he called to tell me something: “That kid was right.” He had come to recognize that his privilege did separate him from them, and that his approach to “helping” was from a superior posture, believing he knew what they needed. Again, much to his credit, he is looking to engage again, but more with the posture and mindset of a learner, a student, a novice.
Another acquaintance, on learning that I had started this blog dealing with racism quickly offered her solutions for the issues: “I would set up an education series: courses on how to parent, on how to manage money, on how to act in a job interview, and so on.” White noise, particularly since she was in no way active in anti-racism work. More importantly, she was inadvertently revealing the attitude that “they” had many problems that needed fixing, and that she knew how to fix them. Her solutions had nothing to do with checking her own racial brainwashing. Had she actually gone ahead with offering these courses, she undoubtedly would have encountered the same response as my Black friend, and would have come away shaking her head at the lack of gratitude for her attempts to enlighten them.
Henry David Thoreau in “Walden” delivers a searing critique of philanthropy as it is often practiced by us. E.g.:
“There is no odor so bad as that which arises from goodness tainted.”
The attitudes of the people I’ve mentioned were tainted by a sense of superiority, of self-importance, as well as blindness to the goodness already existing in those they sought to help.
Another Thoreau quote:
“If you give money, give yourself with it, and do not merely abandon it to them (those you claim to help).”
I can write a check for $10 or $1,000 or $10,000, feel quite virtuous in the process, but never engage as a human being in the lives of those I presume to benefit by my arid benevolence. I can be totally blind to what they have to offer me, and how desperately my own soul needs what they know, what they see, what they experience, their wisdom.
Then there is this classic reply from Lilla Watson, an Australian Aboriginal Elder when a missionary group approached her village:
“If you are coming to help me, then you are wasting your time. But if you are coming because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.”
About 20 years ago I traveled to a remote corner of Haiti with the group Project HOPE which was establishing a much-needed health clinic in the town of Bjorne. When those in charge of that effort had entered that town several years before they did so with the conviction that the people there knew what they needed. They asked how they could work together, following the lead of the villagers. Prior to allowing our small group of visitors to “help” we were led through an orientation. The core distinction we heard in that orientation has had a profound impact on my life:
Charity – helping other people
Solidarity – standing WITH other people, in mutual need and mutual benefit
This distinction became increasingly critical to me during the four years I spent working with men in prison. By the end I could claim without reservation that my liberation was bound up with theirs, and that I had learned priceless life lessons from them.
So action is indeed needed. But the first step (and it is a continual one) is to check the entrenched white supremacy that lurks in our subconscious, to recognize the teacher/mentor/benefactor/philanthropist/savior themes, humble down, and follow the lead of those we think we are helping – because we need them!
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Book: “Toxic Charity: How Churches and Charities Hurt Those They Help, And How to Reverse It” Robert D. Lupton. A modern-day Thoreau-like analysis of some of our convoluted concepts of helping. He has also written a sequel: “Charity Detox: What Charity Would Look Like If We Cared About Results”
A two-minute video reinforcing the theme of the last blog post re being Anti-racist vs. non-racist: https://www.facebook.com/theguardian/videos/10153870551066323/
A blunt article that challenges a white concept of what it means to be an ally: http://www.blackgirldangerous.com/2015/11/ally-theater/
Article excerpt: “Developing Authentic Anti-Racist Leadership” by Howard Eagle
Urge family members, co-workers, neighbors, congregants to subscribe to this blog, and discuss the content with them. Form a discussion group to explore how these concepts apply to you personally and to the organization, and identify actions you can take together.
Get a subscription to “Minority Reporter” at www.minorityreporter.net. This bi-weekly publication provides coverage of issues affecting minority groups in the Rochester area, as well as activities often not publicized in mainstream media.
Attend the discussion on Dr. Robin DiAngelo’s “White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk about Racism”. Monday August 6, 6:30 to 8:30 at Glen Edith Coffee Roasters, 23 Somerton St./Park Ave. Not required that you read the book ahead.
Announcement from SURJ (Showing Up for Racial Justice) ROC: Monday July 30: Coffee and Conversation: 9AM + 6PM at Abundance Co-op. SURJ members and friends are invited to come discuss race-related issues that are on your mind with members of SURJ Education Committee. Ordinarily, Kathy Castania and/or Rebecca Johnson will host. Expect a supportive conversation and sharing of ideas. RSVP not required but appreciated. and will allow us to notify of any changes in plans. Please join us.
Announcement from SURJ (Showing Up for Racial Justice) ROC: Tuesday July 31: Responding to Racist Remarks Part 1: 6-8PM at Out Alliance, 100 College Ave. These workshops, hosted at Out Alliance, are designed to help participants handle the flood of emotions that often occur when we, as white people, hear racist remarks. Participants learn a process that can be used to respond effectively without hostility or condescension. RSVP not required but appreciated. and will allow us to notify of any changes in plans. Please register by emailing: Kathy Castania at firstname.lastname@example.org.