Dear Friends: On a plane to Seattle last December, I struck up a long conversation with a young white man. We touched on nearly everything. Eventually he told me that he was studying law, but hated it. He especially hated his classmates’ obsession with money (due in part to the huge debts they would face upon graduation).
He somewhat sorrowfully admitted that he had bought into the game of scarcity, where the goal is to remain firmly on top to survive. He used to have hobbies, but those days were over. How miserable it was to see someone with such privilege refusing to enjoy life, all for fear of losing status.
The conversation struck me especially because I was taking that plane to attend a weekend-long session of AFSC’s Tyree Scott Freedom School. This school gathers 25-30 young people together – whites and people of color – to learn about racism in the United States. Through interactive discussions and analyses based on personal experience, participants learn to distinguish between personal and institutional racism.
Defining racism as “prejudice plus power,” the Freedom School showed me that my own racism has less to do with being “good” or “bad” as a person and more to do with participation in a system with deeply racist roots. Racism is an equation that leaves some of us with disproportionate wealth, but it leaves all of us spiritually bankrupt. The young man on the plane was an example.
I understand that I am racist simply by taking part in the structures of racism that have kept our society unjust and unequal. I can only overcome my racism by fighting to change those systems and to create new ones based on equality and justice. And that is the work of a lifetime.
There are no easy answers, of course. But when white people begin to uncover the systems of oppression that undergird our privilege, we can finally see the ways in which we are also imprisoned by those systems. And then, perhaps, we can rise above society’s dictates that we should live lives of fear and consumption. Perhaps we can begin to reclaim our capacity to live our own lives.
– Madeline Schaefer, American Friends Service Committee
Subscribe or renew now to read all articles online.