Anti-Racism: A Journey Towards Healing and Wholeness: White Fragility and the Privilege Knapsack

 on June 3, 2021

This is the third Installment of this series

It has been just over a year since one man’s last breaths were literally heard around the world. George Floyd’s murder at the knee of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin reignited support for Black Lives Matter protests in North American communities and beyond, and inspired authentic action in leaders at tables of all kinds, naming and addressing systemic racism.

The bishops of the Anglican Church of Canada issued a statement in June 2020 to remind everyone of the Church’s commitment to confronting racism in its own life and acknowledging the place of racism and colonialism in Canada. They noted that this commitment “needs to be renewed daily” and that “our own house is not in order.” 

By the fall, Bishop Susan Bell had initiated the diocesan Anti-Racism Working Group. The members span not only the geography of the diocese, but also cross the demographic range of age, gender, race, culture, sexual orientation, and religious roles and backgrounds. As we started down the path of Tuckman’s group development — forming, storming, norming, and performing, (and, eventually perhaps, adjourning) — the idea of a shared book study came forward as a first step. It was a big step.

My Grandmother’s Hands: Racialized Trauma and the Pathway to Mending our Hearts and Bodies,” is written by Resmaa Menakem, a Minneapolis-based therapist and trauma specialist. He is also known as a pioneer in an emerging field of science, “about how all of us carry in our bodies the history and traumas behind everything we collapse into the word ‘race.’” 

While this “new science,” takes time to experience and a diocesan plan for action is still months into the future, some people have reached out to ask what they can do in the meantime. I have a few suggestions involving listening, reading, reflecting, and acting.

A good way of entering this work for me as a racialized white person, was listening to an episode of one of my favourite podcasts, “On Being.” Host Krista Tippett sat down for a powerful conversation last July, with Menakem and Robin DiAngelo. DiAngelo is most known for her work, White Fragility: Why It’s so Hard for White People to Talk About Racism. This book guides racialized white people to engage more constructively when challenged by racial inequality, than the anger, fear, guilt, and tears, that often arise and inappropriately turn the camera and attention back to the one with the privilege. 

This listening and reading, led me back to an anti-oppression tool I first used in the early 1990s, Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack of White Privilege. Created by Peggy McIntosh, a social work professor at the Wellesley Centers for Women in Massachusetts, the checklist was a way for white people to read in very tangible ways, how we were able to operate in the world that people who were not white, could not.

For example:

  • I can be sure that my children will be given curricular materials that testify to the existence of their race.
  • I am never asked to speak for all the people of my racial group. 
  • I can be pretty sure that if I ask to talk to “the person in charge,” I will be facing a person of my race.

In 2010, the author amended this work with important facilitation notes. I highly recommend this, even if, like me, you think you did it “so many times already.” 

Finally, after that reflection, I urge you to take into consideration McIntosh’s response to the question from white people, “How can I help?” 

“You can use unearned advantage to weaken systems of unearned advantage. I see white privilege as a bank account that I did not ask for, but that I can choose to spend.”

May those us with this unearned privilege, choose to spend unreservedly.

  • Deirdre Pike

    Deirdre Pike is the diocese’s Justice and Outreach Program Consultant. She also serves on the Social Planning and Research Council of Hamilton, and is a regular contributor to the Hamilton Spectator.

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