Below is an excerpt from a short performance I created with a small group of artist friends earlier this year. We have been meeting over the last several months to examine how the construct of whiteness, white privilege, and white supremacy function in our lives, as an intentional step towards dismantling the unjust systems we are a part of. We talked a lot and read some and cried a little and then put together a performance we shared with a small audience. This is that.
Toward Love: Unearthing the Whiteness I’ve Grown
I am descended from neighborhood butchers and chemical engineers.
Fighter pilots and nightschool mechanics.
I come from a daughter who dreamt of being a mother as she helped care for her fifteen syblings in a two bedroom house.
I come from matriarchs who built a grocery store empire and brothers who bullied themselves through Jesuit school. On my mother’s side, I am a diaspora of blood that traces back to England, France, Ireland, and Germany.
But on my father’s side, Poland. Only there.
Last year my sweetheart and I took a trip to visit that land where I know I’m from.
I tried to pack what I knew. Vague stories of farmhouses and stepmothers. Big families without enough to eat. I tried to research where exactly. What towns did we know? What names did we carry? I tried to find stories and facts to stitch a path back to where my people came from
And nobody could remember anything. My only uncle couldn’t remember his great-grandmother’s last name. Somehow these names, towns, stories didn’t survive my great-grandparents migration from Poland to North Philadelphia in the late 1800s.
Why? Why this extreme, almost willful forgetting? I can only speculate…
My father’s people escaped a world of great violence and constant occupation.
Situated between Germany and Russia’s vast and hungry empires,
Poland was the crossfire of Europe for centuries. Used
as a chalkboard to draw and redraw property lines between vicious
neighbors who wanted their own shortcut to the Baltic Sea.
The conquering nations of Europe united to try and obliterate Poland many times and succeeded in some ways. Burning our vast libraries, looting our wealth, dissembling our magnificent castles, slaughtering our women and children with impunity.
And then they named us idiots. Polacks.
Because we arrived on horseback to face German tanks,
and stayed to fight rather than turn to run.
There is a saying in Poland:
“A Pole is born with a sword in one hand and a brick in the other. After the battle, we rebuild.”
But, of course, some things cannot be rebuilt.
These are the circumstances, the history, my great-grandparents fled when they fought their way into America four generations ago. These are the stories they relinquished, these are the mantels of identity they gave up to become American.
The culture that was not burned, buried and willfully taken from my Polish family, we seemed to surrender upon arriving here. In favor of the Dream, I think. Of the promise, of a land where we would not be the cursed and the conquered.
We became American. And white.
That is where my whiteness truly begins, I think. And it persists through my privilege. Through my habit of talking first and loudest. Through my righteousness about how I’m treated by the clerk at Rite-Aid. My whiteness assumes I’ll be able to ride the bus for free when I forget my wallet at home. That I will be taken care of. That my grievances will be heard and addressed. That this great nation is built to work for my benefit. That a police officer won’t shoot me if I turn my back on him. That as long as I align with the ordered status quo, I will be safe.
It’s hard to define
I’m beginning to know it when I see it because it claims the best of everything. The nicest cut of meat and the most beautiful songs, the richest plots of land and the most innovative ideas. If they’re not already ours, we claim them, keep the profits and revel in our smarts. We build empires well: a network of images stretching around the globe and deep into history, telling the stories of our victories, our beautiful perfect women, and our fast genius ideas.
Whiteness is hard to define, as much as we are trying today.
It resists it. Being defined. Named. Pointed at. Preferring to be invisible and ubiquitous.
Preferring to be the definer, reserving the right to define others and to execute
Those definitions. Sometimes in atrocities and sometimes in subtle suffocations.
The same white culture that has smothered native song, driven out the old gods, mannered wild expression… This same culture has smothered me, quieted my limbs, left a hole for some god to fill, made me inept at ritual and really bad at sharing.
This culture smothers me too.
And has made me the smotherer.
I have not killed a person’s body, but I have been complicit in the systems that do. I have diminished a person’s spirit because it didn’t fit into the shape of politeness. I have killed their participation and left no room for difference. I have associated myself with the victor lest I risk being conquered like my ancestors, and left without a library of my own.
I have been the smotherer of whatever did not fit into this order.
When my brother committed suicide many years ago, I needed to learn the distinction between regret and guilt. Regret, I learned, is accountable and awake. But guilt is secretive and frozen. Guilt builds a house for shame, the most evil of the emotions because it is vicious and sworn to silence, first isolating us and then eating us whole. Guilt wants comfort and absolution. Regret wants another chance.
I have been the smotherer.
I must say that with deep regret but I must say it enough times to wring out the guilt and exhaust my shame. Because I cannot be silent. This is one of the things I reclaim today with all of you. I reclaim my accountability and I relinquish my shame.
And I think of my great-grandparents and the miracle of their survival.
I am inspired by how they made the best choices they could,
in what must have been hard, hard times.
I reclaim that courage, and vow to honor them by making the best choices I can now, in these hard, hard times.
I choose to be accountable and clear. Unsilent.
I push further back and reclaim their swords and their bricks,
And all the culture I can unearth.
I reclaim ritual. I reclaim prayer. I point at my whiteness and vow to turn this weapon into a tool, to use my privilege as both sword and brick to join in the battle to dismantle these histories and systems that smother us still.