The only normalcy we will settle for is the normalcy that recognizes the dignity and worth of all God’s children.– Dr. Martin Luther King, 1965 Voting Rights Rally
“As you enter positions of trust and power, dream a little before you think.”
– Toni Morrison
“One can only face in others what one can face in oneself.”
– James Baldwin, Nobody Knows My Name, published 1961
“I believe in truth and reconciliation. I just think that truth and reconciliation are sequential: That you can’t have reconciliation without the truth.”
– Bryan Stevenson, Author of Just Mercy
My beloved colleague Samara Gaev, and teacher Natalie Goldberg have each instilled in me the instruction to dive in and read what I have written. Speak up. No apologies. No caveats. No equivocating. Say it plain. In short, bust through the self-censoring and get on with it. Be willing to be wrong. Be willing, to be cancelled. Easier said than done.
That said, here goes….
Over the last two decades I have committed to educating myself about how systemic racism has shaped our daily lives, our organizations and institutions. I have explored the disconnect between the environmental movement and movements for justice. I have deepened my practice life, learning to stay in difficult conversations, to work with emotions that arise in response to a strong critique, justifiable rage and hard truths. I have dug into the roots of white supremacy, reading everything I could get my hands on. And I have just scratched the surface.
In recent years I have turned to the task of upending oppressive cultural norms which are so alive in predominantly white spaces. I learned pretty quickly to go easy. I scrubbed presentations clean of “offensive” language like white privilege, white supremacy, racist, and reparations, at least initially. Waiting until there was enough trust and relationship to say it plain and not be rejected – or ejected from the system. Meet people where they are, bring them with you. And while that can be effective, it also centers the needs of the folks who have the power.
This year in the wake of the brutal killing of George Floyd things began to rapidly shift. In my 2020 COVID universe standing in the kitchen making oatmeal in the morning, or chopping veggies for dinner, I have taken to talking back to Alexa. Hearing an earnest Vermonter suggesting that we may have a race problem in Vermont, I respond, “ya think!?” self-righteousness oozing out of me. Mainstream broadcasters suddenly talking about white supremacy using all the words I have so carefully “white washed” spoken loud and clear on the radio, albeit “leftist” public radio…
Progress for sure. And still, so many white folks trying to do right in the world, caring for the land and their communities resist language like white supremacy, suggesting kindly that it is not “necessary or productive.” Of course justice matters, they say, but what are we supposed to do about it? “Are you saying we should become a justice org??” Please just tell us what to do.
This white fog of confusion extends to some of my family too. They are Trump supporters who believe that the election was stolen. They vehemently deny being racist, or in any way benefiting from white supremacy (which I will readily own – I am racist, and I benefit from white supremacy). They think the socialist democratic party is going to take away their freedoms. And they don’t want to talk about it. Since January 6th my parents are watching less Fox News, because it is so upsetting. Still, they love me, and are proud of what I do. Another disconnect. We are one of those American families fractured by the divide in the country, and it has left me heartbroken; about my family, and about the state of democracy.
I don’t have answers. All I know to do is to keep showing up, be willing to be uncomfortable and make mistakes. What sustains me through it is my community and my commitment to practice, to begin again, and again. I take heart in the Dhammapada, a collection of ethical teachings of the Buddha. Verse 5 is my go to:
“Hatred is never appeased by hatred in this world. By non-hatred alone is hatred appeased. This is a law eternal.” [this translation by Acharya Buddharakkhita] That may sound familiar: Dr. Martin Luther King had his own version of this ethical truth: “Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that.” And the complicated truth is, I love us. I love my family. Love people, full stop. For me that means I need to keep excavating the truth, the history that has been made invisible in the creation of whiteness in America.
My family is big, raucous and Irish Catholic. My hometown of Sterling, Illinois sits along a wide bend in the Rock River, in Whiteside County. My world was grandparents, cousins, aunts and uncles, church on Sunday, a white lace first communion dress with a sewn-in plastic necklace. I remember squeezing wonder bread into flat, gooey, bite-sized discs I offered as communion hosts to kids in the neighborhood. I remember town parades, farms, corn, cows, football games and summer evening trips to the A&W root beer stand. I remember feeling proud of my family.
Our town and county were named for Illinois Militiamen Major James Sterling and General Samuel Whiteside, to honor their roles in the Black Hawk War of 1832. The War erupted when Ma-ka-tai-me-she-kia-kiak, a Sauk tribal leaderknown as Black Hawk, attempted to reclaim land acquired by the U.S. in the disputed 1804 Treaty of St. Louis. After a chance encounter with the Black Hawk party along the Rock River, Illinois Militiamen attacked.
The ensuing fighting continued for about three months and led to the deaths of 77 militiamen and settlers, and between 450-600 of the Black Hawk party of 1,100. The party included women, children and elders, which challenges the presumption that it was a war party. President Lincoln also served in the Illinois Militia during this short war, as did many men who would receive land grants from the U.S. government in gratitude for their service, and many in addition to Lincoln would go on to hold political office. Last week politicians from both sides of the aisle drew from Lincoln’s speeches as President as they made their case for impeachment, or against. It’s complicated.
There is so much to learn, and unlearn. I was never taught this history of the place where I was born. The facts I have shared here each link to our history of colonization, stolen land, slavery, bait and switch, violence, and white supremacy. The Black Hawk War is one story. There are countless stories like this. My colleague Delma Jackson teaches about the mythic Ghanaian Sankofa Bird, who flies forward, while looking back with an egg in its mouth symbolizing the future. Don’t move forward without understanding where you come from.
Every inch of land in this nation holds history and truth not fully acknowledged, and definitely not reconciled. My own journey of reckoning has led me to a place thick with the painful truth of the systemic racism, classism and sexism (and, and…) in our history and our present.
This week we celebrate the legacy of Dr. King in the wake of an insurrection; a violent desecration of the People’s House fueled by the bitterness and lies of a sitting President. We also prepare to inaugurate President elect Joe Biden, and Vice President elect Kamala Harris, the first woman of color to rise to this office.And so we begin again. Another chapter in a long history of rupture and repair, progress and backlash. Another chance to settle accounts, to make reparations and hopefully heal. But we can’t get there until we can look at the truth of who we are. A nation founded on violence, genocide, and slavery justified by the myth of White Supremacy.
There is no “great” America to return to. We must dream into, and build a new America. And this dreaming must be led by those whose ancestors dreamed themselves out of chattel slavery and attempted genocide, who through everyday acts of resistance, rebellion and joy were able to see beyond the hatred and violence perpetrated upon them. To imagine and remember a future where all are free.
As the poet rupi kaur writes – “to hate is easy, to love takes strength we all have,” and love has got everything to do with it.
May you and yours be safe, healthy, free from suffering.
May the road rise to meet you and may the wind be at your back.
Ginny McGinn is a mother, artist, and Executive Director of Center for Whole Communities. Throughout her career, she has been deeply involved in the work of social and organizational change and in building partnerships across lines of power and privilege. Ginny facilitates and consults on organizational change around the country, using the Whole Thinking Practices and tools she and her colleagues have helped evolve at Center for Whole Communities.