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A hollow power: Reclaiming our humanity by letting go

Community agreements created by the participants of the Dec. 27-28, 2013 Freedom
Community agreements created by the participants of the Dec. 27-28, 2013 Freedom School in Seattle, Wash. Photo: Madeline Schaefer / AFSC

On the plane to Seattle to attend one of AFSC’s Tyree Scott Freedom Schools, I was seated across from a young white man who looked roughly my age. Toward the end of our flight, we struck up a conversation. He was from Oklahoma, he told me, the youngest of five. He was only the youngest by a very small margin, as he was one of triplets. I had never met a triplet before, I told him. He had never met a Quaker. 

We touched on nearly everything—our backgrounds, our politics, our taste in movies, our careers. He told me he was currently studying law at a major university in Philadelphia and that, honestly, he hated it. He hated the school and his peers, most of who appeared to be completely obsessed with money, in no small part due to the fact that many of them would be facing debts of up to $200,000 upon graduating. 

If he could do anything in world, he said, he would get a Jeep, raise a golden retriever, and work as a park ranger. But that was completely out of the question; how could a career like that possibly pay the bills? After I assured him that many (actually, all) park rangers probably live and thrive on a fairly modest salary, he had to agree. So why did this fairly simple dream seem so farfetched?Participants socializing during the Freedom School

He somewhat sorrowfully admitted that he had bought into the game of scarcity, where key players are required to remain firmly on top if they are going to survive in this world. He used to like movies and books, he said, but those days were over. Right now he was focused on his career, and he had no time for hobbies. 

How miserable to see a young white man with such privilege refusing to enjoy life, all for fear of losing status. He has power but such little real fulfillment.

As a white, upper-middle-class woman in the United States, I was born into similar privileges, and am equally prey (and often the victim) to a culture of consumerism and materialism that feeds on dissatisfaction and self-obsession. I have to work hard to shake it off and remember my own humanity. And that weekend, I was to learn how fighting to end racism and oppression can give you back the power to be human.

On Dec. 27, the Tyree Scott Freedom School gathered 25-30 young people, including white people and people of color, from around Seattle to learn about the history of racism in the United States. By uncovering that history through interactive discussions and analysis based on their own experience, the workshop helped the participants understand the injustice that they face in their daily lives as fitting into a larger history of marginalization.

Conversation between two participants of the Freedom SchoolDuring the discussion, we defined racism as prejudice plus power. My own racism, therefore, is a result of benefiting from a society with deep structural racism.  It has less to do with being a “good” or “bad” person and more to do with participation in a system with deeply racist roots.   

But is the participation in this system evidence of true power? The young man on the plane was in a position of power and privilege; but he certainly did not feel empowered. As white people, we are often kept in traditionally destructive systems, with dehumanization as our sedative, unable to access our deeper, real capacity to share power with others in this world. While racism is an equation that leaves some of us with disproportionate wealth, it leaves all of us spiritually bankrupt.

As long as I understand that I am racist simply by taking part in the structures of racism that have kept our society unjust and unequal, my role is not just to “be better”—an often ambiguous and guilt-ridden quest. My role is to fight to change those systems and create new ones based on equality and justice. My role is to reclaim my power to create change. And that is the work of a lifetime.

One of the men who presented during the Freedom School, Martin, asked what white people have to gain from being part of this anti-racism work. In other words, “what’s in it for us?” What will we gain when give up this constant lusting after more money, more security, more success? 

There are no easy answers, of course. But it is clear to me that 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 when we begin to see, perhaps we can begin to reclaim our capacity to live our own lives, rather than a life of fear and consumption, dictated to us by society. 

This answer to what white (particularly wealthy) people gain from being involved in work for racial justice can seem almost offensively abstract given the immediacy of this issue for communities of color.  But I have to keep searching. Because connection, like the connection I felt with the inspiring young men and women I met that weekend, is addicting; it fills you up with the power of transformation.