In life, unless you acknowledge that there is a problem, you will struggle to reach a solution. Last weekend at a retreat called Exploring White Identity (EWI), I was fortunate enough to examine the harsh realities of oppression that are woven in society, with the hope that by opening our eyes and hearts to these issues we can change them and – cliché aside – make the world a better place. Throughout this retreat, everyone explored extremely emotional aspects of their lives and their experiences with race and witnessing racism. We all tuned into the oppression that exists and I became much more aware of issues that slipped under the radar of my previous perception as a white person.
The entire experience struck a nerve because I have never actually taken time to understand that my pale, easily-sunburned skin tone has provided me with extreme privilege in American society.
There are many facets of society that cater much more to people who identify as “white” than to people of color. The EWI retreat was an experience for white people to come together and acknowledge these issues in a safe environment where emotions and thoughts can be shared without judgment. Feelings of guilt, sadness, and disgust surfaced as we looked racism in the eye as people who are innately privileged in society, but by facing these negative aspects we took the first step in making progress towards change. We were united by wanting to better ourselves and our world to make it a more loving, accepting place for all.
Something that stood out for me was a TED Talks video we watched called “The Danger of a Single Story” given by Chimamanda Adichie. As an African woman and novelist, she explains the danger of assuming someone has a single story. Making judgments about people because of one seemingly dominant characteristic eliminates the possibility of learning more about them and what should instead be the individual’s compilation of stories. We all come from extremely different backgrounds, and in the same way the phrase “Don’t judge a book by its cover” has been ingrained in our brains, we must not judge people by their skin color either (or anything else for that matter). Being human is about so much more than our physical characteristics, and it is up to us to determine how we are going to use society’s word to spread messages of acceptance and unity rather than separation and hatred.
The EWI retreat gave me hope that there are people in the world who have enormous hearts, whose compassion and care is something that can absolutely change the world. I met some astonishing people because of this opportunity, of all different ages and backgrounds, who all believe in social justice.
My fellow CLA Ambassador Angel went on the EWI retreat as well. Here is her take on the experience:
“In America we are blasted every single day, whether we take note of it or not, by the media and what they want us to internalize as their version of reality. As a result we pick up on stereotypes that can undermine, discredit, and hurt people with different ethnicities. Last weekend I was given the great opportunity to attend the Exploring White Identity (EWI) retreat. This retreat came with a two and a half day jammed pack schedule where we as a group of 28 people who self-identified as ‘white’ came together and discussed what it really meant to be white in our society, and more importantly for me what it meant for people within our society who are not viewed as white. We unpacked the privileges that we as a ‘white’ demographic experienced and what effect it has on others.
One of the unique things about this retreat was the opportunity for us as individuals to reflect on how we personally were and currently are affected by this social construct. I myself was able to explore and discover things about myself that I had left dormant and unspoken inside for my entire life. I’ve always struggled with the fact that I have both Mexican and Native American heritage and no evidence in either knowledge or outward appearance to prove it.
This retreat helped me to be more comfortable literally in my own skin. I feel like I grew as an individual and have an even deeper appreciation for those that are in a society where they are not part of the privileged demographic.
On the last night we were encouraged to write down something to let go of and something that we want to hold on to. I would like to share what I’m holding on to. I hope that if you are someone that has ever felt the way I had felt for almost a decade can relate, and maybe even heal a little bit like I did.
I am not ‘white’
Any more than I am brown hair
I should not be ashamed or feel guilty for my skin.
Any more than I would for having hazel eyes
I am not my phenotypic traits.
I am a combination of what I think, how I feel and what I do”