A Journey of Belonging: Embodying White Antiracism as an Ancestral Practice
White supremacy, heterosexism, transphobia, ableism, capitalism are systems of oppression that fog our souls away from knowing and believing in ourselves and each other. To love is hard, to heal is hard, to reveal the pain is hard. How little we grow into knowing how to care and hold each other. How much we learn to destroy and critique each other. I show up with a deep desire to build a better world by being the world I need inside and out and I show up with humility, making mistakes and being dupped by a culture of whiteness that never taught me to see. It is through healing and spirituality, through my relationship with God, with the divine that I return to belonging, return to love.
White supremacy’s biggest win is to disconnect people from knowing where we come from. For white folks, there is simultaneously a message that we belong everyone and yet a disconnection from learning or valuing the roots of where we actually come from. While this is not across the board, there is overwhelmingly less emphasis on white people to “know our ancestors” because privilege and power disconnect us from our lineages. One of the shared struggles I hear from white folks in antiracism work is a struggle to define what white culture is and how to create a culture that eradicates the position of racism and supremacy when showing up in a white container.
For white people committed to dismantling internal and external oppression and supremacy systems, the salve for our pain and oppression is to build a culture of belonging, where love is central. Because of the trauma of oppression, this vision seems nearly impossible to operationalize, in part because few of us have experienced white culture as connecting or loving. White supremacy’s biggest win is to disconnect us from where we come from and who we come from. However, this journey into healing and building the world we need, begins here.
Growing up in Cincinnati, Ohio I understood very early on that we (my immediate family of my Mom, brother and sister) were on our own. My mom was responsible for our survival and no one else. My dad had come in and out of my life since a very early age, although mostly out. He was from Springfield, Ohio from a working class family with a mix of German and English heritage. The story I knew about my father is that he found his father dead, hanging from the basement rafters at a very young age. And while I was young when this story was relayed, it seemed to explain everything about how he was or wasn’t a part of the world or our lives.
My mother grew up in Bayonne, New Jersey embedded into an Italian family and culture, although my grandmother was technically Dutch and Irish/Welsh/Scots, that culture was dramatically overshadowed by my Grandfather’s southern Italian heritage. My grandmother came from a disconnected blood family and welcomed her partner’s culture with a zeal that was contagious.
I recall family gatherings almost every Thanksgiving with cousins, aunts, uncles, great aunts and distant cousins with names like Carmen and Toto. Olive colored hands reached and passed antipasto, eggplant Parmesan, and towards the end of an already abundant Italian meal, Turkey and cranberry sauce. Through a cacophony of voices and stories, half started and half interrupted, everyone talked unapologetically. I still feel the rhythm of those gatherings in my bones. I also recall feeling strangely out of place at the table, as though I was looking into a palindrome, a world where I didn’t quite belong even though I wanted to.
My great Uncle was a priest and a chef who collected recipes from our lineage like a family tree of tastes and memories. My mother would pull from these book pages and we grew up on homemade tomato sauce and garlicky green beans. Her family was people who seemed to mostly know where they came from. I was of the generation that knew and felt less of that knowing, and yet had direct access to a lineage of people who knew it viscerally. The feeling of strangeness within my own family has haunted me for as long as I can recall.
As I grew older, the visits dwindled and my grandmother got sick and eventually died from cancer. The truth was, she was really the anchor that connected us to a culture of belonging and without her our family culture became less connected and more whitewashed.
My understanding of culture from a very young age was that I was Italian. So, when I had kids who both have red hair — I was a little shocked and interested to know more about where I come from. After getting results back from ancestry dot com, I discovered that the stories of my strong Italian heritage weren’t as dominate in my genetic code as I had been taught to believe. I was only 15% Italian. So what else and who did I come from?
This question has become more and more important over the last decade as I work with other white people and myself through an anti-racism practice and commitment. Understanding who I am and where I come from, is a journey of ancestral healing and a map towards belonging to a people and place that I’ve been largely disconnected from because of white supremacy.
My antiracism journey was given language and context when I met Anne Braden, a Louisville organizer who had been working for Civil Rights since the early 50s alongside leaders, such as Ella Baker and Angela Davis. Anne was the first white woman I ever met who asked me to examine my own internalized racism and superiority. She gave me language and a direction for what my whiteness could be in the world, a choice of building the world we need or holding up the supremacy systems that kill us all.
Anne was fierce and clear. White people need to move our bodies towards building a world without oppression and for her that meant organizing other white people, bringing other white people into consciousness and understanding of the deep pain that whiteness upholds for all people. She talked about an inside/outside process that she never coined as spiritual and yet, everything I know about spirituality aligns with the process she mentored me in:
1. Dive deep within and acknowledge the pain
2. Address the pain through actions and adjustments, inside and out
3. Practice love, strengthen resiliency and increase your ability to be uncomfortable and strive to embody antiracism in all you do and are — your soul depends on it.
The years following knowing Anne, threw me into a deep internal and external process of organizing for racial justice alongside and with the leadership of mostly Black southern women and other queer white antiracist folks mentored by Anne for many more years than I was.
My first year of graduate school in the Pan-African Studies program was identity shifting. I struggled to fit into the all-Black department, to be “down” enough, to be “antiracist” enough. Little did I know at the time that distancing myself from my whiteness was contributing to maintaining the very oppression I yearned to dismantle. Outside the department and in the community, I was the white girl always calling out other white people, the voice of truth and accountability — however, I wasn’t doing what Anne had taught me — to bring more white folks into consciousness. In fact I was pushing most all of the white people away, except those who even more radical than myself.
The truth is I never learned explicitly about loving white folks or even loving myself. I was never taught to learn about or be interested in my ancestry or culture. I learned about love from my spiritual practice and in multiracial organizing. I learned about love off of the picket lines and out of the streets and around the dinner table, at the club with other Pan-African Studies students who taught me how to femme up and show up, I learned about love from the breaking open that happened in SHE, a choreopoetry group I helped found where we dove into our trauma, identities and ancestry through poetry and song. I learned about love in relationships with my Italian family, who connected through shared language and connection — even though I mostly felt like an outsider. I learned about love from loss, the disconnection between my father’s family, the disconnection that slowly unraveled from my mother’s lines and myself. The disconnection that cratered as I became more politicized and more outwardly queer and didn’t fit in as much with my well-meaning liberal immediate and right-leaning extended family.
Building a culture of belonging, care and love is at the very center of dismantling white supremacy culture. If we’re not practicing now inside our communities, groups and cultures what we want in the world — we will not create the world we need. When we skip over the practice, we miss practicing equity and social justice in how we are together. Without that we are not going to survive. This is spiritual work. This is the work of antiracism. When we break open our identities, supremacy systems, we reveal a wound and we must be the salve for each other. To be vulnerable, to admit our mistakes, to see each other and love on each other — this is how we will build a better world this is how we learn to belong to each other. This work is hard; it’s trauma work. It’s returning to our humanity when we work for antiracism and we must do that in our relationships with each other and across race, in organizations and internally too if we are to actualize liberation.
Antiracism is a journey of returning to what was lost for all us, although differently lost and experienced depending on our containers. Antiracism is a journey in, a path to heal ancestral disconnection and an opportunity to build love, belonging and step into the imagination of a different world — one where we return to humanness, of connection and heal disconnection. We must belong, if we are to ever understand why the journey matters.