What shall I do with my old white skin?
“Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing,
there is a field. I’ll meet you there.”
Jalal ad-Din Mohammad Rumi, BIPOC
“If you are trying to transform a brutalized society into one where people can live in dignity and hope, you begin with the empowering of the most powerless. You build from the ground up. You begin by stopping the torture and killing of the unprotected, by feeding the hungry so that they have the energy to think about what they want beyond food.
Adrienne Rich, LGBTQ+
Squinting into the world with newborn eyes, I didn’t ask to be born “white” any more than someone else asked to be born brown. I always thought white skin was basically boring, like bread dough. Having brown eyes in a blue-eyed family was my only distinguishing characteristic. My mother (source of those brown eyes) had almond shaped eyes, a Eurasian look descending from her father’s father’s father, a “black Swede.” Years later I wonder about Sami blood. And shall I get a DNA test to prove that I am (somewhere in the shroud of my history) not the oppressor?
And then what do I do with this white skin of mine? I have benefitted from it all my life, much of that time ignorant of the privilege whiteness conferred. In recent decades of humbling awareness, I continue to benefit without asking for that privilege or being able to return it to the historical storehouse from whence it came.
In 1950s America, we lived in white world. My grandfather lent my struggling parents money to buy a falling down house that sat on a corner lot big enough for chickens and a garden at the edge of Indianapolis. We were poor folks, growing our own food, my father driving milk truck and taxicab. But still: white. And he, a conscientious objector in the War, had gotten a master’s degree that after every veteran had been given first choice at jobs, he would finally parlay into a middle-class life for his wife and children. Because: white.
Nora School, 1952, the first wave of boomer babies enters first grade: thirty-five faces, none of them any color other than the “flesh” crayon in our little green and yellow boxes. White skin is all I see. Dick, Jane, and Sally—learning to read in a white child world. The school sits on Lenapé land, but there is no mention that whiteness is not first on the playground in the state of Indian/a. No one mentions the 1818 Treaty of St. Mary’s, or teaches me about the Indian Removal Act of 1830. Mrs. Able, hair in a tight black bun, teaches us to sing, “One little, two little, three little Indians…” That November I appear on the still-new invention of television dressed as a pilgrim with a black paper collar and white hanky costume while other classmates sport construction paper feathers—all of us white. None of us knows what myth we are perpetuating: what this story omits or reveals. Local kids posing on an afternoon clown show: white.
We move north. My mother’s family immigrated from Sweden and Norway in the late 1800’s and settled into Minnesota after the Dakota War of 1862, an armed conflict between the United States and several bands of treaty-betrayed Sioux. The battles ended with the surrender of 400 Dakota, and eventually 1600 Sioux captives, including women, children and elderly. Abraham Lincoln, far away in the nation’s capital, in the middle of signing the Emancipation Proclamation, also signed orders for execution by hanging of 38 Dakota men on the day after Christmas in 1862, the largest one-day mass execution in US history. The rest of the captured Indians were herded onto an island in the Mississippi River where disease and neglect took hundreds of them before survivors were banished into western territories. This is a complex story, with rage on both sides, and the desperation of genocidal wrong-doing.
The Great Seal of the State of Minnesota, commemorates this turning point, showing an “Indian brave” riding by a field where a settler is plowing his land with his musket and powder resting on a tree stump. I know this seal well, because in 1958, when I was twelve and Minnesota statehood was one hundred, I spent hours on my hands and knees on the gymnasium stage of Beacon Heights Elementary School carefully applying tempera paint to a five foot replica of this drawing that would hang (no pun intended) behind the all-white student body as we made pageantry out of our families’ pioneering arrivals onto the lands of the Dakota and Anishinaabe. Because: white.
My father’s family arrived in “the New World” before the American Revolution, founding a town in Connecticut in 1739 on the land of the Narragansett, Mohegans, Wampanoag, Nipmuck, Pocumtuck, Abenaki and Pequot. A man of his time, Nathaniel Baldwin was surely a white supremacist whose breath was a pestilence worse than a musket. He and his wife Abigail exhaled diseases capable of decimating whole tribes. Empowered by the Doctrine of Discovery of 1493, signed in Europe among kings and popes, they believed any land not occupied by Christians to be available for colonization. Because: white.
There was a time in my earlier adulthood when I perused my genealogy and not finding slaveholders or Cavalry relaxed into the fantasy of being among “the good white people.” There is no relaxing. Because: white.
In 1908, Nathaniel’s descendant, Leo Baldwin, a newly ordained Methodist clergy, homesteaded with his wife Mary, in western Montana on territory of the Amskapi Piikani, in Nitsitapii, the Blackfeet Confederacy. He was charged to start churches and to teach at the Fort Shaw Indian Industrial School. The conditions at the school challenged his theology and sense of justice. He helped to close it in 1910, because he could, because: white.
My father was born into this valley in 1920, raised there, and though he lived his adult life in other states, he returned to the family homestead time and again, and his ashes rest in that soil. I was born there in 1946, the great-great-great-great-granddaughter of genocide, perpetrator of marginalization, singer of the missing “ten little Indian boys.” No matter how conscientiously I try to live, I live on land stolen by my ancestors. And I live within an ongoing theft that has never been rectified.
It’s like this: imagine a diamond ring comes down the family line: it belonged to my mother, a gift from her mother, who got it from her father who got it from his uncle who bought it from another uncle who fought in the Civil War, who stole it off the dead finger of Confederate soldier who had a letter from his wife in his pocket… so it could have been returned, but it wasn’t. For generations the ring has been passed along as an heirloom, but none of that makes it not stolen.
So “we” can’t just move on, and “they” can’t just get over it because WHITE has always been the lie and DIVERSITY has always been the truth. And here we are: living in the time of Black Lives Matter, and BIPOC and LBGTQ+ reckoning. Finally. Systems of supremacy and consequent oppression in all forms—racial, ethnic, economic, religious, gender, even human-centric–must now be justly accounted for and reconciled if people of any color are to survive within the matrix of creation.
So, here is the question I am standing in: How can seven generations of guilt intersect with seven generations of trauma in healing ways?
I do not have an answer. But I am willing to bring my lineage of prejudice, and privilege to the the fire; to that holy space “out beyond notions of wrong-doing and right-doing.” I am committed with the rest of my days to “empower the most powerless and build from the ground up.”
To be continued…
Thank you. Sharing this with humility and hope.
Oh, Christina! Thank you.
Thank you for sharing all of this. I always felt a sense of relief that I, coming from a long (very long) line of Quakers, could relax knowing that my ancestors were peaceful people who helped escaping slaves, etc; but they all lived long before white privilege was recognized as anything other than a way of life. You leave me wanting to dig deeper to discover and trace, and “own” the actual truth mixed in with the passed-down stories of my very-white ancestors. Thanks Christina. Much to consider.
This is brilliant, Christina. Informing, heartbreaking, beautiful, terrible. May we all be disturbed, because: white.
Thank you, thank you, with deep gratitude for telling your family story and laying it before us, before me, whose story reads very similarly. Mine, like yours, is not a story with easy answers but with so much truth to be learned and faced squarely. Because: white.
Good Morning, Christina. Such deep and penetrating questions of your past…and how I must consider my past as well. Because: white. Is the answer to so much privilege and success assumed and unconsciously achieved. Thank you for this unearthing of your her-story, I look forward to having the time and attention to do my own work and reflection too.
Speaking/writing truth. Brava! Now to get on with the business of empowering the most powerless and finally growing some justice in our midst.
So powerful, Christina. Thanks.
Dear Christina, thank you for a well written, needed to be shared story of so many of us. It helps us grasp, see for real, and believe change is possible. Name the problem, find the solution…even if it takes forever.
Christina this is such a clear telling of your past and provides a rare illumination of our national heritage. So simple yet so profound. Will look forward to your thinking on how to share this story with those who have no desire to hear. Sadly in Idaho and other states many would ban this work from schools. Luckily many will welcome it. Well done—carry on!
I love this. Beautifully and honestly written. Thank you 🙏🏼
With great grandparents who settled on Blackfeet land in western Montana, I resonate with a heavy heart. Thank you for helping me recognize the guilt, Christina— a first step in opening to right relationship.
“I didn’t ask to be born white.” So you say in the intro to this piece. Of course I, too, have taken advantage of all that means to me and had to learn about what it meant to be “white”. But no more. I am committed to finding a voice for the voiceless, to empower the powerless, and to lift up all peoples of color. Thank goodness they only want equality, and not revenge!
Wow! So powerful Christina. Thank you for showing up for this difficult and vital conversation.
Powerful words, Christina. Grateful for your deep reflection and truth telling.
Thank you Christina….for your courage, honesty, time, attention, truth. I am heartened that your voice and so many others are starting to speak the historical and current truth. Hoping their are enough of us to stand in support.
Opening inner doors, historical dilemmas, and articulating wise direction…Thanks dear friends…
I deeply appreciate the work you demonstrate in your telling, to get beneath the effects of white privilege, and to lay bare our ignorance and complicity, in equal measure. No fault, no blame, just an opening to re-education, re-storation, and re-newal. “Because: white.” is my new mantra. Deep bow.
Brilliant! Gives me courage to continue to move forward to find ways to tell the stories I need to tell aloud of being a descendant of slaveholders…the American Christian kind and their white worldview of the ‘gospel.’ Sigh aloud…
Christina, I honor your recital of your family history, “all white.” I could write much the same story. How unconscious we were of our privilege as we were raised in white company and took for granted that WAS the company to keep. I join you now in awareness and the desire to make it different from here on out. And I find my grandchildren, raised with a rainbow of colors in their schools and totally at ease with it, are leading me. Blessings on you.
Christina. I love your ability to dig to your own story, wrapped in the context of the larger historical story. And then to come out with wisdom to share, context to convey, and the honesty of living into a question. Thank you.
Thank you for this writing, Christina! I don’t know as much about my ancestors as you do yours, and — because I am white — they believed the same as yours. It wasn’t as much malicious as ignorant. My ancestors grew up in South Carolina (after immigrating from lands of the WASPs) and I grew up in Charleston. While we were taught there was slavery, we were never encouraged to consider what that actually meant: it was portrayed as a necessity and a benign way of making sure the slaves had a home and a job. I shake my head now, remembering those history books that perpetrated the lie. I also grew up during the 50s, a time of suppression for anyone who wasn’t white, male, and well-to-do. Today, I am witnessing great efforts by courageous people who are willing to endanger themselves in order to protect others.
We are the ones we have been waiting for.
Thank you for this Christina. In our upcoming book Amy Howton (A White woman from the Kentucky side of the Ohio River) writes, “One of the hardest things as a White woman to come to terms with is that we have been purveyors of half truths and willful not seeing.
I would start by looking at the question you asked: “How can seven generations of guilt intersect with seven generations of trauma in healing ways?” I would suggest that it isn’t guilt vs trauma, first because White people seven generations back didn’t think they were doing anything wrong. I think the real question is: How can seven generations of trauma intersect with seven generations of trauma in healing ways? One of the biggest lies around slavery is that White people weren’t enslaved too. To enslave another you have to be enslaved yourself. We are all swimming in the water of what is White, real, and true is White and male. But this equation often leaves God and nature out. This is the water we are all swimming in and we us this to decided everything. But if you aren’t using this yardstick it changes everything even what we view as privileged, it’s not privileged to be disconnected from your heart. We need to start by letting go of the hard truths. White men were the most wounded by colonialism and patriarchy because when you create the yardstick you can believe that you aren’t wounded too.
Thank you Quanita, and all those who are making comments. I will use these to think further, feel more deeply into what I am exploring and write a coming blogpiece. The thoughtfulness, compassion, willingness, and exploration–without diverting into right/wrong is very encouraging to me, and benefits us all. May all that we do today contribute to the healing of the world and may our hearts be open enough to allow the world to contribute to our healing.
grateful to Christina’s wisdom and Quanita’s wisdom response – your eyes are open to the truth, we are all wounded and the healing begins within
Dear Christina. Thank you for sharing this personal story so beautifully and profoundly. Thank you for articulating the very clear question: “How can seven generations of guilt intersect with seven generations of trauma in healing ways?”
I can feel this question right to my bones and have amended my own question to include the intersection of ‘guilt’ and ‘trauma’.
Where we reside in Canada, you may have heard about the hundreds of bodies of First Nations children (mass graves) discovered/uncovered at the sites of old Residential Schools. As you can imagine, this has come to the forefront with high emotion for all involved. What I have noticed is that along with ‘guilt’, a deep sense of white “shame” also creates a situation of denial and defensiveness. My parent’s generation, as first generation Canadian (born in Canada in the 1930’s), cannot seem to meet or even begin integrate what is being spoken in the news and as part of “Truth and Reconciliation” events – for many of the reasons you have mentioned (i.e., “we had no idea!”). And it’s not just that generation, it is mine too.
Shame is a powerful emotion to unpack, one that requires dedication, courage, reflection, deep inner work and awareness. Like you I am dedicated to actively being part of the “healing ways” and I look forward to learning more together as a group of humans.
With gratitude for you, your service and sharing,
Thank you for your truth and courage to speak it. May this be an inspiration to others to follow suit.
Holding space of hope and light.
Joining your commitment
Thank you so much Christina for this model of sharing your recognition of what ‘being part of a white family and systems’ has entailed and continues to entail. I think that is the very first important step in responding to the question you pose – taking responsibility to research and know and speak the truth of our ‘white’ story. You may recall I have been in one of your writing retreats, with the intent of writing about my part in the United Church of Canada’s response to the legacy of Indian residential schools. The title of my story is “Now That You Know …” comes from an Elder’s response after hearing the United Church’s apology in 1986: “Now that you know, what the hell are you going to do about it?” So like you and so many, I am still on the journey of healing. As Michelle mentions, the finding of graves at Indian residential school sites in Canada woke up and bumped many further onto that path, even those of us who had worked with Indigenous communities for years in holding feasts to remember children who were buried at IRS sites, and to educate the public. I was spurred onto write about a few more experiences of healing, but more questions and events keep arising that cause me to pause again. It is messy and slow. You might like to watch a recorded webinar “Unearthing sorrows, planting hope” with Dr. John Borrows and “Lessons from the Red-tailed hawk” https://raventrust.com/video-lessons-from-the-red-tailed-hawk-with-john-borrows. Thanks again for walking humbly and bravely alongside.
We all seed awareness in one another. I remember you and your writing… and it contributes to the restitutions we are now engaged in. Thank you for being back in touch.
This former Minnesota boy thanks you muchly for the first line of a song… It’s still weak in the knees, but:
What shall I do with my old white skin?
let it strut its stuff or just pack it in?
coming to grips makes for ecstatic elation,
an appropriation nation needs expiation
Thank you Mark–keep writing more verses!
Thank you so much for this searingly honest and impactful essay. It makes me want to dig deep to discover the history of my family (of which I know little and have never been interested in it before as I grew up in military family and not much contact with my extended family). I want to do this digging in the context of the genocide and destruction of all those no benefitting fro White Privilege. I would like to see this become a movement in our country….learning how our White Privilege helped us and what kind of terror was being perpetrated at the same time on all those suffering because no such privilege. I just finished reading Project 1619, and though a hard read, I highly recommend it. This genocide and terror goes back even further than I could ever trace it for me.