I grew up in a privileged suburban enclave that centered its life on the voluminous writings of an 18th century Christian mystic. I am in the sixth generation of a family whose awareness was shaped by the religion that grew out of the mystic’s cerebral teachings. I lived in that town outside Philadelphia for most of my first 54 years, raising four children in the faith, renovating old houses, doing interior design, organizing women’s gatherings, writing for the church, and founding and editing a newsletter on healing sexual abuse. Then I spent almost two decades as a successful professional artist.
In 2003, at age 49, I experienced some arresting dreams that led me to unexpectedly awaken into a whole new consciousness—one that led me out of religion and into a quest for fundamental truth. I left my passionate art career behind and focused on learning from the amazing feelings and insights flowing through me. I constantly wrote and explored the interconnected nature of being, and eventually many of my outer life circumstances changed as well.
Total focus on my own and others’ healing trained me to perceive complexities of the psyche very clearly, and I have provided emotional support to clients, friends and family members since 2004. For a few years I also co-hosted a podcast on the topics of Consciousness, Happiness, Sex and Love, and Parenting with Trust; helped to develop support groups about being human, which I assistant-led both in person in Philly and worldwide via conference call; volunteered with hospice patients and Planned Parenthood; and continued to fix up my lovely old home.
Since 2016 I’ve been more and more fully coming to grips with the incredibly white-centric life I’ve led–which included people of color only as housekeepers employed by my parents and grandparents. What’s become poignantly clear to me is that my most passionate endeavor since my awakening–supporting myself and others in reclaiming healthy rudimentary ego-boundaries so we can more freely be who we are – has been all about privilege and white wellbeing. This is good, because it makes us less fragile, and it’s also unspeakably insular.
There’s nothing wrong with me for having been born and raised in default privilege, in that I believe we human beings are always doing the best we can. And also, I now know that there are hundreds of things wrong with that degree of unconsciousness. So I keep asking myself and others: Can we dial back our denial long enough to acknowledge the hard truths of history and the present, and put solid attention on the reality of those who deal every day with the crushing effects of systemic oppression?
Originally when I decided to learn about racism, I wasn’t inspired or even very interested, but on principle I made myself attend some groups and do some reading. I was astounded to discover after a couple of months that I began to feel passionately committed to finding out what needs to change.
A key experience was the afternoon my partner and I drove into North Philly for a “Women in Re-entry” event. In a small, litter-strewn park, eight or 10 tables were set up with information on support groups, health and legal help, job training, violence prevention, and other kinds of mentoring for people coming out of prison. We picked up flyers from almost every table as we talked to the advocates, and then went across the street look at artwork and stories by incarcerated women, women just out of prison, and women with incarcerated family members—mostly people of color.
The pieces all spoke of heart-wrenching pain, loss, courage and determination in the face of our society’s overwhelmingly criminal treatment of them. We felt strange and down as we drove through the crumbling, treeless streets that are home to Philadelphia’s under-served poor, through the prosperous green beauty of East Falls, and back to our garden and spacious, well-kept home. The degree of my lifelong ignorance left me mentally fried, aimless–and also hungry to learn and do.
Now, after six decades of blind disregard, I cannot stop the avalanche of awareness, but I keep reminding myself how pointless it is to wallow in overwhelm, so I don’t. What I do feel is a sense of relief that comes with absolutely clean, appropriate guilt. By “guilt” I mean my complicity with the systems that enforce white supremacy, and by “clean” I mean it’s shorn of the paralyzing kind of shame-filled feelings that make human beings want to deny, lie and hide. The clean white guilt I bear is utter devotion to doing what I can, for the rest of my life, to right these wrongs.
Even though my ignorance felt embarrassing when I first woke up to the racism of our world, I think it was also a boon, because it helped humble me. I had to learn to remember that my job as a privileged person is to keep listening, listening, listening and learning from the experiences of marginalized people, rather than believing my own opinions and default reactions, centering my responses, or thinking I know what is needed or what should work.
Although I learn so much from many different places, I think I’m most effectively educated by radical Black activists who often get labeled as “divisive.”
It seems to me that our patriarchal, white-supremacist, capitalist culture’s systemic oppression is itself the original and ongoing force of divisiveness—not angry Black folks. If the color of your skin makes you WAY more likely to be living in generational poverty, or to fear for your beloved children, or to be harassed, incarcerated or killed by state-sanctioned violence, then rage is appropriate–a no-brainer, really. And that level of vulnerable truth-telling is what has cut most cleanly through my dense white-privileged brain.
I wish that those who criticize radical activists would take the time to try to enter imaginatively into the unconscionable circumstances that exist for people with so much less privilege. Or at least, before censuring, I wish critics would ask themselves, “What antiracism action that I was about to engage in is now going to be deterred by this person’s anger?” “Has this radical activist’s form of expression honestly stopped me from making a difference?” “Is it possible that I just don’t like hearing the truth this bluntly?”
Some of my unconscious racist harm:
Most of the harm I’ve caused in my life has come through omission rather than by directly racist acts – meaning I have harmed because of my failure to realize the complicity of so many of my actions with systemic white supremacy. But that in no way excuses them.
I have enjoyed and benefitted from systemic privilege every day of my life.
I brought into the world children who increased the number of privileged whites on the planet, without considering the necessity (when they were growing up) of helping them learn about and ameliorate our extreme privilege.
I educated those kids in elite white schools, rather than unschooling/homeschooling them or sending them to integrated public schools that could have benefited in all kinds of ways from the money I spent on private education.
I’ve almost always lived in privileged neighborhoods, most of them overwhelmingly white. When I lived in Germantown, Philadelphia, the one real exception until 2007, I left there after several years because of the crime rate and my discomfort with being in a predominantly Black area.
I spent thousands of dollars over the years on suburban home improvements without ever seriously wondering if at least some of that money could have been distributed more equitably to people in severe housing need.
I’ve employed dozens of contractors without ever deliberately seeking to hire POC contractors.
I’ve made hundreds of purchases without ever wondering or researching whether the manufacture of them involved prison labor and thereby supported the prison-industrial complex. I also never considered until recently that I should or even could patronize black-owned businesses for at least some of the goods and services I spend money on.
I have invested most of my discretionary money in a brokerage account that no doubt props up numerous businesses and practices that reinforce and perpetuate systemic racism.
During almost all of my voting life, I have not carefully considered the potential effect of candidates on people of color, and have no doubt helped by my votes to keep our white supremacist system in place.
For my whole life until recently, virtually everyone I know or care about has been white. All my activities, thoughts, concerns and awareness have centered whiteness.
Until recently I’ve remained mostly ignorant and unconscious of the real history of our country, and the devastating plunder and murder we are founded on and from which we still operate.
All my life, I’ve had (and still do have to some extent) knee-jerk, prejudiced thoughts and feelings.
Now I read, listen and absorb. I talk to some close friends and allies about how it feels to be on such a steep learning curve. I research individuals and organizations and give money that I consider to be reparations. I want to keep giving, to give a lot, to give as much as I can. I attend POC-led events to grow and wake up more and more out of my white-centric worldview; these help to sheer off the unconscious blobs of my being. I share what I’m learning with people in my network, and offer rigorous support to them when it’s wanted. I curate the information on this website, and keep making and selling artwork for racial justice. I probably can’t directly do much at the legislative level where change actually happens, but I can dig in more thoroughly with my own self wherever I can have an effect.
For me, the failure to do otherwise would be lack of imagination, integrity and will.
And I wonder….however in the name of all that is wrong did I not, before now, dive deep into the heart of America’s darkness? I wasn’t racist in the superficial sense; I wasn’t lacking in compassion; I’ve done volunteer work and given decent amounts of money to good causes. But where in the hell was my drive to palpably connect with how it might feel to be at the mercy of systemic racism? How did I fail to enter imaginatively that world, to picture the fears for my three sons, the ravages of a society that is one big centuries-long commitment to affirmative action for light skin?
-Kara Tennis | Justice Jewelry