Shadow work: Undoing White Privilege
When I was in my 20s I worked in a collectively-owned grocery store in San Francisco. During the time I worked there, one of my jobs was to train a new hire, and older African American woman, who was a single mom to 5 kids. I will admit, I felt a bit foolish, ‘training’ this woman who could probably organize circles around me, having raised 5 kids on her own. But I showed her our procedures, and my floor stocking routine, trying to be helpful and respectful. During one of our training sessions, as we were chatting about our lives, I told her about a movie I’d seen recently. I can’t even recall the film any more, but I referred to it as a ‘black comedy,’ meaning it was sarcastic and dark in it’s humor. She immediately questioned me about what I meant by black comedy, I think I defined it just like I did for you in the sentence above. “Why do you have to call it that?” She asked. I didn’t understand. “To me”, she continued, “black is beautiful, it is mysterious, like the night, why do you call a movie like that a black comedy?”
Immediately a million and one defenses rushed to my tongue. It was just a figure of speech, I meant no offense, she was just being too sensitive. Weren’t we allowed to have other connotations of the word black, that didn’t center around race? But something stopped me that day before a single one of them made it out of my mouth. “Oh” I said, “I never thought of it like that. Thanks for pointing that out.” She softened, the moment passed, but later she confided that she appreciated the fact that I didn’t get defensive and thanked me for actually listening to her.
The moment cost me absolutely nothing. Turns out she wasn’t even asking me to change my language, she was just sharing her perspective. But what I gained from that moment was invaluable. I learned about another perspective. My world view broadened. I gained a friend. All for a moment that didn’t even cost me a thing.
I’m not telling you this story to prove to you what a good person I am. Because there are a million other stories I could tell you about how I’ve failed when it really mattered. How I failed speak up for this same woman in a meeting with my department members. How I’ve said the totally wrong thing to someone and made a total ass of myself. About all the times when I DID get defensive. So believe me when I say, this isn’t about me being ‘good’.
I’m telling you about this moment because it was a moment when I learned that the cost of defending white privilege is always greater than it is worth.
I had the pleasure recently of inviting my good friend, a fellow witch and an activist Stevie Ann DePaola to speak to my students about her work combining activism with magic. The work she is currently doing centers around community organizing against evictions and police brutality in San Francisco.
She explained to us that the bulk of the magical part of the work she does as an activist is her own personal work. It’s shadow work she explained to us: sitting with the parts of yourself you haven’t examined before; your assumptions, your privilege, what you take for granted; the choices your ancestors made before you were even born.
It is hard work, and it is deeply rewarding work. It is work that makes us whole again. And it is the work that will ultimately be needed for us to heal white supremacy.
As Emma Lindsay writes in her recent article:
If you are a white ally, but are not aware of the pain of whiteness, when push comes to shove you will crumble. Because racial equality isn’t going to look like having a statistically acceptable number of black CEOs. Racial equality isn’t your life now, except with more POC friends. Racial equality will require a deep restructuring of a society that is founded on slavery. Gender equality will require a deep restructuring of a society that is founded on patriarchy. Society is currently set up to grant privilege to those who are able to do the tasks white men are good at; a more equitable society will value different tasks. (emphasis her’s)
When I recently posted the above article on my FB feed, along with a discussion of how white supremacy actually hurts white people, I got into a long and protracted discussion with a friend who ‘refused to feel guilty or apologize for being white’. Which is sadly how many white people feel when they hear someone mention white privilege.
I want to be really clear here: shadow work is not about guilt or having to apologize for how you were born. Shadow work is about knowing your full self, about looking at your blind spots, your wounds, your arrogances and gently but unflinchingly healing them in the light of your own inner gaze.
What does it mean to be born into the body that you inhabit? What does it mean to have ancestors that may have participated in the slave trade, or segregation, or race riots? What does it mean that many of the opportunities you have been given in life were made possible by the oppression of other people? How do those facts about you, facts that you had no part in creating, but that are still true, affect how others, particularly people of color, may view you?
Are you willing to give up that false power for wholeness? Are you willing to trade it in for the true power of knowing yourself?
When you can look at your shadow and see all that it holds, and still love yourself, you are finally whole. Which is what got me remembering that moment with my co-worker. I gained so much from what I didn’t say. I gained so much from shutting my mouth, taking a deep breath, and admitting that maybe for once, I didn’t know what I was talking about. In this case the moment cost me absolutely nothing, but sometimes shadow work does ask us to change things about ourselves. Sometimes there is a cost to it, but if we only focus on the cost, we are missing much of the value.
Clearly just doing the shadow work isn’t enough. That one moment didn’t magically make me a better ally to people of color. There is real work to do, and we have to blend our inner realizations with outer action, but it is a start, a doorway.
So why? I ask my fellow white friends and readers. Why are we holding on so dearly to something that costs many of
us nothing to give up, and when there is so much to gain once we do?