When I was 16, a teacher led me up to the front of the room, and told the rest of the class to look at me. We were studying the Holocaust and the teacher wanted to show the other students what Hitler meant by “Aryan race.” I’ll never forget that moment. What should I have felt? What should I have said? I’m not pleased to share it, but at the time I wasn’t sure whether to be proud or ashamed.
I must have taken it to heart, because I remember a week later in Math class, drawing a small crude comic of myself with a caption scrawled above it: “I survived the Holocaust” and passing it to my friends, laughing nervously.
Why would I share this instance publicly? I’ve hated myself for that moment. Here’s what was happening: I was navigating my own White identity formation (see Tatum’s White Racial Identity Development), literally held up as a specimen.
Why do I share this? I’m embarrassed about who I was and the mistakes I’ve made and of course I’d rather forget. But It’s an important practice to interrogate our whiteness and recognize how it was built. Critical race philosopher Dr. George Yancy calls this “White Self-Criticality.” Do we have the courage to pause and remember- remember the moments we would rather forget, then get to work?
Two weeks ago I was in a task force meeting with Rev. Dr. Jennifer Harvey, author of Dear White Christians. I joined clergy and lay-leaders working on examining whiteness and how it functions in the Church. Harvey’s remarkable model, the Reparations Paradigm, shows that in order to do true cross-racial work, we must recognize our common scarred history of racism and racial violence in the US and worldwide. This is the shared history that, whether visible or not, mediates our relationships. Harvey advocates not for a reconciliation model (which prioritizes general concepts like “inclusion” or “diversity”) but rather a reparative model, which is inherently relational and necessitates common work together, towards repairing a broken, painful (and in her religious context, sinful) racial history.
It’s like this: one model (reconciliation) says hey, we all belong, and the other (reparations) acknowledges hey, something has been broken for a long time and is the grounding for all our social systems and relationships. Let’s work to repair this evil, together.
I left the meeting with Harvey and not long after I flew to Ghana to live for the month. Just three hours away from where I sit are the ruins of castles, fortresses that launched slave ships stealing, breaking, shattering families and shipping them like so much cargo to unjustly build the economic structure we depend on today. The same year I was shuffled to the front of my class as an Aryan specimen, a different teacher showed us Amistad, a film graphically chronicling the condition of slave ships. I watched black bodies, caged and cramped, dying on ships on their way to the US, to me. My desk was in the back corner of the classroom, next to a box labeled “The Souls of Black Folk.” At 16, I laughed, tickled at the joke that souls could be boxed up, shipped.
But they were. Millions of souls. Shipped. Not many miles away from where I sit today on the Gulf of Guinea, listening to waves as beautiful, free, happy black and brown bodies swim by, surfing, embracing. There is more time to be free, today. It’s Ghanaian Independence Day, a long weekend for the whole country.
It’s been just 60 years of freedom. Only 60 years since the legal end of British colonization in Ghana, the first black African nation to gain such independence. And we know it takes many many more generations to decolonize hearts, minds. To repair an evil history of ownership, of occupation.
Honored, I joined their celebration. I cheered when their president rode in via motorcade, protected black leader, even as I continue to mourn the departure of my own beloved black president. On our way to the venue, Independence Square, with 30,000 other Ghanaians, I stopped by a street vendor to ask for a face painting. He dipped the brush in water and dabbed thick pigment, pressed the brush against my white skin to paint the Ghanaian flag in a streak across my cheek. My Ghanaian friend snapped a photo of the exchange: Beautiful paint-flecked brown skin marking my white face: reds, yellows, greens, dripping. Still, a recent history of white colonization hanging in the air. A geographic scar of slavery just three hours away. He painted my face as children walking by called out my name: “Abroni!”
It’s part of who I am, at the front of the room in high school, on the streets of Accra, Ghana, in my church, in my world. And I’m committed to this work of repair for what I’ve broken or the shards I’ve lived off of. I am hopeful. Abroni: white person.