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  • Liz Simmons

White, Woke, and Wanting: Why Being a Dissenting Oppressor Isn’t Good Enough

I have been thinking much on my own process of being a racist in recovery.

- Two months ago I was pulled over for holding my cell phone on my lap. When the officer handed me a ticket, I pleaded my case (intensely, aggressively refusing to accept the ticket and the $250 fine. He said, “Do you have any questions about this citation I’m handing you?” I said, “Yeah, I have a dozen, and I’m not accepting that from you.”). He rescinded the ticket and sent me on my way.


- Three years ago I was in the passenger’s seat when my friend was inappropriately pulled over in a poorly marked construction zone for turning from the left lane (which was apparently closed but did not appear as such). I could tell he was attempting to scare my friend into paying better attention to signs posted. I yelled at him through the window until he admitted to both of us that there were no signs clearly directing traffic, and he apologized for pulling her over.


- Four years ago I was pulled over for turning left at a light but not pulling into the immediate nearest lane. I didn’t have my license, and I had no proof of insurance on my person. He gave me a warning and sent me on my way.


- Fourteen years ago I was walking in Chicago, trying to find the location of a person’s house whom I had contacted to put dreadlocks in my hair (that’s a longer story). I was unaware that I was in a “bad part of town.” I was trailed by a white police officer who followed me in his car from block to block until he realized he was freaking me out. He leaned out the window and asked me if I knew what part of town I was in, and he escorted me safely to my destination.

While some of my episodes with law enforcement and my having zero qualms about fighting back (at times clearly disrespectfully) stem from my anger at our Injustice System, truthfully, even my anger as a “dissenting oppressor” has benefitted me completely.

As a white person I rage – I have wanted to do something akin to burning my own house down in the last week. I’ve been angry at law enforcement, angry at our president, angry at opportunistic and violent white people, angry at the church for having its head in the sand and relegating so much of its response to praying sad prayers instead of embodied action. I’ve been angry at gun-slingers (I assume to know their ideology), I’ve been angry at the legalism of posts that try to coach white people in conversations around race with a list of "dos and don’ts," perpetuating white paralysis (“If I’m going to get it wrong then I just won’t say anything at all”). I have been angry at white people for appropriating the outrage of black people and using that anger to elevate themselves in some way.

I have been really, really angry.

And I realize at the same time that much of my anger comes as a projection of the me I see in them. In our government I see cowardice and pride – the same cowardice in me that keeps me from speaking up and the same pride that keeps me quiet for fear of being wrong because I didn't say it in the exact right way. My anger at the church comes from my own participation – I have had an entire revisionist history experience on all those high school short term mission trips that were completely about me, and on all the ways that whiteness in the church has enacted a cultural genocide on anyone who wants to belong to it. My anger about the legalism imposed in conversations around race is really about the fact that I’ve gotten it wrong so many times that it feels good for once to accuse a white person of being in the wrong.

No matter how far I try to get from being white (I’m not like them, trust me, I’m different), I am white.

Liberation theologian and feminist Rosemary Radford Ruether writes about the complexity of the relationship between oppressor and oppressed. About the “dissenting oppressor,” she writes, “The alienated oppressor can never disaffiliate himself enough from his own society, as long as it continues in power and he automatically remains the beneficiary of that fact, to be seen by the oppressed as anything other than an extension of that fact of power over their lives in a novel form” (Liberation Theology: Human Hope Confronts Christian History and American Power, 14-15).

I am an extension of that fact of power over the lives of women and men of color. I have to own that. If I disown it, I perpetuate it. If I let my whiteness fall below the level of my consciousness, what I have disowned does not remain there neutral; it grows in its pride and its fear and its anger.

Thomas Merton writes, “He who attempts to act and do things for others or for the world without deepening their own self-understanding, freedom and integrity and capacity to love, will not have anything to give to others. He will communicate to them nothing but the contagion of his own obsessions, aggressiveness, ego-centeredness, delusions about ends and means, his doctrinaire prejudices and ideas” (Thomas Merton: Spiritual Master: Essential Writings, 375).


Deepen your own self-understanding (I am, too). Deepen your own sense of what it means to be free (I am, too). Deepen your own sense of integrity (I am, too). Deepen your own capacity to love (I am, too). See if you don’t find yourself putting your life in review. If we can do that, white people, we can somehow manage to tell the truth about the pain we have perpetuated.


So go: write your own story of race. Write down for yourself what it has meant for you to be white. As Ruether says, “The alienated oppressor must learn what it means to be truly responsible for whom and what he is” (Liberation Theology: Human Hope Confronts Christian History and American Power, 16).