Good White Racist? (Kerry Connelly) -- A Review
GOOD WHITE RACIST? Confronting Your Role in Racial Injustice. By Kerry Connelly. Foreword by Michael W. Waters. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2020. Xiv + 161 pages.
I don't know about you, but I don't want to think of myself as being a racist. Good or otherwise. To be racist is to be a bad person, am I not correct. So, believing myself to be in general a good person who wants to do what is right and tries to treat people, no matter their race, with respect, how could I be a racist? Yet, that is the premise of Kerry Connelly’s book Good White Racist? It’s possible that I am a racist. Thus, this book will be unsettling to many white folks, who like me, see ourselves as being good people.
Kerry Connelly—the author of the Good White Racist? —is white (she identifies herself as being of Irish descent). She’s a Christian, a certified life coach, blogger, and host of a podcast that is called White on White. All the while, she is an M.Div. student at Christian Theological Seminary in Indianapolis (it is a Disciples of Christ related school). Much like any participant in a twelve-step program, she also self-identifies here as a "good white racist.” Thus, what she says to the reader, she claims for herself.
When she speaks here of racism, she is focusing on what goes on inside us, even if it doesn’t always get expressed. However, what goes on inside does influence our thoughts and actions, even if it is as seemingly innocent as lacking the car doors when driving through a predominantly African American community. It also includes our privileges that derive from whiteness. It's the reality of the privilege that she has, and I have, due to my whiteness. So, for a moment let go of your image of a racist. She’s not talking about the KKK, skinheads, or neo-Nazis. What she has in mind is the majority of white folks in the United States who "intellectually believe that racism is evil, that being 'color-blind' is good, and who get so uncomfortable talking about race that they will tell racial activists to shut up about it because 'it's just making it worse.'" (p. 1). It sometimes gets expressed in the response to Black Live Matters efforts, which declare that "All Lives Matter." While it’s true that all lives do matter, that declaration simply misses the point.
While this book is informative, it's designed to be a call to action. Learning is a starting point, but not the endpoint. In pursuit of that, each chapter ends with three action items: learn, think, and act. The opening chapter of the book raises one of the more difficult conversation pieces, and that has to do with American exceptionalism. While the United States is a good country, it’s "not as good as we think." Here she defines terms such as good, white, and racist. Much of this isn't new, but it's presented from a different angle (there is a bit of snark throughout) (chapter 1). Then in chapter two, she fleshes this out a bit more, inviting us to consider the idea of the "White Empire." What she means by that is the way whiteness serves as a worldview. In other words, what does it mean to be white? How is whiteness constructed? That social construction involves the idea that white Europeans, are superior to others. It permitted Europeans to colonize less civilized cultures. If you look white and can assimilate, then you too can be white. In this chapter, she invites us to deconstruct our whiteness and reconstruct a new identity, one that is not homogenized.
Having laid the foundations of whiteness, she begins to lead us toward understanding how whiteness is weaponized. Here, chapter three, she speaks of gaslighting and ghosting. These are relatively new terms to me, which I’m still getting a handle on. However, in essence, this is a form of psychological abuse. It involves telling those who speak up about racial abuse or injustice, that they are doing something inappropriate. Think of Colin Kaepernick kneeling during the national anthem as a protest against police brutality. By making it about the flag and veterans, Kaepernick’s message was distorted and ignored. Connelly does a nice job of explaining and pointing out the dangers of gas-lighting and the related ghosting. Another expression of being a good racist is explored in chapter four, which explores the nature of language and how it is used to perpetuate white entitlement. It's an intriguing chapter worth pondering. It’s a bit like gas-lighting in that it is an attempt to get white folks off the hook. She uses the “n-word” as an example. She points to white folks who don’t understand why they can’t use the word if Black folks use it. The point here is that language is power. She reminds us that language is contextual, so what is appropriate in one setting might not be in another. We need to recognize and allow that reality. The question is, does my language harm another? Sometimes this concern about language is termed political correctness. Many white folks seem to believe that they should be free to say whatever they please, even if it hurts another. In most cases what is politically correct is simply what is kind.
Chapter five deals with education and how the educational system has been used to perpetuate white privilege in America. Even progressive education theories were designed to create a mono-culture defined by whiteness (do you hear anything lately about "erasing history" and taking away "heritage." The question is, whose stories haven't been told? Whose perspective is being ignored? Do people get to define their own identity? In essence, Connelly suggests that “not only does it continue to harm children of color, but it churns out oblivious good white racists at an alarming rate who believe many of the false narratives and myths that whiteness perpetrates” (p. 83). If you don’t know what she means, consider the political rhetoric on the right that is deriding public education that is “erasing” heritage. Even if heritage is a romanticized view of the confederacy and happy former slaves, like Aunt Jemima and Uncle Ben.
Then there are those efforts we undertake to justify ourselves. What she means here is that when challenged its common for uncomfortable white folks to turn the tables and rationalize things. She uses several examples including the charge of reverse racism and the claim that "black people owned slaves," which is supposed to let white folks off the hook (while some black folks did own slaves they were few in number and there is often more to the story). The fact is the vast majority of slaves were owned by white folks. Then there’s the claim that Blacks should be happy since we elected Obama as President, and Oprah who is rich, so we must no longer be a racist country. In fact, a leading Senator recently claimed that since Obama was elected President, that cancels out America’s debt regarding slavery, as if the election of one person of color overturns four centuries of chattel slavery. Of course, there is this: “I don't see color or race.” Oh, really! That’s the subject of chapter six.
When we move into chapter 7, we explore the idea of a racial contract. This is another concept that is rather new to me. The point of the racial contract is the assumption that nonwhites are subordinate to whites. It's not a written contract, it's just part of the system. That system has to do with control. It comes in many forms including over-policing and the assumption that people of color as suspicious characters. The police get called on an African American youth at a swimming pool. A person of color is pulled over by the police when driving a nice car. It must be stolen. You see what I mean. Then in chapter 8, there is a conversation about the justice system and how it treats whites and non-whites differently., which is why the prison system has an over-proportion of persons of color incarcerated (the new Jim Crow). Chapter 9 deals with the consumption of bodies, ranging from how predominantly black neighborhoods were bulldozed in the 60s to make way for freeways to the way we view persons of color as entertainment.
Since this is a book written by and for religious folk, you would expect and you will find a chapter on the church (chapter 10). She shares her own experience in an evangelical megachurch, which she thoroughly loved. She notes that it is composed of good people. Ultimately she found it lacking. In part, this has to do with the favoring of charity over justice. While it’s a challenging conversation, it’s a necessary one. At the same time, she offers a word of hope. She acknowledges and lifts up those who lead in different directions, ones that are liberating. She also affirms that her own commitment to anti-racism is rooted in her relationship with Jesus. She writes that “I don’t recommend him, unless you like to be radically changed” (p. 139).
The final chapter (11) is titled "In Full Color." Here Connelly brings the conversation to a head by speaking to ways in which we can, especially as white folks, take stock of our realities and become not only nonracist but truly anti-racist. She acknowledges that this involves grief work because we will lose something when we let go of our need to be in control. But that is the path to a new world. Another way of putting this is that it’s not enough to be anti-racist. We have to be pro-something. That is the calling here.
Now, this isn’t the only book out there that speaks to whiteness. Carolyn Helsel, for instance, has written several books, including one titled Anxious to Talk About It (Chalice Press, 2018) and Chanequa Walker-Barnes I Bring the Voices of My People, (Eerdmans, 2019). I’d say that Good White Racist? fits in between these two excellent resources. What Connelly brings is a bit of snark to the conversation. At points that rubbed me wrong, but chalk that up to generational differences (I got over it quickly). I do have one question for her regarding her use of the acronym BIPOC (Black Indigenous People of Color). I never fully understood why she uses this term, which is new to me. I will have to check that out to fully understand its use. When all is said and done, Connelly illuminates the possibility that if we’re white, we are or have been in some form a good white racist. By acknowledging this, we can do something about it. That is, as she points out throughout the book, it’s not enough to talk or to learn. We have to take responsibility for our own lives and actions (and thoughts) and take steps toward living into this new reality. That makes this a valuable resource.