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Lighthouse Foundation event explores racism's origins for white allies
by Matt Simonette
2020-06-24

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Lighthouse Foundation presented an online forum June 20 focusing on how white allies in the LGBT community can best focus their energies in struggles against racial inequities.

Lighthouse Foundation, which is associated with Lighthouse Community Church in Lincoln Park, focuses its work on uplifting Black and Brown members of the LGBT community. The June 20 session, titled "Anti-Racism for White Folks," was presented by Rev. Smash on behalf of the Foundation.

Smash, a native of Virginia, emphasized that she was not of the "upper-echelon" of race-equality experts, but was a longtime activist, including doing work in her home state around the time of the Charlottesville protests in 2017.

As racial-equity has come to the fore since the murder of George Floyd, many activists have said that Black and Brown activists should not be expected to do the intellectual and emotional labor needed to educate white allies, which is one reason Smash, who is white, was engaged to conduct the June 20 talk.

Racism, she said, is "not about who we are. [It's] about what we say, what we do, from minute to minute."

Smash traced the historical roots of the white supremacist ideology most white Americans had internalized to the point that, "When we say that something is normal, we typically mean 'white.'" That ideology came about hundreds of years ago as a justification for the economic benefits that white landowners derived from chattel slavery.

Even with chattel slavery long in the past, its effects linger, since most Americans unconsciously engage in the economic, rhetorical and power dynamics which remain in our culture as its legacy. White folks, as one example, are seen as intrinsically stable, family-oriented and hardworking, while people of color are perceived as being lazy and in a state of perpetual poverty.

That perception carries over to explicitly racist fiscal policies, such as redlining of neighborhoods by banks determining whom to lend to. It can be further perpetuated by more implicitly racist policies, such as when state governments tie school funding into property-taxes, thereby ensuring that students in less-prosperous, majority-Black and -Brown neighborhoods receive fewer educational resources.

Smash acknowledged that closely examining racism as a systematic whole, rather than just how one manages interpersonal relationships, will be difficult for many white folks, especially those who would never think of themselves as being racist.

"White supremacy… is much more expansive than overt racism," she said, later adding, "We're not used to the stress of processing our white identities."

Smash was joined in the talk by Rev. Tim Wolfe of the Oak Park-based Gather Church, who has also been involved at length with Lighthouse Foundation. The two discussed how whiteness had become further calcified in institutional settings, including those that had committed to the idea of diversity within their ranks.

Smash added that diversity initiatives quite frequently assume "that the normal ways of doing things are the things we value as white people."

Wolfe said that many allies unfortunately "want to just take up a mantel rather than just making [confronting racism] a part of who we are."

He and Smash discussed how two human traits frequently encoded as being "white"—being averse to both risks and conflict—stand in the way of many allies who are willing to do the activist work. Dismantling racism, they added, involves showing up, listening, knowing when to defer and step down and having a willingness to both fail and be called out for it.

"Most of us have been frozen in this space of not wanting to mess up," Wolfe said.

Nevertheless, Smash added, much of the work has to be figuratively messy.

"Conflict has to happen for change to happen," she said.


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