Upstream

By Tommy Airey

“There is no bad luck in the world but whitefolks.” – Toni Morrison, Beloved

Last weekend, I hiked with friends on traditional land of Watlala people, about fifty miles southeast of Portland, Oregon. At the trailhead, there were a half dozen Chinook Salmon swimming in the cold shallow water below. They were traveling upstream, from the Pacific to the Columbia to the Sandy to the Zig Zag to Camp Creek. The females, returning to the place of their birth, were preparing to lay their eggs – and then die four days later. Despite all the dams that have been built, there are still a few of these Beings, so sacred to Native people here, who have the strength to swim against the current, teaching us how to give up our lives for the next generation.  

On my two-hour drive back to the Deschutes River, I was pondering the contrast between Chinook Salmon who swim upstream and those who built the dams, white people conditioned by conformity, always moving with the current, not against it. I was thinking about the white people I know who now refer to “wokeness” as a bad word, as a kind of far-left cult that is extreme and dangerous, existing only to shame white people. The conservative talking points are penetrating the language of white moderates and liberals. Right-wing strategists know what they are doing! Wokeness is the perfect pinata for people unwilling to swim upstream and shed their own whiteness.

Back in 17th century Virginia, whiteness was invented by the right-wing. Wealthy elites needed to form a wedge between light-skinned and dark-skinned members of their labor force. Whiteness was the ultimate union-buster. It provided European-American workers a sliver of social respectability and protection. The working conditions of white workers were brutal – but at least white workers weren’t Black. So they settled for the status quo. Whiteness made it seem like the white labor force had more in common with their wealthy white bosses than with their Black co-workers. This started in the colonies, where European-Americans were colonized into whiteness, into a plantation mentality of mastering, possessing and controlling everything.

At first, whiteness did not include certain migrants – like the Polish, Irish, Italians, Jews and Mennonites – people who were not Anglo-Saxon Protestants. These newly arriving immigrants bore some of the brunt of the oppression. But these folks eventually found their way into the fold too. When they became “white,” they shelved their ethnic heritage and their wokeness. Because now they shared in the advantages. My ancestors were not “white” until they migrated to the US. Before they came here, they were English, Irish, Welsh, German. Over there, in the old world, they were largely defined by their class and religion. In the US, their skin color was the key factor in making “success” a possibility. It still is.

I was named after my great grandfather Tom Airey who came to the States with his partner Mary Moore and their two sons. In England, Tom labored on a huge estate. On his way to the US, he worked in coal mines and as a domestic servant in British Columbia, Canada. Tom’s family crossed the US/Canadian border and became “white” for the first time in their lives, for the first time in their ancestral lines. They settled in central Washington state. Native people who tended that land for thousands of years were relocated (with other tribes) to the Colville Indian Reservation, right across the Okanagan River from the Aireys. Tom got free land. The rivers were dammed so that he could irrigate his apple orchard. The Salmon could no longer swim upstream.

Native people know all about whiteness. The Oglala Sioux call it Wasichu. The people who take the fat. Wasichu are mired in a manifest destiny mentality. More land. More resources. No matter what it does to anyone else. Wasichu center themselves. They are the norm, no matter what. They make decisions based on what is best for their families. Wasichu believe in independence and assertiveness. They believe that they are more deserving because they work hard and make wise decisions.

Wasichu is not a skin color. It is a spiritual condition, a consciousness, a kind of common sense passed down through the generations. The Oglala Sioux say it is possible to be white and not Wasichu—or to be Wasichu and not white. However, the overwhelming masses of white people are Wasichu. People of color are pulled into Wasichu ways too. Some can become “junior partners” in the American project of whiteness. The promise of wealth and social power and a semblance of protection are hard for anyone to pass up.

Europeans like Tom and Mary Airey came to the US carrying unmetabolized trauma. For centuries, they experienced war, starvation, disease, destruction and violence. They came to the “new world” for a better life, for an advantaged life. The default was Wasichu – a counterfeit that is still coming out sideways. Wasichu ways have resulted in epidemics of despair, depression, loneliness, insecurity, conspiracy theories, violence, addiction and abuse. These did not exist on the North American continent before white people came over with their counterfeit god, created in the image of Wasichu – angry, in control, with the whole world in His hands, waving off wokeness forever.

*          *          *

For generations, the white people in my family and all over the continent have been trained to seek status by conforming to Wasichu norms – which cuts us off from who we really are. We were made for open-heartedness and generosity, but we have been counterfeited by what Dr. King called “conscientious blindness,” a condition that pivots on personal responsibility and the profit motive. We learned to blame poor people of color for their plight. We’ve traded in our tenderness for being tough or aloof. We stay above the fray by being cynical, indifferent and neutral. These passive postures are safe – and they are killing our souls.

White folks must come out of our tombs like Lazarus and unravel the lies that bind us. Love and liberation summon us to break rank with whiteness, to switch sides, to go public with our advocacy for people who do not look like us. We can get free from our desperate need to fit in by removing white people – particularly the mediocrity of white men – from the center of our nucleus. We are not canceling anyone. We are switching sources. We are amplifying the muted perspectives of those who are dark, queer and feminine. We are intentionally taking cues from those our fathers and pastors and coaches and bosses taught us to dismiss and scapegoat.

When we break rank with Wasichu ways, we will be a big fat disappointment to many of the white people in our lives – white people who are both conservative and liberal. When we break rank, we risk being ghosted and gaslit by people in our social networks. But we must break rank with Wasichu, because Wasichu is based on a lie. It has counterfeited our souls. We must learn to breathe with the Other America, which means we must summon the strength to swim upstream like the Chinook Salmon.

James Baldwin, Black and queer, intimately knew the difference between being Black and white. “I cannot fool myself about some things,” Baldwin wrote, “that I could fool myself about if I were white.” There is an obliviousness, a cluelessness, that comes with whiteness. It’s so easy to roll with the mythology.To heal, white folk and middle-class people must stop numbing and forgetting. We must face the facts. Our souls cannot afford to be fooled by the notion that America is somehow not a project of whiteness, that it is somehow great and innocent, that American institutions somehow work for everyone.

*          *          *

Whiteness can be really confusing for me because practically no one I know is actually addressing it, let alone even acknowledging that it exists and that it has been deadening the souls of white people for centuries. What I do know right now, however, is that there are three paradigm shifts that can spark our healing and recovery from whiteness.

  1. The shift from guilt to grief.
  2. The shift from following a formula to falling in love.
  3. The shift from individual striving to sharing in community.

I learned from my partner Lindsay and Dr. Lily Mendoza that grief, not guilt, is the feeling that can fuel spiritual transformation. Sorrow must replace shame. Whiteness has caused so much pain and suffering – in our bodies, across the street, around the world. Really, the only proper response is to wail. To be clear, I did not opt into whiteness. I did not even recognize whiteness until I was in my forties. I did not create the settler colonial and racist rules of America. I did not give institutions and individuals permission to penetrate my impressionable adolescent head and heart with Wasichu ways every waking hour of every waking day.

Now that I know what whiteness is and does, I have a spiritual obligation to break rank with Wasichu ways and heal so I can contribute to creating a world that is just, a world where everyone has access to basic needs. It is grief, not guilt, that opens the eyes of my heart to the pain and suffering. Guilt does not lead to repentance. The scriptures say that sorrow does. Grief softens the heart, which makes compassion possible. Grief promotes solidarity, which gives me the agency to get free from the supremacy stories by switching sides, what Jesus meant by “repentance.”

When our hearts open and we understand what whiteness does to us and to the rest of the world, we do not have to settle for Wasichu ways any longer. We have agency. We drop the defensive and passive postures. We are proactive. It is not about following a formula so we can fit in with friends and family. It is about falling in love with people who do not look like us, who have been stripped of social respectability and protection and material reward by whiteness for centuries.

Falling in love is not about what we are against, but who we are for. Love moves on what Audre Lorde called “the erotic,” an emotional, spiritual connection to the deepest parts of our lives – and to the deepest parts of other people too. I am talking about passion, presence, playfulness, awe, wonder, reverence, tenderness, vitality, open-heartedness and humility. Love thrives on active verbs like breaking rank and breathing with, not passive nouns like diversity, equity, inclusion, acceptance and tolerance.

We can get free from whiteness by participating in long-term confessional communities where transparency and accountability are placed on the pedestal. These are non-performative partnerships, triads and small groups that honor what Dr. King called the inescapable network of mutuality. Here, there is no hierarchy. Just two or more gathered, bound together by a ruthless desire to be released from the bonds of Wasichu, summoning the erotic up from our souls. Here, we do not have all the answers. We do not have our shit together. We do not need to earn each other’s acceptance or approval or validation. Vulnerability is the air we breathe. Intimacy is the meal we share.

*          *          *

Just think about this. White Americans have never gone through a great white awakening. As a result, the masses of white people simply do not have a clue about how race operates in American society. It seemed like the racial reckoning was finally going to happen after the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis on Memorial Day 2020. For a few weeks, it was a wake-up call. White people were woking. We wanted to hear from every non-white person we knew (or didn’t know). We bought books about anti-racism and white fragility. We posted hashtags and confessionals on social media.

But then, two things happened. First, sincere white people burned out because we were fueled by the guilt, the formulas and the individual fixes of whiteness – instead of grieving, falling in love and cultivating authentic community. Second, right-wing forces fought the racial reckoning with their well-funded anti-wokeness campaign – and multitudes of white people from across the political spectrum found great comfort in it. Instead of swimming upstream to confront supremacy, white liberals have bonded with conservative friends and family members to scapegoat those they call “the radical left.”

A couple weeks after George Floyd was murdered, Dr. James Perkinson gave a sermon at St. Peter’s Episcopal in Detroit. J-Perk proposed that white people get smaller and get bigger at the same time. Our healing is contingent on taking up less space on the planet and in society, on being quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to consume resources. But this is not enough. We must get bigger too. We must do the work to get emotionally and spiritually muscular without the grandiosity – so we can be people who have the capacity to break rank with the anti-woke white folk who will use violence to hijack the vote and elected bodies on behalf of “the real Americans” in the next couple of years.

Many of our white friends and family members will cave to the destructive will of the upcoming insurrection. Their social status will depend on their silence and acquiescence. Break ranking with supremacy and breathing with the other America require large doses of courage, but also nurture, tenderness, presence, passion, playfulness, awe, wonder, open-heartedness and humility. This is the opposite of Wasichu. This is the way of love and liberation. This is what life is all about. But we have to swim upstream to get it.

Tommy Airey is a post-Evangelical pastor and the author of Descending Like a Dove: Adventures in Decolonizing Evangelical Christianity (2018). He roasts his own coffee, roots for the Kansas Jayhawks and rests his head in Detroit, Michigan with his partner Lindsay where he is currently working on his second book Conspiracy: A Biblical Spirituality for Breaking Rank. Tommy consistently posts shorter pieces to his blog Easy Yolk.

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