The Courage to Show Up: A Response from Kate Ellis

Can We Talk?

I was with you in the pews of Riverside Church on January 25th listening to the amazing presentations by Brené Brown and DeRay Mckesson.  I came to hear Brené, whose books I have read and treasured.  But it was a comment by DeRay that I took with me out of the church and keep coming back to.  He said, “White skin privilege is an issue surrounded by an invisible wall of silence because taking about it makes white people too uncomfortable.”  Really?  I came up against this issue once I realized why my marriage to a Nigerian man from the tiny village of Osi had come apart and could never really have worked.  What I came to see was the troubled waters that separated my affluent Canadian upbringing from his subsistence world could simply not be bridged by the fragile institution of marriage.  It was in the course of writing about this marriage that I came to see that white skin privilege was the invisible background against which this relationship came into being, continued amid considerable deception on both sides, and finally died. Of course this realization was more than just uncomfortable.  It was actually painful.  But this is why breaking down that wall of silence is now a matter of urgency for me, especially now that we are living under a president who has said that Nigerians should go back to their huts.

Why does talking about white skin privilege make white people so uncomfortable?  It seems to me that the sheer vastness of what those three words refer to is enough to send anyone who thinks about it diving under the covers.  In the later fifteenth century, two successive popes issued decrees that allowed Portugal and Spain to conquer any “uncivilized” peoples that they found on their journeys in order to convert them to Christianity, enslaving them, if necessary, to accomplish this noble task.  David Livingston (of “Dr. Livingstone, I presume” fame) and Cecil Rhodes (who continues to fund Rhodes scholars) saw Britons as “the first race in the world,” and so made colonialism a similarly righteous cause.  The weight of all this history makes talking about white skin privilege more than just uncomfortable.  And when the Washington Post cites a recent report that, in the areas of homeownership, unemployment, and incarceration, African-Americans are no better off than they were before the Civil Rights Movement, I have to ask: how can the moral arc of history move toward justice as long as this centuries-old mode of thinking remains in place?  Can the wall of silence surrounding white skin privilege be brought down, and if so, how?  Let’s talk.

Kate Ellis is the Associate Professor of English at Rutgers University and is the author of numerous publications including her 2001 memoir, Crossing Borders.

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