Whiteness: A Matter of Degree

This weekend, I attended an incredible arts and social justice youth summit in Seattle called Amplify: Tell Your Story, Transform Your World put on by The Art Affect.  As part of the weekend, we were each challenged to create a piece of art reflecting the work we had been struggling with throughout the weekend.  I personally was doing a lot of Whiteness and White Privilege reflection this weekend, so I created the following poem.  It is my response to the oh-so-common statement by White people that “my family never owned slaves, so how am I responsible for all this stuff?”

 

“A Matter of Degree”

My Grandfather taught me a great many things.
Like the peace only found in casting a line
And how very young an old man can be.
He also taught me how to fear.

When I was probably 4 years old,
My Grandfather demonstrated
In no uncertain terms
That I am White.

So now, if you were to take your sharpest blade
And flay my fair skin
From chin to pelvis
The way that my Grandfather taught me to flay a deer
And if you were to turn that skin inside out,
Once you sorted through the blood
And sinewy pink,
You’d find a history.

My people never owned a slave,
But we still came like a lynching,
Blood on our breath,
Greed caked into our finger nails.
Into my skin is written this story,
A story as old as the hills of West Virginia.

My people were not at Sand Creek,
But we still came like a genocide,
Blood on our breath,
Greed caked into our fingernails.
Into my skin is written this story,
A story as old as the Black Hills.

My people were not at My Lai,
But we still came like Napalm,
Blood on our breath,
Greed caked into our fingernails.
Into my skin is written this story,
A story as old as the Mekong Delta.

We came, and we came, and we came . . .

This story is as vital
As the air I breathe,
At once apart from me
And a part of me.

And I must force myself to breathe in that story,
Hold it in my lungs,
Fight through the burning,
And Recognize . . .

Recognize . . .

Recognize that that which I have
Is only mine in as much
As it was build on the backs and unmarked graves
of Black, Red, Yellow, and Brown.

So while my people
Never bought another human being,
We still bought our way
Into a system called Whiteness.
And the difference
Is only a matter of degree.