Kennel-Shank: Misplaced superiority

May 21, 2018 by

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I felt a surge of pride to be Mennonite while reading Ibram X. Kendi’s Stamped from the Beginning, a history of U.S. racist and antiracist ideas.

Celeste Kennel-Shank

Kennel-Shank

He described the 1688 Germantown Petition Against Slavery as “the inaugural antiracist tract among European settlers in colonial America.” In Kendi’s analysis, these recently arrived Mennonite immigrants connected oppression because of skin color to the persecution they endured because of their religion.

“Mennonites did not intend to leave behind one site of oppression to build another in America. Mennonites therefore circulated an antislavery petition on April 18, 1688,” he wrote. “Human hierarchies of any kind, they understood, would do little more than oppress all of humanity.”

I recalled the day we talked about the petition in my high school U.S. history class in Washington, D.C., which was predominantly black, including our teacher. Our material described it as part of Quaker abolitionist efforts in Pennsylvania. (There is some dispute as to whether the signers were Mennonite, Quaker, or some of each.) I proudly informed my classmates that Mennonites were involved. My ancestors were on the right side at that time, I told them, perhaps a little arrogantly.

In the past I have felt a sense of righteousness about my family’s history in relation to American history around race and racism. I’m still proud of some of the ways my Mennonite ancestors stood up for what is right. But I also recognize I can’t simply set them — and myself — apart from the larger history.

Reading Debby Irving’s Waking Up White and Finding Myself in the Story of Race, I appreciated what an excellent primer it is on terms such as “redlining” and “white privilege.” She illuminates how her family history intersects and aligns with key parts of U.S. history in which white people were given advantage over people of color.

At points in the book I thought about the differences in my family’s history. I tell myself that it matters that we’re of Swiss-German ethnicity, not New England White Anglo-Saxon Protestants like Irving’s family. Or take the GI Bill. Many white families received education and mortgage help, while most black families were excluded. I’m not in that story. My grandfathers were conscientious objectors.

But it’s that kind of thinking Shannon Sullivan addresses in Good White People. She writes about common problems with how white middle-class people approach fighting racism. One tactic is distancing themselves from other white people, whether previous generations who participated in abominable acts or contemporary white people we see as being the racist ones.

Either way, this distancing preserves “one’s own sense of moral righteousness.” Sullivan advocates instead a kind of responsibility that does not blame all white people for the actions of some but does hold all of us to account for being capable of those kinds of actions.

As she puts it: “Whiteness is compulsory for white people; it is not a club that they can simply leave. . . . A white person instead should acknowledge the network or relations with white people in which she is bound and for which she is responsible. And being responsible for them means confronting how you are implicated in their behavior as white people, as well as how you are responsible to them for your own behavior.”

Sullivan helps me recognize the need to confront how other white people’s behavior has shaped me. When I do that self-examination, I can better live up to the legacy of rejecting “human hierarchies of any kind” and build up all people in our common humanity.

Celeste Kennel-Shank, a former MWR assistant editor, is an editor and community gardener in Chicago.


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