|Killing Columbus, transforming whiteness|
Guardian National Correspondent
Published: Jun 23, 2012
In every society and culture, racism is born from a far-reaching past of anger, pain, and shame. In a world that considers itself ‘post-racial’, discussions about race in politics, media, pop culture and academia prove racism is still very much alive, and an unfathomable amount of work is needed to heal from its deeply embedded effects seen on universal and individual scales.
However racism doesn’t work on it’s own – it relies on ‘white privilege’ to continue to deny whole groups of people humanity. Yet the topic of such privilege remains under addressed, especially by those who identify as white and who share the power – and greater responsibility – to shift damaging perceptions.
But how do we begin this social change, especially in the cultural space of The Bahamas, where white identities make up a minority of the population yet a majority of social power, and where “white” as a racial identity proves to be deeply complex and even unaddressed in Caribbean identities?
For writer and social activist Helen Klonaris, this social change must especially occur in the minds of white-identifying creative thinkers who can use their stories to address the social realities and histories of white privilege to present solutions.
“I’m used to the kinds of comments where people wonder why I want to bring this up – the past is the past. I know I’ve spoken to white people here before about privilege and they’ve asked ‘what privilege?’” she said.
“I think it’s really high time we’ve had these kinds of conversations. I know this has been pointed out many times but when we as white people don’t hold each other accountable, racism goes unchecked. We are supposed to be having these conversations.”
This July, she will hold a series of weekend workshops under the theme “Re-Storying Whiteness: A Writing Workshop for Bahamians of European Descent Who Want to Heal Our Ancestral Legacies”.
Indeed, shame and guilt accompany white identities, the burden of sharing ancestry with those who initiated and perpetuated – and continue to perpetuate – racism. Though in the Caribbean specifically, whiteness is synonymous with power, it is also seen as inauthentic as a regional identity, leaving those Caribbean people of European decent never quite at home in any place.
In these workshops, Klonaris hopes to create a welcoming space where these complex experiences and identities can be given witness and voice and can help find a new healing reality through the imaginations of Bahamian writers.
“The class is open to people defining for themselves what being of European descent means – how they are influenced by whiteness – and if they decide that this is a conversation they need to have, then they should come to this workshop,” she said. “I want to bring a lot of compassion to this space because it’s really vulnerable to reflect on what nobody wants to talk about.”
For Klonaris, the workshop is something that she’s desired to host for years, incited by her own experiences as a white Greek Bahamian in The Bahamas. Paradoxical and confusing, these experiences contributed to her understanding of race and power in her community, and her desire to accept and challenge them in her own writing led her to offer a workshop to help other Bahamians with European descent to work through similar issues.
“Ever since a fellow writer said whites need to ‘kill the Columbus of whiteness’, I was on this journey to write this story of killing Columbus,” she said.
“I was trying to write it but I realized after a while that I couldn’t kill the Columbus of my whiteness because I did not want to annihilate myself, and that what I really wanted was to transform the Columbus of my whiteness.”
“I wanted to transform it so that I could love this Greek-Bahamian-European self. I want to love her; I don’t want to demonize whiteness and I don’t want to demonize my inheritance,” she continued. “I want to find what is strong about it and I want to return to it what has been split off in order to become ‘white’ – the opposite of what they had assigned to ‘others’ which caused that split from a complete human identity, complete humanity.”
The workshop is the first in what she hopes will become a storytelling program dedicated to inspiring radical social change, called The Gaulin Project. The Bahamian folktale of the half-woman, half-bird has inspired this writer for decades, being the inspiration behind some of her own stories, and the namesake of similar writing projects such as her blog and literary magazine.
The reason, she explains, is because the gaulin wife is a liminal archetype – a hovering between two extremes, two certainties – that, like imagination, provides space for new realities to emerge. It is this space where radical social change begins.
“Confusion creates that space of not quite knowing and the desire for understanding and so can cause new perspectives to emerge,” she pointed out. “I want these workshops to be like that – a place of being not sure and where we can talk about what we learned growing up and the assumptions that we held as a result of how we were raised, assumptions we might not even be aware that we hold – assumptions of ourselves as white people, of others who are not white, of even our living spaces.”
In that vein, the workshops this summer can also help bring forth new stories of white identities in the Caribbean region, stories that shrug off the stereotype of the colonial white lens and usher in an era of three-dimensional white-identifying Caribbean protagonists who are aware of the privileges and complexities of their identity in the contemporary Caribbean reality.
“We don’t have many white Bahamians writing novels and that’s huge,” said Klonaris. “We have to be in dialogue with one another about how we are narrating whiteness and the unconscious stories that get played out in our work.”
“And that’s how I came to this – I became concerned about my work and my stories. What was I duplicating? What was I replicating? What were the unconscious ways of seeing that were going to show up in my work?” she added.
“I think it’s very important for us to give voice to white privilege, to be honest in a self-critical way – not to demonize but to really examine and deconstruct and give honest testimony and then say ‘Then what? How are we going to complicate this position and rewrite it? How are we going to talk back to it?’”
The summer workshops are only the beginning – Klonaris plans to launch a similar series of storytelling exercises in Oakland, California, where she lives and works, in September. This shifts the exercise from a Caribbean cultural space to more of a global context, but the aim remains the same: to heal racism in ourselves and in the world through witness, old stories that no longer serve us and transform them into stories that do.
“Stories are powerful; they set up a way for us to see and be in the world,” she said. “So if we don’t do the work of examining them and taking responsibility for them and deciding whether we’re going to agree with them or not agree with them and set out to do the work of transforming them, then we just go out into the world unconscious and replicating what’s already been happening.”
“And it’s too dangerous to do that – the imbalance in the world that has been caused because of racism has hurt us as human beings and as a planet so deeply that it’s not just about our personal relationships, it’s about what we’re doing to the world and about what we can be responsible about healing,” she added. “I don’t think we can have the luxury of not paying attention because there is just too much at stake.”
“Re-Storying Whiteness: A Writing Workshop for Bahamians of European Descent Who Want to Heal Our Ancestral Legacies” will take place as three consecutive weekend workshops this July for $100. For more information or to register, write to firstname.lastname@example.org.