Monday, July 21, 2008

How I Became White by Maureen Purtill

Critical Planning and White Supremacy: A personal look at my political project

Maureen Gaddis Purtill
19 March 2007

Critical Theory
Prof. Peter McLaren

Critical Planning and White Supremacy: A personal look at my political project

I am dedicated to understanding, deconstructing and overthrowing systems of white supremacy and the new imperialism. For years I have engaged in various processes and with communities of resistance where I have begun to challenge notions of white patriarchal power in the world and in myself. However, it is only recently that I have begun to learn about the theory behind this transformative work. As a newcomer to critical race studies; anti-colonial education and critical theory; I want to take this opportunity to ground future work that I will do as an Urban Planner in my experience as an anti-racist white woman.
When I say ground myself in my experience, I mean to say that I hope to use this paper as a space where I can get personal; where I can challenge myself to think about how the readings and discussions we have worked with do and may inform my personal transformation and the evolution of my political projects against domination within the field of Urban Planning and ultimately in the world. This may not result in a traditionally “academic” paper, but it is my hope that it will lay the foundation for me to do meaningful work within academia and outside of it in the future.
I believe that engaging in anti-white-supremacist work, as a white woman, will be a lifelong task and struggle. Without beginning that journey from an honest look at my own privilege, I fear I will not get very far. With that said, my goal here is to engage deeply into a number of texts that name, undermine and challenge white supremacy and the new imperialism; ground my discussion in my lived realities, fears, and struggles as a white woman attempting to challenge power and privilege in myself and the world; and hopefully offer some insights into how conscious urban planners may benefit from this internal critique as we engage in community struggles for social justice.
I am specifically looking at two texts that we have discussed in our Critical Theories course, but will draw on a number of other important works in the field of critical pedagogy and critical planning to frame my discussion as well. The first book is What White Looks Like: African-American philosophers on the whiteness question, edited by George Yancy Jr. The second is entitled: Anti-Colonialism and Education: The Politics of Resistance, edited by George J. Sefa Dei and Arlo Kempf. I have specifically chosen these two books because together they provide both a discussion and critique of whiteness and white supremacy; AND they provide the link between challenging white supremacy and transformative educational processes.
Urban Planning, in my view, is a field in which there exists great potential for community educational processes leading toward social change. It is the responsibility of the conscious planner to submit herself to the voices, power, and decisions of the community. Through dialogical educational processes planners and communities can learn and teach together in order to understand oppressive infrastructures in society, as well as the tools with which to deconstruct those forces. It is within this essential collaboration between planning and education that I situate myself with my community. As a critical planner-educator-community member, I hope to ground my work in the philosophies of revolutionary educators such as Paulo Freire and bell hooks – who argue for pedagogies of love, humanism, and transgression.
What White Looks Like helps me to see myself, my privilege, my fears, and my greatest challenges; where Anti-Colonialism and Education informs my work as a planner-educator-community member. I have heard again and again that change starts from within, that the personal is political, and that if white supremacy is to be defeated, then white folks need to step up and acknowledge our privilege to show the injustice and hypocrisy that it inherently perpetuates in our society. Here is my humble attempt to answer that call.
In his introduction, George Yancy claims that white folks who fail to locate our center of our power as whites perpetuate the “invisible center of whiteness (2004:4)” that continues to exert power over non-whites. Meaning, if we are able to declare ourselves as “good whites” instead of “bad whites” then we claim to disassociate ourselves from not only racism, but the inherent privileges associated with our whiteness. Ignoring this privilege ignores the historical processes which have served to include some as white, while excluding others depending on the power dynamics and given historical contexts. When the Irish first came to the United States, they were not considered white, but today one would be hard-pressed to find a descendent of Irish immigrants who did not benefit entirely from white privilege and white supremacy. As Yancy says, “whiteness is a form of inheritance and like any inheritance one need not accept it (2004:8).” Perhaps one way we can begin to not accept it is to understand how whiteness itself has been constructed. It is not naturally true that one group of people is superior to another, we have created that reality. For me to reject my inherited privilege, I feel it is important to look at the ways it was given to me in the first place. I do this first of all to call out the insanity and invalidity of whiteness, and second, to begin my discussion from the most personal and intimate place that I can: with the stories and histories of my ancestors.
How I Became White:
There are two major examples in my family history that I can draw from in explaining the roots of my whiteness. The first comes from my two grandfathers, maternal and fraternal, who were both children of Irish immigrants. The second is from what I consider to be the story of the women in my family, which dates back to the early 1800’s when California was México, and my great-great-great-great-grandmother was born in Baja California del Norte. My only hope is that my family forgives me for the unavoidable inaccuracies of my story. I write only from what I remember, and I am certain that dates and names will not be completely perfect. But what I consider to be most important, is the ways in which my ancestors were racialized, shamed, assimilated and privileged over time because of both how they were seen by others, and how they strategically chose to identify themselves as white when the context allowed.
In the early 1900’s my great-grandfathers on both sides of the family fled Ireland as a result of the violence raging there between the Protestants and Catholics. One came from the North, the other from the South. During this time, Irish immigrants in New York made up a significant portion of the working class, and were not yet considered white. Their subordinated class position, along with their racialization as non-white made it challenging for Irish immigrants upon arrival. My grandfather James Gaddis tells the story that when his father arrived in Ellis Island he was already aware of the discrimination that he would face because of his “race”. He chose strategically to change the family name that day from Geddes to Gaddis because he wanted to somehow shed the stigma associated with Irish surnames and Irish people and be considered fully human – or white.
María Ignacio López de Carrillo, mother of nine children, was born in the early 1800’s in Northern México. What I know about her I owe to mother, as well as to my maternal great-grandmother Eleanora Marguerite de Carrillo de Haney (grandma Ellie), who decided to write a book about her family’s history. As the story goes, María’s husband died when they were living in Baja so she traveled with her nine children north to settle and found what is known today as the city of Santa Rosa in the 1840’s. She was given massive land grants from her son-in-law, General Vallejo, and exploited the labor of about “a thousand Indians” in the construction of the Carrillo Adobe de Santa Rosa. California at that time was a state of México, and the Carrillo’s were some of the most powerful land owners in the north bay region. Grandma Ellie’s book tells stories of the elaborate parties they would have, and decorations with which they would adorn their horses. It then explains what it was like as the Americans came and eventually took their land, power, and stigmatized their culture and language.
This time in my family’s history is especially interesting considering the question of whiteness. Before the invasion of México, the Califórnios were the dominant group, exploiting indigenous peoples in massive proportions. They identified with their Spanish heritage and subsequent whiteness, as opposed to their Mexican national identity. They were white and powerful. When the Americans came and undermined that power they were racialized as non-white, subordinated, and powerless. It is told that in the building where María’s son once served as Mayor, he ended his life there as an alcoholic janitor. I am not sure if that is entirely accurate, but the sentiment shows the transformation and racialization that my family experienced with the shift in power dynamics. We lost our language in that process, and my grandmother today still identifies our family as descendent from Spain, even though we are at least eight generations removed from the first Spanish immigrant to México, and at least three generations of our family were born and lived their lives in México before it’s northern half was stolen by the United States.
Whiteness, and the privilege that is constructed and thus inherited because of it, is powerful and destructive. I do not wish to undermine the importance of the discussion of how whiteness hurts those who are considered to be non-white today, but I do want to acknowledge that the process of becoming white is not only a process of acquisition, but also one of loss. My name is Maureen Gaddis Purtill, not Maureen Geddes Purtill. I have been taught to identify as Spanish, not Mexican. Those differences do not make me experience racism on a day to day basis, but they are representative of shame, fear, and self-negation that my ancestors experienced. The privileges that it has afforded me have taken me farther and farther away from the realities of how painful that must have been for them – and thus how painful it is for people who are racialized today. It may then become more difficult for me to relate to someone who is not-white. It may also become easier for me to separate myself from my whiteness and what it means: settle into being a “good white”, and allow the invisible center of whiteness that I benefit from to continue un-checked.
As I mentioned, What White Looks Like is a good place of departure for me to look at my underlying challenges in dealing with my whiteness in my work as a critical planner today. After reading the book I came up with a list of questions that it provoked for me that I feel are helpful in trying to ground myself in the reality of this struggle:
• What can I do to deconstruct white privilege knowing that I have inherited it, visibly carry it, and may perpetuate it in many ways known and unknown to me?
• What insights into my whiteness do Black philosophers have that I may not be capable of seeing because of my positionality?
• At what moments in reading the book do I feel defensive? I ask this because I feel that those are the places where I need to look deeper at my investment and therefore my stake in the system of white privilege / white supremacy.
• Considering the first question, what are the authors’ suggestions for me? What are things that are out of my control? What are my limits in combating white supremacy?
• Looking at my experience as white: What has felt fake/ false about whiteness to me? Historically and through my personal story, how do I see these processes playing out in my family and the creation, perpetuation, and investment in our whiteness?
• What are white people lacking / overcompensating for in our humanity such that we mistakenly strive to deny that of others to make up for what we are missing within ourselves? Is that perhaps a place from which to start for me? Healing the parts of myself that have been hurt by white supremacy / denial of diverse cultural contributions and experiences of my ancestors in the socio-historical process of the creation of my whiteness?

Reading over my questions now is especially interesting after considering my family’s experience of becoming white. We may perpetuate our privilege because we didn’t always have it. Whether conscious or not, we know that we have something that others want, that others are denied, and that makes us feels superior and entitled to that superiority. In the United States, we are taught to be individualistic, to win, and to be “better” than the other. Along with that, the privilege afforded to me because of my skin has been re-framed as having been a result of “hard work” - not race. We have created ideological justifications for our comfort – which is manifest in our social and economic wealth.

Radical Planning:
As planners, and specifically as planners with white privilege, it is imperative that we challenge the ideological blinders that inform our acceptance of racial superiority. For those of us who work in multi-cultural settings, and are dedicated to racial and all forms of justice, it is hypocritical to our cause if we are not real about how we are in the positions we are in to begin with.
In her book Community Development: A Critical Approach, Margart Ledwith calls on radical planners to engage with communities in struggles for social justice. Drawing on theories of critical praxis, community empowerment, concientização, feminism, and other critical approaches, she bases her work on five major points:
• Radical community development is committed to collective action for social and environmental justice
• This begins in a process of empowerment through critical consciousness, and grows through participation in local issues
• A critical approach calls for analysis of power and discrimination in society
• The analysis needs to be understood in relation to dominant ideas and the wider political context
• Collective action, based on this analysis, focuses on the root causes of discrimination rather that the symptoms (2005)

Her call for a critical approach that includes an analysis of underlying power dynamics would not be complete without a personalized and politicized discussion of whiteness, white privilege, and white supremacy.

Challenging White Supremacy:
Looking critically at my privilege is only the beginning of a life-long process of challenging white supremacy and the new imperialism. Those of us who are dedicated to this work are often frustrated because we want a simple answer to the question: “But what can I do about it!?” The reality is that there are certain things we can not change. We can not erase what we have inherited from our families in terms of class and skin privilege. We can, however, begin to look at the underlying structures and historical contexts that have placed us where we are in history.
I do not claim that understanding my privilege alone will end it – nor that it would be easy to shed it if I could. My whiteness is something that I have not only inherited, but also something I have perpetuated. I have stake in my whiteness. My education, my health, my opportunities are all intricately connected to the way my “race” is privileged over others. I operate in a world that ideologically values whiteness. That structure needs to be dismantled. It is my hope that my personal work to name the absurdity of whiteness will contribute to its destruction as a concept of superiority – and that the communities in which I work will welcome me into a collaborative process of re-humanization to create a society that is more just for all of us.

…hasta la victoria siempre


Dei, George J. Sefa and Arlo Kempf eds. (2006) Anti-Colonialism and Education: The Politics of Resistance. The Netherlands: Sense Publishers

Freire, Paulo. (1998) Pedagogy of Freedom: Ethics, Democracy, and Civic Courage. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers Inc.

Freire, Paulo. (1990) Pedagogy of the Oppressed. New York: Continuum

Freire, Paulo. (1998) Politics and Education. Los Angeles: UCLA Latin American Center

hooks, bell. (2003) Teaching Community: A Pedagogy of Hope. New York: Routledge

Ledwith, Margaret (2005) Community Development: A critical approach. UK: The Policy Press

Yancy, George (2004). ed. What White Looks Like: African-American Philosophers on the Whiteness Question. New York: Routledge Press.