Rethinking Poverty and Whiteness
What is “wealth?” Money you’ve accumulated over time, right? Well, not necessarily. Nikki Giovanni says that “black love is black wealth,” and this simple statement shines a light not only on how rich the black community is, but also on how fucked up white ideas around wealth and poverty really are.
As white folks, we often think of people of color as “impoverished” because as a group, they don’t have the generational economic wealth that we do. Of course, the reason for this is centuries of racism, genocide, and enslavement, but I’d also argue that the focus on economic wealth is a desperate move on behalf of white folks to cover our own poverty.
When we talk about the poverty of people of color, especially black folks, but also those of all colors in the “developing world,” we use pity as a mask to cover our own longing and poverty. I believe that we constantly need to reaffirm that we are “normal,” that we are on top of the pyramid, because we know in our heart of hearts that we are not–that in fact we are generators of disease, engaging in deeply perverse racist practices, and are as a culture so removed from any ancestral worth that we wouldn’t recognize it if it bit us in the face.
White people in 2017 are clearly wrestling with our community’s lack of connection and lack of love. One of the ways we grasp for some connection is through appropriating others’ spiritual traditions, since the only way we know how to acquire wealth is to steal it. Rather than behaving as spiritual seekers, acknowledging our own poverty and asking thoughtful questions as part of a spiritual journey, many of us instead act as entitled spiritual thieves, assuming that any wealth available–including spiritual practice–is ours for the taking. Closed religions and cultures are incomprehensible to us because we are a culture derived from thievery and smoothed over with the lie of entitlement. If we acknowledge how much we outright steal, then we will have to admit to how impoverished we truly are.
Since we’re not accustomed to this kind of acknowledgement of our own poverty, we hide behind calling ourselves wealthy. We use money as a barometer because it’s the one measure we can control. We act as if this system of measure is obvious or intuitive, but really it’s just a function of capitalism, the system we’ve come up with to exploit every other culture and paint ourselves as wealthy. We’re the wizard hiding behind the screen, the emperor who has no clothes.
As a first step, I think we need to admit our own poverty. We must admit that our spiritual theft and cultural appropriation, which we’ve framed so long as entitlement and something natural that we can simply do because we own the world, is in fact desperate immoral grasping for something true and meaningful from cultures or religions that are in fact rich, despite our attempts to poison and impoverish them. Once we’ve acknowledged this, and start from a position of awareness–of our poverty, of our immorality, of our disease–we can turn both to restorative action and to attempting to generate some kind of love and connection within our own communities, rather than stealing these practices from others. What would an authentic white love look like? What would authentic white connection look like? Honestly, I have no idea. It’s hard to think of groups of white people without thinking of the Klan, or fascism, or other horrors, but I don’t believe that we’re completely incapable of connecting with one another in positive, generative ways. What I do believe is that the longer we spend engaged in thievery, the further we get from any selves that knew how to forget these connections. Let’s break the cycle, find our own wealth, and make space for communities of color to heal from our influence and enjoy theirs.