The Untold

Excerpt from Mindful of Race: Transforming Racism from the Inside Out, by Ruth King

Dear White People:

You must teach your children about racism, not from a distance, but from your own wise heart. Imagine telling your children (regardless of age) some version of the following story with such regularity that they remember and tell their children. And don’t just tell them this story, notice how such truth telling impacts you and your actions, then talk about that too:

My child, I’d like to tell you, from my lips, the truth about our racial history — about whiteness and about being a member of the white tribe. Years ago, our ancestors did a horrific deed against the human race. They owned black people as slaves and treated them with utter disrespect. Beatings, rape, torture, lynching, ongoing terror; we sold their children to the highest bidders and owned them as chattel. And we relied on them to grow our food and take care of our children — your ancestors. Yes, our people did this — white people. Not only did we do this to blacks; we also did hateful things to people who we felt were substandard, like Indigenous Indians, Mexicans, Jews, Japanese, Chinese, and poorer people than we were.

It’s true that the greatness of this country, to a large extent, is due to the slave labor of blacks, and we owe them a huge debt. We have, as a white race, disenfranchised them and systematically organized to keep them from participating in and benefiting from the wealthiest country in the world. Our success, however big or small, and the many privileges we enjoy as a family are rooted in this stained and denied history. Even to this day, our people benefit from the institutional practices that intentionally and systematically oppress black and other dark bodies. Many poor white people feel that they are better than black people — even better than the first black president of the United States.

Being ashamed about this is not as helpful as understanding that we have a lot of work to do to begin to respect blacks and dark lives, to release and share the wealth and privileges we have for all they have given to us as white people.

Blacks and other POC are rightfully angry toward us because of the centuries of hatred and disrespect we have shown them. We have continued as a collective to build prisons to hide and erase them, instead of facing the years of hatred toward them and shame toward ourselves that have resulted in destroyed hearts, minds, and communities. Most important, we have died inside as a result of making hatred normal as a white race. We have become numb, dismembered, crude, and unloving toward our own race, because we cannot access the depth of love as a collective with such a stained and unfinished and unhealed history of disrespect and hatred toward others, especially black people.

What this means to you and me is that we must wake up to this history and own that we walk with great ease in this country on their still sore backs — backs we whipped into submission. What we witness today in the black collective expression is the result of generations of blacks who have witnessed their parents and grandparents killed, lynched, raped by our men, and hated and disrespected by us. They were helpless against it — we made sure of that.

You need to understand, my child, that while we have other fears, we tend to walk without racial fear, and they don’t. This world is not safe for them and other people like them — dark people — and it is because of our history, our whiteness; our supremacy. To this day we have better schools and access, and we still are the central race in all aspects of respectable society, work, and leadership. Black communities are largely poor, and their schools are disenfranchised because we have kept them at a disadvantage. Many blacks are considered criminals, even though they are not doing anything more than we do in our communities. Yet they are imprisoned and used again as slave labor.

Many whites want to maintain white supremacy, and there continues to be white nationalist rallies and terror attacks on other races near and far, currently emboldened by senior members of the White House.

We have done horrible things as a white race, unspeakable things, yet we have not spoken or been honest with each other or ourselves as a white race. While you and I may not have done these things personally, this is our history and our inheritance.

Our challenge is to do everything humanly possible to recognize and interrupt any act of disrespect and unearned privilege and to use our voices, our bodies, and our hearts to make this wrong right. We need this in order to be free. This does not mean kissing up to blacks or anyone else, although it may seem that way. Rather it means a willingness to face into the pain they carry because we’ve been so cavalier, numb, and blind to the role we have played in the past and present horrors of their lives.

Our job now and for a long time is to own up to it, apologize, and recognize that their expressed pain is not directed to you or me as an individual but to us as a white race and as the institutional power that continues to oppress them, often through our ignorance, greed, comfort, righteousness, and indifference.

I tell you this because you may well receive much disdain from black people. When they see you, they are also seeing our unclaimed and terrorizing history; they see you as someone who, like our forefathers, hated them, and they see our ignorance, the way we casually delight in a disowned and forgotten history — a history where we considered them as less than human, as possessions, as chattel. This history wasn’t that long ago. They are and should be hurt and angry by our utter neglect and generational hatred.

There is much to be done. There is no time for guilt and shame. We must forgive ourselves and correct this wrong. We must become advocates for all of humanity, especially black and dark-skinned bodies. Enough said for now, but we will speak of this again and again and again.

As a white person, what comes up for you as you consider telling your child — or any white person — such a story? If you are feeling uneasy or queasy or have an aversion to verbalizing such a story, you might ask yourself why. What beliefs or emotions get in the way? If “The Untold” feels too far-fetched, what message or stories feel closer to you? Consider personalizing a story that reflects the truth of your individual experience as a racial being acknowledging your membership in whiteness.

When you, as a white person, collude in silence, sameness, and blindness of the truth of racial harm and injustice, you maintain privilege by avoiding the intense heat and creative chaos that is required to compost racial avoidance into racial awareness, honesty, and accountability. Not being willing to speak openly about racial truths, in your own words, is one way white supremacy is upheld and privilege is maintained. With such collusion, Black, Indigenous, and People of Color must carry the wait of pointing out the obvious and the unspoken to you, while also being the target of blame. This cumulative and repetitive motion injury is a reflection of an imbalance in racial responsibility, and contributes to chronic fatigue, rage, and reactivity in BIPOC.

White people, you can begin to break this cycle by talking to loved ones about whiteness, white supremacy, and your racial history. Come out of hiding. Share the weight of injustice. Dare to live full bodied and intimately membered in humanity.

© All rights reserved.

27 thoughts on “The Untold”

  1. So grateful for this guidance from a wise, elder teacher. Much love and strength to you, Ruth. May we right this systemic wrong.

    1. Allen Desmond

      Sadly, the essence of what Ms King says is true. Unspeakable horrors have been visited upon blacks in this country from the time slavery was introduced here in 1619, and continuing through today in spite of the many legislative and attitudinal changes that have been made beginning with abolition and continuing through the Covil Rights era through today. My only beef with the piece is that some significant nuance is left out by failing to distinguish between vastly differing levels of white culpability. Not all whites who have lived in this country from 1619 to the present day can be lumped together as either perpetrators or as beneficiaries of slavery and white supremacy ideology. The fact is that many whites never owned slaves; many were active abolitionists, some giving their lives for the abolition cause e. g. John Brown; many others gave their lives for the cause fighting in the civil war (over 400,000 deaths on the Union side); many resisted and fought against segregation and Jim Crow laws; many fought in the Civil Rights Movement; and many, many more continue the fight today. And further, not all white people benefit equally from slavery and discrimination. The main beneficiaries have been slaveowners and then wealthy and powerful industrialists who have fostered racial animus and division in order to keeping the working class (both blacks and whites) focused on hating each other instead of joining together and fighting for economic justice against their common foe. While I applaud the overall message in this piece—that blacks have suffered horrendously in many, many ways and that whites must do a lot to help right those wrongs (including paying reparations, which Ms King does not specifically mention but which I wholeheartedly support in the form of massive public and private investments in predominantly black communities)- I am concerned that the failure to distinguish between the widely differing levels of white complicity will leave many white readers focusing on that omission alone, rather than the more important question of what specifically they need to do to right the historical wrongs, make necessary changes in our current society, especially in criminal justice.

  2. Thank you, Ruth, for this exquisite and powerful call to come into right relationship. We as white people must come to terms with all that we have wrought upon black, indigenous, and people of color around the world in all of the acute (e.g., state-sponsored executions) and chronic (e.g., environmental racism) forms. Our ancestors established the frame of objectification, use and abuse, and we who are alive today, through our action and in-action, fill that frame with daily horrors. Our self-shame, fear of anger and even hatred of our own is just more of the same, a way to avoid this full catastrophe.

    One story from my own history: In the early 2000’s, I recall coming upon a older black woman, large and clothes torn, while walking down a street near my home in DC. In that encounter I could feel the vast divide between us: all the ease and comfort in mind and body that I had that she did not. But with this sense of the distance, pity and subtle judgment was also in my mind. To no small degree, I blamed her for her circumstances and implicitly believed that I couldn’t possibly find myself in her shoes. Only vaguely conscious of the content of my regard, I caught her eye. While she said nothing, to her credit, she did not waver. I remember feeling confused as her gaze cracked the armor around my heart that I didn’t know was there.

    That was only a moment and no immediate breakthrough ensued. Years later while participating in a process to examine and unroot internalized white supremacy, the memory of her steady eyes returned to me repeatedly as a reference point for my own ignorance and subtle aggression. I noticed too that as I came across such strangers amid this reeducation, my internal response was in motion. What was characterized by subtle judgement became disorientation, then shame and eventually deep respect, even gratitude, as if to say, “I don’t know you and yet through this clouded vision, I hope to see you. I am only beginning to understand the myriad of challenges you might face and have no idea, really, how you survive. But I’m grateful that you have, despite how I have made, and continue to make, that survival harder.” As I explore what it means to pay down this debt, I think hard on all that I owe to that first unknown stranger and the generous teaching she offered.

    So I’m grateful to her and to you Ruth. Your voice walks us through that thin line of recognition without reduction, of potential, without false hope or pandering. May we dig deep in our own practice to support ourselves and one another in getting our story straight and then collaborating in righting so much that is wrong. May we discover that this is crucial to our own integrity, essential to the health of our hearts, and, indeed, the only way home.

    With a deep bow,

  3. Kathy l Woodliff

    What a powerful letter to read and reread over and over until it is told over and over to each and everyone of us-young and old.

    Thank you for your guidance and beautiful heart that knows what it takes to heal and just what needs to be said. In absorbing this message in our bones, may we come to a place of deep understanding, forgiveness and action to right the wrongs that have been committed.

  4. So the thing is, right, it’s so very sad – angering, horrifying. Every last thing all of it – all of it.

    But the starting narrative – that “we white people all had ancestors who owned black people as slaves” – this is incorrect.

    And it doesn’t explain any single individual’s behavior or any organization’s behaviors.

    We can’t start from there – we can’t start from a false narrative.

    My Mother was a child during WWII and she was taken as a slave at different times to do different work.

    And she wasn’t Jewish. She was Lithuanian and her family was Lutheran.

    I am as white as white can be. But my now grown children have golden brown skin.

    They went to public school part of the time where they were told all white people’s ancestors owned slaves.

    They were rightly confused. And then angry. Angry at their grandmother who had actually been a slave in the 20th century. Angry at their grandfather who was the first in that side to be born here and angry at my great grandfather who had been a peasant in Europe and killed for the crime of owning a farm.

    I know this is not the main idea of the essay – but it’s the starting narrative. So, if we begin with the end in mind, where does this false start take us?

    And if we want to have conversations about these difficult horrific and important things, we have to agree on a starting place.

    I know it’s a risk to post this here. It’s an unpopular opinion and it can be perceived in different ways.

    I am listening.
    I am seeing.
    I am feeling.
    I am crying.
    I am worried.
    And yes I am worried for my own sons who are brown skinned men.
    I am not you and I don’t pretend to feel what you feel.

    I think we need dialogue if we want to experience change.

    1. Respectfully, it is an accurate narrative of the “white tribe.” Ruth King is speaking about the group– the “white tribe,” not individuals. Our direct ancestors may or may not have “owned slaves” and yet white people as a group, to this very day, still benefit from the legacy of enslavement. We can live in the world and walk the streets without racial fear, as Ruth says. We’ve seen this reflected in all kinds of data from health status, outcomes, & wellbeing, to home ownership, education, income, as well as police brutality and incarceration rates. The source of racism is within the white tribe, and its members, me included need to act to undo it.

      1. Plus, Ruth suggests we customize it. Personalize it. That can be for the first part too, as long as there’s no subconscious denial built in. The real story is going to take a lot of soul searching, and probably repeated visits.

      2. Caroline Jones

        thank you, Ruth and to those who have replied, as well, for these helpful pointings which are useful in gaining focus, in beginning to distill what cannot really be seen nor met as a whole. For me, facing this enormous situation begins with assistance for clear seeing and can ultimately happen only through details. Thank you for providing understandable morsels to this big hunger to begin to face racism, the history of which can never be corrected or repaired…but we can begin to address what is current, what is here now, recognizing in ourselves that so much is subconscious as we receive this useful input.
        Thank you

    2. Thank you for writing this here, Ida. My grandparents and great grandparents were poor and abused and exploited by rich people. All white, all from the same nation (Holland) and even same religion. The story is never black and white, always many, many shades of gray. This is not an excuse not to talk about the enslavement of black people by white people. But please, leave room for all the complicated and nuanced elements of history.

    3. Hi Ida, I just wanted to offer a couple of resources available to learn more about the origin of whiteness and how immigrants became “white”. Isabel Wilkerson’s newest book “Caste” does a great job of walking us through the history of race, racism, and caste systems.

      Another option is “Working Toward Whiteness: How America’s Immigrants Became White: The Strange Journey from Ellis Island to the Suburbs” by David R. Roediger

      I’ve provided a summary below:

      “How did immigrants to the United States come to see themselves as white?
      David R. Roediger has been in the vanguard of the study of race and labor in American history for decades. He first came to prominence as the author of The Wages of Whiteness, a classic study of racism in the development of a white working class in nineteenth-century America. In Working Toward Whiteness, Roediger continues that history into the twentieth century. He recounts how ethnic groups considered white today-including Jewish-, Italian-, and Polish-Americans-were once viewed as undesirables by the WASP establishment in the United States. They eventually became part of white America, through the nascent labor movement, New Deal reforms, and a rise in home-buying. Once assimilated as fully white, many of them adopted the racism of those whites who formerly looked down on them as inferior. From ethnic slurs to racially restrictive covenants-the real estate agreements that ensured all-white neighborhoods-Roediger explores the mechanisms by which immigrants came to enjoy the privileges of being white in America.”

  5. Oh beautiful friend, you have put this in words like no one else could. So much love and deep respect- Tracey

  6. Perfect. Healing begins when abscesses are opened and drained, not left to swell and burrow further into the tissue. sent me the handwritten receipts for an uncle of ours. His purchase? Four negroes. Ages 3, 4, 7 and 11. Later, my cousin’s son was arrogantly describing his planned take-down of an affirmation action debate at his all boys high school. My screen shot of that receipt opened up space for a humbler—and critical—conversation.

  7. Dear Dr. King, I so value your voice and I cherish your book “Healing Rage.” A major historical disgrace is indeed the Atlantic Slave Trade. A note to include is that slavery in Africa existed between Africans prior to the Atlantic Slave Trade. Caucasions are responsible for the human trafficking that took place, while slavery existed on African soil between Africans. Caucasions are not solely responsible for the horrors of slavery as an inhumane institution. I wonder how we can expand the dialogue while maintaining truthfulness.

    1. Slavery has existed through time, but race-based slavery is beyond argument an institution inflicted on people of color by white people. It was created based on the atrocious lie that one group of people were inherently superior to another, where other forms of slavery were usually based on one group losing in a war to another group. It is also notable that the consequence of slavery in the United States continues on and on and one, leading to the murder after murder of innocent African-American, to the denial of a good education and dependable livelihoods, to the ongoing devaluation of the humanity of African-Americans to the degree that those who were not outraged by George Floyd’s death are up in arms about the minority of protesters who have been looting. My ancestors didn’t own slaves and in fact worked in early civil rights efforts, but my white privilege is at the expense of those whose ancestors were enslaved and who can’t even sleep in their own beds without the police crashing through their bedrooms and shooting them for no reason at all. I hate that this is true, but it still must be acknowledged or how to do we make it stop?

  8. Thank you Ruth. I heard you in St. Paul, MN a couple of summers ago and was immensely inspired to continue my own journey of inner transformation, from the inside out. I have formed an Affinity group with other white women from the Common Ground community who are also committed to doing this work. As my neighborhood burns, literally and figuratively, from the ache of decades, centuries really, of a racism, I take heart in knowing that there are those who are starting to wake up.

  9. Gloria Schulz

    So much to absorb and ponder as I haven’t been able to sleep, reviewing in my mind the video of a non-resisting black man being straggled to death under the knee of a white policeman over and over, and then the country’s cities erupting in riots and destruction in the midst of another destruction, the COVID-19 virus ravaging the world and striking down people of color at far greater rates. Thank you for your teachings and I look for opportunities to step forth and perhaps help prevent yet one more atrocity being committed against people who have already suffered so greatly.

  10. Oh Ruth, I have been struggling in my teaching with HOW to point well meaning white people in the direction of taking compassionate ACTION, rather than getting stuck in feeling bad, guilty, horrified, and frozen with persistent racial brutality and injustice. Since working with you in DPP5 at Spirit Rock in 2014, I have tried taking this (white awake) material into my Sangha, with mild response. Today, I am feeling both heavy hearted and on fire and am experiencing more receptivity and readiness with my community seeking inspiration & direction . I will take this excerpt into my community Sit tomorrow. Thank you for your bright light and clarity. I remain deeply grateful to you and turn to your wisdom in these times to steady myself again and again and again.

  11. My 5 year old grandson asked me last night why the people were so angry. I was so grateful to have had your wisdom to guide me in my answer to him. He listened to the story as best I could tell it and asked more questions- this is the beginning of a lifetime dialogue with him that gives me hope for our future. I wasn’t sure how I could/would be able to open this with him but he did it for me so the rest came easier having read your message to tell the truth about our whiteness. Thank you again for your being.

  12. Sierra Stearns

    Thank you so much Ruth for your words and heart of wisdom and providing a way to invite others to step into the conversation.
    I hope to engage fellow sangha members in small groups using this excerpt to begin sharing about white privilege. We must talk about
    it and let the scales fall from our eyes so the subtle unconscious judgments can be witnessed by one another, be aired out and healed.
    We must not freeze in shame either, but feel the grief personally and collectively. Then, I believe we will be led from within how we each can best act as a healing agent. You give us hope.
    May we all be free from suffering and the roots of suffering.

  13. Anne-Laure Brousseau

    To tell this history in my own way, I would have to add uplifting stories as well—stories about the courage and resilience of those who have opposed racism and fought for the realization of human equality. Teaching a child to bear witness, inwardly and outwardly, to the truth of the reality that Ruth King describes can generate the kindness and compassion which turns towards suffering rather than recoiling from it. It would be a terrible consequence of my own ignorance if a child re-learned the tribal mentality of ‘us-against-them.’ So I want to teach especially the wisdom of ‘resourcing’—how to feel and rejuvenate kindness, compassion, courage, and realism—in the face of longstanding injustice and suffering.

  14. “we have died inside”

    As a white person, this is the line that sticks in my craw. I’d like to hear this unpacked. We’ve done ourselves a great spiritual injury through white supremacy, but there’s some difference between injury and death. We do, in the end, continue to be people, not husks.

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