Brief Reviews, VOLUME 12

Peter Jarrett-Schell – Seeing My Skin – Review

Peter Jarrett-Schell ReviewDying to Our Power,
Privilege, and Prestige.

A Review of

Seeing My Skin:
A Story of Wrestling with Whiteness

Peter Jarrett-Schell

Paperback: Church Publishing; 2019
Buy Now:  [ Amazon ] [ Kindle ]

Reviewed by Adam P. Newton
 
 
“What do you get out of it?”

While this question appears in the Conclusion, it might be the ultimate framing device of the book. Rev. Jarrett-Schell wants to hold a reading group about White Fragility, the 2018 book written by Robin DiAngelo, at the predominantly and historically black church of which he is the very white pastor. In the very first meeting of that group, his associate, a black woman named Rev. Dr. Gayle Fisher-Stewart, addresses him directly about his intentions.

“What do you get out of it?”

Jarrett-Schell’s answer is honest, forthright, and open-ended:

“Honestly, Gayle, I don’t know. I don’t know why any White person would do this work the way it should be done.”

And he’s right. As cisgendered heterosexual white men in America, Jarrett-Schell and I have everything to lose if we are to truly wrestle with the harm, damage, and pain caused by Whiteness across history – especially in America.

Sure, I’m both giving away the game and my biases by kicking off a book review in this fashion, but it’s only because I intimately related with the author. Many of the questions and queries he asked have left my lips. Much of introspection and navel-gazing he experienced have been part of my journey. Several of the concerns and unresolved quandaries in his life find equivalent purchase in mine.





“What do you get out of it?” 

That question echoed in my head when I started re-reading the book in advance of writing this review. As I revisited all the stories he told of his youth, schooling, pre-clergy employment, it became obvious that Jarrett-Schell faced down the question himself in writing the book. What does he get out of writing a book that lays bare all the times he was privileged by his white skin and when he was confronted with that privilege throughout his life?

I’m not sure he really knows, but the book is an exercise in grappling with that privilege as directly as he can. By facing himself, what he’s experienced, what he’s learned, and what he’s done, he provides a template for white people like me who struggle with their Whiteness.

“What do you get out of it?”

Throughout this memoir, the author reflects heavy themes such as race, Whiteness, identity, culture, marriage, and fatherhood. It’s a chronological collection of anecdotes that combine into a really big story, and the format gives each story room to breathe on its own. The end result is a strong, but subtle through line in which the author reveals that, while he doesn’t have all the answers, he wants to help find and enact them for the greater good of society.

It helps that Jarrett-Schell “tells” on himself, that he’s critical of himself – not that he’s an unreliable narrator, but because he knows he’s a very privileged one. Furthermore, he takes great pains to tell his story, and only his. As a fellow white man in America, it’s very easy for me to relate to him, but he’s also not interested in universalizing. By not pandering or deflecting – and by showcasing multiple instances in which he gets things very wrong – he rejects any attempt to be any sort of White Savior.

In fact, he shares several stories in which his wife, Rev. Rondesia Jarrett-Schell, pointedly asks him to confront his biases about a situation – especially once he knows he’s interested in writing a book about Whiteness. Specifically, in Chapter 11 of Part XI, she directly asks him: “In the book, am I your magical negro?”

I don’t feel he includes such scenarios to be self-deprecating or create sympathy for himself as the “good” White person who’s trying to get things right. Instead, it’s an attempt to show that White people can, will, and should struggle with their Whiteness and its inherent cultural power – especially if we want to be good allies in the struggle to dismantle that hegemony.

“What do you get out of it?”

We return to this question again and again because the book is essentially Jarrett-Schell confronting himself with it. It appears when he thinks about how he as a white man can be the best possible partner to a black woman. It arises when he talks about being the white father of a mixed-race child in America. It arrives when he discusses pastoring a historically congregation as a white man.

He wants to do more with his life and his story because of his family, but he knows he must help himself first. Until he can address his own issues with Whiteness – from culture, privilege, and history, to impact, influence, sins, and everything in between – he cannot help, no matter how much he wants to do so. As he wife puts so elegantly in Chapter 10 of Part XI,

“Sooner or later, [your son] will want to know about your people. And you can’t just talk about White Supremacy. … If all you can tell him is a story of oppressors, then he’ll have no choice but to hate half of himself.”

His conclusion is simple: when you’re a white man in America who wants to help dismantle the culture of white supremacy that’s dominated our world for centuries, you must face the fact that you’re part of the problem. Even more, you can only be a true ally in that cause if you’re willing to accept losing all your assumed power, privilege, and prestige.

Or as Jarrett-Schell puts it in his conclusion:

“…The work itself carries the promise that, in flits and glimpses, we may catch sight of ourselves along the way, and truly see our skin, not some false facade of Whiteness …, but rather, the fearfully and wonderfully made flesh of our shared humanity.”

In essence, whenever I’m asked as a white person what I get out of being an ally to black people – as well as any other persons of color or persons in marginalized and disenfranchised groups – my answer is: “Nothing, and it’s worth it.”

 



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C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com


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