A tale of two cultures

Jeff H

African American culture is a familiar phenomenon. We have African American inspired styles of dress, personal names, cuisine, speech, music, literature and art. The black church is a well-known institution, as is the black media. Black History Month is a staple of elementary and secondary education and public TV. Names of historic African American figures have become familiar.

Back in the 1960s, from a mainstream perch it was uncommon to see such widespread African American cultural expression. It took the Civil Rights movement, and later black nationalist efforts and a heightened black political consciousness (black power, black pride, and black is beautiful), to produce the flowering we see today.

Further back in the twentieth century, African American culture was not visible at all to mainstream viewers. In fact, the prevailing thought among both lay people and the scholarly community was that African American culture did not exist. Black people had a culture, true, but the common belief was that slavery completely wiped out the influences of Africa. All the formerly enslaved had left was the white man’s culture, which they had learned, but only imperfectly, since  (according to the mainstream thinking of the time) they were simple-minded and unable to master the complexities white culture demanded.

This view held unquestioned sway until anthropologist Melville J. Herskovits challenged it in his 1941 book, The Myth of the Negro Past. Unlike previous scholars, Herskovits actually did field work in Africa and the Caribbean. He was able to trace direct connections and corollaries between African cultures and the cultures of Afro-descendants in the Americas, including specifically the United States.

Herskovits examined a full array of cultural practices, including family structure and kinship, religious beliefs, social and political patterns, and language. Regarding language, one scholar had previously written that “not a single detail of Negro pronunciation or Negro syntax can be proved to have other than an English origin.” Herskovits identified hundreds of examples to the contrary.

Eventually Herskovits’ point of view prevailed and today we acknowledge African American culture as real.

Earlier Herskovits himself failed to see African American culture. He wrote in 1925, “What there is today in Harlem [of African American culture] distinct from the white culture that surrounds it is…merely a remnant from the peasant days in the South.” At that time, early in his career, Herskovits was buying into the prevailing view that African Americans had no culture of their own but rather had assimilated to white culture, albeit poorly. In time, Herskovits’ contact with black intellectuals and his own scientific studies convinced him otherwise.

What is also interesting about Herskovits’ work, and more to the point of this essay, is that he explicitly acknowledged white culture, both in his 1925 erroneous speculations, and later in his defining work of 1941. In fact, it was commonplace to refer to white culture, or the “white man’s culture” during those times. In the early twentieth century, prevailing thought, both scholarly and mainstream, was that although African American culture did not exist as such, white American culture clearly and unquestionably did exist.

Now, early in the twenty-first century the opposite pertains. Virtually no place in the mainstream do we find talk of white American (or European American) culture while at the same time the presence of African American culture is widely accepted.

In scholarly circles there is widespread understanding of African American culture as a valid area of study. The story on European American culture is a little more mixed. Some scholars acknowledge white American culture exists, and they purport to study it. One recent example is the 2012 book, White Bound: Nationalists, Antiracists, and the Shared Meanings of Race, by Matthew Hughey.

More typically, reputable sources of scholarly inquiry simply ignore the possibility that white American culture exists. The University of Michigan’s Department of American Culture claims on its website to be “the top American studies department in the world.” They offer programs in African American studies, Arab American studies, Asian/Pacific Islander American studies, Latina/o studies, and Native American studies. And yes, of course, plain old American studies. Is something missing here? Surely they are not upholding that old trope of “white” equals “American,” but why else would the world’s best American studies program fail to offer European American studies?

Some scholars just flatly deny that European American culture exists. Whiteness, they say, is simply a political construct. This, more or less, is the mainstream view too. Most (white) people simply fail to see white American culture as anything real. The same white people who, generally, have no trouble acknowledging and discussing African American culture invariably draw a blank when the notion of white American culture is raised.  Typically they have no idea what to offer when their child’s class is asked to bring “something from your culture.”

African American culture and European American cultures both exist. They are outgrowths of regional value systems and shared histories. They reflect common experiences among those who share in the culture. They have retained boundaries in membership, some imposed by the cultures themselves, and some externally imposed. Think of anti-miscegenation laws, the “one-drop” rule, and Jim Crow and segregation for instance.

Herskovits performed a valuable service in opening the eyes of the scholarly community and later the mainstream to the presence of African American culture. We are better off today. Correspondingly, today’s failure to see and understand European American culture does us a disservice. It renders us unable to view the greater American experience in its proper context and leaves us implicitly with the only other alternative understanding, i.e. that “white” means “American.”

There is still one final point to be made. Despite the reversal of views between 1930 and now, one thing has remained constant. White American culture still pulls the strings. In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, white American culture proudly put forth its name and identity under the mantle of white supremacy. Following World War II and the rise of Civil Rights era, white supremacy retreated from its public stance and colorblindness emerged. And correspondingly, white American culture made a strategic move from the front room to the back room of American society. As everyone knows, it is often the back room where politics are played and power is held.

In today’s global world, with the emergence of the critical perspectives of people of color and the rising power of what formerly were called “Third World peoples,” the explicit naming of white American culture invites a dialogue on the role of that culture in the racial and economic makeup of America. This raises messy topics like white privilege, the “new Jim Crow,” and myriad other concerns. Better simply to not acknowledge white American culture to begin with, and let everyone try to sort out a picture of the racial landscape without it.

No wonder we so often seem lost in that landscape without a map.

White fear of Black men

Bonnie Berman Cushing

I have been devoted to a white anti-racist path for close to a dozen years, but I still stiffen with fear and a state of heightened awareness when I find myself alone on a darkened street with one or more Black men nearby.

As a dedicated student of anti-racist facts and principles I know intellectually that white people are five times more likely to be attacked by another white person than by a Black one and that two-thirds of the rapes committed in our country are by white men.  I am aware that the vast majority of corporate criminals are white and that most of our politicians who have declared war –  bringing death and destruction to millions –  also have the same skin color as I do. My own experience includes a mugging at gunpoint and a date rape – both at the hands of white men.  And yet I have never found myself anxiously responding to a white male or males on an evening walk the way I do in the presence of Black men. Why, exactly, is that?

I believe there are several reasons for this disturbing phenomenon and that it certainly isn’t limited only to me, but also to most (if not all) white folks – and many people of color as well.  History, psychology and media all play a significant role. The myth of the predatory Black man stands on the shoulders of centuries of stories and images shared from one generation to the next, sometimes directly and sometimes in coded messaging (such as admonishments to lock the car in certain neighborhoods or clutch your pocketbook closely on certain elevators and streets).  Our collective fear of the Black man has a rich and detailed history, one that by this time has practically been encoded in our national DNA.

A Black woman, writing under the name M. Gibson, expressed this truth succinctly in a comment on a blog site shortly after a police officer killed Oscar Grant in Oakland, California:

As a nation we seem to have very short memories. Fear of the black man just didn’t start overnight, and it didn’t just happen during the course of our lifetime; like any singularity it has to have a beginning. Its origin has been embedded in this nation’s consciousness since the Nat Turner revolt; a pathological fear that the oppressed will one day rise up and inflict vengeance upon the oppressor.

The fact that so many unarmed young Black men have been killed by police officers is tragic testimony to this underlying fear.  I quote another blogger, Carmel:

Why ask what Whites fear about Blacks? Why not ask what Blacks fear about Whites? More Blacks have been killed by Whites in our country than the other way around. I don’t even know the number of unarmed Black men who have been killed or attacked by police or simply just pulled over for “Driving While Black.” When was the last time you heard of an innocent White man being riddled with bullets by the police?

In a 2010 radio broadcast Rush Limbaugh, one of the voices of right-wing America, brought it more directly into present times when discussing the Obama Presidency:

It’s Payback Time. This woman’s going to find out what it was like, in Obama’s view, for other Americans to live as they did in this unfair and immoral country for the 230 years we’ve been around. In Obama’s America, the white kids now get beat up with the black kids cheering, “Yay, right on, right on, right on, right on…”

No wonder Obama and many other Blacks who have managed to achieve prominence in our society have had to maintain a calm demeanor, even in the face of insult and aggression.  To appear as the “angry Black” is to trigger these deep seated fears in our collective consciousness and to undermine any real agency with the public at large. As Tan-nehisi Coates wrote in his September 2012 article for The Atlantic entitled “Fear of a Black President,”

So frightening is the prospect of black rage given voice and power that when Obama was a freshman senator, he was asked, on national television, to denounce the rage of Harry Belafonte. This fear continued with demands that he keep his distance from Louis Farrakhan and culminated with Reverend Wright and a presidency that must never betray any sign of rage toward its white opposition.

In addition, there is a psychological defense called projection –  when one accuses someone of having traits they refuse to acknowledge in themselves –  that also explains some of the reason white people fear the violence of Black people. Instead of acknowledging the past and present forms of violence Black people have suffered at the hands of whites, it is projected on the victims themselves.  M. Gibson gets it right when she writes of the white fear of Black sexual violence:

During those times the white man feared miscegenation above all; he feared his saintly white women being sullied by an over-sexed bestial black buck. The white man held onto this erroneous belief/fear even as he himself raped black women without fear of reprisal.

And then there are the media, which continue to broadcast images of Black men in handcuffs and behind bars on nearly a daily basis (and this is by design, not accident).  It is due to news coverage that most of us first think of Black men when we hear of drug dealers, rioters or perpetrators of domestic violence.  This is true despite the reality that white people have, and do, participate in mob and domestic violence in higher numbers, and that whites comprise more than 70% of drug abusers and dealers in our country.

Popular culture also supports and feeds on these images. Quentin Tarentino was awarded the Oscar for his script of the blockbuster hit, D’jango Unchained, which tells the story of a freed slave enacting revenge on slaveholders and their kin.  The vision of D’jango, wielding a bullwhip, guns and a bomb against his enemies speaks directly and powerfully to our subconscious (and in many cases, conscious) fear of Black revenge for past atrocities.  Apparently it pays artistically, monetarily and politically to exploit these fears – and until the costs outweigh the benefits, the media will continue to reinforce them to the detriment of us all.

I understand I will have to check my racist assumptions and continue to unlearn the lessons I have inherited about Black men for the rest of my life.  I will always need to remind myself I have been socialized to collectivize the violence of Black individuals and individualize the violence of whites. I will need to intentionally counteract that socialization.  This is part of my legacy as a privileged white woman in the United States, and I take it on both sadly and gladly.

I will end by quoting another inspirational blog entry, by abagond, from a site that asked why whites fear blacks:

Moral blindness.  Every single black person in the eyes of white people is the sign of a terrible crime from their ugly past, a reminder that their life is a fraud, that they are pretty much nothing more than armed robbers. But it is hard for them to simply own up to their past and make it right. Instead they deny, shift blame, lie, twist facts and make black people into these creatures that they look down on, laugh at and yet, oddly, fear. It is a failed attempt to be at peace with themselves. This is why whites need to give reparations more than blacks need to receive it.

 

Moving through white guilt

Bonnie Berman Cushing

Guilt matters.  Guilt must always matter.  Unless guilt matters, the whole world is meaningless. – from the play JB by Archibald MacLeish

Over the past decade that I have been active in the Movement for Racial Justice I have heard, countless times, the claim by some white people that my colleagues and I are just trying to make them feel guilty about the persistent and pervasive existence of racism.  I am here to state without reservation that this is not the case.

Yet, we do want to move all of us beyond an intellectual understanding of what racism is and what it does, and to feel its powerfully toxic impact on all of our lives. We do want to drive home the troubling truth that those of us who are white have been inescapably placed in a racially privileged position, and that our humanity has been compromised as a result.  We do want to move all of us from Spectator to Actor.  And as with most transformational change, that takes breaking through denial and going to a place of discomfort.

In my personal experience of it, guilt refers to my cognitive and spiritual dissonance with my unearned privilege and advantage in an unjust society. It is a call to action from my very soul.  I honor my guilt as the moral gift that it is.  Its presence reminds me I am capable of empathy and connected to my highest aspirations as a human being.  I see my feelings of despair, sorrow and guilt about racial inequity and injustice as a temporary state I go through – and cyclically go through again and again –  as I witness more, learn more, make mistakes, and grow in my anti-racism.

I know I need not let these feelings paralyze me or fool me into thinking I am powerless.  I know I cannot afford to let guilt lead me to a place of self-hatred and hatred of other white people, lest I become unable to compassionately care for myself or reach out in compassion to my white sisters and brothers from a place of humility and genuine concern.  I cannot afford to turn the focus from what needs to be done, to what it’s doing to me. And I know that if I do allow these feelings to legitimize a retreat from the work, I will be exercising perhaps the greatest privilege of the privileged in doing so.

I think that resistance on the part of white people to experiencing guilt about racial injustice reaches to the depth of what The People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond  refers to as Internalized Racial Superiority.  We whites have been indoctrinated over the centuries to believe the reason we have privilege and the (alleged) success we enjoy is our individual superiority, and not the rigged system of a racial structure that places and maintains us at the top.  One of the many manifestations of internalizing this myth is our thin-skinned addiction to comfort and the deeply held belief we deserve to be comfortable at all times.  When faced with a truth that challenges our notions about our position in society and reveals the reality that we enjoy these privileges at the expense of our fellow humans, we become disturbed.  And that is NOT supposed to happen.  So we console ourselves and return to our equilibrium by dismissing these truths as unfounded.  Either we claim bias on the part of the people who confront our unearned merit or we accuse them of “trying to make us feel guilty” – an offense that both external and internal messages have encouraged and entitled us to avoid.   As white people, we need to recover from this addiction, for we indulge it at our own and others’ peril.  We will not only survive the anguish of the truth.  We – and our entire nation and world – will, in fact, thrive in the light of it.

Ultimately, I am convinced –  as an organizer, educator and therapist of 25 years –  that no one can do racial justice work and live an anti-racist life coming from a static place of guilt.  We must, instead, be grounded in a longing for the full expression of our humanity, and the realization of a just and loving world.

White people working it out

Robin Mallison Alpern

My friend Jim Edler, who posted in June, is a pioneer.  In the early 1970s, Jim and colleagues were leading anti-racism trainings for white people in tandem with trainings for people of color.  Jim’s unpublished dissertation of January 1974, White on White: An Anti-Racism Manual for White Educators in the Process of Becoming explores what can be done about “our white problem.”

Nowadays, if people discuss the topic at all, we usually talk about “racism” or even “white supremacy.”  But at the time Jim and a few others such as Robert Terry  and Judith Katz were breaking new ground, the common vernacular was “the black problem.”  If people of color were struggling, it was their fault and they would have to fix it.

European American pioneers who urged fellow whites to explore white privilege were listening to leaders of color.  Malcolm X wrote in his Autobiography  in 1964, “Let sincere white individuals find all other white people they can who feel as they do – and let them form their own all-white groups, to work trying to convert other white people who are thinking and acting so racist.”  Another example from the same time period is Stokely Carmichael’s statement,  “It must be offered that white people who desire change in this country should go where that problem (racism) is most manifest. The problem is not in the black community. The white people should go into white communities….”

In 1967, the Kerner Report, commissioned by Lyndon B. Johnson, stated in its summary, “What white Americans have never fully understood—but what the Negro can never forget—is that white society is deeply implicated in the ghetto. White institutions created it, white institutions maintain it, and white society condones it.”  This finding was all the more surprising, coming as it did from elite white commissioners.

Decades later, white people still don’t understand we have a role and responsibility in ending racism.  The Center for the Study of White American Culture (CSWAC) has recently introduced a workshop entitled “What White People Can Do About Racism” and European Americans are staying away in droves!  In fact we heard from one source that some progressive white people are offended by the very idea.

Well, it’s certainly not news that racism is a very unpopular topic in most circles, especially white ones.  And it isn’t news that nobody likes to be blamed or shamed, which (I believe) is what many white people fear will happen to them in a workshop about whites and racism.  So why on earth would white people take such a workshop?

There are several great reasons.  It requires a certain amount of true grit to look some of them in the eye.

A top reason would be that white people benefit from racism through a system of white privilege.  Even if we try individually not to hurt or oppress others, institutional racism ensures we’ll get the most goodies.  That being the case, shouldn’t we be the ones to take up the work of ending this system?

Another reason is that our white privilege grants us the very power that can be used to help take down the system.  Should we stand blithely on the sidelines, privilege and power in hand, and watch idly while people of color struggle against horrific odds?

A third reason is that, because of privilege and the misguided strategy of colorblindness, most of us white people have extremely little knowledge or understanding of racism.  We really don’t know what happened and why, and what’s continuing to happen all around us.  We don’t have a clue about how we are implicated, and what we could do to change things.  The vast majority of us think we are nonracist and that’s good enough.  “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men [sic] to do nothing.”  A great deal of evil is happening on our watch.  The CSWAC workshop provides basic education – again, not shame or blame, but solid information – about the historical construction of racism, its modern manifestations, and tools available to white people for working to end it.

What we learn about the history of racism is that the system was, in fact, consciously and purposely designed by an European American elite.  Even though we weren’t there and maybe never would have acted the same way, it was our community who invented modern racism.  So who else but white people should participate in workshops and other ways of undoing racism?  Not because we are the bad guys, but on the contrary, because we are the good guys, who of course would seize the opportunity to set things right!

If you are unmoved by the argument that white people created racism, then consider that we currently perpetuate oppression.  Again, whether we white people wish it or not, we are complicit with white privilege and structural racism.  Add to that the internalized racial superiority we absorbed individually from our culture, and we are clearly purveyors of racism.  What a great reason to get to work undoing the evil.

One of the best reasons of all for fighting racism (and taking our workshop!) is that white people are profoundly damaged by racism (see Impacts of racism on white people).  We have our own humanity, happiness and wholeness to gain.

White people who participate in a white awareness workshop have to get past the wish/myth that racism is over and that white people ended it.  We have to get past the tragically failed strategy of colorblindness to admit that, yes, we are white people – and it matters that we are white.  We have to surmount both the historical notion that people of color alone should fight racism, and the idea that we must go to communities of color to oppose racism.  We get to turn to each other, sister and fellow whites, and figure out how to partner in the work.  This has to be done in a wider context of anti-racist  activism alongside and led by people of color.  People of color are welcome in What White People Can Do About Racism, but most participants are likely to be white.  Members, that is, of the community that bears responsibility for the construction and perpetuation of a white supremacist system.  Are we ready yet to step up and learn to create with people of color a new system of human justice and equality?

 

Let’s recognize white American culture

Jeff H

White people in the United States share a common history of immigration from Europe and assimilation into United States society. As a group we share a common language, and a common understanding of normative values, aesthetic preferences, and many other things. In other words, we share a culture. Sure, individual stories and preferences differ. And there is great variety in the experiences of white Americans. But that is true of people in any culture. The larger picture is that we share a cultural experience.

You wouldn’t know it if you asked us. Most white Americans deny that white American culture exists. Instead we claim to be just plain Americans, as if our cultural experience is identical, for instance, to that of African Americans, Native Americans, or Latino Americans. Yes, we share some things, maybe many things. But there are significant differences in history, heritage, and shared values as well.

Some white Americans claim as their culture the original heritage of the European country or countries from whence their ancestors came. This makes sense for first or second generation white Americans, but the vast majority of white Americans have been here much longer. Often we’re a mix of many ancestral national origins. We can’t speak the original languages, and we have no meaningful relationships with those who remained in Europe.

More likely we have gone through generations of assimilation in the United States, and the culture of the United States gives us our language, our customs, and our values. But again, it is not simply “American” culture. Our experience has been more constricted by race, and the historic process of cultural formation has taken place along racial lines. Today this can be as obvious as the music people listen to, the movies and TV programs they watch, and the foods they eat. Yes, again, individuals make individual choices and some people prefer the cultural experience of others. There is a fair amount of fusion and cross-over activity taking place. But the larger fact remains. White Americans have a culture. We have a shared cultural experience. So why don’t we recognize that? And why is it important that we should?

Let’s be real. One important reason to recognize white American culture is because it exists. White Americans, as a group, basically control what’s going on in the United States, and so our culture sets the norms. In fact, it’s one and the same process. Those who set the norms control what goes on, and those who control what goes on set the norms. This is why we think of ourselves as “just Americans.” Our culture defines what “American” means, even though the meaning of being American differs, depending on how one has been racialized.

It’s not uncommon for a country to have a central and normative culture. People from that culture often have difficulty recognizing how their culture shapes their lives. It just works for them. They don’t think about it.

But there is more to it in the United States. White Americans have not lived here for thousands of years developing a culture organically through our indigenous presence. We are relative newcomers and our culture is a fairly new creation. As that development took place, we created conditions in which “our” country holds a significant population of people of African heritage, as well of Latino heritage and Asian heritage. Native Americans, of course, have been here all along. So our central culture is not so much a natural, organic development, but rather one significantly shaped by historical and political events of conquest and control.

It used to be that white Americans understood this. We talked openly about the “white man’s culture.” Nowadays, we take explicit recognition of white American culture as upholding the white supremacist notions of that bygone era. The irony is that failing to name and discuss white American culture upholds the latent white supremacy that continues to exist in the United States. Refraining from naming white American culture allows white Americans to feel like we are the normal, right people, and everyone else is “Other.”

When white American culture is allowed to operate unnamed, we shield it from examination and public discussion. This renders us unable to have a national discussion of things like race, racism, white privilege, and the creation of a society centered on multiracial values. Whiteness continues to remain unexamined, and supreme.

White American culture is the native culture of many people. At least some want to claim it. Today they must gravitate to white supremacist groups as their only path to acceptance, but that should not have to be the case. It’s time that white Americans learn to name and accept our own culture.

The reason we have not is because it contains a lot of baggage. As mentioned, the culture was formed in a multiracial setting through assertion of dominance and control, often by brutal means directed toward others. Nowadays it is considered impolite to continue to explicitly enforce a central culture of dominance. We’ve become a multicultural nation, or so we believe.

White American culture upholds norms of colorblindness, a philosophy that both refuses to name white American culture and assures that white American culture will remain the dominant culture in the United States. In fact, that’s the main reason white Americans are reluctant to name our own culture. Why be “white American” when being “just American” works as well, if not better? We get to assert an identity (American), protect our (white) privileges by making it taboo to discuss white American culture, and undermine people of other racial/cultural groups (playing the “race card”) when they try to discuss it. We can have our cake, and eat it too.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Growing edges for white allies

Darrell Davis

As a 30-year veteran of the movement, I know one thing for sure: the struggle against racism is the most unforgiving. It is in no way like saving the animals or the environment, important issues in which I participate and act as an ally.  As an African American, I have to prioritize anti-racism work. And the reaction to those of us who take on that struggle is as ugly and stressful as it gets.

Recently I have had the honor of fighting gentrification in wealthy Westchester County, NY, alongside a gallant group of White anti-racism workers. This experience has been an education for me.

To begin with, the White anti-racism movement does not mean liberals or even progressives. Those groups generally don’t even discuss racism.

To me, the White anti-racism movement means White people recognizing the advantages and privileges White skin affords them, recognizing that White people created and benefit from this system and they are taking responsibility to address it.

Most of my career, Whites have sought me out and offered their “support.” Whether the issue was police brutality, youth issues or institutional racism, that “support” often took the form of Whites (1) judging us (Blacks) (2) knowing (and telling us) what was best for us and (3) having the solution to the problem. That solution was, with few exceptions – vote Democrat! Or some other solution that advanced their cause, not ours.

I was somewhat skeptical when I reached out to anti-racism activists in Westchester a few years ago. I read a lot of critical writings about them taking over, undermining Black leadership and doing more harm than good. I went into this thinking that all of that is possible, but also believing that we need to continue this alliance and develop more constructive relationships, work through the mistakes – on both sides – and stumble forward.

So I did that and have no regrets. Even as I say that, I am reminded that despite African Americans (and Whites) recognizing my leadership, some of my new allies treated me as if my community’s support wasn’t good enough for them and so I had to “prove” myself to them. I had to learn to be patient when my White allies implied that I was “angry.” They didn’t understand the insult to my dignity when they did that. Whites get angry (they even riot) over such spectacles as the World Cup (soccer). I react, not in anger, but with a healthy reaction to insults to the human dignity of Black people.  We may need to create a word for that reaction ourselves.

Some in the white anti-racism movement also seem guilty of playing the “Uncle Tom” or “Aunt Jemima” game. They use Blacks –  usually middle class – to sell their ideology to poor Blacks who have a much different experience from middle class Blacks. Some Whites seem sub-consciously to think we should “calm down.”

These are issues that we in the anti-racism movement need to grapple with. Gandhi called his autobiography The Story of My Experiments With Truth. We are in one big laboratory when we struggle against racism and White supremacy. And we should not fear that, but embrace it. That is the only way to get stronger, wiser and more successful.

 

Shenandoah redux

Elizabeth Gordon

Yesterday one of my summer students stayed after to talk about Ralph Ellison’s short story “Battle Royal.” We talked for two hours, each of us leaving with assigned reading or viewing. I agreed to read some of the sources he’d used for a high school paper he’d written about the KKK. Their real purpose, he told me, had been to defend the south from carpetbaggers.  Only a few renegade branches turned to violence.  Oh? He in turn agreed to watch the film version of “Slavery by Another Name.” I would have tried for the book but it’s finals time at this engineering powerhouse and in the humanities nowadays, we take what we can get.

This student, call him Todd, hails from Virginia, where he was schooled in military academies.  What he wanted to talk about was how he couldn’t read past a certain point in the story because he just couldn’t believe leading citizens of a southern community would act the way the men in the story did.

I better summarize the story, which is also the first chapter of Ellison’s seminal novel Invisible Man. It’s set in a small southern city in the 1940’s. An outstanding senior from the “colored” high school has been invited to give his graduation oration in which, he tells us, he “showed that humility was the secret, indeed the very essence, of progress.” He arrives to find the room crowded with intoxicated white men, “all the town’s bigshots.” Turns out it’s a smoker. His speech is to be preceded by a little entertainment for the civic leaders.  After being forced to watch a white woman prostitute strip, with the white men enjoying their distress, the teens are blindfolded and made to fight one another in a ring – the battle royal.  Bets are made. The main character gets through it with a bloodied mouth and his painfully earnest desire to deliver his speech intact.

Todd said he had to stop reading right when the white men started passing the frightened stripper around and violence seemed imminent. At first I thought he was critiquing the way the story was written, but I soon saw he was laboring under the first loss of the “terrible innocence” Cornel West speaks of.  In different ways he kept saying: if the leaders are that corrupt, then society simply can’t function. It was a strange form of denial that had in it the seeds of a burning truth. And this future chemical engineer, a senior slogging through a required humanities class, was feeling the heat.

Was society functioning then for its African-American members? I asked.  How much longer would it function in that pre-Civil-Rights-era form? And why did he assume morally corrupt people could not, did not in fact, maintain a society?  And what if the whole society is corrupt, founded on exploitation?

As we talked I saw that what most troubled him about the story was that no one at the battle royal had stopped it.  Or at least walked out. We agreed that perhaps some had walked out, or opted not to attend. But what did that mean, in the end? I paraphrased a King quote and have since gotten it entire: “History will have to record that the greatest tragedy of this period of social transition was not the strident clamor of the bad people, but the appalling silence of the good people.”

Todd searched desperately to find one good white man in the story. We read aloud, debating the meanings of specific words, “fear” for example. He argued that the school superintendent, who quiets the crowd so the boy can, swallowing blood (he dare not use the spittoon), give his speech at last, is that one good man.  Todd felt by giving the main character an award, the superintendent was helping him help his own people. “Within the confines of Booker T. Washington’s limits,” I said. Oops, no knowledge of that. (We’ll be meeting again.)  “And why not a leader of all the people, a lawyer or the mayor? They give him an award because they think, and he still thinks, he’ll never ask for equality. That’s the dangerous word. That’s the word that could get him killed and he knows it.”

He couldn’t leave the story; he still argued it couldn’t be based on experience. He finally conceded that he could maybe buy the mistreatment of the woman: things get out of hand.  As for the boxing match?  Well people do enjoy watching boxing, so he could sort of see….  “But the whole thing with the electrified rug?  Just couldn’t happen, maybe with the town’s low-life, but not the upstanding gentlemen.  Never.”    Aha, class showing.

More summary needed: After the battle, the sweat- and blood-soaked are encouraged to scramble for tossed coins and bills. But the money is tossed onto an electrified rug.  More entertainment for the town leaders, more pain and humiliation for our main character, more moral torment for my Virginian.

“You don’t believe something like that ever happened?”

“I don’t believe no one stopped it.”

Consider a white boy raised on math and science and educated in a mostly-white, historically segregationist military academy where he studied the pseudo-history of the KKK but not George Washington Carver’s career and beliefs. He’s never heard of Emmet Till or Trayvon Martin.  How to begin to shed his terrible innocence but through reading fiction, with its ability to recreate and deepen experience.  But it’s no easy thing to be dropped, via Ellison’s literary brilliance,  right into the perspective of a smart black teenager in 1940’s America.  The very authenticity and resonance of the narrative is what’s caused the story to be so heavily anthologized, taught and discussed.

In my office doorway Todd stood talking still.  He asked if I knew that the beautiful Shenandoah Valley had been burned to the ground three times by Sherman’s scorched earth campaign. I did not.

“It was. He said ‘even a crow traveling this valley shall have to carry its own provisions.’”

I had hiked that valley. No place but my home Catskills had ever struck me as so beautiful. I imagined him growing up there, his schools teaching about “the war of aggression,” elders lamenting a time when it was said “The United States of America are…” rather than is.  I tried to open to his perspective. I thought he had earned it. And anyway I really wanted him to read or at least watch Slavery by Another Name.  Because I don’t think he realized, but he was sure trying to, what it takes for the good men and women to stand up and say stop.  And the high price they, and we, pay because they don’t.

I’ll let you know what he sends me to read about the KKK.

 

 

 

Transitions & white anti-racism: Thoughts from a white guy

 Jim Edler

There is something important and precious about white folks genuinely struggling for clarity and understanding about our common culture and the inescapable cognitive and emotional poison we’ve ingested by growing up here.   Even more important is what we actually DO with our insights, vulnerability, courage and freedom as we focus on becoming an authentic piece of anti-racist solutions.

I am white and also very hungry to equate that with constructive anti-racist behavior. It is important to me to be working that agenda while recognizing and owning that I have been handcuffed to destructive misperceptions about myself, about people of color, and about my country along with her systems and structures that control everything.   I am a learner.

I appreciate the work of William Bridges who describes the human, three-stage process we all go through when facing significant changes in our lives.  He calls it Transitions. I see a powerful connection to what white Americans face in our own transition and the necessary journey to become anti-racist whites.

A critical reality is that people don’t change automatically or easily when facing difficult challenges – especially when our identity, our very perception of ourselves is intimately involved.    Instead, we go through a three-step process that starts with endings.

Stage One of transitions, accepting the loss and the ending of “what we had,” is understandably difficult.   Fears and “what ifs” can permeate our thinking.    Letting go can leave us vulnerable, guilty, and frightened.   We don’t know for sure what is in the future or if we can, or even want, to pursue it.   We are facing a loss of comfort with an ingrained privilege and consuming myth of the “rightness of whiteness.”   Letting go is seen as risky but hanging on can be stifling.   Picture a trapeze artist needing to let go in order to grab the approaching bar.   Some lives are lived without ever allowing an ending and a letting-go to take place.

So what does this have to do with being white and effectively anti-racist? The “perceptual saturation bombing” from every institution in America contributes to a horrible distortion of reality as it empowers us to feel superior while being just as thoroughly armed to deny it, consciously and unconsciously.

For white people struggling to truly understand and deal with racism, this is a critical, but often-missed part of the work.  We have a thousand “reasons” why we are not racist, all of which block an acceptance of reality.  Accepting our “disease of racism” is not unlike the need to accept a serious malady before we can actually get to the work of healing.

Bridges describes what we get upon successfully letting go in Stage Two, The Neutral Zone.   Here is uncertainty on steroids, sometimes referred to as wandering in the wasteland.  We don’t have the security of what we had and feel ill-prepared and lost.   The second stage of transitions can be empty, lonely and de-energizing.  Often one feels anger at being duped by those people and institutions we were taught to trust, and love.  The white person without the sturdy support of an abandoned racist identity now struggles with “What fills the void?”  Questions of, “Who am I and what will I become?” gnaw at the vulnerable person in the neutral zone.   Genuine pain is felt when we also struggle with, “What have I been?”

Clarity can emerge from courage, reading, thinking, observing and talking to others who have struggled with this frustrating stage. Courage to explore new possibilities for understanding oneself and a more accurate understanding of racism in America generates sparks of what the newly aware white person can become. We discover new acceptance, amplified energy, new optimism and insights that begin to replace the emptiness in the Neutral Zone as we transition to Stage Three, the “New Beginning.”

There is a new focus and a receptivity of the work ahead to make the new challenge or identity meaningful.  We might now hear:  “This isn’t easy, I may stumble at times but I now see this as an opportunity.”   This new perception of oneself is no longer anchored by what was lost but is now empowered by what can be, by the excitement of grabbing that trapeze bar, and even a peaceful centeredness while being simultaneously challenged.  White people often talk with relief of no longer hiding, living a lie, pretending or wasting energy being inauthentic.

Stage Three New Beginnings can be dangerous when the unleashed energy generates activism that is less grounded in collaboration and accountability.  People in this stage are feeling driven and may want to go out and slay dragons but can, unfortunately, charge ahead blindly and attack the wrong dragons.  Active listening to victims of racism with a new receptivity is priceless.  The energy and new focus demands thoughtfulness, sensitivity, and a true acceptance of oneself as a learner.  Vulnerability can be an act of strength.

But the look on someone’s face in Stage Three is beautiful. It reveals optimism, ownership, hunger to learn, receptivity, motivation, humility, impatience and a true awareness of the new beginning… and it all started with endings, with letting go.

Muster the courage and the friends to help with the struggle because it is about freedom –  yours and that of the victims of racism.  Also, please be there for other whites beginning their transitions!

We will not, and don’t have to, get it perfect before we engage in our transition toward new white beginnings.  We start with ourselves, change is unlocked from the inside.  There are more anti-racist whites available than ever before to help with this work. We all are pawns and perpetrators of racism – that is a horrible reality that we pay for and can’t escape.  But we can also be recovering, passionate learners and that’s the beginning of a new anti-racist identity and a new freedom.

“Things end, there is a time of fertile emptiness, and things begin anew”

 -William Bridges

 

 

What kind of white person are you?

Jeff H

People of color may rightly excuse themselves from answering this question. Obviously it’s intended for white people. When it comes to how one thinks and feels about race relations, most white people believe there are two choices. Either you’re racist or you’re colorblind. Individuals did not create these choices. Nor did organizations like the Center, or even larger organizations like the government. These choices exist as part of our culture itself. Society provides us two models of how to be white.

There are many ways to define a “racist.” Some would say society itself is racist, giving all white people racial privileges and hence making them “racists” whether they like it or not. But most white people use the term racist, at least insofar as it applies to white people, to mean a person who consciously identifies as white, understands it to be his or her native culture, and believes that white people are superior to people of color. According to these terms, nearly all white people used to be racist, and even today it’s hardly uncommon to find white people who still are.

The second model for white people is colorblindness. Colorblindness says that race shouldn’t make a difference in people’s lives, and since it shouldn’t, we should all act as if race doesn’t matter. Because race doesn’t matter (or at least shouldn’t matter), we don’t need to mention it at all. In fact mentioning race just creates problems. Thus white people who follow the colorblind model do not particularly see themselves as white in other than a superficial way. They know which box to check on census forms, but do not believe the status of being white has an effect on their lives. If racists are racially conscious, colorblind people might be said to be racially unconscious.

Racist or colorblind. Most of us are taught one or the other. Mainstream society certainly favors the colorblind side. Conventional wisdom says to be colorblind is good. To be racist is bad. Were those the only two choices, then we might agree. But there’s a third choice at hand.

It’s not a choice that many white people make, or even know exists. White people can consciously identify as white, understand it to be our native culture, and believe — and here is the crux of the matter — that while white people are no better or worse than people of color at heart, we hold an unjustly privileged and dominant position in a racial hierarchy. This model is new, only about 40 years old, compared to 100 years for colorblindness and 400 years for plain old fashioned racism. It’s so new, people haven’t agreed on a name for it. Variously called color awareness, race savvy, or new white consciousness, it nonetheless is a real alternative to the older models.

Racist white people believe colorblind white people are deluded to think that being white is not important. Alternately fearing the pervasiveness of colorblindness and bemoaning its refusal to acknowledge white culture, racists hope someday colorblind people will believe once again their interest lies in being overtly racist. Racist white people have a more difficult time with race savvy whites who know race does matter and being white makes a difference. Race savvy whites do not shy away from discussing white identity and culture, but they frame their interests in creating multiracial structures, and working for racial equality, justice and harmony. We emphatically endorse the race savvy model. Able to see the racial structure of society as it is, race savvy white people are the racists’ worst nightmare.

Colorblind white people see racist white people pretty much for what they are, and that “something” is not what colorblind white people want to be. But colorblind white people more often than not are ineffective in working to undo the racist model. Unable to see race, they cannot see racism. Blind to color, they are blind to white culture as well. In a racially structured society they are unable to change a structure they fail to see. Rather, they rely on simplistic rules. To be conscious of race, a colorblind person will say, is to be racist. To the colorblind person the racist and the race savvy person seem to be the same. They both see race after all.

The race savvy white person understands what the colorblind white person does not. Being white makes a difference. Whiteness forms the center of our society and as long as it does, we cannot have a society centered on multiracial values. The irony of colorblindness is that by not seeing whiteness, it keeps whiteness centered. In this the racists might find some small ray of hope.

Race savvy white people are determined not to let that happen. There is and should always be a place for white people in our society, but it should not be one that controls power and resources of the mainstream exclusive of other racial groups. It should not be a place where others are expected, indeed required to come if they want the privileges of the center. Race savvy white people believe we all must change to create a multiracial center. Race savvy white people understand it’s our special role to work with our own people to bring this about.

We ask you once again, what kind of white person are you? Your choices may be a little broader than you imagine.

EDITOR’S NOTE: The foregoing post first appeared as an editorial on the old version of www.euroamerican.org in April 1999. It continues to circulate “out there.” Over the years many people have searched online to locate the source. Because it continues to be relevant and sought out, we are reprinting it here in our blog.

Impacts of racism on white people

Robin Mallison Alpern

Most readers recognize many of these names: Emmett Till, Amadou Diallo, Sean Bell, James Byrd, Troy Davis,  Trayvon Martin.  All are American men of African descent, brutally murdered (or executed by the state in Davis’ case) essentially for the crime of being Black.  They represent a tiny fraction of African Americans assaulted, incarcerated or killed for the same crime.

How many readers know these names? Lawrence Russell Brewer,  Mikhail Markhasev, Michael Maloney.  All are white Americans who suffered terrible consequences of racism in the United States. I’ll come back to their stories.

Like many white activists, I came to anti-racism with a profound concern for the horrific damages done to people of color.  I saw racism ravaging communities of color.  I felt terrible pain on behalf of sister and fellow humans.

In 2003, while participating in an Undoing Racism workshop offered by the People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond, I experienced the first hint that racism could be damaging me and my people too.  I realized European Americans have been trained to numb our feelings about racism.  Without that numbness, it simply would not be possible to perpetrate violence of all forms against people of color.   But we cannot be numb to the suffering of people of color without also being insensitive to our own suffering.  One of the very mechanisms that ought to be alerting us to terrible danger has been disabled, in the service of maintaining a racist culture.

While it is crucial for white anti-racists to understand how racism destroys the lives of people of color, I believe it will fuel our will to end racism when we understand we are harmed too.  This may even be a strategic way to reach white people who, sadly, do not seem to recognize the need to end racism for the sake of justice, equality, and full, happy lives for all people.

Before I explore how racism impacts European Americans, I declare two caveats.  First, I am by no means discussing so-called “reverse racism.”  Racism is a worldwide system of oppression granting white people the power, privilege and resources.  No individual act of hostility toward a white person, no matter how heinous, can possibly reverse this global system.

Second, while I am passionate about ending the damage done to my people by racism, I remain fully conscious that our sufferings are not the same as those of people of color.  And that alongside our sufferings are significant privilege and power due to our white-skin status.

So how can racism hurt white people?

You may recall James Byrd was the African-American man horrifically dragged to his death behind a truck driven by three white men.  Lawrence Russell Brewer, one of the three murderers, was executed.  Brewer suffered death by racism.  He was a human being who never deserved to be warped and twisted by a racist culture into behaving like a monster.

Mikhail Markhasev is the Ukrainian American who shot and killed Ennis Cosby, son of Bill Cosby.  Markhasev is serving life without parole for this crime.  Markhasev wrote in his confession, “I shot the nigger…”  It’s just possible that if not for racist thinking, Markhasev would not have killed Cosby, thereby ending his own life as a free man.

On April 12, 2012, Michael Maloney, a white police chief  in Greenland, NH, was shot dead during a drug raid.  Without knowing any further details, I feel qualified to declare Maloney another casualty of racism.  Michelle Alexander’s groundbreaking book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, offers compelling and meticulously documented news that our criminal justice system is serving as the newest method for enslaving black and brown people.  A primary vehicle has been the War on Drugs,  fabricated out of whole cloth by the white elite.  Were it not for this groundless and devastating “war,” it is highly unlikely Maloney would have been involved in a drug raid to begin with.

Obviously, most European Americans are not going to pay the same price for racism as these three men.  But our costs are not necessarily less horrendous, just because they may be less dramatic.  Space permits just a glimpse at a few of these impacts.

The “white” race was not constructed until the late 1600s, when an elite group of Virginians began to amass power and privilege by dividing poor folk into a white group and other “races.”  (Lifting the White Veil: A Look at White American Culture, by Jeff Hitchcock.)  In the process of becoming white, people of diverse European descent gave up their heritage and identity to melt into the pot.  Hundreds of years later, we European Americans know a fair bit about African culture, Latin culture, Asian culture, but we are hard put to it to describe our own culture.  We live with a profound sense of rootlessness, a lack of reality.

On the other side of the same coin, European Americans have seized center stage for the past few hundred years, shoving all other people off to the margins.  This self-centeredness restricts our ability to receive and appreciate the contributions of people of color.  It infects our attitude toward people of color with unwarranted and unwanted superiority.  It blinds us to an appropriate sense of our worth, and the worth of others.

Because the system of white supremacy depends, by definition, on devaluing people of color, it drives a wedge between white folk and all the rest of humanity.  Human relationships that are our birthright are strained, and many white people may never have healthy relationships with any people of color.  Ironically, we cannot divorce ourselves from people of color without also bringing patterns of superiority/inferiority into our relationships with other white people.

One last impact I’ll mention is that racism not only controls all of our institutions, it also affects our personal thoughts, feelings and attitudes.  “Internalized racial superiority,” as it is termed by the People’s Institute, causes European Americans to register racist thoughts and feelings on a daily basis. I am 100% dedicated to the eradication of racism, I am highly educated on the topic, I pour a huge amount of my life into working to end racism … and yet on any given day, I can report thoughts along these lines: “Why do those Latina women have so many babies?” (In reality, I have no idea whether this particular young woman has any other children.)  “That guy isn’t qualified to be a political leader.”  (My only information was a photo of a man with black skin.)  “I feel in danger.”  (Several young African American men are passing me on the sidewalk.)  “I know more about this situation than you do.”  (In almost any discussion with people of color.)  Racism controls my own mentality.

In his book Lifting the White Veil, Jeff Hitchcock lists impacts of racism on white people in four categories: how we relate to ourselves; our relationships to other European Americans; relationships with people of color; and how we view ourselves relative to racial structure in the US.  Take a look for further insights on this topic.

A popular expression says, “I feel your pain.”  It is hugely important that white people sense the devastation of people of color.  I ask, “Can we also feel our own pain?  What will we do about it?”