FOR WHITES (LIKE ME): Prelude
Last year at the university where I teach, a group of African American students were walking past a dorm at night when someone in an upper-story window threw an object at them and yelled, “we don’t want your kind here!” In the days that followed, the Coalition of Black Students (CBS), in alliance with other student of color groups, mobilized. In addition to organizing a march and other events, CBS showed up at the next Student Senate meeting to address their representatives.
I’ve been part of many, many interracial discussions of racism in the past 25 years. They tend to follow a predictable script. People of color bring racism to white peoples’ attention. The white folks willing to participate aloud express shock and dismay, hope that a situation like this “won’t happen again” and their own personal goodwill towards people of color. This script was followed pretty closely that night at the Student Senate meeting.
But something new struck me that particular night.
Over and over, in the course of the remarks made by those who chose to participate in the conversation, white students—almost to the one—said some version of this to CBS students:
“I really admire your courage. Thank you for bringing the racial climate on campus to our attention. You’re so brave.”
A wistful tone suggested they envied the “bravery” and “strength” of their Black peers.
As I listened, I was overwhelmed with the realization that these students actually thought African American students were somehow innately more courageous than they were. That they were somehow more naturally equipped to see, understand and respond to racism than were white students. That they had an aptitude white students could never “have.”
It did not seem to occur to them that their peers had learned to see, understand and respond to racism (let alone, that such learning had come at great cost). That courage isn’t innate, but something one chooses to cultivate. Obviously, in the case of people of color this is not an unconstrained, free choice—it’s made necessary to survive a white-dominated society. But it’s an active, agency-filled choice nonetheless.
Courage isn’t something you have. Courage is something you learn.
Courage grows when we try something risky and hard, and come out on the other side more or less in tact. It becomes more “natural” the more we practice it. And when we do it enough to actually experience from-the-inside-out the liberation and freedom of not being silent, not compromising our moral compass, not swallowing our voice we start to crave liberation and freedom so deeply that acting and speaking with courage becomes almost a default position. Almost natural.
I began to wonder that night: how much more progress would we make for racial justice on campus if white students really understood that no one is born with or without courage? That courage is learned, grown and cultivated?
That white people can learn it too?!
And not only courage, but we can learn to see, understand, and feel deeply the landscape of race (developing the very aptitudes white students thought students of color just “had”) in ways that make it possible for us to respond constructively (and courageously) to racism in daily ongoing ways, large and small. Of course, this won’t come naturally! As in the case of courage our socialization in a white dominated, white supremacist society works directly against developing deep learning. (For those of you who have read Stephen King’s 11/22/63, it’s like the past. It’s obdurate!)
But we can learn it. Yes, we can.
If we want it.
I happen to believe that many of us do.
I saw a glimpse of that after the George Zimmerman verdict.
So, this is a prelude to a new series of blogs (“For Whites (Like Me)”) within formations. It’s a series specifically for the many white folks out there who felt and feel despair, anger, and shame at what Trayvon Martin’s death and Zimmerman’s acquittal reveal about the state of race in this nation.
For amidst my own outrage and grief I had a realization similar to the one that night at Senate. Namely, a huge gap exists between the number of us white folks who do care, deeply, about this (yet another) racist travesty and the number of us who feel empowered, articulate, and clear enough about matters of race and racism to proactively engage and address and response to race and racism constructively and on a regular basis in our daily lives.
Most of us know it’s not enough to just be really pissed off that Martin was murdered and Zimmerman walked. But the reality is that lots of us (white folks) feel like we simply don’t know what to say or do. So we mostly sit, and wait. But, god, what could we accomplish if we bridged the gap between white folks who care deeply and white folks who feel clear and get proactive?
Now is the time for us to make choices that help create a climate where this kind of atrocity (and the many variations of it that happen every day and in many of our own communities) is less imaginable.
I don’t think anyone put the call better
than post-trial than Tanya Steele (you should read her whole piece). Note: she was writing to other Black folks, not to whites. But, here it is nonetheless:
We have to demand that white people speak up in discussions on racism, not race – racism. While we tell our thousandth story about being accosted, turn and ask a white person, “What are you learning from this? How will you change as a result of hearing this? How has the verdict impacted you and your life going forward? What will you do differently in your life, as a result of this verdict?” Something. The parade of black grief while white folks sit and stare has to cease. We did not create the conditions for our suffering.
So one of my responses to this verdict is this series—it’s a kind of a “for white people 101.” Practical, concrete steps white U.S.-Americans (like me) to not only to cultivate courage, but to get some traction on that seeing, understanding and feeling that elude us because of the impact of being white in white dominated, white supremacist environments.
The goal? To help us learn to engage and address race and racism in increasingly effective ways so we can do more of our part to help create the kind of society many of us do long for.
Three caveats. First, if you are a person of color you might find this series anywhere on the spectrum of truly obnoxious (as in, can white folks honestly be this clueless? is this coddling?) to insightful (as in, “oh, so that explains why my white co-workers do or don’t do ‘x’”). Whatever the case, I invite you to plug your ears or listen in as you see fit.
Second, I’m not defending or justifying the fact that those of us who are white need some basics. The fact is that we do. White supremacy is so thick and saturating that even those of us who believe (or believe that we believe) in justice and equality are really messed up by it. Not least in the ways it has impedes our ability to live, see, think and act in a different, justice-filled ways.
Third, not one iota of this series is intended to be snarky to white people. I’m white. This is my journey. And while I sometimes get frustrated and annoyed with other white folks, especially because of how often we don’t do more to get better at challenging racism, at the end of the day these insights are about me and my learning. If it ever sounds snarky, it’s probably because I was trying to be funny and totally bombed.
So, here’s the thing. We white folks don’t have to stay messed up (or, as messed up) by racism and white supremacy. But, to work our way to different ways of seeing and being we have to….well work.
But, here’s the other thing. Empowered, embodied learning about the landscape of race, and courage and agency in the face of racism as a white person is not only possible. It is truly liberating.
So that’s the prelude and this entry is already long enough (I know, that’s a lot of words to not even actually do what I say I’m planning to do). But concrete, practical insights and steps coming your way…..