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?!

We can.

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.

It is.

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…..

Stay tuned.

About these ads
Comments
18 Responses to “FOR WHITES (LIKE ME): Prelude”
  1. Jen–thanks. I always find what you say so to the point, and insightful.

  2. Garden12 says:

    That was beautiful, thoughtful and spot-on. I look forward to the rest of this series. Blog-on!

  3. marcmusic30 says:

    Interesting! I OFTEN wonder why white-folk (specifically in the U.S.) are so multiculturally awkward. It didn’t even occur to me that their parents shy from the subject of different cultures. Really fascinating observations! Us brown-folk need to read this too so we’re not so hard on whites when they are acting weird. The odd/clearly uncomfortable behavior around anything multicutural isn’t necessarily out of hate/malice AND THAT IS GOOD TO KNOW!

    • jbriz says:

      I think you’ve pointed out a big part of the problem. If you’re looking for reasons to be offended you’ll find them whether they’re there or not. White people are smart enough to pick up on that and some don’t want to engage in any kind of conversation that might lead to any kind of statement or question that could possibly be construed as offensive. As ironic as it might sound I’d also caution people (the author of this blog included) against assuming that there are universal, white values or attributes. A lot of white people struggle to relate to one other too. It’s more broadly based on socio-economic differences but can also include things like religion, ethnicity, political orientation or regional origins.

  4. Kate says:

    Thanks so much for doing this blog. I look forward to learning more about how to talk with other white people about racism. I teach classes in our college of public health on racial health disparities, including determinants like racism and privilege. Many white students are eager to have a chance to discuss these issues with their African American peers. Many say they are very interested but so afraid of saying something offensive or ignorant. On the other hand, others can’t move beyond their defenses. Sometimes I feel like a complete failure trying to do this work so I look forward to learning more from your blog.

  5. Joseph Coyle says:

    This is…
    I need this.

    I’ve been struggling to articulate this thing in my head heart forever and I believe you’ve nailed it.

    Thank you for this.

  6. BobK says:

    Thank you for offering this to the world. I’m not a white person so I can’t comment on hiw to teach and learn in that community. What I can say, however, is you may find value in sharing YOUR OWN STORIES around race and racism. As interesting as it is to hear about the daily deprivations and hardships affecting non-white people in a White Supremacist culture, it often feels like voyeurism to me. Instead of asking me, a Black Man, what am I going to tell my young son about “Living While Black” to protect him from the George Zimmermans of the world, ask yourselves

    • BobK says:

      how do YOU feel when you encounter unknown Black men? What honestly makes you feel safe or threatened? Bond over your similarities as whites navigating in this culture that celebrates whitness. Don’t feel guilty about what it does to us. Examine what it does to you.

      • Rick says:

        Loved this comment. I just started painting a series of portraits of Black men solely for the viewer to look at an internalize what they’re experiencing. No backgrounds, not props, just the men and the viewer.

  7. melissaicd says:

    Reblogged this on MiscEtcetera v2 and commented:
    “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.”

  8. Sundy Watanabe says:

    How would you feel about sharing the racial autobiography assignment? As university writing instructors, my colleagues and I try to address issues of race, and we are always on the look out for more and better ways to teach. We all would like to know more about it.

  9. I really like what you guys tend to be up too.

    Such clever work and coverage! Keep up the great works guys
    I’ve added you guys to my blogroll.

Trackbacks
Check out what others are saying...
  1. […] (As it turns out, this is a really hard assignment for white students for reasons that are important and revealing. More on that later in this blog series.) […]

  2. […] (As it turns out, this is a really hard assignment for white students for reasons that are important and revealing. More on that later in this blog series.) […]

  3. […] “…My students write racial autobiography papers. It’s a pretty straightforward assignment: describe the impact of racial identity in your life — not race generally, but your race and any significant experiences, teachings and thoughts pertaining to that identity at various life stages. I require that they interview two family members about their experiences of and beliefs about being “x.” (As it turns out, this is a really hard assignment for white students for reasons that are important and revealing. More on that in another venue.) […]

  4. […] (As it turns out, this is a really hard assignment for white students for reasons that are important and revealing. More on that later in this blog series.) […]

  5. […] My students write racial autobiography papers. It’s a pretty straightforward assignment: describe the impact of racial identity in your life — not race generally, but your race and any significant experiences, teachings and thoughts pertaining to that identity at various life stages. I require that they interview two family members about their experiences of and beliefs about being “x.” (As it turns out, this is a really hard assignment for white students for reasons that are important and revealing. More on that in another venue.) […]



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

  • Blog Visits

    • 84,343 hits
Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 601 other followers

%d bloggers like this: