FOR WHITES (LIKE ME): GOT STRATEGY?
I have a hate/love relationship with Charlie Brown. For reasons that seem obvious to me I love the Christmas special and still miss the Great Pumpkin episode they used to air when I was a kid.
But, I hate how mean everyone is to poor “Chuck.” (Yes, it took my four year-old asking why they say “stupid” so much for me to notice. Yes, shame on me.)
I still get stressed waiting for Lucy to pull that football away. But the worst? When Charlie Brown’s unlikely team comes from behind, is about to win the championship, an easy fly ball heads straight for him, and that darned “cute little red headed girl” walks by . . .
You know the rest.
At least Lucy’s mostly to blame for the football. But with the baseball it’s just poor old Chuck standing there holding the bag (but not the ball). If he’d only practiced. Really practiced. Made sure he had a better strategy. Made sure he was ready. He could’ve gotten better at it. That one’s all on him.
Okay. Analogy over.
How many times have you been in a situation where something racist or “maybe” racist goes down, only to find yourself not saying or doing or interrupting or whatever? How often have you left replaying the scene in your mind, feeling so gross about having gone silently along and worse, as a result, having left that space/situation/scene more unsafe for people of color than if you had said, or did, or interrupted, or whatever? (Instead of leaving it more unsafe for racism—which is the goal.)
We drop the ball because we get scared. We drop it because we worry about being called uptight and self-righteous. But mostly we drop it because we don’t practice.
And practice is necessary because one of the trickiest things about racism is how often it’s coded and subtle. The racist joke is pretty easy—even if it’s also hard because we still hate being the one to “ruin a good party” (as Patricia Williams puts it).
But “white racial bonding” is tougher (Christine Sleeter’s term).
I know those of you who are white know what this is. Its what racism looks like when white people talk about race without ever using the word “race” or “Latino” or “Black.” Or, when we talk about race in ways we wouldn’t if we weren’t pretty sure it was only other white people who were going to hear us. It’s a “you now what I mean” white racial moment.
Even though subtle, white racial bonding lets racist beliefs and assumptions flow uncheck and unchallenged. It, thus, powerfully impacts and shapes what society’s like, how we think and see race, what interracial relationships come to feel like, how our kids learn about race and, ultimately, what people of color ending up dealing with in their encounters with white folks all the time.
White racial bonding is also the phenomenon in which some of our most prevalent and mundane (as in daily) encounters with racism take place. Which also means it’s where we get lots of chances to live aloud and in plain view a different way of “being white.” To refuse to go along (like the action of my courageous student I wrote about before). To catch the ball.
Here’s the best part. We don’t always have to be self-righteous jerks to do it.
I’m going to share three examples. Just to be clear: I’m not sharing them because I think I’m so brilliant. I’m not sharing them because I think I’m the anti-Charlie Brown.
When it comes to baseballs, I’m totally Charlie Brown.
I’m sharing them because success stories seem way more likely to help generate other ideas and sharing and strategizing about the best ways to resist racism than do my many, many failure stories. (Did I mention how much I would love to see a comments section full of accounts by folks from any and all racial groups sharing their best strategies and accounts?) We need successful examples in which folks refuse and actually live to tell about it. And maybe, just maybe, find it easier next time.
Examples help us picture ourselves trying something similar. Examples help us think creatively and experiment with courage.
That’s why that video about the woman who looked white (but was biracial) and who interrupted racism with her sister-in-law who looked (and was) Black raced around the internet. It’s inspiring! And it let many of us who are white imagine ourselves in those sisters’ situation, for a moment touching what it might feel like to live courage and create change as a result.
Early in my teaching I invited students to my apartment for a meal. As this small group of white students arrived, one of them said with relief, “Man! When you gave us your address we were afraid you lived in the ghetto.
I was really bothered, but didn’t respond right away because I didn’t know what to say (somehow “why no, I don’t live in the ghetto” seemed inadequate).
Later in the evening, I returned to it. “Hey, I have a question. When you walked in one of you said something about worrying I lived in the ghetto. So I’m curious. What’s a ghetto?”
They looked at me like I was an idiot. They stumbled. Then they explained, “You know, it’s like Harlem.”
“Oh!” I said. “You’ve been to Harlem? What an amazing place! I went to grad school on the edge of Harlem and miss New York so much.”
Silence. They shook their heads. None of them had been to Harlem.
“You know what we mean,” another ventured. “A ghetto’s where there’s lots of crime.”
“Oh,” I said. “What are the crime rates around here?”
None of them knew. More awkward silence.
“Okay, let me ask it this way.” I said, “How would you know you were in a ghetto? Would you know because lots of Black people and poor people live there?”
“No! No!” they were horrified. “That’s not what we think!”
Finally one of them, “Prof. Harvey, are you telling us we shouldn’t say ‘ghetto’?”
From there a really fantastic conversation unfolded. And I didn’t even have to be a jerk.
Example #2 (this one’s not mine).
Years ago, one of my white pastor friends had a white parishioner pull her aside and tell her a story that was full of racialized assumptions. I was never told exactly what she said, but my friend described it as one of those moments when a white person is talking race (about “those people”) without using the words, and expecting you (fellow white person) to nod along because you know what she means.
In one of the most brilliant interruptions ever, my friend asked one simple question:
“Oh. I’m sorry. Did you think I was white?”
The parishioner gasped.
A group of students gave a presentation on reparations for slavery in one of my classes. Towards the end the whole class was becoming sort of silly during the discussion (it was the last day of the semester) as the presenters had us brainstorm ideas on how to educate the public about why reparations are important.
The whole class was laughing and enjoying and participating. Then one of the presenters blurted (sort of? maybe?) jokingly: “I know, we could do a reality show called ‘Be a Slave for a Day!’” (i.e., to show white Americans how bad slavery was).
The absurdity of this idea threw most of the white students into hysterics. But African American students’ laughter abruptly ceased. White students didn’t seem to notice. (This “white racial bonding” moment was of a very different sort than the prior two examples. I include it, however, because white folks were indeed bonding here in a manner that, given their experiences, African American folks clearly could not.)
I worried how to respond. I couldn’t leave it unaddressed. But I was desperate to not shame the presenters in the process. They had done a good job and shown courage in thoughtfully taking on a hard racial topic. I will admit that I was so nervous during the de-brief that I almost let it go.
Instead I took a deep breath, “I’m not quite sure how to bring this up because it feels touchy. But I noticed I felt really uncomfortable when the joke about the reality show was made. I’m wondering if you can help me understand my discomfort.”
Response to my query, at first tentative, turned into voracious dialogue. A few white students admitted to also feeling weird when they laughed and regretting that they did so. A few African American students described how they had heard and felt the comment. A few of the presenters apologized. A few of the students accepted.
It was hard. It was good. I was glad I hadn’t left the room without refusing to simply go along. I was glad I had practiced.
There’s lots I like about these examples. Mostly I like the way the speaker who made the assumptions (innocently or not) had to themselves rewind, go back, name, own and/or see for themselves the assumptions they were making or trying to get the listener to consent to.
Nowhere here did anyone even say “that was so racist.”
There are times for that of course: calling something “so racist” and doing so in ways that risks getting you called a self-righteous jerk. I have those stories too. But when it comes to white racial bonding, those of us who are white and want to be antiracist allies need to figure out how to not go along. But to do so in ways that simultaneously invite the possibility that other whites can hear us (and themselves) in the process.
Whether or not they take us up on it is out of our control.
But how well we do it? Well, that one’s all on us.