Thursday, August 22, 2013

White Like Me

Reading Jamie Utt’s blog post, "That's Racist Against White People!" A Discussion on Power and Privilege, I come again, particularly in the comments discussion, to the place of curiosity about one of the many things that make us human beings different, each from the other.  Why do some folk, white like me, receive information about white privilege with a reaction of defensiveness, hostility and anger and others do not?  Why do some externalize the message and some internalize it?  What makes the difference in our ability or inability to hear, to listen, to be changed or to reject out-of-hand, to become more entrenched?

Utt’s interaction with a FB friend is instructive: they made progress when the conversation could be turned, even a little, from a direct discussion about ‘them’ and ‘us’ to a conversation about ‘us’, all of ‘us’.  So maybe it’s as simple as feeling included.

Yet I find even that problematic.

Long ago in a group discussion, a loving, sincere, good, young white woman commented, "but everyone's been oppressed in some way".  My thought then and now is that this point of view is a part of the problem of the well-meaning – no – everyone has not been oppressed.  To say everyone has is to say we're all in the same boat oppression-wise, which is just one logical step away from saying no one is oppressed (or perhaps better, since 'it's' happening to us all, what are we to do?)

To claim that we’re all in the same boat when it comes to oppression is to make meaningless any desire or effort to challenge systems that benefit one group at the expense of another.  In Jesus world where I (at least try to) live, that's just not on.  I cannot benefit from the pushing down of others and call it good or even just the way it is (the last refuge of moral bankruptcy).  In Jesus world, it's my job to know and to work to change, or at a bare minimum, not lie and deny.

And before we white folk cry foul, we might do well to spend a little quiet time in prayer asking God to reveal to us the ways in which we profit and benefit from the treatment and mistreatment of others who are not white in our time and place (the old adage about walking in someone else's shoes requires the thoughtful, deliberate, intentional exercise of our moral imagination).

If you think it’s not a problem, consider former Senator Jim Webb’s book, Born Fighting, where in the Foreword, he writes, “The fundamental assumption – flawed . . . was that the reins of power were unfairly held by the so-called WASPS . . . since much of American society was dominated by Caucasians of Protestant, Western European descent, then by definition all of those who, however loosely, fit this category were assumed to have shared a presumptive advantage . . .”, a position he condemns.  Senator Webb cannot accept that his ancestors, some of whom may have been dirt poor, had it better than the slaves.  I understand the crushing poverty of the Appalachias.  But you cannot compare situations in one narrow aspect and call it fair.  Slaves and indentured servants were not the same: indentured servants had a certain future that slaves did not – freedom.  And indentured servants did not have their mothers, fathers, husbands, wives, and children sold and forcefully removed from them.  And with the importation of slaves from Africa, white indentured servants became a higher class of worker.

Senator Webb, whose Scots-Irish ethnicity I share, misses the crucial point when it comes to black-white dynamics in these United States: no matter how bad we may have had it, we chose those paths, we and our ancestors.  With the exception of the imprisoned or impressed, no matter how poor or disadvantaged, we chose to come here.  And we were free to choose whether to remain or move on, as his book later points out in terms of those who migrated further west.  More plainly put: we started out white.  And no matter how much we want to cringe away from the reality of it, it is a disadvantage to be black in the United States.  It was in the 1600's.  It is today.  Even for the poorest among us, to start out not-black is to start out several steps ahead in virtually every aspect of our collective life.  And it does not negate the struggles of my people to admit it.

So how do we white folk talk about this?  What do we do?  How do we ‘give back’ our privilege, our edge?  Should we?  Should we even want to?  Those are all fair, if tough, questions.  But we’ve got to begin from the place where we recognize and acknowledge that we have an edge, an advantage, that we did nothing to earn and that our ancestors and the systems they put into place that continue into today, guaranteed would flow to us and not to others.  That might be a beginning.

But fighting about whether it’s true, this thing we call white privilege?  The time for that is over.  For now is the time for the grown-ups to lead the conversation.  And grown-ups do not fight about reality.  They deal with it.


SIDE NOTE to Fox News and others on the usage of the word ‘cracker’ and equating that to racial slurs against black people: I’m a West Virginian, so perhaps the language just doesn’t have the same history with me as it does folk of the South (to my Northern friends – West Virginia is not a southern state).  Even so, this is what I know: if someone were to call me a cracker, I would simply think it was funny or odd.  It would have no application to me.  But whenever the ‘n – word’ is used in the United States, every black person feels the assault.  I never had to have ‘the’ talk with my children about being called crackers on the street.  I do not have reason to fear for my or my family’s safety simply because the word cracker is used in a sentence.  I do not have to go out into the world always on psychic guard against the random attack of language on my personhood.  I don’t like any name calling and try my very best not to do it.  But I’m with Mr. Utt: all names are not created equal and hurt feelings are not the same as oppression.  Both matter.  But they are not the same.  One is transitory; the other is forever.

*An obvious play on the title of John Howard Griffin’s book Black Like Me, taken from a line in the poem Dream Variations by Langston Hughes:

To fling my arms wide
In some place of the sun,
To whirl and to dance
Till the white day is done.
Then rest at cool evening
Beneath a tall tree
While night comes on gently,
Dark like me-
That is my dream!

To fling my arms wide
In the face of the sun,
Dance! Whirl! Whirl!
Till the quick day is done.
Rest at pale evening...
A tall, slim tree...
Night coming tenderly
Black like me. 


  1. I am white, and I agree with you. Can you even imagine having your child forcibly sold/taken away from you by your white owners, most likely never to see that child again. That is different from being a poor white family.

    1. I can't even imagine and hate that anyone can. Sigh. What's that song? "When will we ever learn?"

  2. Everyone should read the issue of TIME with Martin Luther King on the cover --- wonderful coverage of the way things were and the people who lived through it and worked to change it. Also - the current movie "The Butler" --- HIGHLY recommend!!!! Terrific film!!

    1. Both now on my to-do's - thanks for the recommendations.