What Does a White Person Have To Say About Racism?
On this Martin Luther King Day, what does a white person have to say about racism? This is what I want to share with you this morning. I am a child of the sixties. I remember well the Civil Rights Movement. I have been in the presence Martin Luther King on two separate occasions. I was a seminarian in a West Indian parish in Boston. A seminary classmate of mine was killed in Alabama, registering black voters. But it was not until three years ago that I finally asked the one question that opened my eyes to the dynamics of race.
When I was young priest I thought I could take a chunk out of racism if I could only get black and white people in the same room, where the black folk would share what it was like for them to be black and where the white people would feel bad. I thought the essential question to ask was what it is like to be black. Every time this happened, it was emotional but little changed. It was not until thirty years later that I discovered the one question that would open up any insight into racism. “Phillip, what is it like for you to be white?” I had never asked myself that question before because I had never really thought of myself as part of any race. I was simply an American. It had never crossed my mind to think of myself as white and that was part of the problem.
Thinking about myself as white and with the help of an article by Peggy McIntosch, I began to develop a list of what it meant for me to be white. Being white means that I can be late for a meeting without having that lateness reflect on my race. No one whispers “WPT,” white people’s time, as I take my seat. Being white means that a goodly number of people of my race will be at almost every meeting or event that I attend. Being white means that I can believe, if I want, that this nation was founded on the principles of liberty and justice for all and that the founders of the nation were thinking about people like me when they did their work. Being white means that, when I succeed, I am never called a credit to the white race. Being white means that I can live in any part of Morristown that I can afford, even though the first realtor who took my wife and me around warned us about the schools once my children moved into junior high school. Being white means that I am never asked to speak to the likes and dislikes of all white people. Being white means that, when I am waiting for a cab and the driver sails by me with no one in the car, or when a sales clerk at a departments store ignores me, I do not have to work to figure out whether I am being ignored because I am white or simply because that person is having a bad day. Being white means, when I am in my car and am stopped by a police officer, it usually means I have done something wrong. I never even for a minute, think I am being stopped because I am white. Being white means that I have the luxury of believing and teaching my two sons the Horatio Alger myth, that people can pick themselves up by their own bootstraps; that if you persist, work hard and stay focused, you will be judged solely by your merits and will succeed. Being white means that almost any barber I go to knows how to cut my hair. Being white means I can always find skin colored Band-Aids that match my skin and no one assumes that I have rhythm or am good at basketball.
At Christmas a couple of years ago, I bought a sweatshirt for a member of my staff from one of the local Morristown stores. A week later he came to me with the present in hand, still in the box, and said that the clerk in the store had forgotten to remove the metal strip that sets off the alarm at the door. If you have ever tried to remove one of those strips you know that it is almost impossible without ripping up the shirt. So I told Mike where I bought the shirt and asked him to go across the street to the store, walk in the door and ask one of the clerks to remove the alarm strip. Mike just looked at me as if I were crazy. Then it hit me. Mike, as an African-American, walking through the door and setting off the alarm, could not be certain that he would not be challenged and accused of stealing the shirt. Yet I could set off the alarm, explain myself, and have every reason to assume that I would be believed. That is white privilege. I have it and Mike does not. That is what it means to be white. It means that in most situations I feel that I belong, that the playing field is level, and that I am not seen as the “other.”
I did not ask for these privileges and neither did any white person in this room. Most of the time we are not even aware we have them. But, we do! These privileges are part of the fabric of this nation. As Cornel West says, “In America race matters.”
I can hear some of my white sisters and brothers out there saying, “Hey, not so fast. I have many African-American friends and colleagues and I do not think of them as black, just as people. No unequal privileges exist between us. Things are changing. We are moving on.”
My response is that one reason that racial dialogue is so difficult in this nation is that we think of the individual as the basic social unit. If we just clean up our prejudices and negative attitudes between each other on a one-to-one basis, racism will be solved. Individual rights, individual freedoms, individual self-determination, all- go to the heart of how we think of ourselves. Yet, in truth, the advantages and disadvantages of the group, or the race to which we belong shape the world in which we live and our perception of each other.
It is easy to think of racism simply as a negative attitude or a personal feeling. Again this is thinking in terms of the individual as the basic social unit when racism is a structure, a system of unequal power between groups of people. Racism is part of the institutional fabric of this nation and has been since its beginning.
Speaking as a white person, it feels as if white America lives in a perpetual state of historic amnesia when it comes to the conditions and effects of 300 years of slavery. Much of the wealth of this nation is based on slave labor. The masters of the looms in the North, who manufactured and sold textiles worldwide, were dependent on cheap, slave-picked cotton generated by the masters of the lash in the South. Even when slavery was officially abolished, blacks were kept in their place for yet another 100 years by the institutions of lynching and Jim Crow laws. Slavery did not end with the Emancipation Proclamation. The effects of such a system of raw human violence done by one group to another will not go away in a few generations. The system lives on today in the more subtle form of white privilege. It was not until I could see this that I could even begin to understand some of the dynamics of racism within and around me. It all started by my asking the question of what it means to be white.
I am convinced that racism is in the drinking water of this nation. We take it in without even being aware. Racism is more, much more that just a set of prejudices and stereotypes we carry around about each other. If the truth be told, both black and white folk are full of prejudices about each other. Not even white people have a monopoly on that. What makes it different is that white folk have the power. When power and prejudice are joined together, it means that those with the power can act on their negative feelings. They can keep other people down with these feelings. They can benefit their own race with these feelings. They can define the standards for society with these feeling. They can determine what is good and bad taste, good and bad English, good and bad music with these feelings. They can create a society in their own image with these feelings. Power linked with prejudice is the very definition of racism.
I tell you that one of the worst things you can ever call a well-meaning white person is a racist. If you want to see someone suddenly squirm, quickly justify himself/herself and tell you how much he or she does to fight prejudice, just infer that that white person is a racist. The image of a racist most white people carry is someone who runs around with a white sheet and a pointy hat and who screams out the “n—“ word from a passing pick-up truck. But, racism can be ever so subtle. It is what naturally happens when prejudice and power are joined together.
As a white person, I believe I must learn to live with the fact that racism lives within me and that the best that I can be is a recovering racist. And, if you know anything about recovery programs, you know that recovery is a life long process. It is an intention you must keep in front of you everyday of your life. As a white person, being a racist doesn’t necessarily make me a horrible person. It makes me a human person with the capacity to hurt other people, often without even knowing I am doing it, because of the privileges I have. It is a problem that I must work on as intentionally as the alcoholic must work on not drinking. And, like the alcoholic, if I do not work on this problem, it will kill me. Racism is a white problem as much, if not more, than it is a black problem.
Only after I fully live into to the question of what it means to be white can I begin to be an ally to my black sisters and brothers in combating this cancer that is eating away at all of us. So, I ask myself, how white people become allies of black people in combating racism? And what would it take for black people to begin to trust white people? Both of these questions are answered the same way for me.
The truth is that white people can never know what it is like to be black. But, what white people can know is what it feels like also to be abused by a combination of power and prejudice that tells them that they are not good enough because of who they are and then puts them on the outside looking in. I am convinced that no white person can even begin to imagine the pain black people live with until that white person relives personal experiences in which the combination of power plus prejudice was used against him or her. I tell you it would not take very long for every woman, every gay or lesbian, every Jewish woman or man to bring such an experience to mind. It would not take long for every Asian, Hispanic, working class person, senior citizen, or disabled person to bring such an experience to mind. What experience does the straight white male have to get in touch with, you ask. Maybe it is this. There is an unattainable image out there of what it means to be a man, a real man. In the face of this image, most men feel inadequate: not strong enough, not big enough, not smart enough, not brave enough, not good enough. Even though it may be harder for men to get in touch with their pain, it is still there, just not so overt. Until we all get in touch with the pain of power plus prejudice used against us, any commitment of a white person to fight racism is just theoretical. Theoretical commitment is always the first to cut and run when the going gets tough.
The prophet Micah from Scriptures calls the people of Israel to task because of their injustice to each other and to the foreigner. Micah chides the people because they forgot their roots. He reminds them that they knew, first hand, the feel of the whip on their backs. “You forgot,” he says, “that you were once a slave people and that God rescued you from your slavery.” Micah reminds them that, when they forget the pain they suffered, then do they oppress other people.” Not until white people can relive times they were on the bottom looking up, can they ever become effective allies in the fight against racism.
When talking about tearing down the system of racism in this nation, we are talking about changing the balance of power. Just getting people to appreciate and feel comfortable with each other is not enough. Nothing will ever change until power is more evenly distributed between the races. And such redistribution will only come with a struggle. People do not freely give away power. Frederick Douglas said in 1857, “If there is no struggle, there is not progress” He continued, “Those who profess to favor freedom, and yet deprecate agitation, are those who want crops without plowing the ground; they want rain without thunder and lightening…. The struggle may be a moral one, or it may be a physical one, or it may be both. But, it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without demand; it never has and it never will. “
On this Martin Luther King Day what does a white person have to say about racism? There are five things.
1. For me to join the fight against racism, I must first get in touch with what it feels like to be white. I must name and own my white privilege.
2. Racism is a mixture of prejudice and fear joined with power. The imbalance of power within our society is what keeps the racism firmly in place.
3. For my commitment to be more than theoretical and for me to be a real ally, I must first revisit experiences in my life when I was abused by the combination of power and prejudice.
4. The fight against racism is going to be a difficult struggle because power concedes nothing without demand. It never has and it never will.
5. Finally, racism is as much my problem and that of every white person as it is that of my black sisters and brothers.
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