A Starting Point on Race for White People, Maybe

Maybe it’s that I’m reading Alice Walker’s incredible The Color Purple just as the commentary around Trayvon Martin has taken center stage again. Whatever the reason, the loud, angry cacophony about race in America has cut me to the heart—and rattled my cage.

Like many white people, I first grew aware of this cacophony because of the O. J. Simpson verdict, with the stark difference in interpretation of the evidence along racial lines. Since then I’ve read some, listened to wisdom from some great thinkers (like Judith Katz, a pioneer of the idea of white awareness), and have some grasp of what I should do and how I should think around this issue.

The shoulds can be useful guides. Ultimately, though, whatever I do and think has to come from me—from my deepest self. I am just starting to glimpse what that is. And one part of it may be helpful to white Americans like me who are struggling to understand, on a heart and gut level, the dimensions of the conversation on race.

So, white Americans, here’s an idea to chew on:

Each of us grows up with a story. It tells us who we are, who our family is, and particularly what our society is and how it works. For those of us with things in common, our stories hold some things in common—especially about society.

This is true of us as white people. We’ve learned that the policeman is our friend. We know that there are no limits to how far you can go or what you can do. We’ve heard that we live in a post-racial society.

That is our story.

Over the years, we have heard it a lot. So often, in fact, that for us it becomes a given. It is no longer a story about reality; we think it is reality—“the way things are.”

Then we get the O. J. trial. And Trayvon Martin. And suddenly we see that at least one other group of people—African Americans—has a different story. On many points, their story contradicts our story.

All this is indisputable.

The question is what we do with it. And for people of dialogue, the answer is surprisingly clear.

As people of dialogue, we know that each of us is exactly one person among billions, with one person’s perspective among billions. Our knowledge is fantastically limited, our ability to be certain even more so. Those simple facts drive me into dialogue with you—because if I know so little, I want to hear what you know, so together we may get closer: to the truth of the situation, to a way forward, to mutual understanding.

In this case, as white people of dialogue, what we do next is listen. Long, intently, without interrupting.

This is particularly important in the U.S., where the dominant story—the white story—so often drowns out the other stories. Where for large swaths of our history as a nation, those other stories were seen as nearly sacrilegious, and their storytellers threats.

How do we start to listen? As my friend Paige Baker has pointed out to me, volumes have been written about these other stories. It behooves me to read them. I need giant portions of Alice Walker and Maya Angelou and others like them.

I think dialogue as a habit of the heart can play an important role here. As white Americans, we have heard our story for many years. It will take years for us to absorb the other stories. That calls for an inner orientation toward listening that enables a continual readiness. Whenever the conversation comes up—with a friend, in the media, wherever—we are ready to listen because our whole selves are tuned that way.

So. Can we listen for a while? A long while? Do you see the value?

7 Responses to “A Starting Point on Race for White People, Maybe”

  • Lysa grant says:

    Listen to me. You have to understand…. I am tired of listening. I do not have to understand anyone and nobody needs understand me. What needs to be done is people need to be who they are, accept their differences and embrace them. Blacks will never be treated the same as whites and whites will never be treated like blacks. We are different . We all have different backgrounds which is what makes us who we are. And we are all different.

    The problems are when people look for blame and are so sure that racial differences are the cause of blame. If a crime is committed because of race, it is not the RACE that caused the crime, it is one sick individual. When a gun is used, we do not blame the gun, it is the person behind it. There are people who cannot make moral decisions that agree with that of the majority and they are the problems. Not their race.

    I may not be considered white, so perhaps this blog does not apply to me, but I live in a predominantly white area and have mostly white friends and I do listen. I hear, but I also speak. We must speak, but we do have the responsibility to think before we do so.

  • Denise Talbott says:

    John, your post resonated with me, and not entirely in a positive manner. I think listening to everyone’s back story is important, and I wish there were more positive voices heard and shown to all Americans about the successes of ALL of us, that almost all of us have overcome something in our life, something that has tried to hold us down, hold us back, hold us underwater while we struggled to breath and be. Yet when you have someone like Bill Cosby basically kicking the Black community in the rear end over their tolerance of things that are really intolerable- he gets a backlash of criticism. Is it any wonder that virtually no white person- wait, make that ANY person- will say anything that might be twisted so that they can be called a racist? Are the only people that can instruct the black community, or any ethnic community, required to belong to that community? If so, then a lot of wisdom is being tossed aside. I have so much more to say but as I try to write it in a coherent manner, it simply exhausts me and I erase what I have written- that’s a problem.

  • admin says:

    Lysa and Denise, thank you so much for your thoughtful responses. You have raised a number of points for which I have no answer. What struck me most was that both of you mentioned exhaustion over these issues. I’d guess exhaustion is endemic in all corners of this debate, and that’s a problem: I know I can’t do the hard work of dialogue when I’m worn out.

    Part of the exhaustion, I suspect, goes back to that word “cacophony.” As a nation, we engage these issues in a loud, sharp, angry way; we seem to make little progress; and we wear ourselves out. I think there are strands of our national (pseudo) conversation–elements of dialogue strategy, important insights, etc.–that can be useful. But now I am wondering whether the current version of this conversation is too flawed to help us. This is why I wrote the post above: to suggest a do-over, a new starting point that might work better than what we have now.

  • Denise Talbott says:

    I read the article you referred to and the one thing that made me feel as though I was a beneficiary of “white privilege” was this: there were expectations placed on me growing up. Expectations for behavior, success in school, success as an ethical human being- honesty, compassion, thrift, etc- you know the drill- and an attitude of no excuses- your success or failure was in your own hands. And it was the same for all my peers. I think we forget that many other ethnic groups have the same “white privilege” although that almost sounds racist saying it that way. What we see most frequently in the media are NOT those folks, but rather those who seem to have no moral compass, parental guides, whatever, at all. And this sort of thing has a multiplier effect. I don’t know what to do about it, how to make education sexier and being a gang member less romantic or at least not requisite for existence in some neighborhoods. I don’t know how to give everyone my definition of “white privilege”. How responsible am I to try to do so?

    I feel the author of the article is dead on when he says that we don’t want to believe their (black/racist) experience. At least for me, part of the reason I am reluctant to validate those experiences can be laid at the feet of some of the comments made by the most outspoken in the community – akin to the joke concerning lawyers,, if their lips are moving, they are lying. Ex- Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson. Those are two men IMO searching for a reason to be relevant and will twist any situation that they can. Like politicians. I don’t trust them, they don’t trust me. I find it very hard at times to believe what folks are saying unless they are agreeing with me! But that particular fact is probably not confined to any one ethnic group. See, I don’t want to accept any responsibility in this either. And acknowledging all this doesn’t make me feel any less beat up about it either.

  • Susan says:

    (white person here, just to set the context of what follows).
    I recently talked with my colleagues about how to strike an appropriate balance between the policy hammer and an emphasis on inner transformation/understanding – both of which are needed to create change.

    I agree – listening and more listening, and finally, maybe, exchange of perspectives. But I think I can give myself an easy out with listening, even if I try to do it with all my heart. Fundamentally, I don’t have to change anything, and even if the listening moves me and broadens me, there are societal forces holding me in place (okay, that sounds like I’m not taking responsibility, but those battles play out in my head too).

    So where does action come into this recipe, even if it’s not entirely based on inner transformation? Is dialogue without that corresponding action just another dodge? Or do you think that without that listening, first, it’s bound to be misguided? Discernment takes TIME, and is that privilege, too?

    • admin says:

      These are great questions, Susan. Actually, just to focus on one for a minute, I do think time is privilege in a certain way, particularly as it relates to socioeconomic status. If you’re scrambling to feed your family, you’re going to have precious little time (and energy!) for things like discernment.

      Still, I do think time is required, and to reconcile that paradox I often find myself taking a very long view. The process of inner transformation moves slowly: it takes a lot of time for the transformation to take root in our souls, more time for it to inspire us to action, and then even more for enough people to engage it so that you have a critical mass for action. Still, I suspect that the work of inner transformation adds depth and insight to our action. I worry that action borne of urgency may carry a high risk of being misguided, so the work of the soul can be a corrective for that.

      But I do see your point here: if we proceed ENTIRELY from inner transformation, that runs the risk of taking too damned long. Perhaps it’s a case of each individual exercising her strengths and gifts to the service of the larger justice: contemplatives seek inner transformation which adds depth to action, activists add urgency to keep transformation from degrading into self-focus. Honestly, I’m blue-skying here, so feel free to respond with greater wisdom.

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