During the past month, while Israel has been busy pounding Lebanon and the U.S. has continued to occupy both Iraq and Afghanistan, I've been watching the castigation of several bloggers of color by "White" folks who purport to be seeking information, but often use a bludgeon of words to ask for it. Now, on the surface, these things would not appear immediately to be connected, but I would argue that, in fact, they are. And in any case, I have experienced them as being current manifestations of the paradigm in which we still find ourselves enmeshed, a paradigm predicated on the idea that "White" is "right." Period. No matter what. A paradigm that, in the end, serves no one well (not even White folks) since it weakens any possible future social stability that might develop otherwise.
While all the ugliness was unfolding against Nubian, among others, there have been some excellent responses. Despite her own struggles, for example, Granny has unleashed several remarkable volleys here and here and here. And Shannon had already drafted a walloping list of frequently asked questions about racism here. So there couldn't possibly be anything left to say, could there? Well, let's see what I can add to the process.
First of all, I'd like to begin by saying that there is no twelve-step program for White folks. More's the pity, really. But there isn't. This means that a European-American can't just read a few pointers or one article or one book or even take one workshop or a whole class and have the matter of "race" down pat. It doesn't work like that. Which is one reason why so many of us wind up with our feet (both of them, shoes and all) half-way down our throats on a regular basis, typically without a clue and without realizing it. I mean, it would seem obvious, wouldn't it, that a person would come to recognize the taste of shoe leather? But apparently this is not the case for many who really, really, really don't want to face reality. And, as I love to say, you can't wake up a person pretending to be asleep.
So if you find yourself arguing with Nubian, Granny, Shannon or me, or any of the other folks who sound like us or any person of color, in general, as a matter or fact, who happens to be making you uncomfortable, I would suggest that you spit out your feet and just shut up until you no longer feel like arguing. It may be a long, slow process, but there will be progress. And believe me, we're not making this up as we go along. If you're scared, say you're scared. But reality is never going to become something different than it is just so you can feel more comfortable--even if you're "White."
Now, this brings us to a second point. I believe that there is a distinct difference between being European-American (an ethnicity) and being "White" (a "racial" category). Most European-Americans don't realize that "race" is a socially-constructed, political notion. It was created as a concept out of thin air by Europeans a few hundred years ago for the express purpose of rationalizing and legitimating the rampant exploitation and even genocide of people of color around the world to make Europe and Europeans rich. And it didn't work because Europeans were the superior group or because God had mandated that Europeans should be in the catbird seat. It worked because enough Europeans were willing to be viciously brutal themselves or to condone the vicious brutality of others who looked like them to make it work. Obviously, this is nothing to be proud of.
Some European-Americans counter their own history by claiming that their ancestors didn't own any slaves, captain any slave ships, or whatever. But the wealth that bankrolled the Industrial Revolution and the establishment of the United States as the richest nation in the world came directly out of the ruinous rampage Europeans visited on people of color for several hundred years. We would not be the nation we are if this had not occurred. Moreover, every social institution in the U.S. was built to benefit European-Americans and has since the beginning to the present continued to be controlled by the group that they were built to benefit. You don't have to know it's there for you. It's not personal. It's a system. And it's working just like it's supposed to.
What I'm attempting to help you see here is that Europeans created the concept of "race," created "Black" people (who were actually Africans or African-Americans) and "White" people (who were actually Europeans or European-Americans) and then an entire system of social "rules" to determine how "Black" people and "White" people should or would be allowed to live their lives. For this reason, I don't call myself "White." I don't choose to identify myself with the socially-constructed, political notion of "Whiteness." I'm not ashamed of my ethnic heritage, per se, or of being myself as a European-American. But, since the category of "White" was created only for the purpose of oppressing people who are not "White," I don't identify myself with it. You could make the same decision, if you wanted to. Not to deny "Whiteness" as a system of privilege and power that is destroying our nation, but simply to disavow your desire to participate in the maintenance of that system while knowing that you are doing so. Which would be a beginning, a move in the direction of becoming an ally.
Having already said that no single presentation is going to be a down-and-dirty moment of truth for anybody, I'm not expecting any European-American reader to slap his or her forehead at this point and exclaim, "I get it!" So, if you just did that, or you find yourself wanting to do that sometime as a result of a single conversation, book, etc., try--hard--to refrain from slapping your head because you'll be fooling yourself. It's not possible to suddenly understand. Baby steps. Baby steps. If you try to prove you're ready to climb the mountain before you can walk, you're gonna fall and nobody is expecting you to climb yet anyway. There is no easier, softer way. Take your time, but remember, mouth shut until you know a little something and that won't be for a long, long time. Capisce?
Am I trying to be rude here or hurt your feelings or something? After all, you're reading this because you want to be an ally for people of color, right? Shouldn't I be a little kinder, a little more thoughtful, perhaps, of your good intentions? The answer is: no. You don't deserve special kindness for making some tiny effort to face reality. It may not be your personal fault that institutionalized oppression in the name of racism against people of color has made sure that people who look like you and I have the most of the best and the least of the worst. But since you have benefitted from birth because of it--whether you realized it or not--you've already gotten all the special treatment you should expect. And given the fact that this system is not going to disappear any time soon, you're going to continue to get benefits anyway, even if you don't want them. (And let's be real about that, shall we? Are you sure you're ready to give up all that privilege when you've never experienced life any other way so far? Hmmm...?)
The fact is that it's almost impossible to make a dent in most "White" people's social armor. We've lived in the ritualized norms of our lives for several hundred years. It was already in place when we were born, so we think and tell ourselves and teach our children and make damn sure people of color know that this system we've got is just, well, natural. It's the way things are. And after all, it's worked pretty well so far, right? And things have changed, haven't they? I mean, we've got a "Black" secretary of state and a "Black" supreme court justice and a few thousand "Black" athletes making serious money. Doesn't that count for something?
Yeah. It counts for a relatively small percentage of African-Americans doing very well and a somewhat larger percentage of African-Americans who have fought their way up-hill to make a decent life for themselves--as long as they play by the rules--while one out of every two African-American children are living in abject poverty. I know, I know, it's not your fault. You sent ten bucks to the United Negro College Fund. And even got passed over for a promotion one time that was ultimately given to an African-American--and you didn't even protest (though you were absolutely certain that you were better qualified)...
So, what am I trying to say here? If the whole mindset of "Whiteness" is so hard to buck, then why try? Right? I mean, African-Americans are already so angry they don't even want to let you ask your questions or touch their hair or anything, right? How are you to change if they won't "help" you? All right. You asked. Just remember that. And here's a little list to help you get started.
(1) Read! Read The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison, Notes of a Native Son by James Baldwin, Coming of Age in Mississippi by Anne Moody, Racist America by Joe Feagin, and White Like Me: Reflections on Race by a Privileged Son by Tim Wise. And after you read all those, start checking out the sites on my blog roll. Then, you read blogs. Not to comment. Not to question. Just to read and learn. And then read the comments and find more blogs to read. All while just in a receiving mode. Believe me, if you really want to learn and you read long enough, you will begin to get a glimmer of understanding. Trying to "state your case" will set you back light years. Trying to "clarify (defend) your perspective" is a giant flag screaming "Whiteness forever!" Don't go to these blogs and tell them I sent you and then act the fool. They know me better than that.
(2) Face the fact that the system and other "White" folks are going to try to keep you operating out of your "Whiteness" and this is going to make it harder for you to become an ally for people of color. European-Americans can be allies. "White" folks are just "White." They can't help it. That's the way it is. If you really want to be an ally, then you're going to have to learn how "White" you already are. You're going to have to allow yourself to begin seeing "Whiteness" for what it is--an ugly, mean-spirited, frightened, greedy, social-construction that borders on some form of insanity. And you're going to have to be vigilent all the time to resist its subtle and not so subtle manifestations. If you're serious about being an ally, though, you'll get the help you need to learn how.
And finally, (3) look African-Americans in the eye without challenge. Even if they don't dress like you or look like they're in the same socio-economic class as you (whether better or worse) or speak exactly the same way you do and even if you get the distinct impression that they don't like you. See them. Recognize them as humans just like you--no better, no worse--with issues and disappointments and intelligence and capabilities and rights, for God's sake! Accept them straight out as people--just like you. And then show some respect. Respect gets respect, you know. And if you're not getting it, you're not giving it, even if you think you are.
Now, if you think this just puts too much of the onus on you--the "White" person--keep in mind that the issue at hand is becoming an ally for people of color. African-Americans don't expect European-Americans to be anything but "White." They've been surviving and even rising above with little outside support for hundreds of years. But that doesn't make it reasonable or just or decent or healthy for European-Americans to leave it like that. Being an ally for people of color is what we need to do for us. And for our nation. And for our world. And for any hope of a future for ourselves or our children. Truly, isn't that worth the effort?