Why I Must Write about Race,
A few weeks ago a family member shared an article with me from the site “Good Men Project” titled, Why I don’t want to Talk about Race by Steve Locke. It is a letter from a black man to his white friend explaining why he will not write an article for the GMP about race. In a key paragraph of that letter he explains,
“Black people can’t talk to white people about race anymore. There’s really nothing left to say. There are libraries full of books, interviews, essays, lectures, and symposia. If people want to learn about their own country and its history, it is not incumbent on black people to talk to them about it. It is not our responsibility to educate them about it. Plus whenever white people want to talk about race, they never want to talk about themselves. There needs to be discussion among people who think of themselves as white. They need to unpack that language, that history, that social position and see what it really offers them, and what it takes away from them. ”
This post is my reply to Steve, a man I only know through the letter posted in the GMP, but a man with a sentiment I have heard often and to which I need to reply. This is particularly apropos now regarding recent national events.
While we’ve never met I do feel like you could be a good friend, reading your words I felt a connection to you and your friend, Tom, I empathized with your passion regarding race I felt need to respond to your “Why I don’t want to Talk about Race” with my counter statement of “Why I Must Talk about Race.” You see Steve I am a white man, raised in a homogonous rural Midwest community, yet one who has lived all his adult life in a diverse urban community. I must write and speak about race because racism in America is my problem. I’ve seen it from many angles, all obtuse.
As a child and teen I did not know, nor believe, that race was a problem in America; I didn’t know any African Americans and few people of other races. The black and brown people I saw on TV, or through a car window, I knew were different than I but that, I believed, was their problem. The differences of economics, cultural norms, and criminality could not be not because of any lingering effects of racism. Racism was a thing of the past.
In school we watched “Roots” – we understood slavery was wrong and we rejected segregation. We were not burning crosses or wearing white hoods, we were not racist and racism was NOT a problem anymore in America. Rosa had refused to stand up, Martin refused to sit down, and now racism was a thing of the past. Then I began to learn that I didn’t “know a f’n thing” about race. (real quote from a non-white friend)
I moved to Minneapolis and began to make friends with Blacks and Latinos. I was the church youth leader of a very diverse group of teens. I student taught at a school that was over 75% black. I moved to a neighborhood where less that 20% of the people looked like me. I make friends easily, I like to hear others stories, yet I was troubled with how my new, non-white friends talked about race. They believed much differently than I, they thought race was still an issue. This continued as my community grew to include Asian and Native Americans.
For example, whenever these friends spoke about strained encounters they had with police, I felt this patriotic duty to defend the police. Yet, I was conflicted because I knew these people to be men and women of great integrity. I realized I could not befriend them and accept their love and hospitality, yet regard their consistent testimony in this area as false. Eventually, not only did I hear their testimony but I also experienced situations that showed me firsthand the reality of race-based treatment; not only with the police, but within neighborhoods and institutions where I had never before sensed anything was amiss.
As a teacher, pastor, and a history/ sociology buff, I began to dig into the past to understand how we got to the place we are today. That is the hard work you suggest, Steve, that white people need to undertake for themselves; to read, listen, and observe in order to begin to understand. While we can all identify acts of overt racism it is nearly impossible for white people to be aware of “Whiteness” the power structure that created and sustains racism.
is the atmosphere our culture has created
We inhale it’s blessings, curses …
Allergens – and rote verses
To some it is fresh air
Empowering and assuring
It is invisible – rarely noticed, but always enduring
But if suddenly –
Stripped away, altered, or exposed
Those dependent on it’s presence gasp and groan,
Threats – guilt
They blame their discomfort on those who
Lowered the pressure
Changed the components
Of the atmosphere on which their life is built.
But to countless others…?
It was one thing to wake up to the reality of racialized treatment, but it has been a much greater journey be aware of Whiteness and how it works. I fought the idea of white privilege for years. I knew my immigrant great-grandparents had worked hard for everything they got. But then I saw first-hand, in the lives of friends and through reading volumes, of how my family got to play the “American Dream” game with a whole different set of rules than people of color. And privilege and whiteness are not just historical issues (like most cases of overt racism) they are present and powerful in almost all corners of society.
Steve, you wrote in the GMP ,
“ …I don’t want to talk about race because it gives weight to a fiction that was created to oppress. It has no basis in biology and is a social construction in this country that was engineered to maintain access to free labor. The fiction created by race distorts the reality in which we live.”
I agree. But it seems the “fiction” of race was created to enforce and support the reality of White Power and the privilege it engendered. So this is at the heart of why I must speak out and write about race:
Race’s whoring parent, Whiteness, needs to be called out and publicly shamed by the very children to whom it is willing to offer power and protection.
I have also learned that Whiteness is an abusive parent. I have at times disobeyed their rules and I have had to feel the shame and lose the credibility and power I would normally be afforded. If you choose to deny whiteness, intuitions may silence you, label you as a ni@@er lover, and in so doing preserve the structures that perpetrate their power. I don’t exaggerate. My wife heard these chilling words mixed with a personal threat in late night phone call. This was not in 1957 but in 2007. Whiteness don’t play if you threaten its power.
I appreciated your quote from James Baldwin “As long as you think that you are white, there is no hope for you.” I struggle with, and yet embrace this idea. As I white man in this game of life, I can never stop others from automatically passing white power to me. But, I do not have to complete their pass. I can let their pass drop through my un-extended hands or I can catch it and then flick the ball of opportunity and power to a person Whiteness never intended as the recipient. Baldwin also wrote that, “…white is a moral choice. It’s up to you to be as white as you want to be and pay the price of that ticket.” (the Cost of redemption, uncollected writings) So I must use my voice and pen to negotiate the price of me that I am willing to allow that ticket to consume. It is only by constantly being aware – through word and acts of renunciation of whiteness or solidarity with persons of color – I can keep my soul from being owned by that ticket.
White is not a color of skin –
even the un-tanned booty of your
caucasian cousin ain’t white
YET- Even the darkest brown brother
from the mother land ain’t true black
White and black with hues of brown in between
were never simple descriptors
But power broker labels –
status bestowing – bastardizing constructs
For colonizing , patronizing,
Dehumanizing power to destruct!
And so Steve, I understand why you choose not to write about race, you should not have to explain to resistant students a truth they do not want to see nor have ever had to experience because of the color of their skin. I seriously laughed out loud when you mentioned how a poster once responded to a research article about race saying it was like comparing “apples to oranges.” I too get that comment on occasional posts and it is almost always from resistant white men who do not want to see the dots connected. If I write, even a hint about race or racism it is always white men who rush to defend Whiteness and deny racism exists. I was discussing this with my niece, she explained it well, “…because women see it because we are women… and don’t have the privilege of being a man…”
Thanks Steve for the reminder that the duty now is ours, not yours. Eliminating racism should not solely be the job of the oppressed; it is also the obligation of those who have benefited from the system of whiteness.
Why will I continue to speak and write about racism, even as former friends reject me and family calls me into question?
1) I will do it for my dear friends of color who should not be left standing alone trying to explain their pain to the perpetrator. However I will not speak for them, but I will listen and seek to assure their voice is heard.
2) I will do it for my dear white friends who “don’t get it.” Most of them are not bad people they have great hearts, they just have a severe blind spot.
3) I will do it for myself, I cannot be fully human without speaking out and standing with the oppressed. As Desmond Tutu said, “My humanity is bound up in yours, for we can only be human together.”
When I remain silent, I am claiming my whiteness, the power to melt into the mass. When I speak out, I am claiming my humanity and all the possibilities that are then released as a child of God created to live in peace with all His children.
Thanks again Steve, I hope some day we may meet face to face.