“In a real sense all life is inter-related. All men are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be, and you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be … This is the inter-related structure of reality.” – Martin Luther King, Jr.
This started out as a bit of personal journaling, meant only for me. But the message is bigger than that, so I’m sharing it here on the blog. It’s a bit all over the place, and I hope you’re able to stick through to the end. As I write this, I’ll do my best to maintain a royal “we” in reference to white Americans. In no way do I exclude myself from the responsibility we must face up to. If I slip out and write “you,” please know that I mean “we.”
I spent some time yesterday – Blackout Tuesday – educating myself more about the black experience in America, the systemic rot that’s tearing us apart, and the well-deserved burden that white Americans bear in creating profound systemic change.
What follows here is the result of that time. None of it is conclusive. I expect that some (quite a bit, probably) of this has a long way to go in terms of evolving thought, and it’s not my intention to come across as saying, “I’ve got it figured out.” I’ve also included some visuals and thoughts that have really stuck with me in recent days.
Thanks for reading.
Nobody likes to be told that they’re part of the problem. Nobody likes to hear that they’re not doing a good job. And nobody likes to be made uncomfortable.
When it comes to white Americans, however, we are very much part of the problem, to a significant degree. We’ve done a piss-poor job confronting individual, societal, and systemic racism. And we need to get very uncomfortable if we’re going to be part of making things better.
Let’s see … maybe some history for context? First a bit about where I am, and then some personal stuff.
I grew up and still live in Vermont. People like to idealize the Green Mountain State as fiercely abolitionist, with slavery being banned upon its founding in July of 1777. But this place was and is home to active hate groups including the KKK in the early part of the 20th century, and today, the National Socialist Movement and Patriot Front are around. Vermont also actively participated in eugenics, forcing sterilization on around 200 people from 1931 to 1941.
As of July 1, 2019, according to the U.S. Census, Vermont was 94.2 percent White, 1.4 percent Black, 0.4 percent American Indian and Alaska Native, 2 percent Asian, 2 percent Hispanic or Latino, and two percent two or more races.
Forty years earlier, Vermont was 98.52 percent White, 0.22 percent Black, 0.19 percent American Indian and Eskimo, 0.26 percent Asian, 0.65 percent Hispanic, and zero percent two or more races. (Note: “Eskimo” was the term used in 1980, and “Latino” was not an option. I kept the language here both to demonstrate that language can and does evolve, and I was uncertain whether these terms or lack thereof would have impacted how people self-identified.)
Why did I include census numbers from 1980? Two reasons.
One, it demonstrates that Vermont is, in fact, becoming more diverse over time. Issues concerning race cannot and should not be dismissed as problems happening “somewhere else.”
Two, the summer of 1980 was the first time I saw a black person. I was five years old. My world was so white that I can recall the moment in detail.
I was wandering around the old Zayre department store in South Burlington with my family on a Saturday. I rounded one aisle to go down another, and there was a black man about halfway down the aisle, picking out shampoo.
Until that moment, minorities were people who lived somewhere else. It made me wonder why there weren’t black kids in my school. And it made me wonder if he felt weird or different, being so unlike everyone else in the store.
Growing up, I heard the n-word in casual usage. Until I was 11 or so, I didn’t know it was a slur. I don’t know that some of the people using it around me knew either. It was the word they were brought up with. That’s part of what makes white supremacy so insidious. We don’t know we’re doing it when we do it. It’s “normal.”
I was firmly and thoughtfully taught the error of my ways by a teacher who heard me use the word one day at school. My life quite literally changed in that teaching moment. It was my first lesson in racism and the power of words.
This isn’t to say, though, that the word disappeared from my life. It remained for years and years thanks to the “It’s only a joke” defense. An aspect of covert white supremacy, combined with the overtness of using the n-word.
In my teenage years, I was a big Rush Limbaugh fan. Part of the first big wave of talk-radio conservatism and over-the-top rhetoric. I harbored a lot of shitty ideas during that time. Getting out on my own and talking to people whose experiences were different than mine made a huge difference and started to broaden my understanding of how the world works.
That’s a big part of what we lack as white Americans, I think. Empathy. We assume that our experience is everyone’s experience, and if “those people” would just do what we did, they’d be better off.
We live in our little bubbles, armchair quarterbacking racial trauma and its fallout. The thing with bubbles, though, is that they always break, and that’s what white America is experiencing multiple times over now. Breaking bubbles.
Through the pandemic, we’re getting a taste of what everyday life was like before COVID-19 for so many non-white people. The daily uncertainty. The lack of feeling safe when going into the community. Having to do and wear things you don’t want to in order to protect yourself.
I’ve thought a lot about who I am now versus who I was ten, twenty or thirty years ago. Things get slightly less cringey as I move forward in time, but there’s still a long way to go. Something I consider myself fortunate to have in my life is patient people who are there to support my development and allow me to learn from my mistakes.
People and their understanding of the world evolve. While we all have to bear responsibilities for the error of our ways, we also need to be allowed to move beyond what we once were and receive support as we make amends. That’s not to say we should not be held accountable for what we have done individually and collectively in the past, of course.
It’s been interesting to watch President George W. Bush develop a greater understanding of white supremacy and race issues. I’m no fan of him, and I’m not saying he doesn’t have a lot of terrible stuff to answer for. But he seems to be making progress, and he’s saying things I can’t imagine he’d have been capable of 20 years ago.
One of the knee-jerk reactions that always seems to be around discussions of white supremacy, race, and police brutality is “But not all white people/cops/etc are responsible for this.” It happened with the Me Too movement, as well. “But not all men.”
My response then was, “Yes, all men.” And my response now is, “Yes, all white people/cops/etc … are responsible for this.” It’s a systemic problem, and regardless of what we’re doing, there’s always more that can be done.
With regard to the Me Too movement, I wasn’t a movie executive throwing his power around and mistreating women as a result. But I have benefited from being part of a white male power structure that diminishes women. I didn’t ask to be part of it, but that’s not the point. I’ve benefited from it and continue to. Which means my work, my learning, and my self-examination as a white male is ongoing.
The same applies to confronting white supremacy, racism, and police brutality. Whether I asked to be part of the oppressive system that’s in place is irrelevant to the conversation. I’m in it, and I benefit from it. I face fewer obstacles every single day because I’m a white person. A white male, in particular. I have a responsibility to have difficult conversations with other white people (family, cops, coworkers) so that the system can maybe nudge a little closer to change.
This dynamic needs to play out across various groups and micro cultures. If you’re not a police officer who supports or engaged in police brutality, great. But take that a step further and talk with one who does. March with protestors. Make your voice heard. Same with elected officials voting on budgets and bills that are designed to oppress. Employers, athletes, educators, and on and on … there’s a place for these conversations and actions across the board.
One element of the police brutality aspect that tends to shut down conversations pretty quickly is cops being killed in the midst of protests, riots, and so on. Those deaths, too, are tied up in the power dynamics of white supremacy, as are those of George Floyd, Freddie Gray, Amadou Diallo, and far too many others. White supremacy bears the responsibility for the ending of blue lives, too. To blame the Black Lives Matter movement is to deflect that responsibility, prolonging the problem and increasing the likelihood of more deaths, black and blue.
But back to the need for continuous learning, work, and conversation. This need is why the idea of being antiracist is so important. It’s something I’m in the early stages of learning about, thanks to Ibram X. Kendi’s amazing book, How To Be An Antiracist.
In the past, the conversation has typically been framed as either being racist or not racist. The biggest downfall of viewing things that way is that one side is active, and the other is neutral. Racists are actively, well, being racist. Doing the nasty things racists do. And the not racists aren’t doing those things. That’s really as far as not being racist carries us.
Being antiracist, though, implies and requires action. Not only a reaction to the actions of racists, but also proactive work to make racist activities more difficult to carry out. I have a very small framework of understanding on this right now, so I’ll leave it at that.
Something else that creeps into conversations about race is color blindness.
“I don’t see race.” “There’s only one race. The human race.” “Color isn’t something I pay attention to.”
I’ve been there and done that. The only thing this approach does is try to dodge the painful conversations we need to have about race and white supremacy. It’s a statement made from a position of extreme white privilege. It’s a concept couched in luxury that people of color cannot afford because they are reminded daily that they are seen as “other” by those who are “normal.”
I opened this piece with a quote from Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Letter From Birmingham Jail. Those words of his keep me warm at night, and they break my heart.
George Floyd. Freddie Gray. Amadou Diallo. And the list goes on and back centuries.
Black lives tangled up in white lives in the “inter-related structure of reality.” Blacks lives not lived out to what they ought to have been. And as a result, white lives not lived out to what they ought to have been.
We’ve been told for 400 years in this country that only white lives matter. Now we’re waking up to discover that has never been the case.
As it turns out, black lives matter, too.
Hopefully we haven’t figured that out too late.