Dr. King once said, “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” He said it in 1963, there at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington D.C., and now, almost 50 years later, America has elected its very first African American president. What does it mean? What is the meaning of Obama, on MLK Day?
It’s a question that Tim Wise raises in his book Between Barack and a Hard Place: Racism and White Denial in the Age of Obama. Too many people—too many White people—may be thinking that in electing Barack Obama we have settled our national debt to Blacks, if not to all people of color. How horrible to think, about the millions of people mobilized by Obama’s call to change, that they might go back to sleep, hit the snooze button, because they interpret the election as itself the complete solution to hundreds of years of injustice and inequality—because they see it as the entire and perfect fulfillment of Dr. King’s dream.
But there is another possibility, going forward. Millions, including you and me, seizing the moment, feeling the fierce urgency of now, as we “channel the energy unleashed by Obama’s historic election into the work of antiracism and social justice.” Making this community right here truly multicultural, ensuring that all people (including people of color) are able to share their gifts and that no one feels invisible and adrift. Whites taking their share of the responsibility for addressing racism, Whites breaking the silence, Whites leaning into their whiteness to understand what it means, Whites willing to do their fair share of the heavy lifting. “To insist on the audacity of truth, says Tim Wise, “and not just hope, to demand better of ourselves than perhaps even we thought possible.” “If we say that we will not allow this one man’s rise to serve as a stand-in for the experiences of the nearly 100 million people of color in this country, people whose lives and degree of acceptance by white folks are quite different from Obama’s—then we may yet be able to mobilize those millions energized by his efforts and his campaign into longer-term work on the road to true freedom and equity. We may in that case be able to experience Obama, symbolically, as adrenaline, rather than anesthesia.”
That’s what Tim Wise says, and I’m with him. The meaning of Obama on MLK Day is opportunity to do at least two things: reflecting together on what racism really is, and committing ourselves to the kind of personal and political work that will bring increasingly more and more of the dream to life. Adrenaline, rather than anesthesia. The fierce urgency of now, reaffirmed.
But there’s a White culture of silence around racism. We’re talking about racism, and the White Jiminy Cricket within me and perhaps in our very midst wants to hush this up, whispers that to talk about race is itself racist, part of the very problem we’re trying to solve. An act of utmost ungraciousness, especially in light of the fact of Obama’s election. For the kind of old-fashioned bigotry we have long known in America that would have made Obama’s election utterly impossible has gone away: slavery, disenfranchisement, the regime of legalized segregation, all reinforced by murder, lynching, and terror on a grand scale. But we’ve progressed far beyond all this. It’s opened the door for people of color to the highest office in the land. So, how ungracious and mean-spirited to continue speaking of racism! Racism is over in America, and it is over in people’s lives to the degree they refuse to speak or act in intentionally mean-spirited, prejudicial terms. Why continue bringing racism up, when I’m not a member of some hate group and I don’t say hateful things about Blacks or Asians or Native Americans or Latinos?
But racism is far more than simply individual acts of meanness. Racism persists, even after the demise of old-fashioned bigotry, even after Obama’s historic election. For racism is like environmental pollution infiltrating the entire ecology of a society. It’s in the earth and in the air. It’s fundamentally a system of advantage based on skin color, which transcends individual acts of meanness even as it mandates them. As the brilliant 19th century civil rights activist and historian W. E. B. Du Bois saw, the word “White” originated as a legal term and formal designator for special social privileges and protections. It meant “public deference and titles of courtesy”; it meant access to “public functions, public parks and the best schools”; it meant the right to sit on juries, to enjoy voting rights, and so on. But W. E. B. Du Bois also saw this: that in pre-Civil War times, rich landowners used “whiteness” as a way to manipulate poor Whites who owned no slaves, preventing them from launching a labor movement that would have improved their lot and addressed the severe economic injustices of the time. Whiteness, for a poor white, was like a consolation prize, a way of feeling good about yourself at the expense of people of color even as you were starving. Victims, blaming victims, while the real culprits got off scot-free. And Dr. King saw this too. In 1967, he said that White supremacy can feed the ego of poor Whites but not their stomachs.
There is a history to White identity that is fascinating, if painfully so; and it’s about a system which blesses only some and not others. Whites continue to benefit from it even if they don’t feel personally powerful, owing to other aspects of their identity that may disadvantage them socially, like poverty, or disability. And even if a person of color happens to be a jerk and goes around saying and doing prejudiced things against others, still, he or she does not benefit from the larger system. A racist culture that’s been rigged in favor of Whites from the beginning is like a racetrack, and only one of the aisles is free of hurdles owing to skin color. There may be other hurdles, relating to being gay, or being a woman, but not because you are White. One less hurdle for a White person, one more hurdle for everyone else.
Racism is systemic. It’s in the air and in the earth of a society. Pollution. Which means that it has significant inertia to it. “That which happens in one generation,” says Tim Wise, “affects the next, and so on, and in the very same way as before, until and unless something, some force, produces a change.” Definitely, the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s was one of those forces that produced incredible change, yet the change was not total. Some aspects of our racist culture were unaffected and carried over, as in White privilege. Other aspects simply mutated. Take “Racism 2.0,” for example, which Tim Wise defines as “enlightened exceptionalism, a form that allows for and even celebrates the achievements of individual persons of color, but only because those individuals generally are seen as different from a less appealing … black or brown rule.” Tim Wise continues: “Whereas whites have been able to run the gamut of observable intelligence, articulateness, accent, and erudition [including the ability to pronounce “nuclear” correctly] and still become president, or obtain other high-ranking positions in the private sector, for instance, people of color have long worried about being tokenized, and accepted only when they make whites sufficiently comfortable.” Which Barack Obama does. But does this mean that a person of color must be like a Barack Obama to make it in this world? People of color are all right to the degree that they don’t make White people feel uncomfortable?
Racism is like pollution—has inertia. What is not stopped continues, goes around, mutates. And before I speak directly to the issue of White identity, we need to know one more thing: that racism, like pollution, is a legacy—White people today are not the original cause. We did not ourselves set up the White supremacy system, kill off Indians, enforce slavery, patrol Jim Crow. Yet such evils have helped make us into what we are now. Evils that are part of us, never letting us go. Meaning two things. Clearly, that though we did not start the system, we’ve got to work to end it. It’s bad for everyone. The wounds we inflict on others rebound upon ourselves. They become our wounds. “I have a dream” said Dr. King, “that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” But to the degree that skin color continues to be a source of suffering and division—to the degree that this supremely shallow criterion of difference becomes an excuse to make a power play over others—we are all harmed irreparably. Dr. King’s four little children, and your children, and my children. All of us children of God.
There’s a second implication to the racism as legacy idea. It’s this: that White people who become proactively antiracist—who become part of the fierce urgency of now don’t just do nothing (which is in effect a vote to support the system)—need to enter into this work with deep sincerity coupled with deep humility and a dash of self-deprecating humor. It’s an attitude and an approach that will save us as we become more conscious of all the ways we benefit from the old system of advantages and also unwittingly act it out in our lives and feelings, reinforce it, serve it. It’ll also save us as we enter into the conversation with people of color and hear, perhaps for the first time, the extent of their frustration and resentment. As in our reading today: the complaint of the bi-racial author against his unintentionally obnoxious White co-worker who says, very sincerely and innocently, “I wish I was ethnic.” Or when White people declare that they are colorblind. Fact is, race is something that has been pushed into the face of people of color for as long as they have been alive. They know what it is like continually to be seen, not as free, self-determining individuals (which is what Whites expect and get for themselves), but only as members of a group—either as a “credit to their kind” or as confirmation of some negative stereotype. It turns out that color blindness is really only just another instance of White privilege, a claim to racial innocence which is nothing but evasion and denial. It’s the system of racism coming through unconsciously and unwittingly, and it drives people of color nuts. And they’ll tell White people, too, who are willing to listen. And as Whites listen to the frustration and the pain, they need to realize that the system is larger than they are—as in the movie the Matrix, it just comes through and takes over (BZZAP!)—and that it will take a lot of careful work and a lot time to become more aware of this as it is happening, together with forming new habits. Far better to be gentle and encouraging with oneself in this process than to be a bludgeoning taskmaster.
Which takes us directly to something I said earlier, and extends it forward: How part of the fierce urgency of now has to do with Whites taking their share of the responsibility for addressing racism, Whites breaking the silence, Whites leaning into their whiteness to understand what it means. Whites can’t really understand color of any type or work effectively with people of color until they come to understand their own, come to terms with it, tie it to a larger commitment to a more just society.
This is in itself a huge area—there’s an entire scholarly discipline dedicated to it called “critical whiteness studies”—so here, we will only be able to scratch the surface.
Do that, and what immediately comes up: guilt and shame. I knew them in a non-racial context , as a doctor’s son, who enjoyed social status without ever having earned it on my own. It was all stolen glory, and I moved through my old home town feeling like I was never truly myself—always part phony, part fake. I knew guilt and shame like this, and I knew it as I saw First Nations people around me, Native Indians in my old home town, struggling with a legacy of cultural brokenness that was a direct result of Whites who immigrated into the New World and stole directly from the aboriginal peoples already there. I wondered about the waves of immigrants, like my grandfathers, who came after this, who innocently and unwittingly mixed their labor with long-stolen goods. How legitimate can any gain be when it is ultimately founded on a crime?
Whiteness comes with guilt and shame like this. Knowledge of ill-gotten gain. And because it is so powerful, so painful, it morphs into many different forms. Guilt that spills over into fear and anger directed towards people of color, irritation at why they “always” have to make such a big deal about racism. Or guilt that makes a White person overly-zealous about it all, making them feel like everywhere they turn, everywhere they go, they are responsible for saying something, that they can’t pick and choose their battles. Or guilt that causes a White person to distance themselves from other Whites and to over-identify with people of color, to deny their own whiteness completely. Cultural appropriation in worship, cultural appropriation in all other places and phases of life.
Just some of the transformations of guilt that are endemic to White identity. How about guilt that leads to quick solutions that are ultimately more about restoring and redeeming a White person’s sense of innocence, rather than actually achieving significant things for people of color and society as a whole? Ultimately, I believe that this is the fantasy underlying such movies as Dances With Wolves, however powerful and profound they are. The White person becoming a hero and Messiah to the people they once oppressed. Dances With Wolves, The Last Samurai, Pocahontas, District 9, and of course, Avatar. The fantasy becomes real in small and large ways. A white ally who goes into a person of color “safe space” and takes over the conversation, thinks they have all the answers, feels like they have to come to the rescue—and once again, people of color don’t get to realize their own ability and capacity; they don’t get to save themselves. Or this: just listen to what historian Shelby Steele says about Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society in his powerful book, The Content of Our Character: “[Consider] a famous statement by President Lyndon Johnson at Howard University in 1965: ‘You do not take a person who, for years, has been hobbled by chains and liberate him, bring him to the starting line of a race and then say, ‘You’re free to compete with others,’ and justly believe that you have been fair.’ On its surface,” continues Shelby Steele, “this seems to be the most reasonable of statements, but on closer examination we can see how it deflects the emphasis away from black responsibility and toward white responsibility. The actors in this statement—‘You [whites] do not take a person [blacks]…”—are whites; blacks are the passive recipients of white action. The former victimizers are challenged now to be patrons, but where is the black challenge? This is really a statement to and about white people, their guilt, their responsibility, and their road to redemption. Not only does it enunciate a black mission, but it sees blacks only in the dimension of their victimization—‘hobbled by chains’—and casts them once again in the role of receivers of white beneficence.” That’s what Shelby Steele says. It’s so ironic—guilt and shame that in effect reproduces the oppression that the guilt and shame is a response to. The fantasy of swooping in and being the hero, being the patron, making it all better—but this is more about a White person’s ego than it is about magnifying the strength of people of color.
Many transformations to a White person’s guilt and shame. And leaning into this is an aspect of the heavy lifting that Whites are challenged to do, as they partner with people of color in the good work of antiracism and justice for all. Whites knowing themselves. Whites becoming helpful allies to people of color, at work, here at UUCA, here in America, in this age of Obama. For Shelby Steele, what’s required is “healthy guilt,” which he describes as “simply a heartfelt feeling of concern without any compromise of one’s highest values and principles.” But then he asks, “How can Whites reach this more selfless form of guilt? I believe the only way is to slacken one’s grip on innocence. Guilt has always been the lazy man’s way to innocence—I feel guilt because I am innocent, guilt confirms my innocence. It is the compulsion to always think of ourselves as innocent that binds us to self-preoccupied guilt.”
This is an extremely powerful insight. Self-preoccupied guilt as the lazy person’s way to redemption and reconciliation. And the way beyond it is to give up the idea that the fundamental moral goal of life is purity. Got to slacken the grip on innocence. If my hands must be totally clean for me to do any good and worthy work in this world, then I’m stuck. History paralyzes me. I can go no farther. The sort of evil that flows from the bureaucratic mindset divorced from human compassion—it stains my hands. The sort of evil that comes from obeying whatever the authorities say and shying away from being disturbers of the peace—it’s underneath my fingernails. The sort of evil that flows from how we allow ourselves to be deceived when at a deeper level we know real wrong is being done—I can smell it on me. I am guilty. But my dirty hands are all I’ve got to work with. My hands. I must forgive myself and be forgiven. And with these dirty hands, I must resolve to work for justice. I must resolve to do what is right. My whiteness comes with a lot of social privilege, and so let me use it to do good, as an ally, not as a Messiah. Let me offer it upon the altar, rather than ignore it or give it away. Let it be my offering of righteousness. Let it be part and parcel of the fierce urgency of now. Let it be my contribution to the Dream.