(Note: Several experiences I have had recently have inspired me to write some random thoughts about race. I hope you read them. But the things I’m writing here have been written and spoken by people of color for hundreds of years, and extensively in the recent past. If you haven’t taken time to listen to and read those voices, I hope you will do so before you accept anything I have written.)
I recently sat in a room full of people, “do-gooder” types, to hear a couple of well known cultural commentators speak about do-gooder type things. The room was mostly white, mostly educated, and mostly itching to hear soothing words about the work we do to heal, build up, and nurture our communities. It was boiler plate Waco.
I have been casually aware of one of the speakers for some time. His writing is thoughtful and accessible. To his credit, he clearly wants to live in a world where people get along, belong, and find meaning in neighborliness and kindness. I have been less aware of the other speaker, his wife, but I assume she wants the same things.
The problem is in how they tell their stories.
One of her stories went something like this: There was a neighborhood in a mid-sized Louisiana city that, 40-50 years ago, was your archetypal U.S. neighborhood. People knew each others’ names and waved to each other as they left for work in the morning. Kids rode bikes. They borrowed lawn mowers when theirs broke down and stopped to help carry groceries inside when the burden seemed too heavy to bear.
And then some things happened that made the community change. The speaker mentioned two of these:
- Homeowners began to rent their houses out. Renters moved in and didn’t care as much about upkeep of the property, so blight set in and brought about a general sense of isolation.
- An interstate was built through the neighborhood, separating it from other parts of the city.
The happy ending of the story came about when a do-gooder (much like those hearing the story) moved in and saved the neighborhood.
Now even though I spent a few years of my life just a stones throw away from the city of her telling, I know very little about it. There is a possibility this city is the anomaly of the American Story, and that the details were as innocuous as the storyteller would have us believe. But if it is like every other story of cities and towns in the American Experience, then she left out some important details.
“People” didn’t just “begin to rent their houses out.” WHITE people moved out of urban communities and rented their homes to people who didn’t have strong connections to the neighborhoods in which they lived.
Interstates didn’t just happen to pop up through neighborhoods. ALL WHITE city planners and zoning commissions created conditions that divided up historically or newly black neighborhoods from resources that almost always existed on the OTHER side of the tracks or the river or the interstate.
I understand that bringing up these facts elicits discomfort in people who look like me. (More on this discomfort in post 3.) Not near as much discomfort, though, as in the next two-word sentence where I describe where I think the omission of these important facts lie.
Another story was told by the speaker in question about a program in another American city that works to reform prisoners and others who have had legal troubles and to make them more productive members of society. The program employs “tough love” and requires a high level of commitment and is very demanding. At the end of this story, the storyteller gave a slideshow of “before and after” pictures of the program participants.
“Before” pictures showed participants in t-shirts with exposed tattoos, smiles with grills, and either long hair or corn-rows adorning their heads.
“After” pictures” showed male participants clean cut, in suits and ties, and females wearing pantsuits or dresses.
When each “after” slide was revealed, there were gasps and happy sighs coming from the crowd. After the last one, a wave of applause rolled through the crowd. I looked around and saw a few tears welling up in some folks eyes over these “once-degenerates” now dressed and appearing “appropriately.”
White Supremacy isn’t about white hoods and burning crosses. Those were early, rare manifestations of an entire societal program designed to display power. It’s not even about holding up certain notions of virtue and character above others. It is, instead, about a fierce insistence that we (white people) get to be the arbiters of what is virtuous. We protect this by being the “saviors” of neighborhoods. We protect it by being champions of “civility,” which is a main theme of one of the other speakers that day. This conveniently ignores the reality that those with their backs against the wall or boots on their throats don’t have the privilege to abide by our (white) notions of what is civil.
This should go without saying, but it is something I have found (both by experience and observation) us white people often need in order to make the medicine go down easier– There is nothing overtly or intentionally malicious about these manifestations of White Supremacy. As I stated earlier, these speakers clearly have a genuine desire for communities to be whole and healed. But not wanting the forest to burn down doesn’t excuse us from carelessly throwing our cigarettes out the window. We are still culpable.
Discomfort doesn’t sell, especially to those of us who believe we are healers. But our aversion to it is something we have to get over if dreams of reconciliation and healing are ever to be realized.