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Posts Tagged ‘white guilt’

Almost ten years ago, I was a new teacher in a mostly-white, private Christian school. Most of my courses were American literature, but in my youth and zeal, I decided to take on a number of electives. One of the new courses I taught was Speech and Debate. It had been but a year since 9-11 and many of my students wanted to give speeches on issues related to terrorism or war. Knowing this, I decided to have them read an essay that pertained to racial profiling, hoping to round out their understanding of current events. The essay was written by an Arab man, but it was written in the 1980’s at the height of American hijacking fears. All of my students wrestled with the author’s point-of-view, struggling to balance their limited sound-bite-fed knowledge of national security issues against his account of being profiled, an obvious act of injustice. The kids were starting to break down some of their preconceptions about race and privilege and were genuinely open to confronting the derailments that traditionally held them captive in conversations about race.

I was excited and wanted to see more of this. In one of my English courses, I had students read an essay written by a black man on the same topic. He spoke of having to cross the street to avoid walking directly behind a white woman. But, unlike my debate students, these students immediately balked at the author’s account. They called him “paranoid” and insisted that he was making too much of things. One of my students, one of the only black members of his class, turned around and addressed his white classmates. He told them about how his mom encouraged him not to wear hats or hooded jackets in a store. He had been educated to keep a low profile and to maintain a respectful tone in the face of authority figures who would not do him the same courtesy. My students listened and empathized, but there were several who remained skeptical that racial profiling was a persistent problem in America, or even an injustice at all.

When Trayvon Martin was killed, I thought about those two classroom situations. Like many of us, I had a visceral response to the news. The anti-racist in me felt helpless and hopeless in the days that followed. Tope’s post on the subject slayed me. As did Jim Vance’s honest and heartfelt editorial commentary on “The Talk” on our local news. I was reminded of my student’s courage in informing his white peers and I began to hope that perhaps we had arrived at a moment where white folks could “get it” when it came to racial profiling, gun violence, or being a perpetual target.

Call it slacktivism if you will, but I started posting everything I could find on the subject on Facebook. I deliberately chose articles that were well-researched or editorials that provided a clear, truthful, but winsome perspective, hoping that my white friends would join the call for justice in Trayvon’s killing. I even sought out faith-based commentary from a pastor, thinking that would appeal to my white Christian friends who remain ignorant of their privilege. A few friends at church told me that the things I was posting “made me think.” I got a couple compliments from unexpected people about the articles I’d posted. Still, I was doubtful that these ideas were taking root. In the anti-racist fight, even in my own prejudiced heart and mind, it’s often one step forward, two steps back.

It’s been a couple months now, and most of the talk on this topic has slowed in my Facebook news feed. Occasionally, a friend will post something as the case against George Zimmerman moves forward, but there is no longer a frantic flurry of commentary on the case as there was in those early weeks. Just recently, I began to see a new conversation on these topics emerge among some of my friends. Unfortunately, the discussion about race, injustice, vigilantism, etc. has been derailed by two common white complaints:

1) White people are killed and no one makes this big a fuss about it.

I saw this sentiment expressed in conjunction with a blog post about the shooting death of UNC student Eve Carson.  The blogger writes:

Was she profiled? You bet she was. Eve was profiled as a Rich, Blue -Eyed, Blond Haired, White Girl. Were there protests, marches and outraged politicians speaking out for her? Did Barack call her family?  Why is it about race only if the victim is black? Why aren’t we outraged when ANY kid is murdered? As a nation, have we been silenced by a politically correct whip? Lets’ be outraged about all murders, all racism, every injustice.

Let’s just ignore the mistaken timeline for a minute (Obama took office in 2009 and Eve was killed in March 2008) and focus on the thrust of this post.  Eve Carson’s murder garnered national attention. Her killers were brought to justice. At no point has there been any implication that race was a motivating factor in her killing.  In fact, her assailants claim they planned to rob her but killed her when she got a good look at them.

Anyone who watches daytime television can tell you that the media and our politicians make a huge fuss about it when a white person is murdered. Even more so if the person is young, female, and attractive by society’s measures. (In that case, the victim is likely to become the center of a Lifetime channel biopic.)

In fact, I’ve rarely seen an Amber alert for a child of color. That’s why organizations like the Black & Missing Foundation even exist: to publicize missing and endangered persons of color because most of the time, the media won’t do it. There is a racial disparity in the way criminals and victims are portrayed in the media.

Eve Carson’s case got the attention of morning shows and talk shows far beyond the scope of local news coverage. Her campus and her town rallied and held vigils. Her killers were apprehended and convicted.  There really is no fair comparison to be made between that case and Trayvon’s. If anything, Eve’s story illustrates by contrast how little we collectively care about a murder like Trayvon’s.

That leads me to the other derailment I’ve seen floating around on social networks:

2) White people are now the target of violence because of the case. We are threatened and should be afraid of retaliation.

Richard Land, prominent spokesperson for the Southern Baptist Convention made me glad I’ve left that assembly when he said recently on his radio show of black leaders, “They need the Travyon Martins to continue perpetuating their central myth: America is a racist and an evil nation. For them it’s always Selma Alabama circa 1965.”  Land offered a pseudo-apology for his comments in a public letter written to the current SBC president:

Richard Land, who leads the SBC’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, wrote to SBC president Bryant Wright to express his “deep regret for any hurt or misunderstanding” his comments may have caused.

“It grieves me to hear that any comments of mine have to any degree set back the cause of racial reconciliation in Southern Baptist or American life,” Land wrote, according to a letter released by Baptist Press, the denomination’s official news agency.

This, as the convention prepares to elect a new president, likely Rev. Fred Luter, who would be the first African-American president of the Southern Baptist Convention.

Fearful white folks first point to the New Black Panthers’ offer of a bounty for the capture or death of George Zimmerman as evidence that whites are collectively in danger.  (The New Black Panther Party is unaffiliated with the Black Panthers). They will mention Spike Lee’s attempt to tweet Zimmerman’s address.  Lee apologized for the tweet, having inadvertently tweeted the wrong address, and legally settled the matter with the affected family.

I saw this derailment employed alongside the story of a white Orlando man who was severely beaten by a group of young black men.  The family of the victim claims that Matthew Owens was beaten as part of a retaliation for Trayvon Martin’s death.  Police investigating the crime reported that the dispute between Owens and his chief assailant has been ongoing, and while racial slurs are hurled by both sides, the beating was in no way related to the Trayvon Martin case.

This derailment is one of many historically used to create fear in white people.  Time and again in our history, we have learned about the threat that black men pose.  This derailment says, for black folks to see justice, white people will have to pay: reparations, loss of status, even loss of life.  As white folks, we cannot acknowledge the wrong in Trayvon’s case, much less right it, because to do so endangers us all.

It also diverts the attention from what was clearly a race-based crime onto other crimes in which white people are the victims.  We’re more comfortable with that narrative than we are with a story that allows us to see ourselves in a man holding a gun to a young boy’s head.

As white people, we can continue spinning tales about how people of color are out to get us, coming for our stuff, eager to disrupt our way of life.  Or, we can do better, we can do good, and choose to see the injustices that still exist in our country: including the one perpetrated against young Trayvon Martin.  We can stand in solidarity with our brothers and sisters of color, confess the truth about societal structures of sin, and call for justice.

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…asked a young man of Tim Wise.  h/t Sociological Images and sister Tope for bringing this video to my attention.

**poster’s note:  For more on this subject, check out the sidebar of our Derailment Series or click on any number of the tags associated with the issues of privilege, guilt, and beginning as an anti-racist.

And because Nikki is a quick-draw on the commenting, here’s the transcript:

Questioner (off-camera): Um, as a white male, should I feel guilty for the sins of my fathers. I affirm that they exist, but should I feel guilty for them?

Tim Wise: No. You should feel angry. And you should feel committed to doing something to address that legacy. It’s like, for instance, with pollution, right? We think about the issue of pollution. Now none of us in this room, to my knowledge, are individually responsible for having belched any toxic waste into the air, or injecting toxic waste into the soil, or done any of the things… we didn’t put lead paint into the housing, you know?

Individually we’re innocent of that. But someone did that stuff, and we’re living with the legacy of it right now, or in this case might be dying with the legacy of it, getting ill, right?.

So it isn’t about feeling guilty about what someone did, even if you were the direct heir of the chemical company that did the pollution, but it is about saying, all of us in the society have to take responsibility for what we find in front of us. There’s a big difference between guilt and responsibility.

Guilt is what you feel for what you’ve done. Responsibility is what you take because of the kind of person you are, right? And so if I see a set of social conditions that have been handed to you, and which not only did wrong by othrs but elevated me and give me advantage that I did not earn, it’s not about beating myself up, I’m not responsible for that having happened, I’m not to blame for it, so guilt is totally unproductive

But in order to live an ethical life, to live ethically and responsibly, I have to take some responsibility for the unearned advantage, which means working to change the society that bestows that advantage. It’s not guilt, but it is responsiblity. It’s no different than looking at the issue of pollution or if you became the CFO of the company, you wouldn’t be able to come in and say, “I intend to use the assets of this company, and I insend to put them to greater use, and I intend to use the revenue stream we’ve got going, but that whole debt side of the ledger? No, I’m not paying any of that because I wasn’t here when the other person ran all that debt up. You should’ve gotten them to pay it before you gave me the job. Now I’m here, and I’m innocent.” We would realize that made no sense.

So isn’t about innocence and it isn’t about guilt, it’s about responsibility, that’s something we all have to take. White folks have to take it, people of color have to take it, uh, men and women have to take… everybody has got to take it, because we’re living with… if we don’t do it, no one does it, and it doesnt’ get done. We’re the only hope we have.

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A week or two ago, I had what we Southerners call a “hissy fit.”  I had been watching the news on several networks and read many different outlets all reporting on how Glenn Beck and his flock were descending upon the Capitol in droves.  A friend sent me a video of interviews with folks who came to D.C. to “call the nation back to God.”  Most faces I saw in the crowd were white.  Every interview I saw or read was with a white person.  Many of them were decrying the political agenda of our sitting President.  Some of them were calling him a racist and saying it was time to take “our” country back.

In my fit, I sat down on several occasions to write a blog post about this phenomenon.  I considered it from many angles.  I started writing about how I’m not one of those white people.  I started writing that those people don’t really get what my God is all about.  I started writing about the Pharisees and the Sadducees and thinking up all kinds of Bible verses that I would hurl back in an effort to halt the parade of hatred and ignorance on TV that whole weekend.  I started to write any number of those things and then deleted it, choking on my own anger about it all.

Then one day, last week in the car as I was fuming about everything I’d seen, with no one to call and vent, one of my favorite musicians, a contemporary Christian music artist named Sara Groves, intervened right there in the middle of my minivan.  She sang:

Redemption comes in strange place, small spaces
Calling out the best of who we are
I want to add to the beauty
To tell a better story

I want to shine with the light
That’s burning up inside

And that’s where I decided to write this post.  You see, I could write those other things—about how white people suck; how, collectively, we don’t get “it”;  how as much as I want to not be one of them, sometimes, I am them.  I know that story and many of our readers here at the blog know that story.  It’s familiar and it usually ends badly.

But I want to “add to the beauty,” not just recount the ugly.  So how does one “tell a better story”?  Well, while I believe in the power of shining a spotlight on horrible things, it can’t be all we do.  I believe we’re right to curse the darkness; but, sometimes we get so used to seeing in the dark, we need to adjust our vision.  Rather than focusing on a very vocal and seemingly prominent group of haters, I need to remember that great cloud of witnesses—past and present—who can encourage me forward and who tell me to not lose heart in fighting against racism as a white person.  I need to look at those success stories of white people who turned things around or made some small difference.

I need a redemption story.

I need a story like that of William Wilberforce—who took on a nation of generational slaveholders using his position of power and privilege as a white man to end the British slave trade.  I need a story like that of Lucretia Mott, a Quaker minister, abolitionist and feminist.  I need to read about Father Bartolomé de las Casas—who Kate featured in a Columbus Day post—a man who got it wrong in many ways but came to oppose the torture committed against Native people during colonial conquest.  I need to meditate on the life of Corrie Ten Boom, a Dutch Christian who was interned for aiding Jews in escaping Nazi persecution during the Holocaust.  I need to know about and remember the sacrifices made by Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwarner, two Jewish men martyred in Mississippi for helping to register black voters during Freedom Summer.

I need to hear from teachers like Peggy McIntosh and Tim Wise who make our privilege visible and call us to a better white identity.

I need to get my hands on and my head around stories like those of Chris Rice and Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove—men who forsook their own privilege and the comfort of a homogeneous faith community to live out integration in the all-too-rare situation where white people act as integrators.  Both men explore how their faith in Christ informed and guided their decisions toward anti-racist activism and communal living in their autobiographies: Rice’s story focused on his life as a young man living in the 1980s and Wilson-Hartgrove’s is a more contemporary example from the last 10 years.

Rice’s story is particularly compelling for anti-racist Christian novices as it is almost a primer on the efforts and leaders of the evangelical-side of movement since the days of the Civil Rights era.  Rice describes how he and Spenser Perkins formed a hard-fought friendship and took up the second-generation mantle handed them by John Perkins.  He also shares with painful honesty his struggles to come to terms with his own sense of privilege, entitlement and authority in the midst of a strong black community.  Wilson-Hartgrove is an affirming example of what those of us just now getting involved in anti-racist work can do and how far we can come if we let God transform our thinking and our lifestyles to make us agents of reconciliation.

That day in the car, as the CD moved on, I was still stuck thinking about what Sara Groves had said.  I thought about Glenn Beck and those like him who enjoy derision and division.  I kept coming back to my anger over these things even while I had decided that I want to tell a better story with my life.  Groves had an answer for that, too.  In her song, Kingdom Comes she says:

When anger fills your heart
When in your pain and hurt
You find the strength to stop
You bless instead of curse

When doubting floods your soul
Though all things feel unjust
You open up your heart
You find a way to trust…

When fear engulfs your mind
Says you protect your own
You still extend your hand
You open up your home

When sorrow fills your life
When in your grief and pain
You choose again to rise
You choose to bless the name…

In the mundane tasks of living
In the pouring out and giving
In the waking up and trying
In the laying down and dying

That’s a little stone that’s a little mortar
That’s a little seed that’s a little water
In the hearts of the sons and the daughters
The kingdom’s coming

None of this is easy, friends.  I haven’t been at all this anti-racist stuff for long, but I’ve been at it long enough to know some things get easier, but that’s when God sometimes presses in to challenge us and call us to do even harder things.  In those moments, if all I can offer is a little obedience, sweat and mortar, I’m doing my job.  I’ll remember our white anti-racist heroes, like my white friend Ashleigh, who has in the last year, been awakened to anti-racism and is cultivating a deep passion for justice and reconciliation in her own life.

I’m hoping that over time, I’ll be able to look on angry scenes like the one I saw on the news the other week and say as Christ did from the cross, “Forgive them, they know not what they do.”  Until that day comes, I pray that when I look upon the horror stories our world has to offer, that even as I rail against them, I’ll be mindful that all of it is only the prelude to a better story: a kingdom coming.

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Today I read an incredible guest post over at Macon D’s Stuff White People Do that almost killed me.

The author, a blogger named IzumiBayani, describes himself as “100% Japanese, 100% white, 25% deaf, oppressor and oppressed,”  and in his post, he works around a theme that attempts to understand, instruct and encourage white men who want to participate in the work of social justice.

Because we talk a lot on this blog about struggles against institutional white privilege, some visitors may have come away feeling that we are anti-white people or anti-white men, in particular. I am not anti-white people.  I am a white person.  And I am definitely not anti-white men.  I am the daughter of a white man.  I am married to a white man.  I am raising a white man.

Recently, a friend who is serving a year as a missionary in Chicago told me about her initiation through that program into the world of racial justice.  One of the first books she read (a book we highly recommend here at ID), was Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? My friend told me that in her mission house, one person struggled most with the implications and the expectations the book raises.  That conflicted missionary was the only white man in the house.  He felt what many of us feel, guilt, hopelessness in the face of injustice, fear of stepping out into a community filled with people of color who, because of his race and gender, might dismiss him as being “like the others.”

In my last post on the debacle over a “Black History Month” menu, I confessed that my husband and I had been having long discussions about the situation.  Many times I am challenged by his experience as a white man to explain my opinions on these subjects in such a way that he can access my ideas and appreciate where I’m coming from.  I often get angry with him and wish he would be as passionate or as convinced as I am about certain things.  And in those moments, I forget how much work he puts into trying to figure all of this out.  I forget the obstacles that unearned and unsought privilege places in front of him as he seeks to engage in these things.  I forget to show grace and patience to someone who is willing to support me and join me in this work.

We’ve talked on the blog before about how we white folks need to be patient and understanding when people of color distrust our efforts.  For me that’s often a no-brainer.  I can see the need for that more clearly.  It’s harder for me to see what privilege does to the privileged because I am one of them.  The injuries racism inflicts on people of color is visible to me.  What’s often invisible is the injury done to me, my husband, my kids in how racism shapes our attitudes, our lifestyles, and our capacity to love and serve all people (including each other).

White men who participate in racial justice are willing to go through repeated initiation, to be inspected and suspected even when they have pure motives.  They are willing to walk in situations where everything society has imprinted upon them tells them they should feel threatened.  In small, microcosmic ways, they are taking up a cross of vulnerability and rejection that people of color have borne for centuries in the larger context of American society.  As IzumiBayani says of his white friend, Ecrib:

I don’t tell Ecrib this often enough, but he needs to stay humble. No one is asking him to lead us out to the promise land. In fact, he can’t be a dominant leader in a social justice movement because of his identity. This space is for PoC and to some extent WW. He can support, but he can’t lead. That invokes the White Savior Complex. White male arrogance can easily ruin his credibility and get him thrown off the boat.

It’s hard for white guys.  And some of them don’t deserve it.  But that’s how racial injustice works.

IzumiBayani asks this at the end of his post:

what can we as PoC’s and women do to balance staying safe and giving dominant identities a chance?

I’d invite you to post your responses to this question here AND at the original blog.  My answer is to love them and let them come.  To allow them to get it wrong from time to time and correct the well-intentioned with truth and gentleness.  To give them a place to be angry about what this system has done to them by making them oppressors by default.  To encourage them to go out and reach the very audiences that they can influence because of their privilege.

My missionary friend told me that the other man in the house, a man of color, kept repeating to his grieved white friend, “YOU are not racism.”  I love that.  I’d add to my own white men, “but in Christ, like all things, you can OVERCOME it.”

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Last week, NBC got its share of heat for a fight, that like many before it, started in the cafeteria.  For years, cafeteria chef Leslie Calhoun had advocated for a special menu to highlight Black History month.  When NBC finally granted her request, the result was this menu:

...and I totally get black love for Aquafina (beats Dasani, any day).

The photographer? Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson, the drummer for Jimmy Fallon’s “Late Night” show band, The Roots (arguably one of the best parts about Fallon’s show, but I digress).  Questlove took the photo with his phone and posted it on Twitter with the caption: “Hmm…HR?”

NBC/Universal responded via tweet, of all things:

@questlove http://twitpic.com/11d07s – The sign in the NBCU cafeteria has been removed. We apologize for anyone who was offended by it.

When The New York Post first featured the story, it did so under the punny banner, “NBC’s Lost Soul.”  The comments on Questlove’s Twitpic range from

I really don’t see anything wrong with this. I am African American and the only thing on here that I don’t eat is Jalapeno. People need to relax, we have bigger “fish to fry”. -Amadii

I don’t usually call my grandma racist for cooking me soda bread on Saint Patrick’s Day. -martinamelia

It’s pretty thoughtless. It’s like saying, “See, here’s something good that came out of slavery! We’re all good now, right?” -utterlycharming

New York Magazine called the situation “a Saturday Night Live–worthy farce about liberal racial oversensitivity.”  The commentary at NY Magazine’s Daily Intel reported that, according to Calhoun, after the first shot was taken of the menu:

“The next thing you know, people were taking pictures of the sign and asking all the other black people in the cafeteria if this was racist. They said that it wasn’t.”

That’s awesome. Especially since the black population at NBC is only around 11 percent countrywide, and so we imagine everyone bombarding like the one guy who happened to be in the cafeteria with questions, like, “Hey, black person. Don’t you think that’s racist? Aren’t you upset? Don’t you think you should be? I mean, you understand why this is offensive, right?”

Comedian Wanda Sykes took NBC to task in her appearance on The Jay Leno Show (it’s still called that, right?):
Vodpod videos no longer available.

Questlove has since posted this statement about the controversy (emphasis mine):

when i saw the sign i have to admit….i was DYING. like literally LMAO!!! maybe it was juxtaposition of the words: collard & history, jalapeno & honor, fried, black and nbc?? maybe it was the acculturative stress of having 28 days for this food that represents you but come march…pot roast for life kid!

whatever the case, I found this funny and when I find something funny I like to let the world in on the joke (twitpic anyone??). in NO way did i ever think that this was some cruel insensitive joke on behalf of jeff zucker and his comrades at nbc (the cafeteria isn’t even owned or operated by nbc).

I kinda get where leslie calhoun (our culinary rosa parks) was coming from; fried chicken as a fragrant, tasty, honorable metaphor for the struggles and accomplishments of america’s black masses.

The problem is..in the blogosphere, things can take on a life of their own. “online journalists”, site commenters, even comedians (see wanda sykes on leno) have now taken my snapshot of leslie’s missionary zeal and retooled it for their own racialized – “let’s bash nbc for their conan sins” – flogging mission. my twitpic was just me poking fun, a Questlove still life that was clearly intended as a joke. what’s even funnier: race issues in post racial america. potluck anyone?????

I, of course, have my own take on these events and have exhaustively argued with my husband and myself about the implications of such a “celebration” of black history.  I think there are many layers to this and to ignore any one of them is an injustice and a reduction of the complexity that is our nation’s history with race.

So lay your own layer on me: what do our readers and my fellow bloggers think about all this?  “Liberal oversensitivity”?  “Another example of institutional racism”?  “Black on black crime?”  Let’s dish.

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