As is our habit, do treat this as our semi-open weekend thread.
On a related note, I am going to give the Tumblr site for WARN--what I have christened "The Negro from Planet X"--another try. I created the site some months ago and let it sit idle as I was not sure how to leverage it. My original plan was to use The Negro From Planet X as a space where the friends and readers of WARN could submit news items and stories. That option is now "live" on the site (apparently the feature only activates once the Tumblr is indexed by Google). There is an icon on the upper right hand side for submissions. If so inclined, do share and submit stories and information that you think could be of interest.
During our conversation on WARN's podcast series, Paul Breines asked the profound question "what sort of white person do you want to be?"
I am going to use Dr. Breines' meditative and introspective question as a lede/header for a series of posts here on We Are Respectable Negroes.
"What sort of white person do I want to be?" is a deceptively simple and dagger-sharp question that exposes the core that is our individual decision to be a moral, righteous, and ethical person. Paul's question is foundational because it can be easily extended to gender, sexuality, class, and other types of identities and relationships.
We have choices that we can make in life about our behavior. Of course, our relationship to systems of Power, resources, opportunity structures, and varying levels of agency will impact how we choose to resolve such matters.
Oftentimes, individuals make the simple into the complex.
The decision to do the right thing and to live a just and moral life is made complicated by our very human habit of creating obstacles which can then be used as excuses for inaction. I am unsure if this is cowardice, laziness, or some combination of both; I am sure that a surrender to inertia and craven self-interest has been a obstacle to making the world a better and more just place.
What follows are several examples of white brothers and sisters asking the question "what sort of white person do I want to be?" and then acting on their own personal code of honor, looking history in the face in the lived present, and challenging other white folks to confront their own personal relationships to systems of white supremacy and white privilege.
During the recent protests in Ferguson, Missouri over the killing of Michael Brown by the cowardly thug cop Darren Wilson, Hedy Epstein, a Holocaust survivor, was arrested as she participated in direct action in support of the human rights of black Americans.
In an interview in Newsweek, Esptein explained her values and ethics:
But police and security officers blocked the door, preventing them from entering.
“I really didn’t think about being arrested or doing anything like that,” Epstein told Newsweek. “I was just going to be somebody in the crowd. I guess maybe I was impulsive: Someone said, ‘Who is willing to be arrested if that happens?’ I said, ‘Yeah, I’m willing.’”
A police officer informed the crowd that Nixon and his staff were not in the building, Epstein says, and urged them to leave. When she and eight other protesters refused, they were arrested for failure to disperse. Police handcuffed Epstein behind her back and took her to a nearby police substation. She was booked, given a court date of October 21, and then told she could leave.
“I’m deeply, deeply troubled by what’s going on in Ferguson,” says Epstein. “It’s a matter of racism and injustice, and it’s not only in Ferguson…. Racism is alive and well in the United States. The power structure looks at anyone who’s different as the other, as less worthy, and so you treat the other as someone who is less human and who needs to be controlled and who is not trusted.”She concludes:
“The basis of who I am today was what my parents taught me and what I saw. They were examples to me of how one lives and how one does not persecute other people,” says Epstein. “I would like to think that they’re proud of me.”The past isn't gone, it ain't even yesterday. Whiteness involves a type of cultivated historical myopia and amnesia. The past is forgotten except when it is remembered in order to legitimate a society organized around maintaining and protecting systems of white privilege as something natural--the outcome of meritocratic lies such as "hard work", "personal responsibility" and the Horatio Alger myth.
White conservatives, because of their particular relationship to white supremacy in the post civil rights era, often tell black and brown folks to forget the past and "just let all that slavery and racism stuff go" because somehow that will cure the divisions, pain, and material inequalities of the color line.
The hypocrisy is laid bare: the White Right, for all of their supposed desire for black and brown folks to have historical amnesia, react with great anger towards any truth-telling about American history. See the White Right's upsetness about minor changes to the AP history exam as an example.
[My more pithy late night rebuttal to such lazy piss poor thinking is that by such logic all criminals should be pardoned and there should be no consequences for one's individual or group actions in the present. In all, the thief and the murderer should tell the victim and their families to just let it go, as such a gesture is more than sufficient compensatory and punitive justice.]
"My family never owned slaves" is a standard talking point in the the color blind white racist script and handbook. Asking himself a version of the question "what type of white person do I want to be", journalist Chris Tomlinson decided to research his family's roots as slavers and to contact his African-American "relatives".
What did Tomlinson discover?
Tomlinson's book is titled "Tomlinson Hill," after the plantation his ancestors built. The story was first produced as a public-television documentary.
Tomlinson told Journal-isms by email, "Let me be clear, my research shows that my ancestors murdered, raped and tortured the people they held in slavery, and an important part of this book is to take ownership of that."
"Fresh Air" host Terry Gross asked, "So you've spoken of how you were brought up thinking — you know — hearing people talk about the descendants in their own families who were slave owners as having been, you know, like more, you know, kindly slave owners. And you reprint a couple of letters from your ancestors in this book — not so kindly. So there's a letter I want you to read on page 23 from Churchill Jones and he is again one of the, you know, quote, entrepreneurs who bought a lot of land to build plantations on. Tell us who this letter is to."
Tomlinson replied, "So after Churchill bought the land, he sent his oldest son and a nephew to start developing the land — to clear it, build homes, to build slave quarters. "And so he managed via letter. And this is what he wrote — on July 25, 1853 — (reading) George, I'm afraid you've got the Negroes to like you and not fear you. If it is the case, you cannot get on nor take care of anything. They must know when you speak they have to obey. And to do this you have to stand square up to them and show yourself master. You cannot coax a Negro to do his duty. You have to force him. And if they only like you and not fear you, they will soon hate you and get tired of you. That is the nature of Negros. But to make them fear you and like you both, you can do anything you want with them."
From the transcript:
"GROSS: What was your reaction when you saw — when you read these letters from one of your own ancestors?
"C. TOMLINSON: It was shocking. I was — I was taken aback. And I was taken back by the brutality that he espouses but even more so by how it was a business for him — that he thought, you know, beating people and whipping them and withholding food and that sort of thing was the same as greasing an engine. It was — it was just part of doing business. And perhaps he's not the sadist that we all think of, but it's almost worse that he does this as a business, as kind of a calculated business proposition. . . ."What did he find out?
"Racial illiteracy" is one of the meta-level concepts governing the relationship between whiteness, ethics, and justice.
Writing for the Seattle Times, Professor Robin DiAngelo outlines the importance of this concept:
I AM white. I have spent years studying what it means to be white in a society that proclaims race meaningless, yet is deeply divided by race. This is what I have learned: Any white person living in the United States will develop opinions about race simply by swimming in the water of our culture.
But mainstream sources — schools, textbooks, media and anecdotal evidence — don’t provide us with the multiple perspectives we need. Yes, we will develop strong emotionally laden opinions, but they will not be informed opinions. Our socialization renders us racially illiterate.
This illiteracy was evident in the debate about the Seattle Gilbert & Sullivan Society production of “The Mikado” and its casting of non-Asian actors in 40 Japanese roles.
To understand the crux of white racial illiteracy illustrated by the debate, consider a typical computer user. The user is proficient and knows all the basics — Word, email, spreadsheets. But when the user has a technical problem and tries to explain it to the IT department, communication breaks down. The user gets defensive, feeling talked down to by tech support. Tech support gets frustrated because the user doesn’t know how computers actually work and can’t comprehend its instructions.
Like a nontechnical user trying to understand a technical problem, our racial illiteracy limits our ability to have meaningful conversations about race...
Let me be clear. I don’t see myself or other whites as bad. Racism is a system that we did not create, but it’s one that we did inherit. We must take responsibility to see and challenge it both within and around us. The first step? Have some humility and listen.White privilege makes too many white folks stupid. Their stupidity is not cultivated or grown by a lack of school resources, access to information, or some type of mental disability. The particular stupidity that is created by white privilege consists of a willful denial of the facts, facts and information which are readily available by listening to black and brown folks' life experiences, doing the minimum amount of research on America's (and the West's) history and present, or just shutting one's mouth and opening their ears when people of color say that events such as the recent murders and police abuse in Ferguson are not an outlier or revelation.
Navigating an institutionally white supremacist society is the lived and daily experience of black and brown Americans in the United States. This fact exists independent of the White Gaze and the white racial frame's willingness to acknowledge them. Unfortunately, racial illiteracy is a cognitive and intellectual shortcoming which too many white folks have chosen to afflict themselves with. If whiteness is both a type of property and a psychological wage, racial illiteracy is one of the ways those unearned advantages are accumulated and protected.
What are your thoughts on racial illiteracy and the question "what sort of white person do I want to be?"
As always, do you have any interesting news items or other information to share?