Dear John Metta: A dialogue response to “I,racist”
Dear Mr. Metta,
I am writing you after having read the text of your sermon “I, racist” a few days ago. You call for conversation, which is why, I, a White person, am choosing to respond. While much of your argument is rhetorically sound, there are some points to which I do not agree and would like to address. I hope you will engage with them in the spirit of dialogue.
First, you make a direct association between being White and having privilege. Though the claim holds some truth in a general sense it is by no means all encompassing. White people do have more privilege than Blacks, but not as much if you are poor, non-Christian, or a woman. As case in point let us compare a middle class Black student to a poor White student. While the Black student benefits from money, community support, connections, and Affirmative Action, the poor white student has none of these. The Black student’s community support and connections may come primarily from other Blacks rather than society at large, but it is never-the-less beneficial. The poor White student by contrast is surrounded by laborers who likely struggle to conceptualize the benefits of college, and who have little to no understanding of what it takes to accepted to college in the first place.
I grew up in trailer park in Charleston, SC. I was raised by a single mother whose education did not extend past high school. She worked nights in a factory. The majority of kids in my neighborhood either dropped out or barely finished high school. There were drugs, abuse, and a lot of teenage pregnancies. That I avoided these things had nothing to do with the color of my skin, but rather with the fact that I was able to attend an academically focused school in which I found myself surrounded with college-bound peers. I wasn’t accepted to that school because of the color of my skin, but because of my abilities. Every person in my graduating class went to college, but in my neighborhood, I was the exception not the rule.
My husband is Jewish, and though he generally identifies as White and is classified as such by the U.S. Census Bureau, that is not how he is seen by the majority White population. His olive complexion and middle-Eastern looks mean that he is regularly singled out as other. It means that he gets harassed in airports and frequently asked “where he is from.” It means that years of first-hand experience with anti-Semitism have taught him not to disclose too much personal information, and that perfect strangers find it acceptable to suggest within his hearing that our fairer skinned children are not his. It also means that last year my daughter had to hear kids in her kindergarten class tell her that they, “do not play with Jews.”
For you or others to claim that all White people have an equal amount of privilege is a gross over-simplification that fails to recognize the subtleties of human identity and experience. Last week Sandra Bland was found dead in her jail cell in Texas after being pulled over for allegedly failing to use her turn signal. I know that as a White woman, I am far less likely to meet the same fate, but that does not mean that I live a life free from threat.
As a woman and as a mother of daughters I can never truly let down my guard. In your article you write about the conversations all Black parents must have with their children about how to navigate White society. I’m sure many of those conversations center on personal safety. My daughters are still quite young but I am already starting to have similar conversations with them. It is an ugly thing to have tell a six year old that her body can be used against her, that even if she is “good” and modest and quiet, she has no true guarantee of safety. I acknowledge that parents of Black daughters have it doubly hard because their children must navigate the dual hoops of race and gender, but I hope you will also acknowledge that my daughters’ fair skin does not shield them the possibility of victimization.
You are correct in asserting that a dialogue needs to happen and that it cannot be centered on the protection of the feelings of what you term, “White liberals,” but there is more to the story than that. Why is it okay for me, as a straight White person, to be an advocate and an ally to people who identify as gay or transgender, or for me to support the rights of Hispanic illegal immigrants, but it is not okay for me to do the same for Blacks? Believe it or not, but there are many, many White people who feel anger, disgust, and remorse over the senseless and unfair deaths of Blacks. We want to speak out about it, and often do within the small circles of our lives, but if we try to do so publically we are accused of usurping the conversation, of trying to direct the spotlight back at ourselves. If you claim that our dialogue is not valid because our experience is not yours, you are perpetuating the divide of “us” versus “them,” when in fact many of the same issues affect Whites too in not so dissimilar ways.
Two years ago my mother’s friend was suffocated to death by police on a beach in Miami while onlookers took video. The police claim he was resisting arrest. This scenario may sound familiar to you, except for the fact that he was a middle aged White man who the police thought was homeless. Does the death of one White man stand up against the thousands of Black lives lost to policy brutality and systematic racism? The short answer is no, but if you want this epidemic of deaths taken seriously there must be a shift in our self-identification. When a group continually shuts potential allies out, they hurt their cause. When Blacks continually talk in terms of “White people” and “Black people” instead of saying “people,” they hurt their cause.
A friend recently told me a story about attending diversity camp as a teenager. The campers included kids from the city and from the country, both White kids and Black kids. At the start of the program, when the campers were discussing stereotypes a group of Black girls began complaining about the way White girls flip their hair. The Black girls felt affronted by all this hair flipping because they thought the White girls were being snotty and showing off. As you surely know, White hair tends to be different from Black hair. It is generally straighter. It is also fine and slippery enough that it falls into our faces with great frequency. I can tell you with authority, having once been a young White girl with long hair, that there are two main reasons we would flip our hair: One, because we feel awkward, and touching or moving our hair gives us something to do. Second, because it keeps falling into our faces. It is true there is a stereotype that has been perpetuated by mass media that gives us a picture of a snotty, usually popular, White girl flipping her shiny locks, but guess what? It is a stereotype, and we both know that while stereotypes may hold some truth, they rarely reflect the actions of the majority.
My friend’s experience characterizes one of the major roadblocks we face in our goal of abolishing our currently unjust social system. As a group, humans, and especially Americans, rarely take the time to recognize a person’s humanity. Instead we stop at those sensory cues that push us to classify someone as either “us” or “them.” We look at skin color, dress, and posture. We listen for accents and language barriers. Then we move forward in our judgment without ever seeing the individual; we rely on stereotypes as though they are some kind of golden truth. To the Black girls at my friend’s camp hair flipping equaled publically showing off; to my White friend, hair flipping was an easy way to get her hair out of her face, and it had nothing to do with anyone else.
Bernie Sanders spoke in Phoenix recently to a crowd of 11,000 people. His campaign organizers originally expected a turnout of just 500. Although he is White, there were many non-White people in the audience. The fact that so many turned out reflects the attractiveness of his message: poverty is crippling America. What he says is true. Poverty is crippling to every person who must live with it, yet when Sanders suggested that all lives matter the Black audience members vilified him. To them it likely seemed that he was trying to appropriate what they consider to be a Black movement. Though I don’t know Sanders personally, my suspicion is that he was speaking from a desire to change the “us”/”them” narrative. He was agreeing that Black lives matter, and then extending the dialogue to include more voices. This is what happens with language, it grows and evolves with the needs of society.
Was Sanders capitalizing on the momentum of the Black lives movement? Possibly, but that does not mean he was cheapening or negating it. Perhaps there is something in his word choice that deserves our attention. If we are all labeled as valuable, then there is no more room for anyone to be lazy in their privilege. If we all matter, then we are all culpable for the situation we are currently in, and are in turn compelled to enact positive change.
There is so much more to say on this topic that we could easily fill library, but I hope this will seem to you like a start in the right direction. What I ask from you, and anyone who reads this, is for more dialogue, but also for tangible solutions. It is not enough to just say, “White people should acknowledge their White privilege.” What does that even look like? I can acknowledge that there are homeless people in my community, and I can acknowledge that I am privileged not to be counted among their numbers, but how much long term change does my acknowledgement alone ultimately implement? I know there are no quick solutions, but I also know that even mountains can be moved one shovel at a time.