I mostly agree with you, and where I disagree, you’re probably right and I’m probably wrong. I want to follow you, and organize on your behalf. Teach me how.
Is it OK for me to quote Langston Hughes? Lest I should be misunderstood, I’m not out to colonize his words, just to remember them together with you.
Democracy will not come
Today, this year
Through compromise and fear.
I have as much right
As the other fellow has
On my two feet
And own the land.
I tire so of hearing people say,
Let things take their course.
Tomorrow is another day.
I do not need my freedom when I’m dead.
I cannot live on tomorrow’s bread.
Is a strong seed
In a great need.
I live here, too.
I want freedom
Just as you.
As I see it—and this is straight up, not some sort of rhetorical trick—you owe the poor white man nothing. Not even the degree of understanding required to coax him over to your side. You didn’t plant the seed of racism in his heart, and teach him to accept Whiteness in trade for his human birthright of food for himself and his children, and of the power to do something real and meaningful with his one life on Earth instead of merely to oppress the Other and dream of entering Heaven some day. But as the cultural inheritor of that southern aristocracy, I owe him that, and I owe you the attempt to achieve that.
Part of that is to persuade him that he’s not White any more than you are or I am (though I look like it and benefit daily from that), because White is a diagnosis of exclusion. As a tribal identification, it doesn’t exist except as a rejection of Black/brown/yellow/red. If you don’t want to be first and foremost a person who rejects—a person ruled by disgust—you can’t claim White, end of story. So the formerly White man has to figure out how to ask for what he wants in a way that doesn’t boil down to “I liked it back when I, a white man-child, was the center of the universe, and I want that world back.”
The white man (and white woman) wants a lot of things. One of them is to feel proud: proud of family heritage, proud of regional culture, proud of symbolic skill with guns and tools and trucks. Another is to call some things shameful and profess to have resisted or risen above them: sex, drugs, filth, sin, darkness. And a third is to declare beliefs and have them go unchallenged: belief in God as defined by some specific religious sect; belief in America as defined by some particular framing of its ideals and history and role in the world; belief in abundant prosperity, as something that existed once upon a time and will again come within reach, untainted by irreversible changes in demographics and climate and resource availability.
Above all, white people want to believe that we are good. That absolute evil exists, and it’s out there, and it’s out to get us. That whatever evil we’ve done in the past is forgiven, and we aren’t that person any more, and we aren’t doing evil right now and won’t ever again. That whatever evil our forebears did isn’t our fault, even if we’re still enjoying the fruits of it, and working diligently to parlay them into ever greater privilege. That when we serve and perpetuate an evil system, we’re just doing our jobs. That our cultural markers and rituals and habits of speech and perception are not just good but the best that has ever been or that ever could be. And when someone says that any of this isn’t true, they’re mean and nasty and vicious and we’re entitled to make them go away even if we have to kill them to make that happen.
Tell me if I’m wrong, but that’s what institutionalized racism looks like to me. It’s not a regrettable, detachable, deniable facet of the culture, it is the culture. And like any ordinary white American, I am drenched in it, steeped in it, practically built from it. I will observe—not to ask your sympathy, simply to state the fact—that the corresponding weight of denial is a heavy burden to carry and a terrifying thing to imagine setting down and walking away from. Even if I cop to all this on one occasion, you cannot trust me to tolerate being called on it on a future occasion or to leave the weapon of privilege in its holster when I feel the need of it.
So that’s the world from where I’m sitting, and I think it’s similar to the world from where a lot of white Americans are sitting, whether they identify as Red or Blue or Gray. Showing us how to be good doesn’t accomplish a damn thing, because we already know we’re good, and if a miracle happens and we decide that your good is better than the good we’ve got, we’ll take your good and call it ours, and our old good will become evil to us along with everything else that was already evil and not suddenly part of our new good. (And that, in a nutshell, is white liberalism as I have lived it.)
So here I am, in my ignorance, needing to be taught how to be something other than White. Help?