Thursday, May 3, 2018

White Innocence: A Confession

Here is an unsurprising fact about me: I am imperfect.

I won't give you a comprehensive list of my imperfections, but I do want to talk about one that I have in common with other people like me: white men who have stable careers and comfortable incomes.

I like to enjoy the privileged life I have without being pressured to reflect on all those people in the world who don't enjoy the same advantages, without being called to think about all the ways I could (but don't) use my privilege to make things better for them.

To put the point in less precise but more common terms: I just want to enjoy my life without feeling guilty about it. 

I want to be "blessed." You know what I mean: I want to look at my beautiful home and my beautiful family and my fulfilling job and say, "I'm blessed." And then just be thankful for that.

I don't want to consider the possibility that systemic injustices routinely bestow people like me with blessings while others labor and suffer and strive and still can't hope for the comforts I enjoy. I certainly don't want to make substantial sacrifices to my comfort and advantages for the sake of those who suffer, or challenge the status quo in ways that might make my life less comfortable.

I want to sit back and enjoy my blessings while still being innocent--or at least without being called out for my lack of innocence.

Take a specific example. I am in a position to indulge my kids' passions. I can pay for expensive extracurricular activities--gymnastics and dance and music lessons--that cultivate their talents, develop life skills, and enrich their lives. And why am I in a position to do that? Some of it's luck. Some of it's hard work. But a lot of it is because my parents were able to do that for me.

My parents could afford to pay for the expensive extracurricular activities that enriched my life--in my case violin lessons with the best and most expensive private violin teachers in town. So much of what I know about how to focus and succeed at things can be traced back to what I learned as I was guided through the difficult task of mastering the technical challenges of one new piece of music after another.

Of course I took advantage of these opportunities. And then I went on to use the personal resources I cultivated to earn a PhD, get a tenure track job, secure tenure and eventually promotion to full professor. But first I had to have the opportunities. And there are others who likely would have done even more with them than I did, who would have had even more drive and determination and commitment than me, if only they'd had the chance.

Let me be clear about something: I am not to blame for growing up in a world where those opportunities are unequally distributed. I didn't make that world. And it's hardly blameworthy that I used those opportunities to cultivate my talents and develop my character (it would've been worse had I squandered them). But here I am now, the beneficiary of privileges that most people don't have. It's the choices I make now, about how to use my advantages, that I can be properly praised and blamed for.

And the hard truth is this: I could be doing more, a lot more, to make those kinds of opportunities available to more people in the world. And so, as much as I wish I could be innocent, I'm not.

Some of the advantages I've had in life are tied to my race. They are tied to being white in a society that was created by white European settlers on the backs of black slaves, human beings kidnapped and born of those who were kidnapped and sold like cattle at auction; a society created at the expense of indigenous peoples who were systematically pushed into smaller and narrower reservations, driven along a deadly Trail of Tears into the Indian Territory that is now no longer Indian Territory but the State of Oklahoma, where I live.

All of that is history. But history casts a long shadow. History shapes the present moment. It forms the contours of our society, both for good and ill. The racial categories of whiteness and blackness were invented in the centuries-long era of forced enslavement. Our very concepts of black and white, understood as distinct "races," were invented to justify treating some people as animals to be owned and bought and sold and used.

Let me say that again in a slightly different way: the racial category, "black," was invented in order to justify treating some people (those with brown skin) as things to be used by other people (those with pink skin). The racial categories we have were created as an integral part of an ideological system called white supremacy.

I would be naive to think that the oppressive ideas that helped to shape our racial categories, oppressive ideas that survived the end of slavery and were refashioned into the more subtle oppression of Jim Crow, somehow died for good when I was a kid.

I see people as black and white. As much as I might wish I'd been raised in a world where nobody saw each other in this way, these categories exist. And I am very good at instinctively putting people into these categories. I'd be naive to think that, when I do place them in one racial category or another, my perceptions of them are in no way shaped by what these categories were invented to do, the oppressive meanings they were originally created to have.

History doesn't work that way. Culture doesn't work that way. And my black friends and neighbors, when they tell me of their experiences today, confirm that it doesn't work that way.

This becomes apparent to anyone who listens deeply to people of color, who hears or reads their stories with empathy and compassion. Doing that means looking beyond the comfortable space I inhabit--a space that has always been and continues to be overwhelming white.

When I do, I see that, simply by virtue of my skin, I enjoy advantages over my black peers.

No woman has ever clutched her purse more tightly when I walked onto the elevator. I have never been immediately followed by a security guard when I enter a store. In fact, I can't remember even noticing a security guard in any store I've ever entered, because I can afford to ignore them.

I certainly haven't found myself carrying the cumulative psychological weight of these sorts of suspicious and fearful gestures happening over and over again over the course of a single day (and then experiencing it again the next day, and the next). I've never experienced health problems caused by the long-term stress of carrying that weight.

I routinely go to meet people at coffee shops and wait for them at a table before ordering--and I have never thought twice about it, let alone had the police called on me because of it (or because I asked for plastic silverware at the Waffle House and then asked to contact the manager when I was told I'd be charged).

I have never felt the surge of bone-deep fear that every black friend I know feels when being pulled over by the police.

I have never picked up a book called "How to Draw Faces" only to find that every single face in the book is of a dominant race not my own.

When I was a kid and decided to dress for Halloween as a superhero or legendary wizard or other character out of my Geek Pantheon, they were virtually all white and so I had loads and loads of choices--and when I donned the costume no ever said, "Oh, look! I white Superman. How cute."

Sure, my hair was blond as a kid, not black like Superman's, but no one seemed to notice that. If you're the default race, not only is your race unremarkable but so, too, are those other little details.

I have never been one of only two white men in a room only to learn later that the choices and actions of the other white man, who looked nothing like me, have been attributed to me (or my choices to them).

I've never been slapped with the N-word.

I've never doubted that I would be treated as an individual, assessed on my own merits, and judged by my own failings and accomplishments. In certain rare situations growing up, I found myself called to my best behavior because I represented my school or my church youth group. I was never called to represent my race. I was never assumed to be a representative of my who race, with all the weight that carries.

Every day I make choices with the complete assurance that people will see me as a harmless, decent, well-meaning person who'll be treated with deference, politeness, and respect. This assurance is so routinely confirmed by experience that on those rare occasions when someone seems afraid of me or hostile to me, I am utterly shocked.

I don't have the experience of being an outsider in my society. Almost everywhere I go, I belong. And that feeling is rarely if ever challenged by the ways that people respond to me. And so I am relaxed and at home in my world.

And most of the time, I simply enjoy these facts about my life--without thinking about or wrestling with or doing anything about the fact that for so many people of color, none of these things are true.

This is why I am so grateful for an open letter that George Yancy, a fellow philosophy professor, wrote a few years ago. "Dear White America," the letter begins. And then, with sensitivity and a real effort to avoid being misunderstood, Yancy invites white Americans to really see and experience their privilege--to really see and experience the ways in which even the most well-meaning white people unintentionally participate in a system that disadvantages black Americans.

To capture the spirit of what he wants to express, he begins with a confession. He confesses that he is sexist. And he explains what he means by that. He makes it clear that he is not labeling himself as a male chauvinist who deliberately uses and abuses women. No, when he calls himself sexist he means something different: that he is part of a system that advantages men in a systematic way, and that he hasn't done enough to escape its influence or oppose its harmful effects. Yancy puts it as follows:
This doesn’t mean that I intentionally hate women or that I desire to oppress them. It means that despite my best intentions, I perpetuate sexism every day of my life. Please don’t take this as a confession for which I’m seeking forgiveness. Confessions can be easy, especially when we know that forgiveness is immediately forthcoming. 
As a sexist, I have failed women. I have failed to speak out when I should have. I have failed to engage critically and extensively their pain and suffering in my writing. I have failed to transcend the rigidity of gender roles in my own life...I have been complicit with, and have allowed myself to be seduced by, a country that makes billions of dollars from sexually objectifying women, from pornography, commercials, video games, to Hollywood movies. I am not innocent.
When he calls himself sexist, he means that even though he thinks sexism is wrong, even though he wishes he were not influenced by sexist tropes and patterns in our culture, he remains a participant in social patterns of thinking and behaving that make women's lives worse than they could or should be. He is not innocent.

This is unsurprising. It is virtually impossible for someone in a sexist society to avoid altogether the effects of socialization, to avoid some level of complicity or seduction. But the purpose of recognizing this fact is not to inspire guilt but rather to motivate honesty and vulnerability. To see ourselves truthfully so that we can pursue that unattainable goal that Jesus talked about: Be perfect, as God is perfect.

When Jesus said that, it wasn't to make us comfortable. It was to make us uncomfortable. It was to remind us that the labor of becoming the best we can be is never-ending, and that although there is forgiveness for our failures such forgiveness is not a reason to stop striving, to stop repenting, to stop reflecting on our inadequacies and recommitting ourselves each day to being better than we were before. Success may be beyond us, and our salvation (thank God) doesn't depend on success, but the practice of confession and repentance and re-commitment to the good remains a lifelong calling.

This is what he asks of his white readers. When he calls himself sexist, he mean that he lives and breathes in a society that is shaped by social patterns and structures that invite men to objectify women in ways large and small--and despite his efforts to live against that tide, he falls short. This is what he means when he calls himself sexist.

But then he turns to the issue of racism. And he says these words:
This letter is not asking you to feel bad about yourself, to wallow in guilt. That is too easy. I’m asking for you to tarry, to linger, with the ways in which you perpetuate a racist society, the ways in which you are racist. 
When I first read those words, it was clear what he was saying. He was speaking to me. He was inviting me to confront not just the fact that blacks are systematically disadvantaged in our society but the fact that I am not innocent. He was inviting me to tarry, to linger, with this unsettling question: where do I fall short in my efforts to repudiate these ongoing injustices? When am I silent about racist jokes for the sake of getting along or not making waves? When am I more concerned about my own comfort or the comfort of my white colleague than I am about racial injustice? Where must I make confession, repentance, and a re-commitment to the good?

And to make that invitation, he used that word: racist.

Being a white man in America, I could've warned him about what that would do. But then again, being a black man in America, I'm sure he knew.

No matter how carefully he led up to the use of that word--RACIST--by invoking the analogy of sexism and offering his own confession about being sexist...

No matter how precise he was in specifying what he meant by that word--that he was referring to ways in which white Americans are "perpetuating a racist society," often unconsciously and absent any ugly intentions...

No matter how clear it is that nobody can live in a society and be entirely free from its socializing influence, and hence that the issue isn't about feeling guilty but about becoming self-aware and finding ways to do better...

No matter how obvious it was that he wasn't telling white Americans that all of them consciously hate black people or use the N-word or tell racist jokes or delight in social-media images of Obama being lynched...

No matter how cautiously he approached the use of that word, I could've warned him what it would mean to invite his white readers "to tarry, to linger, with...the ways in which you are racist."

I'm a white man in 21st Century America. One thing I know something about is how this class of people feels, in general, about being invited to wear the label "racist."

I'll quickly confess to being a bit sexist, a bit lazy, a bit too selfish. But racist?

White men like me have got all kinds of defense mechanisms to protect our innocence. Some are more subtle than others.

There's one strategy I knew would be quickly invoked to silence Yancy: the strategy of self-righteous deflection. It looks like this:

"Are you calling me racist? You don't KNOW me! You're calling all your white readers racist just because they're white! THAT'S what's racist! Slapping a negative label onto people based solely on their race is racism! Yancy's a racist! Racist Yancy!"

Yancy becomes the racist, and so we don't need to tarry with the question of how we contribute to the problem of anti-black racist systems in America. Because the one who's asking us to do it made the unforgivable sin of asking that question by using the term "racist."

This defensive strategy piggybacks on a more widespread one: a refusal to accept or even understand the sense of "racism" that Yancy tries so carefully to explain. Clearly, Yancy means by "racist" the propensity to consciously or unconsciously contribute to a system that disadvantages blacks and other races while advantaging whites. But if white Americans use the term in that way, it forces us to do the very thing that Yancy wants white Americans to do: to reflect on how, consciously or unconsciously, we are part of a systemic problem that continues to cause suffering.

We prefer to adopt a different meaning, one more narrow than Yancy's, more narrow than the generally accepted sociological understanding, more narrow than the one the black community generally has in mind. We prefer to reserve the term "racist" exclusively for individuals who harbor explicitly racist beliefs, who endorse white supremacist doctrines, who invoke the N-word, who wear white sheets on weekend cross-burning outings, who actively and intentionally discriminate against people of color.

If we do that, then--at least for those of us who aren't active with our local chapter of the KKK--racism is someone else's problem. It's not our problem. We preserve our innocence.

Of course, Yancy is very careful to specify, clearly and unambiguously, that when he invites his white neighbors to reflect on the ways that they are racist, he doesn't mean this sense of the word, the sense of "racist" that only applies to klansmen and neo-Nazis and their secret admirers. Yancy couldn't have been more clear that what he's inviting his white neighbors to do is reflect on how their lifestyles and choices play into the social structures and cultural patterns that continue to disadvantage blacks over whites in this country.

But such care and precision does no good if it threatens our innocence--a fact that is made blazingly apparent by the kinds of vitriolic responses to his letter that Yancy received. In fact, the urge to protect white innocence is so insanely strong that threats to it can, it seems, inspire in some people frothing displays of the opposite: N-word-spewing death threats in the name of rejecting Yancy's invitation to reflect on how we might be racist.

It would almost be laughable if it weren't so true and so devastating in its human toll. Yancy discusses that truth and that toll in a new essay, "The Ugly Truth of Being a Black Professor in America." It is adapted from Yancy's new book, Backlash: What Happens When We Talk Honestly About Racism in America.

What he describes is horrific beyond anything I could conceive.

The reason it is beyond what I could conceive is precisely because I routinely underestimate the force and power of racism in that overt, rabid, hate-spewing sense--not the broad sense Yancy was so careful to specify, but in that ugly sense that most of us can safely distance ourselves from. The kind most white people aren't guilty of--but also the kind that most of us can therefore pretend does not exist.

This is another piece of my confession: I live in a bubble-world where most of the time the racism that exists looks at worst like what Yancy was talking about: the unintended complicity of well-meaning people in a system that was forged long ago and continues to cast an ugly shadow.

But my black neighbors do not live in that world. They do not live in a world where that is the only kind of racism they face. They live in a world where overt, rabid, hate-spewing racism can rear up at any moment, especially as a backlash response to the kind of thing that Yancy did in his open letter: earnest efforts to invite the kind of soul-searching that is required to dismantle racist structures and systems.

Apparently, if you're black, the surest way to inspire overt racists to come out of the woodwork, displaying their racism in unfettered verbal abuse, is to accuse them of being racist. Their raging denials are like the abusive husband who, in response to his wife calling him abusive, beats her to unconsciousness while shouting, "How dare you call me abusive!"

My black neighbors and colleagues and friends do not live in my world. My world is one where racism--whether in its raging, spewing form or in terms of hidden structures and implicit biases--affect other people. That is not the world of my black neighbors. They do not live in a world where it is optional for them whether they face these things or not.

They have no choice but to face them, to live with them. What they have a choice about is whether to speak out or endure in silence. And when they choose to speak, even if they do so in the most carefully worded way they can, they make themselves the targets of a hate that transcends what I can tarry with, what I can linger with.

To imagine myself the target of what Yancy describes in his recent essay and book--at least to do so for more than a moment--is too much for me. And so I retreat. I pretend that sort of thing is safely in the past and that what we need to tackle now is something less horrifying: implicit bias.

And then, when I step back to that level of structural and implicit racism, I exempt myself in a different way.

This is the final part of my confession. When I first read Yancy's letter, I knew that these words were meant for me:
If you are white, and you are reading this letter, I ask that you don’t run to seek shelter from your own racism. Don’t hide from your responsibility. Rather, begin, right now, to practice being vulnerable. Being neither a “good” white person nor a liberal white person will get you off the proverbial hook. I consider myself to be a decent human being. Yet, I’m sexist. Take another deep breath. I ask that you try to be “un-sutured.”
You see, I'm always taking myself off the hook. My defense mechanisms are more subtle than the ones I've discussed above, such as defining racism narrowly enough to exclude myself, but they are just as real.

A few years ago I took Harvard University's online implicit bias test, which aims to determine the extent to which you unconsciously harbor racial prejudices (as well as other implicit associations and biases). The test, in my case, showed that I harbored no discernible implicit bias against blacks.

But here's the thing, my confession: I exulted in this result. 

I used this result to tell myself that I was not complicit. That I was not part of the problem. That I could rest on my laurels and enjoy my blessings and never need to confess, to repent, to re-commit to the good. Not only is overt racism a problem that only other people have, but so is implicit bias. Hah!

And so I put on my cloak of white innocence. And I've never taken the test again. Because I'm afraid that the comforting result was just a one-time fluke.

It is so easy to pretend that Yancy's letter does not apply to me. It is so easy to say that it applies mainly to those who responded to it with outrage, those who were so defensive in their reactions that they proved their racism in the frothing way that they rejected the racist label.

It's so easy to pretend that Yancy's letter doesn't ask anything of me, since I have already taken it to heart (even though Yancy's invitation is not a one-off thing but an ongoing part of a lifelong effort to be perfect in the ways we know we are not).

But Yancy's letter does apply to me. I know it does when I linger on his closing words:  "If you have young children, before you fall off to sleep tonight, I want you to hold your child. Touch your child’s face. Smell your child’s hair. Count the fingers on your child’s hand. See the miracle that is your child. And then, with as much vision as you can muster, I want you to imagine that your child is black."

Yancy's letter applies to me because every time I hear about another black child gunned down or read another page of Angie Thomas's extraordinary novel, The Hate U Give, I find myself confronting a terrible species of gratitude.

I find myself grateful that my children are white.