Last Monday, as everyone’s heads were exploding over Donald Trump’s racist tweets targeting four Congresswomen of color, I posted this on my Facebook page:
Trump is a racist. He’s open about it because he thinks it will work with his base. If you are part of that base, if his racist and xenophobic tweets and comments over the past 48 hours are “working” for you–if you are applauding and nodding in approval–you are a racist too.
One guy wanted me to know that “when you point a finger, there are three of our own pointing right back at you. One of my extended family members who belonged to the KKK told me that” (my parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and other family authorities all told me that, and they were not members of the KKK), and also reminded me that Jesus said “let him who is without sin cast the first stone.” Multiple other commenters piled on the guy in short order; before long he left the conversation complaining that “trying to talk to a liberal is like talking to a wall.”
What most impressed me about the ensuing conversation was how ready many people were to be self-reflective. Here is a sample of comments from the conversation thread, all of them submitted by white people:
- Person 1: Fighting racism does not require that we be pure. Having grown up imbued with racist values, even those of us who find it abhorrent are probably still racist whether we want to be or not. So yes, I am a racist and an antiracist, meaning that while racism may be my gut-level response (as a white person raised in a white supremacist society), I am always striving to destroy my white privilege.
- Person 2 (Responding to above): My sentiments exactly. I believe for most decent people we endeavor to hold those feelings in check at all times and even eliminate the source by forcing empathy to the surface.
- Person 3: I am regularly appalled at the depths of my own inability to see the humanity of those around me who are different than me.
- Person 4: I have mean-spirited racist thoughts. That weird little undertone that can pop up in an unguarded second and just as quickly disappear. I catch them and do my best to send them to the outer darkness. Same with violent thoughts. Ignoring them doesn’t help. Recognizing them and refusing to be led by them does.
And many more. I confess that my original posting was done in anger (although, looking back, I agree strongly with everything I wrote). Comments such as those above, honest and probing questions and observations about the insidious nature of racism, reminded me that the original “my relative was a member of the KKK” guy was inadvertently on to something. My friends were looking at themselves, as they should. And so do I, on a regular basis.
I noted in agreement with one of the commenters on Facebook that I have learned more from the section on “White Privilege” in my ethics classes over the past two or three years than from any other topic. I’m teaching ethics again in the fall; something tells me that discussions of race and white privilege will still be timely. We will be reading a number of different contemporary articles on the topic, but I usually begin with a personal story from three or four years ago.
If I lived by my principles fully, I would never shop at Walmart. For reasons too numerous to belabor, Walmart represents many of the worst features of American capitalism. But there are many items that Jeanne and I regularly purchase at Walmart, items that we could get at any number of other retail establishments. So why do we go to Walmart? Because it’s convenient and its cheaper. One day I snuck into Walmart shopping for dog treats, a few cheap picture frames, checking the Keurig display (our Walmart occasionally has our favorite Amaretto flavor), shampoo, cold medicine, and a couple of other items for which in our experience Walmart has the lowest prices.
After paying I headed for the exit where, as is the custom at this Walmart, there was an employee checking the bags of those leaving the store for the parking lot—something that Jeanne and I both find annoying and yet another reason to hate Walmart. Then something happened that I found worthy of a Facebook post when I got home.
Had an interesting experience at Walmart this morning. After buying my stuff and heading for the exit, there’s a Hispanic family in front of me and an African-American guy behind me. After checking the receipt of the family in front of me to make sure everything is accounted for, the Walmart employee at the door (an older white guy) waves me through. I said “No, either you check everybody or you check nobody.” Checking my receipt, he said “you’re right.” In the parking lot afterward, the guy behind me said “thanks, man–that was nice.”
This was not a typical thing for me to do; my awareness usually is only high enough to show the employee my receipt if she or he insists and get the hell out of there. But this time I noticed something and, contrary to my nature, said something about it. “Good for me,” I congratulated myself as I drove home.
White privilege—I confess that although I have intellectually affirmed that it exists for a long time, in practical terms I have been virtually blind to it. Jeanne and I have laughed occasionally that there are no two whiter people in the world than we are. My Ancestry.com profile confirms this. I have white hair in a ponytail and white skin that is a product of my Scandinavian gene pool. Jeanne acts Italian, but has the beautiful, freckled lily-white skin from the Irish half of her ancestry. Without Jeanne’s red hair we would look like Casper and his significant other.
But over the past few years my sixty-plus-year-old whiteness has come to my attention more frequently than in the past—I hear and read over and over again that certain elements of U. S. citizenry is angry, upset about all sorts of things, an anger that continues to make Donald Trump attractive in spite of his obvious faults (which are legion). And what sorts of people are angriest? Older white people, particularly older white guys. My demographic, in other words.
What are older white people angry about? According to a white couple interviewed outside a Trump rally by MSNBC not long ago, “everything.” When asked to be more specific, neither one of them went further than “we want America to be the way it used to be,” in alignment with Trump’s slogan “Make America Great Again.” The attractiveness of that, of course, depends on how one defines “great”—as one of the anchors on “Weekend Update” on Saturday Night Live remarked, “Whenever rich old white guys start bringing up the good old days, my Negro senses start tingling.” There is anger that a world which used to make perfect sense isn’t making sense any more. One blunt but honest way of describing this is that older white folks aren’t happy about an emerging world in which whiteness and entitlement are no longer synonymous.
It takes conscious awareness for the privileged to even see their privilege—this is why “All Lives Matter” from a white person is not an appropriate response to “Black Lives Matter.” This response implies that “of course black lives matter—we all do, because everyone is equal in our country. Didn’t you know that?” Ignoring, of course, the fact that older white folks like I are the beneficiaries of generations of accumulated and embedded privilege our whole lives, usually without our even being aware of it. It can be jarring to be told forcefully that what we take for granted has been institutionally denied to those unlike us throughout the history of our country.
As is often the case, this experience also causes me to consider my commitment to following Jesus. The Jesus I grew up with was white, his disciples were white, as was everyone in my world. All of this, of course, is undoubtedly false–but the color of Jesus’ skin, or anyone else’s, should be beside the point. There’s nothing in the gospels that specifies such surface level characteristics as even worthy of our notice as we seek to bring the love and inclusiveness of Jesus into the world. Recognizing that the world I’m trying to do this in is often fractured by and infected with discrimination and intolerance should be a reminder of just how important–and radical–the message of the gospels actually is.
I’m not an angry older white person—even if I shared the fears of those who express such anger (and I don’t), I would not be able to sustain it for long. Being perpetually pissed takes a psychological toll. But as an older white person I am privileged in ways that are both institutional and unjust—I commit myself to noticing and addressing those ways as often as possible. As a close friend commented on my Walmart Facebook story, “I love those moments which move life toward justice—one has to believe that it all adds up.” One bit of awareness at a time.