Clueless in Columbia: The Unbearable Weight of White Inertia

As I follow the news about racism at the University of Missouri and the resignation of its president, I can’t help but notice how little attention is paid to the fact that yet another white man in a position of authority has shown himself to be clueless on the subject of race.

Instead, the story is of a seemingly well-intentioned man caught in the open with nowhere to hide, confronted by angry students aggressively challenging his understanding of race, and knowing before he opened his mouth that he was in over his head.

“I will give you an answer and I’m sure it will be a wrong answer.”

Pretty much a white person’s nightmare come true. And I’ll bet plenty of white people, including college presidents, breathed a sigh of relief that it was him and not them.

However we feel about him and his predicament, the speed with which he has disappeared from the news underscores the view that he is not the real problem. Hapless, perhaps, or incompetent, or just unlucky, but nothing like whites who would call out ‘nigger’ or use human feces to draw a swastika on a wall. Those people are the problem, we are told, racists who still block the way to justice and equity 150 years after the Civil War.

But they are not. There are not enough of them. They are not powerful enough to account for the stunning and persistent racial disparities in income, wealth, political power, jobs, healthcare, schools, housing, not to mention mass incarceration, police violence, and segregation.

No, the reason for our continuing national failure is the great multitude of white people, who are, on the subject of race, not only clueless, but invisible, silent, and inert.

Many pride themselves on good intentions, sincerity, a desire to be good and do no harm. They are aware of no prejudice in themselves, some claiming to see no color at all, as if that were a virtue. When something terrible happens—the murder of black people at prayer, for example—they may feel anguish, even outrage. But it doesn’t last, as the media lose interest and white people resume their lives, like drivers going on down the road after rubbernecking the scene of a crash.

This is what white inertia looks and sounds like, white people moving through time and space with what Martin Luther King described as the “sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity,” that he believed to be the most dangerous thing in the world.

I often hear from colleges and universities wanting to ‘start’ a conversation about race, and I wonder how it is in 2015 that places of higher learning are still just starting out, not to mention hiring presidents who are clueless about race. Until I realize they’ve been here before, many times, perhaps, but cannot sustain what they begin, cannot turn it into more than a conversation or a campus event or yet another plan to do something about it, somehow, someday.

And the reason is not a reluctance to engage by people of color—most of whom cannot escape the subject of race—but white people, men in particular, most of whom do not show up in the first place, and those who do, don’t stick around very long.

There are times when white people openly commit themselves to racial justice in ways that might be noticed. There were the abolitionists, for example, and, more than a hundred years later, the freedom riders.* Otherwise, it’s hard to see where most ‘good’ white people—the ones not consciously engaged in oppressing people of color—have done more than watch, anchoring the status quo with the weight of their consent.

White inertia is a complicated thing, a mass of many layers, its outer edge wrapped in ignorance, unable to act on what isn’t known.

Just below is the refuge of heaping blame on bad individuals who act in overtly racist ways, providing the reassuring comfort of not being one of those, and therefore not the problem.

Deeper down, propping up ignorance and blame, is the investment in being seen as the kind of people for whom race does not figure in the treatment of human beings. It comes with the assumption that people actually know what they believe and feel, what we are predisposed to do in the blink of an eye that it takes to form an impression. But the study of implicit bias and the science of the brain make it clear that we do not, that we have no idea, because our awareness is but a tiny window on the unconscious brain that controls most of our lives, shaped by a lifetime of experience in a society that is anything but neutral or kind or just on the subject of race.

But I didn’t mean it, I hear again and again. It wasn’t my intention. Good for you, I want to say, but it doesn’t change the consequence.

And then, going deeper toward the core of white inertia, is the dull, leaden feeling of being overwhelmed—it is too much, too big.

I have watched them sink in the direction of despair, nibbling around the edges of guilt and shame.

And the fear of what stands to be lost—innocence, the wages of privilege, who we think we are, identity, goodness, worth, America, American.

And then comes the last line of defense, when all else fails, digging in, dropping all pretense, to let loose the anger at how awful, how unfair it is to be made to feel this way, the white man in Oklahoma accosting me mid-way in the workshop, “You’re just trying to make us feel bad,” as if I would travel more than a thousand miles for that.

And, besides, where is it written that white people should not feel bad about this country’s continuing legacy of race? Are people of color to be the only ones, to carry it alone? And just what did they do to deserve that?

But such questions are buried beneath the full weight of white inertia—nothing to offer, nothing to give that might actually disturb or make a difference, resentful, fending off guilt, sick and tired, leave us alone.

It isn’t pretty, and of course white people are not all the same. But that isn’t the point. It is the pattern that is all too familiar to anyone who pays attention. A pattern that comes as no surprise, so predictable, for why would we imagine that hundreds of years of race privilege and oppression would bring out the best?

Having worked on these issues for most of my life, I believe we have two choices: We will stay stuck in this until forced to move by events or circumstance, lurching from one crisis to the next. Or we will find a way to do what our ancestors did not—to take responsibility now, as we are called to do as citizens and human beings, as if our lives and much more depend upon it.

Of course that’s easier said than done, and I have been around enough white people struggling with this to have some idea of what comes up and what is needed.

What can I do? Start where you are. Make it your business to find out what you do not know. Read, listen. Learn what racism does to people of color, has done for hundreds of years. About whiteness, where it came from and why, and what it has to do with you. Of course we’re involved. Of course we’re biased. Of course our silence is consent. Of course we’ve benefitted one way or another from generations of racism. We are all human beings born and raised in a world we did not create or choose, that shapes our lives inside and out.

Of course this is hard.

Now I feel guilty. To which I will say there are few things more useless than white people preoccupied with feeling bad about themselves. This is not about you.

And helpless. Because you are, if you think you’re supposed to change the world. But you are not. You are here to make a difference, which you may never get to see.

But I’m just one person. Who isn’t? Each of us is a leaf on a tree, and the tree may not need any one of us in particular, but it doesn’t live without us. As Gandhi said, what we do as individuals doesn’t matter, but it matters that we do it.

I matter and I don’t. Exactly. It’s a paradox. Best get used to those.

I still feel overwhelmed. Then imagine you’re a parent and your child’s life is in danger and you don’t know what to do and it scares the hell out of you. What do you do now? Sit there and be overwhelmed while your kid dies? I don’t think so. Breathe. Open your eyes.

But I’m afraid. With good reason. But pretending that you’re not, and not preparing for it, is one of the biggest reasons good intentions come to nothing. Make a list of all the ways you can get hurt doing this, and then a list of what you need to take care of yourself. “Don’t do this alone” goes at the top. There’s a reason social movements depend on numbers of people, including that loneliness and isolation are invitations to powerlessness and despair. Join a group. Start a group. Make a friend into an ally. Find a we you can believe in and be part of it.

All right. I educate myself, join a group. What then? Just look around. You’ll know. It will be obvious, if not painfully so.

That’s the simple answer, the one I always hope will be enough.

But I notice you asked this question before, which makes me wonder where it’s coming from, if this isn’t a bit of sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity. I suspect you already know the answer to your question. You just don’t like it very much. You’re holding out for a quick fix, a way to make this go away so you can stop feeling so bad, so you can avoid having to nail yourself to the present.** A way to think you’ve done your bit and now it’s up to someone else.

You already know what people do to make change happen. You’ve seen it in history books and the movies and on the news. They come together and commit themselves to one another and what needs to be done. They study the situation, identify the goal, analyze and strategize, assess the risks, and then organize to agitate for change. And they keep on doing that until the day when power yields. Just as those brave students in Missouri must now prepare for the long haul as white inertia reasserts its weight.

That’s what it takes, and always has.

And, in case you’re wondering, you don’t have to make this your life. But it does have to be part of your life.

Which means the real question, the one that counts, the only question, really, is not what can you do, but what are you prepared to do?

What do you have the knowledge to do, the courage, the allies, the resources, the will? How far are you willing to go, in the world and inside yourself?

And, if you don’t know that, do you care enough to find out?


*I omit the Civil War because Northern whites were not fighting to free black people from slavery.

**The idea of nailing yourself to the present has been attributed to Pema Chodron, author of, among others, When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times (Shambala, 2000).

Not from Here: Being White in North America

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A few years before my father died, I asked him where he wanted his ashes to be placed. He replied—without hesitation—that it made no difference to him at all.

I came to wish I hadn’t let him off so easily, as five years later his ashes still sat in their brown plastic box, prompting me to embark on a 2,000-mile journey across the Upper Midwest and Northern Plains to find the place where my father’s ashes belonged.

Coming home, I set out on a different kind of journey, writing about my experience as a white man with Norwegian and English lineage exploring both America and the question of belonging to a place whose history holds the continuing legacy of the displacement, dispossession, and genocide of Native peoples.

The result is Not from Here, a memoir that has just been published by Temple University Press.

More than a personal narrative, Not from Here tries to illuminate the national silence around unresolved questions of accountability, race, and identity politics, and the dilemma of how to take responsibility for a past we did not create. It is a story about the past living in the present; of redemption, fate, family, tribe, and nation; of love and grief, that raises disturbing questions about belonging, identity, and place.

Here is a sampling of what reviewers have to say:

Those undergoing their own grief journey will find their thoughts given poignant expression in Johnson’s musings on his father’s life and their too-distant relationship. The best part of this book, though, and why it should be widely read, is its thoughtful examination of the workings of privilege in immigrant experiences.”
Library Journal

“What it means to be white, what it means to be American, and what it means to be from a place and to belong to it are questions that Johnson raises throughout the book. He is painfully aware that as a descendant of those who took the land from others, dispossessing and displacing them, he is today the beneficiary of acts he did not perform. . . . [T]hose expecting a son’s gentle memoir will be in for a surprise.”
Kirkus Reviews

“Not from Here is a fascinating journey into filiality, heritage, and the heart of this American land. It is a journey worth taking and a story well told.”
Kent Nerburn, author of Letters to My Son, Neither Wolf nor Dog, and Chief Joseph and the Flight of the Nez Perce

“The extraordinary achievement of Not from Here, and the stunning gift it offers to my own self-understanding, lies in the mirror it holds to white American culture. Seeking a resting place for his father’s ashes, the son is gradually faced with the essential rootlessness of his—and my own—people. In the process of conquering and commodifying our world, we have been losing what it means to belong.”
Joanna Macy, author of Coming Back to Life

“If those two great existential questions—Who am I? and Where am I from?—are linked, how are those with transient upbringings in our amnesiatic, immigrant-settled society to answer them? In Not from Here, Allan Johnson takes a road trip on the American plains to try to find out, haunted by his globe-trotting father’s ashes in the trunk and the legacy of Euro-American conquest staring at him through the windshield.”
Colin Woodard, author of American Nations and The Lobster Coast

“‘This package contains the cremated body of / Valdemar N. L. Johnson / Cremated December 7, 2005, ID Number 20051912.’ A nondescript package of gray ash triggers a passionate engagement with American history as the author’s need to find a meaningful place for his father’s remains becomes a poignant quest for his own identity: the ancestral identity that originates in majestic Norwegian fjords and flees, improbably, to the rich wind-blown alluvium of America’s heartland—a Promised Land being ruthlessly cleansed of Native American tribes to make way for sturdy Lutherans and a nation’s dream of Manifest Destiny. Johnson comes to terms with the ricocheting ironies in a tender, wistful narrative reminiscent of N. Scott Momaday’s classic journey of tribal ancestral discovery in The Way to Rainy Mountain. Not from Here is a truly lovely book.”
Calvin Luther Martin, author of The Way of the Human Being

“This is not only an exquisitely crafted memoir of a son seeking a place for his father’s ashes. This is not only an exploration of the right relationship between the living and the dead, the ethical and emotional responsibilities we have to each other. This is also a heartbreaking and exact investigation of the ways our ancestors call us into the vortex of history, demanding that we confront and respond to the deeds done, the harm wreaked on the land and the Native people who were here before us. How we bury our dead requires us also to unearth the harm done and to bring healing to the line that must recognize and include all our relations. A profound text from a beautiful soul.”
Deena Metzger author of Y Blanca Y Negra and Entering the Ghost River

Not from Here is available in hardcover and Kindle editions. Order from Amazon.com, Barnes & Noble.com, or your local bookstore. To read the Prologue, click here. And do ask your local library to add it to their collection.

Is a Robot after Your Job?

“Robots Are Coming for Your Jobs” reads the headline, with a cute little dancing robot that is over-the-moon happy because just this morning it turned itself on and realized that today is the day it’s coming to take your job.human-4

And why? Because robots are smarter and more productive and efficient than human beings. They are faster and make fewer mistakes and never get tired or bored or injured or file workers’ compensation claims or have sick kids or aging parents to care for or anything else that might interfere with work.

The concern behind the story, of course, is whether this is a good thing—destroying jobs, for example, or making people dumber or dependent or even obsolete. These are fine things to worry about, but also a distraction from what’s really going on.

The tip-off comes from how words are used to confer on those happy robots the ability not only to be happy, but to want and choose and act like any sentient being. Machines can decide to come and go, displace and replace, create, eliminate, and destroy, migrate, master, and teach, invade, take over, and dominate, extend their reach and consolidate their gains.

In other words, technology is portrayed as both able and motivated to happen on its own, which can make the pace and direction of technological change seem inevitable and unstoppable, unless, of course, for reasons of its own, technology decides to slow down or go do something else.

What concerns me here is not what a robot can or cannot do. What bothers me is how we are encouraged to think about technology without being aware of the human beings who are the true subjects of all those verbs that so profoundly affect people’s lives.

The only reason that most robots exist is that corporate managers and CEOs make it worthwhile for engineers to invent them as a way to increase profit by putting people out of work.

There is nothing about technology that requires this to happen. There is nothing about a machine or a piece of software that wills itself to exist or to improve or apply for a job. Technology has no agency, no agenda, does not aspire to anything.

In other words, the fact that a robot can do a job is not the reason that it does.

Technology is not taking over our lives or controlling our destiny. It is a tool being created, built, and used by those who make no secret of their ambition to amass as much power and wealth as they possibly can, which, in a capitalist economy, is regarded not only as a virtue, but the point.

The rest of us, however, are not supposed to be thinking about that, much less resist, which is why we’re told that jobs are being lost to machines and not to the self-interest of those who profit from them. The truth is made obscure because if the problem were seen as powerful people destroying people’s jobs, then there would be someone to hold to account. But, if it’s just technology, well, go ahead and knock yourself out blaming a machine.

Not that there isn’t precedent, going all the way back to the early Industrial Revolution when Dutch mill workers were known to throw their wooden shoes—sabots—into the gears of machines they saw as threatening their livelihoods, giving rise to ‘saboteur’ and ‘sabotage.’ When English workers tried a version of this, the establishment retaliated by passing a law that made industrial sabotage an offense punishable by death.

The standard defense of replacing workers with machines is that it’s a necessary consequence of capitalist competition and the drive to maximize profit, which is certainly true. It is how the system is designed to work, which has never had the well-being of people or society or the planet as its goal.

In fact, if capitalists could replace all of their workers with machines, they would, in a heartbeat, were it not for a fatal contradiction on which capitalism is based.

When people lose their jobs, they’re unable to buy goods and services that capitalists must sell in order to make a profit and stay in business. Which then causes a further slump in demand and still more lost jobs. To counter this and get people buying again, banks and businesses have resorted to giving credit—mortgages, credit cards, car and college loans—which works until the whole thing collapses beneath the weight of unpayable debt, as happened in 2008. And we know who pays for that.

But, the argument goes, workers who lose their jobs should go out and acquire skills for occupations that cannot be done by machines. A good idea, of course, but only until capitalists feel compelled to invent robots who can do those as well. Just look around. It’s already happening or the writing is on the wall for everything from composers and journalists to accountants, bookkeepers, carpenters, pharmacists, paralegals, clerks, babysitters, travel agents, telephone operators, bank tellers, secretaries, machinists, librarians, teachers, cashiers, salespeople, fast-food workers, insurance agents, and a whole lot more.

The ‘logic’ of capitalism’s escalating use of technology is a fraud, compelled by a system based on unbridled competition, exploitation, and greed to the exclusion of everyone and everything else. It is cut from the same fantasy that would have us believe that perpetual growth is both possible and desirable on a finite planet that is lurching toward ecological collapse.

So, the next time we read about technology doing this or that, it would be good to identify who is really coming to change our lives. And why.

And then, who knows, human beings might decide to make use of an ability that you can bet will never be programmed into machines—to come together and reflect on our common condition and then organize to demand something better.

For related posts and essays, see “The Job Creator Myth”  and “Occupy This.

NPR recently reported estimates of various occupations’ chances of being replaced by a machines. Read the article here.


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