Tag Archives: race

What Are We Afraid Of?

Roxie is afraid of stairs, especially the open-backed variety, which must look peculiar from where she stands, as if the whole apparatus is floating in the air with nothing to hold it up. Like one of those Escher paintings. She’s afraid going up and afraid going down. But she does it anyway because upstairs is where we sleep and downstairs is the way to breakfast in the morning.

Sometimes she reaches out a paw to test the stair and then takes it back, making little cries in her throat, but sooner or later she figures out a way to get herself up or down.

Some days are easier than others, but, still, it is with bravery that she begins and ends each and every day.

I admire her for that, but also wonder about myself and our society and our version of Roxie’s stairs and what difference does it make if we go up or down or just stay where we are.

I also wonder how we are shaped by what we fear, and, even more, our response, do we allow ourselves to know that fear is what it is, or does it masquerade as something else. Anger comes to mind.

And if fear is seen as weakness and anger strength, then what do we call it when anger is masking fear.

Fear is a thread woven in the history of this place, sometimes in plain sight, as when the pious hanged accused witches in Puritan New England. The colonists were afraid of the forest where they imagined Satan lurking in the darkness, and of Indians whose ‘savagery’ consisted mostly of how much they enjoyed living free and in their bodies, without shame. They were frightened by temptation and longing for ways of living buried far back in their cultural memory, replaced by the fear of offending a vengeful God.

They were afraid of those who came after and did not share their faith, banishing Quakers and Baptists, among others.

These are among our Founding Fears, and, ever since, in a nation where almost everyone is from somewhere else, there are always those marked as foreigners, outsiders, strangers, invaders, to be suspected, feared, blamed, and driven out when things go wrong.

This is why there has never been a self-proclaimed ‘American people’ that does not exclude large portions of the population.

Insecurity and fear are what haunt a nation founded on stealing a continent from its inhabitants, declaring by example to the world that it’s all right to take what you can, that competition and struggle against one another is a fitting way to decide the outcome of our lives. And, of course, the world takes notice of this open invitation to come and do the same.

I suppose it’s no surprise that we are one of the most heavily armed populations in the world.

Fear is at the heart of our national story—fear of government and fear of anarchy, fear of criminals and fear of police, fear of workers and fear of bosses, of the masses and the elite; fear of terrorists and fascists, subversives and traitors; fear of the left, fear of the right; fear of atheists and fundamentalists and papists and Muslims and religious deniers and the religiously indifferent. Fear of needing help, of not being able to stand alone, of abandonment, failure, loneliness, and loss. And, of course, fear of black people and white people and brown people and all ‘those people’ yet to be named who are taking over, or about to, come to take what ‘we’ have, as soon as they get the chance and we let down our guard.

Fear can keep us up at night, searching the internet for confirmation of who we think ‘those people’ are and what they’re up to now. Watch how Democrats and Republicans make each other up, or whites and people of color, immigrants and the native born, city people and country folk, the one percent and the ninety-nine.

I don’t want to give the impression that fear cannot be useful. A friend of mine used to be a champion parachute jumper, and while I have a certain admiration for her, there is no way you’re getting me to leave a plane that isn’t on the ground. It is a fear I intend to keep.

Where I get into trouble is when I’m afraid and don’t know fear is what it is. It inclines me to make bad choices, like the man jumping from the plane out of fear of what other men will think of him if he does not. Or he picks the fight, starts the argument, turns against a neighbor, goes to war.

Or gets angry, and stays angry all the time.

There is enough anger in this country to float a boat from one coast to the other. No doubt some of it is useful, there being things to be angry about as a way to focus our attention on what needs to be changed. I have no problem being angry about a system that makes it almost impossible for millions of people to earn a decent living. Or where women are assaulted and harassed. Or a black or Latino sounding same is enough to put you out of the running for a job.

But I suspect that beneath much of that anger is a mass of old fear that we dare not acknowledge because it would scare us even more. The fear of discovering that ‘America is a white country’ has always been a temporary and exclusive state of mind. That there is no American ethnicity to tell us who we are and where and with whom we belong. That we really are in the same boat together, all of us, and that we always were. That we have grown up, generation after generation, without knowing the whole of the history that got us here and what it costs. That the so-called middle class is mostly smoke and mirrors and the American Dream comes true just often enough to make everyone else believe the lie that it’s possible for all. That we are not the best country in the world, and that it doesn’t really matter.

It is the fear of things falling apart, inside and out, of nothing to hold on to, a loss of identity and worth, leaving us trapped in our individualism and the freedom that it grants us to be lonely, unattached, and lost.

It is a lot to be afraid of. And as with all fear, in our response to it, we find out who we are.

All my life I have watched Americans attack one another, focusing their fear into anger directed at the imagined cause—the enemy, the “anything-but,” as if all would be well if only those people could be made to disappear.

This is where countries can become monstrous, or fall apart, making war on others or themselves. Look around. It happens all the time. It has happened here.

But it doesn’t have to, not again, if we can investigate our fear long enough to see what it’s about, and what it’s not. That what is happening now is the latest version of insecurity and conflict that have been endemic to this nation from before its beginning. That we find ourselves, all of us—through birth or immigration—landed in a strange place full of contradiction and pain and dark secrets, that has depended on generations of forgetting and denial.

And generations of anger and fear directed at one another, distracting us from the one thing with the power to bring us together—if only we will take hold and let it—which is our common fate of having inherited a society that is designed to drive us apart.

The entire arc of our history has brought us to this place, primed to turn on one another rather than face the legacy of a country we did not create but that belongs to us now. And will become no more or less than what we make of what we have been given.

The Racism of Good White People

In the news a few days after I posted “Clueless in Columbia,” I came across another prominent white man speaking on the subject of race. “It isn’t possible to prevent racism,” he said, “because there is no law that says you can’t be an idiot.”

This was Terry Hartle, senior vice president of the American Council on Education, a national organization representing college and university presidents.

‘Idiot,’ of course, is shorthand for some lack of intelligence or self-restraint, by which Mr. Hartle would have us believe that racism is the province of the foolish and the stupid.

Being pretty sure I’m not that, you can imagine my relief.

Which lasted for the nanosecond it took to remind myself that the kind of racism he was talking about—the overtly mean and hurtful act—is not the only way of doing harm. In fact, it may not amount to much compared with all the rest.

Consider this: If the everyday norm for people of color was to be treated equally when it comes to jobs and income and housing and education and health care, the courts and police; to feel safe as a general condition of life; to be free to live in any neighborhood they could afford; to be seen and heard and accepted and taken as seriously as anyone else—I can imagine they’d find a way to deal with the occasional white idiot calling them names or scrawling racist graffiti on the wall.

Not to mention that in such a world, racist idiots would be far more likely to keep it to themselves. Now, there’s a thought.

In such a world. A world in which, obviously, we do not live now.

And that simple fact is what Mr. Hartle’s sweeping reference to idiots and racism would obscure.

But wouldn’t it be wonderful if he were right, how much easier to put it off on some fringe group of maladjusted malcontents. It would be the kind of relief I expect was briefly felt by many white people celebrating the election of Barack Obama as the dawn of a post-racial era.

They were as wrong about that as Mr. Hartle is about idiots and race. And I suspect that white people who see themselves as intelligent and well-intentioned know that he is wrong. That the racial trouble we’ve been in for hundreds of years is far more than bad things done by people who are bad or stupid. Whatever you may think humanity has come to, there are not enough of them for that.

Which leaves the rest of us.

I’ve never met a white person, including the man looking back from my mirror this morning, who wants to consider themselves a source of racism. Especially given the strange but prevalent idea that we are what we do, a sort of one-drop rule by which a single racist act is all it takes to reveal ourselves as racist human beings—as in, this is the sum of who you are.

That being a heavy load to carry, we tell ourselves we are not one of them. We are good. And good people do not do bad things, because, well, then they wouldn’t be good.

This is where we get lost, I think. And where we try to hide. It is why we need to look more closely at what racism really is and how it works, so that we can see more clearly what it has to do with us. Including how dangerous a good person can be.

In a culture that sees the individual as the point of everything, it’s no surprise that racism is viewed as nothing more than what individuals feel and think—an attitude, a conscious tendency to discriminate and harm.

Some people, we think, have this condition, and some do not, which is why a student could go off to college and be surprised to encounter racism there, as if it were a disease believed to have been eradicated, or contained somewhere else. And why universities and corporations are so quick to respond to racist incidents by trying to innoculate students and workers with training and education and rules to prevent further outbreaks.

But that isn’t how it works, what keeps it going, what gives it power, which is why we’ve been stuck in this for so long.

White racism of course includes overt acts of hostility and bigotry. But, racism amounts to much more than that, because it takes much more to enforce and perpetuate a system of white privilege that has existed for more than 300 years, from unconscious bias to segregation and structures of political and economic power.*

White students who make a racist video or wear blackface on Halloween or draw swastikas on the wall are not simply behaving. They are also enacting a system of privilege that has a history, a culture, and institutions that do not originate with them, and whose authority is not their own.

If we think of racism in terms of its consequences instead of people’s motivations and intentions, the overt racist behavior that makes the news has much in common with acts of racism that do not.

There is the white employer, for example, who helps produce racial gaps in jobs, wealth, and income by being drawn to favor job applicants with Anglo-sounding names. Or the school teacher who uses racially-biased tests that over-identify students of color as learning-disabled. Or the police officer who suddenly feels threatened by the sight of a black man reaching into his pocket, or the physician or teacher or grocery clerk who attends more to whites than to people of color, or the white person who asks someone of color where are they from or who cannot tell one from another or feels afraid and calls the police about the black man jogging by the house.

None of this requires that we know what we are doing, that we act with conscious hostility or prejudice. The consequences do not depend on who we are, how good or bad, intelligent or not.

And those consequences are everywhere, not because bad people are everywhere, but because society is everywhere, the web of ideas and institutions into which our inner and outer lives are woven from the beginning.

It is this that gives the lone act of racism such weight, so that what is done to one can feel as though it is being done to many. And by many. Because it is.

And we can no more escape our connection to that, than we can stop breathing the air that is breathed by everyone else.

This is why white people so often intuitively recognize the racist act, and why it can make them so uncomfortable, so vulnerable to that moment of recognition when we know it is not possible to live in such a world without it being part of who we are. And what we do.

In other words, the racism of good white people.

There is, for example, our inertia on the subject of race, including our silence, which is racist because white privilege depends on it to continue.

But silence is just the beginning, there being so many ways to see and choose and value white lives over lives of color. And I do not need to search the news for an example.

For many years I taught courses on social inequality, seminars on gender, race, and class, small groups with lots of discussion.

One day, a black student approached me to say that she had noticed, repeatedly, that I would interrupt her in ways that I never did with whites. It made her feel invisible, dismissed, as if what she had to say didn’t matter.

Not recognizing myself in what she said, the path of least resistance for a white person in that situation was to deny and defend by telling her that of course I value her as much as anyone else, that I wouldn’t do such a thing, having spent my life, after all, working on issues of privilege and oppression, that she was being too sensitive, or even blaming her own lack of self-confidence on me. I might have given her advice about holding her own in a conversation, asserting herself more, perhaps.

I short, I would have made this about her and not me, by subordinating her experience to my own in refusing to see myself as I was seen, to honor another point of view. By dismissing anything I might do without conscious intent as if I had not done it at all. By presuming to know what I did not, about myself and her.

However gentle, however ‘reasonable’ my tone, however ‘good’ my intent, I would have put her in her place, so that I might stay comfortably in my own.

This is how racism happens.

This is how it works, day by day, loading the odds in favor of whites in the shaping of a life, everything from getting a job or buying a house or excelling in school to healthcare and feeling accepted and safe.

It is the kind of routine, mainstream, everyday racism that does not rely on being outwardly vicious or mean. But in the cumulative weight of its effect, in its power to perpetuate white privilege in all its depth and fine grinding, soul-killing detail, I’ll wager that it’s far worse than anything that makes the news.**

Which is why white people can be so quick to deflect and deny what they have done in those countless small moments, because we know, intuitively, as human beings, that the consequences are anything but small.

But, you may wonder, was she right? Did I actually interrupt her more than whites?

I suppose it would matter if she was putting me on trial, my ‘innocence’ as a ‘good white person’ at stake.

But she was not. As I listened to her, it was clear that she was not demanding that I humble myself in guilt and shame, admit to being one of those bad white people after all, ask forgiveness, make amends.

No, she was asking to be seen and heard, as one human being harmed by another, that I consider her experience of me to be as real as my own, that I consider the consequence, that I pay attention, that I take responsibility for my part in what happens between us. And she was taking a considerable risk to do it.

I told her I had no awareness of the behavior she was talking about, but that I had to assume she was not imagining or making it up, that I was sorry this had happened, it being the last thing I would want in my class. And that I would do whatever I could to attend and notice so that it would not happen again, which was, after all, what both of us wanted.

I was not on trial that day, in part because I had no innocence to lose, the ‘good white person’ being a fiction, a device to separate ourselves from the reality of race. Nor was I guilty of ‘being white,’ the fiction of white people born into an original sin for which we must spend our lives in guilt and shame.

In a way, what happened was not about me at all. Or about her. It was the monster in the room that she and I, in our own ways, were trying to see clearly, and come to terms with, both in the world and ourselves. And, in those moments, I believe we found a common ground on which to stand in that struggle, the ground of the human being.

Which is, really, all we’ve got.

*I first encountered the sociological view of racism as anything that perpetuates white privilege in David T. Wellman’s book, Portraits of White Racism, Cambridge University Press, 1977. I refer here to ‘white’ privilege because that is the only form of race privilege in this society. For readers who doubt this, please see “What Is a System of Privilege?

**I first encountered this idea in the video, The Color of Fear (StirFry Seminars, 1994), as expressed by Victor Lewis.

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).

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