Tag Archives: race

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.

The U.S. Army’s Gag Rule on White Privilege

Last week I got an email from a USA Today Pentagon correspondent who’d just written a story about a diversity training session with 400 troops on an army base in Georgia. The instructor included a slide about white privilege and the luxury of obliviousness, stating the radical idea that white privilege gives white people little reason to be aware of people of color and how they are affected by it.

Someone snapped a photo of the slide and posted it on Facebook, provoking a firestorm of angry protest that soldiers were being subjected to such a thing. And after an army spokesperson identified my work as the source of the material used in the slide, I received a dose of hate mail in my inbox.

The army promptly announced that the slide was “unauthorized” and “inappropriate” and would not be used again. No news on just what made it inappropriate or what became of that brave instructor.

Judging from the comments I’ve seen as the story has gone viral on the Internet, the main objection seems to be that the slide was an assertion that white privilege is real, including in the military.

It is a complaint based on a complete misunderstanding of the nature of racism and how systems of privilege work.

There is a lot of that going around. It’s one of the main reasons why it’s so difficult to have productive conversations about race in this country. And it’s why I’ve devoted much of my career to explaining what these troubling issues are about.

The biggest myth about white privilege is that it guarantees a good life for every white person and a bad one for everyone else. Since many white people have anything but—in spite of a lifetime of hard work—and there are abundant examples of people of color who have done well, it can seem reasonable to conclude that white privilege does not exist.

In other words, “If there really is white privilege, where’s mine?”

But systems of privilege don’t work that way. They guarantee nothing for individuals. No one can predict the life of a baby who happens to be born white or of color.

What systems of privilege do instead is load the odds one way or the other. You can be white and still not get the job you’re qualified for, or go to school and work hard your whole life and have little to show for it, or be stopped (or shot) by police when you’ve done nothing wrong, or be followed around a store as if you can’t be trusted.

But in a system of white privilege, the odds of such things happening to white people are much lower than for everyone else.

Research consistently shows, for example, that white people and people of color are equally likely to use and sell illegal drugs. But most of those in prison for drug offenses are people of color.

During the subprime mortgage crisis, white people were far less likely to be sold subprime mortgages or to lose their homes to foreclosure, even when compared with blacks who had similar incomes.

And repeated experiments find that mailed-in job applications are 50% more likely to get call-backs if the name on the application is Anglo (e.g., Robert Morgan) than something like Jamal Jones or Hector Martinez.

These are the tip of a very large iceberg that’s been around for more than 300 years. The idea that the military is somehow above and beyond all this, all the while drawing its personnel from the same society the rest of us live in, is . . . well . . . choose your adjective.

As far as I can tell, progressive voices have been silent on this story. Because silence is essential for any oppressive system to continue, I hope you will do what you can to break the silence, spread the word, and wake those voices up.

You can find more on the subject of white privilege and racism in my blog posts and website essays:

The Luxury of Obliviousness
Aren’t Systems Just People?
What Is a System of Privilege?
Are You Just into White Guilt?
Our House Is on Fire
Who Me?
Proud to Be White?
Where White Privilege Came From

Now’s the time.

You can find the USA Today story here.

Power & Privilege at the Movies

There is a story about a Native American elder and a white man visiting the reservation.

“I notice,” says the white man, “that your songs are almost always about water. Not having enough of it must be a real problem for your people.”

“That’s true,” says the elder. “And I notice that your songs are all about love.”

You can tell a lot about a society from its songs and stories, both what they’re about and what they’re not. Since movies are our most popular form of storytelling, it’s worth noting which get singled out as being more important than the rest.

Like any story, a movie plot is told through the lives of characters, which raises the question of not only what is the story about, but whose lives are used to tell it. Who are the human beings having these human experiences? And who, in being left out and made invisible, are not?

In a society organized around various forms of privilege—white, male, nondisabled, and heterosexual—with rare exceptions, the dominant stories are told through the lives of dominant groups. When subordinate groups are featured, the story will be about their subordination, not being allowed to be just human beings in the throes of being human. They will be marked by their subordinate status—the black woman, the gay man—unlike the straight white nondisabled man who gets to be just a human being.

As a feature of systems of privilege, all of this has consequences. For subordinate groups, it underscores their social invisibility and their status as outsiders. For dominant groups—men, in particular, and especially white men—it sets them up to expect to always be at the center of attention and to be larger than life, a standard that the vast majority are unable to meet. The effects of this are all around us, especially in violence toward others and themselves, whether it’s domestic violence, suicide, the mass murder of children, or the readiness for war.

Here are the Best Picture winners from almost fifty years of Oscars, with occasional notes as needed for clarity. In all that time, there has not been a single Oscar winner that has told the story of a person of color or someone with a disability where the story has not been about race (Twelve Years a Slave, Crash, Driving Miss Daisey, In the Heat of the Night), or disability (The King’s Speech, A Beautiful Mind, Rain Man). The occasional film that violates the whites-only rule is often set in another country and another time, which keeps it from challenging or upsetting U.S. audiences by reminding them of their own society today.

No winning film has told the story of someone who is LGBTQ, whether the story is about that or not.

Straight white women without disabilities fare somewhat better (Million Dollar Baby, Chicago, Out of Africa, Terms of Endearment, The Sound of Music), but not by much when you consider they account for more than half the population.

Here’s the list, by the year in which the film was made:

2015   Spotlight
2014   Birdman
2013   Twelve Years a Slave
2012   Argo
2011   The Artist
2010   The King’s Speech
2009   The Hurt Locker.
2008   Slumdog Millionaire
2007   No Country for Old Men
2006   The Departed
2005   Crash
2004   Million Dollar Baby (the main character is female, but a boxer, no less, who is ‘managed’ by none other than macho Clint Eastwood)
2003   The Lord of the Rings
2002   Chicago (women, yes, serious story, no)
2001   A Beautiful Mind
2000   Gladiator
1999   American Beauty
1998   Shakespeare in Love
1997   Titanic (a film about a ship that was conceived, built, controlled, and sunk by men)
1996   The English Patient
1995   Braveheart
1994   Forrest Gump
1993   Schindler’s List
1992   The Unforgiven
1991   Silence of the Lambs (The FBI agent is a white woman, but whose name comes first to mind, Hannibal Lecter, the white man who eats white people, or . . . what is her name?)
1990   Dances with Wolves (most of the characters are Native American, but the story is about the title character, a white soldier ‘going native’)
1989   Driving Miss Daisy
1988   Rain Man
1987   The Last Emperor (an exception to the whites-only rule, but set in China, a long time ago and far far away)
1986   Platoon
1985   Out of Africa (a rare woman-centered story, but also about white people colonizing and exploiting Africa with not a hint of doubt. Note the irony that in the same year The Color Purple was nominated for eleven Academy Awards and won not a single one)
1984   Amadeus
1983   Terms of Endearment
1982   Gandhi (another exception to the whites-only rule, but, again, set in India in the past and about no less a figure than Gandhi. And, of course, it’s about race)
1981   Chariots of Fire
1980   Ordinary People
1979   Kramer vs. Kramer
1978   The Deer Hunter
1977   Annie Hall (Annie Hall may be the title character, but, like all Woody Allen films, it’s really about Woody Allen)
1976   Rocky
1975   One Flew Over Cuckoo’s Nest (in the novel on which the film is based, the point of view belongs to Chief, a Native American, unlike the film in which it’s all about Jack Nicholson’s white character, McMurphy)
1974   The Godfather, Part II
1973   The Sting
1972   The Godfather, Part I
1971   The French Connection
1970   Patton
1969   Midnight Cowboy
1968   Oliver!
1967   In the Heat of the Night
1966   A Man for All Seasons
1965   The Sound of Music
1964   My Fair Lady (emphasis on the subject of the ‘my,’ being a man betting another man he can turn a cockney speaking Eliza Doolittle into a proper lady)
1963   Tom Jones

If we compare the most recent ten year period (2005-2014) with the ten years that begin this series (1963-1972), we could simply reverse the two with the same result. We have had a black man as president for five years, and his successor may be a white woman, but in the stories we tell about who we are and what it means to be a human being, privilege and power still call the tune. A UCLA study released just last week found that although men make up less than half the population, they account for 75% of lead actors, 95% of directors, 87% of script writers, and almost 100% of those who head major movie studios.*

Eons from now, an archeologist from another planet would have no trouble concluding from this record that the ‘real’ human story in this society was about straight, white, nondisabled males, with everyone else being little more than bit players in supporting roles whose stories were not worth the telling.


If you liked this post, you also might want to read “So Yesterday” and “What Is a System of Privilege?

*To access the full UCLA report, click here.

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