I write this for white people. I am a white man. I write this because, in my view, racism is a White problem. It is also a power problem, who has it and who doesn’t. It is also an economic problem, who has money and who is not allowed to have money. And at its core, it is a superiority problem: The deep and tangled desire of generations of white Europeans to claim superiority over everyone else. If I had ever taken Marxist theory in College, I would no doubt see it as also a tragedy of the class system.
As an aside, to me, white privilege is not only real but apparent. And I’m the oldest white son of an upper-middle-class family, so I know privilege when I see it.
I also believe racism operates at a personal level and — in a blinding flash of the obvious — at a societal level. It is built-in, embedded in us, and we swim in the culture of it daily.
We inherited racism, many have tried to fight it, but we have failed. It is systemic, cultural, and still here.
The last few weeks have brought many of us back decades to the sixties, and we cry out, “How can this be so again?”
But of course, it never left, it was always there in plain sight, we just were paying attention to other things.
So, my dear White friends, that is my worldview.
I also believe, with a few caveats, our history and culture create us. We are not born blank slates. Instead, we evolved, every single one of us, one hundred thousand generations of us, to be born into small hunter-gatherer tribes. And we learn quickly and fiercely, as Barbara Kingsolver put it, insider-outsider status.
Or like my mom, the hero of my story put it; no one is born racist, they are taught it. (but we are willing learners)
She told me this when I was 15 (in 1965) when the world watched the crossing of the Bridge in Selma.
I pondered that for a long time. I swore to myself that I would never be racist.
But against that promise to myself — and here is the question — from where do all these racist thoughts arise? Why was I in a constant battle that could strike at my white liberalness in an instant?
Here I claim not malice, but ignorance. I find fault with myself with not understanding the basic tenet of growing up in a racist world: Question everything.
To make this point — and I suggest that this is something we all do — I have to dive into my personal story. I think of it as a little psycho-analysis of my conflict with racism.
I was a white teenage boy growing up in a northern racist state, Minnesota. A quick explanation. At the time, Southern racism was overt, violent, and, for the first time, on TV in the sixties. It was easy to righteously think, “We’re not like that.” But of course, we were. “Minnesota niceness” just meant we didn’t talk about it. Liberal arrogance assured us that we were different. But an example trope of Northern racism back then was, ‘I’m not racist, but I wouldn’t be comfortable letting my daughter (or son) date a Black person.”
I grew up and went to school in an all-white country town south of Minneapolis. Everything was white. The culture was white.
I, of course, as a teenage boy, was an idiot. My world consisted of football and hockey, dating girls, and reading science fiction. Second, I trusted, I believed, and never questioned what the adults, teachers, and coaches, told me. There was this abstraction called the Vietnam war that caught my attention, but only occasionally. I was a young Republican because my dad was an official in the party. Also, I had a crush on Sue Liligren, another child Republican (later I would repeat that behavior, joining the radical SDS because of another girl). A note for those aghast. The GOP of 1968 was nothing like the current monstrosity. Dwight Eisenhower, George Bush Sr., Nixon, and even the Republican Deity Reagan, would have no place in the current party.
We were soaked in whiteness. Calvin Griffith, the first owner of the Minnesota Twins, once remarked he moved his team to Minnesota was he heard that there were only 15,000 Blacks there.
White and as racist as the day is young.
Now, necessary, even assuming that most people consider themselves fair and kind, is that we often don’t question the status quo.
I don’t mean this pejoratively. It is simply a function of the fact that as Human Beings, our culture does much of the thinking for us.
Here is what I mean. We swim in our cultures. Our thoughts, feelings, senses of right and wrong, of insider/outsider status are the water. It takes brilliance, suffering, or rejection from the culture to stand outside of it and see it. It is often the rebels, the artists, and the oppressed who are the ones that can best understand a culture for what it is.
Most of us cannot see the forest for the trees, cannot step out of the dominant culture, and see it. My simple example, growing up Catholic, is that we would walk into church, and there would be the Crucifix with a Figure of Christ that was straight out of central casting if you were looking for a Viking. It was Norwegian Jesus.
But we never even thought to question it.
Questioning is hard. Questioning, when the culture wants to lull us back to sleep, takes time and effort. And the outcome can be painful. Albert Camus, the Algerian Existentialist, wrote, “Beginning to think is beginning to be undermined.”
In essence, born in a racist culture, we will absorb its values. We may not think so, but listen to the culture, listen to your “self-talk.” If, for example, you have little experience in dealing with others who do not look like you, yet you have opinions about them, where did those opinions arise from? It is most likely your culture whispering in your ears.
I was lucky to have a brave and occasionally outraged mom. I was lucky enough to have a dad who, even though he grew up in Kentucky, had the flexibility to challenge his thinking about race. I was fortunate to have brave sisters.
But it is still up to me, every day, to find the rebel inside and see us for what we are. We are a racist culture, owners of the original sin. It is up to me, every day, to challenge and root out these thoughts and vestiges of a past based on racism—every day.
This is a time if we are up to it, and we must be up to it, of great national and personal reflection. This is a time to see, to challenge, and not accept what we have allowed for so long. I don’t mean the overtly crazy racists that we see daily in our Social Media Feeds. They are the flat-earthers.
Rather, it always starts with us, with me, with today. Let us all find the rebel inside of us, the fighter who says I will not accept one more day.
And of course, “Black Lives Matter!” (if it makes it easier, Black Lives also Matter. . . )