The Good White People
by Daniel Bush
"Grace is waking up and knowing you got one day more," Michael says.
Michael and I are talking on in the stairwell, our routine during the break in the middle of class. We talk here or on the fire escape. (I should say, we had to talk on the fire escape once to escape the good white people.) Michael shares the carrots he's eating with me. He always does. (You probably don't need to know that.) He was talking about grace. . .
It goes back to the days of slavery-of slaves just in the simple act of waking up feeling grateful they were still alive, that nothing happened to them during the night.
I had to give a memorial service last week for a young man who died 28 years young. Died in his sleep. The doctors did an autopsy and found nothing wrong with him. Not a thing wrong. He went to bed one night and didn't wake up the next morning. 28 years young-last Sunday you got up and he didn't. Now that's grace. There's nothing to explain that.
White people don't generally know about grace. They're used to being in control, being able to strive to be good and get things done, controlling every action. But you don't have to earn grace, you can't earn grace. Grace rains on everyone. There is no control, no striving. You're just given grace. Like waking up in the morning. . .
You got up and he didn't. Michael caught me with that. He's good at catching people. I thought about that as we climbed back up the steps. I should say a further word about the good white people. You may already know who they are. You may be one of them. I'm one of them. Sometimes I am embarrassed about it. Because of the other good white people. See the good white people are the liberal white people, the conscious people, the ones that want to change the world, that ones that are justice seeking, that want to fight oppression. You get it.
I should be more precise. Check out this conversation I had with Becky. Note first that Becky is a good white person: she's involved with Action Against Prisons, she tutors poor black kids, you know. (Note also that this is part of much longer conversation, much of which was between Jose and Becky. I've focused on the part of the talk which was largely one white person talking to another because I think it is white people that need to challenge other whites.) Anyway, we're sitting at the dinning room table at night, I was having some cereal before bed and talking with Jose while she was reading the paper. Somehow she get's into the conversation and we get on to the topic of homeless folks we see on the subway.
"I don't give money to people who just beg," she says. "It makes me uncomfortable that they have to beg. But I like to give money to men who come through the cars and sing. I feel like they're doing something for the money and there's honor in that."
"In them singing for you?" I ask.
"Something like that makes my day," she says.
Jose looks at her stunned. I clarify.
"But you don't like to give money to the people who just beg and say the need it."
"No," Becky says, "because I feel like it's awkward-"
"So you feel like you're reinforcing the act of begging if you give them money. But for the people who sing for you, there's honor?"
"What!" Jose says, still stunned. I speak:
"There's a weird performative aspect to that, Becky. There's a long historical pattern of blacks being made to perform for whites. All the way the back to the days of slavery when blacks had to perform Jim Crow dances so white audiences would give them money for dinner."
"Hello Harlem Renaissance," Jose says, "white people going uptown to get their entertainment, so people would make their day."
Slight shock, which Becky quickly shakes off.
"I'm not a part of that," she says simply.
"You're not a part of a long historical pattern?" I ask.
"That's not why I give money," she says. She's beginning to get upset. Here comes the attack.
"You know," she says, "I feel like you're both just putting me in a white box."
"White box?" Jose repeats confused.
"I feel like you're treating everything I'm saying like I'm a typical white person."
"No one said you were a typical white person," I say. "I never said I was any better than you-we're just looking at what you're doing."
"I feel like I shared some of my experience and now you're not talking to me as a person, you're putting me in a white box. I hate feeling like I'm boxed in and that's what you're both doing. It's like everything I say is a typical white person thing. I am more than just white, I'm a person."
"Wait," I say, "what does that mean?"
"I am not just a white woman," she says.
"You mean you're outside historical patterns of how whites have treated blacks?" I ask.
"I'm just saying that you're putting me into a white box and I don't like it."
"Nobody's putting you in a white box," Jose says.
"I feel like you're seeing everything I say through your white lens," she says. (This is interesting, just Jose is using a 'white lens.')
Becky continues: "I feel like you don't know anything about me and you're making all these judgments. You don't know anything about who I am. You don't know that I taught school in an African American neighborhood. I did it because I love the energy of the people there, not because I was trying to help anyone. I just loved being there."
(Here she goes laying down her credentials as a good white person. All good white people have credentials.)
"No one is saying you're a bad person," I say. "I'm sure you've done lots of good things. We're just talking about your actions."
"But you're saying I'm just a typical white person."
"I'm not saying that, I'm saying that you're part of whiteness, you're part of historical patterns."
"But I'm not...
"Are you saying you're separate from whiteness?" I ask. (Many good white people think they are.)
"You're just putting me in a white box and not listening to me."
"I'm just saying you're part of whiteness."
"What're you trying to say. I can't help being white. It's who I am. Just like Jose is African-American."
"I'm Latino," Jose says.
"It's ok," Jose says, "many people think I'm black."
"Anyway, we can't help who we are, so can't we just talk as people. Aren't we all people underneath?"
"We are," I say, "but what does that mean? Society doesn't treat us as if we're all people underneath. Society treats us by the way we look. We each confront different realities everyday. We aren't really the same people underneath, we carry different burdens."
"But can't we just talk to each other as people here in this room?" (She means: "Why should I have to feel uncomfortable?")
"We're not treated the same way," Jose says. "And we are different people. I'm proud of who I am, but I get treated different. I went out running in Central Park twice, twice I got stopped by the police, Becky. For jogging."
"I realize you go through different things. But I just feel like here, we should be able to talk to each other as people. For me being white doesn't contain everything that I am."
"Yeah," Jose says, "but when you're in the street what people see is white."
"But when I see you I don't see that you're Latino, I see a person."
"You don't see that I'm Latino? That's not true."
"Yes it is, I just see a person."
"I don't believe that. And I like being Latino. I want people to see me as Latino."
"But you're more than just Latino, you're a person."
"I'm Latino and I like being Latino. And yes there's other parts to who I am but I'm always Latino."
"But I'm not just a straight white woman. There's other parts of me that you can't see. My best friend growing up was Latino."
(Note: All good white people have good friends who are people of color. Many say things like "my best friends are black." This is a classic way to assert that you're a good white person.)
"But you're still white," I say. "Everything you do will always be white."
"That's not true-I am not just a white woman! I feel like you both have teamed up on me and been really patronizing."
"I'm not allowed to agree with Jose?"
"Wait,' Jose says, "we are two men talking to one woman. Maybe there's some sexism going on here. We should talk about that." (Were we being sexist? That could be critiqued.)
"No I just feel like you (indicating Jose) have just put me in white box."
"No really I haven't."
"Yes you have."
"Really I haven't."
"Yes you have." (This goes on a while longer.)
I'll cut the conversation there. The classic part of what was said was the desire to be separate from whiteness. Many good white people would like to think they are separate from whiteness. The fact is, accepting responsibility for the things white people in our society have done is a terrifying prospect for most white people, myself included. Accepting responsibility means being accountable for our white privilege. White people didn't end up on top in America by accident. But we seem to have collective amnesia about how we got here. We don't connect ourselves to the historical patterns still in force. We know a black guy gets followed around a shop while we don't. But we don't want to ask how we're responsible for that.
I'm not trying to say the woman above mentioned is evil or even that she's a typical white person (you be the judge of that). I'm just having a look at the phenomenon of the white privilege folks enjoy everyday, and the fact they don't feel too bad about having that privilege. After all, they didn't want it or ask for it. "I can't help being white," said this woman. Translation: "I don't need to acknowledge white privilege." (Privilege allows whites to think or not about racism as we please. We do not need to think about how being white determines how the world treats us.)
Many good white people who are content with the good work they're doing would prefer not to examine themselves. We think we understand racism. We think we're enlightened. And the danger is that some of us will think we've "got it" once and for all. We'll become closed to criticisms of whiteness, applying it to others and not ourselves, believing there is no need to feel uncomfortable. (When I'm confronting racism and my own white privilege I know it, most of all, because I feel threatened and agitated.) The fact is, white racism today is not hiding behind clansmen's sheets but behind lovely white smiles.
I continue everyday to talk with good white people who insist that we're all the same people underneath. "Can't that be our starting point for a dialogue?" they ask. Their innocent desire is for all people to come together around a common feeling. They are so blind in their desire to have everybody fit into one structure of dialogue they cannot see the inherent racism of such a demand. We are not all the same people underneath when the world we face everyday is different. We each bear different weights. It is psychologically violent for a white person to insist that everyone's experience of being human is the same and that everyone must be held to the same standard. A person of color who is followed around a supermarket when they shop, stopped by the police when they are just out for a jog, or greeted by the smiles of over-eager whites is not the same person underneath as a white person. Underneath their identity, which they themselves probably realize is beautiful, they carry pain and rage that a white person will probably never understand. To say to them "we're all the same human beings underneath" is the equivalent of saying "don't make me uncomfortable, connect to me where I'm ready to connect, start from my starting point, begin the conversation where I'm comfortable."
I should be more personal. In my Unitarian history class the teacher selected a whole bunch of lovely books written rather romantically by good white people. They talked about all the great things the Transcendentalists did and they skipped some of the unfortunate ugly parts of history, like slavery. (Transcendentalist's didn't like talking about slavery, they liked talking about how mankind's progress was "onward and upward forever.") We were told to write reflection papers each week on what part of the history we found "significant." A lovely privileged way to do history, basically meaning "pay attention only to what you want." It was left to the one Black man in the class to say, during one of our first discussions, "I feel invisible in here."
When he said that, my thoughts about our lovely history came crashing down. What was I being part of? How had I not said anything? Even when he said he felt invisible I said nothing. Me. Wasn't I one of the good white people? I forgot about trying to establish my credentials as a good white person. I had allowed someone to be made invisible. And I did this while I was reading James Cone, a notable Black theologian, in my other class. James Cone who has written: "When liberals spoke of 'inevitable progress' and the 'upward movement of Western culture,' it was [something] realized at the expense of blacks who were enslaved and colonized to secure 'progress.'"
I spoke to a woman, who is white, the other day who told me about one of her first dates with her husband, who is black. They were out in her car, he was driving. As they were getting off the highway they saw that the police were pulling people over just after the bridge for a D.W.I. checkpoint. She remembered that she had forgotten to put the registration in the car. He started flipping out. She didn't understand. Couldn't she just make up a cute excuse? He knew better. And she learned for the first time that a black man can get arrested just for not having the car registration. Because they think he stole that car. Even an old '73 Dodge.
The more time we spend time with people who look different than we do, the more we can see that people live through different realities. We see our world better.
There's a very understandable fear of attacking something as large and as evil as racism. I think there's a deep inner private feeling of shame about it hiding in most good white people. The private shame is the feeling of "I haven't done enough, (and) I can't possible do enough, (or) there's no way I can end racism so why should I just make myself sick about it (because) I tried and I'm tired." We are haunted with guilt that we might somehow expose this inner imperfection. And that guilt is amplified by the secret fear that we will be found out and called "racist."
Maybe recognizing racism in our day and age isn't as simple as it was back the sixties when you could see it: the governor standing in the schoolhouse door, the white boys gathering round the one black boy and calling him nigger, the segregated lunch counter. Racism today is a much more interior thing: it can be not acknowledging the historical pattern you're part of, or a teacher choosing to put only white authors on his syllabus, a class that does not give a person of color a place to locate themselves.
Shall we go on forever keeping our world comfortable and white, refusing to give other people the space to live?
We can distort our perceptions of reality to relieve our feelings of helplessness or we can face up to a monster we've been helping-just by our non-threatening inaction-to maintain. Whiteness as a category will fall apart when whites stop abiding by the rules of whiteness. Being white does not mean you are right. You can help being white.
The truth is, if we decide to find our own blind spots, to challenge each other, to get angry every time a person says "aren't we all people underneath," we will be agitated and uncomfortable. We will be attacking something much larger than ourselves which we can't hope to kill in a day. We won't be in control. We'll have to take things moment by moment.
But we'll be full of grace.
And life will be something that is agitating and dangerous and bearable.
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