Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Shedding the Skin of Entitlement

I am a white woman who grew up in a small farming community in southeastern Virginia during the days of segregation. Even as a child I sensed something was terribly wrong with our way of life. I felt I was getting stop and go messages, mixed signals, all the time. My parents and my church taught me the "golden rule." Do into others as you would have them do unto you. But it was clear that this golden rule was white rule. No white people I knew wanted to be done unto as they were doing unto blacks -- forced to wait in line at the post office until all the whites had been served, forbidden to sit at a table in the drugstore and enjoy a Coke and Nabs like the white society ladies, barred from ordering ice cream at the soda fountain, from eating at any local restaurant, from swimming in the so-called public swimming pool, from going to the same school my brother and I attended barred from doing everything I took for granted. And it wasnt as if these blacks were strangers. They were our neighbors and friends whom some of us had known all our lives. Although my brother and I could play with the children of our black neighbors just like regular kids on our farm, we couldn't acknowledge that friendship in public. We couldnt ride the same school bus and go to school together. We couldnt go to church together and we couldnt go to the movies together. Well, we could, but whites had to buy tickets just inside the street entrance and sit in the lobby; blacks had to buy tickets in the alley the same cashier sold the tickets -- she just rotated the stool on which she sat to face the window where blacks bought their tickets, and they sat up in the balcony. When I asked my parents why we couldn't sit and eat at the same table as Bea and James, the black couple who worked for my parents, they told me white people and colored people -- that was the term white Southerners used then -- didn't eat together. But we were eating the same food that my mother cooked for all of us. When I asked why, nobody gave me any answer that made any sense; they just said thats the way things were. Some people said if God had wanted the races to mix, he wouldnt have made us different colors. Well why? Youre not supposed to question God. But why not?
Then there was the pledge of allegiance to the flag. You know the part about liberty and justice for all. But there was no liberty and justice for all. Whites had more liberty and justice than blacks.
So I began to wonder if what my parents and the church and the pledge were teaching me were all lies because the way we were living did not exemplify those teachings. The song we sang in Sunday School was particularly bothersome. Jesus loves the little children, all the children in the world. Red and yellow, black and white, all are precious in his sight.
Well, if we were all precious why did white children have privileges that black children didnt have?
Why did my white skin give me privileges that Bea and James and Emma Jane and Aunt Sara and Uncle Bill and Rachel and Annie Lee and Carrie and Nancy and other blacks in my community didnt have?
Sometimes I inspected my face in the mirror. What if I had been born with brown skin? I would still be me but white people would treat me differently. I just happened to be born with the skin of privilege. I hadnt done anything to earn that privilege nor had any other white person. The whole system rested on the pernicious lie of white supremacy that undergirded slavery and segregation and Jim Crow laws and that still undergirds racism today. White people don't want to talk about it and don't want to own up to it because it would expose the darkest side of their heart and soul. But until we have that painful discussion, we will not take meaningful steps toward healing our country of its racist wounds.
I listen to white millionaire male politicians in Congress talk about Social Security and Medicare as entitlements but thats wrong. These are programs into which Americans have paid throughout their working lives. If these politicians want to confront entitlement, they only need look in a mirror to see they embody the entitlement of the lie that being born white carries privilege. You don't have to do anything to earn that privilege. Its your birthright if you have white skin. This lie of white supremacy is the ultimate entitlement, the one we should eliminate, not Social Security and Medicare.
For a few days following the murders of nine people by a racist assassin in Charleston, it seemed that meaningful actions to flush racism from our country might begin with renewed vigor, that maybe after all the sorrow and grief and anger and outrage, this time we wouldn't go back to tolerating racism as usual. White politicians finally seemed to get it that the Confederate flag symbolized slavery and lynching and raping and segregation and injustice and oppression. It only took 150 years! The flags started coming down and several major merchandisers announced they would no longer sell them. These were important symbolic gestures, but symbolic gestures alone will not end racism. For a few days, after the Charleston massacre, it seemed Americans were united against this heinous crime, that instead of starting a race war, the white supremacist terrorist had triggered a unified surge of blacks, whites, Hispanics and other minorities in common commitment to heal this nation's open sore. For a few days that's the way it seemed, but then the fires began at least eight predominantly African-American churches torched as of this date in five southern states (Florida, Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina and Tennessee) since the Charleston murders. Not to be outdone by funerals for slain African-Americans, the racists crawled out of their sewers to do the only thing they seem capable of -- destruction.
 It makes me wonder -- how do racists live with themselves? Are they so devoid of compassion, so bereft of humanity that they cannot imagine how they would feel if someone came into their church and opened fire, killing their loved ones for no reason other than the color of their skin? Have their hearts become so frozen with hate that they would not shed tears or grieve their loss? instead of showing compassion, these soulless barbarians have exposed their pitiful personhood by burning black churches. In a former time they would probably have been among the white people who brought picnics to lynchings as if attending outdoor theatre.
 Yes, white people did that and some whites are still killing black Americans in the modern equivalent of lynching -- the shooting of black men and boys by white policemen and this latest atrocity in Charleston. Black Americans have been living with these atrocities for centuries and too many whites have tried to deny racism still exists, that its all in the past. Charleston should demolish that illusion.
We need to fess up. Yes, white people have to own up to racism. No, those of us alive today didn't create slavery but some of us born in the South have ancestors who kept slaves. Many of us abhor this legacy of evil and many whites have given their lives fighting for civil rights and justice for all, but the historical truth of our racist way of life the truth our segregated history has conveniently whitewashed -- rests on whites who kept slaves and went to war to maintain that awful system, and later generations of whites who perpetrated that system with discrimination against African-Americans in housing and employment opportunities and education. Although slavery ended with the passage of the 13th Amendment on December 6, 1865, its terrible legacy of the myth of white supremacy continues to rip apart our national soul and wound our nation more than any foreign threat from Al Qaeda or ISIS. The young white man who shot nine of our fellow Americans Charleston, South Carolina, didn't come out of nowhere. He is the product of our racist culture, nurtured and groomed by the belief in white supremacy that continues to influence racist attitudes, discrimination, criminalization of black men, shooting of black men and boys by white policemen, and now this latest mass murder of African-Americans. We should be grief-stricken and we should shed our tears and mourn, but we should also take action beyond collective grief. And we should stop trying to paint those who murder black Americans as mentally deranged, lone wolves or bad apples. Racists know what they're doing and to whom they're doing it.
In his eloquent eulogy for Reverend Clementa Pinckney, the slain pastor of Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, President Obama said it would be a betrayal of all the reverend stood for if we allowed ourselves to slip into a comfortable silence again once the eulogies have been delivered, once the TV cameras move on.” He also noted a lot of real racial progress has been made. I have experienced that in my own life, growing up in a segregated southern community that is now so integrated that interracial families can live here comfortably and safely. This happened because blacks and whites of good will banded together to transform this community. For me, its a powerful example that we are not beyond redemption if we commit to working together with mutual respect. 

It's not easy to own responsibility for perpetrating a system that has and continues to hurt so many of our fellow Americans, but we would not still be a racist country if whites had not tolerated racism, had not elected racist politicians who passed legislation to obstruct voting rights and who support policies that only perpetuate racist violence.
Perhaps we could take a page from South Africas Truth and Reconciliation process, which helped that country move from apartheid to democracy. We are in a struggle here to maintain and fulfill the promise of democracy. Put yourself in a black Americans shoes. Would you be man enough or woman enough to walk in them? Shed the skin of entitlement that has so permeated our culture, conveyed in thousands of insidious ways. Know that we are more similar than we are different. Beneath the superficial color of our skin, we carry DNA that connects every human being on Earth today to people that appeared in Africa some 200,000 years ago. Scientists tell us that race is meaningless biologically, that we all belong to the one human species on our planet, Homo sapiens.  Sapiens means wise. May we strive to live up to our species name.


tlfelts said...

Having grown up in the same environment as you, but in a more fundamentalist religious environment, I can strongly attest to the validity of the observations you made. My regret over the years is that I only once challenged the status-quo by asking why my black co-worker from Betts Department store had to go to the back of Simpson's pharmacy to order lunch while I was freely able to order at the front counter. The answer was simply, "that's the way it is, and we don't serve them up here".

I never could understand why. When asking others the answer was always the same----"that's the way it is" or "they have to stay in their place", or sometimes a more graphic answer. Even though I never heard a racial slur from my family, I knew they supported the separation of races. Later in life at some of our religious services where there was shouting and praising God for his blessings to them, I heard racial slurs and felt the hate as they gathered for their after church talkabout. I am so thankful that I was able to at least recognize these things for what they were and not support or encourage them. As you, I still see the disguised racism and watched as the subdued racism exposed itself as we witnessed our first black family in the White House. It was to much to bear for many who had so carefully hidden their racism until now. Now, they simply could not contain it.

One of the things that I am so impressed with in these latest "Black attacks", is the dignity and forgiveness that they displayed. It is such a lesson to all of us. Here's hoping we can continue to make progress in race relations.

Der Kosmonaut said...

Thank you for writing this incisive essay. More white North Americans need to "own up" to their contribution to racism by what they have done and what they have not done. Recently, I've been thinking about the attitudes of whites all across the Western world. Contrary to what many believe, there is just as much racism in Europe as in North America. Indeed, European white racism is more intellectually sophisticated than the cruder manifestation on this side of the Atlantic. Too many European whites vote for openly racist and xenophobic parties and politicians that blame Blacks, Muslims and other non-whites for the social and economic woes of society. Many Europeans point to the USA and hypocritically point to the racial problems in that country while ignoring their own racist social, economic and political structures.
I've lived in seven countries and have traveled to an additional thirteen. This is what I have always noticed. In Canada, whites point to the USA and decry the racism even though there's racial profiling of Blacks by Canadian police. In the UK, the Brits point to the French and accuse of them of being racist. The French point to the Germans as being racist. The Germans point to the Austrians as racist. In turn the Austrians point the finger at Serbs as being racist. No one wants to own up to their own racism. This is a problem all across the Western white world. Everyone is in denial. It is always others that are racist. No one ever wants to admit they're racist or that they have racial prejudices within.
Each day in North America and Europe there is racial violence committed against Blacks and other non-whites. As I write this, a Black person is being stabbed to death in the streets of the UK; a Black person is being harassed and brutalized by a French policeman; a Black person is denied entry or service to a bar or nightclub in Germany; Blacks are being shot down in the streets of Sweden. I could go on and one. The point is that racism is not just an "American problem". White supremacy comes from Europe and was exported to the Americas.
I fear that we are in the middle of a global race war and if not enough whites such as yourself own up and intervene soon, Western society may destroy itself and fulfill the prophecy of Thomas Jefferson, who foresaw an apocalyptic race war between Blacks and whites as the ultimate destiny of the USA. To rephrase the words of Jefferson: "I tremble for my society when I reflect that God is just."