A debate often arises about white people who wish to have a positive impact on racism:
How much time and energy to spend on self-study vs. action?
Howard Eagle, for one, is often challenging me/us to stop the navel-gazing self-discovery and move into ACTION. Of course, he’s right. As one Black woman said in a workshop last fall, “People are dying! Where is the urgency?”
At the same time, if we don’t recognize and understand the origins and the depth of the conditioning that shaped our minds, we will not take seriously the need to deconstruct the result. We will not acknowledge, fully and honestly, the racial stereotypes and judgments we harbor. And if we move to action in this blind state, we will surely become “mess makers”.
IMHO, our direction needs to be BOTH/AND – self-awareness AND action.
I think of the flow as:
With this in mind, I invite you to explore further the development of your own beliefs. I offer a brief history of my lens formation regarding race, as a catalyst to your reflection: How was your own experience similar or different?
I was born in Brooklyn and my extended family on both sides were first or second generation Italians (thus the food pic). Though they still faced some discrimination, by the time I was born they had at least passed as “white”, meaning that their social status had clearly risen “above” Negroes. And in their ascendency, they looked down with disdain. I heard many demeaning, stereotyping barbs. One uncle would refer to Jackie Robinson as “that uppity n……!”
- Moved to Rochester in 1952. No Black families within many square blocks
- Our Lady of Lourdes grammar school – not a single Black family
- McQuaid Jesuit High School – 175 in my graduating class – not one Black kid
- Georgetown – Sue and I met there – neither of us can recall one Black student, other than a few international students, mostly children of wealthy families
- Northwestern for an MBA – 90 in my class, no Black students
- Arthur Andersen – Chicago office – largest accounting office in the world – 1100 professionals. I never worked with any Black professional.
All this time, I certainly had exposure (I wince in using that word, but it fits my mindset at the time) to “Negroes”: Maintenance staff, cafeteria staff, other servile positions. Nate at McQuaid was one of my favorites, often smiling, joking, kidding with us. These were good people – they worked, smiled, didn’t cause any trouble. They seemed content, in my naive assessment, though I had no idea how they actually felt. All was peaceful on the plantation.
Meanwhile, I was being fed images in other forms: Amos & Andy, Redd Foxx and others provided the humorous, bumbling image. Cosby and the Jeffersons showed me that some Negroes could “make it”. And of course, there were all those athletes.
My first blast of reality came in 1964 in Rochester. It’s been called “The Riots of ‘64”. I don’t recall the media at the time indicating that this was an uprising in reaction to a host of grievances. So in my mind, I was mystified:
- How can they do this to their own neighborhood?
- What’s wrong with them?
- What are they so angry about?
- What can they possibly hope to accomplish with this?
I had no knowledge at that time about:
- Absentee white owners milking residents living in their dilapidated buildings
- Kodak, Xerox and others refusing to employ African-Americans (one issue that did get some mention)
- Unequal pay
- Blatant discrimination
- Police brutality
- Vibrant Black neighborhoods being bulldozed to make way for the Inner Loop.
I also was unfazed by the fact that my father’s company, located on Joseph Avenue, employing about 90 people, included about 15 Puerto Rican people, but not a single African-American. My Jackie-Robinson-hating uncle was in charge of Plant Operations. I later ran that company. And I didn’t change that. No one raised the issue, and I was oblivious. This is not a statement of shame or guilt. It’s simply testimony to a conditioned white mind.
Without more detail, I’ll just say that my work/home/community life was extremely white until I was about 40 years old.
As a prompter for you to reconstruct your own formation:
- What are the parallels between your experience and mine? What are the differences? What is your race history?
- What images were implanted in you? Positive? Negative?
- What were your contact points with Black people?
- Which relatives and friends can you ask about their recollections regarding race/racism?
- Complete the Implicit Association Test re race
Again, this history work is not an end in itself, but is a corrective for doing the actions with a more awakened mind, a humbler mind, a less reactive mind. So ACT as well:
- Go to talks, workshops, gatherings, particularly those created by Black leaders
- Volunteer to be part of a campaign during this election
- Offer to drive voters who need rides
- Raise questions of equity and awareness in your workplace, your neighborhood
Next post, guest blogger Howard Eagle will offer us his convictions on urgency vs. gradualism.
How do you relate to this?
You can scroll to the bottom of the page to “Leave a Reply”
Book: “White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism” Robin DiAngelo. This woman has been unpacking the workings of the white mind for about 20 years. Straightforward.
Article by Robin DiAngelo: “White people are still raised to be racially illiterate; If we don’t recognize the system, our inaction will uphold it.”
Article by Robin DiAngelo: http://www.salon.com/2015/06/16/11_ways_white_america_avoids_taking_responsibility_for_its_racism_partner/
Get over the guilt and start working. Huffington Post article: https://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/opinion-white-privilege_us_5b79dbafe4b018b93e94f781
Pay close attention to upcoming elections – research candidates’ history and positions on key issues, particularly on race-related matters. For this and future elections, get involved as a volunteer in campaigns that align with your values.
Provide input to City Council members about the need for a Police Accountability Board that meets the criteria sought by community members. D&C review including comments from Rev. Lewis Stewart: Lewis Stewart re PAB – in D&C
“Understanding White Privilege” Tues. Oct. 9, 7:00 – 9:00, 540wMain Community Learning Academy http://www.eventbee.com/v/ceaton85/boxoffice/?mc_cid=984cbc0462&mc_eid=e984ddcba9
“Introduction to Gentrification” Tues. Oct. 16, 7:00 – 8:30, 540wMain Community Learning Academy http://www.eventbee.com/v/ceaton85/boxoffice/?mc_cid=984cbc0462&mc_eid=e984ddcba9
12 thoughts on ““Why All This Self-Examination?””
Thanks for the thoughtful and challenging reflection, Frank. I agree wholeheartedly about the police accountability board. This is an action we should all support .
Frank, as I have previously written many of my early experiences were like yours. Only Black maids, etc. in my life. My father and mother were very prejudiced against Black and Native American people. In the late 2960’d I learned a lot of positive things while living on the Southside of Chicago in Hyde Park, a very segregated neighborhood.
When I came to Rochester, like Ed McD, I went to Immaculate Conception Church for 20+ years. I learned and lived with many beautiful people.
Personal and Institutional Action is very important for me, especially over the past 10 year. This will continue.
Frank, I just read a very appropriate quote from Richard Rohr that seems to reflect on your sharing. It relates to a time when Richard was diagnosed with cancer:
” The outer poverty, Injustice, and absurdity we see when we look around us mirrors our own inner poverty, Injustice, and absurdity. The poor man or woman outside is an invitation to the poor man or woman inside. As you learn compassion and sympathy for the Brokenness of things, when you encounter the visible icon of the painful mystery in “the little ones,” then you’ll learn compassion and sympathy for your own “little one,” the broken is within yourself.
Each time I was recovering from cancer I had to sit with my own broken absurdity as I’ve done with others at the jail or hospital or sick bed. The suffering person’s poverty is visible and extroverted, mine is invisible and interior but just as real. I think that’s why Jesus said we have to recognize Christ in the least of our brothers and sisters. It was for our Redemption, our Liberation, our healing – not just to help others and Pad our spiritual resume.
When we see it over there, we become freed in here, and we become less judgemental. I can’t hate the person on welfare when I realized I’m on God’s welfare. It all becomes one truth; the inner and the outer reflect one another. As compassion and sympathy flow out of us to any marginalize person, wounds are bandaged – both theirs and ours.”
Thanks for this, Denis. Richard Rohr does have a way, doesn’t he?
My only caution would be this: good that my compassion increases as I practice this way of viewing the world. Even better that I move from that deepened sensitivity and identity to ACT on their behalf (and mine). I say this from years of cultivating compassion, sensitivity, caring, etc., but no concrete action to address their situation.
And as I reread your comments, and knowing you, I’m sure you’re already doing that!
I got a good start in life.My Irish Catholic father would never allow words like kike,spic,nigger or
dago in our house.When Jackie Robinson broke into baseball with the Dodgers in 1947 I asked my Dad about all the stuff that was going on about this black guy and my dad told me
“You like baseball,so judge Robinson on how he plays baseball not on anything else.I went to
high school at St.Anthony of Padua in Watkins Glen NY.No black kids there.I went to St Bonaventure in Allegheny NY and we had black kids in school and in the ROTC program.When I went on active duty in the Army I first saw black people in roles of responsibility.I had two commanding officers who were black and flew often with black pilots who were assigned to Miller Army airfield on Staten Island.I had a black commanding officer in Korea and all these guys were the best.They were smart,tough and treated us junior officers and the troopers with respect.They were great soldiers.When I came to Rochester,we started going to Immaculate Conception.Father Bob Kreckel and Father Paul Brennan were the co-pastors and again saw blacks in leadership roles.I was the president of the parish council and the majority of people on the council were black.I lot of good work was done by Kreckel and Brennan in that neighborhood.The choir was one of the best I ever heard.The spirituals they sang were just so uplifting and we had real church.An hour and a half or more for Mass was normal.I have come to realize in my journey that people of any color are in many ways the same.We have different cultures,different outlooks on things,but we have to strive to look
at differences we have in terms of having different viewpoints,not in terms of color.I,like most white people still have latent racial feelings.An,example,I sometimes wonder why black people don’t stop running when a cop tells them to stop.I have been stopped for traffic violations and
I have always gotten “officer friendly”.You have a bad tail light tail light.Get it fixed soon.Have a
nice day.Yet that same cop will stop a black person,tell them to get out of the car,do a body
search and probably ticket them.I try to understand it,but do I?
Thanks for your reflections, Ed. I appreciate that you understand, despite some positive messages and experiences, that you still have those racial tweaks. And I invite you to keep looking at ways you can act to correct what you see is wrong. E.g., urge City Council members to support police accountability to the community.
Commenting further about the penchant for all this self-examination. While it is true that, like the reluctant mule in the tale, we must be awakened that there is a problem first, this is also where the next problem often lies. White folks who truly do “get it” are often very uncomfortable with their growing desire to do something. First, we live in a culture that is strongly individualistic rather than communal. We are taught to look out for ourselves first, to succeed, and only then to move the helping. In communal societies the common good first drives behavior.
Then we are taught manners. While we are told that these enable us to interact with each other better, I do not believe that is their purpose. I believe that inaction was their purpose from the beginning. To make a fuss, to be loud, to be controversial, to protest are all looked on as “bad manners.” So if we are new to the activist scene, we are often uncomfortable and focus more on the behavior than on the message or demand for change.
I am very frustrated at the wonderful white people I observe who have read tons of books, attended many talks, seen the films, even written letters, and still would not go to a rally or demonstration. Or they decry that the problem is so huge and ingrained, what could they possibly do to correct it. Unfortunately, I often observe this most strongly in church people. It is like noise is the most grievous sin. They may tell you they have almost become excerpts in racism but still, they do nothing to end it. They want to remain comfortable. They fear the cost to themselves if they moved further along.
So I wonder, how do we get them to see this?
How do we “get them to see this”? Listen to people like you who have been at this work for decades.
My history is almost the same except for one part. Racial remarks were never made in my house about Black or “Indian” people. There was a benevolent sympathy for these poor folks. However, my father hated Italians. I could never understand it until studying racism and learning that it probably came from his Irish background. There also was a certain attitude, not overt, about Jewish people. The two Jewish households on our street were always referred to as “the Jewish family” or “the Jewish lady” even though we knew the names of all of them.
As my childhood centered around WWII, there was also talk about “the Japs” often and great approval of the Japanese American internment.
In looking back, however, I think the greatest contribution to my racial biases came from my Catholic school education. Words such as pagan, savage, barbarian and such created pictures in my young mind, always of people of color. In my earliest years I vividly remember Lent and the little boxes we each were given to save our “candy money” in. These were provided by the Propagation of the Faith and the money would go to saving pagan babies. I remember the large poster Sister would put up which illustrated these pagan children, each one standing in front of the domicile. All were of color, many scantily clothed. And all were counting on us to save them from hell. I was groomed from the beginning to adopt a “missionary” attitude toward all who were not white like me. Indeed, for many years it was my intent to enter the convent and become an actual missionary.
Frank …. thanks for sharing your story … in many ways, your early-life experiences are very similar to mine and I can’t agree more with your focus in this blog re: the integration of action with education. Building relationships is a combination of both of these and even more importantly provides a much deeper understanding and awareness re: the ongoing, systemic plight that blacks continue to face. I’d also like to give a plug for Robin DiAngelo’s new book “White Fragility —- Why It’s So Hard For White People To Talk About Racism” … it is excellent and as stated by one of the commentators “a necessary book for all people invested in societal change”. Thanks again for your contributions in encouraging more “white people to talk about racism” and hopefully move towards their own tangible action steps.Possibilities of these are outlined in the last chapter titled “Where Do We From Here?”
Keep up your great work … Bill Wynne
And thanks for the encouragement about reading DiAngelo. Seems to me she’s the most insightful among all white authors.