When I was in the sixth grade, my family "moved on up" from our dilapidated, first floor rental across from a furniture store downtown, off King St. and above Calhoun (homes below Calhoun, like the South Battery, are found in paintings and prints and history books and fine Southern magazines and such).
A Jewish family owned the furniture store and that dilapidated rental (as of July this year, it still stands, 52 years later and still rented to poor Black folks). It's just as run-down today, as the day we moved in - and out. I know my totally, out-of-control fear of all things rodent is due, in large part, to memories of my Daddy stuffing steel wool into holes in the walls around that house where I often saw disappearing tails, seemingly as long as my arm. Mama was always screaming about the slumlord across the street who wouldn't fix the holes, "But he'll sell you a dining room suite on lay-away!" I couldn't wait to move.
And move we did, to a single-family detached home that they'd bought near the park - we were the second Black family on the block. And the "white flight" began.
It was at our new house that I met Bonnie. She was the oldest of four, little, blonde-haired, blue-eyed girls whose parents had rented the first house on the corner shortly after we'd moved in. We were almost the same age, we were girls and eventually, we played together - though carefully.
The "rules of play" were inherently understood by each of us - No playing inside each other's houses and no sleep-overs (I don't know how many times I was lectured to stay out of white folks' houses lest they accuse me of stealing something!). If we didn't get it, both our families were more than happy to remind and enforce it.
We played dodgeball, hop-scotch, raced each other up and down the block, talked about school and reading books. We talked about everthing - except the reason for the "rules of play." Didn't have to. That was just the way things were in late 60s South Carolina.
We played dodgeball, hop-scotch, raced each other up and down the block, talked about school and reading books. We talked about everthing - except the reason for the "rules of play." Didn't have to. That was just the way things were in late 60s South Carolina.
When my birthday came, Mama decided to give me a party seeing as we had a real yard now- with grass! I asked Bonnie if she could come. She said she'd ask. She couldn't - it was inside our house. On the day of the party, she came down to the house and rang the bell. I came on the porch and she said she was sorry she couldn't come to the party, but she'd gotten me something with her own money. She pushed this flat, square gift, wrapped as neatly as an 11 year-old could wrap it, toward me. I ripped it open right there. It was a Nat King Cole album.
She said, "I didn't know what to get, do you like it?"
I smiled and said, "I sure do! And my Mama and Daddy'll like it too!"
She smiled wide and said, "Good!" Then just as quickly as it appeared, it went and Bonnie, turning to go down the steps said in a small voice, "Guess I better go now."
Watching her make her way up the block, I felt sad that my friend, with whom I played almost every day, couldn't come to my party - because that's just the way things were. I took the album inside and showed it to Mama. She laughed and said, "I guess she figured if there was a Black man on the cover, it must be alright! Bless her heart, she tried."
And so does Mel, over at Sue & Mel's Cafe Society. Lately, she's been my "Bonnie" in the blogosphere with whom I at first, played dodgeball and hopscotch over at Cinie's World. Then, as we raced each other up and down the various topics of conversation, we started talking about the reason for the "rules of play" that had gone unspoken between Bonnie and me. But unlike the many other conversations about race and racism I've had with some white people, Mel was owning her shit rather than talking around it. I felt like I'd gotten a Nat King Cole album.
Mel's written a book that she's not yet published. Instead, she decided to put it up on the blog, chapter-by-chapter. After reading the intro chapter, I left a comment for her saying, "Now, I’m absolutely sure that we can have a meaningful discussion..." And I think we really can, because in her "laying bare," she's validated plenty of what I've felt and known all my life, but have heard denied over and over again growing up Black in America. For me,the path toward that post-racial nation everybody keeps talking about must be paved with nothing short of that kind of honest acknowledgment.
So sit back, get comfy and take in the first of Mel's chapters. I don't think you can read it all and not have an opinion!
"Forgive Us, Black America
When it dies there, no constitution,
Portrait of a Journey from Racism to Healing
(Copyright 1999. Unpublished for personal reasons. Partially revised 2009 – because, our unresolved history is repeating itself, on a much grander scale.)
Who Am I?
I am a white woman. I am middle age. I am not wealthy. I am not a member of any influential organization. I do not work for the government. I am not a “radical”. I am not a fundamentalist Christian. I am not an atheist. I am not an academic expert on racism.
A darker side of white
I grew up on “the other side of the tracks,” in neighborhoods whose lawns were landscaped with run-down cars, pregnant strays, and broken down bicycles under broken down kids. I have spent many childhood weekends in crowded waiting rooms of jails and prisons on family visits to loved ones lost in the spiral of desperation, hate, and hopelessness. I have lived in dirty clothes, inside houses infested with drugs, alcohol, and even incest.
If this book were only a diary of the early years of my life, then there is little doubt that it would incorporate hundreds of heartbreaking stories about what it was like growing up in the environments where people were labeled “poor white trash” and “from the other side of the tracks.” These are the labels that became my identity with which I related to the world around me. Overcoming this identity has been a long journey often on a road that seemed to twist and turn inside one big circle, with road signs that rarely changed. Signs in the form of subliminal messages, “Go back home, you poor white trash, you don’t belong on our side of town.”
Labels of “poor white trash” and “from the other side of the tracks” are powerful undercurrents to a life being constantly pulled toward its highest purpose. There was a time when I believed that sense of higher purpose was simply my yearning to be like the seemingly “more highly regarded classes of people and society.” Today, I believe that all human beings are compelled to achieve a greater meaning and purpose to their lives, despite how some lives might appear – from the outside looking in.
The most insidious thing about social labels is how significant they seem to be in our human relations, as if they are the name tags for who’s who and who’s what in our society. Personally, I have spent the majority of my own life trying to get the wrong labels off and pin the right ones on, or at the very least pin the right ones over the wrong ones. It was a virtual “musical chairs” of phantom identities, with each identity having its own commanding set of characteristics. The older I got the more exhausting the game. However, getting rid of my “plastic name tags” hardly seemed to be the answer. Without them, I felt naked, vulnerable, and scared to death of being condemned to the world of “poor white trash.” I think it goes without saying that when the social labels are extremely negative, the identity is often clothed in low self-esteem, a sense of dread or doom for the unexpected, and an innate fear of appearing as an impostor among those “more highly regarded classes of people and society.”
It has taken me over forty-five years to finally recognize that these negative characteristics were uninvited characteristics. They were the archetypes of woundedness, shame, inverted dreams and ambitions, working on and through me constantly battling for recognition as the self’s true identity. I have spent thousands of dollars in therapeutic remedies trying to learn how to un-invite those self-limiting characteristics from participating in my life. In truth, it has been a lifetime of learning, unlearning, and relearning due to the fact that the core of the problem – a negative social identity – was the only one I had with which to navigate through life. I had become deeply identified with (socialized to) the environmental and social conditions I had grown up in – as well as the social stigmas about them – both which seemed to relentlessly imply that I lacked human value.
Forty years in search of human value is a long time, especially when one’s true self has always intuitively known that human value is inherent – a birthright of being given life itself. I now believe that it was a search for the heritage of my “true self” as much as the sense of lacking in worth that ultimately led me to embark upon a spiritual journey. Even upon discovery of the cosmic realm of life, however, I soon found myself merely playing around on the front lawn of the “Kingdom of God.” Discovering that the “Kingdom of God” was within me meant going inside, which would prove to be a far more risky proposition than I ever imagined. Little did I know that “God” would have an unrelenting interest in ridding me of all of my social labels – those I had been running from as well as those I had learned to hide behind.
Nor did I know that having an intimate relationship with the divine – the “I AM” – would reveal that my obsession with worldly labels was about who I AM not. These revelations were one thing – coming to terms with what it would mean to live outwardly from this “Kingdom within” was another. Living in divine relationship with the “I AM” would mean not only reevaluating the value system of the society I had learned to live in, but learning how to participate in that society in an entirely different manner with an entirely different viewpoint – one that is race-less, classless and, above all, selfless.
One would think that having such an awareness, I would be much less inclined to label or judge similarly situated people. Yet I still have a tendency to feel that, regardless of how difficult my own history of social stigmas has been to overcome, it could have all been made so much worse by a single factor – being born black. In fact, it is without the slightest sense of irony that I have often thanked God for this profound gift – as if there were some kind of higher privilege bestowed upon me for simply being born with white skin. Growing up in the South in the fifties and sixties, there seemed to be a common premise among whites that it was better not to be born at all than to be born black.
Given the descriptions of my early life, it is tempting, even for me, to take the position that such extreme attitudes were the attributes of the “lower echelons of society.” Growing up in my neighborhoods I can certainly say that extreme acts of racism – blacks being spit at, laughed at, chased, beaten, unjustly accused, spiritually abused, and called “ignorant, ugly, wiry haired baboons” – were not only common occurrences, they were perceived as no more violent than shooing away a stray dog.
Was it only the culturally disadvantaged demonstrating the more unsophisticated forms of a lack of regard for basic human rights? I suppose the answer depends on how one defines “culturally disadvantaged.” Whatever was driving such attitudes and behaviors, it was far more powerful than merely evoking racist slurs from the poor and uneducated. I personally found it impossible to distinguish the poor and uneducated from the rich, or the authorities within our governments from those of our schools and religions. No matter what words or tactics were used, the issue of racial integration seemed to bring us together from all walks of life to “shoo away” blacks from our neighborhoods, our schools, our jobs, our churches, and our political offices.
White superiority seemed to me to be the heartbeat of America at that time. I never even considered the damages being done to the hearts and lives of black Americans. Nor did I have a clue as to how long it had been going on. My use of the term “racial preference” was simply because I had heard that it was “my white American right.” As time passed, and the civil rights movement escalated, using the term “racial preference” seemed to dignify what I now know was my purely contrived ethnic and moral obligation to maintain divisions between our races. Being ignorant about human or civil rights, I had no idea that a society mandating racial preference was a racist society or that such was nothing less than a society committing or ignoring acts of inhumanity.
Nevertheless, I came to deeply believe that it was virtually un-American not to defend one’s rightful advantages over blacks or to adhere to our cultural principle: that blacks should always stand behind a white’s rightful superior place. It was a foregone conclusion that changing whatever our society called black people would never change the social order of our races. As harsh as the bare words may seem to many today, whether we called blacks “niggers,” “coloreds,” “Negroes,” “minorities,” “blacks,” or “them,” “they,” or “those,” they were labels that separated blacks from all others – as the lowest of all the classes of people in our society.
This truth was far more powerful than merely being a small part of my white American perspective; it was a fundamental aspect of my education and cultural development. Even learning about the introduction of the Model T (as an historical American event) was more important than the black history of our American culture, of which barely a word was ever mentioned. At the time, the only social view I had of the black American presence was that it represented a constant “threat of real integration.” There seemed to be little intention of actually improving upon how our races related to one another. With the absence of such influence, racial bias and indifference would serve as the framework for how I would come to view racial integration and organize my racist beliefs.
With black servitude already inherently woven into how I related to the black race, rather than addressing the effects of racial segregation upon the lives of blacks, I would focus my attention upon what impact desegregation would have upon the quality of our lives and our standards of living. As for civil rights, it was such a volatile issue that, for me, equating it to blacks achieving true equality, added up to little more than equality being a cultural nuisance, rather than a foundation of ideals for human rights.
Although “the letter of the law” requiring racial integration influenced certain changes in how I acted out my racist beliefs, there was little room in my heart for the spirit of those laws to actually change my beliefs. Even today, I am aware that I maintain extreme perceptions of blacks, which can be proven by a simple question. If I had a choice to trade my life, would there be any black person’s life I would even consider stepping into? I can imagine stepping into the glamor of the life of an Oprah Winfrey or Michael Jordan. However, the thought of living my life, as a black, is another matter entirely.
Even with millions of whites in America greatly admiring Oprah Winfrey, it is rare that I express my adoration for her without some reference to her race. I seem particularly curious about, as well as sensitive to, how other blacks view her success. On the other hand, I never reference the race of Microsoft’s guru, Bill Gates, and only think of his success in terms of his “marketing genius.” However, when thinking of Oprah as one of the most influential women of our time, something else is present. Deep down I still feel as if I have to grant myself a little extra permission to admire her. Why? Because she’s black?
Still, there are times I am inclined to argue that I am without the slightest hint of even a subconscious racist thought. In actuality, it is only because I am comparing myself to the more vocal white extremists whose core beliefs in the ‘racial inferiority of blacks” are openly admitted. Other than the lingering beliefs in racial inferiority, however, I can think of no other rationale for my recoiling at the thought of being black. Even in comparing discrimination against blacks to that of whites who are poor, it is quite apparent that there are radical differences. How many times have I heard, when asked about the differences, “I would rather be treated as poor than black”; or, “You can always overcome poor, there is nothing you can do about the color of your skin.”?
How is it that I know the truth about how blacks are viewed and treated, yet so easily disregard their frustration over such views and treatment as if they are merely ‘still whining over the injustices of slavery?’ Moreover, I perceive the slightest sense of black anger towards me as threatening, even though black violence against whites is a relatively rare occurrence. When I ask myself, why I am so indifferent or why I am afraid, the truth about how blacks are treated, along with the absence of any real threat, makes the answer all too clear. I am holding on to fears derived from racist beliefs that blacks descended from a primitive, inferior culture and can never be fully trusted. Does that mean – ‘especially with rights equal to whites’?
The fact is, I am living under the influence of beliefs handed down from our American history. If I listen closely with my heart to the words that emerge from those beliefs, can I hear them for what they are? Are they not powerful echoes from the voices of our history of slavery still whining over the fact that blacks were ever freed? For me, this awareness is one of the major turning points in facing the inhumanity still present from our history of slavery. To admit to how that history affects present day blacks is to admit that its dark and evil presence lives on through so many present day whites. Blacks bear the burden of overcoming the inhumanity towards them only because we, whites, brought forward that era of inhumanity. While this has undoubtedly been obvious to blacks for generations, for me it was the first shred of an admission of truth that would begin to unravel my racist views.
In identifying these historical beliefs, as well as the hold they have on my perspectives of blacks, it was easy to see that I have had very few, if any, independent views of the black race. In my search for my own views, however, I found that I had stepped onto a path that not only revealed the darker aspects of my cultural beliefs, it opened up to a whole new cultural landscape – one for which I was culturally unprepared for. Moreover, I discovered that not only is racism still an uncomfortable subject among many whites today, there is still very little consensus on a clear definition of equal human rights within the general populace of our society, myself included. I also discovered that few of us actually know much less care about what is in the United States Constitution, Bill of Rights, and the Civil and Equal Rights Amendments. The titles alone suggest that these are the principles that our society must strive to adhere to. After re-reading them, it became quite obvious why we largely ignore their existence, as well as their importance, unless we need them to defend our own self-interests.
These documents are the framework for displaying a society with a consensus on human rights. They all indicate quite clearly that our society has adopted the cultural doctrine that it is morally right and socially just to treat one another as equals. If I am interpreting them correctly, it appears that American residency carries with it one’s acceptance of the responsibility to yield self-interests, biases, judgments, condemnations, and indifference, in deference to ensuring equality for all. In short, these declarations seemed to me to set forth far more than a proclamation to adhere to the legalities of equal human rights; they called upon Americans to become patriots of them.
While I was not yet ready to become a “patriot” for equal human rights, I did find myself beginning to wonder if the evidence of racial and social inequality was relatively “unimportant” to me. Why? In truth, I have never lacked an awareness of the effects of social inequality among human beings; the evidence of social inequities is quite apparent. Nor have I ever lacked vision for how a society fully committed to equality might appear. Although I am inclined to disregard such a vision as idealistic, there is little doubt that such a selfless society would be a dream come true.
The problem, I found, was that there has always been something missing in between these two views. I have never believed that cultural or social equality is achievable in our society. In fact, I have yet to meet anyone who does – which seems to be why cultural and social inequity is a pothole of an issue that many of us simply avoid. Perhaps if enough of us acknowledged inequities as the greatest hazard our society faces, and complained loudly enough, eventually we would see cultural and social inequities under fervent repair.
Today, I am inclined to believe that we largely avoid the issue because we intuitively know that true cultural or social equality can only be achieved in a state of cultural and social classlessness. Sadly, it is a cultural ballgame few of us have been taught to play. Our beliefs in, as well as our adherence to cultural and social hierarchies actually undermine our ability to ever view our society as one-team of all-star players. As a result, it is even more difficult to envision a social system that develops its talent by tapping into cultural differences and providing all members access to the best training camps. Our social system it seems, not unlike the world of sports, has long been obsessed with investing heavily in superior talent, superdomes, and world championships (the best and the brightest, the most luxurious developments, the richest and most powerful nation), without much regard for how such obsessions drive up the cost of everyone’s ticket to the game (affordable education, housing, and standards of living).
I must admit that the impact of such views was more than I had bargained for in my search for the unraveling of my racist views. Looking into the core of racism would not only implicate certain aspects of my social views about blacks, but what the treatment of blacks reflected about our humanity as a whole. This was not a simple matter of merely focusing on how blacks have been largely treated. It would require seeking to understand why we, as a culture, have largely failed to honor, protect, and treat one another in a manner reflective of that which we have always been in relation to one another – mirrors of creation’s humanity. The mere thought of this, as a reality, makes categorizing one another by color, class, social status, or even the human “failures” of our society, seem like nothing more than the paltry architecture of cultural judgmentalism.
Still, without narrowing the scope of this realization, I could have argued with myself for an eternity over the definition of egalitarianism. “Surely believing in the equality of all people does not mean that one must disavow cultural and social hierarchies? Is it not personal choices that result in social inequities – rather than cultural and social elitism and hierarchies maintaining human beings in lesser roles of lesser value?”
These are but a few of the very intellectual arguments that have always allowed me to disregard the human and emotional toll of discrimination, as well as the impact of social indifference toward people of color. Their rights, culture, and social needs have never been viewed as important as mine. To realize that I attribute so much power and specialness to the color of my skin brought to mind other aspects about the depth of my denial. Not only do I strive to remain racially or socially segregated outside of the workplace, I completely deny that how I go about it contributes to, or at best helps to maintain, social inequities in our society.
Am I – the We?
As difficult as it is to admit, I have become a master of pretense about my acceptance of racial integration. In truth, I still react in all sorts of absurd ways when something important is at stake. The problem is that as my beliefs have undergone little change, they are still influencing what I consider as “important”. What do my beliefs say is important? My beliefs say that whites should maintain an advantage over blacks in almost any given area of our society, i.e., housing, employment, business development, political leadership, and education. Why? Because my beliefs say that we (whites) are better educated, more success oriented, culturally advanced, socially, economically, and politically responsible, have higher standards of living, and have the greater capacity for effective leadership. In short, my beliefs influence my view that we whites are the preeminent race in command of global respect.
While this panoramic view of my racist beliefs holds many truths, those truths reveal not only the blatant effects of a racially oppressive society, but also how cunningly effective society is at maintaining itself as such. Statistics cannot measure how many of us still choose our neighborhoods carefully, so as not to risk our majority status or property values – from too many blacks moving in. Nor do they calculate the unfair advantages it creates when using the economic advantages of property tax evaluations as arguments for opposing lower value housing developments within our communities. Few of us even gauge our own hearts while thinking nothing of valuing our property over a higher quality of life for others. We have created a social value system that makes provisions for demonstrating our selflessness through tax-deductible contributions to charities, without encroaching upon the radical self-interests that contribute to the social oppression of others.
Moreover, would there be such a need for diversity training if we were not still adamant about who has first rights in the workplace or to the better jobs in America? Having worked in the field of Human Resources as an EEO (Equal Employment Opportunity) Specialist, I have seen first-hand how the undercurrents of racism still exist at so many levels of the work environment. Even so, and in spite of being buried under mounds of cases of racial-related issues, I had no desire to become a “race-relations advocate for the furtherance of a human being’s right to equality.” At the time, I was merely being paid for doing what most white Americans were doing when it came to “race relations” – complying with the legal rights of minorities in the workplace.
The irony is that the job I held was, and still is, a job perceived by most whites as managing “unjustified complaints” rather than enforcing or defending anti-discrimination policies and ensuring equal employment opportunities. Until a white feels the impact of discrimination because of his or her age, gender, or even religion, there is little understanding of the impact upon someone overcoming a multitude of social barriers because of his or her race – virtually every day of his or her life.
It is this lack of whites’ personal experience of constant racial and ethnic discrimination that allows for racist undertones to thrive in most all work environments. From behind closed doors of human resource departments to the offices of top-level management, there are times when whites are seemingly incapable of refraining from the use of racist comments – regardless of the issue. More often than not, even in cases of blatant disparate treatment, the complainant is viewed as “the problem.” As a result, the best remedy is to find some procedural means to getting rid of the problem. The problem, however, is the presence of a reluctance to give in, give up, or give way to the underlying belief that somehow blacks deserve having to go to greater lengths to achieve equal pay, comparable promotion and comparative discipline. It is a racist presence that makes its position felt and, in many cases, unabashedly professed.
All have the right to a quality education. Yet, with private schools growing rapidly in numbers, funded primarily by the collective economic advantages of whites, it is true that we continue to achieve a higher quality of education not only for our children, but for our adult lives as well. We all know that public education is unmistakably influenced by these socio-economics. It is an economic imbalance that contributes greatly to the educational underdevelopment of so many minority members of our society. Far too often we have thrown the spotlight on “minority cultural causes” as the primary culprit in minority academic underdevelopment, leaving the ghostly demons of systemic racism to play around in the shadows.
There are many cans of worms buried underneath our nation’s racial issues. If we believe that the struggles have been exhausting for us all, we should also wonder if we have been swimming against the tide to avoid being carried into deeper waters where true racial harmony resides. It does not serve us to pretend to be civil nor hide behind the lie that racism will dissolve itself into the legalized concept of equal human rights. It is simply not true. Adding insult to injury is how angry whites can get when blacks are critical of their claims to all the progress blacks have made. Having to fight so long and for so little progress is hardly the kind of progress that “blacks should be grateful for” or “whites “proud of.”
All of these issues are the results of human beings going to any length to protect or advance the advantages in our own lives, even if it willfully creates disadvantages in the lives of others. It is difficult to view it as otherwise. While we may be a country that largely professes the belief in equal rights, many of our nations cultural issues suggest that we are more successful at maintaining inequality than we are at ensuring that equality is achievable for all.
Equality: The principle that individuals should have equal access to services, resources, and opportunities and be treated the same by all social, educational, and welfare institutions; a fundamental social work value. [i]
Social disparity in power, opportunity, privilege, and justice. The term often implies the actual disparity of possessions, education, and health care. [ii]
[i] 1. Definition of “Equality” – Source: The Social Work Dictionary 4th Edition By Robert L. Baker © 1999 by the NASW Press, p 157
[ii] 2. Definition of “Inequality” – Source: The Social Work Dictionary 4th Edition By Robert L. Baker © 1999 by the NASW Press, p 240
If we believe that our nation is the human rights beacon of the world, we should not be afraid to ask the question: If we do shine as such a culture, then why is there a constant flickering of the light as it illuminates our own backyard? Could it be the constant power surges over our attempt at redefining human rights under law interfering with the current of an inarguable fact? Is not one’s mere birth into this world an inherent right to equality in any Nation and most certainly in the lighthouse of “One Nation Under “God”?”
For those inclined to argue that the phrase “One Nation Under God” is a “violation of separation of church and state,” its use here is to emphasize its meaning of inclusiveness. In fact, most religious references in national mottos have the same purpose. Their intent is to compel us to aspire to a character of humanity that exceeds the law – and for good reason. Our nation has more laws, and more freedom of religion (or non-religion) than all other countries throughout the world combined. Yet who among us can deny that our laws, religions, or humanistic beliefs have little effect upon loosening the grasp that crime, poverty, as well as a multitude of other social issues all have upon our lives?
How much more should we allow racism, violence, poverty, substance addictions, or even mental illness to escalate in this country to prove such terms as equal, human, civil, or political rights do not dignify us as a nation? To the contrary, these persistent and, in many cases, escalating social issues suggest our failure as a culture to ensure that our culture is the counter balance to all social inequities. With all of our nation’s resources, the fact that many of these social issues have worsened suggests a somewhat undignified culture incapable of overcoming the effects of cultural ignorance. Perhaps refusing to face, in the mirror of our society, our own inhumanity towards these issues is why they will not go away.
Liberty lies in the hearts of men and women.
When it dies there, no constitution,
no law, no court can save it.
…Judge Learned Hand
There is little doubt that it is risky business to act on changing our lingering beliefs about other races when we are so certain they are true. Without developing greater relations with “a people” who are ever present in our lives, our beliefs go safely unchallenged and linger on. What if our complacency was seen as no more than a subtle means of continuing to differentiate ourselves from another race or even other classes within our society? When it comes to racial issues, if being slightly more dignified is the best we can do, how can we expect our children to be anything less than apathetic as we prepare them for the responsibilities of inheriting our social and cultural problems?
Writing the wrongs
I found no greater example of irony than when I began exploring turning my essays into a book. Knowing that they embodied broad, but personal interpretations of the racial issue, and as I was not an accomplished writer, I felt compelled to approach several individuals as potential co-authors. This provided early opportunities for debating the very issues that were to be further developed, particularly those involving the inherent undercurrents of racism.
Although each believed “such a book had potential,” I was taken aback over our discussions about how its controversial subject matter of “forgiveness” would spawn extreme and potentially violent reactions from radical whites. The awareness of such a possibility hit home – as now I feared the threat of racist hate as if it were standing at my own front door. It was this unexpected event that would not only challenge, but change my long-held beliefs that blacks are more volatile against whites than the other way around. The faces of those I imagined as defacing my home with racial slurs, raging with threats on a radio talk show, or even dragging me from my car as I pulled out of my driveway, were white – not black. It was a dark cloud of concern and an ever-present reminder that that “dark cloud” of such racist hate – is never far from the front doors of those who are black.
It had shaken me, I must admit, to realize how much I had minimized and even overlooked how deeply rooted the propensity for violence and even “savagery” is in members of my own race. However, our discussions about racial violence quickly shifted, as I have since found it usually does, to the issue of “black upon black violence.” This led to rather heated debates over “taking responsibility for racism being at the root of certain issues arising from within the black culture.” The various elements of these discussions provided classic examples of how many whites so often use the statistics about “black upon black violence” in support of the position of “black cultural causes” rather than viewing many of the statistics as evidence of “the direct and ongoing effects of generations of oppression.”
Although we did manage to agree that delving into black upon black violence was neither an area of my expertise nor a focus of this book, I do believe it is one of the direct effects of decades of racial oppression. It is an issue that also serves as one of many profound examples of how racial debates are used to further abuse, rather than address, such issues. With many whites simply ignoring such debates as no more than redundant racial charades, the message is that “black issues” are not the issues that “our” society is interested in. On the other hand, white upon white and black upon white violence, especially when it involves our middle to upper class white youth, is a definite issue that our society should be concerned about. They not only get our attention – but the “causes” are often explored, examined and opined, for weeks, by the media.
As my views on these issues were considered somewhat presumptuous, I was quickly challenged to clarify my interpretation of “apologizing,” as the book’s title clearly suggests. At the time, the rationale was relatively simple. When it comes to racial divisions, I reasoned, our nation has long been in need of realistically facing the causes of those divisions. By using the power of “the process of forgiveness” as a basis for healing, this would require, as a fundamental aspect of the process itself, acknowledging the long-term damages of our racist history.
In short: By facing the mistakes we have made and doing whatever it takes to overcome them, in the course of healing all of our own hearts of racist inclinations we could begin to come together on all social inequalities, as well. It is our posture of indifference about such a history that has enabled us to avoid what few whites have the courage to face and few blacks can no longer bear to hear denied: There are racial wounds and scars upon the hearts, minds, and souls, of black Americans – and upon those of whites as well. Could this be one of the underlying reasons why the divide of social inequality is widening? I wanted to find out.
Although two individuals finally agreed to co-author the book, they did so on the condition that they remain anonymous. For me, however, to accept such an offer would have only further served as a profound example of the hidden hypocrisies that were a fundamental aspect of the book; “I can say that I am for racial equality – as long as it does not affect me.” With conditional “acceptance” being a fundamental aspect of racism itself, literary scholar or not, I decided to attempt the effort alone. The experience, however, served to deepen my personal convictions regarding the essence of the book and what I hope those convictions will ultimately convey.
Yes, I do believe that white Americans bear the greater responsibility for the ongoing effects of racism. Yet, we all have a responsibility to make every effort to overcome them because we have inherited the history and circumstance –with all of its effects of a racist past. At the very least, we have a responsibility because we share the land upon which we live: we are co-inhabiting renters – not owners. Finally, and if for no other reason, we are all responsible because we are now what will become the history of future generations; we have an opportunity to establish a new history of humanitarian rights that will endure for the good of an entire nation.
Treat the world well.
It was not given to you by your parents;
it was lent to you by your children.
Racist seeds still growing?
So, Who Am I? Although I wish I were, for the good of the message, a recognized voice for humanitarian rights, I am not. Being neither righteous nor noble, I am an ordinary woman who has finally seen that slavery only served to spread the seeds of ethnic separation, indifference, and hate throughout our country; those seeds of inhumanity were cultivated into a more socially acceptable term called racism. Is racism not then a continuation of a form of slavery? In the absence of real change, will we not continue to think racist thoughts, say racist things, and commit racist acts, or, ignore, deny, blames other issues for the effects, continuing the legacy of a racist people?
If such racist inclinations are not intended to be harmful, what other purpose do they serve? If no other purpose can be found, are they not then merely wounding innocents who are in need of healing? For those of us wounding innocent others, are we not perpetrators in need of healing? It is in recognizing and owning up to the fact that both black and white Americans have inherited emotional, psychological, and spiritual wounds from a history of inhumanity, that the effort to heal begins. As a nation, these wounds can either remain as the marks of the racially self-righteous, or serve as the catalyst for becoming a righteous nation – that is, a nation committed to healing itself of racism, bigotry, intolerance, indifference.
As uncomfortable as it may be, the truth has the power to heal. The first truth is that we are all born, no matter the color, race, creed, or social status, with a human spirit that is uncompromising in the knowledge of its divine right. The second truth is that our human spirit longs to restore us to this divine truth, in spite of such erroneous beliefs that there are superior or inferior human beings. Therein lies the foundation for social harmony, and few of us can deny that there is a longing for it inside our hearts for all of humanity.
A fundamental challenge that both sides of the racial issue must face is having the willingness to bridge our racial differences by equalizing our rights – without compromising our unique ethnic qualities. Ethnicity is not the oppressor. The oppressor is the use of a dominant position as a right of privilege over a marginalized individual or group. Perhaps this is made easier because we have such a distant view of our respective cultures. They are comprised of far more than nationality, ethnicity, and religious beliefs. Customs, habits, skills, technology, arts, values, ideology, science, religious and political behaviors all help to define one’s culture, i.e., values and lifestyle. In short, ethnicity and culture are an integral part of a human being’s very existence.
This fact alone makes the toll of discrimination upon the lives and respective heritages of those innocently born of color impossible to view as simply ethnic or cultural elitism. The manners in which we negatively treat other races and disregard their heritages and cultures are acts of inhumanity. Yet, it is only because other races or cultures are foreign to us that we view them as intimidating, less cultural, and far less important – than the dominant race and its culture.
There is no greater example of how we recognize the tragedy of this than when the story of the heritage of an Olympic contender, Cathy Freeman, was brought to our attention. Her grandparents were native Aborigines, and victims of what became known as the “Stolen Generation.” In the 1930’s Aboriginal children were kidnapped from their homes and forced to live in servitude to white families. The atrocity was viewed as somewhat of a humanitarian effort to conform the native Aborigine to a European-based (more civilized) culture. The more civilized culture, however, continued to deny native Aborigines – those being “culturalized” – the right to vote until 1962.
Perhaps many Australians had come to realize that they had never fully apologized for the inhumane treatment of native Aborigines, and that reconciliation was long overdue. When Freeman ran her 400-meter victory lap, waving both the Aboriginal and Australian flags, millions cheered her every step of the way. Perhaps many wondered why it had not been this way all along. One woman – not only reminding the world of how important both nationality and culture are to one’s heritage, but how simple, yet powerful, it is to honor and respect them both – individually as well as, collectively.
It is apparent that we must find ways to ensure that all have an opportunity to develop individually through equal access to services, resources, and social opportunities, and without sacrificing cultures and heritages. Insuring equal opportunity does not mean that all of our individual efforts, accomplishments, and rewards will be equal. It means that providing access to opportunities is based not upon ethnic, cultural, or social hierarchies, but upon valuing all human beings as equal. To learn to value and respect one another as equal – regardless of our differing cultures – is admittedly a tall order. It requires us to open our minds and hearts in a way that unites us as a nation in a goal to achieve the true meaning of “One Nation …”
The expert on racists – Me?
This book challenges the current denials about racism. Who Am I? I believe I am an expert on racists; I am white and live with the manifestations of racism in the hearts, minds, and voices of my own race every day. Racism is still a fact. Its cure is uncertain because most white Americans not only disregard the profound damage of its past, but its embedded grip upon our present attitudes. Finally, as an expert on racists, am I really racist? In pondering the question, I am reminded by the following example that the answer isn’t always as evident as one might think.
A white woman in a Q-45 drives along side a Cadillac carrying four white, upper middle-class women. With eloquent smiles and conversational gestures from hands dressed in diamonds, it is easy to recognize by their visible social graces that these are successful women. “Lawyers, banker’s wives, executive directors of charitable organizations,” ponders the white woman?
As the Cadillac turns the corner, the women inside glance back admiringly at her Q-45, and with a mere nod of the head they exchange a salute of their obvious mutual status. The woman in the Q-45 is left at the stoplight to reflect upon how privileged she is. As she returns to the present, her eyes focus on the hood ornament of a brand new, top of the line Mercedes Benz Sedan sitting in the left lane beside her. With a discreet glimpse of the stunningly beautiful black driver inside, the white woman’s eyes cut back to the road ahead.
The black woman’s earned status was never even imagined. There was merely the whisper, from inside the mind of the white woman in the Q-45. “Hmmm… Affirmative Action must be working?” While these thoughts may seem somewhat benign, in truth they are nothing less than slightly refined echoes of the white woman’s underlying racist beliefs.
Who Am I? I am the white woman in the Q-45 that day, who had never given a moment’s thought as to really why white Americans have so long “achieved” (had access to) so much more of all that our nation has to offer than black Americans. Nor had I ever considered that the ideas of superior and inferior human beings were in direct conflict with those of a higher nature.
Guilty as charged?
Today, I realize that I have lived my life with certain attitudes equivalent to those of neo-Nazism, fascism, and even spiritual bigotry, as an American in conflict with the intended ideal of “One Nation….” Yes, I am a racist, who is using the process of “forgiveness” in the healing of my own racist heart.
And yes, Black America, it is a tragedy for our American culture to simply minimize and diminish and disregard the present-day effects of the introduction of slavery into our American culture. It deepened the roots of a menacing weakness within our human nature – the right to judge (be discriminating about) human value and treat others accordingly, even if it willfully violates their value or potential. Therein lays the mortar with which I formed my racially damaged American culture that is still so prevalent in my life today.
It is our own “Holocaust” of sorts, committed by a white American society. It too, was the utter disregard for fundamental human rights. It also occurred over nothing more than a self-proclaimed right to reign over human lives – distinguished only by differences in cultural history and the color of skin. Racism is one of the most blatant examples of how we, as a culture, actually undermine all of our fundamental rights to equality.
Whether undermining equality for People of Color, Women, Lesbians and Gays or “The Disadvantaged,” hopefully, we will either come to the place of examining our own cultural and social biases, or, live long enough to see how unfounded, hurtful and oppressive to others, as well as, how costly such biases are to us all… and, at least, regret them. Hence, “Forgive Us, Black America.”
Author’s Summary of
Introduction (Who Am I?)
A Note to Black & White America:
From the writing of this chapter I stepped onto the path of the memories of discrimination in my own life. I felt the pulsing of racism in my heart and re-experienced the ungodliness of social labels.
I have learned that I cannot afford to think in terms of racial preference, and not be a part of a racist society. I have realized that by being so ignorant, so uncaring of the Constitution of the United States and the Bill of Rights, I have developed a constitution of selective human rights.
I now understand that racial elitism condones human hierarchies of social oppression. I have begun to see how I have learned to live, be educated, work, and play, around our racial issue. I have begun to question the internal forces, the filters with which I view my relationship to blacks, and how they are driving my judgments.
I have begun to confront the erroneous fear of black violence against whites, as well as the denial of the white “violence” committed against blacks.
I am beginning to see the wounds of not only racism, but so many cultural and social biases upon our hearts and lives. I have opened my own heart to not only my own need for healing, but to a vision of healing, in achieving cultural… whether racial, gender or social class… equality, thus, greater peace for us all.