Saturday, March 12, 2016

My Life as a White Person

This sermon was presented by Doug Trenfield on Sunday, February 28, 2016

I’ve been white my whole life. Many of you have been too. The awareness of my whiteness, though, has evolved slowly. As a white person, I have had the luxury of letting that awareness evolve slowly. Because I, like a large percent of white folk, I imagine, did not grow up or ever live in environments where my not truly understanding my place as a white person put me at risk, physically or in any other way. Not like the black woman I sat next to at a convention luncheon, a woman about my age from Galveston. She told me ­­ and told me like it was just a well­-processed funny story, one she often traipsed out at convention luncheons when sitting next to white folk ­­ that her mom taught her at an early age that when she goes into a room of people she doesn’t know, to find the white people and figure out who they are. Her life, her prospects for her future, her profession could depend on how well she did this, her mom told her. I was stunned. I’ve told this to friends who are people of color, and they have not found this remarkable. And I found that stunning as well.

Turns out, stories like this are common among those of you (not me) who identify as people of color. After the horrible murder of Trayvon Martin by a self­appointed neighborhood watchman in Florida, we’ve heard a lot about the talk, when a black father sits down with his son and tells him how to act around white people he doesn’t know, around police. Ta­Nehisi Coates writes about this in Between the World and Me. There’d be real fear in his parents, fear that someone would take away their children’s bodies, enough fear that his father would beat him if he misstepped, hurting the very body he feared losing.

And all my life, I’ve gone blithely into that room, not knowing that the eyes behind the darker faces took me in, measured me, judged me quickly because I might judge them quickly, and if I didn’t like what I judged, that I would bring harm. I’ve gone blithely into that room, aware only of prospects ­­ friendships, jobs, maybe romance ­­ and never was afraid. Well, not in the way people of color speak of it.

I’ve never thought of teacher’s judging my academic abilities based on my skin hue. Tim Wise in his memoir White Like Me writes of this. He was raised and schooled, thanks to happenstance and, for the seventies, fairly enlightened parents , in a multicultural neighborhood in Nashville. He had done little to distinguish himself academically, but apparently his whiteness was his ticket to advanced classes. The skin hue of his black friends, many of whom he admits were probably more capable than he, was there ticket to remain in regular ed or, sometimes, to go to special classes.

I’m sure this sort of thing happened around me in school. Even now, 41 years after I graduated from high school, the U.S. Department of Education reports harsh disparities between ethnicities in how discipline in schools is doled out, and multiple studies (for example, one by the Applied Research Center, suggesting racial bias when schools determine who will take Advanced Placement courses) show how race can influence educators’ judgments of students’ academic abilities. I’m sure it did when I was in school, but I didn’t witness it, because I was that well insulated. My parents were liberal college town folks, supporting vociferously the civil rights movement (though showing some disdain for the uglier side of that movement [I remember my mother, a supporter of Martin Luther King, saying that in a way he “asked for it”]). They didn’t set out to insulate me. But the system insulated me nonetheless.

I’ve been wanting to talk about this, race from a white viewpoint, for years, literally for years. I think it began when I discovered literature, and found myself drawn to the literature coming from people of color. They had something to write about. My people, white people, abdicated our ethnicity when we were accepted into the white club. We were no longer English­Irish­Scottish­Dutch­French­Italian­German, we declared. We were white, void of color and void of histories that reached further into the past than two generations. People with similar ethnic heritage to mine and with my skin hue (yeah, I mean white people) who cry out about reverse racism have never held sway with me. I’m more inclined to white folk like comedian Louis CK, who a few years ago was doing lots of bits on race from a white vantage. He said the following in one:

'Here’s how great it is to be white. I could get in a time machine and go to any time, and it would be f­ing awesome when I get there. The year 2? I don’t even know what was happening then. But when I get there, ‘Welcome, we have a table right here waiting for you, sir.’

Language and images get a little dicey here, so I’ll summarize. He said he would not go forward in time in his time machine because, “We’re gonna have to pay for this sh!+.” And it gets dicier. You get the idea.

But if you’re not familiar with how white privilege functions, and you’ve never been around people of color, when you hear of measures to bring people of color to our bounteous table ­­ affirmative action, for one ­­ something like reverse racism, as poorly coined as the term is, comes to mind. A student at West Virginia University, responding to charges of reverse racism at another southern college, wrote:

Reverse racism does not and cannot exist by definition. While racial minorities can certainly hold prejudices against white people, they cannot be "just as racist as white people" or "just as discriminatory as white people" because they do not hold the same economic, institutional and political power.

A friend of mine, a former student who’s working on her PhD at Florida State, would agree. She wrote, responding to a post on my FB feed: Yes, racism is systemic, but it's not bilateral. In other words, it only goes in one direction, and it always favors Whiteness. People of Color cannot be racist; we can be prejudiced and biased, but we are not evoking racism. That is because racism is anchored in systemically conferred power­­power being the operative notion. In racism, only White people have power (just like in sexism, cis­men have power, and xenophobia/nationalism U.S. citizens have power­­you get the point). Power is unearned influence that benefits one group (i.e., White people) over another group (i.e., People of Color). A simple example of power is as follows: You can hate your boss, and your boss can hate you. Certainly, you can hurt your boss' feelings, but only your boss has the power to fire you­­not the other way around. Likewise, when People of Color pit against one another, it's not racism­­it's internalized oppression. Because when we pit against one another, we pull each other down, thereby anchoring White supremacy.

For a long time, I wouldn’t talk about race, but ethnicity. I think most of us know by now, from any scientific standpoint, there is no race. The American Association of Physical Anthropologists has eschewed the idea of race. They wrote, in a 1996 position paper, "Pure races, in the sense of genetically homogeneous populations, do not exist in the human species today, nor is there any evidence that they have ever existed in the past." But the word race has crept into another very useful word, racism, which I’d hate to have to drop out of our discussion. Besides, our prejudices toward peoples are not just about ethnicity, but also appearance, specifically, and tragically for a large percent of our population, those features associated with people of African heritage.

But why has this been my obsession? If I want to vaunt my goodness, I’d say it’s because I want to do my part to understand and right centuries of wrongs. And though I do, I don’t think that’s why I’m obsessed. Is it guilt? I think, yeah, though we ­­ you others of my skin hue and having similar heritage (oh yeah ­­ white people) ­­ should do what we can to right wrongs, for the most part, I’m sure, we’ve done nothing consciously to further these wrongs.

So I don’t know. I don’t have any memorable encounters that would lead me to this.

These are the encounters with people of color as I was growing up that I remember. In 4th grade (yes, it took that long for there to be a memorable racial encounter), my nice little suburban neighborhood had its first black family, the Greggs. Kevin Gregg was in my class. He was fun to play football with, which is all I wanted in a friend at that age. The next year, he and his family were gone. Mom told me later that many of our neighbors made life difficult for the Greggs, so the Greggs up and left. At that time, 1966, black families were concentrated in, unironically, two areas of town ­­ Whiteley and White City.

Sixth grade. My sister Gail, five years older, the hippie in our family, brought home a black friend who was a boy. My father ­­ as I’d said, a staunch advocate of civil rights ­­ had never had race relations be so personal. The young man left. I remember there was yelling and stomping. And I remember my father standing over a seated Gail, looking as though he wanted to hit my sister. He didn’t. He wasn’t like that. But that’s how mad he was.

High school, ninth grade. I started at Northside High School in Muncie, Indiana, in 1971. The school opened a year before, rumor has always had it, to give a neighborhood school to the mostly white end of town. Town wasn’t big enough that Northside could exclude all black students, though. I had black students in my classes, but they seemed to have no interest in talking to me. But to be fair, I and my friends had no interest in talking to them. Or about them. Odd, but there was no friction that I knew of. Black and white just lived in skew, though unequal, worlds. At lunch, the blacks ate at one end of the cafeteria. So far as I knew, there were no rules that mandated this. It just happened. After eating, they played on their own end of the gym.

Eleventh grade, at a different high school, Larry Wilkerson broke my nose. No, no drama. We were playing flag football in P.E. I mention it only to bring up Larry, who was a thin bridge between the small group of black kids and my group of white boys (mostly boys). He had good weed. And was open to some good­natured kidding around.

I could go on, but not for very long, and it wouldn’t get more interesting. My point is that I ­­ and I think I’m typical, a type ­­ do not have much to say about my experiences with race, 4 even though, as I was growing up, the U.S. struggled with it mightily (and among whites, mostly unwillingly), and even though the black kids in my town would probably put race close to the center of the stories of their youth.

So I’m almost done with my sermon. And I haven’t given you a lesson, a homily. I don’t think a lesson or homily would be appropriate. I think it’s presumptuous that I, a white guy raised in suburban Muncie, Indiana, would have a lesson to give about race. My purpose in speaking today is to start a conversation. Would someone else like to speak on race? It’s hard to talk about, I know. What’re intended as observations can be taken personally, yes. But I think it’s important that we ­­ by we, I do not mean exclusively we at UUFHC, but all U.S. humans ­­ that we do talk about it. No one needs to presume to give lessons, but I think it’s important that we talk. Since I did not grow up around people of color other than African­Americans, I did not talk today about white­Latino relations. How are those different? How are they similar? Since I’ve spent almost all my adult life as a minority ­­ still white, though, so still a member of the more powerful class ­­ here in the Valley, I could talk about it. But so could most of you, white or Latino. And I’d love to hear the Winter Texan perspective on race here in the Valley.

The first reading today, Langston Hughes’ “Theme for English B” ­­ it’s connection is pretty easy to see. I’ve loved that poem since I first read it as a young teacher. Hughes, I think, gets at the subtler tensions between white and black, even though at the time of its writing there were much less subtle tensions between the races. He says:

Sometimes perhaps you don’t want to be a part of me.
Nor do I often want to be a part of you.
But we are, that’s true!
As I learn from you,
I guess you learn from me—
although you’re older—and white—
and somewhat more free.

The second reading, the sermon at the end of the novel (and movie) A River Runs Through It, is about what we can do when we don’t know what to do. Maclean writes, “And so it is that those we live with and should know who elude us. But we can still love them ­ we can love completely without complete understanding.” We may not understand one another because of our various differences ­­ gender orientation, race, ethnicity, social class. We can work toward understanding, but until we get even close to understanding, we can still love. And when we love, we listen.

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