Have You Ever Woke Up White?

MLK POST

Have you ever work up and realized you’re white?

I don’t mean have you gotten out of bed in the morning, brushed your teeth and stared at your Caucasian skin, noting blemishes, razor nicks or an unsightly new hair.

I mean, have you ever woken up and REALIZED YOU ARE WHITE?

Well.  I haven’t either…until this week.

Last Wednesday, July 6, I was running late for an appointment.  I was driving, not recklessly, but a little too fast for the speed limit posted.  A police officer clocked me, quickly got behind my vehicle, turned on his lights, and directed me to pull over.  I was doing 55 in a 45.

The officer, who was white, pulled behind my car, parked and delayed approaching my vehicle.  After a few minutes of gathering his thoughts, or perhaps running my tag, he makes his way to my window, stands slightly out of sight and over my left shoulder and asks “How are you doing today sir?”  I could see him from my peripheral vision because he avoided standing directly beside my car, presumably to protect himself not knowing whom he had just pulled over.

My reply was instant and without concern, “Well officer, I was fine until I was pulled over.”

The officer looked at me and replied, “Well, I understand that.  Have a good day and be safe.”

I replied, “Thank you officer, I’ll watch my speed”

This entire encounter took maybe 60 seconds.  It was the fastest interaction I have ever had with an officer.  At the time, I was thankful for its brevity.

Tuesday evening, July 5, news broke about the altercation between police and Alton Sterling, a black man hustling outside a convenient store in Baton Rouge, LA.  The altercation resulted in Mr. Sterling’s death and an unsightly video of interaction went viral.

Later Wednesday evening, the nation would witness another altercation between a black man and police, which resulted in the death of one Philando Castile.  As with the Louisiana shooting, this one in Minnesota went viral with a video and commentary from his girlfriend that sat next to him as he was shot and dying.

Immediately these events started to shake the foundations of America and the quiet undercurrents of prejudice and violence once again erupted before our eyes.  It’s as if a latent existential crisis had now burst onto the national stage front and center, demanding the attention of everyone.  The shock waves of this violence were instantaneously enormous and threatened to swallow the nation in a race war with endless violence as five Dallas police officers were shot by a black man whose motive for killing them was revenge for the brutality he had recently witnessed, as well as the historical witness of police brutality against the black community.

We are not yet out of the woods.  More violence could be on the way, as one alleged plot to kill police officers has already been foiled.

In an attempt to be peacekeepers and healers, Presidents Bush and Obama spoke at a memorial service for the police, each one offering powerful words of hope and admonition for the future. Town hall meetings are taking place to discuss the tensions between policing and minority communities, protestors are clamoring with their city officials and entire communities are mobilizing to peacefully respond to the current injustices.

It’s not just black people that are seeking change, but many white people are busy advocating for their brothers and sisters in the black community as well. 

As all of this unfolded I began to ask myself, “If I were black would the police stop I encountered Wednesday have been different?”  Can I honestly say that if I were a black man (with all the historical baggage and stereotyping I would be carrying) the officer would have released me in a matter of seconds or would this ordeal have involved a bit more questioning and a longer stop?

Of course, this is hypothetical.  I am not black and there is no way of knowing what the officer would have done if I were, but I don’t think it too far afield to assume that if I were black I would have been detained a few minutes longer, I would have been asked a few more questions, and might have even walked away with a ticket rather than an exhortation to “be safe.”

I really hate writing about this.  I don’t want to comment on race.  I want to ignore it and pretend it isn’t an issue.

I don’t want to write about it.  I don’t want to talk about it.  I want to stay out of the fray.

It is safer to be quite and not say anything.

Yet, how can I not speak up when there is clearly a higher level of suspicion against those with black skin than those with white skin, even when it comes to routine traffic stops.

We do have a race problem in this country and the only people saying otherwise are privileged white people who have never experienced a racist sentiment against them in their lives.  Trying to be white and say race doesn’t matter is like telling someone who’s been abused emotionally it doesn’t matter that they are abused because you’ve never been abused emotionally by anyone.  Their abuse is obviously their misperception of what is happening; it’s not the truth of the matter.  The truth of the matter is they have behaved badly and they most likely deserve the emotional abuse.

Who’s going to say that to another person who has EXPERIENCED ABUSE?  My non-experience cannot negate the experience of another.  It’s simply a different witness but it doesn’t nullify someone with a contrary witness.

That logic doesn’t make any clear sense.  Yet this is exactly what white people do to black people.

We discount their experiences because our perceptions of their experiences are not the same, therefore, they must be misguided and if they’d just drop pointing out to everyone that they are black this whole thing would be better…but isn’t this the epitome of bigotry and racism, thinking ourselves better than others?  Thinking our WHITE ideas (since they happen inside our white bodies) are more exact than BLACK ideas or experiences?

If our ideas are only ideas that would occur to WHITE people, and no black person within our sphere of influence would share them, should that not cause us to pause and say “hold up, maybe my idea isn’t as objective as I thought…maybe I have this idea because I am White??”

In other words, it is not that our whiteness or blackness makes the ideas; It is our skin color that allows us the experiences in life that often give formation to the ideas.

This is a distinction that even the most brilliant talking heads fail to make.

The experiences that ingrain skills, dispositions, and habits into us are usually unconscious; it happens to us without our knowing.  In academic terms it becomes what Pierre Bourdieu calls our habitus.  But there is good news; we are not doomed to our habitus forever.

Bourdieu notes, “Habitus is not the fate that some people read into it.  Being a product of history, it is an open system of dispositions that is constantly subjected to experiences, and therefore, constantly affected by them in a way that either reinforces or modifies its structures.  It is durable BUT NOT ETERNAL [my bold].  Having said this, I must immediately add that there is a probability, inscribed in social destiny associated with definite social conditions, that experiences will confirm habitus, because most people are statistically bound to encounter circumstances that tend to agree with those that originally fashioned their habitus.”

To break this down further, one might say we think, act and are disposed in particular ways because of our particular histories.  Our history provides us with normative habits we can live by and use to make sense of the world.  Our habits also usually decided for us in that they are the result of our social/linguistic conditions (religious, economic, political, sexual, etc.) and experiences therein. Further, this means that one is most likely to encounter the world in ways that agree with those already framed dispositions or habits.

In other words, you think like a white person because you are white and all that goes along with that…even if you fail to realize it.

The silver lining to this, however, is that habtius is an OPEN SYSTEM OF DISPOSITIONS that is subject to our experiences.  As that which forms due to our experiences, it can also be re-formed by new ones.  We are not stuck being suspicious of certain groups of people.  We are not stuck with certain opinions or views.  The goodnews of Bourdieu is, while habitus can provide insight into why we do what we do, and who we are, we do have the possibility to change when we encounter new experiences that challenge our current habitus!

Did you hear me, we can change!  We are not doomed!

This week, I sat in a room with black colleagues who shared their experiences. Their experience didn’t attempt to negate dead police officers.  Their experience didn’t attempt to say cops never kill white people.  It was just their stories and how these events impacted them.  It wasn’t an either/or; it was “this whole situation sucks…here is why I am.”

One black mother shared how she has to give her sons the talk about how to behave in a car for fear of being pulled over because they are black young men.  She spoke of the fear of when her 15 year old will get his license and whether she should make him wait a few more years to drive for fear of what can happen to a young black man in a car alone.

A black father spoke of the pain this produced inside him, how this impacted his community and how he was paying for his kids to talk to a counselor to make sense of all this.

An older black woman said, “I know this is a new problem for many of you, but I have been living with this problem for 60 years.  This is not new…and in our community we have known this.  I am glad many of you are now finally getting to see what we live every day.”

These comments were in sharp juxtaposition to comments I was seeing on facebook and twitter, all by white people.

Rather than see their status as white people, as privileged people, who will never have to fear that their young boys will get pulled over or fear of being followed through a grocery store because of their skin color, they commented as if they were sages…pronouncing objective truth from inside their white bodies.

Comments such as “it doesn’t matter if you are white, black or blue, we don’t have a race problem in this country, we have a death culture”…Ah, yes, spoken as only a white guy can who has never experienced racial profiling.

On the radio, hosts scream at the top of their lungs about why the President and others keep talking about white this and white that, black this and black that, ostensibly saying we only have a race problem because you all keep talking about it!  Again, only a white person can say something like this.  It’s not that black or white people want to have race as a central issue; it’s that it is a central issue regardless of what we want…and it seems that the only class or race saying it’s not a problem is the race that has never suffered persecution in this country because of their skin color!  Shouldn’t this cause white folks to pause and ask “Why are we the only ones saying this?”

Another great white response is to deflect attention from this violence and pin it on other issues, such as black single parent statistics and children raised in single parent, poverty stricken homes.  This move simply keeps the white person from actually taking a stand against brutality or racism and says that the real problem isn’t “you all” or “them” getting profiled, it’s the black community having so many dead beat dads.

Again, only a white person can say this.  It lacks any sense of empathy to relate to black people and their history with police.

And finally, here is a laundry list of comments by white people that attempts to deflect issues of race, “I didn’t own slaves, I don’t know what they are so mad about…that was 150 years ago, they should get over it…if black people wouldn’t talk about race than race wouldn’t be an issue…This is not my fault…the cops wouldn’t have shot him if they didn’t have good reason…don’t be in the wrong place and bad things won’t happen…black on black crime is the real problem, not police brutality…why do just black lives matter, don’t all lives matter…why do they have that chip on their shoulder anyhow, it’s just a crutch to keep race an issue…why do they keep complaining, if they would go find jobs and get off government they wouldn’t have these problems”

And these same white people that make these comments say we don’t have a race problem.  Uh huh.  And on and on and on.

I have heard all this and more, in person and online.  And I, admittedly, used to think of some of these same responses…but I did so, not out of attempting to empathize with the black community, but because I was white and I was unable to see the world outside of my white experiences, and therefore, my white habitus.

But this past week, I woke up and I realized I am white.  It had been a long time coming, but I have finally saw myself in a very literal way, as the skin that covers who I am.  Of course I am not just my skin color, but at the least whatever I am does involve my skin color.  I can no more separate my person from my body than my body from my person…and this means my whiteness and my being are linked…but that doesn’t mean I can’t change.

But Nate, you seem like a thoughtful guy, how could you have held even one of those ideas as an opinion???  First, I am sorry that I have not always thought rightly about race.  Since living in Atlanta and Nashville I have actually enjoyed the difference and it is what I miss about large cities.   I have not been prejudiced for a long time, but I have also never seen my whiteness as clear as I do now.  I have never knowingly done a racist thing but I cannot say I have never had a racist or bigoted based thought.  For these unspoken sentiments I ask for forgiveness.

I believe Jesus once said something about seeking forgiveness for thoughts of the heart and not just actions of the hands.

Why would I have ever had those ideas?

Well.  I’m 35 and I am white.  I’m Protestant.  I am old enough to have had grandparents that referred to candy as “n#**#r toes” not as a conscious attempt to be mean, but as a subconscious linguistic association about black people.  I am old enough to have been told when I was younger to not go to certain parts of town, “where the blacks live…in boogeytown.”  I am old enough to have ridden in cars and been told “lock your doors, we are going through a bad neighborhood.”  The only people I saw on the corners were black people.

I am white enough to have not had much interaction with black people except on school sports teams.  My family did not have any black friends growing up.

No, I wasn’t raised to hate black people.  I wasn’t raised to hate anyone, but I was raised with a subtle racism, inculturated within me, so that fear of black people and difference was part of the story as a child.

That fear shaded my adult life where it bred my inability to see my own privilege as a white male.  Now, at 35, I’m still white, but it’s worse, I am white, educated, have a good job, have a position in the church, and I don’t have any close black friends…only acquaintances.  Given all this how would I see otherwise??

The problem, however, is that this fear can breed misunderstanding.  Misunderstanding can breed apathy, or even worse, it can breed hate and bigotry.

Privilege doesn’t mean that society gave me stuff or that I didn’t have to work for what I have.  I did work hard; no one gave me anything.  All my degrees and work based accomplishments were earned.  Privilege simply means I did not face any societal obstacles or experience public disadvantages or scrutiny because of my skin color.  I was, and am, free to move about the country.  From what I understand, this is also what black people want, the ability to work hard and move about freely, providing themselves and their families with a good, secure life.

As a white man (who usually votes libertarian), I am now aware of my privilege.  I couldn’t see it before, but now, with the help of black and white colleagues, I see it.  Yet I do not understand how being aware of that privilege and acknowledging that black people in general do not enjoy that same privilege is a liberal or conservative observation.  Why is this a republican or democratic issue?  Seems to me this is just finally seeing the elephant in the room.

I am not black.  I am now aware that my experience cannot speak for or in place of a black experience.  It is unfair of me to impute my white eyes over a situation and impute that understanding on black people that have a much different experience.  I’m aware that I do not see the world as my black colleagues.  I don’t fear for my three sons growing up that they will be stopped and harassed by police.

I can speak of equality as an ideal because I am white.  I can criticize my black brothers and sisters for making a big deal of this or that police brutality and I can point to the “facts of the case” and justify why officers did what they did, but all that does is tell the black community (who has suffered these recent losses as well as many losses we will never know) that I am blind, deaf and therefore too dumb to speak as an advocate for a community that bears the brunt of police violence at the hands of white silence.

I want to be a partner and neighbor with all people, but at this time especially with my black colleagues.  I want to insure that their children can grow up feeling safe.  I want my fellow black Americans to feel safe when they are stopped by police.  I want police to feel safe around black people and not assume guilt when they make a traffic stop or question kids on the street corner.  I want an equitable world that looks like white people and black people sharing in this nation and helping one another achieve rather than pointing at the others deficiencies.  To quote MLK, I too want to see a world where children and people will not be “judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”

We are not there yet…we are not there yet.

I used to think this country didn’t have a race problem, but as I have watched and listened to stories and media I have come to an epiphany: We do have a race problem and denial by those who have NEVER been marginalized doesn’t solve this problem…it just means they are clueless and it places our collective societal goals at risk in order to assuage a white peace of mind.

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