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First Parish Universalist Church
790 Washington Street, P. O. Box 284, Stoughton, Massachusetts 02072 
(781) 344-6800
Worship: 10:30 AM
Children's Chapel:  10:30 AM
Church School: 10:45 AM
 

Learning To Be White:  Race, Class and God in America

Rev. Jeffrey Symynkywicz, January 16, 2000

In the book Learning to Be White, a provocative look at race issues in America today, Unitarian Universalist scholar and theologian Thandeka asserts that those of us who think of ourselves as "white"-- that is, those of us of European lineage and ethnicity-- were not "born white". Rather, Dr. Thandeka asserts, we are actually "bred white"-- and that the social process which creates "whites" actually produces persons who must consider this whiteness as the fundamental biological fact of their existence.

The process begins early in our lives, Thandeka believes. Just as the song says: "You've got to be taught to hate," so she maintains that children of European American lineage have to be taught early to that they are "white", and the learning process used here is one often based on rebuke, shame, and guilt. Indeed, she believes, "white shame" is a critical factor at the base of poisoned race relations in America today. Thandeka writes of what happens:

"The process begins with a rebuke. A parent or authority figure reprimands the child because it's not yet white. The language used by the adult is racial, but the content of the message pertains to the child's own feelings and what the child must do with the feelings which the adult doesn't like."

Philosopher Martha Nussbaum, in her book, Cultivating Humanity, tells how she learned to do this:

Nussbaum's reflections begin with a description of an incident that provoked the first racial rebuke she can remember her parents making. "In Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania, in the early 1960s, I encountered black people only as domestic servants. There was a black girl my age named Hattie, daughter of the live-in help of an especially wealthy neighbor. One day, when I was about ten, we had been playing in the street and I asked her to come in for some lemonade. My father, who grew up in Georgia, exploded, telling me that I was never to invite a black person into the house again."

As she grew older, and looked back upon her life, Nussbaum noticed a pattern: At school, the only African Americans she could remember were the kitchen help, and how she and her fellow pupils learned how to "efface them from our minds when we studied." She had learned early on to disengage herself from her environment-- both her physical environment and her social environment-- especially when that environment included black people-- and to retreat within an emotionally "safe" cocoon of (supposed) "whiteness". One is reminded of the words of the main character in Ralph Ellison's The Invisible Man: "I am invisible," he says, "simply because other people refuse to see me."

Dr. Thandeka gives numerous and memorable examples of this "whitening" process:

  • "Sally", for instance, whose parents were strong civil rights supporters who preached racial equality both at home and in the community. Then, one night, she was flabbergasted when her parents prevented her from going out with a high school friend who had come to pick her up. Why? Because he was black. Her "liberal" parents sent him away and forbade her to date him. "What will our neighbors say if they see you on the arm of a black man?" her mother asked. Sally was furious with them, and thought they were hypocrites. But she submitted to their dictates. "What was I going to do? she asked. "Rebel? Not in my household. They would have disowned me."
Sally learned to suppress her feelings, her genuine emotions, her spontaneity and natural affections and inclinations, so that she could become "white"-- and accepted, and loved by her parents, and not persecuted.
  • Then there's "Dan". In college during the late 1950s, Dan joined a fraternity. With his prompting, his chapter pledged one of his friends, a black student. But when the fraternity's national headquarters found out, they threatened to rescind the local chapter's charter unless the black student was expelled. The local chapter caved into this pressure, and chose Dan to tell the black student the news. Dan did it. He knew that so much of his status at college-- his acceptance by the majority-- perhaps his later professional life-- depended upon his accepting the white status quo.
But the wounds-- the built up shame-- that Dan felt by sublimating his own genuine being for the dictates of maintaining "whiteness" went deep. "I felt so ashamed of what I did," he told Thandeka years later. "I have carried this burden for forty years. I will carry it to my grave," and with that he began to weep uncontrollably, even though they were in the middle of a fancy Beacon Hill restaurant.
  • "Sarah": At age 16, Sarah brought her best friend home with her from high school. Her friend was a black girl, about her own age. After the friend left, Sarah's mother told her never to invite her friend home again. "Why?" Sarah asked. "Because she's colored," her mother responded. But that was no answer, Sarah thought to herself. This girl was her friend-- they had laughed and played and even cried together. It was obvious that her friend was colored-- but what kind of reason was that for not inviting her, for not befriending her? So Sarah insisted on her mother telling her the "real" reason-- there had to be a deeper reason, there just had to be. Of course, none was forthcoming, and the indignant look on her mother's face-- an anger and stubbornness carved in stone-- made Sarah realize that if she persisted in questioning, she would jeopardize her mother's affection toward her. The unthinkable would happen if she didn't just "go along with whiteness"-- her own mother, closest person to her in her entire life, wouldn't love her anymore. She severed her friendship with the black girl. But she severed a part of the genuine core of her being as well.

"African Americans have learned to use a racial language to describe themselves and others," Thandeka writes. "Euro-Americans have also learned a pervasive racial language," she continues, "But in their racial lexicon, their own racial language becomes the great unsaid." "White" becomes the great "unvoiced color". In our discussions of race, we talk about African Americans, Hispanic Americans, Latino Americans, Asian Americans, Native Americans-- but never, really, about "Caucasian Americans".

To counter this trend, and to give her white colleagues, acquaintances, and friends some idea of what the racialization of America means to those commonly referred to as "people of color", Dr. Thandeka invented "the Race Game".

"The Race Game" has only one rule, and that is for seven days, the player must use the descriptive word "white" whenever she mentions the name of one of her European American cohorts. She must say, for instance, "my white husband George", or "my white friend Joe", or "my lovely white wife Elizabeth" or "my white son, Noah".

By consciously referring to this almost always unmentioned color, Thandeka thought, European Americans could become aware of what it feels like to take on and maintain a racial identity in America today.

Maintaining this "whiteness", Thandeka believes, costs us all dearly. Of course, there are benefits to whiteness-- "white privilege", it's often called-- and in a racially-based society, one would be blind not to admit that membership in the ascendant race has its privileges. Nearly a century ago, the great black scholar W.E.B. Dubois enumerated these "wages of whiteness":

"public deference and titles of courtesy; access to public functions, public parks, and the best schools; jobs as policemen; the right to sit on juries; voting rights; flattery from newspapers while Negro news was utterly ignored except in crime and ridicule... These privileges also included the right ... to taunt, police, humiliate, mob, rape, lynch, jibe, rob, mutilate, and burn Negroes," DuBois continued, "which became a sporting game [in the South between 1860 and 1880], a sort of permissible Roman holiday for the entertainment of vicious whites..."

But the price exacted for these privileges was also considerable, DuBois pointed out. In the South throughout the 19th Century, there was no organized labor movement to protect the 5 million poor whites who owned no slaves, no land, nothing-- and who were, in effect, at the mercy of the 8000 largest slave owners who, in effect, ruled the South as their private dominion.

"For poorer wage-earners without power, money, or influence, their wage of whiteness functions as a kind of workers' compensation," Thandeka writes. "It is a consolation prize for persons who, although not wealthy, do not have to consider themselves losers because they are, at least white."

The bitter irony, of course, is that neither in the past nor today are low-paid earners held in high esteem by the denizens of society, by the white bosses who exploit their labor. As Dr. King pointed out, "white supremacy" may feed the egos of poor whites, but not their stomachs

Which brings us to the real issue involved here, Thandeka believes-- and that's the issue of class (another largely unspoken concept in the American mindset).

Today's "poor whites", Thandeka says, are the working poor, the "overspent Americans" as she describes us-- be they lower or middle class-- all the white Americans who are living from paycheck to paycheck-- "who live in houses they can't afford, drive cars they don't own, and wear clothes they've bought on credit."

"These workers are, in effect, exploited twice," Thandeka writes, "first as workers and then as 'whites'. Their "race" is used to distract them from their diminishing value as wage earners. Diminished as workers, they feel shame. Inflated as whites, they feel white supremacist pride. This is the double jeopardy of whiteness."

The American story of many of us begins in the 19th Century, when most of our forebears arrived here from Europe. This is when our ancestors learned their first lessons in being white-- a conceit largely unknown back in Europe (at the time, at least). Their teachers were their bosses-- figures of authority and privilege-- and the lesson was painfully simple for the new American working class: all they had to do was forget their native customs, lands, traditions-- all they had to do was sublimate those parts of who they were. What they had to do, in a word, was assimilate.

"Assimilation" sounds like such a positive thing-- the great amalgamating process upon which this nation was founded. But there is a dehumanizing evil at the heart of assimilation, too, Thandeka points out. The process of assimilation was not all sweetness and light; it was oftentimes very brutal indeed. The popular culture of the day was full of examples of assault on the old traditions and ways of the immigrants, assaults that sound flagrantly racist as we hear them now.

In 1859, the American Standard in Jersey City called Irishmen who were working on the Erie Railroad "animals" and "a mongrel mass of ignorance and crime and superstition, utterly unfit for civilized life."

In 1869, Scientific American told the "ruder" laborers of America that they were welcomed to America's shores, but that if they did not "assimilate quickly", they would face a "quiet but sure extermination". Indeed, the writer went on, all too honestly, they must "change their ways or race the same fate as the American Indian."

In the mid-1870s, the Chicago Post Mail characterized its city's Bohemian immigrants as "depraved beasts, harpies, decayed physically and spiritually, mentally and morally, thievish and licentious." At the same time, the Chicago Times complained that the city had become the "cess-pool of Europe under the pretense that it is the asylum of the poor." "Let us whip these slavic wolves back to the European dens from which they issue," the editorial concluded, "or in some way exterminate them."

Compare this language-- directed at whites, remember-- directed at some of our ancestors-- to the most virulent racist language today. The parallels are obvious.

The message to the immigrants was clear: assimilate or else. All off the immigrants' wages conditions, status-- indeed, their very lives perhaps-- depended on their assimilating, depended on giving up the old ethnic ways and becoming, in a word, "White Americans". And that is what most did. But at a great cost to their souls and psyches. As one immigrants quoted years later said, "I have been successful. I have property. My children have superior advantages, But I have lost my life."

Dr. Thandeka calls upon us all-- people of all races and nationalists and genders and lifestyles-- in America today, to look beneath veneer of race, and to grasp our deep humanity and the deeper issues involved in our culture today. These predominant issues, she believes, are not about race, but about class.

Here are the facts about so-called white skin privilege, as Thandeka presents them:

First, 80 percent of the wealth in this country is owned by 20 percent of the population. The top 1% owns 47% of the wealth. (The top three wealthiest people in the world own assets in access of the total gross domestic product of the 48 poorest countries.) The average CEO in America today makes 418 times more than the average worker. (The comparable figure for Germany is 20 times more; for Japan, it's only 8 times more.) These facts describe an American oligarchy that rules not out of race, but out of class. All of us have a lot more in common with people at the bottom of the ladder than with that tiny elite at the top.

We know now that slavery was immoral, and had to be destroyed. Remember, though, that the primary motivation for slavery was not racial-- but economic.

In these days of this new century, the great moral and ethical (indeed, religious) questions we need to be asking as children of Earth at this particular point in history are economic as well-- and only tangentially about race.

Dr. King himself saw this, years ahead of most people of his generation. Prophets are like that: they see things clearly before the rest of us do. In his later months, his work more and more concerned itself with economic issues, with issues of bringing poor blacks and poor whites together in a common endeavor, a common struggle. "We are involved in a class struggle," he wrote in 1968, just weeks before his death. "Our struggle is much more than a struggle for the rights of Negroes," Dr. King wrote. "It is forcing America to face all of its interrelated flaws-- racism, poverty, militarism, and materialism. It is exposing evils that are rooted deeply in the whole structure of our society."

Dr. King died more than 30 years ago. And what progress have we made toward righting this balance? All too little. The era of the worst racial segregation is over, thank God. But the structures of our society are less just, less in balance, less fair and free than ever they have been before. The average wage of a working Americans-- black and white alike-- figured in 1977 dollars-- has fallen every year since 1980. This in the midst of what Greenspan and our other leaders would have us believe is the longest running period of economic growth in Western history?

As ethical, moral-- religious-- people, what can we do? Thandeka offers three suggestions:

  1. First read. "Discover what white Americans have in common with other people of color and work on a new vocabulary of race" that sees us as comrades in a common endeavor.
  2. Second, empathize. "Learn to replace moral judgment with loving compassion." Realize that we have all been crippled by racism, and that we need to find new rituals, new communities, to help to heal one another.
  3. And third, act. Do something to redress the balance and make your community better. Don't just talk about it. Do something!

"We have the power to transform America through such work," Dr. Thandeka writes. "All we need is the moral courage to practice what we preach... about the value, dignity, and worth of us all."

Or, as someone else has aid it:

"When we dream alone, we have only a dream. But when we dare to dream together, we have the beginning of a new reality."

May Dr, King's dream-- and Dr. Thandeka's-- kindle new dreams and new courage in all of us.

 


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