I am white, and a man. That puts me in some storied company, and it also puts me in a category. How should I feel about my story? My company? My category?
It’s true I never owned any slaves or denied anyone a seat on a bus or at a lunch counter, but I live in a nation where much of the capital city was built by slaves, where for centuries men who look just like me bought and sold people as if they had that right. And even after that wrong was undone, Jim Crow laws and – now – quiet institutional racism (in the courts, corporate America, schools – it goes on) keep African-Americans at arms length from the breaks, resources and opportunities whites take for granted. And of course I live in a history-damaged culture that automatically assumes the best about me as it automatically assumes the worst about black and brown people.
Everywhere I go. I don’t get followed around in stores, people don’t cross the street when I’m walking towards them on the sidewalk. I haven’t been pulled over in 30 years. And even if I were to be pulled over, chances are I’d be treated with automatic respect rather than automatic suspicion.
All of which means that even if I don’t promote racism or racist hegemonic policies, I benefit from those in power who do, as do those who keep them in power with their votes. And that means staying silent about this massive inequity built into our system is a kind of silent assent. It is equivalent to the “wink” received by the late student who is the teacher’s pet, while the other late students languish in detention for the same offense.
In today’s parlance, what I am trying to achieve is known as being “woke”. Part of that is being awake to the reality that it is not laziness, or genetic differences (which don’t exist by the way) or even cultural differences that leave African-Americans and other “visible” non-whites behind the starting gate and perennially behind the curve. it is our color-coded institutions themselves, and our willful ignorance of the reality of the lives of minorities, that perpetuates this inequality, this injustice that has spanned centuries.
There are plenty of statistics on this, if you’re into that. But it should not be necessary to see the hard data to know, as an American, that our playing field is far from level. You see it play out every day, in the color of gangsters, the color of kids in detention or juvenile court, the color of kids in failing schools, versus the color of kids in private preschools, suburban Debate Team kids, Senate interns, private college alumni and beer-soaked fraternity brothers. Yet we persist in this fantasy – that “everyone” has the same chances to work hard, get ahead, be successful, what have you. We trot out anomalous examples like Colin Powell (2nd gen Jamaican American) and Barack Obama (2nd gen Kenyan American) as if these men put the lie to the millions of citizens who are struggling to stay alive and make ends meet in a society that cares little about whether they do or not.
In fact, these examples do more to prove the rarity of such achievement than how common it could be “if minorities would only take advantage of all the opportunities this country has to offer”. News flash: those opportunities are rare in the ghetto. Powell and Obama are unicorns, the million-to-one black Americans who never lived in public housing, whose family legacies in this country did not begin with being another man’s property. But they were still black. They made it big despite the mountain of obstacles that still stood in their way. So yes, these are exceptional men. And we could expand these examples to people like Clarence Thomas, Valerie Jarrett, Maxine Waters, Oprah, Beyonce, Tiger, and all the way back to ML King, Malcolm X, James Baldwin, Alice Walker, Langston Hughes, and further back to W.E.B. DuBois, Sojourner Truth, Harriet Tubman, and Frederick Douglas, not to mention the many successful black and minority athletes, entertainers. and business achievers over the centuries.
But the fact that we can name so many of these people from memory demonstrates that they are the exceptions, not the rule. And good for them, for their amazing talents show us also that there is by no means an intellectual, creative or moral “advantage” to being white (as Thomas Jefferson fervently believed). Quite the contrary: it is the narrow thinking and immorality of white America’s past-into-present that has kept their numbers so low. Witness also how many of these well-known and well-regarded black Americans are from our recent past, a time when at least the non-corporate world has opened up more and more opportunities for minorities to demonstrate their chops. It is particularly interesting to note that where black and minority Americans seem to succeed the most – in athletics, in entertainment, in the military, in medicine, in politics and the law – these are fields where your success depends the least on “who you know” and the most on “what you can do.” Yes – sisters are doing if for themselves, and brothers are willing to work it out.
Of course, we can say the same thing about women. How many female Senators were there in 1950? How may female CEOs? How many female Supreme Court justices? Was it because women back then were too “emotionally unstable” to hold such authority? Of course not, it was because the idea of mental weakness was projected onto them by men who were bent on retaining the exclusivity of their governing club. Having lived with women all their lives, having had mothers who raised them, they knew all too well of the vast capabilities of women. They simply pretended such abilities were overshadowed by an “Achilles heel” attributable to their sex. Nothing personal, ladies!
If I ever feel put-upon or unfairly judged for being white, or male, or a white male, I need to remember to suck it up and embrace the pendulum theory and the various philosophies of liberation that instruct my thinking: if I am going to identify as a white man (as I must), I need to humbly acknowledge my cohort’s past behavior (and in too many cases, present behavior). I may not be responsible for it personally, but I am – by virtue of being born and especially by virtue of enjoying the tacit “entrée” of a white man’s world – a legacy member of the club that is responsible. Unless I vociferously condemn the actions of men who have controlled and brutalized whole societies and half the world’s population for centuries (even when women are IN the same society), it would be reasonable to assume I tacitly condone such actions and beliefs. After all, I benefit from them.
But I condemn them now, and will always condemn them. Here is my humble manifesto: I reject the politics of hegemony, and in fact the very idea of hegemony, in what should be celebrated as a diverse, pluralistic society capable of fairness and equality, both under the law and in terms of the preparation of the next generation and legal reparations for those who’ve been oppressed and denied opportunities such as I have had for far too long. As we continue to divide along political lines, I am not on any “side,” because there should be no sides. I am on the side of justice, equality, and fairness.
Perhaps this is akin to what William Blake—a cultural rebel–was thinking when he wrote, “I must create a system, or be enslav’d by another man’s.” I am trying to live these words, to reify this vision, not just say the words to hear myself talk in lofty tones. And I’m not waiting for consensus. These words are true in and of themselves.
So if the pendulum is finally swinging, at least in the cultural imagination if not in the actual halls of power in 2018, the other way–toward condemnation of past practice and the awakening of those who suffered so long under the arbitrary caprices of various white European manipulators and oppressors—then I can draw no other conclusion but that it is a good thing. If as a result we, the reverse doppelgangers of the likes of Donald Trump and Jeff Sessions and Adolf Hitler, need to stand aside and let these people breathe free and speak their minds freely regarding our past performance, that is a good thing too. (I am suddenly reminded of South Africa’s “Truth and Reconciliation” commission. Maybe we need one of those.) If we all celebrate equality and, on the part of the oppressor demographic, practice humility and reconciliation, then perhaps the idea of egalitarianism can eventually take hold among the populace at large and, eventually, work its way all the way up to corporate board rooms and Washington’s halls of Ivy League-branded power. We’ve done something like it before (shout out to MLK and Barack). But in 2018 we have dropped the ball.
Although there are powerful forces arrayed against those who would leave nostalgia for the old white America behind, I think the majority of society will keep pushing that pendulum to the side of equality and universal liberty for the simple reason that we in the privileged class are outnumbered—soon we white folks will be just another minority. And if nothing else will motivate us, perhaps the looming prospect of our chickens coming home to roost will. It’s how the good stories end, after all, with the downfall of the tyrant, brought on by those under his thumb who realize they have the will – and now the numbers. As we become that minority, I hope we will not need the threat of revolution to get all the way past the notion that anyone deserves any special privileges merely by reason of the circumstances of their birth.