One white step closer to the fire

Martin McClellan

October 12, 2015

Having a conversation with white people about race — specifically, about black people in America, inspired, say, by the shooting of Michael Brown or Ta-Nehisi Coates' essay on reparations — is easy until you get to one of those words. Privilege, say, or supremacy, or institutional, or, god forbid, reparations. Those words are hard because white people hear them differently than minorities. White people hear "privilege" and think "this person wants me to give up power." Black people hear "privilege" and think "this person is describing the world as it is." The gulf between these thoughts is large. It will take white people listening to black people, and believing them when they tell us of their experiences, for that gulf to be closed.

Because no white person with any modicum of compassion wants to believe the stories. We'd prefer to hear the racist narrative that whatever happens to them is systemic of their own faults. It's easy to believe that. Comforting, perhaps. But when video (Tamir Rice) after video (Eric Garner) after video (Walter Scott) after story (Sandra Bland) appear showing the same pattern repeating itself, even the most cynical white person has to stop and listen. When the most mild-mannered and friendly of black friends (and, as we keep saying over and over, "I have black friends") drop their guard and tell you honestly about their experiences in the world, full of intentional and unintentional micro-aggressions they have no choice but to ascribe to their blackness, we have to listen. And when black friends tell us their stories, and white friends start chipping away at them as if they were Sherlock Holmes uncovering some great conspiracy, it's up to us to say "Wait."

Because black people in America have been telling the same story day in and day out for hundreds of years, and as to yet, we have steadfastly refused to listen. We are not saviors of any race, but the sad truth is that these friends are more likely to listen to your white skin when you say "I think you have that wrong" than they are to black skin saying the exact same words.

If you would like a place to start listening, you will find a clear, frustrated, angry, and compassionate voice in The Truth about White People by Lola E. Peters. Originally published as a series of essays on Facebook, and then collected into a thin volume that will take no more than an afternoon to read, Peters personalizes the stories of her life.

She was a precocious, brilliant girl who tested off-the-charts in elementary school during the 50s, but of course, that did her no good since her skin was the wrong color and her brilliance was sidelined instead of celebrated. She was a career-minded professional in technology at The Bon-Marché, then Macy's, finding herself up against personnel issues that white people not only didn't face, but didn't believe. A person who fully engaged, working on diversity committees, even when she knew the cards were stacked against them actually changing anything.

She catalogs the times she ran into incompetent, and sometimes aggressive, co-workers who treated her differently because of their own overt racism. She catalogs her patient escalation of issues up the chain of command, only to find again and again that little or no action would be taken until the co-workers aggressions crossed a white person.

Such as the time her new (white) bosses' (white) assistant neglected to take care of some simple jobs she'd been tasked with that would assist Peters. When Peters asked her out to lunch later, to build bridges, she was told point-blank: "I will never do what you want. I don't work for you, and I don't care about you. I work for the same boss you do. You need something done, you'll have to do it yourself." Of course, the secretary denied saying those things when it mattered, and was not censured for her unwillingness to do her job until she later crossed two white people at the company years later, and was fired.

Peters even offers a method by determining inherited privilege in your family line in a clever way, in Chapter 6, titled "Slavery Was a Long Time Ago." She asks you to chart your family tree, and then look through to find changes that required resources, and identify what resources they needed. Then:

Review the resources you identified. Were they available to everybody, or where there people who were excluded by law, practice or custom? For example, if your great-grandmother started her own business, using funds borrowed from a bank or from other family members, was this possible for everyone? If not, who was excluded? If you don't know, take the time to research and find out.

She included the work she did on her own family as a starting point.

Peters talks about injustices, such as Raymond Wilford, a young black man who was pepper-sprayed in Westlake Plaza by a white security guard, even though he was simply walking past an unhinged white man who was causing a disturbance.

"You have the wrong man! You have the wrong man!" all of these white people yelled, as the guard ignored them, and took Wilford into custody, assuredly doubling-down on his mistake rather than admitting fault.

Then later, at Westlake Plaza also, the reaction of white liberal Seattle when two black protesters took the stage at a Bernie Sanders rally. She talks about how shocked her black friends were when they learned just how closely this form of default bigoted racism lays under our supposedly liberal white skin.

Peters also talks about two important things: how white people who side with people of color are socially tainted by that association, and afterward treated as people of color, and how white people of lower social origin — e.g., Irish immigrants — were considered to be not-white (and, in fact, called similar slurs as black people) until they were able to assimilate after a generation or two because of the color of their skin.

These things are important because it is a way of dismissing critique from other white people. Earlier, I said some friends would listen to your white skin saying the same thing someone with black skin might say. But the truth is, your friend is more likely to dismiss you, thinking that you are now on their side. These thoughts are so embedded in our reactions that they need to be routed out, like ticks that will infect you with disease.

So here's my challenge to you, fellow white person. Pledge yourself to listening, and not talking about race, for one year. This goes for you if you are super liberal and a friend to all races, and to you who are quite sure other races are inferior (although, you'd never say so publicly, because you're scared of the "politically correct" mob coming and taking away your right-to-have-an-opinion card). Just shut up for one year, and listen. How could that possible harm you? Read this very personal book by Lola E. Peters. I couldn't put it down once I started. Read Ta-Nehisi Coates' book Between the World and Me. Follow some of the more vocal stars of black activist Twitter. Do that, and don't respond. Don't write essays, don't tweet back, just don't reply at at all. Think whatever thought you want to, but just read and listen. If someone mentions black people to you, all you have to do is say "I'm just listening this year" and refuse to say more.

That's what I pledged to do after Michael Brown was shot. I stopped talking and started listening. I was dumbstruck, so that helped. And I followed the people I linked above, which does not make them representative of anything else than I feel like I learned from them. I listened, and didn't really talk about race for a year, besides trying to understand. And how to best describe the effect? Well, let's go to one of the patron saints of white people, John Prine. He put it so well.

Say you drive a Chevy
Say you drive a Ford
Say you drive around this town 'till you just get bored

Then you change your mind
For something else to do
And your heart gets tired of your mind
and it changes you

I think it's only appropriate, however, that Peters has the last word:

We actually don't need white people to speak on our behalf. We are capable of doing it ourselves. Again, they just need to get out of the way. If you want to know what we think, ask us. Since, like white people, we come in variety packs, be sure to get more than one opinion. But get it from us, not someone who "grew up with black people," or "has lots of black friends," or worse yet "has a black friend who says…." Don't even presume that someone married to a person of color has the right to speak for that person's experience.

And then elsewhere in the book:

A few [white people] will surprise me and show extraordinary courage of conviction, teaching me, and themselves, about the depth of their character. However, while the brothers, cousins, nephews, sons, fathers, uncles, and other men of my community die, most white liberals will wring their hands, tsk-tsk a few times, and wonder why nobody does anything to stop the murder of innocent boys and men. You, dear liberal friends, are the ones who can do something. But will you step into the fire? How much are you willing to scorch?
Books in this review:
  • The Truth About White People
    by Lola E Peters
    Lola E. Peters
    September 18, 2015
    70 pages
    Provided by publisher
    Buy on Amazon

About the writer

Martin is a co-founder of The Seattle Review of Books. He's a novelist (his first, California Four O'Clock, was published in 2015 by a successful Kickstarter campaign). He designs websites, apps, and other things for a living.

Follow Martin McClellan on Twitter: @hellbox

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