The human relations I valued most were held cheap by the world I lived in.
White lesbian Southern novelist and woman of letters Lillian Smith wrote these words (and those that follow in italics) in 1949, the same year my parents were born — one to white Catholic carpenters in Iowa, the other to white Protestant farmers and share croppers in central Louisiana. Growing up in north Louisiana in the 80s and 90s, I would never have imagined that Smith’s words from so long ago would resonate as powerfully today. Written in response to her growing awareness that, in America, to be loved by “white” meant she could not love “black,” they tell a tale of the two-ness of white life in America, its unreconciled bondage to a moral binary of guilt and shame reinforcing the way we saw the world then and continue to see the world, ourselves, and those around us now. If the notion that #blacklivesmatter teaches white Americans anything, it is that our white relationships — those based on denial, silence, privilege, and blood — have not allowed us to see black bodies as fully human, as mattering at all.
I was brought up to reject race and racism, to uphold a sense of civic and social duty and to respect authorities, and to recognize the plight of black Americans as their failure to acquiesce to the way things are (and are “supposed to be”) in America. I was raised to feel guilty when I failed at upholding my duty to god, country, and family, and to shame those who seemingly didn’t fall in line with the social arrangement. I was told as a child that there were “blacks” and there were “niggers.” That the latter existed at all in our minds was not my fault, nor that of my white family, friends, church, or teachers. I grew up not explicitly judging blacks by their skin color, while at the same time celebrating American might, southern pride with rebel flags, and sentimentally ingesting underground country music that told sad tales of “working like a nigger for my room and board” and the tragedies that befall white “nigger fuckers.”
But I was certain I wasn’t racist.
Neither was my father who told me to call bluejays “niggerbirds” because they hog all the bird feed. Neither was my scout leader who told me that black kids can’t swim because “their bodies are different from ours.” Neither was my pastor who didn’t have a word to say from the pulpit as the KKK protested one Sunday on the sidewalk of our church grounds (they weren’t protesting us, mind you, but felt comfortable enough to choose that location). Neither were my friends, who, in high school, upon hearing I was interested in a beautiful black classmate reminded me under hushed breath, “but she’s a nigger.”
Despite these egregious, explicitly racist pastimes, we denied our racism under the cover of a self-evident arrogance attached to our white relationships and bloated sense of worth. The terrible irony, echoed recently by many white responses to Ferguson and protests nationwide, is that we protected ourselves through charges that they were the racists, responsible for their own condition, the ones that can’t help but think in “black”; they were the race-baiters. For we shameless whites, we couldn’t be “racist,” because we thought of racism as a moral failure, and the shameless can never be guilty of such things. We weren’t racist; they were.
But we were guilty of much, guilty of producing and promoting the conditions that make life in America deplorable for so many, and guilty of denying ourselves a sense of humility that might inevitably matter for our humanity.
Something was wrong with the world that tells you that love is good and people are important and then forces you to deny love and to humiliate people.
We were white. I was white — pure, unblemished, above the fray, certain of my worth and ability, never minding the fact that it took me five years to graduate high school, or that my family life looked more like Gil Scott-Heron’s than Ozzie and Harriet’s. But my whiteness served me well enough to gain me entry into a host of increasingly prestigious universities. Through church or family connections (the hard work would come later), I managed to begin studying religion at the university level, loving the topic but growing more and more aware that some thing was off. Had my theology classes been teaching me about god or teaching me that I was god — shameless, above reproach?
I knew, though I would not for years confess it aloud, that in trying to shut the Negro race away from us, we have shut ourselves away from so many good, creative, honest, deeply human things in life. I began to understand slowly at first but more clearly as the years passed, that the warped, distorted frame we have put around every negro child from birth is around every white child also.
Call it an imposter syndrome, or maybe it was the niggerizing treatment towards me by many faculty at my undergraduate and seminary institution who (excepting two) didn’t have time to mentor me and who never appreciated my criticisms of the gods of the society and academy they worshipped; I grew to realize I was studying the right thing but looking at the material from a “frame” that kept me blind to my own humanity by blinding me from the humanity of black people. Criticism involved shaming others for their intellectual or social failures, which resonated as moral failures in the minds of me and my white teachers. To be “wrong” is the highest moral failure for the academic. I slowly began to criticize the critic. If white men had the god complex described by The Last Poets, and if critique is indeed secular, then criticism must begin with criticizing those who acted like gods. How could anyone talk about anything else when towering voices were screaming at us that “there is a problem”? What, exactly, did Kant or Descartes really have to tell me that my white friends and family hadn’t already told me … about myself or about black people? Modern philosophy and theology, if they are anything, are blueprints for how to act like gods and interpretive frames for seeing ourselves as gods, framed by the margins, the marginal, the shameful not-gods, shamed as less than human because of their humanity and a lack of our own.
Each is on a different side of the frame but each is pinioned there.
Americans haven’t ever really been talking (or learning) about anything else other than these racial frames that continue to divide and yet unite us — dividing most whites from their ability to empathize and see the perils of living black in white America, but uniting us in a quest for blood, black blood, that runs faster and colder now at the hands of vigilantes and law enforcement than at the height of lynching. That a black person is killed every 28 hours by law enforcement (or even 1/3 this rate) means that a genocide is occurring that doesn’t merely rival but surpasses the racialized vigilante killings that took place over 100 years ago. Rejoinders about black on black crime are at once a product of a social system that has alienated many from access to vital resources and a rhetorical strategy meant to defend killers by suggesting that there are some worth killing. Those who cannot be shamed by the white lie that they are expendable, that their lives don’t matter, or those whose faces and bodies expose us to the shame we deny, we kill.
White people “exterminate all the brutes,” those who confront us with versions of the violence taught by us or with ideas that expose us to the shamefulness of our way of life. Was not Trayvon Martin murdered for demanding that he no longer be policed, surveilled? Was not his shaming, the postmortem assault on his character, meant to justify his murder? Was Eric Garner not confronted because the image of a man forced to sell individual cigarettes reminds us all of a social system that does not work for all? Was his black body too much for the whites (and some blacks) in the neighborhood to bear? And was not he also killed for saying “No! You will not shame me again for the sake of denying your own”?
Black blood is the shame of white life. Each of us is “pinioned” by this blood, and our white lips are lubricated by these bloody oblations with every utterance and every silence. Does black blood really taste so sweet that we whites refuse to rupture our white relationships, frames of reference, and our fields of vision? We aren’t gods — and no amount of black blood will ever vindicate such a devilish desire to be gods.
And I knew that what cruelly shapes and cripples the personality of one is as cruelly shaping and crippling the personality of the other.
In recent days, on America’s streets, in family holiday gatherings, and in the seemingly innocuous virtual corridors of social media and news threads, many white people have sought to police, surveil, and discipline black bodies, voices, emotions, and rage while vindicating and justifying white life and relationships. These are shaming strategies meant to shield us from ourselves. We’ve responded to a problem of white policing with more policing. Comments like “Not all whites … ,” “I’m just trying to have a conversation,” “we all deserve respect and civility,” “but they broke the law,” “what’s the big deal, he was a thug,” and countless explicitly racist comments are all forms of policing. It is hard to distinguish who is or isn’t a cop; white skin is the only badge that seems to matter. American policing, whether done by law enforcement or online pedestrians, has always involved recasting the shameless as shameful (black), and the shameful as shameless (white). Such is evidenced by NYPD police union president, Pat Lynch — his name a metonym for his actions — who suggested that it was impossible for Officer Daniel Pantaleo to be guilty of anything because he was “literally an Eagle Scout” — duty bound, shameless. Lynch also suggested that Eric Garner deserved to be killed for making “a choice that day to resist arrest.” We killed him because he resisted our projection of shame onto him. In these and countless other instances like the arson of Michael Brown’s family church, we have seen the immense crippling of white humanity in the wake of our dehumanization of blacks. I’ve been humiliated and ashamed that in response to the legal decisions and discussions, my first thoughts have been to exonerate the grand jury members as having their hands tied, the “system” as slow to change, or white commentators as misunderstood and having their hearts in the right place. Psychologist James Gilligan suggests that “people who live by a shame ethic will identify with those of superior social and economic status as a way of enhancing their pride and assuaging their own feelings of shame and inferiority.” Many whites, on both sides of any political divide and including me, have wanted desperately to explain away the tragedies and to understand them as anything other than what they are: our fault, our shame.
I began to see that though we may, as we acquire new knowledge, live through new experiences, examine old memories, gain the strength to tear the frame from us, yet we are stunted and warped and in our lifetime cannot grow straight again any more than can a tree, put in a steel-like twisting frame when young, grow tall and straight when the frame is torn away at maturity.
We whites are manacled by the shame we deny, twisted into such contortions that the idea of “white humanity” might just be an oxymoron. We may not hold lynch ropes or don white robes or blue uniforms, but we vindicate and celebrate those that do still — in the name of justice, social order, the law. The thin blue line is a thick white line knotted into a lynch rope, and our reliance on it will see our humanity hanging from it in the end. Through indifference, silence, and outright hostility toward black people and black suffering, whites have been telegraphing the shameful monster inside of us. Those who have remained silent might be the most monstrous of all.
“But how can a person like me do anything! No matter how wrong you think it is, laws are against you, custom is against you, your own family is against you. How do you begin? I guess,” she said slowly, “if you hated your family, it would be easier to fight for what is right, down here. It would be easier if you didn’t care how much you hurt them.”
Our shame is growing harder to conceal, but it remains protected and denied by many of us. So I’ve begun to shame others and myself. Until now, I’ve been afraid of the consequences. Would I lose my privilege? What would my white friends, family, students, colleagues, supervisors think? Guilt is a personal emotion. White guilt, whatever it may have been, is little more than rhetorical political fodder today, and by my reckoning, it’s clearly not worked to rehabilitate the scars of a disease of white supremacy that cannot be called into remission and is most assuredly terminal. So I’m suggesting a new tack, a new tactic.
Our duty must involve recognizing our shame and naming it, calling it out in every instance of its expression in our relationships with white friends and family. Shame is outward, shame is public, an act, shame is by many tokens, mean. I am ashamed of you, white America, my America — and all of us unwilling to recognize that we kill because we aren’t fully human, we’ve never allowed ourselves that possibility. We have “held cheap” our relationships with black people because they demonstrate to us that our white lives, words, world, and relationships are bonded only by black blood.
We had made the circle and were beginning that old treadmill route that the tortured southern liberal knows so well. We were tired, it was late. I told her we would talk again another time. I told her there were ways out of the trap, things were changing a little, and people could change anything, even segregation, if they really wanted to … If they really wanted to …
Already in my life, I have lost dear friends and the respect of family in my effort to break free from my white frame. And the loss of these relationships has hurt me deeply. But my shame runs deeper still. I see now — maybe for the first time, really — that there is nothing to be lost. To the extent I am white, and my whiteness casts forth on the world and shapes the relationships I value, I have nothing to lose because I have nothing of white relationships to offer or protect. I am ashamed of my whiteness and of us as white Americans. And I will no longer shamefully put white relationships that don’t matter ahead of black lives that do.