Becoming a White Ally of People of Color (April 1, 2012 )

posted Jul 4, 2011, 12:06 PM by Neal Jones   [ updated Apr 5, 2012, 8:11 PM ]

          This Wednesday will be the 44th anniversary of the murder of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  For anyone who thinks that racism is a thing of the past, as something that ended with the Civil Rights Movement, you only have to mention another more recent murder, that of Trayvon Martin, whose only apparent crime was committing a WWB -- walking while black.  While we don't know all the details of this tragedy -- we'll never know Trayvon's side of the story -- this much we do know:  an unarmed, skinny, 17-year-old high school student was followed and shot dead while wearing a hoodie and walking home from a nearby 7-11 convenience store carrying a bottle of Arizona iced tea and a bag of Skittles for his younger stepbrother.  We know from tapes of a 911 call that his assailant, George Zimmerman, an overzealous, self-appointed neighborhood watch captain, initiated their encounter because he said the young man looked "like he is up to no good," despite the fact that he was told by the 911 responder not to follow him. 

          We know that Zimmerman was legally armed, having applied for and received a permit to carry a concealed weapon, despite the fact that he had previously been charged for resisting arrest with violence and battery on a police officer.  We know that despite the fact that a murder was committed, Zimmerman has not been arrested because of Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law, which has been described as the “shoot first, ask questions later” law, and gives the benefit of the doubt to Zimmerman and others claiming “self-defense” by allowing people who say they are in imminent danger to defend themselves.  Some states limit this defense to people’s own homes, but others, like Florida and South Carolina, allow it anywhere.  By the way, these so-called "Stand Your Ground" laws have been passed by state legislatures around the country with the help of the corporate-funded special-interest group of which I spoke a couple of Sundays ago -- ALEC, the American Legislative Exchange Council.

Zimmerman is Hispanic, but it does not matter that he is himself a member of a minority group or that he has black friends.  The issue is not Zimmerman's ethnicity.  The issue is that we still live in a culture in which being a black male implies being "up to no good."  The spiritual challenge of white Americans is to change the culture, while recognizing that we are also part of the culture.  Changing our culture begins with changing ourselves, or to quote Gandhi, to "be the change you want to see in the world."  To become a white ally of people of color is to become self-aware, willing to submit ourselves to honest, maybe even uncomfortable self-examination.  This may be particularly difficult for us religious liberals because many of us assume that we've got it all together when it comes to race.  (By the way, let me apologize again, as I did in an earlier sermon in this monthly series on race, to people of color because I will be speaking today almost exclusively to the white people present, and I will be doing so because too often in discussions about race, we white people instruct black people about what we think they should be doing or not doing.  It’s past time for white people to discuss with each other what we should be doing or not doing.)

          To be self-aware means that we recognize that our attitudes toward race, as well as toward class, gender, and sexual orientation, operate on two levels --  deliberately chosen beliefs and unconscious, automatic attitudes we don't even think about.  Even among religious liberals, our unconscious attitudes about race, class, gender, and sexual orientation are often incompatible with our consciously chosen values.  How could they not be?  We are like fish swimming in a biased ocean we did not choose.  In fact, we usually aren't even aware of the water.  We just go about our daily lives, while the water in which we are immersed influences us in ways we do not notice.  In the ocean of the United States, the water is tainted by classism, patriarchy, homophobia, and racism.

          Racism is always present in our culture.  While clearly not all white people are privileged economically, all of us are privileged as whites in not having to see or deal with racism all the time.  We have to learn to see it and its effects.  We have to learn to notice who is present and who isn't, who speaks and who doesn't, what is said and what is not said, and how things are done and described.  We have to learn our history, all our history.  Someone has said that "history" is "his story" -- the story that is told by the dominant culture that writes the books and makes the movies and television shows and advertisements.  We have to learn to listen to the untold stories that get ignored and distorted because they don't conform to the image we have of ourselves in the dominant culture.  We have to learn to look past particular events at the larger picture, to look for patterns of thought and action rather than treating events as isolated incidents.  In other words, we have to learn to think systemically and not individualistically, which is hard to do in this most individualistic culture of ours. 

          So just talking about race is a good starting place, but even this can be difficult if you are white because, as a part of the dominant culture, we learn to deny and minimize the reality of racism:  "Discrimination is a thing of the past."  "It's a level playing field now."  "This is a land of equal opportunity."  "Everyone can make it in America, whatever their color, if they just work hard."  Or we claim that racism is accidental and unintentional:  "Sometimes discrimination may happen, but most people are well intentioned."  "She probably didn't mean it like that."  "It was only a joke."  Or we attempt to redefine the racism as a mutual problem:  "Anybody can be prejudiced."  "People of color attack white people, too."  "Some Africans were involved in the slave trade."  Or we attribute racism to a few "bad apples," overlooking its systemic and institutionalized forms:  "Only a few bigots do that sort of thing."  Or we blame the victim:  "Look at the way they act."  "He was asking for it."  "If they weren't so angry or immoral or lazy or dumb … or whatever."  Or we turn the tables and claim that we are the victims of racism, a favorite ploy of Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh, Ann Coulter, and the other bullhorns of the Right Wing:  "They're taking away our jobs."  "They want special status."  "They have more rights than we do."  Political correctness is destroying our freedom of speech."  "White culture is under attack."  "I have it just as bad as anybody."  "We have rights, too."  Glenn Beck has asserted that President Obama is a racist, and one of Ron Paul's newsletters refers to Martin Luther King Day as "Hate Whitey Day."  Claiming to be victimized is not the same as being victimized.  When we learn the history of all peoples and we look at the big picture, it becomes clear who did what to whom and who has the power.

          I think it's difficult for many of us white people to become conscious of racism because of ego.  This is a spiritual problem of people of any color.  All of us suffer from the human tendency to over-identify with our egos.  We tend to derive our identity and our self-worth from our thoughts, our opinions, our emotions, our histories, our appearance, our possessions, our status, the roles we play, those larger groups we belong to -- our nation, our religion, our socioeconomic class, our political party and ideology … our race.  Whether we are conscious of it or not, the fact is that we white people derive much of our identity, community, and self-worth from being white.  So when people talk about race, we become self-conscious of being white.  We typically don't talk about being white, much less are even conscious of being white.  People of color are very much aware of their skin color all the time.  They have to be in order to survive.  Part of the privilege of being white is that we don't have to be.  Notice how easy it is to mention the color of people of color:  "That black woman who stopped by during our potluck … that African American choir that sang at our service … that Hispanic woman who sat on the back row … that Middle Eastern looking guy who helps with the Coffeehouse."  But notice how uncomfortable it feels to point out someone's whiteness:  "This white woman pulled out in front of me."  "A white man came and worked on my computer."  "A white girl washed my car last Sunday."  "Some white man brought by a box of books for the yard sale."  In our culture, we take whiteness for granted.

          When people talk about racism, many of us white people feel guilty and become defensive.  "I'm not a racist."  "Some of my best friends are black."  "I listen to Motown all the time."  We make it personal because of ego.  Racism is not about any particular person; it's about the attitudes and actions, the policies and patterns which privilege one group of people at the expense of another group of people.  The spiritual challenge of people of all colors is to realize that we are larger than our egos and to get past our egos to become the whole persons we are meant to be. 

          So it starts with self-awareness.  To become self-aware as white people means to become aware of the language of the dominant culture, of the words we use because, as George Lakoff has been reminding us, language defines our reality.  Our words determine how we see and think about things, which emotions and values get triggered, and what actions we take.  I said that we don’t normally talk about race, but we actually do talk about race all the time.  We talk about it in code.  We use code words like "inner city," "underclass," "welfare," "dependency," and "politically correct."  These color-coded words allow us to talk about race without having to admit doing so.  Our coded language allows us not to be accountable for what we are really saying. 

          There is an unspoken white understanding of the true meaning of these codes.  To become a white ally of people of color, we need to de-code these words and demystify their intentions.  Take the word "underclass."  It stands for African Americans who are poor and who are in a separate category from other poor people, a class by themselves which is underneath the rest of us, maybe even subhuman.  It connotes helplessness and hopelessness, and it implies that this group lives by values which are different from ours and is therefore immune to efforts to change their circumstances.  So why bother to help?  Why bother to pay taxes to fund the social safety net and pass legislation to promote equal opportunity?

          Take the word "welfare," which has become code for "public assistance for lazy black people."  Ronald Reagan popularized the term "welfare queen" in his successful campaign for the White House.  It conjures up the image of a lazy African American woman who can work but chooses not to.  Instead, she chooses to keep having children, raking in the welfare checks, which she uses to buy malt liquor and a pink Cadillac.  Here is what Reagan actually said:

          There's a woman in Chicago.  She has 80 names, 30 addresses, 12 Social Security cards. ...  She's got Medicaid, getting food stamps, and she is collecting welfare under each of her names.  Her tax-free cash income alone is over $150,000.

There's one problem with Reagan's story -- it's totally fabricated.  Investigating reporters proved that it wasn't true, but when has the truth ever mattered in politics?  People heard it and repeated it as true.  As Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels put it, "If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it."  Reagan never said the woman was black.  He didn't have to.  Racial fear, prejudice, and ignorance made many white people eager to believe it. 

          Pandering to racial fear, prejudice, and ignorance is still a popular strategy in Presidential politics.  Newt Gingrich has labeled our first African American President the "Food Stamp President," and he said that if he were invited to speak at the NAACP, he would urge the African-American community to “demand paychecks and not be satisfied with food stamps.”  Rick "Sanctimonious" Santorum said on the campaign trail, "I don’t want to make Black people’s lives better by giving them somebody else’s money. I want to give them the opportunity to go out and earn the money.” 

          In South Carolina, race-baiting and politics go hand in hand.  This has always been the case, from Ben "Pitchfork" Tillman and Storm Thurmond's Dixiecrats to our present day.  After defeating the favored George W. Bush in the New Hampshire primary, John McCain came down South, where his upstart campaign was sunk in South Carolina by a whispering campaign insinuating that he had fathered a black child out of wedlock.  The fact is that Sen. McCain and his wife had adopted a dark-skinned daughter from Bangladesh.  McCain later said of the incident:

          There were some pretty vile and hurtful things said during the South Carolina primary.  It's a really nasty side of politics.  We tried to ignore it and I think we shielded our  daughter from it.  It's just unfortunate that that sort of thing still exists.  Thousands and   thousands of calls were made from people to voters saying, 'You know, the McCains have a black baby.'  I believe that there is a special place in hell for people like that.

I may not believe in hell, but I have to agree with Sen. McCain. 

          During the most recent Governor's race here in South Carolina, Lt. Gov. Andre Bauer compared people who received public assistance to "stray animals," saying, "If you keep feeding them, they'll keep reproducing."  He didn't say these people were black.  He didn't have to. In South Carolina we know the meaning of coded language.

          The insinuation is that African Americans and welfare recipients are one and the same, which flies in the face of the facts: public assistance is determined by income level, not skin color, and the majority of welfare recipients are white, and the typical welfare recipient is a white mother with two children who receives public assistance for two years, and welfare accounts for less than one percent of the federal budget.  The fact is that it is insane to believe that anyone, black or white, could get rich off welfare.  Welfare payments do not provide more than poverty-level support.  The fact is that the term "welfare" is arcane. President Clinton and a Republican-controlled congress ended welfare in 1996.  Its successor is called TANF, or Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, and TANF is not an unconditional entitlement.  It comes with time-limits and work requirements, and recipients have to go through a bureaucratic gauntlet to verify their eligibility.  But the facts don't matter for some people.  When the brain is overtaken by fear, prejudice, or ignorance, facts go by the wayside. 

          Take the coded term "inner city."  This is where the underclass and the welfare queens congregate.  The inner city exists more in prejudiced minds than in actual cities.  The fact is that most large metropolitan cities are highly diverse economically and racially.  In fact, the current demographic trend is the movement of upper-income whites to gentrified houses and condos in the city, while middle class African Americans are moving to the suburbs.  The fact is that poor people and welfare recipients live throughout our country, not just in urban areas, and there are large communities of white people, such as in Appalachia, who have long histories of persistent poverty that rival any city.

          The most insidious coded phrase of our time is the term "politically correct."  It's a phrase that's used as a way to divert attention from racism, classism, patriarchy, and homophobia by counterattacking the people who are challenging these sins.  People who whine about "political correctness" claim to be concerned about freedom of speech.  What they are really concerned about is shutting down any discussion about disrespectful and abusive speech, usually their own. 

          If we want to be white allies of people of color, we can begin by calling out coded language for what it is -- it's an attempt to use racial slurs without appearing to do so.  We need to do the same thing when we hear racist, misogynistic, or homophobic jokes.  Such barbs may be delivered as jokes and asides, but the effect on our culture is no laughing matter.  They reinforce the ugly stereotypes that give rise to harassment, discrimination, and violence.  Interrupting such comments is not easy.  Doing so risks turning the attack toward you.  You may be accused of being a race traitor, a femi-nazi, a liberal, or one of "those people."  You may be ridiculed for being too serious or too sensitive or for being "politically correct." 

          I grew up hearing racist, misogynistic, and homophobic jokes, and I'm ashamed of the times I have stood in silence, not inwardly concurring with the smear, but not willing to speak out against it, either.  In recent years, I have realized that my silence gives tacit approval and collusion.  If you are in the presence of abuse, there are no innocent bystanders; there is no neutral stance.  I suppose that's why I feel compelled not to remain silent in regard to the continuing anti-gay slurs of State Democratic Party Chair Dick Harpootlian.  During the 2002 Senatorial campaign, Mr. Harpootlian characterized Lindsey Graham as being "a little light in the loafers."  This is code, of course, for being gay.  The latest target of Mr. Harpootlian's homophobic insults is Lt. Gov. Glenn McConnell, a Confederate reenactor, whom Harpootlian describes as "prancing into Civil War reenactments every weekend."  He has also said that McConnell has a Confederate costume which "has hoops."  It would be a stretch to attribute such statements to mere gaffes.  They are deliberately chosen words meant to demean not only an individual but an entire group of persons, and they are delivered for political effect.  Apparently, neither party has a monopoly on pandering to fear, prejudice, and ignorance in order to win votes.

          Some of my Democratic friends have warned me that calling out the State Party Chair for his homophobic slurs could be detrimental to any future political aspirations.  I have had to remind them that I am not first and foremost a politician.  I am first and foremost and always a minister, and I feel the same way as another minister, the Rev. Martin Luther King: 

          On some positions, cowardice asks the question, 'Is it safe?'  Expediency asks the question, 'Is it politic?'  And vanity asks the question, 'Is it popular?'  But conscience asks the question, 'Is it right?'  There comes a time when one must take a position that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular, but one must do it because conscience tells him it is right.

          The bottom-line is that being anti-racist, anti-classist, anti-patriarchal, and anti-homophobic is not a matter of political correctness; it's a matter of conscience.  It's doing what's right.

                                                                                                                                                         Rev. Dr. Neal Jones