To My Confused White Friends
Primer For White Folks was conceived, not as a book for the expert in race relations, but rather for the average American who is disturbed by the rising racial tension which he feels around him and by the paradox of white and Negro relationships in a democracy waging a war of liberation and equality…
To do this it is necessary to shatter some of white America’s most popular ideas about the Negro… Through the written word, the stage, and the radio we have so often seen the Negro presented as a stereotype that when he forsakes his role we no longer recognize him. He has ceased to be the Negro; he has become something else – a hoodlum, a communist, or an agitator – not only a danger to the white world but, in our minds, to his own as well…
The Emancipation Proclamation and the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments to the Constitution, which were intended as a bill of rights for the Negro, have for some time been meaningless in the South and often in parts of the North as well…
From the Preface to Primer For White Folks, compiled and edited by Bucklin Moon (1945)
The rest of the book is a collection of short stories and essays from black writers – some with familiar names, many not. It’s not about accusation, but communication. It says, in effect, “Here’s are snapshots of who some of us are – anything look familiar? Also, though… notice some things which probably aren’t.”
I’d not presume to carry such weight or proffer such talent. I’m not an expert in anything, and will spare you the now-clichéd pedigree in ‘black credibility from the white guy’ (which I don’t actually have, so that part will be easy.)
What I do have is 48 years as a well-intentioned straight white guy who’s gradually come to realize how clueless I’ve been about a number of things. A former conservative who still gets defensive at portrayals of my more faithful brethren as fascists and hate-mongers, I’m presumptuous enough to offer a brief list of tips for bewildered white folks who are liberal enough to wish cops would quit killing so many black citizens for a while, but who still aren’t clear on what the more outspoken representatives of that community want from THEM – the ones NOT killing ANYONE and just trying to get through their normal little white lives.
It is with uncharacteristic humility and speaking only from my own, limited perceptions that I offer this still rather amazing list of Wisdom for Confused White People circa 2015. Feel free to offer your additions, edits, or constructive criticisms below.
One – Speaking of #WhitePrivilege… I understand some natural defensiveness when told you’ve had it easier than others because of your gender, race, or whatever. Sometimes those expressing this point of view aren’t overly gracious about it, being on the other side of that equation and all.
But please understand it’s not primarily a criticism of YOU. It’s not a negation of your hard work, your good choices, your struggles, your recoveries, or your hurts. I know it FEELS that way, and sometimes it’s even SAID that way, but that’s NOT the underlying point.
It’s about others having weights on their ankles and artificial limits in place based on factors beyond their control, and which have no rational basis. It’s great that the guy born without arms, legs, or eyes can hunt antelope from a jet ski or whatever, but there are natural reasons not to blame him if he can’t – or even if he doesn’t bother to try. No arms, you know.
But the ever-denied but omnipresent obstacles strewn about like landmines for people of color (or others) make everything harder, and make some things all but impossible. The rules are different, the success rates thus unpredictable, and the blame and shame for disparate results constantly piled on by those not playing under similar conditions.
The fact that some succeed doesn’t suddenly prove the setup is fair. The fact that some have quit playing this particular game doesn’t establish some sort of genetic predisposition. Life is complicated.
Two – Most People of Color aren’t looking for your sympathy or your approval. Our culture is so steeped in po’ babies and warm fuzzies and never hurting anyone’s lil’ feelings ever that we’ve come to see too many difficult relationships in terms of who should pat who on the head and say ‘good job’.
Just because someone is trying to explain their experience or their point of view doesn’t mean they’re supplicating. Consider that perhaps they’re fighting for your soul rather than your patronage – for clarity more than charity.
And if from time to time you notice a certain ‘maintained distance’ or disinterest towards whatever warm fuzzies you throw out from time to time, it’s probably not personal (I mean, it might be I guess – are you an *sshole?) Social norms are learned and modified based on experience, both in person and online. They may simply have better things to do than validate your efforts to salve your conscience.
Three – Try to step back from the emotion, the cognitive dissonance you’ve probably experienced over events in the past six months, and even from your own assumptions about yourself. Pretend for a moment that you’re alone with your thoughts, and that whatever you think or feel in the next few minutes is not designed for social media consumption, interpersonal bonding, or heated debate – that it’s just you thinking through you.
If you’re angry, why? No, really? What makes you angry about recent comments, events, interpretations, etc.? There’s no right or wrong answer here – you don’t have to tell me or anyone else. If you feel a bit defensive, or defiant, or sad, or guilty, or even if you’ve been trying not to think about ANY of these seemingly distant riots and uprisings and whatever, ask yourself why. Just for a few minutes.
Let your mind sift a bit. No one will know.
We have an amazing capacity as humans to see what we wish to see and feel what we wish to feel. Our perceptions and our memories are horribly fragile and untrustworthy things, and our ability to distort and ignore essential to survival. No wonder, then, these same traits sometimes make it difficult for us to see clearly.
Add to this the complications of life, and such a complex world, and none of us have absolute perspective. I’m not suggesting there’s no ‘truth’ out there, or that all interpretations are equally valid, merely that it’s normal to lack perfect vision.
It’s also not unprecedented for you to have a handful of preconceptions or biases about people or groups. Few of us are truly all-accepting and love with divine equity, whatever our goals. Most, I hope, are troubled by overt racism and hatred, but what about those frustrating or ugly thoughts or feelings about the ‘other’ you have in some situations, or in with some types? Even if you don't mean to? Be honest with yourself.
Own it, baby.
Because if we’re going to have these arguments, retweet those tweets, feel these feels, or in any way process the history unfolding around us, we should at least be as honest as possible with ourselves while we do it. Let’s make sure whatever we’re seeing, hearing, thinking, and feeling is as real as we can require of ourselves – and that we’ve weighed and measured before we react with such conviction and such passion.
Oh, the conclusion of that Preface I mentioned…
It is obvious that out of this war must come a new status for the Negro or what we are fighting for is a mockery. Is there really a Negro problem, or is it… actually a white problem? For eighty years we have tried to figure out why the Negro is a problem, yet after all our surveys, books, and research, there are no scientific findings to prove that he is one. Segregation is a costly experiment. We know what it has cost the Negro; it is time to figure out what it has cost us and how much longer we can afford the luxury.