By Mel Harkrader Pine
Over coffee with a white friend born in rural North Carolina, she asked me about the racism I (also white) find within me. She was surprised to hear that, after much soul-searching, I really don’t believe I have a core of white supremacy. And that exchange is emblematic of what’s wrong with the current anti-racism and Black Lives Matter movements.
They paint an entire group of people (those we call “white”) with a broad monochromatic brush — no room for variation.
I do believe we all have prejudices and biases and will never be colorblind, at least until we’re all the color of light coffee. But the anti-racists and I agree on at least one thing: There’s a big difference between prejudice and racism/white supremacy. The latter involve actual oppression of, or a desire to oppress, the “other.”
Biases are natural. We’re wired to detect the “otherness” of a being we encounter. When I sense that in myself, as for example when I meet someone in a wheelchair, I work to overcome it. I step forward rather than back.
My college-age years occurred in the 1960’s in the heart of Philadelphia inner city. So I dealt with my discomfort around black people long ago.
Am I still aware of what we call race? You bet!
Do I act differently around people who are what we call black? I hope not, but I stay awake to the possibility.
Do I think I’m superior or do I benefit from my relative staus? Absolutely not!
Oppression harms all of us.
While acknowledging that growing up in the South was different from growing up in the North, my friend shook her head grimly at the racism she was certain existed, in another form, where I came from. I’m sure there was racism in some parts of Philadelphia, and in some other parts of the North. And, yes, I witnessed prejudice and stereotyping. But, in my immigrant family and my row-house neighborhood, I saw no racism.
Every white person is not the same, nor is every white neighborhood. And regional differences can be huge. We all know how white supremacists used lynchings in much of the South to terrorize black communities. In Devil in the Grove: Thurgood Marshall, the Groveland Boys, and the Dawn of a New America, author Gilbert King paints a vivid and painful picture of how that worked less than a century ago in Northern Florida.
But racial terrorism wasn’t the only force behind lynchings. The Charles Chestnut Digital Archive gives a breakdown of the 4,743 lynchings in the Unites States by state and by race (black or white). The statistics come from the Archives at Tuskegee Institute.
The highest total was in Mississippi, where 539 blacks and 42 whites were lynched. For Georgia, it was 492 blacks and 39 whites. In North Carolina, where my friend came from, it was 86 blacks and 15 whites.
In Arizona, on the other hand, no blacks but 31 whites died of lynchings. Montana experienced two lynchings of blacks and 82 of whites. I guess the Western string-’em-up movies were based on real life. New York State had just two lynchings, one for each skin color. In Pennsylvania, my state, two whites and six blacks were lynched.
Those statistics are not, I’m sure, a precise measure of degrees of racism, and lynchings were just one device to enforce Jim Crow’s dominance. But they do show variations from state to state.
The Unitarian Universalist doctrine says we all swim in the sea of white supremacy. I’ll admit to being in a sea of various forms of bias, but not terribly deep.
Copyright 2017 © Mel Harkrader Pine
A Facebook reader expressed surprise that the UUA has said we swim in a sea of white supremacy and asked me where that reference is. This is my reply there and I thought I’d post it here as well:
The 4/8/17 Open Letter from the UUA Moderator below is, I believe, the first time the image was used “officially” from the UUA. Here. Moderator Jim Key, who has since died, says the culture of white supremacy is the “water we swim in.” The image has been used since, but I think this is the source. It came after one or two board member objected to using “culture of white supremacy” as applying to the UUA and the board authorized Key to use it with an explanation. The “swimming” language was his way of explaining it.
Another of your Facebook readers, an ordained UU Minister, said:
“I find your analysis defensive rather than insightful or encouraging, and your statements about being “colorblind” and a homogenous “color of light coffee” incredibly offensive. As UUs we are covenantal, not doctrinal or creedal; perhaps your reference to UU doctrine is an attempt at humor, or sarcasm, or irony — I’m not sure. However,I am sure that being in covenant with other UUs calls me into a deeper way of understanding that must include (for me, as a white person) the practice of listening and reflecting without defending why I’m the one white person who is different, and not a part of ubiquitous systems of white supremacy.”
There’s a lot to unpack in that but two things really irritate me in the final sentence of her statement. One is the demand for “The practices of listening and reflecting without defending ” Listening and reflecting is necessary to a point; so is dialogue. To tell any group they may not speak or share their thoughts is oppression. People who listen at some point deserve to speak. Some erroneous thoughts should be offended against. Some can only be corrected by dialogue. Those of you calling for all culturally white people to “just listen,” kindly stop telling them to shut up for two reasons: It’s only respectful of your audience, many of whom have been listening intently, and it is your opportunity to educate.
The second thing that irritates me is the phrase “I’m the one white person who’s different, and not part of ubiquitous systems of white supremacy.” Let’s set aside that this not a claim you made. She misses the first and second principle entirely here–“the inherent worth and dignity of every person” and “justice, equity and compassion in human relationships” require us to see every person as different. Systems of white supremacy may be ubiquitous but the degree of any person’s perpetration is a matter of individual free agency just as the degree of any person’s victimhood is a matter of individual circumstance. Nuances are important, and not contending with them is just another form of bigotry.
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I meant to write “some erroneous thoughts should be defended against.”
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I try to avoid detailed defenses on FB, so I replied briefly. If I had realized that she’s a minister, I might have been even more brief. (That is, a minister spouting the Doctrine According to BLUU.) But the interesting thing to me was her assuming that I’m not listening when I cited a book that’s a deep dive into some of the worst sorts of post-slavery oppression. That book taught me a lot about what Jim Crow really meant.
White supremacy is affirmed by those white people who believe they are superior.
White privilege is granted by all who assume that a white person on the street
is better than a person-of-color on the street.
Unitarian Universalism is not based in white supremacy.
We do not march around with torches chanting that we will not be replaced.
But all white people benefit from the privileges granted to them by others,
whatever the racial identity of those observers.
The word “benefit” is what troubles me. I do have higher states, granted to me by others, but I din’t I don’t think that’s a benefit. because we all do worse when some of us are oppressed — have rights taken away. See Rev. Thandeka’s analogy to a society where left-handed people have their left hands removed. http://revthandeka.org/assets/why_anti-racism_will_fail.pdf
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