A Reflection on White Rage
We began this morning with the dream. And yet we hardly need reminding, that the ideal which we seek lies in stark contrast to the reality in which we live. Have we made progress in this country in terms of race? Yes, but it has not been straight forward. Every inch of progress has been met with a countervailing counterforce.
The end of the civil war and the eradication of slavery was met with the Black Codes in Mississippi and nine other former confederate states, new laws “that undercut any chance or hope for civil rights, economic independence, or even the reestablishment of families that had been ripped apart by slavery.” (Anderson, 19) Then in response to the Reconstruction came the Jim Crow Laws. The progress of the Civil rights era was met by Nixon’s war on drugs and what Michelle Alexander has dubbed the New Jim Crow.
And then, in 2016, after eight years of an African American presidency, a new election – fraught with examples of voter suppression – resulted in the election of the most blatantly racist administration in modern history.
This two-steps-forward, and some-number-of-steps-back pattern in American history is the result of what Carol Anderson calls “white rage.” Anderson is a professor of African American studies at Emory University, and the author of White Rage: The Unspoken Truth of Our Racial Divide. She describes “white rage” this way. She says:
“White rage is not about visible violence, but rather it works its way through the courts, the legislatures, and a range of government bureaucracies…It’s not the Klan. White rage doesn’t have to wear sheets, burn crosses, or take to the streets. Working the halls of power, it can achieve its ends far more effectively, far more destructively.”
“The trigger for white rage, inevitably, is black advancement. It is not the mere presence of black people that is the problem; rather, it is blackness with ambition, with drive, with purpose, with aspirations, and with demands for full and equal citizenship.”
White rage is one of the reasons that, despite all of the progress that has been made, the words of Toni Morrison’s novel Beloved still ring as true…
“Here,” she said, “in this here place, we flesh; flesh that weeps, laughs; flesh that dances on bare feet in grass. Love it. Love it hard. Yonder they do not love your flesh. They despise it. They don’t love your eyes; they’d just as soon pick em out. No more do they love the skin on your back. Yonder they flay it…And no, they aint in love with your mouth. Yonder, out there, they will see it broken and break it again. What you say out of it they will not heed. What you scream from it they do not hear.”
A Reflection on White Grief
I don’t usually spend much time reflecting deeply on black experience. As a white person, I don’t have to. I like to think that I’m more aware than many of what goes on in the world. I pay attention to the news. I know about police brutality and shootings and discriminatory policies. But real lived black experience isn’t defined by news cycles. It is lived 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year. And most of it we who are white simply do not see. And sometimes when we hear about it, we don’t always believe it.
In his book Tears We Cannot Stop, Michael Eric Dyson talks about what he calls the 5 stages of white grief which are rooted in our white privilege, the privilege of inhabiting light skin, and which keep us from seeing or acknowledging black experience.
First, our white privilege allows us to plead ignorance about black experience…all too often we forget or willfully refuse to know things that are historically true.
As an extreme example, he cites Iowa congressman Steve King who wondered out loud in 2016 who else – other than white people – had made any worthwhile contributions to civilization which he said was “rooted in Western Europe, Eastern Europe and the United States of America.”
Willfully forgetting a vast history of important contributions…from the great library of Alexandria in Egypt, the invention of paper and alphabet, pen and ink, contributions to mathematics and medicine, and the wealth generated for wall street by the labor of black bodies in the southern cotton fields. Willfully forgetting, too, that at one time 40% of new Yorkers owned slaves and that New York had the second busiest slave market in the country, second only to Charleston, South Carolina. Slavery was not just a Southern problem, although sometimes we forget that.
The second stage of white grief is to deny facts… “for instance, [writes Dyson], you will often say that separate but equal public policy was bad. You just don’t find too many current examples of the persistence of racism.” “What Jim Crow achieved in the past through, say, redlining – where services like banking, insurance, health care, and supermarkets are denied to specific racial or ethnic groups – continues to this day.
The third stage of white grief is to appropriate…“If black history cannot be forgotten or denied,” says Dyson, “white America can, simply, take it.” Misappropriating is taking something for one’s own use that does not belong to you. For example, some of our black UU siblings raise concerns about predominantly white congregations singing African American spirituals in our worship services. It is not that we cannot sing them. It is that we ought to remember as white people, that they are not our hymns even though they are in our hymnal. If we are respectful of their history, context, and story, we might borrow them for a time, especially if we are willing to pay for them through our recommitment to the struggle for racial justice.
The fourth stage of white grief is to revise…A classic example, when we are told that the civil war wasn’t really about slavery, for instance, but about states’ rights.
And the fifth and final stage of white grief is to dilute black experience. Dyson gives, as an example, the response of some white people to hurricane Katrina, such as when white people say, “Bad stuff happens to everyone. White people lost their houses, too.” In the same way, we can perhaps imagine that African Americans might hear the response “all lives matter” as a diluting response to the assertion that Black Lives Matter.
These 5 stages of white grief are all part of what Dyson calls “white innocence” – a failure to be honest about how we benefit from having white skin. And a failure to understand with any genuine depth what the experience of having brown skin might be like.
As Dyson writes, “the most radical action a white person can take is to acknowledge [their] denied privilege, to say, “Yes, you’re right. In our institutional structures, and in deep psychological structures, our underlying assumption is that our [white] lives are worth more than yours.”
He concludes by saying…
“The siege of hate will not end until white folk imagine themselves as black folk – vulnerable despite our virtues. If enough of you, one by one, exercises your civic imagination, and puts yourself in the shoes of your black brothers and sisters, you might develop a democratic impatience for injustice, for the cruel disregard of black life, for the careless indifference to our plight.”
A Reflection on White Fragility
Robin DiAngelo, begins her book, White Fragility, with this powerful and provocative introduction:
White people in North America [she says] live in a society that is deeply separate and unequal by race, and white people are the beneficiaries of that separation and inequality. As a result, we are insulated from racial stress, at the same time that we come to feel entitled to and deserving of our advantage. Given how seldom we experience racial discomfort in a society we dominate, we haven’t had to build our racial stamina. Socialized into a deeply internalized sense of superiority that we either are unaware of or can never admit to ourselves, we become highly fragile in conversations about race. We consider a challenge to our racial worldview as a challenge to our very identities as good, moral people. Thus we perceive any attempt to connect us to the system of racism as an unsettling and unfair moral offense. The smallest amount of racial stress is intolerable – the mere suggestion that being white has meaning often triggers a range of defensive responses. These include emotions such as anger, fear, and guilt and behaviors such as argumentation, silence, and withdrawal from the stress-inducing situation. These responses work to reinstate white equilibrium as they repel the challenge, return our racial comfort, and maintain our dominance within the racial hierarchy. (1-2)
This is a good summary of what DiAngelo means when she writes and talks about “white fragility” and the way it functions. There’s a lot in that statement, and so this morning, I’d like to try to unpack it.
I want to start by going back in time to 1963, when The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. gave his famous “I have a dream” speech in Washington, DC, on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. He began with a reference to the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863, which freed millions of slaves. However, he said, “One hundred years later, the Negro still is not free.”
He ended the speech by sharing his vision, which included these oft-repeated lines: “I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, sons of former slaves and sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood…I have a dream my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character…I have a dream that one day…little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers…
Today, 56 years after the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, we still live in a society that is deeply separate and unequal based on race. If we look, we can see evidence of this separation and inequality in our judicial system, in our prison system. We can see it in our medical system, in housing, in employment, in education. It is everywhere. Despite the passage of laws that are meant to bolster equality, racism is still pervasive in our country.
We know that. And yet, many of us who are white still struggle with the word “racism.” We struggle to understand and acknowledge that, as white people, we are the beneficiaries of the separation and inequality that still exist.
So let’s talk about racism. In 2020, racism still exists, but it has adapted. Before the civil rights era, it looked like open hostility and legal segregation. But as DiAngelo says:
“Once the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was passed…it was less acceptable for white people to admit to racial prejudice; they did not want to be associated with the racist acts they had witnessed on television (the police dogs, the fire hoses, the explicit violence)… One line of King’s speech in particular – that one day he might be judged by the content of his character and not the color of his skin – was seized upon by the white public because the words were seen to provide a simple and immediate solution to racial tensions: pretend that we don’t see race, and racism will end.” 41
So a couple of things happened. We learned not to talk about race. We began to hide our prejudices, to not acknowledge them. And now we see evidence that suggests progress. We do see children, black and white and brown, holding hands, playing together. Interracial marriage is now more accepted and more common than it was in the early 60’s. We developed a kind of color-blindness and we’ve learned to better celebrate diversity.
The other thing that happened is that our understanding of the very meaning of the word “racist” was reduced to “a simple formula,” which DiAngelo describes in this way:
• A racist in an individual
• Who consciously doesn’t like people based on race
• And who intentionally seeks to be mean to them
• A racist is an individual…not a system
• Who consciously doesn’t like people based on race…and it must be conscious
• And who intentionally seeks to be mean to them…and it must be intentional
Well, as DiAngelo goes on to say, if that is my definition of what “racist” means and you suggest that something that I have done or said is in some way “racist,” that must mean that you think that I am a bad person. And if you’re calling me a bad person, well, of course I’m going to defend my moral character. Other people are racist, not me. We have “othered” the racist.
This is what DiAngelo calls the good/bad binary. One is either a racist or one is not, either a bad person or a good person. And she believes this understanding is the root of virtually all white defensiveness when it comes to conversation about race and racism. This is the root of why we, as white people, struggle to talk about racism.
This is the root of why we often have such strong emotional reactions when people of color or other white people try to talk with us about race and racism, or challenge our assumption or behaviors.
So often in those situations:
We feel: Singled out, attacked, silenced, shamed, guilty, accused, insulted, judged, angry, scared, outraged
We respond by: Leaving, withdrawing, arguing, denying, focusing on intentions, seeking absolution, avoiding
We make claims such as: I know people of color, I marched in the sixties, you don’t know me, the real oppression is class/gender/anything other than race, you’re playing the race card, I have suffered too
As DiAngelo writes, “We whites who position ourselves as liberal often opt to protect what we perceive as our moral reputations, rather than recognize or change our participation in systems of inequity and domination.” 109
“In my workshops [she says], I often ask people of color, ‘How often have you given white people feedback on our unaware yet inevitable racism? How often has that gone well for you?’ Eye-rolling, head-shaking, and outright laughter follow, along with the consensus of rarely, if ever. I then ask, ‘What would it be like if you could simply give us feedback, have us graciously receive it, reflect, and work to change the behavior?’ Recently a man of color sighed and said, ‘It would be revolutionary.’ I ask my fellow whites to consider the profundity of the response. It would be revolutionary if we could receive, reflect, and work to change the behavior.” 113