|The Whiteness of America (M.A. Reilly, March 7, 2012)|
Last week I sat opposite my nearly 18-year-old son and we talked race at a neighborhood restaurant. Dylann Roof's sentencing was the catalyst of our conversation. My son strongly supported the sentencing decision, while I did not. The jury who found the 22-year-old guilty a month ago, spent three hours that day in deliberation before handing down the decision that Roof should be sentenced to death. Although Roof's hateful crimes are more than reprehensible, I still do not support the death penalty.
I asked Devon what he thought might have allowed so young a white man to go into a church and murder 9 African American people. What prompted such an action?
His environment. What he learned at home. From his community.
What would we think if someone came into this very restaurant and killed based on race?
Devon looked at me and said, Well most likely I'd be the only one killed.
Look around. Everyone here is white.
I do look around the restaurant and see he is correct. I hadn't notice. I hadn't had to notice.
I'm the only one who's not, he adds. If anyone is going to get killed? It's me.
He must see the alarm that crosses my face and then adds, Look, I know there are good people who are white. Not saying there aren't. But, as a group, white people here in the US? They're the meanest.
I have seen this meanness firsthand. I'd like to think that I would have understood white privilege in the same way as I do now had I not been Devon's mom, but I don't think that's true. The sense of privilege that is inherently provided to and only for white people here in the US is insipid and largely goes unnoticed by many white people. I may have been aware, but I know I would not have known it as heartfelt, as heartsick as I do now. Being Devon's mom has altered how I know, how I name, how I feel.
And as I looked across the table at my beautiful son, I thought, he's right. White people, especially those with unchecked power who hide behind the cloak of their religion, are the meanest.
Neither Dev nor I come from the United States. We are immigrants. He is Korean and I am Irish and after the rhetoric of this last election we know welcome when we hear it and not. We used to kid that only Rob was home-grown as he was born in Brooklyn and now our one link to the States is gone. For me, the United States is home. For my son, it is not.
During this last week Devon has told me he is determined to find a pathway to leave the United States and live elsewhere--Switzerland, Japan--places where he has friends and is privy, in some small way, to how well they live. He will leave the States I suspect. He will leave when he is well educated and I imagine he will find or make a career pathway that allows himself more options than just remaining here. This is how Rob and I raised our son. He is independent in the most important ways.
I try to quell the panic that rises each time I hear him talk about leaving. We have lost so much this year already and more losses seem impossible to hold. But I understand why he wants to go. Why he feels not welcomed here.
My friend, Jane, explains this weight that Devon carries so clearly. She refers to W.E.B. DuBois's notion of double-consciousness. In the first chapter of DuBois's The Souls of Black Folk (1903), he writes:
It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his two-ness,—an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder. (from here)
Here, in New Jersey--30 miles outside of Manhattan, we live in a town that is 92% white. My son has never just been a kid or teenager, here. Rather, he has always had to be Korean (other) and American.
And frankly, we are all the worse for it.
Tonight, I am thinking that the beliefs we harbor, unchecked, can grow into truths that become foundational. These homemade certitudes allow us to think that we are acting justly when we share our poison. The stupid racial jokes we hear and our silence affirms the racial insensitivity that accompanies the punchline. Our silence affirms the belief that otherness is radically different from us.
Years ago, in a classroom at Columbia University, a fellow doc student threw a hissy fit when she heard that Rob and I were adopting a child. She told the small group assembled that we were in a mixed marriage. She was offended by us and that we were going to be adopting a child--a child from another race--offended her even more. I had little idea what she was speaking about until she explained (unprompted by either of us) that because I was Roman Catholic and Rob was Jewish, we should never have married. Now add to that strange mix, a Korean child, and well she was unable to stop herself from speaking aloud.
Even within the bastions of so liberal a university, these foundational ways of marking difference and antipathy rise. Not far from Columbia my mom grew up. Her father, I am told, would have abhorred my marriage to Rob. A thick-headed Irishmen if ever there was, my mom would say about her father--a man she knew to be racist. I never met my grandfather as he died decades before I was born. Fortunately for me his intolerance, his stupidity did not become truths my mother taught me. She knew a fool when she saw one, even one she loved. When I first met my husband's family and some of their extended friends, I too learned the uncomfortableness of other. My being Catholic was not appreciated. I can remember one Thanksgiving when the differences were so magnified. I learned that night that because I was not Jewish, I would remain situated as other. My mother-in-law would be quick to tell her son that she would never welcome me as a daughter. And so she didn't. Rob and I went on to live well, to love deeply, and to raise a most wonderful son. There is a loss to this and sometimes these losses bear weight.
I think these beliefs that pit "us against them" represent nothing more than a cowardly way to live. Racists are fundamentally cowards. Frightened souls who find comfort in a crowd of like minds. They insulate their ignorance with a tired dogma and try to sell it as something novel. It is not novel, just, or clever. Just tired. Just wrong. Just banal.
Friends, we can do so much better. We can live so much better. We need to be willing.
As I listened to President Obama's Farewell Address, I was struck by his comment that our racial differences represent a threat to our democracy. President Obama said,
There’s a second threat to our democracy – one as old as our nation itself. After my election, there was talk of a post-racial America. Such a vision, however well-intended, was never realistic. For race remains a potent and often divisive force in our society... All of us have more work to do. After all, if every economic issue is framed as a struggle between a hard-working white middle class and undeserving minorities, then workers of all shades will be left fighting for scraps while the wealthy withdraw further into their private enclaves. If we decline to invest in the children of immigrants, just because they don’t look like us, we diminish the prospects of our own children – because those brown kids will represent a larger share of America’s workforce.Some days the talk of racial differences, the us-and-them tensions, the "they don't look like me" nonsense leaves me feeling worn and tired and older than the decades say I should feel. The false belief that being white is akin to some god-given greatness is destroying the very republic we profess to love, while harming the psyches and bodies of young people, like my son and perhaps yours as well.
Can we do better?
I think it begins with a self-inventory and a naming aloud of our public commitments to one another. I think it begins by understanding racism not merely as an interpersonal affront, but also as a deep institutional presence.
I want us to be better than our history suggests we are. I want my son and your children too to live in a place where each is not seen first as other. I want whiteness, that festering illness, to be put down. I want us to become other(wise).