Sit no longer blind, Lord God, deaf to our prayer and dumb to our dumb suffering. Surely Thou too art not white, O Lord, a pale, bloodless, heartless thing?
Ah! Christ of all the Pities!
Forgive the thought! Forgive these wild, blasphemous words. Thou art still the God of our black fathers, and in Thy soul’s soul sit some soft darkenings of the evening, some shadowings of the velvet night.
— W.E.B. Du Bois, “A Litany At Atlanta”
I watched my buddy’s jaw tighten in frustration under the yellow light of a back-alley bar in Le Mans, France. He was getting ready to call me “bourgeoisie” any moment and throw his dog-eared copy of Native Son down on the table, like a gauntlet between us, between our experiences, between his world and mine. We were talking about race again. We were in France on a semester abroad from our creative writing program at the University of Maine at Farmington. He was brilliant, biracial, named after an Egyptian sun God. I was a classic naif: nineteen, white, Midwestern, middle class, a lukewarm potato dumpling trying to present herself as savor faire. He had come to France in search of his own James Baldwin experience, and I had come at the last minute because I broke up with my boyfriend and wanted an adventure.
By this point in the conversation, we had shared more than half a bottle of Jameson between the two of us. I was telling him that I wished I could be black — that I hated being white and I didn’t want it anymore, that it was one of the greatest pains of my life. I asked him what I could do, begging him to tell me how I could take on my share of the burden of racism. I was taken aback when he looked at me like I was a monster. For the life of me, I could not figure out why he didn’t seem to want to understand my pain when I was so eager to acknowledge his.
I was so young. I guess I lacked the emotional and intellectual maturity to appreciate his incredulity at my effluvient hubris. The conversation ended with his suggestion that I have the word “nigger” tattooed on my forehead. That, he said, would only be a start.
The next morning, we ate breakfast together in the cafeteria and returned to the routine of our friendship. In the end, I think that his time in France was as complicated as Baldwin’s. He found a retreat from the vitriolic racism of the United States, but he still found himself objectified by his blackness. On a night out on the town without my friend, I ran into a young woman with whom he had a brief flirtation on a previous evening on the town.
“Ou et le Noir?” she asked me. “Where is the black?” He wasn’t even a black man, he was just “the black.” Being made an object of curiosity is probably better than being made an object of hatred, but it is still dehumanizing. When I got the news of his death less than six months later, I literally sank to my knees and screamed. I have lost far too many brothers who died in pursuit of freedom from the prison of existential anguish. Sometimes I think that surviving them is a curse in itself.
Much has been said about white guilt, but what of white shame? The difference between guilt and shame, as I have been presenting it in personal development workshops for the past three years, is basically this: guilt means feeling bad about what you have done, and shame means feeling bad about what you are. White guilt, to me, means feeling bad about what white people have done. White shame is feeling ashamed of myself for being white. I experience the former; I suffer from the later.
This piece is not an attempt to elicit sympathy for white people, and I hope by all means necessary to avoid equating the suffering of oppressors with the suffering of those they have oppressed. And yet I believe that, just as individuals who are the perpetrators in abusive relationships suffer psychic, emotional and spiritual damage as a result of the trauma they cause others, so too do white people suffer from their own historical and contemporary abuses of peoples of color.
I remember the moment when I first knew what it meant to be white. I was in the back seat of my parents’ red Dodge Fury, waiting at a rest area on some by-way somewhere in the great expanse of the American west which we, along with my older brother, traversed each year from between May and August. I was watching another family, a mother, father and two kids. They were doing exactly what we were doing: getting out of the car, stretching, walking stiffly to the bathrooms. As I watched the boy beg a dollar from his mother for the pop machine, I considered how much this family was like my own, but with one big difference: they were African American.
Even growing up in North Dakota, I had known lots of black people. There were none in my school and, at that time, very few on the streets or in the stores. Our family had a long-running joke that my parents had to import black friends from out-of-state. They did so at least once a year as part of my father’s Jazz Celebrations, a series of concerts he organized for Bismarck State College for over thirty years. We often put the musicians up in our home for several days at a time. It was normal for me to have to give up my bedroom for a week every year to a world famous jazz musician. Some of the same musicians would come every year, and they became close family friends. When my brother died in a car accident at the age of seventeen, the second phone call my parents made, after my informing my mother’s parents about the loss of their grandson, was to the great piano player Jaki Byard. Jaki was like a grandfather to me, having known my parents longer than I did. He was absolutely venerated in my home, as were others like Clark Terry and Alan Dawson. I think one of my father’s proudest moments might have been when my brother, about eight years old at the time, ran into Clark Terry’s arms for a hug on their first meeting. “You must be doing something right,” Terry told my dad.
So I did not stare at the black family on their road trip with the stunned eyes of a white girl who had never seen black people in person before, though that was true of most of my peers in Bismarck. Rather, as I watched them, I thought about what it would be like to be them. And I had a thought that I have struggled with ever since: I am lucky that I wasn’t born black.
Even now, typing those words makes me feel hollowed out inside with shame and guilt.
I shouldn’t be grateful for my whiteness. What an ugly thought. But I knew, even at that young age, that I was lucky to be white and I would take advantage of a world that would treat me better than that little black girl because of our respective skin color and hair texture. It wasn’t a matter of personal virtue or God’s grace or anything about us as individuals, it was just a matter of the profoundly fucked up world we had been born into and our respective positions within it. My whiteness was merely an accident of birth, and I thought it was a lucky one. So, having come face to face with this reality, what was a little white girl to do?
I read The Diary of Anne Frank and I asked myself what life would have been like for me during the holocaust. I figured I would have been pretty safe, looking like a poster child for the Aryan Nation the way I do, at least until I opened my mouth and told people what I thought. Frankly, it never occurred to me that a decent human being could have survived life in Nazi Germany unless they were very, very sneaky. I thought that it would be my responsibility as a human being, as one of the lucky ones, to fight for the unlucky ones and help them in any way I could. And if I ever found myself in a real-life horror story of similar magnitude, there was no doubt in my mind whose side I would be on. I thought it would be an easy choice. Of course, everything seems simple to a six year old.
Whenever I found myself face to face with what I saw as racism (or homophobia or misogyny, for that matter), I confronted it. When I heard a little white girl on the kindergarten playground tell a joke with the “n word” in the punch line, I actually smacked her across the face. To this day, I think it may still be the only time I have actually struck another human being in anger. The priest who visited our second-grade classroom each Wednesday asked each student to write down the worst “naughty word” we could think of. Most of my classmates wrote the “f” word, and I was the only one to write the “n” word. It would not be the last time I felt alone among my white peers in feeling the gravity of the problem of racism.
Like most children, I had an active imagination. This manifested itself in a number of irrational fears, including a fear of being buried alive and a fear of losing a limb, neither of which are particularly unusual, and both of which were probably fueled by seeing some of the 1980’s horror movies my brothers and his friends would watch when our folks were out for the evening. The most irrational of my recurring fears was a profound fear of being black in the pre-civil rights South. I don’t know how I thought that I would wake up in a different body in a different time, but in a child’s imagination all things are possible. Maybe I was watching too much Quantum Leap. Regardless, I had seen plenty of movies like In the Heat of the Night, To Kill a Mockingbird, andcountless other narratives about the injustices faced by African Americans who were victims of a crimes and/or the criminal justice system. I found it absolutely terrifying to imagine living in a world where I could be victimized and persecuted and have no one in authority to whom I could turn for help. As a young white girl in 1980’s North Dakota, it never occurred to me that such a world still existed.
Then, in 1992, Los Angeles exploded. I was in junior high school, far more focused on the first “only boy I would ever love” than with the events on the evening news. But a few real things around in the larger world were starting to get my attention, among them Operation Desert Shield and the Rodney King trial. I remember the moment, watching a news program about the LA riots in a dingy basement classroom at Hughes Junior High School, when I realized that there were still people living in this country who did not feel like it was their country. I could think of no other reason that people would burn down their own neighborhoods but that they didn’t really feel a sense of ownership over their own communities. In adult language, I would say that they had no sense of agency. I was so dismayed by this realization, I actually looked around the classroom half-expecting to see at least a few of my peers looking a little concerned. They were not.
Not long after that, I traded in my Poison tapes for Tupac CDs. Around the same time, I saw Spike Lee’s Malcolm X and read the Alex HaleyAutobiography. I started seriously “fan girling” El Hajj Malik El Shabaz. I developed an affinity for wearing kente cloth and learned about Paul Robeson. My Afrocentric interests isolated me from my peers. In my high school of 1600 students, I believe there may have been three or four African American students, but they were not in my classes and I did not know them. Even as a young naif about race relations, I knew it would be unseemly to plop myself down beside them in the cafeteria and say, “What up, G?”
There is a fine line between admiring a culture and appropriating that culture, and that can quickly lead to objectifying members of that culture, which is a cruel and dehumanizing thing to do, however friendly and well-intentioned. I don’t believe I had a black classmate until I was in college. It was truly awful — I felt deprived of access to a rich, important part of American culture.
We did have a 3–5% Native American population, and I worked with some of those students and a supportive teacher to start an alternative school newspaper called The Red Road, which was intended to be a platform for discussion of cross-cultural issues. In the North Dakota of my youth, the indigenous population was omnipresent but small enough to be almost invisible — it was easy enough for the white people in Bismarck to look around them and say “everyone is white.” Ninety percent of the pre-Columbian population of this land was annihilated by genocide and disease. This was the manifestation of my ancestors’ destiny. The Native population that remained in 1980’s North Dakota was simply ignored out of existence.
In the personal empowerment workshops I conducted with a friend of mine for a few years, we did a bit about how, when it comes to our social lives and relationships, most of us are still stuck in the school cafeteria. We relive the same dramas over and over in our public social lives and our intimate friendships. I still find myself sitting alone at a corner table more often than I would like, and the unbearable whiteness of being is one of the core reasons why.
I spent much of my energy in my young adulthood feeling like I was running around on fire and no one noticed. The fire was an passionate urgency born of slavery and genocide on which our world was built. I could not for the life of me understand why so few of the people around me seemed to think these things were “a big deal.” The white world of my childhood was one in which the wounds of slavery and genocide had not begun to heal because they were not recognized. In modern parlance, you might say I was “woke” and I wanted to shake my brothers and sisters awake, because our house was built on shifting sand and the Earth was quaking.
They didn’t wake up, though. They appointed Donald Trump to be king of their sonambulistic paradise. They may never wake up. They may die in their dreams, in the pale gray hell of their own ignorance, never knowing the warmth and beauty of the real world, a world full of light, color, shade, flavor, warmth, and music. A world imbued with the wonders of infinite diversity.
What great tragedy, Lord God,
to be born and die again
without meeting thee
Without seeing thy light in the smiling contours of the faces of all thy children
the cold tears of our all fathers
the hot blood of all our mothers
Without hearing thy voice in the songs of a thousand languages
in the harmony and dissonance of a million voices
Without feeling embraced by the warmth of thy love
radiant from skin of every cast
borne forth by the bones of all our ancestors
To live deaf, dumb and blind
and nothing else
O Great God, we beseech thee
now to save us
from our stories