Table of Contents
TO THE THIRD EDITION
IT IS DIFFICULT
for me to believe that nearly seven years have passed since I began writing this book’s first edition. But as I examine the calendar on my desk and look across the room at my daughters—now nearly eight and ten—I find it impossible to deny how long it’s been, and how much has happened between then and now.
When I first thought of writing
White Like Me
, I never anticipated that it would strike the chord it seems to have struck with so many, that it would be taught in hundreds of colleges, even high schools, or that it would be read by so many who would then let me know how the work had affected and even changed them.
In one case, I was informed that my words had helped save a marriage. I felt pretty good about that until a few months later, at which point I was told by someone else that my book had helped hasten her divorce. I apologized for any role I may have played in the dissolution of her relationship, but was told not to worry, that it had been for the best, and that it had taken my book for her and her now ex-husband to realize that their differences, rooted in racial identity and their experiences around racism, were too vast to bridge. Okay then,
I guess you’re welcome
, was all I could think to say. Not very creative, but it was the best I could come up with at the time.
Yet, even as
White Like Me
has made such an impact, like any book on a topic as fluid as race, it runs the risk of becoming dated. The contours of the racial dialogue in the United States are constantly changing, so in order to stay relevant, this volume needed yet another updating, especially given the election of Barack Obama as president in November 2008. Considering how quickly folks rushed to pronounce the United States “post-racial” in the wake of Obama’s victory—after all, how can we have a race problem, and how can there be white privilege if a man of color can be elected president?—I knew almost as soon as he had won that I would need to revisit the main theses of this book yet again. In the meantime I have written two other books challenging the post-racial thesis (
Between Barack and a Hard Place
), but given the shelf-life of
White Like Me
, addressing some of the same issues within these pages seems equally important.
Though on the surface the election of a man of color to the highest office in the land might suggest the demise of racism as a persistent social force—and the subsequent death of white privilege—in truth, it says nothing of the kind. Just as the election of women as heads of state in Pakistan, India, Israel, or Great Britain (among others) hardly signaled the eradication of sexism in those places, so too the election of a black man in the United States hardly speaks to the issue of racism facing 85 million people of color here. Individual success and accomplishment says little about larger institutional truth.
Additionally, and as I explained in
Between Barack and a Hard Place
, many who voted for Barack Obama in 2008 were persons who, by their own admission to pollsters, continue to adhere to racist stereotypes about black Americans. The fact that they were able to carve out an exception to their prejudices by viewing Obama as differing from an otherwise negative black norm may indicate that they are free from the all-consuming bigotry that was normative in generations past, but it hardly suggests a racial ecumenism that extends to people of color generally. If support for Obama was, in part, due to his seeming “different” from other black men, we could even say that racism, albeit of a 2.0 variety, was instrumental in
him attract support from white voters.
Finally, let us recall that Barack Obama downplayed issues of race within his campaign, rarely if ever spoke to concerns about racial inequity, and went out of his way to distance himself from his former pastor, Rev. Jeremiah Wright, so as to curry favor with white voters who found Wright’s condemnations of U.S. foreign policy and our history of racism troubling. Such truths suggest that in some ways, Obama’s victory was
of white privilege, rather than a refutation of it. To the extent he has had to remain relatively silent about race matters lest his political star be dimmed by a volcanic eruption of white backlash, his success, given what was required to attain it, stands as the ultimate confirmation of ongoing white political power.
Since the election of Barack Obama, evidence of white privilege has been even more ubiquitous than before. With the emergence of the Tea Party movement, the nation has been treated to images of thousands of mostly white, ultra-conservative activists surrounding lawmakers and screaming at them to vote against health care reform legislation, carrying guns to rallies just to show they can, or spouting off about the potential need for secession or even revolution. Needless to say, if black or Latino activists (or Arab American or Muslim activists angered by racial and religious profiling, post-9/11) were to surround lawmakers and scream at them like petulant children, one can only imagine how it would be perceived by the public. They would be seen as insurrectionaries, as terrorists, as thugs; but when older whites do it, they are viewed as patriots exercising their First Amendment rights. If people of color showed up to rallies armed, or were calling for revolution, it doesn’t take much imagination to know how differently they would be viewed, compared to whites engaged in the same activities.
In the first two editions I chose to forego simple chronology in telling this story. My thinking at the time was that it was best to break the book down by themes, rather than to proceed linearly. In part this was because I generally prefer thematic discussions to those driven by a slavish devotion to a particular timeline; further, it was because I wanted the points herein to be crystal clear. I wanted to leave no doubt as to what I was saying, and it seemed as though telling stories under thematic headings would better accomplish that goal than to simply tell the stories and hope they would speak for themselves. As much as this method seemed to work at the time, I have recently come to question the approach. Reading back over the book this many years later, I found myself wincing at the seemingly forced nature of it all. Yes, the themedriven narrative made things easy, both for me as a writer and for those reading the work. But something about it fails to satisfy; its mixture of the narrative, memoir voice on the one hand, and the analytical, polemic voice on the other, meant that in the end neither voice was as strong or clear as it could have been.
Mostly, what I realized as I read back over the volume was that in some ways I hadn’t stayed true to the purpose of the book, or the initial impetus for it. I had written
White Like Me
thanks to an admonition from people of color I knew in New Orleans to “take inventory” of my life, to get clear on why I cared so much about racism, to understand my own motivation for challenging it. Until I did this, they insisted, my work would be unfocused, my contributions minimal, my willingness to stay in the struggle transitory at best. Get clear on
motivation, they told me, beyond the politics and the ideological stuff that’s in your head. Figure out what it is about your
and even soul that compels you.
So I began to explore that question and had spent nearly twelve years on it before sitting down to write this book the first time. By then, the answer was as clear as the sound of our youngest girl, a year old at the time, crying in the night over the baby monitor in her room. When I had sat down and begun to take inventory, it had become impossible to miss how race had been implicated year in and year out, all throughout the course of my existence. Hardly any aspect of my life, from where I had lived to my education to my employment history to my friendships, had been free from the taint of racial inequity, from racism, from whiteness. My racial identity had shaped me from the womb forward. I had not been in control of my own narrative. It wasn’t just race that was a social construct.
So was I.
And as much as we all like to believe we’re special (and God knows, white men are encouraged in this conceit well enough), I simply failed to accept that this story was mine alone. Although others will have experienced whiteness differently to various extents, I felt certain there were aspects of my past that dovetailed with those of others, and that if we could begin to excavate some of that, perhaps we could break the seemingly intractable impasse between white folks and folks of color; perhaps we could move the dialogue forward by coming to see ourselves in the center of the problem, rather than seeing racism as some abstract sociological concept about which the black and brown must worry, but about which whites shouldn’t lose much sleep. Only by coming to realize how thoroughly racialized our white lives are can we begin to see the problem as ours, and begin to take action to help solve it. By remaining oblivious to our racialization we remain oblivious to the injustice that stems from it, and we remain paralyzed when it comes to responding to it in a constructive manner.
This time, I’ve opted to tell these stories—many from the previous volumes and several that had been left out—more or less chronologically, in an attempt to highlight the way that race flows throughout a life from the beginning. All the themes discussed in the first two editions will still find exploration here, but they will do so within a narrative that is much more of a story than a mere collection of relatively disjointed reflections. I don’t know if this will be a better or worse approach than the last two. But I know that, for now, it is the way I must tell the story. It is the voice in which I need to speak. Life is lived chronologically, after all. So perhaps its recounting should be chronological too.
Thank you, all who have made the book a success thus far, and all those who are reading it now for the first time. If you are among the latter, you are reading a much better book than your predecessors did. I hope you’ll find that it was worth the wait.
Nashville, March 2011
“WHAT HAPPENED TO YOU?”
IT’S A QUESTION
no one likes to hear, seeing as how it typically signifies an assumption on the part of the questioner that something is terribly wrong, something that defies logic and begs for an explanation.
It’s the kind of query one might get from former classmates on the occasion of one’s twenty-year high school reunion: “Dear God, what the hell happened to you?” As a general rule, people don’t ask this question of those whom they consider to have dramatically improved themselves physically, emotionally, or professionally. Instead, it is more often asked of those considered to be seriously damaged, as if the only possible answer to the question would be, “Well, I was dropped on my head as a baby,” to which the questioner would then reply, “Aha,