“I want these things for everyone.”
Just a couple of weeks ago, that would have been my response to issues around racism. I want Black people to have the same opportunities I had, as if a wand could be waved by some kind of white fairy godmother and it would be so. My progressive, liberal-minded upbringing has always tended to see these kinds of problems as solvable by outreach, by funding, by “raising people up” or “providing opportunities.” You know, that kind of thing where comparatively wealthy white people reach out with well-meaning programs to Black people to teach them how to be more white. It’s what we white people do. Our culture is the norm; to succeed in this world we need to teach motivated and intelligent Black people how to fit in.
I am saying this as a devoted believer in the power of education, the humanities, and the arts to change lives. And I still believe that. But I am beginning to understand that my calling in life in this regard needs to change. I do not need to bestow my gifts on non-white people. Racism is a white problem. And it’s white people who need to do something about it. Unless we can grapple with the fundamental untruths we’ve been taught for years about history with honesty, we’ll get nowhere. And part of this is the myth of white culture, or the lack thereof–our belief that certain qualities are the fundamental tenets of Western culture, including:
- You can raise yourself out of poverty purely with hard work
- Rugged individualism is the role model for success.
- It’s weak to ask for help
- Community is suspect
- Life is a rat race. It’s all about getting ahead at any cost.
- The narrative about history is primarily about white males, government, and the military
- The size of your paycheque is directly proportional to your moral worth in society. Poverty is a moral failing.
- Billionaires are heroes
- Outside of, perhaps, pop music, white people are not interested in the arts as practiced or portrayed by artists, writers, musicians, and the like who are not white, unless they are practicing within a white medium (and even then, there will be cries of protest.)
Convincing white people that these “truths” are not true for a lot of people–and not just Black people, for white people as well–is going to take a lot of work. It’s going to take the ability to step outside our skins and to see things differently.
But these myths do not just hurt Black people. They distort reality for white people, too, and when our own lives fail to live up to these supposed truths, we have been trained to blame ourselves. This article is very revealing:
It was assumed that the future I faced was full of hope and possibility for no other reason than my race. There were few limits placed upon my ambitions and my worth as a human being was never questioned. I was expected to aspire to excellence and look upon mediocrity as a sign of failure.
That spoke powerfully to me–because for the past 20 years, that feeling of wasted potential, of mediocrity, has hidden the real issue. I was a valedictorian. I am a member of Phi Beta Kappa. I have a doctorate. Yet, in my mind, I took the “easy” way out, turning away from the path of scholarship to pursue a job that made better money, when what I wanted was to make a difference in the world–to teach, or write, or mentor. And so I do all of those things as a volunteer. And I have dreamed of “making life better” for people who do not have my privilege, bestowing my gifts free of charge on people who do not need my charity, or sympathy. They have lived with this their whole lives. They are resilient where I am fragile, where I do not trust my own abilities because I have never been forced to fight to even exist as a full member of society.
What Black people need me to listen, to understand, and to address the very foundations of those myths that have been the basis of my life since childhood. And you know what? I can absolutely do that. One thing that all of that education did for me is to teach me to be open to knowledge that challenges assumptions. It taught me to think critically, to learn for myself. This is what my doctorate has trained me to do.
This is not about shame. It simply…is. My primary and secondary school education was outstanding in teaching about math and science, and about music and literature that inspired me. I was not much a fan of history in high school–had you told me then I would end up getting a doctorate in it, I would have laughed–because it didn’t challenge me to go deeper. In high school, that’s not what I believed history was. It was only when I got to college that I realized that the real study of history was all about challenging “facts” to bring deeper understanding. But I had moved away from modern history by then, and so while I honed my critical thinking skills, I didn’t really apply them to more recent events except in passing–even as I came to understand deeply how important it was to approach any event from multiple perspectives, not just to confirm facts, but to understand.
And this reveals radical roots. I am no longer willing to be content with received and assumed truths about my own culture that are supposedly universal–even as I recognize that these truths have been the unacknowledged basis of my very being my entire life. These truths are not self-evident–they exist in light and shadow, and I both soar and fail because of them and in spite of them. I am proud of my accomplishments, but at the same time, I am aware that I am not self-made. My successes and failures are not just my own, and some of my successes are failures, and some of my failures, successes. And much in between. It is my work to understand this, and how it can give me in turn greater understanding of the world.
The light of day will reveal things of beauty in white culture, and things that would seek to destroy that very beauty, and to consume it from within–the two existing simultaneously, in opposition to each other. But there is indeed a human condition common to us all that is free from racism, and that is the need to feel secure from harm, to have food and shelter, to love and be loved, to find joy and meaning in life. When we believe there are conditions on that must be met in order to deserve any of these essential human rights, we not only harm others, we harm ourselves.
Knowledge is power.
It is also humbling. The more you know, the less you know you know.