White Identity Challenged

Many whites today, breaking loose from the “trapped history”, find their very identity as “white”, challenged. The historical line from what Baldwin says is a short one to the many discussions among white people today as they seek to find “release” from their entrapment. Confusion dominates much of that discussion, as some seek to abandon the meaning of “whiteness”, and others seek to assign it new meaning.

As I listen to and participate in some of the more recent discussions of “whiteness”, I hear little that recognizes the history of that discussion which grew in the late 1960’s and early ‘70’s. Bob Terry, in For Whites Only, and in discussions around the country had announced a concept of “The New White Person”, engaging people in the very identity struggle predicted by Baldwin.

One of the better early responses to Terry came from the Center for Social Change, led by its Director, Paul Schulze, in Oakland, California. That Center issued a nine-point “sketching” of what is required of The New White Person, (date unknown). Here are the nine points, with a few words to give an indication of the some of the content of each:

1. The New White Person moves beyond guilt to reality-action aimed at justice.
….we must mobilize for change, not out of guilt for the past, but out of commitment to the future ….not forgetting the shame of our history, we can nevertheless undertake to recover a sense of integrity ….

2. The New White Person values self worth. ….we will value ourselves as
people and celebrate our beauty …we need not undertake projects to prove our worth…..we will accept ourselves and act out of that security … we will no longer need to search for that liberal ‘good feeling’.

3. The New White Person understands power and the ways of dealing with those in power. Power that determines the present must be modified or replaced by powers that will shape tomorrow. … “White Power” is for most Whites a lifelong illusion, for real power is held only by a very few …. Most White people, too, are victims, not oppressors, used by those in power to maintain a racist system .

4. The New White Person is a Pro-Actor, not a Re-Actor. Change will not
come unless political initiative can be wrested from those committed to
preserving the status quo …. We will be political beings who select allies
and form coalitions that can effectively challenge the powers that be.

5. The New White Person accepts “self-interest” …..self-interest is not the
same as selfishness …. The survival of others is linked to our own … we
will be allowed no sleep if others are allowed no food. … we will learn to
play an appropriate role as a minority race among the colored majority …

6. The New White Person takes risks. we must expect retaliation …from those
who oppose us…we need to move toward a less expensive living standard.

7. The New White Person is open to new life styles…..we will explore new
concepts of vocation and leisure, of land use, of women’s rights, of education,
of “family”,all these will flow into tomorrow’s more open world.

8 The New White Person is committed to pluralism ….willing to live in conflict and able to endure ambiguity … we will celebrate the many diverse
capabilities and tensions within ourselves, and delight in the rich potentials
of other persons and cultures.

9. The New White Person needs support groups providing opportunities for evaluating, strategizing, and celebrating … places for honesty and love, criticism and forgiveness.

Much of this early thinking about “whiteness” was shared among the groups with which we worked at Community Change, but it was often, both locally, and nationally, left unfinished. Musing now about the reason for this, my hunch is that the tenor of the time was more attuned to the urgent needs of doing the work of racial justice. It is that same sense of urgency that I have not yet heard in the recent numerous discussions of groups gathered under the banner of “whiteness”. Feeling little sense of urgency in those meetings, has left me often quite outside the discussions, and mostly useless. I wonder often if my perception of a missing sense of urgency is rooted in the times, in the agenda of the society, or is it a present tendency to introspection, a kind of internalizing of the action, a product of the very “white privilege” so decried ?

I am perhaps unfair, when I critique a current focused attention on “white privilege”and “whiteness”. Still, I think it honest to remind people that knowing personal privilege is no guarantee of action to counter the privilege. Thomas Jefferson knew of and wrote about privilege, and also knew and wrote of the damaging effects of slavery on white owners and their families. Search his story, and you will find that he passed up several opportunities to end even his own involvement in the slaveholding system. However we wrote or whatever he thought about the inhumanity of slaveholding, he never freed his slaves! One of the lingering, haunting questions of history is speculation about what might have happened “if” Thomas, George, et al had actually done precisely that???

Recent historical studies have shown numbers of other white leaders at the founding of the nation, who were aware of the negatives for whites in the system they supported. “Evil necessity” becomes an apt description of the choice most made. Most were not moved to end the “evil”; its negative effects on whites did not move their choice. They were “trapped” in a history which they understood; they understood also that they had to continue the system because it sustained them individually, and their culture nationally. The “urgency” for most was to insure the continuation of a system which was, on balance, good for them.

My judgment that “white privilege” is not a primary motivation to change, is surely rooted in my own experience. My motivation has been in a much simpler notion of just plain “justice”. That which is unjust in its application must be changed. I need no lengthy analysis of “whiteness” to move me to act. Still, I must accept that younger folk today must find their way toward action, and if the emphasis on “whiteness” can do it, then I will be ready to support it. To date I see little to encourage confidence. If “whiteness” can penetrate the encultured denial of racism then it becomes a celebratory event; where that happens I will be among the rocket launchers and revelers!

I leave this thought, with the wise words, recently quoted, from DuBois: “One cannot, to be sure, demand of whole nations exceptional moral foresight and heroism; but a certain hard common sense…. must be expected in every progressive people. In some respects we as a nation seem to lack this; we have the somewhat inchoate idea that we are not destined to be harassed with great social questions, and that even if we are, and fail to answer them, the fault is with the question and not with us.” For me, the hard, common sense is in the very simple call for righteous justice. There is my motive for action.

Early in my years at Community Change I came to a conviction that every meeting held, every consultation gathered, must include an agenda for action. The action might include major plans for some sort of change, or it might be some simple “next step”, even perhaps as simple as an agreement for everyone to read the same book and come back together to discuss it. Discussion without some concluding decision to act, left me hollow, incomplete. It still does. Just recently I met Ben, a younger man whom I had not seen for maybe fifteen years; we remembered working together to plan multicultural festivals in Boston. Ben said that one lesson he took from those days was that I never let a meeting conclude without asking, what was the next step to be taken? I am still asking.

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