Thursday, July 23, 2015

The Black "We" and the White "I"

John Metta had given up talking to white people about racism. But after the shootings in Charleston, he gave this "congregational reflection" to a white church audience. It is one of the most profound explanations of why white liberals have such a hard time talking about race. I'll give you a few excerpts here. But please, go read the whole thing.

First of all, Metta explains how black people and white people see the world differently.
To understand, you have to know that Black people think in terms of Black people.

We don't see a shooting of an innocent Black child in another state as something separate from us because we know viscerally that it could be our child, our parent, or us, that is shot...

Racism affects us directly because the fact that it happened at a geographically remote location or to another Black person is only a coincidence, an accident. It could just as easily happen to us — right here, right now.

White people do not think in terms of we. White people have the privilege to interact with the social and political structures of our society as individuals. You are “you,” I am “one of them.” 
That leads to a powerful summary of the problem:
Living every single day with institutionalized racism and then having to argue its very existence, is tiring, and saddening, and angering. Yet if we express any emotion while talking about it, we’re tone policed, told we're being angry. In fact, a key element in any racial argument in America is the Angry Black person, and racial discussions shut down when that person speaks. The Angry Black person invalidates any arguments about racism because they are “just being overly sensitive,” or “too emotional,” or, playing the race card...

But here is the irony, here’s the thing that all the angry Black people know, and no calmly debating White people want to admit: The entire discussion of race in America centers around the protection of White feelings.

Ask any Black person and they'll tell you the same thing. The reality of thousands of innocent people raped, shot, imprisoned, and systematically disenfranchised are less important than the suggestion that a single White person might be complicit in a racist system.

This is the country we live in. Millions of Black lives are valued less than a single White person’s hurt feelings.

White people and Black people are not having a discussion about race. Black people, thinking as a group, are talking about living in a racist system. White people, thinking as individuals, refuse to talk about “I, racist” and instead protect their own individual and personal goodness. In doing so, they reject the existence of racism.
Finally, here comes the kicker. Metta's description of the problem winds up sounding an awful lot like Zuky's "white liberal conundrum."
Here’s what I want to say to you: Racism is so deeply embedded in this country not because of the racist right-wing radicals who practice it openly, it exists because of the silence and hurt feelings of liberal America.
A great man said pretty much the same thing decades ago:


  1. Afternoon, Nancy
    PERfect counter to someone else you write with. It's ironical....

    The more he claims he gets it, the more he shows he does NOT.

    And, DON'T be talkin' bad about his Thomas Jefferson, either (insert eye roll).

    Succinctly and well crafted, Nancy. Thank you

  2. What John Metta says is so profoundly true and so profoundly depressing. Maybe, just maybe, with laws and regulations and rules we can fix the justice system and the financial system and the police and prevent discrimination in housing and employment and education, but we can never fix the human mind.

  3. I do have a quibble with this otherwise fantastic sermon:

    "And White people, every single one of you, are complicit in this racism because you benefit directly from it."

    My quibble with that: it does not allow me any way to NOT be complicit, short of changing my skin color. Ordinarily, being complicit means having some choice in the matter ... but that is not the case here.

    Here's what I do have choices over, though.

    I can choose to listen carefully to black voices, and try to better understand an outlook that on some level will always be at least a little foreign to me.

    I can police myself for signs of even subtle bigotry, and be on the lookout for forms that I was not aware of yesterday.

    I can challenge bigotry, racism, or white privilege where I see it in play, even if doing so is inconvenient.

    I can make every effort to not benefit unduly from the accident of birth that is my skin color.

    And where others advise me of more that I can do, I should take their counsel very seriously.

    That's all I've got. If I'm still "complicit" no matter what I do, so be it ... but do at least allow a sincere white guy some path to being closer to the "solution" than the "problem".

    1. There is a lot of truth in what you say.

      I'd just ask you to notice that you are speaking as an individual "I."

    2. I've been trying to decide whether to respond to this, and if so, how. I think it comes down to this: whom can I speak for? Myself, certainly. Others, no. I don't believe that's what John Metta was objecting to. From the sermon:

      "The result of this is an incessantly repeating argument where a Black person says “Racism still exists. It is real,” and a white person argues “You're wrong, I'm not racist at all. I don't even see any racism.” My aunt’s immediate response is not “that is wrong, we should do better.” No, her response is self-protection: “That’s not my fault, I didn't do anything. You are wrong.”"

      I'll go John Metta's favorite aunt one further: not only do I acknowledge the existence of racism and that I benefit from white privilege, I'm probably racist in subtle (?) ways too. By all means accuse me of racism if you see it in me, but please tell me what specifically you see so I can work on it. I'd very much like to be on the right side of history.

      Let's talk about something we can agree about: boy them Bernie Sanders supporters. Have you seen their responses to BLM and any suggestion, however polite, that Bernie's heart is in the right place on race but he's still got things to learn? It's like throwing rocks at a hornet's nest.


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