I’m sure you can’t wait to hear what the white guy has to say about race, right? I realize that as a white male I don’t have a lot of credibility when it comes to race or the discrimination of minorities, but this has been on my mind for a while and some things came together this past week that made me want to put my thoughts down “on paper,” so to speak. What follows is my honest musings on a delicate subject. If it seems to miss the mark, I am – as always – open to hearing constructive feedback.
I used to like to joke, I’m not white, I’m Italian. I think my black friends understood that it was not meant to make light of their experience as a minority, in fact in a way it was an attempt at a gesture of solidarity. But I’ve always preferred to emphasize my Italian heritage for many reasons (not least of which is the food). Italians are warm, family-oriented and a lot of fun. There’s something about it I can’t really put into words, but there’s this unspoken understanding that Mediterranean cultures know how to argue and love at the same time. And they dance. So part of the reason I don’t want to be thought of as white is because, in my mind, white is plain. I never wanted to be plain. And I never wanted to be lumped in with people who were stereotyped as being without rhythm. I have rhythm – I’m a musician – and I can dance.
Nevertheless, I’m sure that many people of color would love to see what it’s like to be plain. Because plain would mean blending in and not being the target of prejudice and discrimination. Plain would mean being the majority, which by default comes to mean the “norm.” And therein lies the problem. In the collective human consciousness, the majority becomes “normal” while the minority becomes something other than normal. This is not the place to go into the history of racism in this country (let alone in the world), but the result we now live with is a world in which white people have advantages we don’t even know about, because we think that the way we see the world – and the way the world sees us – is just normal. But for those in the minority, being outside the “norm” means not having those advantages – not having society’s built-in white privilege.
For a long time I quietly distanced myself from this concept, reassuring myself with the conviction that I am not personally responsible for contributing to racism. My ancestors came to this country in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and they were poor, starting from scratch in a world that also discriminated against Irish, Italians and Catholics, so any privilege we may have now was earned by my great-grandparents, my grandparents, and especially my parents.
Recently I heard a respected colleague say something to this effect: There is no such thing as earned privilege. My initial gut reaction was to go into defense mode, and in my head I wanted to reserve the right to quietly disagree. I know that I have privilege, but it was earned. Not by me, of course, but by my parents. They worked hard to give us what we had growing up, including the education that contributes to whatever advantages I have now.
As I was thinking through this, though – thinking about what it might mean that my privilege was not earned, it occurred to me to ask a question – a question to which I really already knew the answer. I called my dad and asked him whether there were any black students with him in dental school in the mid-60’s. You already know the answer. Zero. So in our parents’ generation, an African-American would not have had the opportunity to earn privilege. In fact my dad said that in his observation, one of the only real options for opportunity for African-Americans at that time was the military. As an Army dentist, my dad worked on the teeth of guys going to, and coming back from, Viet Nam. And according to him, there was a disproportionately large percentage of black soldiers, which I can only assume means that there was a disproportionately large number of black men who died in Viet Nam.
The other day my wife Susie was watching Remember the Titans on cable – I’ve never seen the whole movie, so when I walked into the room and figured out the gist of the story I asked, What year was this, late 50’s or early 60’s? It was 1971. Oh yeah… civil rights movement in the 60’s, busing in the early 70’s. It really hit me how recent that is for all that ignorance, fear and hate.
But the reality is, people of color still experience the ignorance, the fear, and even the hate. I was horrified to hear that African-Americans still have to deal with people who won’t get on an elevator with them, and people who lock their car doors when they’re nearby. I can’t imagine what it must feel like to hear those electric locks click.
One of the most important lessons my dad ever taught me, was done without saying a word to me. Remember my dad is also a musician (he played in a band with Steve Miller, before there was ever a Steve Miller Band), and when I was a kid I was around bands a lot. We would go to hear music, bands would play in our basement, and we would even go dancing with my parents (sounds weird, I know, but it was the 70’s – it was all about the disco). On many occasions, I saw my dad go up to the musicians after a set, shake their hands and tell them they had done a great job. He always wanted to meet the musicians, especially the drummers. Sometimes the musicians were African-American. Seeing my dad walk up to a black man, shake his hand and give him that nod of appreciation said this to me: A black man deserves your respect as much as a white man. Sounds like a no-brainer, but it was an important lesson for a white kid to learn. I’m grateful to my dad for that.
Sometimes you hear people saying that God is colorblind. I don’t think that’s true. Theologically it implies a deficiency in God, so on that level it can’t be true, of course. But we know what it’s supposed to mean, it means that God loves all people the same, regardless of color. But saying that God is colorblind misses an important point: God made the colors. I believe God sees our diversity like an artist sees the colors on a canvas (anyone remember D.C. Talk’s Colored People?). It’s probably better to say that to God, we are all transparent.
Racism is evil. It’s a form of persecution. It is also the presumption of proclaiming oneself an art critic, and giving God’s creation a bad review. That’s not meant to make light of it, that’s meant to say that it is an offense against God. And yet it’s so deep in our culture that we can’t seem to get rid of it. The bottom line is, if you have never been a victim of racism, then you have probably benefitted from it.
One of my best friends is African-American. When we go out to dinner with him, I have noticed that we are often the only table in the restaurant to mix black & white. There is a story that when the original Planet of the Apes movie was being filmed, the actors had to eat lunch in costume because it took too much time to redo the makeup. They found that the actors who played different types of primates in the film (gorillas, orangutans, chimpanzees) unconsciously segregated themselves at different lunch tables. If the story is true it says a lot about human nature. Maybe it’s human nature to protect our comfort zone by sticking with people whom we think are like us. But it’s also human nature to be selfish and to sin. (That’s what I was trying to say when I wrote the song, Broken Machine.)
So this is one of those cases where we have to fight against our broken human nature, and do something different. The problem is, I’m not sure what to do. I guess the words that best describe how this white man feels when it comes to racism is sad and helpless. Would it sound trite to say we should all try harder to make more friends across racial boundaries (thus erasing the boundaries)? Would it be too obvious to point out that we need to set a better example for the children in our lives? I know that for people of color, all of this is old news, and it will probably seem like I haven’t said enough. But the reality is that, for many white people, concepts like white privilege are relatively new, and we are just figuring out how to think about them. In fact, we still have to work against our natural resistance to these ideas.
What does this have to do with Spiritual Blueprint? I suppose it’s that the homes for your heart & spirit are all about one’s community of friends – one’s support system, but if you limit yourself to people who are like you, then your community is too small, and your support system is too weak.