Black and White: Race Matters
Presented by Rev. Peter Connolly
Unitarian Universalist Church of Bowling Green
February 21, 2010
Ours is a country that has elected a black man to be its president. To be more precise, we live in a country that has elected a man of mixed race to be our president. That is a pretty remarkable statement, of course, more remarkable if you are old enough to remember the struggles for racial equality that tore the country apart in the 1960s.
It was brought to my attention within the past month that the sport of major league baseball, which I’ve followed avidly since I was a little kid, had, in 1951, the year of my birth, only eight teams that had been racially integrated. It was not until 1958, when I was six years old, that my home team, the Boston Red Sox, fielded its first black player. We were the last team in baseball to do so.
Viewed in that light, it is startling indeed that a black man has reached the pinnacle of success in the political world. That he is a man of mixed race is an even more phenomenal fact, given the stigma that was attached to so-called “miscegenation.”
All of this being true, it is natural enough that when we think of race in America or the problems encountered by way of racial identity in America, we think of members of racial minorities as the victims. So it is startling to read, in a book by an African American woman, that the issue of race in America, is one that has had profound traumatic impact on those we call “white” or “Caucasian.”
Thandeka is an African American woman ordained in the Unitarian Universalist tradition. She is senior research professor at Meadville-Lombard Theological School in Chicago and co-president of the Center for Community Values. She has been one of the leading voices in the Small Group Ministry movement, also known as “covenant groups” in our association of congregations. Her book Learning to Be White makes some remarkable assertions about the problems and costs of being white in America.
This six-chapter book has chapters entitled “White,” “Abuse,” “Class,” “Loss,” and “Victims.” These titles indicate problematic areas in American racial life and hint at the layers that embody those problems. It is not until you get to the sixth chapter of that book, the one entitled “A Primer,” that you come across definitions of what might be called “health.” The chapter starts this way:
Each of us has a personal “sense of a core self” that cannot be thought, touched, directly addressed, or seen. We need a primer, a set of psychological concepts, to understand how this sense of self is impaired by an American social process that forces Euro-Americans to become “white” in order to survive.
As I read the next paragraph, I encourage you to take out your order of service and prepare to spend a few minutes with it as a physical entity.
You will note the presence of your own sense of a core self if you consider what happens as you read these words and hold this page, becoming aware through touch of the page’s smooth surface and through sight of dark figures on the background, and through thought of the ideas to which these sensations give rise. The act of coordinating these disparate mental and sensate events into one coherent moment of personal experience is your sense of a core self. Its presence is your awareness of what you naturally do as a human being: you relate.
This is as nice an articulation as I’ve come across as to what it means to be a healthy functioning entity in the world. It is Thandeka’s contention that the issue of race has compromised members of all races in America, including the majority white race which, she contends, has a signal problem in recognizing itself as a race.
Learning to Be White starts out with a series of short vignettes, in which a young white person confronts the shocking realization of what it means to be defined by race.[Read the stories of “Dan,” “Sarah” (1st paragraph), “Frank,” “Mike,” and “Sally.”]
Thandeka, in the course of writing this book, had to put aside some of her own standard modes of categorizing in order to make sense of what she was learning. Such categories as “racism, prejudice, and bigotry” might capture the dynamics or the motivation for the acts of the adults in the scenarios, but such categories were not adequate to capture the reality of the experience of the children and young people.
To her surprise, the term that occurred to her was “shame.” This was surprising because it meant that these young whites were victims rather than perpetrators of the violence that categorizes the process of racial exclusion.
Early in the book, Thandeka recounts the story of a luncheon meeting on Beacon Hill in Boston with a “luncheon partner” she describes as “a fifth-generation Smith College graduate with a New England genealogy older than the state and a portfolio perhaps as wealthy.” She says that this woman, wanting to get to know her, asked what it felt like to be black.
Thandeka says that she is not offended by the question because her luncheon partner’s “face was open; her eyes were friendly and engaged. She simply believed that nothing from her own background or experience could help her understand me.” Thandeka asked herself how she could make this woman “conscious of the racialization process to which her own Euro-American community had subjected her(.)” She came up with what she calls the Race Game.
This game had only one rule. “For the next seven days, she must use the ascriptive term white whenever she mentioned the name of one of her Euro-American cohorts. She must say, for instance, “my white husband, Phil,” or “my white friend Julie,” or my lovely white child Jackie.” I guaranteed her that if she did this for a week and then met me for lunch, I could answer her question in terms that she could understand. We never had lunch again. Apparently my suggestion had made her uncomfortable.”
Because the white race is, at present, the majority race in this country, whiteness is assumed by white people to be a default term for colorless. Thandeka calls upon us to challenge that self-description because she believes it constitutes self-deception.
Thandeka tells the story of a meeting with a woman named “Dorothy” in an Upper West Side Manhattan apartment. In the course of the conversation, they talked about “white identity,” which Dorothy was sure she did not have, describing herself as “simply an American.” In the story of her childhood that emerges, Dorothy recalls an incident long since forgotten, or at least submerged.
When Dorothy was five, she and her family lived in Mexico for a year. She was not allowed to play with the Mexican children. “The Mexican children and their parents,” though, according to Dorothy in her recollection, “seemed so much more at ease with themselves and each other. They seemed warm and physically close, unlike her own family, whose manners and expressions were cold and constrained.” She confessed “that she now recalled how often, during that year, she wished to be brown.”
Thandeka says that she “eventually decided to use the term white shame to designate the complex of reactions called forth when Dorothy addressed her own contradictory racial statements, emotions, and mental states.” She says that she “called the experience shame because it involved the discovery of an unresolved conflict within Dorothy that, when discovered, made her feel flawed. I called the experience white because of the racial context in which she had discovered her internal conflict.”
Today’s talk is an introduction to this topic, rather than an overview. Thandeka’s investigation into the race laws of colonial Virginia in the book’s third chapter, itself, merits a sermon in the way that it systematically exposes the discrete changes in the law that, step by step, separated white servants and black slaves, groups who had much in common and who had forged alliances, into warring camps. It exposes the role of race in creating class.
Though this is a slender book, it has large implications for all of us. I think it would make a great subject for us as a largely white church who wishes to engage with members of other churches who identify as black or as another racial minority. My suggestion is that we take this up as a church book group project or as the subject of a series in our Adult Forum. Or perhaps do both.
I will close with Thandeka’s exposition on “white shame.”
I developed the concept of white shame to refer to the pattern of feelings and behavior that I had begun to see emerge as I listened to various incidents recounted by other Euro-Americans and that was vividly displayed by Dorothy. The Euro-American child, I now believed, is a racial victim of its own white community of parents, caretakers, and peers, who attack it because it does not yet have a white racial identity.
Rather than continue to suffer such attacks, the Euro-American child defends itself by creating a white racial identity for itself. It begins to think and act like its community’s ideal of a white self. When the adult recalls the feelings and ideas it had to set aside in order to mount this defense, it feels shame. More precisely, white shame. Dorothy had recalled the feelings of the child whose parents wanted to love a white child. The parts of her that were not white had to be set aside as unloved and therefore unlovable.[Shame is] a sense of misalignment with one’s own identity.
- Thandeka, 1999. Learning to Be White. The Continuum Publishing Co. New York.