My friend Sharon Morgan was recently leaving the post office near her new home in a small, rural town in New York when a white guy yelled at her from his car, "F#@k that dumb ass Obama!" and sped away. I'm sure there are several factors that contributed to his stupid, stupid outburst. In addition to maybe politics, probably sexism, definitely an upbringing in which he didn't learn common decency or respect, and a few others, one factor was racism. I have no idea what bothers him more, having a black president or having a black woman living in his almost-completely white town.
We hear regularly about famous white people saying stupid things. Senator Harry Reid said that Candidate Obama could succeed in his campaign for president in part due to his light skin and lack of "Negro" dialect. Former Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich claimed to be blacker than Barack Obama. Even after Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell apologized for leaving out any reference to slavery in his Confederate History Month proclamation, Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour said controversy over the proclamation "doesn't amount to diddly." Senate candidate Rand Paul compared the political battles he wants to lead with those of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
There is a long history of white people saying and doing stupid, racist, and horribly damaging things to people of color. The Transatlantic Slave Trade was abolished by the U.S. Government on January 1, 1808. Many stupid white people—including distant relatives of mine—ignored the law for a long time. The last ship that brought enslaved African people to U.S. shores, the Clotilda, landed in Mobile Bay, Alabama, in 1860, more than fifty years after the law was enacted.
This week many people will celebrate Juneteenth in recognition of the abolition of slavery in the United States. Why not celebrate January 1, 1863, the day Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation took effect? Because it took two and a half years, until June 19, 1865, for Union soldiers to both win the Civil War and to arrive in Texas with enough strength to overcome the resistance of stupid, stupid white people.
Thank goodness I'm not like any of those white people.
Nope. I'm one of the good white people. I wrote a book about my family's commitment to truth, justice, and undoing racism. I speak at colleges and conferences all around the country about these issues. I share all the right articles with my friends on Facebook. And I write blog posts like this one whenever I'm invited to do so.
Yep, I sit at my desk in Oregon with a population that is 90% white, that in 1857 voted to ratify the state constitution with a provision that prohibited black people from moving here (with 89% voter approval), and write about stupid, stupid white people who live somewhere else.
Curse you, gentle, quiet voice—you know the one—that reminds me of the quote I included in my book from that wise teacher Pema Chödrön,
"Compassion is not a relationship between the healer and the wounded. It's a relationship between equals. Only when we know our own darkness well can we be present with the darkness of others. Compassion becomes real when we recognize our shared humanity."
No, I'm not like those other white people. I am them. And they are me. We all inherit damage from the past, we spread it like a virus, and we don't think. Too often, we just act. And sometimes we act stupidly like that guy at the post office. I also recognize that white people aren't the only ones who do and say stupid things. Black and brown folks have plenty of capacity for doing and saying stupid things as well. I just know more about white folks because I am white folks. And white folks have done most of the damage in the world over the past several centuries; so I believe we have a lot of the responsibility for acknowledging, speaking out about, and repairing that damage.
But let's get universal for a moment. Recognizing our shared humanity with all people—black, brown and white, male and female, young and old—includes the acknowledgment that actions taken by other people reflect on me, and vice versa. Driving my car and drinking from plastic bottles means I share in the responsibility for the oil spill that is destroying the Gulf of Mexico. Paying my taxes means I share in the responsibility for wars being waged in Iraq and Afghanistan. Standing by and doing little or nothing when any act of individual or systemic racism is committed means I share in the responsibility for the perpetuation of racism.
I don't condone the racist actions of the man who verbally abused my friend. I'd like him to be held accountable for what he did. Acknowledging my shared humanity with him does not mean I would do what he did. It is the recognition that we're all in this life struggle together. He's a scared, little man who himself has been damaged and acted stupid out of a deep-seated fear he probably can't even recognize, let alone acknowledge. We all experience sorrow and loss and fear. In the face of our fear, we all have the capacity to say and do stupid things.
And, thank goodness, we have the capacity to change that stupid paradigm.
When we begin working on holding each other accountable, healing our brokenness, committing our time to undoing injustice and inequality, and respecting each other in all our rich diversity—when we begin to spend as much time learning about ourselves, our history, and all we have in common as we do watching television and trying to convince ourselves we're nothing like those stupid, stupid other people, the world will become a richer, more peaceful, and less stupid, stupid place.
About the Author
Thomas Norman DeWolf is featured in the Emmy-nominated documentary Traces of the Trade, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival and on the acclaimed PBS series POV. DeWolf speaks regularly about healing from the legacy of slavery and racism at colleges, conferences, and workshops throughout the United States. He is the author of Inheriting the Trade and co-author of Gather at the Table. Follow him on Twitter at @TomDeWolf.