Understanding a White Hostile Environment
She gets it. And, in getting it, I can make myself hopeful. I can see progress. I can see the fruit of social justice in Southern Oregon. A cure for white racial innocence does exist.
Being an activist, I savor these moments. I know they happen regularly, yet, emotionally, they land as few and far between. When I saw the Elder’s comment on social media, I captured it. Why? Because it was perfect. It is exactly the level of awareness and consciousness I aspire all so-called allies to develop.
In my mind’s eye I can easily recreate that scene. The little boy in me, he reminds me of how that talk felt. The perspective of what a grocery store was and is at 6 or 7 years old. Yet, I did see what my parents described. Did I live in America? Yes. Did I, also, and paradoxically, not live in America? Yes, I did.
I have spent most of this life attempting to find the words and metaphors to describe in terms white people can understand the duality of being among the Black, Indigenous Persons of Color (BIPoC.) I write books. I conduct classes. I give lectures. And, I do so almost exclusively from the BIPoC perspective. In 26 years, white racial innocence continues to baffle me in its intensity and durability. I almost conclude that it is a necessary element of white American identity. Living completely blind to race, racism and whiteness is white culture. The individual has to act as if racism is not happening, even while it is happening.
Back to the scene. We are here in Costco. It is a grocery store. It is a national chain grocery store. This appears to be a normal teaching moment, parent to child. It is a matter of teaching “how to behave.” The rules of how to behave inside an American grocery store are “standardized,” aren’t they? It begs a question. I mean, a toddler melting down because the parent is refusing to purchase an item the toddler wants is so standard an experience comedy shows make reference to it. The American audience “gets” every joke of the situational conflict where the child is able to exercise power in public they may not have in private.
The idea that this Costco is in Southern Oregon, logically, should not matter. It is Costco. The idea that a Costco in Southern Oregon is “white space” doesn’t resonate. It lands false in the ears of white bodied persons.
I used to think this lack of resonation was based on a lack of education. I no longer believe this.
I now think, the cognitive dissonance white parents experience upon learning that normal spaces like grocery stores, school classrooms or court rooms - accessed by hundreds of persons, are “white” and not “universal,” is built into the socialization of whiteness.
Through White Bodied Eyes
The white parent and child imagine the Black parent is “going overboard” with their advice. The “talk” is the problem. The “talk” is teaching Black children to see race, when it can easily be ignored. Anyone can do it. Look at the situation logically.
Where is the threat? The Black parent and child are going to a business. It is illegal for the business to discriminate against them. The political atmosphere in America is so charged. It is not “fun” being “treated” as a “white” person, like the mainstream media is trying to make it seem.
In fact, if you think about it, most of the white people do not wish to be perceived as “white” and will probably go out of their way to give the Black parent and child a positive experience. Costco staff will live up to the customer service training every employee receives. It is standardize. When no violence happens, or incidences the white parent and child believes isn’t outside normal interpersonal friction, the white parent concludes the Black family is as safe as they want to feel they are safe. If there is any racial anxiety, the Black family is creating their own anguish.
That is as clear as I can describe the white racial innocence argumentive style. It sounds so normal, it is difficult for white bodied persons to look through and see it for what it is.
The barrier is how one is suspended in a group dynamic. The idea that the white parent and child - themselves - are a part of the “threat” the Black parent is teaching how to navigate is the part that confuses the white parent. How are they - in their own bodies and consciousness - a threat? As long as the individaul person is not intentionally using their personal being to create a negative experience, isn’t “the Talk” internalized oppression that has nothing to do with white people?
Smile, I am slowing coming to appreciate how deep the socialization of “whiteness” in white America is.
I am coming into this acceptance by asking myself over and over again, “Upon what does the young white person build their self-esteem, self-image and self-identity?” What do I have to offer or to point towards? Otherwise, I judge myself as a part of the problem.
I can see “white spaces.” Having once been a Black child, I remember “The Talk.” It instilled in me a concept I read Dr. W. E. B. DuBois articulate in his 1901 classic, “The Souls of Black Folk.” DuBois, a biracial person, explains the duality he experienced sitting in a Harvard classroom. He was Black. The “other” students were not. The white students lived in one state of mind. Whiteness is the definition of humanity to them. They did not have to imagine themselves outside of that definition. And, when asked to, there was no material in their imagination to draw from, all of their observation of American society dripping whiteness: not in whiteness, as whiteness. They were human in their eyes and Dr. DuBois had to conform to their standardized tests.
In 1967, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. made a similar argument in his speech, “The Other America.” It was an extension of the argument made in his 1963, Letter from a Birmingham Jail. He used gallup polls and governmental statistics to pierce the fog of white racial innocence.
I marvel at how it was maintained after 12 years of the Civil Rigths Movement. Despire active segregation practices, white audiences had a difficult time internalizing the sight of a “Whites Only” sign in relationship to them. Because segregation did not directly affect their white bodies, life choices or ability to defend themselves intellectually before other white bodied persons, the idea that a “Whites Only” sign meant mortal danger to Dr. King and his family did not make sense. There was nothing inside of the white bodied experience that resonated with racial discrimination. The twin forces of economics and class did. From the outside looking in, especially with world-renown cultural landmarks like The Cotton Club, 1967 white America could not see how segregation practices limited the human potential of Negroes. Dr. King, himself, used bigger words than they did. So, where was the source of the pain?
Two Americas Remain
Likewise, the January 6, 2021 Capitol Riot is being ignored just as completely as “Whites Only” signs two generations ago. It is all an intellectual exercise. It is something that happened “over there” and has nothing to do with the self-image, self-identity and self-esteem of the white person immediately in front of me. The white racial innocence in front of me will argue they, in their individual white body, was not present and did not support such actions, verbally or monetarily.
I will get the same response when discussing the white nationalist rally in Philadelphia on July 3, 2021. The average white person wants me to accept their shock and awe at watching such a manifestation of white America’s self-image, self-identity and self-esteem. I get there is tremendous avoidance looking into such a mirror.
“I was not there. I am learning this in real time, just like you. I have no idea how those white persons were even created.”
At some point, it is not the socialized adults, but the young whites who are starting to do, like the grandmother, see through the fog. Racism is happening in Southern Oregon at all times. Not seeing is practicing whiteness.
The idea that the average white person appears to be completely ignorant of how whiteness is instilled into them or other white people is THE most glaring problem for the current generation of white America.
How do you address this problem?
Nowadays, because of the charge around race, racism and whiteness in the average white American mind, I have to point you towards reading one of my books or attending one of my classes to explore the nature of the answer. We do have solutions. Blueprints were given to us three generations ago. We refuse to implement the solutions and use the tools.
White people have to heal white people. This starts with grieving what is really means to be white people.