The Complications of Whiteness
Yes, I love Martin Luther King, Jr. I love the soaring vision, the beautiful, biblical words, the inclusive dream. I imagine that I would have stood with him in the 1960s — working for justice and to embody the beloved community.
But truth is this: my parents didn’t. Nor did any of the adults I knew. By the mid-1960s, my mother (who was in favor of civil rights) was quiet about Dr King. Her silence (with the exception of secretly telling her children that the other adults were “mean”) was the most politically liberal thing she felt she could do. Every other adult in my world wasn’t so generous. Grandparents, aunts and uncles, family friends — all of them were openly racist, called Dr King a Communist, worked to keep their schools, pools, and churches segregated, bought guns to kill any black people who dared set foot in our neighborhood (unless that person was a housekeeper or a gardener), and taught their children — without any hesitation — that white people were morally, intellectually, and spiritually superior to everyone else and it was God’s intention that we maintain our place at the top of American hierarchy. We were entitled. By divine fiat.
The white, working class world of my childhood was not an exception to the racial environment in which millions of mid-century Americans grew up. These experiences and attitudes were commonplace for white children. Overt, ugly, hierarchical, religious-sanctioned racism was the air that my neighborhood breathed. There were other sorts of “neighborhoods,” as I now know — for my husband grew up in a family who did not tolerate the sort of attitudes I just described (but they were aware of being “different”).
White Americans cannot afford to “whitewash” their own past. To heal, and to come to terms with the emerging American future, folks who are white like me need to tell true stories of awareness, conversion, and repentance that often set us on a different road from our own relatives and ancestors — not to throw our loved ones under history’s bus — but to be truthful that they did awful things, taught their children ideas that hurt and excluded others, and passed onto today’s white Americans a deeply painful, often drenched in denial, past. It is hard to deal with race when it was your grandparents, your parents, your cousins, your friends — to say that they were both wrong and worked for policies and politics that were wrong.
That’s what I’m thinking about this MLK day. While reading all the beautiful quotes online, while hearing the strains of “Lift Every Voice and Sing” in my mind, the complications of whiteness haunt me. And I wonder: how does one banish the bad dream — the nightmare really — of growing up behind the white curtain?
Diana Butler Bass is an author, speaker, and independent scholar specializing in American religion and culture. She is a board member of the Center for Progressive Renewal and Convergence.
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