The United States was founded upon white supremacy. This is widely documented and in large swaths of society it is well known, yet it’s often completely glossed over in schools or the media where we are taught to practically worship the “founding fathers”. These founders were ALL of them white and male. They were from the upper crust of society, the so called elites, and owned land, ensuring their right to vote and many of them were slave owners. Thomas Jefferson, applauded as a product of the Enlightenment era, was a slave owner and rapist, who raped at least one of his slaves and fathered multiple children in so doing. Despite his so called enlightened views, he saw blacks as biologically inferior to whites and could not see a society where whites and blacks were on equal footing. The Emancipation Proclamation freed the slaves but it did nothing to overturn white supremacy. After the Civil War, which was fought ONLY to preserve race based slavery according to the articles of secession written by every seceding state, the Ku Klux Klan was formed and later Jim Crow laws were enacted. Still later, blacks were denied voting rights through a variety of means that stemmed directly from systemic racism such as gerrymandering of voting districts and impossible to pass literacy tests. It continues today with the so called “Voter ID laws” which purportedly are about eliminating voter fraud but in actuality are about suppressing minority voters. Just look at Alabama’s recent closure of driver’s license offices for proof. All the offices that were closed were in areas that are predominately black. No ID. No vote. This in a state that continues to reelect notorious bigot Jeff Sessions. Do you see the connection?
Now in 2016 in America, we are still wallowing in the putrefying mire of racial bigotry, hatred, and white supremacy so much so that other nations are now warning their citizens who are people of color that they may be unsafe traveling in America. We’re becoming a pariah akin to apartheid era South Africa in the international community. We have an overtly bigoted, narcissistic, sociopath with a good shot of wining the presidency despite spouting obvious racist remarks and having a well known history of discrimination against blacks and Latinos. There are myriad streets, roads, highways and other public monuments named after virulent racist, some of whom were in the KKK like the late Senator Robert Byrd, or Confederate Civil War generals and politicians. Police are STILL killing black people in tragic numbers and profiling them simply because of the color of their skin. Is it any wonder that the #BlackLivesMatter movement is so vocal? Is it any wonder that black people are seething with rage against a system of oppression that is ignored by the media while those who point it out are denigrated and told to “get over it”. Is it any wonder that race riots have occurred in 2016?
I know that I’d be enraged if every time I stepped out my door people were suddenly afraid of me or if I had cops starting to follow me around simply because of my skin color. I’d be outraged if every time a cop killed a white guy, a bunch of black pundits on TV started deflecting the true issue of police brutality against certain groups of peopel by bringing up “white on white crime” or talking about how prone to criminality whites are. I’d be livid if white culture was celebrated and appropriated by other people who simultaneously maintained that white people were inferior to everyone else. I’d by incensed if there was a 400 year history of racially based white enslavement that built an empire and then subsequently swept all of that history under the rug, pretending that it was a minor footnote in a long glorious, black history, that had no lasting affects upon said empire and its people. This is the kind of horrible situation that black Americans deal with. EVERY. SINGLE. DAY. Just for being born black.
In my 20s I evinced casual racism in my own life more than I care to admit. I was a product of my environment. Like a fish that blithely swims through the water without knowing that it is surrounded by water, I swam in the waters of systemic racism and the deification of those with white skin. Look no further than paintings and Sunday school pictures of Jesus, so often idiotically depicted as a white hippy looking fellow, for proof of the deification of whiteness. Or at cultures as disparate as those found in Mexico and Thailand where many of the celebrities are far lighter in skin tone than most of the population. I have a photo showing my mother holding my infant sister on her lap as I stand by their side. On the wall in the background is a Confederate flag. I heard family members use the ‘N’ word to describe black people and other family members told me that it was a sin to marry outside of one’s race, and then justified this bigotry by pointing out a verse in the Old Testament as proof. I heard the expression, “I’m free, white and 21, I can do whatever I want.”
Just prior to my 12th birthday, we moved to rural North Texas. The whole town was white except for a small number of Mexicans, who I often heard called “wetbacks” by people. After getting out of the Marines, I went back to my hometown in Texas for a football game and watched in horror as some of the people from my town launched rocks and bricks at the opposing team’s bus while shouting epithets as the County Sheriff’s deputies attempted to escort the bus off of the premises. The other team was comprised of almost all black students from an impoverished small town.
Even with this type of upbringing, I didn’t think I was a racist though. My best friend in first grade was a black kid named Darius and I played with a pair of black sisters who lived on my block when I was still going to that school. While in the Marines I made friends with people of color from around the country and attended an all black church in North Carolina while going to engineer school at Camp Lejuene. Later when I was stationed in Hawai’i I went to a church in Honolulu where white people were definitely in the minority. Yet, despite all of this, I was prejudiced and ignorant of my own prejudice, and ignorant about how that prejudice was became evident in my life. I remember an anti-racism class that was held in the base theater at Marine Corps Air Base Kaneohe where I was stationed. Someone stood up and asked how come it was OK for a black Marine to wear a shirt with “It’s a black thing, you wouldn’t understand” on it but a white Marine couldn’t wear a confederate flag T-shirt. The presenter said that the confederate flag was used as a racist symbol or something to that effect. I jumped out of my seat and proclaimed loudly that it was merely a “battle flag” like one of the guidons Marine Corps units use to distinguish one unit from another. For a couple of years after I got out of the Marines I had a confederate flag bandana in my pick up. Why? Because I had bought into the lie that it was just about heritage and was wholly ignorant of how it was intentionally adopted in the 20th century as a symbol of race based hatred.
Another incident that I can recall vividly haunts me. During an argument with my boss and his wife in 1994, I became incredibly agitated due to overwork and what I saw as unreasonable demands made by my employer. My schedule was working 13 out of every 14 days, for somewhere between 70-90 hours per week on their dairy farm. I have PTSD, though I didn’t know it at the time, and quickly lost control of my mouth during the argument, at one point loudly declaring, “I’m not your nigger, and don’t appreciate being treated like one!” In one sentence I expressed so many of the white supremacist ideals that were insidiously inculcated into my being by a society built upon white supremacy. In one sentence I shattered the notion that I was not a racist and harbored no prejudice within me. In one sentence I proved right every activist who has called out America on its systemic racism. In one sentence. When I look back upon that incident, I feel shame throughout my being. The seeds planted by a white supremacist society unsurprisingly germinated within me as white supremacy. This is true I believe for the overwhelming majority of white people in America whether they know it or not.
Just because I no longer use the ‘N’ word, or other epithets, doesn’t mean that I haven’t at times since that argument shown the prejudice that white supremacy engenders in white people. Just because I am writing this essay now, doesn’t mean that I am not unconsciously showing my “whiteness” within these paragraphs. Just because my family never owned slaves doesn’t mean that I have not benefited in myriad ways because America was built upon slavery. Just because I have black friends and married a woman of color (my wife is half Puerto Rican) doesn’t mean that I am no longer wittingly or unwittingly
perpetuating systemic racism based upon white supremacy. I have much to learn and much to unlearn. It is only by grace that I have been able to open my eyes this far. It is only by grace that the scales have at least started to fall off of my eyes. This grace has led me to have an intellectual curiosity to learn more than just “white history” and therefore to read books like Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee and to listen to the the powerful, give you the chills, speeches of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. It led me to write research papers on Wangari Mathai the Kenyan woman awarded the 2004 Nobel Peace Prize for her environmental work and Toussaint L’ouveture, the former black slave who led the only successful slave revolt in the so called New World in what is now Haiti.
Grace has enlivened a desire within me to see see injustice reversed, a desire to live in a world where the color of one’s skin is of no more significance than the color of one’s eyes. That grace has given me the courage to look at my self in the mirror to see where the scars and wounds of living in a hate based system are and the willingness to do something about it. That grace allowed me to change my views when confronted with the compelling evidence of injustice through the study of history and participation, even if peripherally, in social movements. When I first saw something saying “Black Lives Matter” , my initial white, male automaton like response was to say “All lives matter”. Only after reading WHY it’s imperative to stand up and say right now that Black Lives Matter did I understand the importance of such a statement. Now I agree 100% with the the assertion that Black Lives Matter. A simple analogy for this could be explained thus: A person goes to the ER with heart attack symptoms and says to the triage nurse, “I’m having a heart attack. Please check my heart out.” To which the nurse responds, “You know, all organs matter, not just the heart,” as she checks the patient’s liver, kidney, and spleen while completely ignoring the heart.
As white people we must confront what it means to be white in a society of white supremacy. We must dismantle all notions of superiority by rooting them out within ourselves. We must make ourselves vulnerable while being gracious with ourselves without denying their is an issue. We must deny that being white is a privilege while recognizing that society continues to confer privileges upon white people while seeing this as “normal”. We must truly love ourselves so that we may love all others without regard to their skin color, ethnicity, language, or culture. We must step out of our cocoon of whiteness and engage a world that is awash in color and become a part of it. To revel in it and to recognize the spark of divinity in every human being.
For further reading:
C.L.R. James- The Black Jacobins
Clayborne Carson, ed. – A Call to Conscience: The Landmark Speeches of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
and The Autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr.
and The Autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr.
Dee Brown- Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee
James W. Loewen- Lies My Teacher Told Me
Larry Tye- Satchel: The Life and Times of an American Legend
Timothy White – Catch a Fire: The Life of Bob Marley
Kwame Dawes – Bob Marley Lyrical Genius
Benjamin Weiss- Environmental activism in disempowered communities
Dr. Robin Di Angelo: Why it’s so hard to talk to white people about racism