Tuesday, March 25, 2008

I'm shocked that white people are shocked

... over Pastor Jeremiah Wright's sermons.

"What?" they seem to say. "How dare he? Why is he so ... angry?"

Are we really that obtuse? Really that blind?

I'm not talking about historical atrocities that were really, not that long ago. I'm talking about attitudes today.

Like the mayor of Jasper. You remember Jasper, right? Where James Byrd was horrifically beaten then dragged to death ... his body literally ripped apart.

The current mayor of Jasper, David Barber, says that the killing of James Byrd was "blown up out of proportion."

So I get the anger. I don't get the shock. Haven't we heard worse in our own homes, or in the homes of extended family?

How many of us were nodding with Obama, as we, in that moment, all shared the experience of having cringed at something racist someone we loved said?

Someone we loved. Not just a racist mayor. Someone we loved.

In Thandeka's book, Learning to Be White, she speaks to those with white skin, hearing their stories of when they first realized their whiteness, many of them realizing that someone they loved held racist views. Hateful views.

I have that memory. I was, oh, about 11 or 12. I was visiting my beloved Great-Aunt while my mother was running errands. I excitedly told her about a new hit song by a band called INXS, it was sooo cool. I told her the lyrics I knew:

Dream on white boy
Dream on black girl
And wake up to a brand new day

I somehow didn't register the next line ... "To find your dreams have washed away." So to me, it was a song of hope and beauty. That's how I'd been raised. As I danced around and told her about the song, I still lived in a world where all of the people I loved believed in racial equity and fairness. A world where racism was wrong and bad and all the people I loved were right and good.

That world was shattered as she began a tirade about desegregation and about how "we" were supposed to lift "them" up but instead "they" pulled us down to "their level."

I just remember standing there in shock. I don't remember what I said, or discussing it later with my mother, or any of that. I could not have been more shocked if she had begun explaining why it was necessary to murder toddlers.

I loved her for the rest of her life. But I learned how to love someone with disappointment, how to love someone with a quiet sorrow.

It's still going on. In big ways, like the mayor of Jasper, and in little ways like my sweet little aunt who, when talking politics with my mother, said timidly, "You'd vote for a black man?"

(My mother enjoyed announcing, "I already did!")

Obama hit on a detail in all of this that is so pertinent ... that it is so easy to divide up the world into camps -- racist on this side, people I love on the other side. But it really doesn't work that way.

I am not a subscriber to the notion of white guilt, but I know I have carried the uneasy feeling that to keep loving someone who was racist was wrong. That I should have completely excised them from my life.

They are old. They may not change before they die. But we still love them. With a bit of sorrow, but we still love them.

But now, they're living in our world.


Chalicechick said...

You were shocked as a kid to hear what your great Aunt said. IMHO, the Rev. Wright is a lot like your Great Aunt.

Your great aunt had probably been told as a kid that black people commit crimes and expect welfare to take care of them. And once you believe something like that, it's easy to see evidence everywhere you look. (Particularly given that your Great Aunt probably grew up with newspapers that exaggerated african-american crimes.)

Much like once one starts believing that racism motivates everything, it's easy to see evidence for that, particularly if you work with the poor as Rev. Wright does.

I don't believe what your great aunt believes about black people dragging white people down any more than I believe what the Rev. White has to say about the government inventing HIV to kill black people.

Both ideas are pretty shocking alone, and pretty understandable in the context of the lives the speakers probably led.


Elizabeth J. Barrett said...

Thanks for your post. Rev. Wright's remarks did not surprise or shock me, not even his conspiracy theories. Because that kind of thing used to happen, like black men with syphilis being part of an "experiment," or whites creating laws that kept black people out of certain towns or communities.

I used to work at a law firm where some of the employees set up a special shared file of racist jokes and used word of mouth to publicize it. Naturally, they were careful not to tell me about it. I would have turned them in immediately.

Elizabeth said...

I have also been shocked by the way that everyone is like, "How could that preacher say such horrible things about America??!" but, seriously, conservative white preachers are often saying things like how the U.S. has been taken over by devil-loving heathens and that God is punishing the U.S. for abortion and gays and such. They are always saying how HORRIBLE the U.S. and U.S. government is to allow X, Y, and Z. But, noooo, a black man says stuff about the racist U.S. and all of a sudden everyone is shock that a preacher would say such a thing. Absurd. But I can totally understand why so many white folks are shocked about the sort of thing Rev. J. Wright was saying - many people I know from OH and KY think that black people just don't work hard and if they had, things would be better for them and so what are they complaining about? Very sad. But they really really believe this. No sense of white privilege or white oppression at all.

Anonymous said...

In response to Elizabeth, no one is saying that there aren't other preachers - black or white - that spew hateful proclamation. However, they are not the preacher of a candidate running for President of the most powerful country in the world. It had nothing to do with the fact that he was black.
IMHO it is twisting things around and misconceptions like this where our society gets into trouble time and time again.
As for LE's words, I don't think most Americans are shocked that this preacher would say such things. Reverse discrimination is America's "elephant in the room that no one wants to talk about". (which is another topic in itself) What WAS shocking was the fact that Senator Obama would listen and support such nonsense. (And before you say he doesn't support it, standing by someone who says such things - who is NOT your family - IS supporting.)
There is very much a difference between what your own sweet little old aunt says and a non-related third party. As Hillary stated, we do not choose our family. If my priest had said such a statement, first I would confront him after mass and let him know how horrible I thought his words were. I would then report him. And if he did not apologize or some other action taken, I would leave that church and find another that did support and practice my views and beliefs.

After all, whether he is elected as president or not, many people look to him for leadership and guidance. No we obviously do not divide up the world "... to divide up the world into camps -- racist on this side, people I love on the other side." But INHO, we also do not continue to support those who would spew such damaging proclamation, either.

Anonymous said...

one more thought:

Did Obama (and his constituents) seem to forget that he is half white?