• Date January 24, 2019
  • Author Fran Johnston

Photo by Woubishet Z. Taffese on Unsplash

In this week celebrating Martin Luther King, Jr’s birth, with a viral video of a young white male facing off toe to toe with an Indigenous Leader and the Los Angeles School District at a standstill due to a teacher strike demanding reasonable class sizes and resources for students, I am reminded of MLK’s call to ACTION. The video of the young man went viral and his parents hired a PR firm to reframe the image into a positive one. The internet has erupted as lines are drawn and sides formed. While we debate the “truth’ of an event almost none of us were present for, real change doesn’t happen. If you want to live in a truly equalitarian society where all women and people of color enjoy the same opportunity for a shot at a safe and fair life as our white brothers – I do — we must act, not spend our energy debating the veracity of inequity and living in a state of denial of the terrible physical, social and psychic toll of racism. But it isn’t easy for us moderate (northeastern, white) liberals, not to mention whites in other parts of the country.

I am reminded of a book I read 35 years ago, actually it is still on my bedside table, by Lillian Smith, called Killers of the Dream. And another, call Portraits of White Racism, by David T. Wellman. Lillian was a white Southern woman writing in the 1950s. She writes about the intimacy between whites and blacks in the South due to “shared households” and the fury that erupted when that code was broken. But there were relationships. She had a relational lens, and wrote essays about Southern life. As a Northerner, reading about a life 30 years prior, I was fascinated. Obviously, the social arrangement worked better for the rich whites. The poorer whites had a more complicated relationship with black Liberation due to class identification. Rich Southern whites had mobilized energy and used the poorer folks (and the police) to maintain the social order. Think lunch counter hatred or the smug face of that boy with the Indigenous leader.

There was/is energy to work with for or against change in the South whereas in the North things were cerebral and self-satisfied. Northerners held a relational distance and seemed smug as they judged the Southern whites, all the while taking actions in the North that preferred order over fairness as King so clearly articulated: “But most whites in America, including many of good will,” he wrote “proceed from a premise that equality is a loose expression for improvement. White America is not even psychologically organized to close the gap.”   Making my living working with emotions, I have seen this all too often, when faced with strong emotions in complicated systemic situations, we whites freeze, shut down, get defensive, cry, or I guess now, hire a PR firm. I have done all but the latter. When we hold the vision of all of us working, living, loving together with equal opportunity for all, we will move forward.  

And then there is David T. Wellman, the sociologist. Portraits of white Racism was his dissertation. Among the white people David interviewed were liberal whites, like those MLK was referring to, as well as whites – rich and poor – from the South. I can still remember the portraits, and seeing myself and my community in them. He talks about the fury on the part of the poor whites who were both threatened by the loss of their one advantage over poor blacks – that they were not black – and keen to hold on to their status and “privilege” that comes with being white. (Later this idea of “privilege” has cause much confusion and resistance on the part of many, many whites who are programmed to think of themselves wholly as individuals and to not see their membership in a group that comes with it many advantages.) Up North, we say, “I am not a racist! I don’t discriminate!” For the poor whites in Wellman’s research, it was clear that without segregation and Jim Crow laws, they were simply poor and deeply disadvantaged.

BUT, and this was the point I remember the most, they could understand the point of view of blacks because they too were share croppers or working always for the (white, rich) man. Some of these poor whites were sympathetic to the civil rights protestors. They understood why people were boycotting and walking and willing to die for equality. Whereas up North where things appeared more equal, whites didn’t see the need for the demonstrations or “riots” that started occurring. They didn’t get it, it is not happening in their own neighborhoods. They didn’t see the patterns around housing, education, access to healthcare, opportunity for advancement at work, etc.

Especially searing for me, he revealed a portrait of liberal whites who think they are progressive but whose actions speak otherwise. Many liberal “progressive” whites lived in a personal state of incongruity between words and actions, e.g. as soon as blacks moved into the neighborhood schools, they moved to the suburbs, etc.  Wellman testified to this effect in a trial in 2001: “There was–is–a discrepancy between what white Americans say in the post-civil rights movement and what they do. There’s this disjunction.”

Living in a state of incongruity is not good for your mental health. Living in a state of denial is not good, either. We need to have the courage to see and the fortitude to stay in the fight for change. I have never forgotten Wellman’s research. It is a touchstone for me. What do I want to see in my Portrait?

So, this week, and every week, I ask myself the question, “Am I working for the change that I say I stand for and care about?” plus — where is the energy needed to work for change? How can I use my whiteness and my power to create opportunities for people who do not have the opportunities I had and continue to have? How can I work to dismantle an outdated system that thinks there is not plenty for all; that I and my fellow whites will “lose” if other ethnic and minority groups “gain”? I simply do not ascribe to that world view, rather I want to help create an equitable, loving world where we embrace our collective power to make a positive difference, however small, in racial fairness, equity, spiritual and ancestral reparations.

No matter the context, I want to listen to the Elder with respect and compassion, get off of the internet and into action using my company Teleos Leaders and “platform” to teach empathy, leadership and how to work gracefully across differences. For systems change, I will join the march for fair, equitable and progressive allocation of resources to help lift up communities of color so that we all may live safely and successfully in the democracy I pledge allegiance to.