Whiteness and Me

In last Sunday’s New York Times Magazine Section, Emily Bazelon argues that “White people are noticing something new: their own Whiteness.” “The Trump era,” she says, “has compelled an unprecedented acknowledgement of whiteness as a real and alarming force.”  For over a century, Black Americans like WEB Dubois, James Weldon, James Baldwin, and Ta-Nehisi Coates, have been alerting us to this ‘force.’  At the risk of great over simplification, let me summarize their argument:  Racism has not only damaged people of color; it has also served the purpose for White Americans of externalizing and disguising our own racial self-loathing.

As far as anyone can tell, I am a White Man, a member of the dominant group in our society.  In that “role” I have participated in and, therefore, perpetuated an oppressive and racist society.  Yet I am equally clear that I don’t identify as a White Man. Where, then, do I stand and what is my responsibility?  And what is yours?

These are hard and possibly harsh questions, and you may ask: Why now?  Why would a 76 year old man be asking them?  Haven’t I done what I can do in the political world?  Haven’t I come to terms with my legion of failures and insufficiencies?

Here’s why: I think that old age is a time of reckoning, a time to put my life into perspective—including a moral perspective—in order to live peacefully, to get right with myself for this last phase.

For me, few aspects of life remain painfully up in the air and demanding of intense scrutiny.  I ask myself, for instance, “Have I been a decent and trustworthy person?  Have I been kind and generous enough?  Have I been a good enough husband and father?”  While I readily acknowledge that  I am deeply flawed and I could spend hours enumerate my shortcomings, I have mostly come to terms with them. I can say, in a way that is internally comfortable: “I have limitations, but I have been good enough.”

There are areas where I am less certain but still not tormented.  For instance, in the age of Me Too, I need to determine whether I’ve been respectful and loving enough to women and girls—my wife, my daughter, my daughter-in-law, my friends, my students, my patients. I think I have but I know that I have also fallen down along the way.  My conclusion?  I have done as well as I could, but thankfully I am still learning.  I can change.  I think this experience of learning saves me from coming up against an implacable moral wall.  As a result, I am generally comfortable with the incompleteness.

Political engagement is an arena in which I have come up short.  I think right, talk right, but act too little.  I don’t see myself changing much.  My reckoning in this arena has required me to find ways to forgive myself for my limitations.

Now back to race and racism.  The first premise of Whiteness Studies that Bazelon features seems to be the inescapability of our skin color.  I get this idea and I partly yield to it.  But I also object in much the same way that people of color object.  They have been grouped as Black by others — by Whites — despite the great variety of origins, cultures, personalities, and, yes, skin colors.  What could be worse than other people defining who you are, no less defining you as lesser beings?  Whites have been able to do this because of their economic and cultural dominance.  As the dominant group, they see themselves as the norm and as the arbiter of what is normal and good.  White people suffer far, far less by being defined by others but I still object to both “White” (“Critical Studies” theorists) and “Black” people telling me I am White, with all the dark connotations that Whiteness now implies.

Yes, I have been ‘privileged’ because my skin color lets me pass as a member of the dominant race. As a result, I have gone to good schools and found professional success; all along, I have believed that my success was purely my own, without a cultural boost.  As an adult, I have lived in prosperous communities with excellent schools that virtually guaranteed that my children would find success, and they have.  Though I am aware of their privilege, too, I couldn’t help believe that they succeeded on their merits.

I have never believed that people of color have equal opportunity, and I have voted for every politician and every policy that seeks to change the social and economic status quo.  In that limited sense, I have given voice to these values, but I have neither refused the fruits of Whiteness nor devoted enough of my life to fighting inequality and racism.  In that sense, I have participated in and therefore supported, an unjust and racist society.

This support has been particularly hard to swallow because the values of equality and diversity were at the center of my upbringing.  I was raised to fight them in myself and others.  When my parents described people, they would begin by noting that they were either “Left” or “Right,” long before they would get to whether they were kind or interesting or good looking.  Left was good and emphasized diversity.  Many of the books I read and records I listened to as a child were little more than sermons about the virtues of diversity.  Paul Robeson’s Ballad for Americans still brings me to tears when it insists that all people, Black and White, Italian, Irish, and Jewish, must gather in common cause.  There is hardly a personal or political theme that moves me like this one does.

So I regret not doing more to further the cause, and I won’t feel right with myself unless or until I have come to terms with my position on racism and, of course slavery —  the worst offense ever perpetuated by this country.  As a country, we have never come close to making amends for it.  And I don’t know how we could fully come to terms.

I have tried, on my own, in a number of ways.  The first and most consistent is to reject my assignment to both the historical, and current, category of The Oppressor.  I do not identify as White, and in fact, I never have.  I have always felt myself an outsider to mainstream American culture.  Bazelon dismisses this way of thinking, saying that people like me prefer to identify ethnically, as Irish, Italian, or Jewish.  But Jewish is not the same.  We have long been a despised tribe.  From earliest memory, I have identified more with people of color than I do with White Anglo Saxon Protestants (WASPs), or the newly romanticized working class Whites of West Virginia.  Jews, even atheistic Jews like me, are always at least a little on edge, waiting for the next pogrom, the next murderous attacks, literal or figural.  I have great White friends but, when I hear the word White to describe a people, I do not think of friends.

At 15, I tried to organize my community to charter a bus to Washington, DC to march for Civil Rights.  Not a single person joined me and many simply accused me of being a Communist, which, during their youth, my parents had been.  It was still the McCarthy period.  Red baiting was alive. I was isolated.  So I traveled with the Hempstead kids, on an all Black bus (except for me). I was nervous and exhilarated.  I did not belong but I was in the right place.

It’s not so easy to describe what made that the right place, but let me try.  I stayed true to my values.  It felt risky.  I was learning.  I was appreciated and teased, which felt both good—like I belonged—and bad—like I was an outsider.  Of course, I was both.  I was mostly pleased to be in that complicated place.

During college and graduate school, I continued as an outsider at Harvard, protesting,  sometimes speaking out, but often receding into the background and feeling mostly like I didn’t belong to a culture that still contained about 45% prep school students wearing their perfect tweed jackets, chinos, blue shirts, and rep ties.

In my early 30s, I realized that I was neither an insider nor an outsider.  Yes, I was a White professional, making a decent living, an intellectual, who still played basketball and avidly followed the Celtics and the Red Sox.  But I was also a divorced father and living in a commune with my four year old daughter. I still held political views to the Left of most of the people I knew. I was neither far out nor way in. I was a marginal man.  This realization upset me at first.  The term sounded Kafkaesque.  Then I realized that virtually all of my friends were marginal in similar ways.  And I relaxed. I had found a home.

That realization saved me from a life of discomfort.  I didn’t have to change dramatically.  I didn’t have to torment myself.  Marginality wasn’t the absence of place in our society.  It was a definite place, a place populated by like-minded people, Black, White, and Tan, and a place I wanted to be.  I still do.

In 2006, at the age of 64, I started the Institute for Nonprofit Management and Leadership (INML).  Its mission is to train nonprofit managers to be effective leaders in the service of diversity and social justice.  The majority of its students and faculty are people of color. For the last 10 years of my work life I had the privilege of constantly speaking the language of diversity and justice and urging them into existence.  I was inside the cause, not pushing from the outside.  It felt better than all my successful years of being a psychotherapist and organizational consultant.  At the end of that period, I passed on the INML’s leadership to an immensely talented woman of color and stepped back.

I know how to belittle my work at the INML.  Wasn’t it patronizing, my leading an effort to expand diversity among nonprofit senior staff?  Wasn’t my success rooted in layers of White privilege, including my Harvard pedigree? Although I believe deeply that my colleagues and my students experienced my commitment to them and to this issue as authentic and deeply felt, sometimes I was nudged, slightly, lovingly away from the center of the action. I was called an “ally,” that is, “for” but not entirely “of” the cause.

At the height of my involvement with what is now called the Institute for Nonprofit Practice, I struggled just a little with my self-doubts (“do I belong here?”) and the muted doubts of others—almost all White people.  But by the time I left, I had accepted my status as an ally, my marginality, even within an organization I had founded and built. It told me that I was acceptable, even appreciated, as a marginal man.  Which I am.

So where does this leave me in my moral reckoning on race and racism?  To be honest, I’m not sure.  In a way, I may have returned to that 1956 bus ride to Washington, where I felt equal measures of uneasiness and exhilaration.  I was and am still learning.  I’m OK with my limitations and my status as an Ally. I won’t be excluded.  And I’ll live well enough with the uneasiness that remains.

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Old and Proud: We will not be defined by the standards of youth

I am grateful to Ta-Nehisi Coates’s for bringing James Baldwin back to us.  Just this week, I took my copy of The Fire Next Time,, with its browning and brittle pages, down from the bookshelf.  I bought it in 1964, my senior year in college, and underlined almost every word.  Each sentence is still shocking, strange, and resonant at the same time.  I knew nothing about growing up in Harlem at the time but felt passionately, as he did, that I did not want American culture to define me.

Baldwin tells us that his father was “defeated long before he died because at the bottom of his heart, he really believed what white people said about him.”  When white people called him “nigger,” it was unforgivable.  But when he internalized their view and became invisible, even to himself, a man without an identity, that might have been worse.

Baldwin tells his nephew that “There is no reason for you to try to become like White people and there is no basis whatever for their impertinent assumption that they must accept you.”  Instead, “you must accept them and accept them…” And, by doing so, “force our brothers to see themselves as they are…”

It may be impertinent for a White man to say so but Baldwin’s cri de coeur also seems like a perfect battle cry for those of us who are aging: to force our younger brothers and sisters to see us as we are and, by doing so, to see themselves as they are.

American society wants old people to be young, which is how we are portrayed in the AARP Magazine, the flagship of affirmative aging.  According to the Magazine we should aspire to smooth skin and bright smiles; long hikes, sexual prowess, and working for as long as we want; to financial security and an upbeat disposition; and to ticking off the items on the bucket list we created to make up for unfulfilled lives.  The degree to which we imitate young people is the degree to which we can affirm ourselves.  In other words, we are enjoined to be anything but old.

While this injunction is silly on the face of it, we have absorbed it.  We are complicit, especially when we try to imitate youth.  In imitation we betray ourselves.  By the standards of youth, we are ugly, slow witted, graceless, and impotent.  We are defined, not by who we are but by our failure to be effectively young and, conversely, by an ineluctable movement towards frailty and death.

This youthful pretense magnifies our shame.  We are ashamed of our forgetfulness, our lined faces and crinkly skin, our diminished muscle mass and our increased fatty tissue, and our need to be cautious in the out-of-doors.  What’s more, these current ‘failings’ bring back ancient wounds.  Even as youth, we weren’t always beautiful, brilliant, agile, and bold.  We were taught to be ashamed then, which is now aggravated in old age.

Shame is a terrible feeling.  It isn’t like guilt, which focuses on what you have done or failed to do.  It speaks to your whole being.  It is being unworthy, unattractive, unloved.  It makes you want to crawl into a cave, to be unseen and unknown.  In old age, there is nothing worse than shame.

We will do almost anything to avoid it, even try to be someone or something else, like trying to look and act young.  We will cover our shame with anger, becoming the angry old men and women of satirical movies. Anger at least keeps people and shame at a distance.  We will allow ourselves to be seen as adorable—nice elderly people and doting grandparents.  If we don’t appear challenging, others won’t challenge us, or so we tell ourselves.  We hold back much of who we are.  We become withdrawn, no matter how lonely it makes us.

James Baldwin asks Black people to see themselves without the filter of White society.  Ta-Nehisi Coates, his partial reincarnation, doesn’t think that’s possible and urges his son to withdraw.  I am not sure if aging people can free themselves from the imagery of a youth-oriented culture.  But, short of withdrawal, we have to try.

To begin, we must ask: what makes us distinctive.  It is partly the losses we have incurred, physically and emotionally.  We cannot deny that.  If we do, we are giving in to ‘them.’  But look closely, my friends.  There’s something beautiful in the experience that is written into the lines of an older face.  There is something ancient, almost eternal, in the laughter when it comes forward.  What about the knowing glances in response to petty conflicts that we will no longer join.  What about the depth acceptance in our friendships.  There is wisdom in that acceptance.

When old people study and think about new subjects, there is a vast storehouse of knowledge and experience that they draw on, whether younger people want to benefit from that knowledge or not.  There is perspective and calm that lead to sound judgments.  There is wisdom in these judgments.  There is greater understanding that each, new sunrise is to be cherished.  Not in every old person, of course.  Not in as many old people as we might hope.  But this is the distinctive potential of old people who affirm themselves as they are, not as the absence of youth.

Baldwin tells us that, by being ourselves, we have the capacity to help others to see themselves more clearly.  Baldwin means that White people avoid themselves by externalizing their own fears and inadequacies.  By focusing their contempt and anger at Black people, White people can ignore the contempt and anger they feel towards themselves.  We see this in glaring form among the White Trump voters today, these defeated and abandoned men who momentarily lift their self-respect by venting their rage at immigrants, elites, and people of color.

Young people, with our complicity, do the same to us.  They do not want to face their inadequacies and they do not want to know that they are human, that they, too, will grow old.  They don’t want to look directly at our wrinkled skin.  They spend inordinate hours trying to be beautiful because they fear being old and ugly.  They don’t say ugly but they mean ugly.  They don’t want to face their own future.

Our challenge is to help them to see the beauty of life through its many stages, through all of its pains and triumphs.  We have the opportunity to make them less afraid, and to help them to celebrate life’s full passage.  Not by preaching or teaching them directly but by being wholeheartedly ourselves.