My insensitive use of a word changed my summer plans. When people reacted to my horrible mistake by denouncing me publicly as a racist, I felt shocked, hurt, angry and defensive. My first impulse was to fight back. I wanted to prove I wasn’t a racist. I wanted to rattle off all the aspects in my life that illustrated inclusivity of the black community. I wanted to explain how I completely understood a black person’s struggle. I wanted to believe I wasn’t a person of white privilege.
The social media outrage, my friends’ disbelief at my thoughtlessness and my own shame and regret left me momentarily transfixed. I decided to publicly apologize and take the summer off from theatre reviewing for personal reflection. If enough people call you a racist, it’s time to take inventory of your life.
I spent the summer in contemplation. I’ve had conversations with people to broaden my understanding of racism and white privilege. And I’ve spent a lot of time reading.
I read A COLONY IN A NATION by Chris Hayes. Hayes, a white journalist, chronicles his own experience reporting from Ferguson, Missouri during the 2014 riots. Hayes describes the duress following the death of Michael Brown. Brown, an unarmed teenager, was fatally shot by a police officer. Following his death, his body laid in the streets for hours. This horrifying moment in history is one of many illustrations Hayes uses to explain that white people live in the Nation and black people live in the colony.
“In the Nation, there is law; in the colony, there is only a concern with order. In the Nation, you have rights; in the Colony, you have commands. In the Nation, you are innocent until proven guilty; in the Colony, you are born guilty.”
Hayes’ book is a hard read. The facts are brutal. And reading about these past atrocities while living in a nation led by a horrible leader that empathizes with white supremacists is unnerving.
“White fear emanates from knowing that white privilege exists and the anxiety that it might end.”
Hayes tells about his own white privilege. In his twenties, he forgot he had pot in his backpack when he went through security. His bag was searched. The pot was found. The security guard conferred with his peers. The bag and pot was returned. Hayes was waved thru. Hayes emphasizes if he was a young black man that encounter would have gone differently. A small indiscretion of carrying pot for a black man could result in incarceration or death.
I also read BETWEEN THE WORLD AND ME by Ta-Nehisi Coates. The book is a love letter from Coates to his son. It is poetically powerful. Coates reflects on his experience growing up in a body that is black. He describes the differences from generation to generation in raising a black son.
“Black people love their children with a kind of obsession. You are all we have, and you come to us endangered. I think we would like to kill you ourselves before seeing you killed by the streets that America made. That is a philosophy of the disembodied, of a people who control nothing, who can protect nothing, who are made to fear not just the criminals among them but the police who lord over them with the moral authority of a protection racket.”
He talks about his grandparents, his parents and his own struggle as a parent to raise a black man. His father beat him in preparation for a world that would hate him. Coates credits his wife for teaching him to kiss his son good night and say ‘I love you’ as a daily ritual. He wants his son to fully understand his heritage but not be imprisoned or in crippling fear of it. Coates describes a moment on a train when a white woman brusquely knocked over his son without apology. He yelled at the woman. People on the train came to her defense. She threatened, ‘I could have you arrested.’ Coates realized that was true and he put his son in more danger by defending him.
“But my experience in this world has been that people who believe themselves to be white are obsessed with the politics of personal exoneration. And the word racist, to them, conjures, if not a tobacco-spitting oaf, then something just as fantastic – an orc, troll or gorgon.”
Coates’ memoir is distractingly beautifully written. I found myself reading passages over and over enjoying his skillful word choices. Still, his stories are what made this book so illuminating. One of his most memorable descriptions was about his stay in Paris. He explains how wonderful it was to move around the city without fear for the safety of his body. That he was recognized more so for his Americanism than his color.
“We are not enslaved in France. We are not their particular ‘problem,’ nor their national guilt.
Both of these books have been helpful in broadening my understanding as did the historical fiction novel THE INVENTION OF WINGS . Novelist Sue Monk Kidd imagines the lives of real life abolitionists and feminists Sarah and Angelina Grimke. The Grimke sisters were born into Charleston aristocracy. Kidd writes two narratives one from Sarah’s perspective and the other Handful’s, a slave. The determination of each to live a different life than the one designated by birth and society. Kidd, in particularly, describes the imbalance of humanity in a ‘polite’ society’s brutality of slaves. In this novel, in Coate’s memoir, in Haye’s book, in Trump’s reign of terror, the over-arching abomination is greed. Why select a group of human beings and torture them over centuries? The only answer is to have power over them.
I’d like to say I spent my summer reading these books in a cabin in the woods while sipping coffee and listening to the whippoorwills. I didn’t. Art imitates life and life imitates life. I read these books about past racism as present day racism has unleashed a fury of unbelievable acts of white supremacy.
I read them in the swirling madness of this country’s irresponsible, unscrupulous and divisive leadership. Trump is a racist. The Muslim ban. The end of DACA. And his unconscionable response to the violence in Charlottesville. He described Neo-Nazis and White Nationalists as ‘fine people.’ He supports statues honoring Confederate officers, many of which were erected in the 1950-1960s during civil rights tension. The statues are grossly symbolic of the white leadership.
“The American reunion was built on a comfortable narrative that made enslavement into benevolence, white knights of body snatchers, and the mass slaughter of the war into a kind of sport in which one could conclude that both sides conducted their affairs with courage, honor and elan. This lie of the Civil War is the lie of innocence, is the Dream. Historians conjured the Dream. Hollywood fortified the Dream. The Dream was gilded by novels and adventure stories.” – Coates
I have been angry since November 8th when the incomprehensible happened. An ‘accused rapist and political novice’ as described by Ta-Nehisi Coates became President. My rage continues to grow as he threatens the lives of Muslims, Dreamers, immigrants. And the LGBT, black and Jewish communities. I’m constantly bombarded in his lies and ugliness. Yesterday, CNN alerted me “White House plans to review and overturn Obama-era guidance on campus sexual assault that critics see as unfair toward the accused.” WTF?
“It is often said that Trump has no real ideology, which is not true—his ideology is white supremacy, in all its truculent and sanctimonious power. Trump inaugurated his campaign by casting himself as the defender of white maidenhood against Mexican “rapists,” only to be later alleged by multiple accusers, and by his own proud words, to be a sexual violator himself.”– An except titled The First White President from Coates’ next book, WE WERE EIGHT YEARS IN POWER.
My huge mistake in June lumped me in with this despicable man and everything he stands for. I hate that most of all. I’m not a racist. But I do have white privilege that I understand more fully now than I did three months ago.
This summer, I went to my high school 35th reunion. I can’t remember if we had classmates of color or not but I can describe this party as all white, well-educated professionals (including some Trump supporters). I grew-up middle class with two loving parents. I was sent to private schools. I went to college and secured a bachelors and masters degree. I have a good job (that is precarious because of government funding). I live in Chicago. I’m not afraid of the police because I’m the right color. I’m describing a life that I work hard at but ultimately was set-up from birth. I didn’t have the right only the privilege of being born white.
After my thought-provoking summer, I have decided to return to theatre reviewing. It’s not my right but I do feel privilege to experience Chicago’s amazing theatre community. I intend to gingerly wade in. Out of sensitivity for the artists, I won’t request tickets of theatres only respond to invitations. I don’t want to go where I’m not welcome. And I understand and respect why I might not be welcome. I will continue my ongoing cultural education. I’m open to sitting down with anyone over coffee, drinks or dinner to further my evolution of thought.