Posted by: MC | April 3, 2012

Where are the White People?

Sometimes I turn to internet sources for news updates.  Huffington Post, NYT, stories posted to facebook, local papers’ websites for learning about where I am along the road.  Often there are stories with photos of crowd scenes.  Some are international, but I’m thinking today of domestic stories – Occupy, Tea Party, vigils, protests on the National Mall or at statehouses across the country.  In the case of crowd photos from the U.S., I might linger on one of those photos to consider the people in it.   I find myself noticing how often there are fewer people of color in a photo than would be representative of the makeup of our country.  In fact I am very often struck by how predominantly white most public gatherings are.

Of course, that’s me looking.  But check this out for yourself.  See what you see.

Then there was this morning.  I scrolled through the headlines and saw a photo of a crowd in Miami on Sunday – people gathered to honor Trayvon Martin’s life and to call for justice.

I am a white woman looking at these photos this morning and I have some questions.

Where were the white people among the thousands of citizens gathered Miami, Trayvon Martin’s hometown?

Where were the white people among the hundreds rallied in Atlanta  for the same purpose last Monday?

I look at the pictures from these events and I wonder.  In particular I wonder about the persistence of racial divides, the persistence of racism, the possibility of listening across differences for moving us more toward the ideals of human rights in democratic community we speak but still do not live.

At the beginning and end of every day, I’m a white woman, so in many ways my right and responsibility to question in matters of race is most irrefutable when I speak from here, from being white.  Add to this, the intensity of the rips in the fabric of human community along black/white lines, and it seems particularly important to ask.

Where are the white people at the public events following Trayvon Martin’s violent and needless death?

Alonzo Mourning, a pro basketball star, spoke to the vastly African American crowd gathered Sunday in Miami. “The only way you see change; you have to be change,” he said. “We have to save our children,” he continued; “We have to continue to come together as one.”

Yes.  Isn’t this so?  All children are our children.  All loss is human loss.  “No man is an island,” John Donne wrote some 400 years ago.  “Any man’s death diminishes me, for I am involved in mankind.”

But all of this – Mr. Mourning’s words, my words, Donne’s now classic words are all just that.  Words.  Where is the action, and what accountability do we have, both for what we do and what we don’t do?

I heard about last Monday’s rally in Atlanta from one of the American voices in 100 Voices – Americans Talk about Change.  The Sunday before, her white pastor had told her mostly white congregation of the event.  He had urged his listeners to attend.  So, this woman in her 70’s put on a purple hoodie.  She invited her friend, another white woman of the same age, to go along.  On the MARTA train coming home after the demonstration, the two talked about how few white people they had seen.  “Maybe ten,” the woman shared.

Nonetheless, these two women along with everyone gathered for the rally in Atlanta were in action.  They came together intentionally to make their words and values real.  They were willing to stand up and be counted for what they believe.  Trayvon Martin’s death was a tragedy – an unnecessary and hideous end to a promising life.  Trayvon Martin is one of too many young black men, too many youth altogether who are dying because of the violence of fear beneath falsely exclusive righteousness.

Before I go any further, I want to say a little about the relative anonymity I am extending to the women in the Atlanta story.  It ties in with the whole mess.

There are people – white people – who get upset when the subject of racism arises.  Particularly upsetting are real examples of real behaviors that demonstrate the clear presence of racism in 2012 America.  To many readers – many white people – the upset will be great concern with the truth of this problem.  But for some white people the upset stems from a sense of being blamed categorically for racism or, more intensely, it is triggered by the suggestion that absent white people means anything other than the appropriate separation of the races.  In the latter case, justifications for harm to retain that separation are built in to the worldview.

Frankly, I used anonymity in this story because people still get targeted for retribution by the most furious, closed and ardently racist among us.  My friend, Tim Wise told me he gets threats all the time for writing about racism as it is practiced and maintained among white people and in public systems (most) still functioning from white perspectives and white values.  It’s just so.

It’s not my place to put another person out there for that potential retribution.  I can only make the decision for myself.  But I’m pretty certain it will take lots of us to turn all of this around.  Lots of white people and lots of people of all backgrounds and identities standing up in “oneness” and thus in defiance of arguments that any people are in any way not people.

That’s essentially what runs this persistent human conflict as it continues so present in today’s America.  Maybe the attribution is by income level, of physical ability/appearance.  Maybe it is by education, language/accent, age, gender, sexual orientation.  Very often it is likely some combination.  But in the context of public reaction to Trayvon Martin’s death, at least two things are impossible to deny.  We are not beyond racism in this country and we won’t be until we deal individually and together with our root beliefs about the relative value of human life and, beneath that, with our fundamental fear of each other.

If you’ve followed this blog at all, you know where I go with this.  Whoever we are, we tend to position ourselves in opposition to “them.”  We do this (consciously or not) so we can know who we are not.  We are not the undesirable other.  What that means is we actually need the other to be “other” so we have certainty of who we are ourselves.  Keeping the other “other” requires not listening to – not getting to know any of “them.”  If we listened, we might learn things about them that confuse our simple but reliable demonization tales.

Last night at the University of Wisconsin-River Falls, Tyra Nelson an African-American professor who is also a mother of sons participated in a panel discussion.  Prior to the event she said, “The perspective I will be bringing to the panel is as a black mother.  As much as we don’t want to face the fact that race and racism are still present in American society, there are conversations I have to have with my sons that other parents don’t have to have. And until that changes we need to be talking about race.”

With listening, the opportunity – the possibility – is to act more from wisdom than from simplistic opposition.  To listen to the other’s life.  In the listening, we will likely hear the differences we expect, but we will also hear something – even lots of things – we share in common beyond those differences.  Professor Nelson’s motherhood is revealed to listening.  That quality of care and relationship strikes many in a shared way.  Her reality as an African American mother to African American boys is also profoundly affected by race and racism in America.  From the common place of caring for the wellbeing of children – from that common wisdom – the necessity of listening and speaking about race becomes obvious as a shared concern.

As I listen to everyday Americans around the country I find models of how wisdom and maturity allow a confidence in one’s identity that makes it possible to lower the shields of categorical dismissal.  Often listening is the thing that makes it possible for this wisdom and maturity to come forward.  In the process it becomes obvious that we can trust the value of who we are even if we don’t have anyone who fits the role of the evil-we-are-not.

The second part of what John Donne wrote all those hundreds of years ago goes like this, “… I am involved in mankind; and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.”

And there we have the scariest part.  Each and every one of us will die.  No avoiding it.

The truth of the matter is that showing up or not for a rally anywhere on anything will not change the fact that all of us will someday die.  Instead, the point is that we have the opportunity daily to see how we participate in and sustain separations that, in the most horrible of ends, lead to needless deaths like Trayvon Martin’s.

Yes, it appears a long way from fear of dying to racism but I urge you to consider the link – to get quiet and check it out and to follow that inquiry with action to match.

How do we as people alive at the same time join together to respond to Mr. Mourning’s call that we “do this as one”?  How do we take the good and visionary in the perspectives of all Americans to save the children, to save our communities?

Mr. Mourning is right.  It does take being the change.  And being change takes courage.  Courage in action, but before that, courage in admitting both the mess and our part in sustaining it – even benefiting from it.

Friends and colleagues tell me to be careful trying to talk to white people about racism.  I don’t know if I’m careful, but I do believe in people – white people and all people.  I saw our capacity for wisdom on the road in 2009 (100 Voices – Americans Talk about Change) and I’m seeing it on the road this winter.

Because of that I encourage all of you to slow down, calm down and listen a while.  See if you hear and experience what I have.  We are more similar than different.  We want the same essential things.  We each have our smarts and our clumsiness – our goodness and our dark sides.

From wisdom, from maturity, it is possible to see that in a true community, racism finally serves no one.  Racism, like any system of oppression or bias, only serves to keep people at odds and having people at odds makes it easiest (but only in the short term) for people with the most to gain from their positions of power-over to retain control.

From my time on American roads and in American communities, I’m confident we can support each other to bring forward our smarts for putting together far better ways of living in human community.  It’s the promise of democracy, really.  And showing up to it is what it takes.

How that looks is up to you, but it matters.

For all of us.


  1. You might be interested in the Harvard hidden biases tests mentioned at the bottom of my most-recent blog post:

    Also, I think so many white people do not want to make it seem like they understand what people of color go through. Because, although we think we can feel empathy, we can’t really “understand.”

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