“Innocent White Folk”
It is unnecessary to mention that a lot is happening in America right now. I sit in the heart of Brooklyn, my windows are open as it is a cool summer evening. The helicopters are flying low. We are in the middle of both the pandemic and the national mobilization around Black Lives Matter. It is an act of will not to speak up, not to enter this conversation. But it is so easy to be thoughtless or to think of one’s innocence in all this … only to be reminded not so quietly, “But it is not permissible that the authors of devastation should also be innocent. It is the innocence which constitutes the crime.” —James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time, 1963. (full quote)
All my professional conversations have been infiltrated by what is happening and the refrain is, “What shall we do? Should we, as business leaders, just listen? Should we act? If we act, what actions precisely?” The Black Lives Matter protests inspired a version of this post last week, but it was ill-formed, a profession of “the innocence which constitutes the crime.” I was stopped from publishing it by my team. They are smart.
I recognize that I am likely to fail, again. But I’m still having recurring conversations with my peers, my team, and with everyone I talk to on Zoom, so I feel compelled to try once more to assemble at least some of my thoughts.
Reading Feminism Unfinished, A short History of American Women’s Movements brought me to tears the other day. I was learning how deeply racism has royaled and been enmeshed in the history of America’s women’s movements. I wanted to feel we have accomplished more. I was foolishly longing for the innocence of the American history I was fed in school, where America’s was the story of progress and of the good guys, of high and mighty ideals worth fighting for.
I was foolishly longing for the innocence of the American history I was fed in school, where America’s was the story of progress and of the good guys.
Intellectually I have known since high school that this history was sanitized, and probably misleading, but What’s the harm? says the innocent to himself. It feels good to hold on to such self-assuring thoughts and it is indeed laborious to properly undo them. Undoing learned “truths” will dethrone our heroes. It will complicate our understanding of dearly held collective memories. Who has time for that when we are so busy just trying to get on with our lives, when there are lots of episodes of—insert anything here—to catch up on? And what would be gained from feeling even worse about this moment and about ourselves?
As I write this I hear nearly constant explosions from my open window. And sirens. I hear this every night now.
I wonder if we “innocent” white folk are getting a glimpse out of the corner of our eyes—at the edge of our consciousness perhaps—of the harm we have done by not bothering. Are we finally ready to learn what it means when we recognize that our innocence constitutes the crime?
I wonder if we “innocent” white folk are getting a glimpse out of the corner of our eyes—at the edge of our consciousness perhaps—of the harm we have done by not bothering.
More explosions. Louder.
Since the personal is political as the feminists hopefully taught us all, I’ve always been self-congratulatory about my father’s work to desegregate housing in the 60s in the small Midwest town where we lived, and his being the first to successfully integrate his congregation in the southern small town where I received a rather eclectic primary education. I never learned what experiences growing up on the south side of Chicago made him passionate about civil rights. It certainly did not help his career or make his life any easier. He never really talked about it. It was just something he did.
You pay attention to what people do, especially if they are your father.
I think this past week, though, I learned why it took my father until the mid 1970s to accomplish the integration of his congregation. He was, like me, really, really, and possibly unbearably white—in his language, style, delivery, subtext, context, pretext, metaphor, and example. He was very well intentioned, dedicated, and on the correct side of history, but ultimately still innocent.
I was too young to meet the Black families he had helped gain access to housing they had been excluded from. I did, however, know the Black families that joined his congregation in Florida; they were middle class, mostly Caribbean families who had moved into town and probably did not fit in at the segregated black church options. I remember their elocution and how it sounded English to me. Perhaps they found comfort in my father’s earnestness, even in his innocence. Maybe that’s how all my Black friends and neighbors see me, an innocent, almost blinding dash of whiteness off in the corner of their lives.
My receptors being so weak to these things, I have no idea of my grandparents’ views on race, but I have to believe they were part of the age and culture that raised them. Jim Crow was the way of America in the opening decades of the 20th century. Surely they were fish swimming in that water. How’s the water? we ask. What’s water? asks the fish back. They were most certainly innocent authors of devastation swimming with the school. I have no direct proof. The subject never came up. For them it was certainly just part of being an American. Writing this makes me cringe.
More explosions. Even louder.
My Wisconsin grandparents lived in Kenosha, near the American Brass Company’s Kenosha Works where my grandfather was employed. They lived in an all-white part of the city, south of the invisible “redlined” areas surrounding the factory itself. See this 1936 map showing all the redlined parts of the city (most of it). Zoom out and the map covers all of America.
I had my first memory for which I can situate time and place in their living room. It was 1968 and I was edging up to four years old. An emotional explosion broke out among the adults in the room when Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised their black gloved fists in protest as they stood shoeless on the victory stand at the Mexico City Olympic Games. I wish I knew what was said in that room between my father and his parents-in-law. I asked my sister, who was 13 at the time and would have been able to make more sense of the debate, but she did not remember it at all. Surely other things of personal importance eclipsed that moment in her life story.
More explosions. Fireworks? Yes, it’s fireworks.
Our stories are all shaped by our parents, if they raised us, and to a lesser extent by our grandparents and by our culture and our choices of when to act, and who to befriend, and whom we choose to love, and from whom we choose to steer clear, or who is prevented from interacting with us. We are also shaped by what we choose to listen to and what we choose to read. I have not read nearly as much American history as the history of elsewhere.
More explosions, more helicopters. It’s after midnight now. They goading all within earshot, all of us sitting quietly in our homes, “No sitting on the sidelines this time!”
Knowing what I know about Japanese history did not come with many strings attached to my own personal responsibility. It can stay almost purely academic.
I’m tugging at the strings now.
At this moment, many white folks like me are groping. It’s clumsy and mostly inarticulate. We are toddlers stepping out from under our innocence.
At this moment, many white folks like me are groping. It’s clumsy and mostly inarticulate. We are toddlers stepping out from under our innocence. Returning to The Fire Next Time, let me end with a hopeful quote: “To accept ones’ past—one’s history—is not the same thing as drowning it it; it is learning how to use it.”
Below is my abbreviated reading list. Maybe you, like me, will find these useful in this moment of personal and national reckoning, this opportunity to do better.
I’m happy to have suggestions on what to add to the list. I look forward to what I will learn.
- The Fire Next Time, James Baldwin, 1963. This set of two essays is spot on for this moment.
- White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism, Robin DiAngelo, 2018. Though easy to criticize due to its immense popularity, this book is an excellent 101-level text. It gave me a very useful vocabulary to understanding the day-to-day operations of white privilege in America.
- The Radical King, Martin Luther King, Jr., Edited and Introduced by Cornel West, 2016. Read Dr. King without the filter of time and convenience softening the edges of his incisive genius.
- The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America, Richard Rothstein, 2018. Find your neighborhood and read the detailed description of how it was or was not being “infiltrated by negroes.”
- The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, Michelle Alexander, 2010.
- War Without Mercy: Race and Power in the Pacific War, John W. Dower, 1986. This is not on any other list I have seen, but it was a revelation to me when I read it 10 years ago as it connects our race-based behaviors to our culture of violence in ways that should give any American pause.
- Destructive Power of Despair, essay for the New York Times by Charles M. Blow, May 31, 2020. He suggests that we as a culture only really respond to the vocabulary of violence.
- The pandemic is a portal, essay in the Financial Times by Arundati Roy, April 3, 2020. She lends hope that this moment will make possible a transition to something better than what we have achieved in human history thus far, if we are willing to fight for it.
Image: Angelo Cozzi and Jonathan Cosens