06 June 2019


Patrick Chappatte, source.  
At its hollow core, whiteness is nothing in particular: It’s an airless vacuum, bereft of any affirmative quality. To be white in America is merely to benefit from the absence of racial discrimination. To be white in America is to walk a path that contains no hurdles based on the color of one’s skin, one’s name, one’s outward presentation to the world. To be white is to benefit from a history of slavery, theft, and colonization that transpired before you were born; it’s to reap the harvest, without any effort on your own part, of centuries of religious and intellectual justification for violence. It’s playing life, like a video game, on the easiest setting. There’s no shame in being born white, but there’s no pride in it either, because it is by definition a category bereft of specificity.

[Talia Lavin, "It's OK to Be White, But it's Not Enough"]
It was September 1968. The sound track of my first months as a high school sophomore was dominated by one arresting song: James Brown's "Say It Loud (I'm Black and I'm Proud)" -- a song that was so compelling that, at random times during the day, I would hear it playing inside my head. I acknowledged the obvious irony but that certainly didn't get in the way of my enjoyment.

In high school classes we learned that race had powerful social significance but no biological significance. That social weight was a huge part of Evanston Township High School's daily reality in those years, with 5,300 very diverse students trying to figure out, together, which end was up. To ratchet up my own tension still further, at home I had to conceal my fascination with race relations because that was a taboo topic with my parents. They became even more extreme when my 13-year-old sister Ellen began running away from home and being caught by police in predominantly Black neighborhoods.

I vividly remember scenes from my junior year of high school. One student especially fascinated me: she was Black, had brains to spare and a sharp tongue, and seemed refreshingly uninterested in the good opinion of white students or teachers. Among my white classmates was the first person I ever met who self-identified as a Communist; he too seemed more interested in the world of ideas than social approval. Mostly, that was the niche where I'd be hiding.

In the spring of that school year, Ellen was kidnapped and shot twice, her dead body dumped from a car on the Kedzie Street bridge on the edge of Chicago. The suspect, later convicted, was Black -- and my parents' descent into racial polarization was complete.

I lived in two utterly separate worlds -- my high school world with its stormy, clumsy, but often very idealistic rhythms of racial tension and reconciliation, and my home, sealed off from the rest of the world in its own haze of bitterness and alcohol. Eventually both of my parents lost their jobs. They left their home in Evanston for cheaper housing in Skokie. That's where they were in 1977, when Frank Collins and his neo-Nazis campaigned for the right to march in Skokie for "white free speech." My mother's contribution: she put up a swastika on her front lawn.

(Flashing back a moment to April 4, 1968: It was my mother who said that Martin Luther King had no right to live, having usurped the name of the great German reformer, Martin Luther.)

I have no standing to pronounce upon the content of James Brown's "Say It Loud (I'm Black and I'm Proud)" song, and the pride that it proclaimed. What struck my young high-school brain, however, was the contrast between that pride and the message I was getting from my family. There was no positive content in that family message -- just defensiveness, fear, boundaries, prohibitions ("don't play that music around your mother"), isolation. Their path seemed completely unattractive.

Based on my parents' nationalities, I'm half Norwegian, half German. (I tend to give more weight to Norway because that's were I was actually born.) Both countries have complex histories; both countries have been aggressors (remember the Vikings!), and both countries have also contributed massively to global culture. Just to make things even muddier, both nations took their current shapes very recently. Norway gained its independence from Sweden in 1905. Germany became a united country just a few years earlier, in 1871, was divided again in the wreckage of World War II, and reunited again in 1990. So, to be honest, there has to be a certain vagueness in claims of cultural pride based on nation-states. Since every country has human beings capable of creativity and faithfulness as well as bias and jaundice, it's ultimately a sour enterprise to go beyond honest pride and begin comparing and ranking countries' contributions to world civilization.

(Another personal aside: when my parents married across the lingering enemy lines of Norway and Germany, they linked two families full of intelligent, fun, and generous people.)

As for pride in being white? On some non-verbal level, I think I realized already in high school that "white pride" just didn't compute. As Talia Lavin says, whiteness "... is by definition a category bereft of specificity." Furthermore, all of its logical and demonic force is contained in this simple, deceptively bland formulation: "We are not non-white!"

In 1974, I became a Christian, thereby becoming part of a global family of faith. In this family, all nationalities, cultures, and social divisions still remain distinctive features and flavors of our humanity, to cherish and share, but (when God is truly at the center) do not give us the right to outrank or alienate or condemn each other. When God is not at the center, then all bets are off, and the word "Christian" just marks another social division to be attacked and defended in the sad, ancient spectacle of human cruelty.

Glacial progress department: In November 1997, I was at the White House for an ecumenical gathering on racial concerns. I wrote about it here.

More on whiteness: Blake Mundell asks, who are my people? (Thanks to Hannah Evans for the link.)
...[E]ach of my ancestors ended up making the exchange, and the peoples and the magic that they forfeited in their ascension to whiteness are now lost to me. I don’t greet the Danish people I see in the grocery store with inside jokes and unrestrained laughter. I don’t feel less alone in the wider world when a person of Irish descent walks into the coffee shop where I’m writing. I mostly feel nothing. I don’t know how to recognize my kin.

But at least I still have my whiteness.
Richard Ostling: Where is world religion heading, anyway?

Becky Ankeny on calling and commitment.
Since I can’t be Jesus, I want to be Jesus’ sister. So it is important to see what it is that God wants me to do. Jesus insists everywhere that God wants me to help, not to harm; to save life, not to destroy it; to set free, not to leave imprisoned. And Jesus illustrates by example that standing by and doing nothing when I can do something helpful is in fact doing harm.

And God wants me never ever to use the Law—the Bible or some other code of moral behavior—as an excuse to ignore those being harmed, destroyed, held prisoner by evil.
Respect to Senator Richard Lugar.

As church cultures changed, so did their financial practices and controls.

TomDispatch: What fight is the Pentagon spoiling for?

D-Day's wishful thinking: With the death of the Nazi myth of invincibility, fascism itself died in this world. (And recognizing fascism today.)

More of the talent planned for the 2019 Waterfront Blues Festival: Larkin Poe ... the sisters return.


Unknown said...

Thank you Johann! May I also suggest the wonderful books "Witnessing Whiteness" by Shelly Tochluk and "White Fragility" by Robin DiAngelo. They both unpack the notion of whiteness as being empty and how that shapes so many white American's desire for "authenticity" and exaggerated participation in ethnic identities.

Johan Maurer said...

Thank you for the suggestions!

I'm thinking about the phenomenon of "exaggerated participation in ethnic identities." It reminded me of Margaret Laurence's explorations of ethnic identities (vs the assumptions of what is proper in the dominant viewpoint), for example in her novel A Jest of God. I think I devoured that novel in one night's reading, in a 24-hour Lebanese restaurant on Bank Street in Ottawa.

My participation in Norwegian ethnic identity is admittedly exaggerated, since, as I admitted in the post, I'm equally German. However, since I'm closer to my Norwegian relatives, I've had more incentive to visit them and observe the culture that formed them. In any case, that's probably not the exaggeration you're referring to.

African American Christianity played a role in my eventual conversion -- the pathway being the weekly broadcasts of Chicago's First Church of Deliverance on WCFL, delivered secretly to my young white ears as I lay in bed listening under the covers through my transistor radio and earphone.

Around the same age, and thanks to the same radio station, I fell in love with the blues, which kept me sane through many painful periods of my youth. I have no objection to white musicians playing this music, as long as they don't indulge in obnoxious vocal imitations. Others may have objections, but I've never heard them. Interestingly, some of the best blues musicians I've heard are from Norway.

My German mother spent her first nineteen years in Japan, as I've written elsewhere in this blog. I have so many questions about her life and education in Japan, but she never wanted to talk to me about those years. Now it's too late.

I love being a human. For ALL humans, "living a life isn't simply crossing a field," as the Russian proverb says, but I don't want to hide behind my whiteness from the reality that color and class and culture complicate things more than plain justice should allow.