What you once were isn't
what you wanna be
Ever since high school, I’ve been “keeping a journal.” I describe it that way, instead of “writing a diary,” because I don’t merely record mundane daily details. Instead, I mull over and try to work through some particular details of a day, usually the ones that somehow bother me.
I also felt hemmed in by a sterile suburban environment, one that I now realize had everything to do with race and class, and especially with how the whiteness of my parents made it much more possible for us to be in that place. Our race made it easier, when I was ten years old, to elevate ourselves in terms of class by moving there.
That sounds like I see myself as lucky, and in material terms I guess I was. But being white did not mean that I was entirely “lucky” in emotional terms. Nor in terms of my human development. Being a middle-class white American male granted me confidence and all sorts of social access, but in other ways, it stunted my growth.
One day when I was seventeen, I was feeling a bit bothered about “the starving Africans,” who were appearing frequently at the time on television. I’m embarrassed to say that I don’t remember now which country was in crisis. In an effort to sort through my feelings, I wrote the following journal entry. I can see now that what I wrote was mighty white of me:
The starving Africans were on TV again. It seems that we’re supposed to do something about it, send money I guess. But really, will that help? Will it go where it’s supposed to?
A thought occurred to me today about it all: why . . . not . . . just let them . . . die?
Okay, wait. I’m not supposed to think like that. But really, why not just let that happen? What is it in us—or maybe about us?—that stops us from letting that happen? Because, aren’t we also being told constantly that the world has too many people in it? If that’s true, isn’t this starvation in Africa a chance to get rid of some of the too-many people out there?
There’s too many billions of us already, and they say that food is going to get short sooner or later. I’m not supposed to say we should let them die, but a big part of me thinks, “why not? The rest of us would be better off.”
Like I said, I was a jerk back then in some ways that (I hope) I’m not anymore. What I now see about that seventeen-year-old “me” is that he was led by his training into whiteness to see “starving Africans” as less human than himself. So, “just letting them die” seemed to him like an idea worth considering. I seriously doubt that if my family’s television had been filled instead with scenes of white people in crisis somewhere—America, or Ireland, or somewhere in Europe—that such a horrible thought would have come to me.
It’s not that I thought of myself as a “racist” back then—far from it. I was instead what the philosopher Janine Jones labels a “goodwill white.” In George Yancy’s essay collection, What White Looks Like: African-American Philosophers on the Whiteness Question, Jones describes the sort of common white thought that I displayed in my journal entry as an “impairment of understanding.” Jones especially sees this impairment in those white folks who think and behave in ways that end up neglecting or even harming non-white people, but who also deny that race has anything to do with their thoughts and actions.*
In other words, Jones’ “goodwill whites” are the goodhearted, liberal (and even politically conservative) people who claim they don’t see race—that they’re “colorblind.” What Jones explains is how impaired such people are by their white training. Certain human capacities in them are stunted, atrophied, by underdevelopment and underuse.
One thing that makes it easier for goodwill whites to think that their thoughts and actions in regards to non-white people have nothing to do with race is what I wrote about yesterday—the apparent inability of many white people to have and maintain an awareness of their own whiteness (let alone an insightful, informed awareness of it). What Janine Jones helps me understand about my former white self is that my callous disregard for black African suffering was brought about by more than just the common, and usually unconscious, white presumption that non-white people are less than human—less, that is, than white people, who are unconsciously perceived as the real humans.
As Jones writes, such white folks also
seem to find it difficult to believe that they are white. Race is something that others possess. Whites are just “normal.” Whites’ inability to form the belief that they are white skews the nature of the relationships that exist between whites and blacks. It affects their ability to empathize because they are unable to import an ingredient essential to empathy: an appreciation of their own situation. Goodwill whites’ desire not to see themselves as whites may partly explain their desire not to see blacks as blacks . . .
Elsewhere in her essay, Jones distinguishes between “sympathy” and another, higher-order human capacity that’s really the issue here, “empathy.” To empathize means more than simply imagining oneself in another’s shoes. It means understanding to a higher degree what it’s like for someone else to be in those shoes.
So if white people do not feel and understand the significance of their own racial membership, then they can’t really imagine very well what life is like for non-white people, who do know that their own racial membership is important. Thus, because training people into whiteness means in part instilling in them this fundamental (and fundamentally false) sense of their own individuality, versus the more accurate group-bound self-conception that non-white people tend to have, then whiteness renders white people less able to empathize with the difficulties or suffering of non-white people.
As I’ve said before, I find it incredibly sad and amazing that white America in general doesn’t give any credit to African American intellectuals for understanding so much about whiteness, so much that white people themselves don’t understand. On this topic of what I so clearly displayed in racial terms at the age of seventeen—a common white lack of racial empathy—another black observer of white folks has also proven helpful.
In Learning to Be White, theologian and psychologist Thandeka writes, “The first racial victim of the white community is its own child.” For Thandeka, one form this victimization takes is the white community’s denunciation of a young child’s natural feelings of connection, commonality, and empathy for non-white people and their children.** White children are taught, mostly in indirect ways, that “those people” are different from “you,” and thus, that those positive feelings of connection that they have about “those people” are “wrong.” The result, Thandeka writes (echoing in part Lillian Smith’s earlier examination of white psychology), is a split in white consciousness, a split between natural feelings and opposing, socially sanctioned, “correct” feelings. Another result for the white child, then, when it comes to those nevertheless persistent natural feelings, is a feeling of shame about them.
I think shame is one feeling that drove me to write that journal entry about “the starving Africans.” I felt something for them, some pain about their plight. But I’d also learned to feel somewhat ashamed of positive, humane feelings for those whom I’d learned to regard as a non-white, undifferentiated Other. And then (and if Jones and Thandeka are right, I'm really not overthinking all of this), my feelings were further conflicted by a more general moral sense that the shame I felt over my natural feeling of sympathy for other human beings was itself shameful.
So I think that the conflicting emotions brought about by something that I wasn’t even consciously aware of—that is, my own white training—led me to divert my natural feelings of sympathetic concern for human beings in desperate trouble into a seemingly rational discussion of another supposed problem, “overpopulation.” Letting those people die then seemed like a good step toward solving that other, seemingly less confusing and disturbing problem.
I think that Jones and Thandeka are right. From the perspective of the “me” that I am now, that journal entry is symptomatic of my victimization at the hands, as it were, of my suburban American white community. I’d been subtly discouraged from seeing myself as a member of the “white” group, from identifying with that group. So when I was faced with suffering non-white people, even if only on television, I’d been effectively prevented from developing in myself the higher-order capacity to empathize with them.
And so at a broader level, and to the detriment, it seems, of everyone involved--and as we recently saw so clearly in the case of white disregard for non-white victims of Hurricane Katrina--the white community discourages its members from feeling the empathetic connection to non-white people that would drive them to offer help when its needed, and to stop doing so many things that cause the need for help in the first place.
*And just to be clear, neither Jones nor I are denying how “impaired” in this sense other sorts of people can be, including non-white Americans. Being an American or a citizen of another developed nation also distances one from African or other “Third World” suffering, as do wealth and other factors. Being trained as a white American does this in particular ways, and I’m trying to describe those here.
**This is not to say, of course, that the victimization of white children, especially middle-class American ones, is of the same degree or severity as that endured by various sorts of non-white and/or impoverished children.