Saturday, June 7, 2008

saturday book rec : white men challenging racism

Few white Americans now announce, as did so many before World War II, “I am a white supremacist.” Few admit to choosing where they live or where their children go to school on the basis of race. Yet we know that overwhelmingly white neighborhoods, even whole towns, not only still exist but are even regarded as prestigious places to raise a family. We know that history as taught in grades 1-12 is largely a justification of our national past, which thus subtly reinforces white supremacy. And we know that without effort by white men, race will remain a problem even as our country grows more diverse.
--James Loewen

White Men Challenging Racism is a collection of first-person essays detailing the inspiring efforts of thirty-five white men who make fighting for social justice and combating racism central to their lives. Thanks to the way the book’s three editors--Cooper Thompson, Emmett Schaefer, and Harry Brod--put together each interview (especially the way they cut out their own questions), the book reads like a collection of very accessible, personal and inspiring stories.

James Loewen, the heroic champion of forgotten history, provides in the foreword an excellent overview of anti-racist white men of the past, from Bartolome Las Casas, a conquistador who convinced a Spanish court that Indians were humans and thus not to be enslaved; to Edward Coles, a governor who prevented legalization of slavery in the state of Illinois; to anthropologist Franz Boas, who fought for an African museum in Washington D.C. during the Nadir:

Like those Jewish Americans who helped found the NAACP in 1909, Boas epitomizes the many “hyphenated Americans”—the term Woodrow Wilson used to disparage recent [soon to be “white”] immigrants—who worked for justice for African, Asian, Mexican, and Native Americans in their new homeland. He also offers a lesson to ivory-towered professors everywhere: he acted in public and wrote for the public, not just in academic journals read only by scholars, because he knew the issue was of paramount importance to the nation.

The thirty-five essays in White Men Challenging Racism are divided into six sections: “Movement Elders,” “Grassroots Organizing,” “Art and Politics,” “Challenging the System from Within,” “Challenging the System from the Margins,” and “The Next Generation.” The white anti-racists include a wide variety of people, including David Attyah, a graphic artist and a founder of THINK AGAIN; radical Historian Herbert Aptheker; former Boston police officer Bill Johnston; and writer, lecturer, and activist Tim Wise.

This book is loaded with endlessly useful details and examples for white folks who want to make a difference. Instead of presenting an overview of its contents, I’ll write about just one man's story that I found especially compelling. I plan to summarize various other "Fighting White Folks" stories in future posts.

Jesse Wimberley is a farmer and carpenter in North Carolina who worked for twelve years as an organizer for the Piedmont Peace Project and on social justice projects in Africa and Central America. In addition to farming and carpenter work, he also does consulting and training for non-profit organizations. He lives on fifty acres in a house built in 1870 by his Scotch-Irish great-grandfather, and he wishes he had the funding to spend all of his work-time with low-income white men.

“I hear the pain in their voices,” Wimberley says, “when they make angry comments at people of color. Their fear is poking through the costume they’re wearing. I just want to go up and hug them, and of course if I did that, I’d get hit.”

Unlike the national media and most of America in general, which hold low-income people up for ridicule, contempt, and scorn, Wimberley sees them as victims of a “patriarchal economic system” that uses “barriers of race and class and sexual preference” as wedges between groups of people to keep class inequities hidden and intact. These barriers, which are variably visible and invisible, separate communities that could see their common ground and work together on the basis of it. They also force individuals within communities apart from each other.

“When you cannot grasp what the larger oppression looks like, the matrix of it,” Wimberley says, “you fight against those close to you. . . . So a big part of the organizing in each community is just helping low-income people of color not to blame each other for the living conditions but to realize that poverty is a political, not a personal, failure.”

Wimberley says that he’s still learning to curb his white tendencies, including that of taking up space in a multiracial setting in ways that shut down black voices. He also finds non-white, non-straight mentors willing to teach him about interacting effectively in non-white spaces. One of these men told him, “Women know a lot about men, Black folks know a lot about white folks, gay folks know a lot about straight folks, but it doesn’t go in the opposite direction.”

Wimberley finds the lack of community among low-income whites “astounding.” As he mourns this lack, he reflects on what it was that killed the close-knit sense of togetherness that he's heard about from his mother and grandfather, back when neighbors knew, talked with, and helped each other:

They’ve told me that it used to function as a community all the time. When your tobacco was done, you would move with all your neighbors to the next farm. There would be square dancing, corn shucking, all kinds of community building. At the end of the day, you knew who you were. You knew where your value came from and could go to bed at night with a sense of self that was healthy.

This might seem like a nostalgic vision of a communal sense that wasn’t ever really “healthy,” especially because it was based so much in a conception of “inferior” blackness. But what Wimberley works for is that kind of community for everyone—the removal, that is, of the barriers mentioned above that have been continuously imposed and reshaped by the patriarchal economic order.

That rapacious profit-seeking system is what destroyed both a functioning sense of community and the part of low-income dignity that came from respectable employment--multinational corporations destroyed subsistence farming, which was replaced by factory work, which has now largely moved abroad in search of even cheaper labor. And again, low-income white men have been socially trained to turn against the people who are nearby, especially those who seem different from themselves, rather than against the forces that are really hurting them.

Since Wimberley recognizes this larger economic context for rural bigotry, he rarely calls out low-income white folks for their expressions of racism and sexism.

I don’t see it as my job to always be correcting people. Bob is not at a place where he can hear that he is a privileged young man. He makes panty hose seven days a week, twelve hours a day to put food on the table. For me to teach Bob that he carries privilege is like teaching a pig to sing. It’s a waste of time, and it irritates the piss out of him. There’s a time to share information and a way to share it that doesn’t come off as preaching or blaming.

Wimberley sees himself as "a low-income white man who has had the luxury to have access to other information,” and his work largely involves finding discreet ways to share this information and to encourage others to work with it.

“What I really see here with low-income white men,” Wimberley says, “is a group looking for community. . . . their backs are up against the wall. . . . Our identity used to be agrarian, but now—making panty hose in a factory? That doesn’t feel good. So what you have left is what you are against: gays, Blacks, Jews.”

The economic degradation of low-income people is the primary source for the appeal of the militia movement and the KKK, according to Wimberley. These groups at least provide a sense of belonging and purpose, and agitation against the gays, blacks, and Jews becomes a primary means of establishing some sense of group-bound identity and pride.

Wimberley also discusses the sexual identities of these men. His most comfortable low-income male friends are gay, because with them he doesn’t have to maintain a macho sense of distance, a sexualized barrier that he wishes wasn’t between himself and other straight men. This barrier also seems to serve the elite economic purpose of keeping people with similar circumstances from banding together against their true oppressors.

For Wimberley, the only hope for significant progress in racial and economic conditions is getting these men to change their xenophobic attitudes and wake up to the true causes of their misery because "they're the voting majority right now.”

As for what it’s like for him to work toward that goal, Wimberley ends with these humbling words:

What I’ve learned about working with women and people of color is that normally, when they enter, they leave something at the door. That becomes a way of life. Now I’m learning about that, and it feels like shit to have to leave part of myself at the door. I’m hoping one day that experience will bring us together instead of keeping us separate.


  1. Nice post. I am adding this book to my reading list and suggesting it to my book club. I love the last paragrapgh!


  2. Regarding the 1st paragraph - about white neighborhoods being considered 'prestigious' places to live and rise children. While I don't argue that this is true - often the *appearence* of whiteness is all that's needed. Case in Point: The most prestigious places to live near me are Beverly Hills and Bel Air in LA County. Both these areas have the historical context of whiteness - but they now have nearly a majority of Arab-American and Persian-American residents (Beverly Hills even has a mayor that was born in Iran: Jamshid "Jimmy" Delshad - he has even whitened his name.)

    Now - I'm willing to bet that the Arab and Persian residents moved into the area because of the aura of success and legitimacy that the whiteness gives it. And they even go quite a way to performing whiteness themselves... And the aura of whiteness is fairly unaffected.

    Just my observation.

  3. Are you peeking at my reading list, Macon D? I've read this one too. :-)

    As a black person it's interesting to see that there are some white people who feel that the onus of helping to eradicate racism rests on their shoulders.

  4. Oh, and since you mentioned Loewen, "Sundown Towns" and "Lies My Teacher Told Me" are two more for the list--if you haven't added them already. :D

  5. Hi deb, yes, there are a few white folks like that out there. It really does sound like we're "on the same page"! Yes, I've read those Loewen books, and Lies across America is really good too.

    Happy reading, and if you have other recommendations, I'm all ears.

  6. Great post, but I did want to point out that Las Casas wasn't anti-racist. He was against enslaving Indians and campaigned FOR the enslavement of blacks.

  7. Yay, my public library has this on the shelf - thanks for the recommendation!


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