Tears We Cannot Stop: A Sermon to White America
by Michael Eric Dyson
(Passages I highlighted from my Kindle)
- Until you make whiteness give up its secrets none of us will get very far. Whiteness has privilege and power connected to it, no matter how poor you are. Of course the paradox is that even though whiteness is not real it is still true. I mean true as a force to be reckoned with. It is true because it has the power to make us believe it is real and to punish those who doubt its magic. Whiteness is slick and endlessly inventive. It is most effective when it makes itself invisible, when it appears neutral, human, American.
- The only way to save our nation, and, yes, to save yourselves, is to let go of whiteness and the vision of American history it supports.
- You can let go of whiteness when you see it as a moral choice, an ideology, a politic, a terribly fearful reaction to the thing it hates the most but can least afford to do without: the black people it helped to will into existence. White or black identity is nothing without the people and forces that make it true. White and black folk are bound together, even when we breathe very different meanings into race.
- …whiteness is limitless possibility. It is universal and invisible. That’s why many of you are offended by any reference to race. You believe you are acting and thinking neutrally, objectively, without preference for one group or the next, including your own. You see yourselves as colorless until black folk dump the garbage of race on your heads. At your best moments you may concede that you started the race game, but you swear to the God you love that it is we black folk who keep it going. You have no idea how absurd that notion is, and yet we have grown accustomed to your defiance of common sense.
- It has roots in whiteness itself, in whiteness that is a construct, an invention, that keeps white folk ignorant of black life. It makes so many of you, if we’re honest, largely indifferent to black life. Admit it: you go on your merry white way as if the police aren’t routinely hammering black folk without cause, aren’t daily brutalizing us in front of your faces, aren’t murdering black folk without so much as blinking an eye. You didn’t care then. And tell the truth—many of you don’t really care now. Beloved, it’s true that some of you are ashamed and embarrassed, but that is hardly enough. It looks bad to the rest of the world for all this havoc to be going on in America. It’s not that the world loves us so much; it’s that they feel you ought to be ashamed of yourselves for treating us this way. Now, I’m old enough to not be too fussy about how change comes about. What starts as shame may end as transformation. But even that can’t be depended on. Whiteness grows more shameless, more cruel, more uncaring by the day. How many of you have really tried to put yourself in our position? It’s hard to be white and empathetic to others. That sounds harsh, but that’s a lesson that whiteness has taught its victims. Many of you were stuck, in 1995, and, sadly, even now, in a whiteness that didn’t have to know, that wasn’t punished for not knowing. It is hard for you to give up this willful ignorance. It is a drug.
- It has been striking, too, to observe whites for whom their whiteness isn’t a passport to riches, whites for whom whiteness offers no material reward. But there is a psychological and social advantage in not being thought of as black; poor whites seem to say, “At least there’s a nigger beneath me.” And it’s a way for poor whites to be of value to richer whites, especially when poor whites agree that black folk are the source of their trouble—not the corporate behavior of wealthier whites who hurt black and white folk alike. It’s a way to bond beyond class. It’s a way for working class whites to experience momentary prestige in the eyes of richer whites.
- It simply means that if we constructed it, we can get about the business of deconstructing it.
- And there is a paradox that many of you refuse to see: to get to a point where race won’t make a difference, we have to wrestle, first, with the difference that race makes. The idea that whiteness should be abolished, an idea that some white antiracist thinkers have put forth, disturbs a lot of you—especially when you argue that whiteness is not all murder and mayhem.
- I tried to link these ills and thus lighten the load of responsibility that white folk would have to carry alone.
- I told him that some of the greatest victims of whiteness are whites themselves, having to bear the burden of a false belief in superiority. I told him how I also loved the words of many old dead white men, from Tennyson to Merle Haggard, even though many of those white men would find me troublesome. I asked him not only to challenge white privilege, but also to resist the narcissism that celebrates one’s challenge to whiteness rather than siding with those who are its steady victims. Working as a white ally is tough, but certainly not impossible. Learning to listen is a virtue that whiteness has often avoided. I asked him to engage, to adopt the vocabulary of empathy, to develop fluidity in the dialect of hope and the language of racial understanding.
- It is being proved wrong that leaves you distressed.So you portray blackness as the enemy of all that is smart, or sophisticated, or uplifting, or worth emulating or transmitting.
- The “them, not me” defense denies how the problem persists in the present day. It is best to think of systems and not individuals when it comes to racial benefit in white America.
- The novelist Lionel Shriver threw an opening salvo in the newest installment of the writing wars to determine who could say what about whom. Shriver dropped her bomb in 2016 when she addressed the Brisbane Writers Festival and rode herd on her free speech horse against political correctness. Millennials, and the generation trailing them, are especially vulnerable on this score, Shriver argued, because they are in a race “to see who can be more righteous and aggrieved—who can replace the boring old civil rights generation with a spikier brand.” As Shriver sees it, the left has become all too nervous about living in the skin or brain or experiences of the other. The demand that folk write only about what they know or experience is utter nonsense to Shriver; it is suffocating orthodoxy that imperils the art of the novel. “Otherwise, all I could write about would be smart-alecky 59-year-old 5-foot-2-inch white women from North Carolina.” It’s easy to empathize with Shriver; after all, if you only write what you know, then you are left with precious little to write about. Shriver’s argument, however, fails to see how other cultures—their people, their ideas, their identities—have always been treated as only fiction, have always been looted of their inherent value and forced to fit in to the schemes, worldviews, or novels of folk, especially white folk, who were invested in denying their own privilege and power to treat these other cultures just as they pleased. When Shriver talks about “free speech,” she gets the speech part right; but she only sees “free” from the perspective of the person doing the writing, not the one being written about. Shriver as a white writer is quite free to roam across the globe in search of whatever experiences or insights will light her way to a nuanced, engaged piece of fiction.
- But that freedom is not merely artistic; in fact, her art, the art of white writers, rests on power relations that have left black culture at a disadvantage, vulnerable to literary cherry-picking. Shriver’s grumbling is dressed up as the will to free expression, which should characterize the art of writing in any truly liberated culture. But underneath her gripes are a body of ideas and identities that have been abused, and appropriated, against the will of other cultures,
- and used at the discretion of writers who pay no mind to the people whose experiences they seek to borrow. Those people of color, for instance, have been cogs in the cultural machinery of white writers. Of course the writers’ purpose might be a good one, such as telling a story that hasn’t been told. But if the folk whose story is told don’t have the opportunity to tell their own story, what is on the surface a good thing becomes a matter of who has the power and privilege to spin narratives.
- the final stage of white racial grief, which is, simply, when it comes to race, to dilute it.
- Just look at the movies. Films about slavery must feature a sympathetic white character who wants black folk to be free. John Quincy Adams must be the real hero of Amistad, since Cinque couldn’t rebel effectively without help from his great white defenders. Ghosts of Mississippi, about the murder of Medgar Evers, highlights the heroic white prosecutor, Bobby DeLaughter, fought to open the case, and much less the brave black widow, Myrlie Evers, who fought white supremacy to make sure he paid attention. Mississippi Burning, supposedly about the killing of three civil rights workers in the sixties, celebrates two white FBI agents, heroes in a state where white terror rarely had better allies than silent white law enforcement or brutal local police.
- My friends, we cannot deny that white folk of conscience were of enormous help to the cause of black struggle. Black and white folk often formed dynamic partnerships to combat racial inequality. But too often white folk want to be treated with kid gloves, or treated like adolescents who can’t take the truth of grownup racial history. So we have to spoon-feed you that truth and put your white faces in our stories to make you see them, perhaps like them, or at least to consider them legitimate and worthy of your attention. Appealing to your ego to protect our backsides, that’s the bargain many of us are forced to make.
- Beloved, you must give up myths about yourself, about your history. That you are resolutely individual, and not part of a group. That you pulled yourselves up by your bootstraps. You must also forcefully, and finally, come face-to-face with the black America you have insisted on seeing through stereotype and fear. Whiteness can no longer afford to hog the world to itself or claim that its burdens are the burdens of the universe. You must repent of your whiteness, which means repenting of your catastrophic investment in false grievances and artificial claims of injury. You must reject the easy scapegoating of black
- Yet you have little curiosity about the complicated forces of race. But that black dissent may yet redeem a white innocence that threatens the nation’s moral and patriotic health.
- But I also wanted the students who were savvier about whiteness to speak up. Those who knew how whiteness often avoids direct hits; those who knew how whiteness often distorts the arguments of its opponents to make itself appear more reasonable, more natural; those who knew how whiteness escapes notice in a blizzard of qualifications meant to avoid responsibility. I wanted them in the stew with him to help sort things out.
- the class to weigh in too. I wanted them to tell us if they were learning new things about black pain. Or to let off steam from a simmering rage at how white folk could afford not to know what many of them couldn’t help but know.One of my bright black students got exasperated at how many white folk protected themselves from such knowledge by seeing themselves as the victims of hurt feelings.
- White fragility is the belief that even the slightest pressure is seen by white folk as battering, as intolerable, and can provoke anger, fear, and, yes, even guilt. White fragility, as conceived by antiracist activist and educational theorist Robin DiAngelo, at times leads white folk to argue, to retreat into silence, or simply to exit a stressful situation.
- What I ask my white students to do, and what I ask of you, my dear friends, is to try, the best you can, to surrender your innocence, to reject the willful denial of history and to live fully in our complicated present with all of the discomfort it brings.
- In that moment of mob innocence, it truly believes that if one police officer is indicted, whiteness itself is indicted. If one mass shooter at a black church is brutalized or injured before he can reach a fair trial, then whiteness itself is injured.
- The most radical action a white person can take is to acknowledge this denied privilege, to say, “Yes, you’re right. In our institutional structures, and in deep psychological structures, our underlying assumption is that our lives are worth more than yours.” But that is a tough thing for most of you to do. My students are a bit of a captive audience. They’re more willing to wrestle their whiteness to a standstill—or at least a tie between the historical pressure to forget and the present demand to remember. Believe it or not, that tiny concession, that small gesture, is progress.
- We are saying, however, that you ought to be honest about how you benefit from getting a good education and a great job because you’re white.
- There is a big difference between the act of owning up to your part in perpetuating white privilege and the notion that you alone, or mostly, are responsible for the unjust system we fight. You make our request appear ridiculous by exaggerating its moral demand, by making it seem only, or even primarily, individual, when it is symbolic, collective. By overdramatizing the nature of your personal actions you sidestep complicity. By sidestepping complicity, you hold fast to innocence. By holding fast to innocence, you maintain power.
- The real question that must be asked of white innocence is whether or not it will give up the power of life and death over black lives. Whether or not it will give up the power to kill in exchange for brotherhood and sisterhood. If it does, it can at long last claim its American siblings and we can become a true family.
- I am burdened and privileged by this idea of me, your idea of me. It is a fiction that traffics in long-held beliefs about race. My privilege rests on the idea that I am special, that I am different, that I’m not like “them.” That difference is partly why I get to address you directly, beloved. Why I am considered more capable of speaking to the problem of race, more articulate than “regular” black folks. But I am not this fiction. I am like every other black American, a person caught between two perceptions. A Jekyll and Hyde of race. Dr. Jekyll is the professor that many of my people, and many of you, love. Mr. Hyde is the black man who grew up on the streets of Detroit, who needs do little more than return home to see a fate that could have become my fate in the face of my brother Everett, locked behind bars for more than a quarter century now.
- Beloved, why is it that every time black folk talk about how poorly the cops treat us you say that we should focus instead on how we slaughter each other in the streets every day? Isn’t that like asking the person who tells you that they’re suffering from cancer to focus instead on their diabetes? Your racial bedside manner has always been fairly atrocious.
- Whiteness must shed its posture of competence, its will to omniscience, its belief in its goodness and purity, and then walk a mile or two in the boots of blackness. The siege of hate will not end until white folk imagine themselves as black folk—vulnerable despite our virtues. Empathy must be cultivated. The practice of empathy means taking a moment to imagine how you might behave if you were in our positions. Do not tell us how we should act if we were you; imagine how you would act if you were us. Imagine living in a society where your white skin marks you for disgust, hate, and fear. Imagine that for many moments. Only when you see black folk as we are, and imagine yourselves as we have to live our lives, only then will the suffering stop, the hurt cease, the pain go away.
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