"It's rhetoric all the way down." — Steven Mailloux

Musings on race and racism

I am a white male, raised in a middle-class household (although not a “normal” one) in a middle-class, white neighborhood in Pittsburgh (although the city I grew up in might not really matter).  For a long time, I have thought about racial issues, as if they affected only people of color, not whites.  Now, thanks to my participation in a SURJ (Showing Up for Racial Justice) and the reading and discussion I have had lately about race, I am working toward a more nuanced but realistic understanding of race — at least from a white perspective. This is an ongoing project, so I am going to write about it in a series of posts that will be personal and exploratory — as opposed to general and declaratory — as much to clarify my own thinking as to influence anyone else’s.

In the home I grew up in, we were “liberal” on race.  I mean people of color were not openly derided, mocked or insulted.  Without any discussion of “civil rights,” I am sure that my father and all my brothers supported full public rights for all; when the civil rights struggle became more visible to white Yankees like us, we learned that racists were the people who attacked the sit-ins and burned the Freedom Riders’ busses.  They were white people who used the term “nigger,” not the more polite “negro” or even “colored person” as we did in our home.  Many of my high school friends and classmates were active liberals on the issue — some even participated in demonstrations and rallies. I felt no different from those kids, just more quietistic.  When I got to college, I really saw how liberal my background had been compared to most of the other white men I mixed with.  Not that they were all “nigger this” and “nigger that,” but they were more open with other racial remarks.  Assertions like black people have natural rhythm that white people lack or that black men are naturally better basketball players than white men were widely believed and shared, without any intention of degrading black people. I remember one frat brother, who at least claimed his father worked for the FBI in its Cleveland office, saying that his father told him the FBI was shadowing MLK, Jr. because he was a suspected Communist.  I took what he said seriously.  Did not see what he said — or the FBI’s alleged profiling of Dr. King — as racist.  There was another incident where a high school or college basketball player — coincidentally, also from Cleveland — was pictured in the newspaper for some achievement.  His last name was Wingard, same as our family name.  It generated much ribbing about us having black relations.  Why that was funny, I can no longer understand.

I went to school for almost thirty years, grade school through Ph.D.  I don’t recall ever having a black classmate, although there were a few black students at my urban high school, at my undergraduate college, and at the three universities I attended for graduate work.  I did have black students, though, once I started teaching. I spent a year as an English teacher at an overwhelmingly black high school in rural Virginia, and when I was a graduate teaching assistant at LSU, I had a few black students in my classes.  But once I finished my Ph.D. and became a full-time college professor, first in Nebraska then in Pennsylvania, I had very few black students.  In Nebraska, none; in Pennsylvania, maybe a dozen in 33 years.  After retirement, I landed a one-year gig as an adjunct instructor at Penn State’s Abington campus.  One of the interesting and educational aspects of that job, for me, was that Abington’s enrollment was about 40 percent students of color, and having black students in my classes was both normal and refreshing.  Of about 14 students I had in two classes there, seven were people of color and five of those seven were black.  And these students were strong ones, too: the black students and the white. For me, at the end of my career, it was liberating to be able to talk to black students as something like intellectual equals and to be able to put race and language on the table as a subject of study.  In the process, I was learning more about the lived experiences of these students than I had with whatever black students I’d had since teaching high school, going on 45 years now.

Two incidents that caused me to reflect on how I might be racist in spite of my good intentions and liberal attitudes.  One was in class in fall semester, 2015.  There were two black women in that class, and for a few weeks I couldn’t get their names straight. That is, I would call Janeen “Danielle” sometimes and vice versa.  Complicating matters was that I had met a black instructor whose first name was “Janelle,” and my difficulty in identifying them and working with them individually bothered me.  And it wasn’t that “all black people look alike” to me; I’d long since gotten past that.  I did come to differentiate Danielle from Janeen, but one time before coming to that point, I called Danielle “Janeen” and she corrected me.  I said, “If I do that again, slap me.”  Danielle laughed, but I was annoyed at myself for this confusion.

The other incident was not in the classroom but on the bike trail, but it occurred in summer 2015 so at a similar stage in my awareness/ignorance.  Taking a break during a ride, I saw a black man and two children, on bike, across the canal from where the bike trail was and I was standing.  They started riding, slowly, down a dirt lane that paralleled the canal and the trail.  I called out to them, saying something like, “Excuse me, but if you want the bike trail you have to come across the bridge over here.”  The man called back, “Thank you, but we live down this lane.”  He was polite; I was polite. But I was horrified at my prejudicial assumption that because the people were black they could not be local to this mostly wealthy, rural Pennsylvania county.  And of course, I tried to mansplain what I thought they needed to do.  There seemed to me nothing to apologize for, and I had no sense that the man was offended.  At least he didn’t act offended.  But it was probably not the first time that a kindly white man addressed him as if he were in the wrong place somehow.  No, I didn’t holler, “Hey! What are you doing over there?” But my assumption that they “weren’t from” around those parts was about as bad.

Don’t get me wrong: I am not writing this to expose my own racism or race prejudice or to publicly flog myself for my errors. I want to put it out there, though, that even a liberal, nay, progressive, white man like me isn’t as clean as he might like to think he is.


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