Knowing When To Listen

“Don’t talk,” wrote Jorge Luis Borges, “unless you can improve the silence.” Speaker of the United States House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi, is probably wishing she had remembered that counsel.

“Thank you, George Floyd, for sacrificing your life for justice,” Pelosi said as she spoke during a news conference sponsored by the Congressional Black Caucus not long after the verdicts were announced. “For being there to call out to your mom, how heartbreaking was that,” Pelosi continued. “And because of you … your name will always be synonymous with justice.”

Many others have already taken Pelosi to task on her statement in direct and insightful ways. She tried to walk back and refocus her comments later in the day to repair some of the damage. But none of that talking has improved the silence.

Photo by Ksenia Chernaya on Pexels.com

Indeed, had she said nothing, she would have done far better for all of us (easy for me to say now, but still the case). Yet, we also know that “white silence is violence.” When we white folks are silent in the face of white supremacy, oppression, and racism, Black, Brown, Native, and AAPI people suffer and die. Saying nothing may be nearly as bad.

So, what shall we white people say?

Mark Charles had a compelling and incisive take on this in his “Second Cup of Coffee” talk on April 22, 2021. Charles, co-author with Soong-Chan Rah, of Unsettling Truths: The Ongoing Dehumanizing Legacy of the Doctrine of Discovery, and former presidential candidate, heard Pelosi’s words as obvious implicit racial bias.

That bias, he argued, is rooted in the ongoing project of “centering whiteness” in our culture, our legal system, our political process, our economic institutions, and our structures of thinking and perceiving as white people. Yes, that’s been said before. But clearly, some of us white people haven’t gotten the memo yet. More clearly, some of us have refused delivery.

Pelosi’s remarks portrayed Floyd’s death as a “sacrifice” for the sake of “justice.” This was, as should be obvious, a completely wrongheaded description of Floyd’s murder. Charles asserted that Pelosi’s remarks made Floyd an object, a commodity used to center, improve, and develop whiteness and the system that supports white supremacy.

Whites of a particular political stripe may put that system overtly front and center. Whites like Pelosi (and me) do our centering covertly and implicitly.

If that’s what we’re going to say – that somehow, everything really happens to center, improve, and develop whiteness and its supportive system – then we’d best just shut up. Pelosi could have stood quietly in the background as members of the Congressional Black Caucus spoke the truth.

She might have said with some art and eloquence – “That’s right. What they said.” That might have been closer to appropriate. That might have been closer to enough.

That wouldn’t have been satisfactory, however, for a system that centers whiteness. She would have been criticized for not using her own words. That’s the price of standing, rightly, in the background and waiting for other people to speak. That’s an appropriate silence for us white people. We can support the testimony of Black, Brown, Native, and AAPI leaders and citizens. And we should expect that support to cost us something, not to center, improve, and develop our power, privilege, and position.

Charles suggested in his talk, as he does in his writing, that we white folks can have plenty to say. Our first and most pressing task, if we are to be anti-racist allies, is to de-center whiteness. That runs counter to everything we have been taught and done.

Robin D’Angelo says that she often asks a question early in her anti-racism workshops. “What’s the best thing about being white?” She reports that the response on the part of white people is a lot of nervous throat-clearing and uncomfortable paper-shuffling. I took the chance to test this question in our anti-racism book study.

We were all noticeably quiet for a few moments. I felt embarrassed after asking the question – even after giving it a softening preface. One of the group members said what we were all thinking. All the best things about being white are things which now produce guilt and shame in the hearts and minds of the group members. All the best things about being white accrue to us at the expense of other people – who become objects for our manipulation, exploitation, and consumption.

The worst, best thing about being white is that we never have to think about race unless we choose to do so. We get to be the “non-adjective” people. There’s no “white history month,” as one group member points out. Every month is white history month. The same is true for theology and literature and entertainment and sports and…everything.

Some commentators believe this is precisely how it should be. Tucker Carlson rages that the verdicts in the Derek Chauvin trial are “the end of civilization.” If by “civilization” you mean “white civilization in America in the last four hundred years,” Carlson may be on to something (please, God, may it be so).

If, on the other hand, by “civilization” one means human activity and culture around the globe in the last ten thousand years, then the verdicts are not the end of anything.

Carlson’s assessment is reprehensible and disgusting. But, if Mark Charles is right (and I believe he is), that’s just the overt statement of the system that prompted Nancy Pelosi’s ill-considered remarks in a somewhat unguarded moment. The best thing about being white is that other people get to make sacrifices to sustain our favorite system.

“Systems of whiteness, like white supremacy itself, reward those who invest in what whiteness produces,” Kaitlin Curtice writes in Native, “the idea that anyone who isn’t white is less-than. Whiteness both forces people into assimilation and rewards those who stay assimilated” (p. xii).

Can we white people learn when to keep silent? I think so, to some extent. Can we white people “de-assimilate” ourselves and our institutions and our society? Maybe. James Baldwin, in “On Being White and Other Lies,” calls whiteness “a moral choice.” He doesn’t mean that it’s a good choice. He means it is a choice with profound moral implications. A choice can be unchosen.

Nell Irwin Painter calls “whiteness” an idea and not a reality. Many of us have come to understand that “race” in general is a social construction and not a biological or cultural given. An idea can be deconstructed and “un-thought.” That’s the kind of speaking we white people can and should do – mostly to one another. We can choose daily to de-center whiteness in ourselves and our institutions and our society. That requires choosing and acting – continually and consistently.

One part of the task of de-centering whiteness is to learn and incorporate the history of how whiteness has been centered in European history and, more specifically, in the historical narratives, and the legal and political systems of the United States. You can find an excellent and relatively brief historical overview of the development of “whiteness” in a recent article in the Guardian (linked here).

Charles, and his co-author, Soong-Chan Rah, uncover and explicate an American history of whiteness using the lens of the Doctrine of Discovery. “The problem of the Doctrine of Discovery,” they write in Unsettling Truths, “is that it affirms the perspective of a diseased social and theological imagination. It established the false notion,” they continue, “of a more ethnically pure, European Christian supremacy, and today it furthers the mythology of American exceptionalism, which is rooted in the blatant lie of a white racial supremacy” (page 37).

In this particular historical moment, it’s worth pursuing the history of policing in the United States and its predecessor political expressions. The connections between the systemic enslavement and eradication of Black, Brown, Native, and AAPI people and our modern police forces is instructive and distressing.

I have the luxury of time to read and listen to and discuss this history and how it is working out in our time and space. That’s why I try to share as much of it as I can in some of my posts. I listen to the witness of Curtice, and Charles, and Rah, and Jemar Tisby, and Kelly Brown Douglas, and Ibram X. Kendi, and Ijeoma Oluo, and Carol Anderson, and James Cone, and Heather McGhee, and Willie James Jennings, and Nell Irwin Painter, and James Baldwin, and W. E. B. DuBois, and Frederick Douglas and…I keep listening.

I participate in discussions where I can continue to learn and share. The primary purpose of those discussions is to work through at least some of our white bullshit so we are a little less dangerous when we interact with our Black, Brown, Native, AAPI, and Muslim siblings (that’s only a small part of the list of people for whom I am called to care by listening more). I’ve grown a little bit – mostly enough to see that I don’t even know all the questions yet, much less many answers.

We also try not to wait until we have it all “right” in our home before taking some action. We have committed, for example, to support the ministry of a local historically Black congregation in our community. I don’t know if we’ll ever participate in that community fully. That’s a conversation for a future time. We haven’t done nearly enough listening yet. But we know that when we support a Black church financially, the money will be used well (and not for further underwriting whiteness).

It’s some small beginning in personal efforts at repair. Because that’s the only talking we white people should be doing at this point. We should be talking about and doing relinquishment of power, repentance of wrongs, and repair of the injustice and inequity. And that talking either costs me some of my whiteness, or it’s better to keep quiet.

That’s more than enough talking for a lifetime for me. I hope that might improve the silence a bit.

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