I believe this book was to be for some study group at church (in which I didn't participate). I snagged a copy, figuring it would be good for me to read. I thought I might read it in bits over breakfast. But that never happened. So, after having been forced to read a dead-tree book, that could be considered vaguely related, In His Steps
, I decided to keep the trusty kindle in it's case and try another dead-tree book. Since I felt guilty about not having read this book—which if truth be told, I stole from a church table (I'll try to return it this week...promise)—I gave it a fly. Once again, I'm weirded out about all the strange coincidences between peripheral things in the book that have touched on my own life (about which, more later).
This is the story of a woman who grew up in extreme "white privilege" in Winchester, MA. She thought she was a good person, so what's the deal? Over a period of about 25 years, she eventually learned how she had been born to many of the advantages in her life, not the least of which was white skin. Yes, she "made it" in part from hard work. But she was also given all the tools to "make it": comfortably well off (if not rich; I think being part of the country-club set is a bit more than "comfortable"), ready access to good education, and, just as importantly, a white skin. One's white skin opens many doors and eases many relationships in the wider world which are just not available to "people of color", without much more effort on their parts.
So, Ms. Irving walks us slowly, step-by-step on her long journey into understanding the racial divide, why the mere state of one's skin color either makes life easier or more difficult, even absent other issues such as economic status and general ability. She does a reasonable job and is somewhat convincing, I think, but then I have also been working my way slowly through this journey over many years myself.
Almost 40 years ago, when I first moved to Reading, there were four scary, bearded guys in the First Congregational Church of Reading, UCC (FCCR). Dick Reed, the choir director (a bit of an ass hat, who eventually drove me into a five-year exile from the choir), the spouse of the Assistant Pastor, Johanna Fine (not sure of his name though, John?), me, and an older guy named Horace Seldon. Horace Seldon was an ordained pastor, but he was no longer tending a flock. I'm not sure why he was coming to FCCR. That was back in the days when people still actually went to church more often than not, so perhaps he just needed a place to be, and we were a bit more liberal than the folks in the surrounding towns. After a few years he stopped coming. Then one day some years later, I "ran" into him on a jog around Lake Quannapowitt. "You're Horace Seldon", I said. "Yup", he said, a bit taken aback. So, we jogged together and chatted.
It seems that at some time in his life (late 1960s), Horace had a vision, which told him that he should do something about racism. So, he founded a group called Community Change
, which was supposed to combat racism. I think, perhaps, I was on the Outreach Commission at that time, and I invited him to come to FCCR to chat with us about his group. Perhaps we could sling a few dollars their way. Their focus for combating racism was to address the "white" problem.
There are many things white people do as a matter of course, which don't make sense to people of color. And there are assumptions white people make that imply to them that people of color are somehow defective because they don't act like white people. One of the things Community Change would do is audit various other organizations to see what kinds of things were going on that would imply some kind of white bias, often a totally unintentional bias. It bugs lots of us to hear such charges, we don't do any lynching, right? So what do you mean we perpetuate racism? Nope, we don't lynch, but we constantly show people how little we respect them, and this lack of respect spills over into unintended modes of behavior toward others, which ends up with people's underachieving in school (low expectations), living in poorer neighborhoods served by worse schools (low tax base), living in more unsafe neighborhoods (despite having to pay relatively more to be in those neighborhoods thanks to red lining and realtor re-direction), and so forth.
Some of these things can be as subtle and not bothering to learn how to pronounce names of people from other cultures. We're mostly better about this than we used to be. Most of us will now properly pronounce Jesus Alou's first name, Hay soos', as opposed to Jeeee' zus! But the Red Sox broadcast team still can't figure out how to say Uehara, even though Japanese pronunciation is very straight forward (Oo ai ha ra, with no particular stress on any of the syllables—the 'e' in Japanese is pronounced as a long 'a', whereas 'a' itself is always a short 'a'. If Koji's last name were really you-ee-hara, it would be spelled as Yuihara in Japanese, well in romanji, the spelling out of Japanese words using roman letters). Japanese is much easier to pronounce than Spanish, French, or German. Having been sensitized by Horace 20 or 30 years ago, I still feel like someone's scratching a black board with their finger nails when Koji comes in to pitch and they can't show enough respect for him to pronounce his name properly. He's a good guy and a good player. Why in the hell don't you learn to pronounce his name? WTF?
Or, you might be assuming this Japanese-looking person across the table from you at a church's ham 'n' bean supper doesn't speak very good English, so you don't bother to make any engagement. Later on, you might learn the woman is Joann and she's from Chicago, has the accent to prove it, and is a thoroughly delightful person.
I'll spare you all more from my own journey. But as anyone who is paying attention to this year's Presidential election knows, racism is still a problem in the U.S. It's more subtle and less overt in some ways than it was less than 50 years ago, when the "good folks" of Reading drove the greatest basketball player in the history of the game out of town (Bill Russell. Yes, he was less gifted physically than Michael Jordan or LeBron or Kobe, but Bill's teams always
won because Bill knew how to make everyone around him better players. LeBron, Kobe and MJ were too ego driven to care about anyone's performance than their own.). But it's still pervasive, often in little unseen assumptions we white folks make to exclude people of color from full participation in our society or, sometimes, even to put them in their places.
I had a couple of issues with this book. Not so much about the "whiteness" issue. I'm well aware of it, and am glad to have been made more aware. But, even though I used the phrase "people of color" above, I don't like the term. Perhaps we need something else. I do understand we can't use the term "colored people" as was done 50 or so years ago. David Ortiz is dark skinned, and therefore, I suppose, a person of color, but he most certainly is not a "colored person". On the other hand, I am hard pressed to view my friend Joann from Chicago, or my grand nephews Jay and Kosei as being "people of color", although I expect both Joann and my grand nephews will likely experience some discrimination in their lives based on their not being quite so lily white as I am.
My other problem is with the phrase "one's truth", as in the sentence,
Knowing that speaking one's truth and listening to others' truth is a crucial step in racial healing is one thing.
I know it's popular for touchy-feely types to think that truth is mutable, and varies according to the observer. It has meaning, therefore, only as one wishes it to mean. As a result, we have a whole political party and a whole journalistic establishment who cheerfully imply things and print things about anthropogenic climate change which are demonstrably not true. But given the widely held belief that truth is a matter of an individual's perception, that makes sense to all these people. So, we're more than happy to consider electing as President someone who's policies guarantee
that significant portions of his home state will be under water in another generation. That will be everyone's truth then, i.e. actual truth of drowning, but at the moment, our politicians and journalists ignore this actual truth for the more touchy-feely "truth" as being whatever one wishes to make of it, even if they don't actually know what the hell they're talking about.
So, I would very much like people to use the word truth for something that is demonstrably true, and find some other term for people's experiences and perceptions. Yes, "it's true" that most people of color are likely to be given a ticket for a minor traffic infraction, whereas a soft-spoken middle-aged white man like me can almost always get off with no more than a "warning". But that's not so much "truth" as commonality of experience. But then, as Pilate is alleged to have said, "what is truth?"
Anyway, on to weird coincidences in life. The woman who wrote the book grew up in Winchester, MA. I lived in Winchester about the time she was in high school. I'm guessing that if her family were church types, she might have gone to the same one I attended. It certainly was a rather up-scale church. I don't remember any Kitteridges there, but then rich folks, even then, weren't so much into church going as us more "common" types. Hell, they could hang out at the country club, where the the important business and social connections were to be found, and the chaff, like myself, were winnowed out. Then, it seems, that her husband was a producer or something on This Old House
. One of the This Old House
guys has lived down the street from me ever since I moved to Reading almost 40 years ago, once I realized I would never be rich enough to buy a house in Winchester.
Sorry, I seem to have digressed away from the book mostly. You all will be thankful that I excised quite a lot of my extraneous thoughts so as not to digress even further afield. Whatever, it's a good enough book which treats a topic on which we should all be better educated and more aware.