White Sorrow and a Positive Racial Identity

Making room for grief about our history can help us listen across differences.

Posted Sep 08, 2019

How to describe white people’s experience of the racial sorting out going on in America today? White fragility. White fear. Unconscious bias. White guilt. Aversive racism

I believe “white sorrow” is in the mix as well and provides an opening to healing and the ability to listen to each other across difference in these intense and complicated times.

Radu Florin@ pexels
Source: Radu Florin@ pexels

Is Everything I Know Wrong?

A satirical group, The Firesign Theatre, produced a comedy album in the 1960s entitled: Everything You Know Is Wrong. That’s what it can feel like being a half-woke white guy these days.

If you grew up like me, you likely learned that the US was founded on basic truths having to do with cultural narratives of equality, freedom, and progress. Hard work and persistence leads to success. Merit is rewarded. The American story is one of triumphant progress towards the good.

Yet if you’ve been paying attention lately, there’s been some disturbing news.Professor Jill Lepore’s recent history of the United States, These Truths, for example, is organized around our country’s involvement with slavery from before we were even the United States, a “deep and dark” relationship, in which Jefferson, Madison, and George Washington owned slaves even while they wrote in the Declaration of Independence that “all men are created equal” and  have an inalienable right to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

Here’s an invitation: Monitor what you feel when you read the following, cribbed from Lepore’s book:

Between 1500 and 1800, roughly two and a half million Europeans moved to the Americas; they carried 12 million Africans there by force; and as many as 50 million Native Americans died, chiefly of disease.

By the eve of the Civil War, cotton grown and picked by enslaved workers was the nation’s most valuable export. The combined value of enslaved people exceeded that of all the railroads and factories in the nation. Slaves were America’s most valuable property.

 The Civil war hardly ended slavery. Instead, Reconstruction—an eight year period of excellent state and local government in the South by freed slaves-- was brought to a tragic end in 1876 by a dirty deal between Northern  and Southern senators.

Jim Crow replaced slavery and the American prison system replaced the plantation economy.

After WW 2, black veterans were intentionally barred from significant GI Bill benefits and the Federal Housing Administration purposely followed a segregationist policy, denying loans to Blacks, creating “a segregated landscape: black cities, white suburbs” that bedevils us to the present day.

This is hard, painful stuff. And it counts for something that our country is surfacing this history and trying to come to terms with it. (Readers of color may wonder what exactly took so long.)

What did you feel as you read the list-- Anger? Outrage? Despair? Underneath that was there also sorrow at the human cost of this history? Did any part of you feel sad, rather than just angry or defensive or distracted?

Without the sorrow we skip over into hatred and polarization and the “call- out culture” of our times, or into passivity and hopelessness. To find our humanity we need also find ways to grieve.

Lepore’s book, along with other efforts such as the 1619 project, is being treated as groundbreaking. Reviewing These Truths in the NY Times, Andrew Sullivan wrote:“We need this book. Its reach is long, its narrative fresh and the arc of its account sobering to say the least.” The narrative is “fresh”? Apparently American history is news to a lot of (white) people, including historians and history teachers. (Though it is clearly not news to Ta-Nehisi Coates, Edmund Morgan, or Michelle Alexander)

I realize that this is the basic idea of “getting woke”; my point is that we can overlook the emotional impact of waking up to a world very different from the one you imagined; a world in which the treasured assumptions and beliefs that have ordered your world are suddenly lost.

The Value of Sorrow

We know what happens when meanings are lost. Victor Frankl has written about the existential crisis that results from the loss of a sense of meaning and purpose, as have a host of psychologists since. 

The loss of meaning is the core of grief and sorrow—that place where the world doesn’t make sense to you any more, when it has lost its familiarity and becomes instead a strange and unpredictable place. 

There are many ways to deal with sorrow. You can turn away and refuse to acknowledge the loss. You can get angry at the source of the sorrow. You can blame yourself, feeling a sense of guilt about your responsibility for the loss. 

Or you can hold the sorrow, sit with it, and mourn. Mourning takes resilience and grit—being able to acknowledge what has been lost (those cherished narratives and false beliefs) and to weave together a sense of oneself in a changed world. 

It’s the sorrow that I’m most aware of these days, within myself and other white people I meet. 

“I’m very aware of my short comings in dealing with students of color,” one white teacher said after a presentation on the experiences of marginalized students and faculty in a high school that considered itself progressive. (Even the phrase “marginalized” hit him hard--- “I thought I knew you, you’re my friend,” he replied to a colleague of color who had for the first time spoken openly about her feeling of being a “token black faculty” at the school. His colleague replied, “I’ve never had a chance before to talk about this here.”) 

We can imagine guilt or shame as the primary emotions underlying the sense of “shortcomings” or falling short, but as the teacher spoke he was close to tears. 

If I observed the group correctly, the faculty of color seemed mainly angry and impatient (“I’m not sure if this school can really change”) while the feeling of sorrow was heavy among the white faculty in the room. 

Another example: I’m walking with a friend who has been reading Ta Niehisi Coates’ reflections on the parallels between the undermining of reconstruction by white politicians and the sabotage of the Obama years by a similar group of white Senators, Eight Years We Were In Power. My friend says, “reading this is sometimes more than I can manage—it’s overwhelming really.” I knew what he meant and we tried to parse out what was in the “overwhelming” feeling. At first we landed on, “it’s such a big problem, we don’t know what to do,” but as we talked at a more feelingful level it was clear: we both wanted to cry at the tragedy of it all, the amount of pain and suffering in our country’s racial history. Suffering brought on people of color by white people.

This Is Not About White Guilt

I’m not writing this to induce “white guilt.” Neither guilt or shame is a helpful—or warranted-- emotion in this context. Centuries of racial oppression are not yourfault. White people alive today are not responsible for the beliefs and actions of earlier generations, just as Germans alive today are not responsible for the Holocaust. (And it’s important to remember that white people did not invent slavery; slavery seems to have been present in all societies since the Neolithic revolution.) 

White guilt is not a part of a positive white racial identity. Nor is “feeling good about being white.” Nor is “being colorblind”—an impossible and unhelpful idea. And, of course, i hope it is clear that I am NOT saying that working class white people don't suffer in our society-- clearly they do, as attested to by the tragic number of "deaths of despair" among white people. (The pitting of working class whites against black slaves, two groups with common interests,  was a conscious strategy of white plantation owners-- a successful effort that resonates to the present day.)

What is a positive white identity? I will discuss that in my next post. It clearly has to do with the personal awareness of our history as a country and what it means to live in a society with the systemic, institutionalized denial of resources and opportunities to people of color, to the advantage of white people. There is grief in coming to this awareness, as well as great hope. 

I say this because my intent is to help with the difficult task of listening to each other across differences. “Difference” these days seems synonymous with mistrust, polarization, the “call out culture,” and other ways in which we stop listening to each other. If we can allow ourselves to realize the sorrow in our history, the human suffering, I believe we can listen better and find ways through our fraught racial divide.

In the words of poet Naomi Shihab Nye, “Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside/you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.”