January Manager's Report
When I moved away to college, I left that world behind—or so I thought. I wrote letters to the editor about racism; I dropped my Southern accent; and I’m someone who doesn’t have to say that “my best friend in college was black” because my best friend today is African American. It was a rude awakening to be told in my thirties that I was a racist and participating in racist institutions (our very radio station for example). I thought, “Wasn’t ‘white supremacy’ the culture that I had left long ago?”
These issues aren’t simple and they aren’t emotionally comfortable. Watching someone else have the conversation made it a little easier to take in, particularly because these films deal with real people having deep and personal discussions across racial and ethnic divides. Watching someone else’s pain and hurt and suffering and not feeling personally attacked was helpful for at least starting to “get it.” And it’s important that white men “get it” because if we don’t not much will change.What was the conversation about? First people of color (and women) suffer in our society. They suffer because of hurtful actions towards themselves, their friends and their ancestors. But why can’t they just snap out of it? Why can’t they just pull themselves up by their own bootstraps and stop differentiating (and thereby punishing) themselves? Why can’t “they” just get along and work within the system like “everyone else.” This was one of the keys to the movie. The difference between “us” and “them” is that, as white men, we do not have to deal with race if we don’t want to. We can just go about our daily business and rarely, if ever, feel the sting of being singled out. People of color, on the other hand, do not have that option. They have to deal with matters of color everyday. This is true even in areas that are becoming non-white-majority because the predominant culture (social, economic, political, educational, etc.) is still white. The “everyone else” that women and people of color are compared to is really just white men. Here’s another way to put it. I’m pretty comfortable traveling in the Portland nonprofit world. If I went to the Lake Oswego country club or a meeting of Texas ranchers, it would be a lot harder to fit in, and it wouldn’t feel good, but for a person of color to enter those worlds, the bar would be much higher. And check this out: I have made a choice in my life not to enter those worlds. For many people, the choice is made for them. So what do we do? One of the film’s key messages was that we just have to sit with the hurt and anger. Ask, listen, and try not to be defensive. It’s hard, because part of our white male culture is to problem solve and part of being human is to want to make painful things go away. Just hear and understand that people are suffering and that they have painful experiences. Another point was that Caucasians need to have awareness of our own culture because if our history is as invisible as the air that we breath, we can’t understand that not everyone has the same shared experience, not everyone is breathing the same air. That one was hard because I felt that I’d made a point of leaving my culture behind. As I considered the question though, I saw that the culture that I grew up with had some very beautiful elements. My grandmother was an iconoclast of Faulknerian proportions (and an exponent of racial equality). Today in my own life, I am studying spirituality, but I can look back to the music of the church and the music of the mountains, I’ll Fly Away for example, and see a sense of transcendence. I can also see that so many aspects of culture, communications, work habits and so forth that I consider “normal” are part of my European-American heritage. What does that imply for those who don’t share that heritage? One point of agreement at our KBOO staff discussion was that those of us who are white men need to talk to our peers because most white guys just aren’t going to hear the message coming from women or people of color; they’ll feel attacked. I’ve found that when I share with other guys the actual experiences that friends of mine have had, they are more receptive, and when I say, just imagine if everywhere you went, those in power—the bosses, the owners, the justice system, the landlord—were African American, and what if you couldn’t get a job or decent customer service, how would you feel? A lot of guys I know have had some understanding, at the very least a grudging acknowledgement that, yes, life might be a little bit harder for all the folks who don’t look like us. As a white male, I have tried to open up, listen and try not to be defensive, and I invite others to do the same. I try to use expectations around my position to open up the floor and let others speak (that is, rather than taking up the space that a lot of us guys are accustomed to in conversation, we can invite other people’s opinions). When these issues come up, it’s true that we may feel labeled or “put in a box.” I think it’s OK to communicate the pain that that causes for us, and yet we must also recognize the boxes that others find themselves in all the time.
These issues come up everywhere but they are usually swept under the rug. I happen to work in a nonprofit community organization where there is opportunity for greater conflict, but there is also opportunity for deeper understanding, for richer connection—and for sharing the pain of others. For all of us, it is imperative to participate in this opportunity if we want to bring positive change to ourselves and the world.