“…I shouldn’t forget: people were carried like chattel on ships to America; they were sold to other people; they were stripped of their names, spiritual practices, and culture; they worked hard their entire lives without just compensation; they were beaten into submission and terrorized or killed if they looked if they chose not to submit; when they died they were buried in the ground to the far edge of the town; and as the town grew, roads and houses were built on top of them as if they had never existed.” Lonely in America, Wendy S. Walters; The Fire This Time: A new Generation Speaks about Race,
A month ago a friend, colleague and mentor and I were having our monthly conversation. He’s in the process of writing a book and has entrusted me with the privilege as one of many to give feedback. He’s a white male, 30 yrs my senior, has a steel trap for a brain, passionate about social justice and lives his life on the issues with the urgency of the Black Lives Matters Movement.
This particular month’s conversation hit various topics, our current social and political landscape with all its various constructs; outdated models of organizations addressing significant issues, structural inequities, income and inequality, power and Race. We tend to go in hard. As part of the discourse we share books new and old voices and how they along with our experiences inform our optics and analysis, even when at times we find ourselves/behaviors a living contradiction.
Race bubbled up, Okay I raised it! It’s very much how I walk through this life and not of my own accord, I can assure you. In our conversation we somehow crossed the inter-sectionality of Race, White Privilege, self-care and drinking as part of a shared cultural history. Somewhere as we discussed White Privilege I blurted out metaphorically “like alcoholism of whiteness.” We both feel into a blustering of a laugh, one of those deep belly, cheek hurting laughs. Once settled, immediately I jotted down the phrase. From that experience, that moment, this paper started its gestation. It became a fire burning in my belly, a repetitive voice I couldn’t turn off penetrating my every fiber with a discomfort and yearning to be free. As such these next few lines serve as one voice of many wrestling with trying to capture and shed light on one aspect of what is meant when you hear the term, “The Black Experience.”
Metaphorically speaking white people are alcoholics. Essentially, they like the good stuff, the best, as should anyone. However, their alcohol is couture at least it starts that way, then it’s the good stuff, eventually moved to “top shelf.” Overall, it has always been marketed as couture and top shelve. It’s placed is special boxes, dressed up with fancy packaging, special calligraphic letters and placed literally at the highest shelf as a sign if it’s superior flavor above the rest.
Just like all alcoholics the moment anyone tries or attempts take the glass away (infringe upon white privilege) from which they drink they become threatened and belligerent, resulting in a tantrum about their rights, as substitute for the underlying belief that God meant it to be this way. Carol Anderson in her piece “White Rage” from The Fire This Time: A new Generation Speaks about Race describes this as the following:
“When we look back at what happened in Ferguson, Missouri, during the summer of 2014, it will be easy to think of it as yet one more episode of black rage ignited by yet another police killing of an unarmed African American male. But that is precisely backward. What we’ve actually seen is the latest outbreak of white rage. Sure it’s cloaked in niceties of law and order, but it is rage nonetheless…the real rage smolders in meetings where officials redraw precincts to dilute African American voting strength or seek to slash the government payrolls…It virtually goes unnoticed, however, because white rage doesn’t have to take the streets and face rubber bullets to be heard. Instead, white rage carries an aura of respectability and has access to the courts, police, legislature, and governors, who cast its efforts as noble, though they are driven by the most ignoble motivations.”
Yes, they are intoxicated with their self-defined top shelf liquor – “whiteness.” Not all just those who deny history and its continued manifestation in the present. However many still remain in constant denial about the historical facts of marginalization of other races and blatant denial of opportunity as a result of inequality and the many forms of racism. They stagger through life drunk with white privilege as a cloak of protection, drive recklessly running red-lights of cultural caution and disrespect with impunity then take advantage of communities that have been decimated by polices designed to plan people of color out of the landscape. Carol adds:
“A little more than half a century after Brown, the election of Obama gave hope to the country and the world that a new racial climate had emerged in America, or that it would. But such audacious hopes would be short-lived. A rash of voter-suppression legislation, a series of unfathomable Supreme Court decisions, the rise of stand-your-ground laws, and continuing brutality make clear the Obama’s election and reelections have unleashed yet another wave of anger.”
This alcoholism of whiteness has always been around but became that much more intoxicating/embolden once the most powerful man of the free world was black. This white rage had been active since before Reconstruction fermenting, barreled to preserve its purity, richness and self –righteous claim of God’s intended flavor. Its fermentation process adopted by a coopted Constitution, barreled in created Legislation of protectionism and maintained by “In God We Trust” every Sunday, which I believe Dr. King referred as the most segregated hour in America.
Like all alcoholics sobriety has a fear that’s both paralyzing and aggressive. The mere idea of not drinking the privilege in all of its expected regalia causes a conniption. Having to operate in a new-normal, where things like being culturally aware, or being intentional about an individual’s preferred pronoun or giving credence to the purity of why an NFL’er chooses to kneel during the National Anthem can certainly as we have witnessed causes withdrawal of epic proportions. These are recent examples of some dismissed issues of our current landscape has been responded and managed with the same lashing-out afforded by privilege and white rage. Mosques and churches become focal points for white supremacist, a shooter who has just killed 8 people of color in one of the most premeditated of heinous crimes is taking too Burger King or, the fact that African American males account for 12%-13% of the population but make up 35% of the jail inmates and 37% of incarcerated inmates. It’s as if a Jihad has been waged against black males a classic case of black robes white justice.
This drunken stupor of this alcoholism of whiteness has become so intoxicating it has set up multiple cases and situations of plausible deniability. The richness of whiteness not in wealth but an optic of being above and entitled over all others that are not its own hue is simply a reflection of a culture embedded in anti-black racism. Claudia Rankine captures this in, The Condition of Black Life Is One of Mourning:
“It’s in our laws, in our advertisements, in our friendships, in our segregated cities, in our schools, in our Congress, in our scientific experiments, in our language, on the Internet, in our bodies no matter our race, in our communities, and perhaps most devastatingly in our justice system…The Charleston murders alerted us to the reality that a system so steeped in anti-black racism means that on any given day it can be open season on any black person-old or young, woman or child. There exists no equivalent reality for white Americans.”
I’m sure as you read the excerpt that final sentence offends the sensibilities of your whiteness and you fall into your intoxicated sense of privilege developing defensive rationales like, the recent mass shootings. Las Vegas at concert where 59 were killed or Texas a church shooting were 26 were killed. To give you some perspective, according to the Huffington Post based on report by the Washington Post, 233 of the 963 people police shot and killed in 2016 were black. As of Wednesday evening (8/23/2017), black people had been the victims in 137 of 643 police killings in 2017, according to the Post. Police had also killed 113 other people of color up to that point this year. In addition, its reported, African-Americans make up roughly 13 percent of the country’s population ― meaning they are far more likely to die at the hands of police than white Americans, even though more white people are killed by law enforcement overall.
Does this mean that we need AA and NA meetings, with 12 step programs to come to terms with the power of this intoxicating disease that as ripped the very humanity of our Nation? Do we create detoxing and rehabilitation programs for the alcoholism of white privilege? Do we create a place for forgiveness, under the guise of relapse as part of recovery, so the all too occasional innocent black male sentenced for crime he didn’t commit; or the unarmed black male gunned down for following instructions; or policies predicated on disenfranchisement are to be viewed with compassion and empathy because it’s part of the process of their recovery? I don’t know, any of these steps seem to placate the alcoholism of whiteness. Even with cultural competency courses from academia to the work place, there is limited impact just bench marks for more boxes to be ticked.
Katy Tur, a white female reporter with MSNBC spent over 500 day’s on the Trump campaign. She endured some of the most misogynistic, demeaning offensive language because she reported on the facts of a campaign that was essentially fact less. She witnessed racist behavior in the form of language and brute force against people of color who were opposed to the incendiary language coming from Trump; one of her most important points, “facts matter.” The fact is white privilege has been established and maintained by brute force, slavery, false narratives about people of color, especially black males. Fact, established polices find ways to punish and blame the victims of circumstances created by the ethos of structural racism while the intoxicating alcoholism of whiteness enjoys access to resources, wealth and power.
The Black Experience is an impassioned one, filled with pain and joy manifested on many levels, shared in various forms, one being music. Its’ been the place from Muddy Waters to Tupac to Bob Marley where our pain has been flavored with syncopation and melodies to draw listeners in too the brutal reality of life under the most adverse conditions. Yet, as observed and experienced many times the very same conscious and unconscious anti-black racists, intoxicated with their white privilege, love Miles, Tupac, Public Enemy, Jay-Z, Notorious BIG and artist the likes Mos Def. In fact, I know this first hand as I have witnessed it; they know every verse and can recite it with or without the track. However when confronted with the opportunity to have “real talk” with people living those same verses and lines, they lose all ability to listen as intently. I surmise it’s because lyrics do not talk back; they do not discourse adding a layer of reality that is not so far removed.
For some if not most of you this current social and political climate (Trumpism) is a new experience. For The Black Experience it’s par for the course. It’s the manifestations of a social construct people of color had and have to endure for centuries.
Still there is good news, the privilege of that top shelf brand can be used in a way that all can drink from the glass shift the optics and minimize the damage to ones liver (The Nation). It can accept its ability to use its influence to level the playing field, to change the narrative developed over several centuries about the value of black and brown bodies. It can manifest (show up) in the form of a Katy Tur, Tim Wise, Greg Popovich, a Hipster liberal or your deeply concerned social worker. Yet, that is not even half the challenge. Showing-up requires the uncomfortableness of listening, not interjecting, no “buts”, just listen with an active inquiry, led by a desire to know and hopefully the courage of conviction to act.
It’s really simple, listen, feel, listen more, feel more; search for commonalities in the humanity of The Black Experience and take ownership of your status not only when it’s comfortable or opportunistic. Embrace the facts as according to Katy Tur, “facts matter.” Challenge yourself to do something uncomfortable and selfless; be fearless in pursuing those difficult conversations that need to be pursued as a central part of your individual and collective growth. Claudia Rankine captures this challenge put forth quite simply;
“In the words of the playwright Loraine Hansberry, “The problem is we have to find some way with these dialogues to show and encourage these white liberals to stop being a liberal and become an American radical.”
As you digest these few lines, develop a counter position, crafted with all the tools to refute and dismiss these passages. I’ll leave you with this; when last did you as a white person left you home with awareness that your whiteness can get you locked up or killed? When did your whiteness force you to change many times solely because you have to break a stereotype, for fear of being mistaken for a super-predator? When last did you have to be aware of your identities impact walking behind a woman particularly white, where your choice is either to slow your pace to create distance or the most obvious cross the road? When last were filled with anxiety entering a department store and followed solely because of your whiteness? Or, when last did you have to think twice running to catch a train or generally being late for fear of being tackled by a gun toting police officer? I will go far as to say, Never. Garnette Cadogan in his piece “Black and Blue” from The Fire This Time: A new Generation Speaks about Race, captures the everyday level of conscious The Black Experience, requires before leaving the ones home:
“No running, especially at night; no sudden movements; no hoodies, no objects-especially shiny ones-in hand; no waiting for friends on street corners, least I be mistaken for a drug dealer, no standing near a street corner on the cell phone (same reason)…walking is as my friend Rebecca described it: A pantomime undertaken to avoid the choreography of criminality.”
The privilege of the alcoholism of whiteness is so removed for from such preparatory thoughts and actions before leaving one’s home or the mundane joy of walking. The Black Experience is riddled with perceptions of “suspect” the feeling of a heighten awareness of my (black man) presences. This experience is a conscious separation from, rather than a part of the colorful fabric that makes our cities and this Nation great. Kevin Young, author and poet, best captures both the beauty and tension of the Black Experience in the midst of the culture that has gone out if its way to reinforce its white privilege.
“This morning I woke from a “deep Negro sleep,” as Senghor put it. I then took a black shower and shaved a black shave; I walked a black walk and sat a black sit; I wrote some black lines; coughed black and sneezed black and ate black too. This last as least is literal: grapes, blackberries, the ripest plums.”