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It is by Tobias Wolff, and is titled Heart of Whiteness

Wolff, who turned 69 in July, was born in Birmingham AL.  His older brother Geoffrey was a friend of James Baldwin.

Like me, the two Wolffs were in Washington DC on August 28, 1963 for the March for Jobs and Freedom.

It is a superbly written - and searingly honest - piece, for example:

I lived in the South from the age of four through fourth grade, and in all that time I never played with a black child; never saw anything but white faces in my classrooms, in the hallways and playgrounds of my public schools, or in the neighborhoods where I lived; never ate in the same room with black people or—the clichés are true—used the same bathroom or drank from the same water fountain.
I grew up in the North.  I am about a year younger, although I was ahead of myself in school.

I knew a few blacks growing up, mainly our mades, Jesse the delivery guy from our local market.  And a couple of people at school - running cross-country with Sam Shelton, playing intramural basketball with another guy named George, and Nancy Goode who played violin in the Orchestra.  But like Wolff I did not really get to know Blacks until I served in the military, in my case the Marines, where one of my DIs, Corporal Bess, was black.  Thus this paragraph also spoke to me:

When I joined the Army, at eighteen, I was trained by black drill instructors, marched and pulled K.P. and showered and bunked and jumped out of airplanes with black troops. If it hadn’t been for a black sergeant I served with in Vietnam, I doubt that my sorry ass would’ve gotten shipped home in one piece.
If you decide now to go read Wolff, I will be satisfied, although I would ask you to return here and offer some reactions.

I have a few more words to offer.

I first encountered racial discrimination on a trip to Miami Beach over Christmas break 1956-57, when I saw segregated bathrooms.

Little Rock the following year was seared into my consciousness.

Like Wolff I read a fair amount of literature by Blacks, although the only book explicitly on race that I remember reading in high school Black Like Me, was written by a white man who colored his skin to experience what life was like for people of color.

Oh, before I enlisted in the Marines I had a bit more experience - after all, I participated in demonstrations in New York and then while in college at Haverford in Chester PA.  And I had been one of only a few whites on the bus from the Bronx chapter of CORE heading to Washington, and at the March perhaps 20% of us were white.

Later when I lived in Park Slope in Brooklyn, there were four softball teams in the local male league that played in the local schoolyard - Italian, Irish, Puerto Rican, and Black.  I was one of two whites on the Black team, because I also played pickup basketball with many of the same guys, who lived two blocks and a world apart from me - my then significant other and I lived in a house owned by an Italian couple (they were in the basement, we, Jewish on the 1st floor and another Italian couple on the 2nd).  But our apartment had lots of furniture and books, and we both came from middle class families and had college educations.  I remember our first basemen inviting me over for dinner, and their furniture was minimal, there were no books or records, and neither he nor his wife had graduated from high school.

Times, and life circumstances, change.

My nephew married a black woman he met in college.

Many of my fellow teachers, and most of the principals for whom I have worked were Black, both male and female.

I have taught classes where mine was the only White face in the room.

Even in an integrated school I have seen the disparate treatment given black male students in the hallways versus white female students.

While there are now Black faces in boardrooms and executive sweets and Governors' mansions, there is still disparate treatment.

As a white of a certain age, while I acknowledge things have improved, nevertheless I still see the searing damage of the racism that is still a part of our society.

I still hear the code words.

I still see the disparate treatment - in the legal system, in how too many stores react to dark skins coming in, on challenging the right of people to vote.

Ferguson does not surprise me.

Ferguson saddens me.

But this is not about me.

Read the Wolff.

When you have, you will see why I asked you to do so.


PS -  Please note my new sig.  I will write about that soon.

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Comment Preferences

  •  Unless I'm mistaken, Haverford is not in Chester (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    AllTheWayWithLBJ85, rb608

    It's on the Main Line in the Philly suburb of Haverford, Pa.

    I have an old acquaintance who lived on campus with his wife, who was (is) a professor there.

    The Philly Main Line area (Montgomery County) is as far from racial diversity as anyone can possibly get.

    It will not get easier before it gets harder. But the harder it gets, the easier it will be.

    by Richard Cranium on Sat Aug 16, 2014 at 08:00:17 PM PDT

    •  I attended Haverford (3+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      MaryinHammondsport, Mopshell, rb608

      my freshman year we went to a civil right demonstration in Chester - the principal speaker was Stanley Branch.

      The State Police had refused to come in and Chester deputized its sanitation workers who had no trouble using billy clubs on the knee of one of other students, who when the third time they tapped his knee and he went down immediately arrested him for obstructing the sidewalk.

      And you are actually fairly wrong about the Main Line.  The next community over from Haverford is Ardmore, which has a decent size black population.  For years, under the inspiration of Bancroft Prize winning historian Roger Lane, Haverford ran a day camp for children from that community called Serendipity.

      The college itself is now about 30+% students of color.  Very different than my freshman year.  We had no Hispanics, one Black and two Japanese (not Japanese Americans - both from Japan and both later served as ambassadors for their home country) out of a class that was then 130.

      The College has now had Black administrators and numerous Black faculty, although then there was exactly one Black faculty member, Ira DeAustine Reid.  And the food service guys, who were all black, lived in a run-down building until the student newspaper did an expose.

      Ardmore is not the only place on the Main Line with areas of minority population.

      "My religion is kindness." - His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama

      by teacherken on Sat Aug 16, 2014 at 08:11:02 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  Ardmore?? You're kidding me, right? (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        The next community over from Haverford is Ardmore, which has a decent size black population.
        Trader Joes, Whole Foods...take a trip into the side streets these days, Ken.

        There may be some people of color in the apartment complexes, but it's more college students there than anyone else.  Ardmore is high rent district anymore.

        And, to my original point, Haverford is nowhere near Chester (which is Pa.'s equivalent of Newark, NJ.)

        It will not get easier before it gets harder. But the harder it gets, the easier it will be.

        by Richard Cranium on Sat Aug 16, 2014 at 08:15:54 PM PDT

        [ Parent ]

        •  Haverford is a 15 minute drive to Chester (4+ / 0-)

          the College Park Apartments were bought by the College in lieu of building more dormitories.  I had lived there part of my senior year as a married student, they abutted the campus, although in my day there were no paths.

          Even in the 60s there were upscale stores in Ardmore.  Go under the railroad tracks and there was a Strawbridge and Clothier - in front of which Barry Goldwater spoke to a large crowd in 1964.  I know, I was there.

          I am quite well aware of the current status of the Main Line.  I am on campus several times a year.  My father-in-law lives in Rosemont.  My wife periodically goes back to the Main Line for Shipley School Reunions (class of '74) which often include dinners at private homes very much upscale.

          And I was writing about 1963 Richard, which you seem to totally ignore in responding to my comments.

          So be it.

          "My religion is kindness." - His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama

          by teacherken on Sat Aug 16, 2014 at 08:21:24 PM PDT

          [ Parent ]

          •  It's 30 minutes, at least, in good traffic (1+ / 0-)
            Recommended by:

            I made the drive many times.

            I don't want to get into a pissing contest with you, Ken, about geography.  I honor your activism if you made the trip to Chester before the Blue Route was built.

            Haverford College (and Ardmore, and Rosemont and Bala Cynwyd, and Narberth and Wynnewood and all the Mainline communities within 10 miles of the intersection of US1 and US30 in the burbs) are about as old money as you can get.

            There are no Ferguson's on the Main Line.

            It will not get easier before it gets harder. But the harder it gets, the easier it will be.

            by Richard Cranium on Sat Aug 16, 2014 at 08:32:19 PM PDT

            [ Parent ]

          •  My point is (1+ / 0-)
            Recommended by:

            Haverford is as far from Chester as Earth is from the moon.

            It will not get easier before it gets harder. But the harder it gets, the easier it will be.

            by Richard Cranium on Sat Aug 16, 2014 at 09:22:04 PM PDT

            [ Parent ]

            •  True dat. (0+ / 0-)

              I lived in Philly for college and still live close enough to occasionally get a good cheese steak.  Haverford is bucolic affluence and luxury auto dealerships compared to the grime and poverty that is Chester.  I don't care how fast one can drive between them; they're not close.

              You can't spell CRAZY without R-AZ.

              by rb608 on Sun Aug 17, 2014 at 05:00:14 AM PDT

              [ Parent ]

        •   Whole Foods (1+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          Richard Cranium

          is in Wynnewood.

        •  Obviously, you've never spent any time in... (0+ / 0-)


          "I always thought if you worked hard enough and tried hard enough, things would work out. I was wrong." --Katharine Graham

          by bobswern on Sun Aug 17, 2014 at 03:39:50 AM PDT

          [ Parent ]

  •  My favorite line. (8+ / 0-)
    Always we are most vulnerable to those ills we think we’re cured of.
    For a white person (like me), it's so easy to lie to oneself about the extent to which you've overcome or "dealt with" your racism.  It's so easy to conclude that you're "on the right side," and that much of the heavy-lifting is done.

    Know one of the really important ideas I got from Baldwin?  Whiteness is artificial, whiteness is a "problem" (the "problem" isn't blackness), and white people might think hard about what to do about that.

    Thanks for the diary and link.

    "It ain't so much the things we don't know that get us in trouble. It's the things we know that ain't so." (Artemus Ward)

    by Silencio on Sat Aug 16, 2014 at 08:02:30 PM PDT

    •  "Whiteness is artificial." A friend of mine says: (5+ / 0-)

      "I'm not white, I'm Irish."

      The construct of whiteness has had another pernicious effect, which is to de-ethnify (?is that a word?) the immigrants who came here from Europe, only to face discrimination in their own day.  

      "No Irish need apply."

      But by way of the construct of "whiteness," all of those Europeans: Irish, Italians, Poles, and numerous others, could be persuaded that they had something in common that made them fundamentally different from those who came here from Africa.

      "Divide and conquer" is an ancient strategy, and it still works.  In this century it works on behalf of the Oligarchs, who want the working class divided against itself, competing against itself, fighting over pie crumbs, while the Oligarchy steals the pie.

      That's the systemic role that racism serves: to divide and conquer.  And that's one of the reasons that thorough efforts to overcome racism are deliberately frustrated.  

      Minus race as a source of artificial division, there will be unity of interests, and the Oligarchy will be isolated and deposed.

      We got the future back. Uh-oh.

      by G2geek on Sat Aug 16, 2014 at 09:17:57 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  As Atrios might say... (0+ / 0-)
        Minus race as a source of artificial division, there will be unity of interests, and the Oligarchy will be isolated and deposed.

        ...At least in my lifetime.  The GOP thrives (like a vampire sucking blood) on race as a source of artificial division.

        It will not get easier before it gets harder. But the harder it gets, the easier it will be.

        by Richard Cranium on Sat Aug 16, 2014 at 09:27:43 PM PDT

        [ Parent ]

        •  No pre-emptive defeatism. (0+ / 0-)

          Pardon me for being harsh, but the attitude of "we'll never win" and all of its analogues need to S-T-O-P.

          1)  Don't hide behind quotes.  "As Atrios might say"...?  What would YOU say?

          2)  Don't disguise the language.  "Nagannahappen"?  Translation: "Not Going To Happen."   O Rly?  

          No chance of deposing the Oligarchy?  No chance of action against racism?  No chance of action against the climate crisis?  Are you really willing to give up and consign our species to more violence today and the threat of extinction tomorrow?  If so:

          3)  Fix your outlook.

          If you really think there's no hope, no chance, no path forward, you're depressed.  Get some SSRIs and peer-counseling, and get back to us when you're ready to FIGHT and WIN.

          But if you want to be a downer, go be a downer on Red State.  Promote pre-emptive defeatism over there, where it will do us some good over here.  

          The goals here are to WIN elections and CHANGE the culture and MAKE progress.

          We got the future back. Uh-oh.

          by G2geek on Sat Aug 16, 2014 at 09:52:15 PM PDT

          [ Parent ]

    •  Agree that self-complacency poses a risk. (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Silencio, Tommye
      For a white person (like me), it's so easy to lie to oneself about the extent to which you've overcome or "dealt with" your racism.  It's so easy to conclude that you're "on the right side," and that much of the heavy-lifting is done.
      I grew up in a racist environment.  Not a hateful racism, but with the attitude that blacks were inferior and shouldn't be in "our" world.  I'm thankful to have outgrown that through experience and education; and I like to think of myself as unprejudiced and colorblind.  

      But still, even many decades later, I know the old knee-jerk attitudes are in there, and I occasionally find myself reacting to a black person differently than I know I would to a white in the same situation. Complacency with one's attitude can be a lie.  At least in my case, I need to constantly remember where I came from and acknowledge that my journey will never be complete.

      You can't spell CRAZY without R-AZ.

      by rb608 on Sun Aug 17, 2014 at 05:13:13 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

    •  An African bishop once said to our snow white, (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:

      HS, church youth group, "There are many who view the world as the 'colored' and the 'color-less'.

      "if it ain't local, it ain't organic"

  •  heart of whiteness - viewed through a (10+ / 0-)

    young African man, visiting his (African) cousin and his white girlfriend (me), for the first time in Germany. The young man was on his way to leave his African home country to study in France. He was new to Europe and never lived in a "white" country before. Time: 1968.

    We lived in a very tiny, very modest student apartment with mini kitchenette, space for two twin bed, two tiny desks, two tiny wall-bookshelves. Our visiting cousin took a bed, we shared the other one. I was cooking and then mopped the tiny floor in front of the kitchenette. I was in my second semester at the university and still very green behind the ears and very gullible and innocent in a way.

    The young man stared at me, while I was mopping the floor. Then after a while, he took his heart and he literally said to me: "I didn't know white women would mop floors".

    I looked at him, speechless, and it took some distinct moment for me to understand what he meant and it shocked me. I never forgot it. That the effects of colonialism and racism went so far that a twenty one year-old African student could honestly be stunned over a white 19 year-old student (me) mopping the kitchen floor basically gave me the first insight how deep racism of the colonial times had been carved into some Africans'  subconsciousness.

    I learned later what it meant for whites and well-to-do Africans to be privileged to have "boys" and "cooks" and "drivers" and sometimes "nannies" and what it meant for an African woman to rely on extended family members for lots of scores white women never would have in their tiny families and power structures.

    I learned how African "masters" can treat their "boys" as well, aside from the "white masters" taking the boys and drivers and gardeners and cooks for granted as a "goodie" of their work contracts they have, when working in Third World countries.  

    When I came to the US, I learned a much different story. And I realize that sometimes causes troubles for other Americans to understand me and my reactions.

    The story is very navel-gazingly, honest-to-whoever reads it, written. With me there were paragraphs I can well relate with. Different ones though. Like not reading the letters of the past for decades and getting lost in sorting "papers".  The American experience has its very own unique features, when it comes to racism and segregational impulses. And I realize that more and more.

    Thanks for the link. Good read.

    We know a hell of a lot, but we understand very little. Manfred Max-Neef

    by mimi on Sat Aug 16, 2014 at 08:42:18 PM PDT

  •  Sadly, the heart of it is this: (7+ / 0-)
    It will never be anything more than a dream until we stop pretending that we have already attained it
    Thank you, teacherkin for the diary and the link.
  •  What a Beautiful Piece of Writing (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    roadbear, teacherken, Silencio

    Thanks for turning me on to it.

    This aggression will not stand, man.

    by kaleidescope on Sat Aug 16, 2014 at 09:27:09 PM PDT

  •  As a teacher in rural Iowa, I rarely see a black (4+ / 0-)

    face. In fact, my wife's sister had six kids with a man from Barbados, so our family pictures are often more diverse than our entire student body. I have never taught or coached with anyone who wasn't white except for two weeks at a debate camp. My lab partner was one of the top debaters in the country, and she taught me a lot about her life.

    Ferguson bothers me because too many in our town are taking the side of the police. Most don't believe they have ever received white privilege, and most are upset with any type of affirmative action.

    We live in a different world, and my goal this year is to bring these kids, these teachers, this community into a multiracial world. Wish me luck. I may also need help through skype and other technology to reach out to other cultures.

    Thanks for the diary, Teacherken. You always make me proud to be a career teacher.

  •  Acculturation, the American culture is a (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    racist and classist social construct that has, it seems, an ineluctable bias towards division and authority. like all other mimetic cultures. Half a century has elapsed since the passing of the Civil Rights Act and 149 years since the end of the Civil War and as a society we have made glacial progress towards justice and equal treatment for people of color. There has been some change; however, this article and the diary that champions it points out very clearly that in my lifetime, when Americans went to the Moon, invented the PC and internet, changed the course of human events in so many ways, still cannot apparently embrace the concept of racial and economic justice, it is pathetic...

    "Intelligence is quickness in seeing things as they are..." George Santayana

    by KJG52 on Sat Aug 16, 2014 at 10:32:10 PM PDT

  •  A piece of writing like this is real in the face (0+ / 0-)

    of our sad history of the gulf between us and the denial we often use to gloss over difficult areas of our alienation from each other.  

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