The Danger of a Single Story


The Danger of a Single Story

Like most of us, I’m finding it hard to take in the news about so much more violence— more innocent black people killed by police and then five policeman killed in Dallas. The United States seems more violent to me right now than ever before, though I interpret what is going on through my privileged whiteness. I need to remind myself that black people have always endured violence from the authorities like racial profiling to arrests and imprisonments, not experienced nearly as much by white people, the violence in prisons, being shot at and killed. It breaks my heart to know how unsafe people of color feel, and I worry about the police too–how unsafe they feel and how a few men determine the reputation of so many good people trying hard to protect their communities. I worry about guns and the idea that they solve the problem. I realized after a few days that I needed to look for hope—again.

This blog post from OnBeing’s Courtney Martin speaks to me right now and includes the wonderful TED Talk by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie at the end. She talks about our human tendency to ascribe only one story to a people, a group or an individual. Her TED Talk is called The Danger of a Single Story.

Adichie is Nigerian storyteller. She says stories about each other matter, because they humanize us and repair dignity. She states that she too is guilty of believing the single story about the negatives, darkness and difference in groups of people. She says single stories flatten other people’s experience and create stereotypes, which are incomplete pictures of people we don’t know. Single stories obscure the reality that we have much in common.

The idea of how  dangerous it is to see only  a single story about people is a powerful re-framing in the way we regard strangers—and applies to people we know too. She challenges us to be curious about people we don’t know and see them as complex, like we all are. The idea that the single story is dangerous is exactly what I’m trying to say about people in prison. The prison fence essentially implies that all the people inside are all bad and dangerous. It is simply not true.

The idea of a single story can be extended to our tendency to choose sides in this awful week: we are either on the side of black people or on the side of the police. We can choose to be on the side of all hurting people. Taking sides is neither necessary nor helpful. Looking at the roots of the problems, however painful and difficult, will move us closer to the solutions. We can choose to look at our fears and the divisions that rise out of our fears of each other. Chimamanda Adichie asks us to see people as more than the surface, often what the media portrays. She is asking us to listen. It is what we want other people to do for us.

The Blame Game Continues

The conditions in the Detroit Public Schools are beyond belief. I cannot imagine sending my children to rat-infested, moldy, cold and dangerous schools—nor can I imagine being able to teach under those conditions. There are not enough teachers and not enough supplies. When I taught in Detroit’s inner city fifty years ago, I had forty-three third graders, but the building was clean, welcoming and safe. We had adequate materials. It is so ominous for so many impoverished communities that conditions have worsened to such an extent.

I listen carefully to teachers working in our public schools and all of them are discouraged and disheartened. They feel blame from all corners—administrators, parents, politicians and the public. This isn’t new, but with dwindling funds, conditions and morale are much worse. The following reaction in The Guardian on January 12, 2016, is a typical response. I doubt that the attorney general has investigated the schools by touring these places with such awful, health-threatening conditions. I hope his response would be different. Once again, our extreme separations cause these less-than-compassionate responses. Once again, it is black children who suffer.

Asked by the Detroit News about the legality of Monday’s protest, a spokesperson for Michigan’s attorney general, Bill Schuette, side-stepped the question, instead slamming the teachers’ move: “Staff may have complaints, but not showing up for work hurts the kids and parents, not the administrators. We feel for these families because this is outrageous, no matter where it happens.”

“Outrageous” is the right term for what is happening to children, parents and teachers in Detroit. Where does the responsibility for this situation lie? My friend Amber Hughson’s comments about institutional racism say it well:

Imagine yourself in elementary school, showing up for your day and seeing rats crawling across the floor of your classroom. Sleet and rain coming into the room where there’s [ black mold]. The textbook you’re working out of is a decade old and ripped. Imagine that you’re black and the majority of the kids around you are black. Imagine that as you go through school you become more and more aware that other kids in other places don’t go to schools like this.

What would this tell you about how you are valued, who cares about you, or whether or not your education–or your life–matters?

There is more segregation in American schools now than there has been since [1968]. And here we are today–just down the street teachers are being told that they are hurting students by protesting (using their sick days, because it is illegal for teachers to strike in Michigan). Our government is vilifying educators who work in buildings where the gym floor is swollen into hills and the playground is closed off because hot steam is pouring out of a broken pipe.

This is not desegregation. This is not even separate but equal. If you want evidence of institutionalized racism–this is everything. If you want evidence of class privilege–this is everything. Every single public school should have the same quality of facilities and materials, regardless of the class or race of the adults in the surrounding community. Education and opportunity are how you get people out of poverty–yet we create deeper and deeper poverty by giving more and more opportunity to the students attending school in West Bloomfield, MI and then allow students in Flint and Detroit, MI to go to crumbling schools where certified teachers won’t even take jobs (as they shouldn’t under these conditions).

You cannot get more intersectional than this issue–unions, which are democratically created and run organizations are being destroyed by politicians who know unions (a now dirty word for ‘organized citizens’) are the one strong force which fights for low wage workers to get out of poverty. Those unions cannot represent the interests of these teachers (who are mostly women) because we have made it illegal for teachers to strike; we’ve done this in the name of students–the very students who are mostly minorities and who are hardly receiving an education at all because our state funds for schools are not equal and our education system and society are deeply segregated.

If you believe in justice, equity, and the right to dignity for all children–do not disparage these teachers. Fight for better schools in Detroit, and I promise you will be on the side of what is right.


What’s Alive in our Hearts?

This past year has been a terrible one for African-Americans—and for the country. It is hard to feel like we’ve made progress in bridging and mending our racial divisions—sometimes it feels as if we are falling backward when we see continuing deaths by police and see the violence and sense of hopelessness in impoverished inner cities. I see profound segregation in neighborhoods, in towns and cities, in states where white people live in different areas from people of color, and it feels like our landscape is made up of people living in separate circles who rarely interact, preventing us from the kind of dialogue that would yeild new understandings.

I’ve just read Kent Nerburn’s Neither Wolf Nor Dog: On Forgotten Roads with an Indian Elder, a story of listening carefully to Dan, the Native American elder, and writing down what Dan has to tell him. Five lessons within the book are relevant and could help as we face the challenges of our racial divides.  

First, as the old man talks about the history of what has happened to native peoples, he says, “Look at what your way did to our people. When you came among us, you didn’t care what was alive in our hearts. You wanted to know facts.” [1]

Exactly. We have a multitude of facts and figures: the numbers of people killed and by whom, statistics around gun violence and suicide, and all kinds of polling data, especially since Ferguson in 2014. I don’t hear very much at all about what is in people’s hearts. Specifically, I don’t hear about people’s fears, among them the fears white people have about young black men and people of color in general, fears of violence or loss of jobs. White people need to hear how much people of color everywhere fear the police, fear that they cannot secure good jobs, fear that their children do not have enough opportunity in education or employment, fear that they cannot find adequate, affordable housing, fear that their children are hungry.

The second is in the story of how the land was taken and the vast differences between white people and native people regarding the land itself. Dan tells Nerburn that to natives, the land was the place where ancestors were buried, where sacred stories and ceremonies took place, and that the land gave his people life and life for the spirits. He says, ”The worst thing is that you never listened to us. You came into our land and took it away and didn’t even listen to us when we tried to explain. You made promises and you broke every one.” [2]

As I heard the stories of being African-American, Native-American and Hispanic-American from my prison students, I heard the vast differences between being a person of color and being a white person in the United States. Learning to listen well to differences and caring enough to ask the right questions is hard and necessary work—but such a helpful first step.

The third lesson comes from Nerburn’s foreword where he talks about letting go of our own understanding of other people’s historical realities, their lives and the situations they find themselves in today. Nerburn writes about his time with Dan, Dan’s friends and family and says, “They literally and figuratively kidnapped me, and would not let me go until I paid the ransom of giving up my own understanding. They wanted me to realize that I had walked through Alice’s keyhole, and the world I had entered was not mine to reduce to the size and shape of my own understanding.” [3]

It is hard to give up our own perceptions and ideas of what we think is the truth. I love Aniais Nin’s quote that says, “We don’t see things as they are, we see things as we are.” My students and I were so lucky to have inmates who were not in our high school program visit and talk to us. Mr. Terrence was from the Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota and came in to tell us about the values his people held and how wide the gap was between people on reservations and the general American culture. He said,

“Our young people have a very hard time when they are growing up. They must keep their feet in two places—one foot in your world and one foot inside the house with the dirt floor on the rez. If they leave the rez, they risk losing who they are and lose being Indian. That is a very bad thing. One of the problems with this is that white people think a dirt floor is a bad thing. They don’t understand that hundreds of years of culture are in that family and in that house.”

The fourth lesson is about guilt. We also need to recognize that many of us still harbor a sense of guilt about what was done to people of color in the past. Nerburn says in his foreword,

“I have never met an Indian person who didn’t somewhere deep inside struggle with anger and sadness at what has happened to their people, and I have never met an honest and aware non-Indian person in America who didn’t somewhere deep inside struggle with guilt about what we as a culture have done to the people who inhabited our continent before us. We can like each other, hate each other, feel pity for each other, love each other. But always, somewhere beneath the surface of our personal encounters, this cultural memory is rumbling. A tragedy has taken place on our watch, we are its inheritors, and the earth remembers.” [4]

In my prison classes, the issue of slavery brewed beneath the surface all the time. My students saw their incarceration as a form of modern-day slavery, and the cultural memories of slavery and Jim Crow came out in discussions of their family stories. One day, after an emotional discussion of slavery, Mr. Loving, an older white man, stayed back after class to tell me, “Mrs. Wenzel, it is hard to live in this place with so many young black men, and this is the first time I’ve recognized how guilty I feel about what happened to black people during slavery. I can sure see why black guys make this connection.”

I’m not sure that feeling guilty about things that happened in the past is useful. We weren’t there and we didn’t perpetrate the horror and damage done to so many people. I think it would be far more helpful to face the horrors of the past and learn how they are still alive and powerful today. It would also help to recognize how we as white people today still benefit from racial hierarchies and the institutional structures of racism. I wish there were forums in which white people and people of color could discuss their common anger and sadness about what has happened in the past. We would need a trusting space in which to do that.

Last, I am uncomfortable with the idea of enemy, because our politics of fear and anger put us in opposing camps all the time. I loved elder Dan’s idea of re-framing the idea of enemy after he sings a song in Lakota and explains it to Nerburn,

“I wrote it when I knew I wanted to speak. I went to my hill and spoke to my grandfathers. They gave me that song. They gave it to me in the wind. They said I had too much anger to speak. They told me that anger is only for the one who speaks. It never opens the heart of one who listens. There are good white people, they told me. They want to do right. They are not the enemy anymore. The enemy is blindness to each other’s ways. Put away your anger now, they said.” [5]

I refuse to believe that huge numbers of Americans are bigots, incapable of learning and respecting people who look different and have different experiences of being Americans. Recognizing and discussing our hopes and fears, in trusting and safe places, would be a huge step forward in the healing process. Reading books and aritcles by people of color would help too. I think we are capable of summoning our best selves: our courage to feel pain—the pain of others and our own, our openness to truth we hadn’t considered before, and our desires to make our relationships better. In the process, we could discover our common humanity.  We need to know what is alive in our hearts—and in the hearts of our fellow Americans.

more “What’s Alive in our Hearts?”

“On Charleston” by La’Ron Williams

My friend La’Ron’s thoughts have made me think about my own family experiences—and how different they are from the long reach of terror and trauma in his family. I am just home from a family reunion. Our large and loving extended family gets together every three years, and we all appreciate our rich family history. We’ve had our pain and losses like every family, but none of us could possibly imagine being targeted with terror and violence for who we are or what we look like.

I am writing this the day after the confederate flag was taken down in South Carolina and know there is concern that many people will think this action is enough. What is badly needed is for white people to try to get out of our safe white skins and listen hard to the harsh reality so many black people endure. We need to go beyond one perpetrator and flags coming down to see the historical context in order to understand systemic present-day injustices. To use La’Ron’s words, we need to understand “a societal arrangement that regularly and routinely demonizes, criminalizes and dehumanizes Black lives while simultaneously normalizing, ignoring and making excuses for the social arrangements of White supremacy. See his post, “On Charleston,” below.

–Judy Patterson Wenzel

On Charleston

by La’Ron Williams

I want to share a few of my thoughts regarding Wednesday night’s murder of the 9 worshipers in Emmanuel AME Church.

First, it’s hard for me to comment without becoming emotional. My mother’s father was a lynching victim, and my entire family remains wounded because of it. I know from firsthand experience the far-reaching ramifications acts of terror can sow. My heart goes out to the families of Wednesday’s victims, as well as to the church of which they were a part, and to their local community.

At the same time, I harbor a tremendous sadness for what this event may portend – not only for African-Americans, but also for the nation.

This morning, when I learned the news about Charleston, four names immediately came to mind: Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson, and Denice McNair.

I was 12 years old in the summer of 1963, when those four little girls, while attending a session at the 16th street Baptist Church, became the victims of a brutal bombing attack. In the aftermath, television brought the news into thousands of living rooms across the country. That was a relatively new thing back then. There had been no TV coverage during the heyday of lynching, and many Americans were directly witnessing this level of brutality for the first time. Many Americans expressed disbelief at the callous nature of the attack on such innocent children.

But there was very little disbelief in the African American community. The deaths of those girls came as no surprise to us. For nearly a century, following the end of slavery, we had lived with the soul-destroying reality of Jim Crow segregation, and the massive culture of fear that was a constant feature of our normal, everyday lives. Fear was the weapon of choice for White Supremacists seeking tomaintain the hierarchy of race that had existed under slavery, and fear was everywhere, supported both by an ideology of Black inferiority/dependence as well as by the physical weaponry to enforce the nation’s racially linked, tremendous social disparities. We strengthened our course as a country awash in guns and violence.

African-Americans may have been disturbed by the 1963 bombing, but we certainly were notsurprised. And while many American families outside of the Black community were caught unawares, there were thousands who were not – not only in the South, but throughout the nation. Racial terrorism was no secret to them, either. They are the ones who can be seen in the photos of the large-scale public celebrations that accompanied lynching — the ones collecting souvenir body parts, enjoying refreshments, laughing and smiling. They are the State and Federal officials and prominent citizens who condoned such acts and allowed such acts to thrive.

I never want to see a return to those days.

Yesterday morning, Joe Riley, Charleston’s 72 year old White mayor, called Wednesday night’s event “unfathomable.” Listening to his words, I wondered where he’d been hiding all his life.

He is a Charleston native, living in a state that has a history of anti-Black race hatred that ranks among the worst in the nation. At age 72, he had to have lived through much of that history. One would think that, to him, what happened Wednesday night would be completely believable – and very immediate. How can he speak of that event without placing it within its proper historical context?

Far too many Americans have very little awareness of the racial context of our society. We know little of the specifics of the thousands of race-related laws, rules, and practices that at one time were consciously put into place to ensure the supremacy of Whites and to lock others out of assertive participation in the nation. It is the existence of those laws, rules, and practices that, over time, allowed to accrue the enormous racial disparities of wealth and social status that we currently live with.

Although many of those laws have been stricken from the books, the landscape of structural racial inequality persists.  When we talk about “racism”, every conversation should include a discussion of that real racial history.

Sadly, we don’t do that. When we do (rarely) acknowledge “racism,” we think about it as it appeared in 1963, or on Wednesday night – as personal, obvious, malicious, and intentional acts of ill will. And when we find examples of that malicious brand of “racism,” we jump all over it in an effort to “prove” that, apart from the actions of a few “deranged” individuals, it (racism) is a thing of the past.  A result of that approach is that the millions of Americans who are trained to believe racism is over also come to think that the nation’s millions of structurally disadvantaged African-Americans have no one but themselves to blame for their presence at the bottom of the American hierarchy.

The news coverage since Wednesday’s shootings have placed heavy focus on the perpetrator. He has been called “deranged”, “mentally ill”, and “sick.” It is very hard for me to listen to FOX News as they repeatedly attempt to let society off the hook, and locate these murders only in the actions of a single individual.

In 1963, shortly after the girls were killed, Dr. M.L. King said, “We’re not concerned with who killed these girls, but with what killed these girls.”

What killed those girls is the same thing that killed the 9 worshippers at Emmanuel AME: a culture and a social arrangement that regularly and routinely demonizes, criminalizes, and dehumanizes Black lives while simultaneously normalizing, ignoring, and making excuses for the social arrangements of White supremacy.

It is incumbent upon us to double and redouble our effort to create places where we can come to understand and transform the structures of American racism. In the absence of such an effort, Dylann Roof’s actions may trigger the wrong kind of response. We’ve already seen it in the aftermath of Ferguson and other locations, where individual Police have been targeted for “revenge” against what Police forces represent as a whole. I don’t want to see in the news where a Black gun(man) has targeted an all-White church. I don’t want Roof to have his “race war.”

This is not a time to talk about “punishing” one individual, “healing” one city, and quickly returning to the status quo. For a huge segment of our population, the status quo is palpably intolerable. For the rest of us then, it is unsustainable.

This post first appeared in the newsletter of Ann Arbor’s Interfaith Council for Peace and Justice (ICPJ). La’Ron Williams is a member of the Interfaith Council for Peace and Justice Board of Directors, an anti-racist educator, and an award-winning storyteller.

Guest Blog: Wake Up White America

My friend Jan Brimacombe, concerned citizen and social activist, volunteers in a prison facility to help inmates read books to their children. These books and recordings are then sent home, providing much-needed connections between incarcerated children and their fathers. She participates in a group that reads, learns and discusses the complicated issues of racism every month. She works on environmental issues, in particular with the dwindling populations of Monarch butterflies as she helps people to save their habitat by planting milkweed. I am honored to post her piece (written before the tragedies in Charleston) about our responsibility as white people to be aware of how our complicated and painful racial history and current tragedies impact black communities—and she urges us to get involved in the piece below.

–Judy Patterson Wenzel

Wake Up White America

by Jan Brimacombe

I am a 72 year old white woman; wife, mother, grandmother and retired teacher. On a recent Sunday afternoon while volunteering at the Milan Federal Prison Detention Center, I counted 25 African American children visiting their fathers. Ranging in age from infants to teenagers, the children were very engaged: lively conversations, hugs and laughter, seemingly normal father/child interactions except all of these children’s fathers are incarcerated. (The negative effects on the children, families and communities of the incarcerated warrants an entire new editorial.) And this is just one small visiting room for one unit in one section of a federal prison. My informal surveys of this visiting room have nearly always revealed the majority of inmates to be men of color. This microcosm of incarcerated men seems to mirror what some in this country are beginning to acknowledge and question: the mass incarceration of black men in America.

The recent series of deaths of unarmed black men at the hands of white police officers revives an obscure genre of plays dating to the early 1900s. Anti-lynching plays were written and performed to show how lynching devastated African American families. Readings of these plays has begun at JACK, a Brooklyn Community Arts Center. After performing Blue Eyed Black Boy the troupe read Safe in May. An Ohio State University professor who has studied the history of anti-lynching plays states that being able to tell the truth about why communities are under siege is an important counterpart to being told you deserve what you get. By performing these plays today one of the actors concludes that the audience might think, Oh, my that looks like what’s happening right now.

Eric Garner dies while in the choke hold of a white police officer in Staten Island as he pleads, I can’t breathe; I can’t breathe. Unarmed Michael Brown dies amid a volley of gunshots from a white police officer’s gun in Ferguson, Missouri. Grand juries conclude non-indictment in both cases. Violence erupts in Ferguson. Protests staged in New York City. Demonstrations take place around the country. Walter Scott is shot and killed by a white police officer in Charleston, South Carolina after being stopped for a faulty car taillight. In Inkster, Michigan Floyd Dent is stopped by white police officers; video captures him being dragged from his car and then punched in the head until his injures require medical care. Violence and rioting erupt in Baltimore after Freddy Gray dies from injuries suffered while in police custody after his arrest. Like Eric Garner, Gray’s calls for medical help go unheeded by the police. At Gray’s funeral his brother remarks, Most of us are not here because we know Freddy Gray, but because we know many Freddy Grays. The perennial black/white racial divide surfaces in reaction to all these incidents.

Bill O’Reilly, Megyn Kelly and Martha MacCallum of Fox News discuss the Michael Brown case. Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton are sensationalizing these events for their purposes. You can’t take an isolated case and say racial profiling occurs. Profiling happens to everyone. NBC News pays Al Sharpton to deliver garbage. He has the nerve to insult the American police community. How audacious of these Fox “newscasters” to claim that profiling happens to everyone, choosing to overlook the meaning of profiling in the case of Michael Brown. This interpretation of the tragedy in Ferguson fuels racism in white audiences.   

Bryan Stevenson, director of The Equal Justice Initiative of Montgomery, Alabama shares these statistics in his TED Talk: one third of black men in the United States between the ages of 18 and 30 are in jail, prison, on probation or on parole. In many of our urban areas 50-60% of young men of color are in jail. 34% of black men in Alabama have permanently lost their right to vote. Milwaukee Public Radio devotes a year to reporting on black male incarceration in Wisconsin, which has the highest incarceration rate of all fifty states. The state spends more on prisons than education. By age 34, only 38% of men living in the 53206 zip code area of Milwaukee (95% black) will NOT have spent time in a state correctional facility. Why is it that law enforcement targets predominantly black neighborhoods?

Parents of black boys in the United States must teach their sons the rules of engagement during encounters with the police. Don’t forget you are black. Do not get into a power struggle. Keep your hands visible; DON’T reach for your cell phone. Make the officer feel he is in charge. Don’t move suddenly. Use sir when addressing the officer. Portland lawyers create an app titled Driving While Black to teach people of color how to stay safe during traffic stops. As a white parent of a white son I worried about him being involved in an accident as a new driver, but NEVER feared he was in danger of being targeted or mistreated by police officers. I felt secure in knowing that if my son had car trouble or was in an accident the police would be there to assist him. The contrast between my reassurance and black parents’ fears in regard to policing is stark.

After George Zimmerman’s innocent verdict in the shooting death of Travon Martin, Alicia Garza posts her outrage on Facebook. Patrisse Cullors responds and culls Black Lives Matter from Alicia’s posting. A movement is born. Garza writes in an article for the feministwire: Black Lives Matter is an intervention in a world where Black Lives are systemically and intentionally targeted for demise. Black Lives Matter is an affirmation of Black Folks’ contributions to this society, our humanity, and our resilience in the face of deadly oppression. I think back to the sixties and the Black Power Movement and the coinage: Black is Beautiful. Fifty years later African Americans continue to struggle and plead for dignity and justice in our society.

I feel compelled to ask white America to Wake Up. We must dig deeper into our souls and recognize that the oppression of our African American citizens continues to this day, as is highlighted currently by the deaths and beatings of unarmed black men at the hands of majority white police officers. Since the abolition of slavery, mechanisms have emerged that ensure the continued subjugation of African Americans: the Ku Klux Klan, lynching, Jim Crow, share cropping, segregation, the war on drugs and now mass incarceration of black men (as well as an increasing number of black women). Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow is an excellent springboard for studying our country’s enduring practices of racial oppression. White America must shed its cloak of indifference and join the movement: BLACK LIVES MATTER.

Unlearning Long Divisions: Other People’s Eyes

Recently, I talked to two groups in St. Louis, Missouri about my prison students. At one of them, I was honored to follow and be connected in an introduction to Valerie Elverton-Dixon, who had talked to this same church shortly before. Her website Just Peace Theory says that she studies, and her website and Facebook pages are filled with her long and deep thoughts about war, peace, solving conflict, forgiveness, women’s issues, LGBT issues and reflections on parts of our history like the Civil Rights Movement. Not all of us have the time, the inclination, or the passion for the kind of study she does, and we badly need people who study, who think deeply and clearly about the world we live in.

Dr. Dixon is an African-American woman, and her perception of the world is different than mine, because her experiences as a black woman are so radically different. For instance, in her piece in her blog in Tikkun Daily about the movie “Selma,” she writes about the humiliation African-Americans had to endure as they were asked to recite the preamble to the Constitution or needing to know how many state judges there were and who they were, the poll taxes they needed to pay and needing a character reference from a registered voter in order to vote. If a landlord or employer objected to someone’s attempt to vote, a person could lose their job, their house or both. She reminds us of the erosion of voting rights today, about how much has changed and how much stays the same. She goes on to say,

“White voters did not have to face such impediments because of a grandfather clause in the law that exempted anyone who was a descendant of a person who had the right to vote before 1866 from poll tax and property requirements.”

I have always tried to vote in every election, but I sometimes take it for granted, forgetting just how difficult it still is for so many people. Our perceptions of the world are shaped by our own unique experiences. As a white person with a lifetime of privilege, I need to see and understand the life truths that black people know from their lives. There is much I do not understand. I picked up a double-sided sheet called: White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack at the wonderful church where I spoke. I’ve seen this list before but need to be reminded of situations I take for granted every day. Peggy McIntosh compiled it in 1988. A few of the effects of white privilege she cites that hit home for me are:

  • If I want to move, I can be sure of renting or buying a home in an area I can afford and in an area I want to live.
  • I can go shopping alone without fearing I will be followed or harassed.
  • If I’m pulled over by the police or if the IRS audits my tax return, I can be sure I haven’t been singled out because of my race
  • I can do well in a challenging situation without being labeled “a credit to my race.”
  • I can be be sure that if I need legal or medical help, my race will not work against me.
  • I can travel alone almost anywhere without expecting embarrassment or hostility in the people I have to deal with.
  • I can choose any public accommodation anywhere without the fear of being excluded or mistreated by the people who are serving those places.
  • I can criticize our government and talk about how much I fear its policies and behavior without feeling like a cultural outsider.
  • If I declare there is a racial issue around, or if I say that race is not involved, I can be reasonably sure my race will lend more credibility than a person of color will have.
  • I will feel welcomed and “normal” in the usual walks of public life, institutional and social. [1].

Though I live in a university town with lots of ethnic diversity, I still have to make an effort to understand a black person’s experience and often very different viewpoints. Reading people like Valerie Dixon helps enlarge my perspectives and understandings.

more “Unlearning Long Divisions: Other People’s Eyes”

No Man’s Land

Two compelling stories have my focus this holiday season. One contains hope; the other anguish. The hopeful one is about the Christmas Truce on the Western Front in WW I, celebrating its 100th anniversary this Christmas Eve. It was one of my favorite historical stories to teach, especially in December when my prison students were lonely for home and distracted in the classroom. They loved hearing about it, and I still love reading about it—how the British soldiers heard the German troops singing Silent Night on Christmas Eve across No Man’s Land; how a German soldier lifted a Christmas tree, sparkling with candles on its branches, and moved out of his trench to approach enemy lines. How the British soldiers withheld their fire, how they crawled out of their trenches to reach out and shake hands with the enemy. Later, they traded treats from home, played soccer, and sang along with the Germans. Both sides were able to bury their dead. The truce was a mere blip in the four years of horror that spread across the world during WW I, but it has remained a symbol of hope and courage ever since.

The other story is about the lack of compassion as more black people are killed by white policemen. Instead of trying to understand what it means to be black in the this country, what the challenges are about raising black children, what I’m hearing more about is their “criminal behavior,” their “bad decisions” and that they “did it to themselves,” as if these killings are somehow justified. Unless people are living within the confines of fear, degradation, and economic oppression like so many people of color are, it is difficult to recognize their pain and fear, especially for those of us who live in the midst of white privilege. Many of us mourn the country we are becoming. It feels like No Man’s Land.

It feels like we are at war. We were discussing a foreign war in my prison classroom one day when a man asked,  “Why are we talking about that war when we have one right here—my city is a war zone.”

Thousands and thousands of people are behind bars because of our War on Drugs, its Black Hawk helicopters and war-like tactics used in our inner cities, almost always against people of color. In Ferguson, Cleveland, New York City and across the country—even in my own neighborhood, unarmed black people have been gunned down by white policemen—and so far, with impunity. The images of police in riot gear are seared into our brains. Recently I saw a huge army tank in my town with the name of my county—not my country– painted on its side. The police are scared—and often say so. Guns—and/or the fear of them–are omnipresent.

One of my students keeps walking around in my head. Mr. Bridgman was a tall, good-looking, young African American man, who carried himself well and was always neatly dressed. Like many of the men I taught, Mr. Bridgman needed a while to get used to being in school. When he joined my history class, I knew only that he had grown up in foster homes and dropped out early in high school. When he showed up for class the first time, he greeted me respectfully, then sat down and did almost nothing. Any written work proved that he was very capable, but he looked like he was zoning out and seemed to hear nothing, including my warnings that he was not earning credit. “I’m just not feelin’ it,” he told me.

The year I had Mr. Bridgman in history, we were studying WWI at the end of the fall semester. I handed out a page of statistics listing the countries that fought in the Great War, the amount of people engaged in the fighting, the war dead and the number of casualties. Mr. Bridgman liked math and asked for a calculator when he got the hand-out. He figured and figured, then burst out, “Mrs. Wenzel, more than eight and a half million people died! Later he figured out that they weren’t all soldiers. “Mrs. Wenzel, so many civilians died too!”

He was having a hard week, but he was waking up. Courageously, he did some more reading, discovering the devastation of the Spanish flu in 1918. He asked, “Mrs. Wenzel, how could this happen on top of all the people who died in the war. 20-40 million more people died from the flu! What about their families?” As I fumbled around, answering his questions inadequately, I saw that he was finally engaged in what he could learn. I saw some of his innocence peel away from his eyes, and I’m still amazed that it was the carnage of WW I that woke him up that semester. I don’t think it was just the overwhelming numbers, however, that so shocked him. I think it was his innate compassion that changed him. He was finally “feelin’ it.”

The Western Front in 1914 was the deadliest place on earth, but on Christmas Eve, soldiers on both sides, who endured life in the trenches and aimed their rifles at ordinary people they did not know, needed a respite—just to feel human again. America needs far more than a quick truce. We need truth, and we need reconciliation. In order to get there, white people need to summon the courage to look back at our history and understand our long and complicated struggles of both personal and structural racism, the injustice, the anguish, and the raw fear that so many black people experience. We can start by at least recognizing that Black America is not lived or experienced like White America. We can wake up, ask and listen carefully, trying to understand and feel it as much as possible. Compassion humanizes. Its expressions, reaching across our great divides, could be a first step in the long, hard process of healing our old and open wounds. It could at least get us out of the trench.

The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander

The New Jim Crow, Cover

Once in a while an author comes along, uses new language and exposes truths we hadn’t seen right in front of us. In The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander tells of spending several years as a civil rights lawyer before she began to see the nation’s prison system morphing into a new kind of racial control. Her well-researched facts and staggering statistics are not easy to absorb. Among them are these: no other country locks up such an overwhelming number of its racial minorities than the United States; more African-Americans are under correctional control than were enslaved in 1850, and 1 in 3 young black men will spend some time behind bars. She points out that though the majority of drug users and dealers are white, 75% of the people targeted in the War on Drugs have been poor and vulnerable blacks and Latinos.

She points to discrimination that is legal in housing, employment, and public assistance as people are released from prison–only to face overwhelming barriers when trying to put their lives back together. The denial of civil rights after incarceration, such as voting and serving on juries, gives people the message that they will never be full citizens nor will they ever be able to pay for the crimes they committed. She helps us understand how having a black president in the White House camouflages a permanent American racial caste system, not with outright racial hostility, but because it creates our racial indifference.

This is not an easy book to read, nor are these realities easy to acknowledge, but it is a necessary book if we are to dismantle the American tragedy of mass incarceration and understand how it devastates people’s lives and communities. It has cost us trillions of dollars and failed to solve our seemingly intractable problems of poverty, drug use, education, and mental health issues. The New Jim Crow shows us how our American ideals of freedom and justice are gravely imperiled and how our national moral character is profoundly weakened.


Published by The New Press

ISBN: 879-1-59558-643-8