Whites Understanding Whites

I’ve been struggling with negativity lately. It’s partly just the campaign season that had forced it to the surface. There is negativity in the media and I see it in other people in my life. I’m good at noticing negativity because I have a strong streak of it myself.

I have the dual problem of not being able to deal well with negativity and not being able to resist being drawn into negativity. I see so many problems in the world. I find myself judging people for being judgmental, criticzing people for being critical, etc. I’m overly sensitive and too often hypocritical.

My oversensitivity isn’t all bad. It’s also what helps me feel empathy and compassion. It is what helps me gain insight and understanding. Even my hypocrisy usually leads me back to self-awareness, eventually.

I was contemplating the failings of humanity mostly for reasons of my personal life. But at the same time other things were tumbling around in my skull.

I came across data about pollution causing a large percentage of deaths worldwide, a good example of unnecessary suffering. I was reminded of James Gilligan’s book about a particular cause of particular social problems, a good example of the type of understanding we need more of. Yesterday, I heard a public radio show about John Howard Griffin who sounded like an interesting guy, a good example of how compassion and lack thereof plays out in the real world.

I’ve already discussed the first two in recent posts. The third one I haven’t written about before and so I’ll explain a bit of why it interested me.

John Howard Griffin was a journalist and author. An accident in the army left him blind for 11 years before regaining his eyesight. During that time, he came to the realization that he couldn’t tell the color of someone’s skin just by listening to their voice as people from the same place have the same accent, no matter their race. Around this time, he wrote for a publication with a black readership and in talking to blacks he was told the only way to understand the black experience was to be black. So, he decided to do just that. After having a doctor darken his skin and shaving his head, he hitch-hiked across the Deep South and journalled about it which became the book Black Like Me.

He had some interesting observations and insights. He was surprised that people assumed he was black simply because his skin was dark, ignoring his ‘white’ features. He noticed that black people had a diversity of racial features as most American blacks are of mixed race. He also had the typical observations about prejudice. For example, it didn’t matter that he was well educated and had many practical skills. No one wanted to give him a job, besides the most menial of labor.

What stood out to me more than anything was his experiences of hitch-hiking. Mostly lone white males would pick him up and they would ask him about his sex life for they assumed all blacks were sexually uninhibited like animals. He was so offended by this kind of racism that he would confront these white guys. They usually made him get out of the car, but he at times felt threatened. One particular incident brought home an insight about racism. He looked into the eyes of one threatening white guy and he knew that it would be impossible to elicit empathy from such a person. What frightened him wasn’t that his life was in danger. Rather, he was frightened by how low human nature could fall. Racism didn’t just dehumanize blacks. It dehumanized the racist as well for their humanity was lost.

Anyway, I appreciated how Griffin felt compassion for both the victim and victimizer of racism. He didn’t just want to judge the racist and portray the ugliness of racism. He wanted to understand. That is the type of compassion I strive for.

The other aspect of Griffin’s experiment is that it wasn’t done as an outsider. He wasn’t a Northerner travelling down to the foreign land of the Deep South. He was born and raised a Southerner and was a white man. So, in this basic sense, he was trying to understand his own people.

This reminds me of two other authors. Joe Bageant wrote Deer Hunting with Jesus in which he explores the culture and history of his own people, Appalachian Scotch-Irish Evangelicals. I read that book a while ago and started another book by him, Rainbow Pie. The second author is Joan Walsh. In What’s the Matter with White People?, she explores her own people, New York Irish Catholics. I’m in the middle of reading her book right now and am appreciating the insights.

Along with Griffin, what is offered is three different inside views of white people. Each of these authors is sympathetic in  a very personal sense, although I’m less sure about Griffin as I haven’t read his book. The other two are definitely in the same category. Certainly, all three authors present the leftist trying to understand the conservatives around them (Bageant a Marxist, Walsh a liberal, and Griffin a lifelong Democrat).

As a Midwestern mixed ethnicity white (on the left side of the political spectrum), I appreciate getting a glimpse of how America looks from the perspective of other groups of white people, and the differences are large. In my blog, I have been presenting my own version of this type of book. I want to understand what makes my own family tick, my Republican parents and my Hoosier extended family on my mom’s side. I also want to understand the world I find myself in general. 

It’s easy to judge. The challenge is always in the seeking for genuine understanding.

24 thoughts on “Whites Understanding Whites

  1. Thanks for your thoughts, Benjamin. Compassionate and insightful as usual.
    I remember reading Black Like Me when it was first published, back around 1960. It left a deep impression on me. To this day I think it’s the only book of its kind — the observations of a man who took the unique step of changing his appearance so as to cross the racial divide (which of course was especially stark at the time).

    • You’re welcome.

      I can get bothered by my own hypocrisy or even just potential hypocrisy. I really do wantto understand, but it sometimes feels nesr impossible. How can we ever genuinely inderstand the experience of another?

      I had a negative interaction with someone the other day. I was feeling immensely judgmental in response. And it is true that this person is above average in being overly criical, often complaining about something or another and probably suffering from undiagnosed depression. In my mind, I was thinking about how this person might be the most ngeative person I know… besides myself, of course.

      There is an endless war going on inside me between my sense of compassion and my urge to judge. The world can feel overwhelming and it can bring out the worst in me, but my desire to understand always brings me around even if it takes a while. My blog is usually where my understanding side gets expressed, although the criticalness comes through as well.

      I read books like that of Bageant and Walsh because they help me in my battle against cynicism. Only the view of an insider can elicit that deeper sense of emathy and compassion. I probably should read Griffin’s book.

  2. I read Black Like Me in high school. The teacher of the class helped us appreciate what he was trying to do and the insights he gained. It left a deep impression on me as well. Its not a fun book to read, keep in mind it was written in the early 60s and the race issue was very different then than it is now. Still, unfortunately much of what he encountered can probably still be found in some parts of the South today. Its definitely worth reading. Also, Joan Walsh is very good, she’s a regular contributor to Hardball on MSNBC, and she discussed the book one night. I should get it and read it too.

    • Have you read any of Joe Bageant’s writings? I highly recommend that you check him out. He has a style that gets at the personal level. His writing drew me in more fully than Walsh’s, but I’m enjoying her book as well.

    • I kept thinking about this post. This last campaign season got on my nerves more than normal. I typically maintain a comforting layer of apathy about the idiocy of national politics. What made this campaign season different?

      For me, the difference that made a difference was the Republican attempt at voter suppression. That crossed a line that should never have been crossed. It’s hard for me to feel undestanding toward anyone who attempts voter suppression or supports those who do so. This demonstrated how morally disconnected Republicans have become, and listening to Republicans I see no indication that they feel guilty and have learned a lesson from it.

      I don’t know how to respond to this. A basic level of respect has been betrayed. Republicans are feeling desperate. They fear losing “their country”. It feels like nothing can change this. Republicans seemingly will go on lashing out until they’ve completely crippled themselves, hopefully nt crippling the government in the process.

      Empathy and compassion feel impotent at times like these. Many Republicans couldn’t care less about wimpy liberal values such as mutual understanding and mutual trust. They’ve been in ruthless attack mode for more than a decade now. But what is the point of winning at any cost?

      What are the chances that this past election loss will cause Republicans to do some genuine soul-searching? Many Republicans have openly stated that they believe most Amercans are lazy an irresponsible takers. Quite a few Republicans have gone so far as to argue that large swaths of the citizenry aren’t real Americans. I hear some voices on the right that have begun to question this mean-spiritedness, but they are still voices inthe wilderness.

      I’m trying to figure out a constructive way that we on the left can interact with those on the right. I’m not necesarily looking for agreement. I’d just like basic respect or at least not constant conflict and divisiveness. Where do we go from here?

      • Republicans have adopted the mantra of winning at all costs, the ends justify the means, all the things we were taught not to do. Today’s Huffington Post has a good article about why the Republicans took the House of Representatives. It had nothing to do with how people voted but was rather the result of partisan gerrymandering which redrew Congressional districts after the 2010 election. I tried to send the link to the article here but was not successful. In fact more people voted against House republicans yet they still ended up with a majority. This is another method–like voter suppression–that they have no qualms about using to advance their agenda and thwart the will of the people, which is of course undemocratic. I think the bigger problem is that over the last 40 or 50 yrs peoples’ sense of morality has been so completely eroded that ethical has come to mean whatever it is they want at any given moment, and all that matters is winning. This fear of “losing their country” that you cite leads them to push the envelope and do things–like voter suppression–in hopes they can get away with it. Fortunately the courts have struck down many of these laws, but from their perspective they had nothing to lose and it was worth the try. We need to get back to basic human values and I don’t know how you do that in a time where there are few absolutes.

        • All we can do is try our best to understand and bide our time. Demographics and society are changing which opens up new opportunities for us on the left. Act when we can and hold our ground when we can’t. Even conservatives will come around. Whether or not they like it, conservatives are heading into the same future with the rest of us. There is no going back.

          • That’s right, and that’s why I’m optimistic. Demographics and society are changing and both in our favor. I read a convervative columnist last week who said that the culture wars are over and the conservatives lost. People heard their message and rejected it. They simply do not have the numbers to advance the conservative agenda anymore, this country is a lot different than it was when Ronald Reagan was President, the Reagan Revolution is over.

  3. Here’s a short but interesting take on the 2012 election results showing that the division into urban vs rural may be even more relevant than that of North vs. South. The author offers an explanation (with which I entirely agree) that living in an urban area makes people more tolerant of differences due to the wealth of new cultural experiences availble. There’s no better cure for racism than living among those you were formerly trying to dehumanize, and having to share their hopes and solve your common problems.

    He also expresses hope that social media will serve as a similar “melting pot”, though I have mixed feelings about this claim. I think social media needs to be handled with extreme care because, while it does allow people to meet others from different cultures, the inherent anonymity also enables the bullies and racists to vent their hate on victims without that all-important face to face contact which often leads to empathy and understanding.


    (I’m not sure how to hyperlink this on WordPress, so I guess you’ll need to copy and paste if you want to read it.)

    • Yeah, an interesting article. I think it’s lots of factors.

      The problem with the rural vote is that technically it represents only 10% of the eligible voters. The problem with the urban vote is that it is as useful to combine urban small towns with large urban metro regions. Republicans do have heavy representation in certain types of urban areas, specifically suburbia and smaller towns surrounded by rural.

      It gets complicated.

      Obama, for example, won the rural vote in New Hampshire and here in my home state of Iowa. This should give Republicans pause. Iowa is a farming state. Even the cities are largely dedicated to farming such as factories building tractors and processing farm products. There is plenty of mixing of rural people in the cities in Iowa. Besides, there are no massively large cities anywhere in Iowa. The largest city in iowa would be a flea on the back of Chicago.

      So, why has Iowa always gone to Democrats for several decades, except for Bush?

      The answer is simple. The farming states, especially the Upper Midwest of Wisconsin and Minnesota, are where Progressivism first took hold. To go even further, Midwest is the only place in the country that had a city with socialist mayors for more than a half century.

      The rural North is vastly different than the rural South, despite both being majority white. The rural North has low poverty, low economic inequality, low rates of violent crime, and low rates of almost any social problem you can think of. The rural South is the complete opposite. In fact, the rural South is the most violent region in the entire country.

      Why such a difference?

      One clear difference between the rural North and the rural South is a difference of the ethnicity of immigrants, i.e., Germans and Northern Europeans versus Scots-Irish. The former immigrants were known for their high rates of education, their knowledge of craftsman skills, and their tradition of sustainable farming. The latter immigrants were known for their low rates of education, their lack of knowledge of craftsman skills, and their tradition of unsustainable slash-and-burn farming. Another clear difference is that the Midwest had cultures that allowed for multiculturalism, especially in the Midlands influenced by the Quakers. Also, there was the grassroots democratic tradition that was imported to the Upper Midwest from New England.

      The North has always had more diversity than the South, from before the colonies became the United States. In the 19th century, the diversity in the North increased even more. This fits in with urbanization as well. The diversity grew in the North as the industrialized cities grew in the North. Urbanization has always driven this country. Much of the North embraced urbanization and much of the South didn’t.

      Urbanization, along with industrialization, is part of a culture of technology. That is where the printing presses were during the revolutionary era and the revolution was fomented by that technology. Now we have social media and such. Many rural areas still lack easy and cheap access to the internet and all they hear from the outside world is right-wing talk radio.

      All of this can’t be separated. North/South is mixed up with multiculturalism/xenophobia, with urban/rural and with technology/lack of technology.

      • Yes, but I still think there’s an urban/rural difference. Here in Utah, for example, the state as a whole — which is largely rural or semi-rural — is very conservative, voting over 80% for Romney. Yet the largest city, Salt Lake City, is strongly liberal and went strongly for Obama. I would guess that in Iowa too there is a distinction along these lines, though not as stark.

        As for North/South differences, some other factors to consider are unionization and religion. The democratizing effect of labor unions in the North needs no explanation. The Bible Belt is dominated by Evangelical Christianity, hardly the most enlightened or democratic religion I can think of.

        Of course, sorting out the appropriate cause-effect relationship in all this is a challenge. Indeed, it’s a chicken-and-egg situation!

        • Its very complex apparently. Here in Connecticut the Northwest corner as it is called is very rural, only two small–and I mean small–cities here, Torrington and Danbury. The rest of this area, which is 25% of the state, is farms or former farms, and large estates. Yet this area went overwhelmingly for Obama in 2012 and 2008. Many attribute this to the influx of New Yorkers over the past 30 yrs, who are either permanent or weekend residents. The people here have a “live and let live” attitude and would be called very liberal.

          • I’d suspect there aren’t many rural areas that would be as liberal as the rural Northeast. Connecticut is part of New England which is unique region. New England combines agriculture with industry, sometimes in close proximity, which is also common in the Midwest. New England furthermore has a tradition of small college towns in the middle of rural areas, which influenced some of the college towns in the Midwest. I live in a New England style college town and there others like it in Iowa.

          • It is indeed a beautiful state. And the Outdoor Retailers Association just proposed setting an additional 1.4 million acres aside as an official National Monument, effectively doubling the size of Canyonlands NP.

            As for temps these days, they’re actually not too bad. Days in the 50’s, nights in the 30’s.

        • Are you originally from Utah? I’m not overly familiar with that state or the general region. What are the demographics there?

          I was reading that Republicans were using gerrymandering to split Salt Lake City into four separate districts combined with large rural areas surrounding it. Utah is supposedly shifting toward the Democrats, along with much of the Mountain West. On a related note, I’ve heard that Mormons used to vote for Democrats during the Progressive Era.

          About unionizaion and religion, they indeed are relevant. They also are complex and mixed up.

          There is unionization in the South, particularly in the Bible Belt. The Appalachian states have coal unions which are different than the industrial unions in the Northern states. For whatever reason, the coal unions haven’t swayed those states toward the Democrats. I would assume that it has to do with the GOP fearmongering about Democrats closing down the coal industry and taking the coal jobs away.

          Unionized or not, religion probably would be a more fundamental influence. The Southern union members are still mostly Evangelicals. In the North, union membership maps almost perfectly to Catholic affiliation. Not since the Populist Era has there been a powerful alliance between the Southern working class and the Northern working class, and some of that quite likely is fueled by religious differences of regional cultures and identities.

          Religious affiliation is an interesting factor in American politics. The founding fathers were fearful of the populist religion that took hold of the country after the revolution. The main reason was that there was demand for populist reform which was pushing toward greater democratization. Much of this push was from Evangelicals.

          Most people are used to thinking of Evangelicals as regressive and reactionary, but that isn’t always the case. The Populists were religiously diverse, from Evangelicals to Theosophist, along with atheists. When the Populist Era was winding down, the Scopes trial showed the growng divisions when two major Populist lawyers found themselves on opposite sides. Despite these growing divisions, many religious people including Evangelicals supported the Progressive reforms following the Populist Era.

          It took a lot of redbaiting and racism to drive a wedge between Democrats and Evangelicals. The Southern Strategy did carve away most of the white Evangelicals, but black Evangelicals have remained the most loyal demographic in the Democratic base. There also has always been a fair number of socially liberal Evangelicals. They were behind abolition, feminism, prohibition, ending child labor, promoting public education, etc. Even in recent decades, not all or maybe even most Evangelicals have been right-wing theocrats, just the loudest Evangelicals drowning out the rest and the MSM giving them disproportionate attention. At the moment, the majority of Evangelicals are turning away from Republicans.

          Catholics are even more diverse in some ways. They are the most major swing religion, evenly split between Republicans and Democrats. Conservative Catholics have aligned with conservative Evangelicals to form the coalition of Fundamentalists. On the opposite end, there are liberal Catholics like Michael Moore who are from families that have been deeply involved with unions for generations.

    • I know I’ve previously written about some research related to the multicultural angle, but I can’t remember the title of the post. Anyway, the data showed that those raised in multicultural environments tend to grow up to be socially liberal adults. This generally fits the issue of urban vs rural areas since the former tend to be multicultural and the latter not so much.

      As I said in my other comment, urbanization has had a major impact on America and even moreso on the North. I see this as connected to much of the immigrant experience and the rootlessness of Americans. Urbanization has always required people to be willing to move around to where the work is.


      This goes back to the earliest period when Western Civilization began to take form. The Roman Empire was a grand experiment in urbanization, and the Christianity that arose out of that milieu was one of the first urban-centered religions.


      Here are some other posts relevant to the issues of social liberalism and multiculturalism:





  4. “Obama carried Ohio 52-47 percent, and although McCain got a majority of a majority of the white vote, Obama won a majority of the state’s white voters who made less than $50,000 a year, and he did better among whites in Ohio than he did nationwide. He was the overwhelming choice of those who said the economy was the nation’s most pressing problem. He won those white Hillary Clinton supporters and then some; Ohio’s wealthy went with McCain.

    “Nationwide, Obama won a higher percentage of white votes than John Kerry, 43 percent to Kerry’s 41, ad more than Al Gore in 2000 or Bill Clinton in 1992. He narrowed Kerry’s deficit with the white working class to 18 percent from 24. He took 52 percent of independents. According to CNN exit polls, just under 70 percent of first-time voters, 96 percent of African Americans, 67 percent of Latinos, 62 percent of Asians, and 60 percent of union members went for Obama. He’d reassembled most of the old New Deal coalition (minus the South, of course), as well as a twenty-first-century bloc of young people, Latinos, Asians, and the unaligned; people who didn’t remember the New Deal or didn’t think it had anything to do with them.”

    What’s the Matter with White People?
    Joan Walsh
    pp. 202-3

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