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.