Wednesday, September 30, 2015

What It's Like to be a White Guy

On the first Thursday morning of every month I participate in a multi-racial, multi-faith discussion group on race called NewCORE (New Conversations on Race and Ethnicity), an organization founded eight years ago after then-Senator Barack Obama’ landmark speech on race in which he called for a new conversation on race. The format for our group is pretty simple. Each month there is a “presenter” who tells his or her “race story,” while the rest of us listen intently, and then ask questions designed to draw more of the person’s story.  Soon the conversation deepens into an exploration of how we are seeking to live out our lives and professions in ways that fight racism and promote greater inter-racial understanding.

During a discussion a couple months ago, a white Jewish woman said: “I don’t have a desire to be a white male, but I have always wondered what it would be like to be a white male just for a day.” Sitting next to me was a African-American pastor who I have known for nearly 18 years, who turned to me in good humor and said loud enough for all to hear “Yea, Drick what is it like to be a white guy?”

I looked at the only other white male in the room (in a group of about 15), rolled my eyes, and said: “Well, in this group, it’s not all that it’s cracked up to be.” Despite that response, the question has hung with me these past two months, as I have wondered what my white Jewish female colleague and my black male friend would see or experience if there were put on my skin for a day.

Peggy McIntosh in her classic essay on White Male Privilege makes the point that one of the characteristics of privilege is that most of the time one is largely unaware he has it. Thus there are aspects of my whiteness and male-ness that  females and non-white males see to which I am just plain oblivious. Over the last twenty years or so, I have deliberately and consciously sought out relationships and learning events where I can be enlightened and reminded of the ways in which my whiteness and maleness gives me credibility and respectability others are denied. I have become sensitive to the ways in which I am given information or access unavailable to others. When the opportunity arises I have sought to call attention to the ways in which I sense women and people of color have been excluded. I have consciously worked to put myself in positions where I am under the leadership of or learning from women and people of color. I believe all of these efforts are positive, yet as my colleague Alexia Salvatierra often reminds folks, the very nature of privilege is that one has a choice as to whether or not to engage these issues. So I suspect that one of the first things my female and black colleague would notice is the extra choices my white male skin would give them.

I have become increasingly aware of how much in the normal course of the day, I am given deference, even without asking for it. I work with an African American woman, and often we will compare notes on how we were received or responded to, and consistently I am given special or positive treatment she is denied. Moreover, in my work environment I rarely walk into a room where the group is not dominated by white folks and run by white folks. In those instances where I am in a room dominated by people of color, I know implicitly it is the exception in that environment, not the rule. Over the past few years I have seen the administration of my university turn over to almost completely white men. With this group I have tried to use the power of my white maleness to raise ignored issues such as the exclusion of women and folks of color in places of power, or how the “diversity” we are so proud of is not consistently spread across the university. While folks don’t like to hear me say such things, I get a hearing, and I don’t have to fear being accused of playing the “race card,” whereas folks of color always have to weigh the risks of speaking up. So I suspect if my colleagues had on my white male skin they would see much more attention paid to their concerns and with a great deal more respect than they are used to.

However, the thing my colleagues could not get in a day of being white would be the entire history of my life as a white guy being told in subtle and not-so-subtle ways that I am better-than, smarter-than, more well-connected-than and therefore more deserving-than others. Being given those messages (especially when you don’t know that is what is being said) leads to a kind of entitlement which I often feel, but I have learned I did not earn or deserve. I can look at any corporate board, or any table of leaders, or any list of outstanding citizens and see people like me. Despite all the talk about diversity and inclusion, white guys still run the world in their white ways.

Even the messages about my privilege can be twisted into a kind of superiority. I remember my parents stressing that because I had come from a  “good home” where I was loved and provided for, I had a responsibility to “give back to society” and help others. My parents not only taught that philanthropic spirit, they modeled it. The same message was stressed in the large, all-white suburban church we attended. Seemingly a good thing, it led me to feel like it was my “calling” to go an help the “less fortunate”, which has been the trajectory of my life since high school. I don’t regret following this path, yet even in that message there was the meta-message that I was better-than and that THEY needed the help, not me. Consequently, I have spent my adulthood seeking to reshape that message into a frame of mutual learning and mutual need, but every once in a while my “do-gooder” elitism emerges.

Unless my colleagues had lived a lifetime with that constant message of being just a little bit better than, I don’t know if they would have the inflated white male ego I sometimes recognize in myself. It is not who I am but it is the person I am told I am supposed to be, and it can catch me off guard at the strangest times. Being told and believing I have something to offer others is a source of inner confidence, but the more aware I become of my internalized racist superiority, the more I realize that confidence is sometimes misplaced.

I am fortunate to have friends and colleagues with whom I can discuss these things. I have groups like NewCORE, Training for Change, and workshops at Temple University’s Office of Institutional Diversity, Equity, Advocacy and Leadership that help keep me humble and keep me seeking ways to be a more reliable anti-racist ally. I have friends, colleagues and students who regularly point me in the direction of authors they think I should read. I am fortunate to have these people and resources in my grasp. They keep me learning, growing, and humble.

Were it possible for my white Jewish female and African-American male colleagues to get inside my skin for just one day, they would not necessarily have the life history that white male privilege affords one. Nonetheless, I suspect there would still be lots of things they would see, feel, hear, and sense that I have yet to learn or become aware of. So what is it like to be a white guy? I have some idea, but there is still much I have to learn and ways I need to change. It will take a lifetime… and then some … to find the answer.

Sunday, September 27, 2015

The Pope Paradox

Pope Francis at Independence Hall

Like thousands of other people in Philadelphia I have been caught up in the frenzy of Pope Francis during his visit to our city. While I have not attended any of the live events, – his speech at Independence Mall, the Festival of Families, his parade through the throngs, and the Mass on the Parkway – I did have occasion to go into the city for a pre-Pope rally around justice issues on Friday evening and a Pope bike ride through the car-less streets of downtown on Saturday morning. Moreover, I have been watching with great interest the events surrounding him and his words to the faithful. (For those not in or from Philadelphia, the Pope has come  to Philadelphia in large part to speak to the Roman Catholic Meeting of Families, a triennial event lifting up the importance of family, which has brought thousands of people from around the world to the week leading up to the Pope’s visit.)

Pope bike ride
While I am a very “low church” Mennonite, I have been fascinated by this man at the helm of the most hierarchical church in the world who faithful Roman Catholics believe to be the spokesman for God. While I do not hold him in the reverently high regard that most faithful Roman Catholics do, I have found his outspokenness on immigration, concern for the poor, the importance of the family, and the dangers of globalized capitalism to be refreshing and inspiring. However, I think like most people, what has touched me most is his personal interest in the children, the broken, the forgotten, and the ignored.  When in Washington, DC, he turned down a lunch invitation with Congresspeople to meet with homeless folks. He spent his Sunday morning in a prison with the incarcerated. He made sure that the undocumented and immigrant got the choice seats at his speech on Independence Mall, and he listened intently and responded personally to the stories of families at the Festival. While mildly disappointed (but not surprised) that he did not take up the cause of women religious and the role of LGBT folks in the Church, like most, I found that I was impressed with his forthrightness, and willingness to “speak truth to power.”

At the pre-Pope rally sponsored by the PICO Network and POWER, I participated in a modified stations of the cross march, stopping to pause, reflect and pray at the Philadelphia Police headquarters, a Federal jail and detention center, a low wage service industry store, and the site where slaves of George Washington lived. At each site we lifted up issues and causes Pope Francis has discussed: police brutality, mass incarceration, exclusion of migrants from society, low wages, racism and oppression. Protestant, Catholic, and Jewish speakers called us to continue our work of resistance to injustice and work for justice. We prayed, we sang, we listened, we marched.

Security checkpoint
One of many strange things about this weekend has been the high police and military presence. In order to secure the Pope’s safety, there is a virtual military state in downtown Philadelphia. Police, national guard and bomb squad personnel are everywhere. Individuals must go through security checkpoints to gain access to the downtown streets. Wherever the Pope goes he is surrounded by a phalanx of Secret Service, Swiss Guard, black vans and police on bicycles as he smiles and waves from his Pope-mobile.

So I find myself with a bit of a Pope paradox. I do not appreciate the elevation of the male clergy of the Roman Catholic Church at the expense of others, but I am drawn by the powerful call to justice to the social teachings of the church and liberation theology orientation of Pope Francis.  The city has an air of peace, unity and serenity while it is dominated by military and security personnel. Mostly though, it is Pope Francis, himself, stopping his vehicle to kiss and bless babies, waving and smiling intently at all whom he passes, and taking time to listen to those fortunate few who have a chance to talk with him personally. Even while his robes, his throne-like chair, the royal Catholic  spirituality and the overwhelming presence of security surrounding him seems to defy the very spirit of Christ he is said to represent, at the same time his word, countenance, and interaction with people seems to embody that same spirit of Christ.

Sometimes the most important things in life are contained in paradox – an apparent contradiction pointing and embodying a deeper truth. If Pope Francis, the so- called “people’s Pope” can somehow communicate the radical truth of Jesus love and concern for justice, while challenging the power-brokers of governments and corporations, then he is a paradox I will embrace and continue to ponder.
Pope kissing Michael Keating, boy with cerebral palsy

[Pictures from author and Google Images]

Sunday, September 06, 2015

What Goes Around Comes Around

I have been watching with horror and anticipation the drama that has been unfolding with the refugees from the Syrian civil war seeking refuge in Europe. I could not fathom what it would have been like for a Hungarian law enforcement officer to have to push people away from the trains that would take them to Germany. I was relieved to hear that Germany and Austria agreed to take the refugees and that Hungary provided buses. However, these are not the only migrants seeking relief. A week or so ago there were reports of people seeking to get to England from France by walking through the Chunnel that runs between the two countries. Then of course, there are 11-12 million undocumented immigrants here in the United States, whom Donald Trump callously stereotypes as thugs and rapist, but who like their European counterparts are simply seeking security, safety and a place to live in peace. German Chancellor Angela Merkel has challenged her European counterparts to help refugees in the right thing to do. I wish her well.

As I read and watched the news of this unfolding crisis, I was reminded of something I would say to the kids I worked with in the Jamaica Plain neighborhood of Boston, when they would contemplate getting involved in the drug trade or seek revenge for a perceived hurt. I used to say: “You know, what goes around comes around.” In other words, what you do today will consequences down the road, and will come back to you.

Yes – the violence is the reason refugees are fleeing Syria and other countries. However, the violence is the result of actions taken 15, 20, even 50 years ago that have led to a divided and war torn area of the world. The U.S. and European coalition constructed to attack and destabilize Saddam Hussein has caused that area of the world to plunge into utter chaos. Western addiction to oil made that region an “area of interest” to attack and “defend.” Moreover, our blind and total support of Israel  has made that nation a threat and destabilizing force for all in the region. Now Saddam was a brutal ruler, and rulers like Assad in Syria, and the Ayatollah in Iran have been brutal.  Israel has a right to its own security and ISIS is a legitimate threat. So I don’t want to oversimplify things. Yet, if one were to step back, they could see that the events following World War II in that region of the world  and subsequent decisions by Western nations to intervene in those countries and have led to refugees flowing into Europe.

Likewise, in the United States a similar process is at work. In the 1950’s and 1960’s large fruit companies like United Fruit (now Chiquita) propped up puppet governments in exchange for control of the productive farm land, even when it displaced millions of people from their homes. In the 1980’s the CIA waged a covert war against governments in several Central and South American countries in the “fight against Communism.” These efforts left many countries like Columbia, Honduras, El Salvador and Nicaragua impoverished and devastated. Then President Clinton signed the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) that allowed U.S. companies to operate  there while paying subsistence wages, and avoiding safety and environmental regulations that existed in the U.S. However, while businesses and markets could flow freely between countries, no such arrangement was made for labor, so workers in the north and south ended up being impoverished and manipulated. Is it any wonder that people would risk their lives to come north just to survive?

Again, I don’t want to oversimplify. Obviously there are numerous other factors that come into play. However, beefing up the border patrol and building a wall simply avoids the issue. Choices that the U.S. leaders and companies made have come back to us. What goes around comes around.
One might be willing to forgive some bad decisions that looked good at the time but turned sour, if we were willing to learn from our mistakes. Instead our leaders build their wall, and blame the victims for doing what any sane person would do in order to survive and provide for their families. 

What is so troubling about statements made by would be political leaders like Donald Trump or European leaders like England’s David Cameron seeking to block the migrants from coming across the border, is that so many regular citizens agree with them. Let us imagine for a moment what it would be like to be in the shoes of a Syrian refugee or a young Honduran man seeking to enter the United States, and honestly ask ourselves: would we do anything different?

One of the American classic stories is John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath, the story of a family from Oklahoma seeking to go to California to escape the Dust Bowl and poverty, in search of opportunities to start a new life. Like the refugees, like undocumented immigrants, they were vilified and turned away, blamed for their own misery. Steinbeck wrote that story to hold the mirror up to every American and ask – would any of us do any different?

 I have no simple solutions to migration crises around the world, but it seems that violence, manipulation, overthrowing rulers not to our liking, and then putting up fences and walls to keep the victims of actions out is not addressing the deeper problems. Perhaps our leaders need to read history and read Steinbeck, and then ask as Angela Merkel is trying to do – What is the right thing to do in the moment of crisis? However beyond that they also must consider what must we do differently to avert these crises all together. Otherwise we will continue to experience (without getting the lesson) that what goes around comes around.