To my son’s white non-Latino family
You all know that I have a mixed-race, Mexican-American son. It seems that some of you weren’t fully prepared for what that really meant.
To his mother and I, there is nothing more important than the safety and well-being of our son. So much more important, in fact, than any kind of feelings you might have that you’re not doing or saying something racist.
And believe me, it has become apparent that some of you act like you’re more concerned with not feeling racist than you are in actually doing the hard work required to understand what is or isn’t a racist thing to say and do — and then not to say or do them.
Don’t feel, however, that you’re being singled out. Most white people have the same challenge. That is, until they begin to see the world from a different pair of eyes.
It’s called White Fragility: A term coined by white anti-racism expert and educator named Robin DiAngelo. She has a PhD in Multicultural Education, and has been teaching and creating programs about racism and diversity for over 20 years. As a white person, she definitely understands why it can be so difficult to have a conversation about race.
Of course, I was prepared for this moment. I knew that we likely faced some challenging conversations about race in the family. And, in fact, the first big hurdle to overcome when discussing race with white people is that we really tend to take over the conversation. Most white people like us become so preoccupied with making sure you know how not racist we are, that we stop listening and never really get to part where we learn that we do, think, and say racist things in spite of ourselves. It becomes very difficult to explain to white people what racism really is and how it impacts the non-white people in our lives.
In fact, after one conversation with family — when we tried to make this exact point — one of them later informed me that she felt like we disrespected her because we didn’t give her enough opportunity to be heard.
The sad truth is that most white people actually know very little about racism, even though we tend to feel qualified to weigh in at length on the subject. And in conversations about race, it’s not the white people who tend to be ignored or shut down. White people often seem to feel as if they are uniquely qualified to decide what is or isn’t racist.
This is probably because most white people feel like all that’s required from them is to try hard to have a good heart, and to treat everyone the same way, and to expect the same from everybody, and to judge all people by the same standard by which you would want to be judged. Most white people think that racism is all about a personal attitude that you have towards other people based on the color of their skin.
That’s probably why most white people think that reverse racism is a thing.
|Whites Believe They Are Victims of Racism More Often Than Blacks|
But that’s not racism; that’s prejudice. Racism is so much more than that. It’s not just an attitude that you have towards people.
Racism is, first and foremost, an ideology. And it’s a system of institutions and cultural practices that implement, sustain, and defend that ideology. Its beating heart is the myth that human beings are biologically divided into different races; and that one of them, the white race, is — either by nature or historical accident — more advanced than the others.
This myth was born in the Americas: The Virginia colony in the 17th Century. And its purpose was to rationalize reserving the blessings of the Enlightenment — namely Liberty and Human Rights — to a limited number of people of European descent (i.e. – “white”). The other races were lesser creatures, less deserving, less capable, and savage. Such gifts would be wasted on them.
The genesis of racism coincides with the invention of the white race in colonial America.
|How Colonial Virginia Created Slavery And Race: A Legal History|
From Virginia, the ideology of racism was exported to all the European colonial expansions in Africa, India, South America, Southeast Asia, and applied to Native Americans in the rush westward and the ensuing genocide. Racism became a global system that secured white domination over the non-white population of the world. And over the centuries, the list of Europeans who were considered “white” morphed and expanded, as it suited the wealthy and powerful elites. (e.g. — At first, the Irish and Italians weren’t considered white.)
This is important. It’s really important.
That’s because there is no such thing as anti-white racism. There might be anti-white prejudice. There might be anti-white bigotry, even. But racism is a worldwide system, centuries-old, erected by certain Europeans who invented the myth of the white race in order to subjugate the people they considered non-white. White Europeans defined the racial categories in the first place; they are all myths, with no basis in biology.
There has never been a civilization or nation of Black or Brown people who developed a system by which white people were enslaved, plundered, or massacred. Not to mention one that is global in reach or which has endured for centuries.
That’s why — in a nutshell — people of color can’t be racist.
Now, you might be tempted to say something like, “Okay. Sure, I get it. What I really mean is that there’s so much prejudice out there. People of color can be so prejudiced against white people, and vice versa. We should all just get along and try to solve racism together.” But allow me to point out that this is just like saying, “Sure, I have this crazy huge twig sticking out of the center of my eye, but before I can fix that, let’s talk about the tiny speck that we all have in our eyes, because it’s a universal human trait and it kinda lets me off the hook.”
See how crazy that sounds?
Racism is a big problem that still exists. White people get “free stuff” from society just for being white. Benefits that we didn’t earn. People of color are systematically shut out of opportunities and benefits in favor of white people. And people of color are routinely mistreated or harmed simply for not being white.
|White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack|
|The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness|
|The Case for Reparations|
Now, I grew up surrounded by racism in my own family and in my (almost entirely white) community. My stepfather (the man who raised my younger brother and me) was an orphaned Indiana farmboy who enlisted in the Marines at age 16, where he served in Korea and Vietnam. He practically worshiped at the altar of Archie Bunker, never caring much that the rest of America considered him the butt of a giant joke. I think he must have admired him for sticking to his guns in spite of all the forces of history arrayed against him. (Given today’s political climate, perhaps my late stepfather may very well find himself enjoying the last laugh). My mother’s sister and her family were a gaggle of bigots, and racial epithets flowed freely in their presence. My maternal grandmother adhered to a typical white, Midwestern, working-class ethic of respectability and decorum that afforded no room for an awareness of white privilege. A socially conservative child of the Depression and a Dust-Bowl refugee, she had little sympathy for those who engaged in civil disobedience. For her, it was each individual’s responsibility to rise above their own lot in life. Complaining about it and expecting something from society made you uncouth; socially unacceptable. I don’t think she would have ever accepted the notion that respectability is only fully afforded to people of her own complexion.
More than anything, growing up, racist ideas and racist talk weren’t morally repugnant as much as they were impolite. Something to be kept to one’s self; raised only under certain circumstances; stated with the requisite disclaimers. There was a visceral disdain during family get-togethers for Political Correctness and Affirmative Action.
Of course we were taught — in a generic way — to treat everyone we met with dignity and respect, regardless of their skin color, religious affiliation, gender, or background. We were taught that all people should be held to the same high standards of conduct. In practice, of course, without really being aware of it, that meant white.
I was born and raised LDS, and the Mormons certainly have had a checkered past with race relations. The LDS Church that I experienced was far more concerned which body parts I was touching and what I was doing with them than they were about racial equity or racial justice. I never heard of anyone being excommunicated or losing their temple recommend over racism. Legions, on the other hand, have received such sanctions for putting their junk where the Church felt it didn’t belong — members of the same sex, for example. As a Mormon teenager, I recall many young adult programs aimed at instructing us in the miserably wicked ways of the world: We had to constant vigilance against the spiritually toxic influence of popular culture. Especially the lurid enticements offered by movies, television and (*gasp*) rock music, whose corrupting lure was forever seeking fresh impressionable young bodies to ensnare in its web.
Nothing about the festering open wound of structural racism and white privilege.
Nothing at all.
When I was 18, my mother was remarried to a man with a rich Mormon pedigree. One of his ancestors was Thomas Levi Whittle, who was part of the first group of Mormon missionaries to visit the Sandwich Islands, which is now Hawaii. The Whittle clan has relatives up and down the Mormon Corridor. A lifelong paleo-conservative, my new stepfather introduced me to the works of Cleon Skousen, the rabid Mormon anti-communist conspiracy theorist who penned The Five Thousand Year Leap (made famous by Glenn Beck). For a time, I volunteered with the Freeman Institute — founded by Skousen — in the Phoenix area, which served as my introduction to the paleo-conservative view of the civil rights movement as a conspiracy of global elites on the political Left, seeking to use racial strife as a tool to achieve and/or maintain global domination. Skousen and his ideological ilk claim to know better than people of color what’s good for them. And most of them would be deeply offended if you called them a racist. In fact, in my experience paleo-conservatives spend a great deal of mental and emotional energy defending to themselves and others why their opposition to the civil rights movement — programs such as Affirmative Action — isn’t racist.
But it is.
It’s racist because it upholds and reinforces White Supremacy.
It’s racist because it silences or marginalizes people of color who have been trying for centuries to get white people to see what racism really is.
Which brings me to the point of this post: I need to protect my son from racism within his own family. I need to do it publicly because he and is family (including his Latino family) need to see me doing it. And his white, non-Latino family all need to see — from within our own ranks — what is racist and unacceptable.
So let’s start with the easy part, conveniently offered to us in this post-Obama, post-Ferguson era, and the madness of the 2016 general election:
If you support Donald Trump for president, then you’re being racist. More importantly: If you don’t support Donald Trump, and you fail to take a stand — loudly and unambiguously — against him and everything he represents, then you’re a coward (and you’re probably being racist, too).
And you won’t be welcome in our home or in our lives.
|“Make America Great Again!”: The KKK’s Newspaper Explains the True Meaning of Donald Trump’s Slogan|
I won’t waste very many words defending what should be patently obvious: That Donald Trump is a racist and White Supremacist. The evidence for that is overwhelming and readily available. But one example is particularly relevant to our family: When Donald Trump claimed that United States District Judge Gonzalo P. Curiel couldn’t be impartial because “he’s a Mexican,” he made it clear that my son and his family don’t count as full citizens in Donald Trump’s America. And that makes him a threat to the people I love.
That’s because Judge Curiel was born in Indiana. He’s every bit as American as you and me.
Trump supporters love to claim that you can’t be racist against Mexicans because Mexico is a country, not a race. But since Judge Curiel isn’t a citizen of the nation of Mexico — he’s a natural born US citizen — to declare that he’s a Mexican, suggesting that this somehow diminishes his American identity, means that you’re treating his heritage as if it were a race. And that’s racist.
I feel like I shouldn’t even have to have this conversation about Donald Trump. In spite of the casual, ubiquitous sort of racism that surrounded us growing up, I could have never imagined that a large percentage of my own family would see Donald Trump and his vision of America as something praiseworthy. I thought we had been taught better than that. As a Mormon youth, I was a Cub Scout and a Boy Scout. In my recollection, Donald Trump represents the exact opposite of the sort of men we were taught, as Scouts, to grow up to become.
But maybe I have that wrong.
Maybe this is what, for these past decades, many of you have been quietly hoping for. Working towards.
As a Boy Scout, I recall being taught to respect our democratic institutions, and to honor our civic responsibilities. Scouting, as I remember it, didn’t teach ideological commitments. I remember being taught humility, decency, and pluralism. That all people deserved dignity, respect, and a seat at the table.
But maybe I don’t remember it correctly. Maybe the dream of Trump’s America has always been lurking in this family in one form or another. When the Tea Party first emerged in 2009, it sure seemed like a lot of old Skousen-like racism was coming back to the surface — and in a big, loud way. Many observers expressed concern with the nature of the movement and what it stood for. But some of you who supported the Tea Party insisted that they weren’t about any of that: The Tea Party didn’t care about social issues at all; they just wanted fiscal discipline. Later, begrudgingly, you had to admit that the Religious Right had taken control, clucking your tongues in dismay. But now we have Trump and his angry white mob. They brazenly exhibit every last caricature ever made by the liberal press about the Tea Party. And many of you either openly joined his throng or fail to speak out against them. All without the slightest hint of irony.
Could it be that, for nearly 30 years since I left the Mormon Church, that the face of tolerance you presented to me wasn’t what I thought it was? Is it possible that, when one of the family came out — first as gay, then trans — that the acceptance he was shown wasn’t an example of hearts and minds opening up, after all, but something else?
It’s dawning on me, now, that perhaps you accepted us on the condition that we accept you in return, regardless of whether or not you religious beliefs grant the dignity of secular marriage between two members of the same sex; or that trans people should be free to use the restroom of their choice; or whether you believe that the government oversteps its divinely decreed limits if it prohibits employers from exerting control over its female employees’ reproductive choices; or if you believe that #BlackLivesMatter is creating racial division; or whether or not you believe that Mexico isn’t sending their best — they’re sending people who have lots of problems. Like rapists.
Because it’s clear that a lot of my son’s white, non-Latino family agrees with notions like these, and more. And these beliefs are a threat to other members of my family, and to many, many people that I care about.
I have little doubt that we will be seen as the intolerant ones.
Because, after all, haven’t you had to bend so very far? I turned my back on Zion and rejected the values you cherish and hold dear. I have openly engaged in behavior in your presence that offends your sense of decency. I vocally supported a political agenda that threatens to DESTROY. THE. INSTITUTION. OF. MARRIAGE. You tolerated it all. It was the price you had to pay to preserve our relationship.
And now I, of all people, have the temerity to declare — publicly, no less — that your political views are not welcome in my home or anywhere near my son and his mother and family. I am rejecting you for your deeply-held beliefs.
How unfair it all must seem.
Maybe that’s because you have the wrong idea about religious freedom. In this country, it never meant the freedom to act according to whatever your religious beliefs happened to be. You cannot neglect or abuse children in the name of your religious beliefs. If your religion teaches that miscegenation is a grave sin, that doesn’t mean you can refuse to hire someone because she is married to a Black man. No religion would be allowed to sacrifice human beings. But religious freedom isn’t about your freedom to believe or not. It’s about religious pluralism. It’s that being Presbyterian is no different — in the eyes of the law — than being Catholic. Or Methodist. Or Jewish. Or Mormon. Or atheist.
We would never allow a bakery to refuse to bake a cake for a Jewish wedding on religious grounds. We would never allow a national chain of craft stores to offer insurance only to their Methodist employees. That would be a violation of religious freedom. So if you think being forced to offer insurance that covers contraception is a violation of an employer’s religious freedom; if you think there is any meaningful legal difference between a Presbyterian marrying a Jew and a gay man marrying another man; then you’re the one who is intolerant.
And intolerance isn’t welcome in our home.
Where do we go from here? Well, if your vision for a better America resembles that of Trump or his supporters, then we can just stop pretending that you accept me, my son’s family, or the people we care about. That might come as a great relief for us all. Let’s go our separate ways, and I’ll fight like hell to make sure that you and everything you stand for are summarily tossed into the dustbin of history.
On the other hand — if you’ve never supported Trump or the movement that made his candidacy possible, or if you’re willing to seriously challenge your views of race and religious pluralism, then we’re happy to have you.
Whatever the case, you may find us calling you out for saying or doing something racist, or otherwise problematic towards a marginalized or vulnerable population. It will probably be public (such as a response on your Facebook timeline). And it might be quite uncomfortable. When that happens, remember that feeling and contemplate this: Imagine what it must be like to experience the intolerance that you — wittingly or unwittingly — are promoting. And instead of following that first impulse to defend yourself, open your hearts and minds to the voices of those who are directly impacted by what you say and do. Don’t presume that you know enough about their experience to decide on their behalf whether they are justified in taking offense. Remember that you are privileged, and that your view of social justice tends to be highly distorted by the unearned preferences that our society grants you.
If we can get through moments like that, our family will be stronger together.