I’m reflecting on white supremacy this morning. I’m reflecting on cultural differences that too easily go unrecognized, not least by myself. I’m also reflecting as a “white” person on discomfort I hear expressed toward the term, “white supremacy.” I can understand why Euro-Americans of good intent express discomfort with it. But for my own part, I think it’s a depressingly accurate term.
I received my Master of Divinity degree from Meadville Lombard, the Unitarian Universalist theological school in Chicago. It was in Chicago’s Hyde Park neighborhood back then, adjacent to the University of Chicago. In those days, we had the option of taking courses at several other divinity schools in the so-called Hyde Park Cluster.
For example, I took a Black Theology course at the University of Chicago Divinity School. It was co-taught by Dwight Hopkins—who once smilingly referred to himself as the “Div. School’s token black theologian”—and his wife, Linda Thomas. She was a professor at the Lutheran School of Theology, just down the street. There were only three Unitarian Universalists in that class: myself, Naomi King, and Karen Hutt. Both were more scholastically experienced than I was. They helped me keep up.
I later took a class on “Multi-Cultural Religious Education” at the United Church of Christ’s Chicago Theological Seminary. I was the only Unitarian Universalist (and one of only two Caucasians) in that class. I learned a lot in both classes, not just from the course materials, but also from listening to my classmates’ life experiences. To say the least, their experience was way different from mine. I also felt at the time, the lack of white (or Unitarian Universalist) interest in either class, or other classes of this nature, was significant. I still feel that way.
One week in Black Theology, Professors Hopkins and Thomas taught Toni Morrison’s 1970 novel, The Bluest Eye. Morrison’s protagonist is Pecola, an abused black school girl. Called ugly, both at home and by white school mates, Pecola wishes she could be as pretty as her doll, with its blue eyes and pink cheeks and nose. (The novel is set in 1949, when toy companies didn’t make dolls with non-white features.) Pecola even takes up pinching her own nose, hoping that if she pinches it enough, it will become small, pink, and pretty, like her doll’s nose.
Morrison was examining the psychic oppression of something as seemingly inconsequential as cultural beauty norms. That was a real eye-opener for this Rocky Mountain-born white boy. I hadn’t thought much about the pervasive racism in such everyday items as children’t toys, makeup, even cigarette advertisements. It gave me a whole new appreciation of the importance of the 1960’s-’70’s “black is beautiful” movement.
There were plenty more eye-openers. Hopkins and Thomas touched on the constant fragility of black life itself, so easily snuffed out by a fearful policeman, biased criminal justice system, or even a suspicious neighbor. “Ferguson” has been going on, in one form or another, for centuries. Of course, I knew that. But between periodic reminders in the news, I could—and did—and still do—forget, moment-by-moment. They made it very clear, there was no forgetting for them.
Another issue I found personally jarring was black frustration with the unreliable nature of white, liberal allies. Looking back at the 1960’s, it’s all too easy for white liberals to look at the civil rights struggles in terms of our own heroism. Black organizers didn’t always see it that way. Not even close.
For example, pioneering black theologian, James Hal Cone, provided a withering assessment in his 1969 book, Black Theology and Black Power: “The liberal white man verbalizes the right things. . . . “ [But he still wants to] enjoy the rights and privileges pertaining to whiteness. . . . He wants change without risk.”
A real thread of anger ran through Cone and others. “At least the racist knows what he stands for,” Cone wrote. White allies might show up when it felt convenient, but might just as quickly disappear when it didn’t. Reluctant to risk our own social connections and standing, white allies were integrationists while talking with black people. But might just as easily put our alliance under wraps if it risked business with other white people. Plainly, such slights lingered a long time with the people being slighted.
The Gospel account of Saint Peter, denying his partnership with condemned Jesus when the chips were really down, became the most heartbreaking story in the whole Bible for me. Black theologians knew just what that was about. Peter was Jesus’ friend and loyal follower—until confronted by Caiaphas’guards.
My class at C.T.S. didn’t go into these themes as part of our coursework. But they ran through my conversations with fellow students, far different from me in ethnicity and experience.
Reflecting back later, I also teased out two more subtle themes: the fragility of black hope, balanced by the resilience of black aspiration. After decades more experience, I doubt any of these issues would be foreign to any disadvantaged ethnicity within American culture.
The movie, Selma, expertly juggled all these issues and more. Had I not been exposed to those Black Theology and Multi-Cultural Religious Education classes, I doubt I’d have recognized them. I’d certainly not have recognized all of them.
The movie opens with Martin Luther King and his wife, Coretta, preparing for his Nobel Prize acceptance speech. It’s quite a sexy scene in an understated way, two fully human beings with a healthy physical attraction for one another.
The scene then shifts to four black girls descending the stairs at Birmingham’s 16th Street Baptist Church. Crucially, one of the girls is telling another, she wants to wear her hair “just like Mrs. King’s” when she grows up. Just then, a Ku Klux Klan bomb goes off, shocking the audience and killing all four girls.
The 16th Street Baptist Church bombing is a famous historical event, a year and a half before the voting rights marches which are the movie’s main story. But with great dramatic efficiency, that 15 seconds of film expressed much of what I’d witnessed in that Black Theology course. In 1963, when white standards of beauty were normative, it’s a courageous aspiration for this little black girl to want to look like Coretta King, a black role model. Plainly, scriptwriter Paul Wells had read The Bluest Eye.
Of course, it also evoked, shatteringly, the fragility of black life and tenuous nature of black hope itself. In just a few don’t-blink-or-you’ll-miss-it seconds.
Those themes carry through the whole movie. Police beat black demonstrators and shoot one to death. But the big news comes when the white (Unitarian Universalist, though he’s portrayed more as an Episcopalian) minister, James Reeb, is killed. Only then is a reluctant government forced into action.
This ties in with another key theme in the movie, the unreliable nature of white allies. I found myself wondering if the scriptwriter had read James Hal Cone, as well. Then again, he didn’t need to. Black organizers continually live that theme in real life. As one organizer says, while strategizing, “We have to make something happen while the white folks are here. You know they’re not going to stay around for long.”
White liberals such as myself remember President John Kennedy for sponsoring the 1963 Civil Rights Bill. But Kennedy’s reality on civil rights was ambivalent. Kennedy’s people even stood ready to “pull the plug” on King’s “I have a dream” speech if it got too “radical.” Frustration with Kennedy may have provided some of the energy behind James Hal Cone’s denunciation of white liberals. (Or as former President, Harry Truman, put it, “Kennedy had his ear so close to the ground, it was full of grasshoppers.”)
Kennedy was assassinated a year and a half before the events depicted in Selma. When Lyndon B. Johnson became President, he supported civil rights in a more straightforward way. (As Johnson himself later put it, “Jack was out kissing babies while I was out passing bills. Somebody had to mind the store.”)
It was obvious to me that Selma’s scriptwriter made a deliberate choice, to project the Kennedy Administration’s ambivalence onto Johnson. One can approve of this or disapprove from a white viewpoint. But white ambivalence is a reality black organizers lived with all the time. Wells unquestionably used the Johnson character as a vehicle/symbol of white liberal ambivalence on civil rights action. That real ambivalence pervaded the whole federal government, which was, at the time, almost completely white. If white allies “don’t remember it that way,” it’s not simply because the scriptwriter got his history wrong. It’s because white liberals were living a very different reality from black activists.
At the end of the movie, Johnson does step up, and strongly, on voting rights legislation. Historically, he was much more supportive the whole time.
But this point is crucial: drama is not history. I say that with confidence, being a part-time dramatist myself. History is the art and science of trying to understand what actually happened in the past. Good drama may use the past as a setting. But its real purpose is to ask questions and make statements about the present. To expect any play or motion picture to be a precise picture of actual, historical events, is simply naive. It only leads the viewer to miss the play or movie’s real thematic points, no matter how well written.
To get the thematic point across, the scriptwriter tries to develop a strong enough story line to carry the viewer along, while also exploring the themes s/he is trying to lift up. It can be a real balancing act, where difficult choices have to be made.
1963’s 16th Street Baptist Church bombing took a few seconds to depict, and stunningly laid down the themes of beauty, fragile hope, and fragile black life. The Kennedy Administration’s ambivalence toward Dr. King was much more subtle and complex. As history, it would have required a movie all its own. That movie would be difficult to get produced, and very little about it would be Selma.
To me, scriptwriter Paul Webb made the best dramatic choice open to him. But while dramatically powerful from a black viewpoint, the point was mostly lost on white viewers, who couldn’t understand what Webb was driving at. Quite frankly, because few white viewers even suspected a black production company could/should even have a different viewpoint.
Among Unitarian Universalists, including Unitarian Universalist clergy, the treatment of Lyndon Johnson was particularly controversial. I read a lot of “I don’t remember it that way,” and “that’s not accurate” Facebook posts. Some discussions were heated. Majority Unitarian Universalist opinion seemed to be that it detracted from the movie at best, and ruined it at worst.
I disagree strongly. Webb’s choice was not about the history. It was about the equally factual frustration of dealing with white liberal allies in the government. That white audiences resented it, reflects white liberal self image and the fact that we’re used to seeing plays and movies centered on our own cultural perceptions. Negative white reaction fails to consider what the civil rights movement looked like to the black organizers who were driving it.
Fragility of black life, fragility of black hope and aspiration, and unreliability of white allies are themes central to black life. But they were lost on white audiences who assumed the movie would center on whites’ experience of those times. Comments about the “UU shout-out” with James Reeb, white memories of the civil rights era, and criticism of the history around Johnson all centered on white liberal experience.
Such criticisms would have meant more to me if they had at least acknowledged the black themes woven through the film. (There could, by the way, be plenty more that I, too, missed.) But, after all, white existence does not prepare one to recognize subtle–continual–challenges facing a person of extremely different ethnic experience.
This is, to me, a precise nugget, what the term, “white supremacy,” means in practice. In the case of Selma, we see how the dominant culture can issue confident critique based in their own experience—without even trying to understand that the the conversation is not about that. It’s way too easy to confidently direct the conversation–when we don’t even understand the conversation. I blush a little inside, wondering how often I’ve done the same thing.
Expanding from there, this is a piece of why I am deeply uncomfortable with such current political terms as “the resistance” and “revolution.” I think black journalist, Ta-Nehisi Coates, makes a strong point: Euro-American dominance of North America is a litany of white brutality, theft, and violence perpetrated on other cultures. If that’s the case, then white liberals need to stop and ponder: what are we actually resisting? What are we striving to overturn? Are we really trying to overturn a democratic system devised by and for white people pretty much like us? Or are we simply resisting because the wrong white people are currently in charge?
It’s been a half century since James Hal Cone wrote, “The liberal white man verbalizes the right things. . . . “ [But he still wants to] enjoy the rights and privileges pertaining to whiteness. . . . He wants change without risk.”
I read about the “resistance” of French and Yugoslav partisans against the Nazis, or Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse against Euro-American genocide, or Martin Luther King and John Lewis against the clubs and guns of Alabama state troopers. They hazarded life, family, even their very culture’s future. And lost about as often as won.
What do we white liberals hazard? What equally desparate stakes do we face when we talk about “resistance?” Or do we just cheapen the term by using it as a political slogan?
Likewise with “revolution.” Webster’s defines that as a sudden, complete change, a fundamental overturning of the old order. What do we mean by “fundamental?” I’m not convinced Crazy Horse or James Hal Cone would see fundamental, overturning change the same way today’s white liberals use it. (Cone wrote as much.)
It would, for example, require a wholesale cultural “revolution” before Paul Webb’s viewpoint on the 1960’s civil rights struggle might be an automatic starting point for appreciation by white religious liberals. That’s a revolution Cone and Webb would appreciate. But I personally doubt it’s close to what white liberals have in mind.
I am not desiring to censor political speech. Nor am I intending to “disrespect” someone’s sincere political discourse. But as a straight, cisgender, white male, I am constantly called back to that most elusive of all cultural practices, humility. I don’t do that very well. There are plenty of times I’ve held forth on something, only to later realize that I understood only one facet, at best.
I do have to ask: when we white liberals talk about “resistance” and “revolution,” where is the humility? To what degree are we setting one more white agenda, assuming that African-Americans, Hispanics, Asians, et. al., should all join us because what we want is just naturally going to be the best for them, as well?
I often need to be reminded, to ask myself hard questions. Topay attention when someone of very different experience tries to explain them to me. Or to even go in search of viewpoints foreign to my own. In these polarized times, such disciplines are more difficult, but perhaps more essential, than ever. Not least because the most needful revolution may lie someplace I can’t yet even imagine.
I watch people of color within the Unitarian Universalist Association raise their voices. They more often meet resistance, sometimes ugly resistance, than attempts to actually understand. I won’t even say I’m greatly different than any other white liberal. But every time I mess up—and such times are legion—I do put some effort into listening, trying to understand just how I messed up. I can only hope that’s a beginning.
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