Presented on November 17, 2018 at Otterbein University during “Finding Comfort in Discomfort: A Cross-Racial Dialogue on Race and Racism”, a symposium and collaboration of St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church in Westerville Ohio and The Office of Social Justice and Activism at Otterbein.
How Ella Changed My World
By Jim Mulholland
My name is Jim and I am a recovering racist.
As a recovering racist, I need to speak – first and foremost – to the people of color. I need to ask for your patience…one more time. You have spent your entire lives listening to white people, mostly men, talk at and about you and that is about to happen again. I appreciate how frustrating that can be. I’ve raised five teenagers and know how it feels when one of them shares some idea they heard from one of their peers – a truth I’ve told them repeatedly – which is suddenly a brilliant insight. When it comes to discussions on race, white people are like that. It isn’t valid until we hear a white person say it.
I hate that. Please know that I am not here as an expert on racism. While I have participated in racism all my life, I have been largely oblivious to it. This does make me- however – an expert on white ignorance, indifference and resistance. What I say today is less pontificating and more of an act of repentance. I am a recovering racist speaking to other recovering racists and to those racists still in denial. And, having sat with friends in AA meetings, I know this talk must begin with the 4th step – a “searching and fearless moral inventory of myself”
Here is goes. I deeply apologize to those whom I have directly or indirectly, intentionally or unintentionally harmed by my racist words, actions and attitudes. I pledge to honestly examine my past, present and future actions and to listen to the real experiences of those impacted by my racism. I will listen when people of color point out my racism and assume they are right. I promise to act on what I hear and learn, becoming an opponent rather than a passive participant in systemic racism.
My white friends, I hope you share my apology. Apologizing doesn’t come easy for white folk. We’ve been able to avoid it for hundreds of years. Like most recovering racists, I once thought an apology unnecessary. I didn’t think I had a race problem. For the first fifty years of my life, I thought of myself as color blind. Though I had only a handful of friends of color, I considered them proof of my enlightenment. While I realized vestiges of racism remained in our society, I thought white supremacy the behavior of a few miscreant white people. Like many, I considered the election of Barack Obama evidence that racism was largely a thing of the past. Until a few years ago, I would have been offended if you’d accused me of being a racist.
Today, I understand that most racists are blithely unaware of their racism. By allowing the term “racist” and “white supremacist” to become synonymous, we’ve robbed people of color of the language to call out the daily micro-aggressions of systemic racism. We’ve created the illusion that those white people -who do not use the “N’ word and are critical of those who do – have achieved the pinnacle of racial enlightenment. We’ve excused ourselves from having to examine our own deeply ingrained prejudices and ignored the evidence of our privilege. Most white people in America are convinced racism is not our problem.
This deception that is at the heart of the racial divides in our society. Indeed. Dr. King once wrote, “Shallow understanding of people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding by people of ill will.” Think about that. According to the black man I most revere, the white supremacist wasn’t his chief concern. He was worried about people like me. He went on to write, “I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice, who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice.”
He was talking about me. Like most racists, I’ve thought the lack of tension around race was evidence that racism was rare. Remember that when someone suggests the tensions we are experiencing today are negative or divisive. They are only negative for those of us who don’t want to see a problem. They are only divisive because they disrupt the closely guarded white consensus that racism isn’t an issue any longer. The white person who refuses to see the racial injustices built into our society is blind and that is not a good thing.
Ironically, I used to think being color blind was badge of honor. It never occurred to me that this was the only situation where I considered being blind – literally or metaphorically – as a positive characteristic. Indeed, if I had been physically color blind, I would have thought that a disability. Yet I had convinced myself that not being able to see how the color of another person impacted my attitudes, opinions and actions was a positive. This blindness allowed me to miss countless examples in my personal life and in the world around me where blatant or systemic racism negatively impacted people of color. Even more damning, it allowed me to obscure all the ways in which the whiteness of my skin evoked power and privilege.
Unfortunately, I do not stand before you today as one moved by the words of Dr. King, or changed by listening to people of color, or provoked by a careful study of racism and white privilege. When you do not perceive a problem, you do not seek a solution. I stand here today aware that, if not for a single event in my life, I might have continued in my self-assured confidence in my self-righteousness. I stand here today because on November 6th, 2010, I became the father to a black daughter named Ella. Being Ella’s father changed my life.
This is not to suggest that having a black child or family member or friend automatically infuses your life with racial understanding. Indeed, I became Ella’s father when she was three and told Ella’s white mother and my new bride that – as a parent of previous children – I brought considerable expertise to Ella’s life. Apparently, I also brought considerable arrogance. I made my claim completely unaware of how different and difficult it is to parent a black child in the United States. It would be over a year before I became fully aware of my lack of preparation.
My epiphany happened on a spring day in 2012 at an elementary school in Speedway, Indiana. On that day, my wife and I took our four year old black daughter to visit the school where she would be attending kindergarten. We wanted to see the building and classroom as well as meet the principal and teachers. So we’d called and requested a tour.
When we arrived, the white principal ushered us in to her office and began to tell us about the school. She went into great detail about their special education programs, how they were highly rated and how they attempted to incorporate their special needs students into the general population of the school. She then took us on a tour of the building.
We made a brief stop at the kindergarten room to observe the class and its teacher. Then we made a much longer visit to the special needs classroom. The teacher greeted us warmly and engaged with our daughter. They then escorted us from the school and thanked us for coming. As we walked away, all three of us were on edge. Something wasn’t right.
It wasn’t until that afternoon – when we had time to talk – that we realized what was wrong. The entire special needs class had been children of color. The principal had assumed from the moment she saw our daughter that she would be a special needs student, that she was less capable. Realizing what had happened, my wife and I were enraged. My wife said, “She will go to that school over my dead body!”
Regrettably, we responded to racism by using our privilege in the worst possible way. We took our daughter and fled to another school system. We did what white people can always do – we removed ourselves from the tension of racism. I am ashamed to admit that we never thought to use our privilege to confront the principal or speak to the superintendent. We did what white people have done for centuries. We abandoned those children of color to their fate while protecting our own daughter. Much of what I’ve learned about racism, I’ve learned by having my white privilege exposed.
It is interesting that when I tell this story to people of color, they begin shaking their head the moment I mention the principal’s accolades for the special needs program. They know what’s coming. When I tell it to white people, they – like my wife and I – often don’t make the connections until I talk about the makeup of the special needs class. They also often respond with disbelief, implying I must have misinterpreted the principal’s remarks or misunderstood her intent.
This is the problem with systemic racism in America. Unless you can directly experience its ugliness, it is far too easy to discount. Hearing is not believing. Most white people – upon hearing stories of racism – instinctually doubt and dispute them. When we acknowledge them, we imply they are an oddity rather than a common occurrence. Seeing is not believing. When white people see videos of unarmed black men who are shot and killed by police, many do not see this as evidence of racial inequity. Many white people say, “If you’re doing nothing wrong, you have nothing to fear from the police.” This is such a powerful argument because it is experientially true for us. If you’ve never been the target of systemic racism, it seems imaginary. There are more comfortable explanations for what you are seeing.
This has been my chief frustration as I’ve talked to white people about racism and white privilege. There is no adequate replacement for experience. If you assume you’re color blind and society is generally fair, it is easy to ignore evidence to the contrary. Sadly, it often takes an epiphany.
I went into that school assuming our educational system was color blind. Even when I left, that assumption made it difficult for me to recognize what I’d seen and heard. Only later, when I had time to reflect on what had happened, did I identify it as systemic racism.
Like all epiphanies, that day changed my understanding of the world. Vicariously, for a brief moment, I experienced the pain that millions of parents of color have experienced at the hands of white folk. After all, there is nothing worse than watching your child misjudged and mistreated. If one such moment could so enrage me, I could only imagine what repeated experiences of such diminishment must cost people of color. For me, racism was something glimpsed from a window of a moving train – there and then gone. For people of color, racism is like being tied to the tracks and crushed by car after car after car of a long freight train.
My vicarious experiences of racism through my daughter have given me a rare window into a world most white people never see. It was a world I needed to understand, both to be a good father and to be a good person. Embarrassed by our ignorance, my wife and I began to seek out other windows into this world through books, stories, movies, documentaries, lectures and conversations. On that spring day in 2012, I began the journey that has led me to become an advocate for reparations.
One of my earliest readings on this journey was Ta-Nehisi Coates’ letter to his teenage son – Between the World and Me. It seemed fitting as I struggled with what it meant to be a parent of a black child to read the thoughts of another parent of a black child. Reading such a book isn’t comfortable for a white person. Since white people were not his audience, there was no attempt to assuage our tender sensibilities. It was eye opening in all the cultural references I did not understand. He was talking about a different world, though obviously a world that existed in parallel with mine.
Frankly, white people are idiots when it comes to race in America. We don’t know the history of slavery. We don’t understand how horribly black people were treated for generations. We don’t realize how deeply embedded this abuse is in every American institution. We don’t appreciate the tremendous wealth stripped from people of color and bestowed on us. Not only aren’t we taught the truth about race in America, we are actually taught a false narrative intentionally designed to eliminate any guilt and escape any responsibility. Most of what I thought I knew was wrong. Let me mention some of the most problematic misunderstandings.
Slavery – as it would come to be in America – was a new version of slavery, unlike anything the world had ever known in its brutality and de-humanization. The slavery that developed in the New World was industrial slavery where people were understood as commodities to be owned, sold, used up and discarded. I also didn’t know that industrial slavery was largely driven by the sweet tooth developed by middle class Europeans. That Haiti once produced the sugar necessary to meet this demand. That enslaved persons were absolutely vital to this industry. Let’s be perfectly clear. Millions of black people were ground up in the gears of industrial slavery so white people could have dessert.
I didn’t know that in 1791 – during the very years our US constitution was being written – nearly 500,000 enslaved black people in Haiti successfully rebelled and established the second oldest democracy in our hemisphere. I didn’t know that Haiti – at that time – was considered the most valuable real estate in the world. I didn’t know that this island of rebellious enslaved people defeated one English and two French armies. I didn’t know that these events created such a fear in the United States that slavery in our nation would forever be enforced by horrible violence, intended to keep any enslaved person from ever considering resistance. The violent abuse of people of color is foundational to our country’s origins. Physically abusing people of color is as American as baseball, hot dogs, apple pie and Chevrolet. Indeed, it came before all of them.
I knew that slavery in the United States was driven by cotton, but I didn’t know that the emergence of the United States as the wealthiest country in the world was directly connected to our ability to produce cotton through enslaved labor. I didn’t know that cotton plantations were less like farms and more like concentration camps where black men, women and children were worked to death. I didn’t know that the Civil War was about freeing black people from torture.
I didn’t know the history of the Reconstruction of the South, which should really be called the Re-enslavement of Black Americans. I didn’t know that we had black senators and representatives in Congress in the 1870s and that – for a brief moment – people of color experienced hope. I didn’t realize that the KKK was created to destroy that moment of potential reparation. I didn’t know how many thousands of people of color were murdered in the ten years after the Civil War in order to restore the status quo.
I didn’t know that slavery didn’t really end until nearly 1940, that most African-Americans were economically enslaved through systems of sharecropping, industrial chain gangs, vagrancy and employment laws. I didn’t understand that lynching was the way this system was enforced, terrorizing any person of color who challenged the status quo in any manner. I didn’t understand that lynchings were events where white families brought their children and a picnic basket, designed to enculturate racism in white children. I didn’t know that the last mob lynching in America happened in 1981.
I could go on and on about the things I did not know. And I wish I could say this ignorance wasn’t intentional, but I also discovered hat the whitewashing of slavery continues to this day.
In 2015, the Texas Board of Education introduced new social studies curriculum that came under wide criticism for its whitewashing of the brutalities of slavery in the American South. One of the more damning revisions was the statement, “The treatment of enslaved Africans varied. Some slaves reported that their masters treated them kindly.”
Let’s be perfectly clear. That is racist bullshit.
An honest statement would read, “In a vast majority of instances enslaved people were brutalized, raped, tortured and forever separated from parents, spouses and children for the economic profit of their white abusers.” Citing exceptions to this rule can have only one purpose – to diminish the horrors of slavery. Owning another human being was never an act of kindness. Considering another person as your property has always been evil. Indeed, the inclusion of the term “masters” in a modern textbook is blatantly racist. Those who owned slaves were not “masters.” They were monsters.
Unfortunately, the whitewashing of slavery is epidemic in America. In conversations about slavery, I often hear white people comment that there were black slave owners. As if the rare exception proves that slavery was either less horrible or more justifiable. These types of statements are designed to misrepresent the realities of slavery. Imagine for a moment if someone said, “The treatment of Jews in death camps varied. Some Jews reported that their guards treated them kindly.” Even if this were true in some rare circumstance, such statements are morally abhorrent. They misdirect and obscure, allowing the hearer or reader to avoid confronting the horrific.
The history of the treatment of people of color by white people is horrific. Anyone who examines this history in any detail will quickly conclude that our society owes people of color reparations. There is a horrible debt. I’ve come to the conclusion that if you want to quickly determine if a white person in the United States is comfortably racist, you can determine it with a single question. Ask them, “Should our nation pay reparations to black people for the enslavement, mistreatment and economic exploitation of them and their ancestors over the past four hundred years?” If a white person immediately rejects this proposition – and most do – you can be fairly confident you’ve identified a comfortable racist. On the other hand, if they’re willing to give this question serious consideration, you’ve probably identified an ethically responsible and racially conscious white person. It’s really that simple.
There is no compelling argument against the payment of reparations. The studies and research have been done. The historians, economists and ethicists have spoken. While there can and should be debate over how reparations should be made, any white person who argues against reparations is either ignorant, immoral, racist or all of the above. Additionally, if you encounter someone opposed to paying reparations, you can be fairly certain they will offer one or all of the following three arguments…
They will say, “I have no responsibility. Neither I nor my ancestors owned slaves.”
Though I doubt most of these people have the genealogical support for their claim, such evidence would be irrelevant. The economic advantages of slavery were not limited to slave owners. Though the highest concentration of millionaires in the United States in 1840 was in the Mississippi valley, the wealth created by slavery flowed north to the textile mills, banks and, ultimately, to every white family. Cotton was the single greatest economic driver in early American history. Without the millions of hours of slave labor provided by black people, the American economy would not have thrived.
The affluence generated by this labor, though unevenly divided amongst the white population, was limited to white people. You didn’t have to be a slave owner to benefit from the enslavement of black people. You only had to be white. Indeed, this reality fueled the strong southern support for defending slavery during the Civil War. Though only a quarter of southern whites actually owned people, all of them were keenly aware of the benefits slavery produced. Indeed, at the time of the Civil War, enslaved people constituted the single greatest financial asset in the United States.
While it is certainly possible to argue that some white people benefitted more from slavery than others, it is difficult to argue that even the poorest white person has received no benefit. And it is irrefutable that the chief producers of all of this immense wealth – black people – received absolutely no financial benefit. More damning, in 1865 when they were freed from legal bondage, they were paid no back wages. Most black people were left so destitute that they quickly became sharecroppers, which was often even more economically oppressive than slavery.
For these reasons, the huge disparities in accumulated wealth and economic status between white people and black people today have their roots in this historic injustice. Those who argue against reparations because they or their ancestors didn’t own black people are like those who fill their homes with property they know was stolen from others. They may not be thieves, but they are hardly examples of integrity.
When forced to face this reality, opponents of reparations usually offer this argument, “That was wrong, but it was long ago. I haven’t directly benefitted from racial injustice.”
Once we’ve established the incredible injustice of the past, we have two choices. If we’re ethical white people, we take responsibility for the actions of our ancestors. If we’re immoral and racist, we throw our ancestors under the bus. We argue for our blamelessness. We pretend the oppression of black people ended in 1865. We ignore the evidence that all white people living today have directly benefitted from racial injustice.
As lucrative as slavery was, our ancestors weren’t the greatest beneficiaries of the oppression of black people. The single greatest economic increase in American wealth was not in the 1800s. It happened between 1940 and 1970, through the programs of the New Deal and the GI Bill. Billions and billions of dollars of wealth were created. A vast majority of this wealth was intentionally limited by governmental policy to white people.
If you are white and bought a home or grew up in a home purchased between 1934 and 1977, you likely benefitted from government programs that awarded millions of tax dollars solely to white people. If you inherited a home purchased during those years, you reaped the spoils of racial injustice. If you, your parents or grandparents went to college between 1944-1964, you likely benefitted from government programs that excluded black people from millions of dollars in educational grants. If you, your parents or grandparents have received Social Security benefits, you have likely benefitted from a program that initially excluded up to 65% of all black people. It is difficult to find a single government policy between 1877 and 1977 that didn’t give preferential treatment to white people or exclude black people.
Indeed, most white people today are recipients of one of the greatest governmental affirmative action programs in history. Since any argument for equity would require an equal distribution of this government largesse, we can fairly say that the greatest recipients of racial injustice are not long dead slave owners, but middle class white people today. When forced to face this reality, those who oppose reparations usually default to more racist rhetoric.
They say, “Well, that wasn’t fair, but what can you do. You can’t just give black people money. They’d just waste it.” (Or some other generally disparaging remark about black people.)
Once we’ve established the incredible injustice of the present, we have two choices. If we’re ethical white people, we take responsibility for the injustices of our present system and seek to rectify them. If we’re immoral and racist, we throw black people under the bus. In arguing for their inadequacy and incompetency, we verify our ancestry. Like our forefathers, we justify the oppression of black people with the same paternal racist rhetoric. We miss the obvious. Once you’ve acknowledged the resources were stolen, what the victims do with any compensation is irrelevant. It’s their money.
It is time for white people who are ethically responsible and racially conscious to voice our support for the payment of reparations. It is time for our nation to finally pay its debt to the black people upon whose backs we’ve built the most prosperous nation in human history. It is time to ask black people to tell us how they want us to make these payments. It is far past time. And when some white people complain of the injustice of it all, we who are ethically responsible and racially conscious must identify that opposition for what it has always been – racist and immoral.
Like any recovering racist, I am passionate about exposing what once held me in its grips, of calling out what others ignore or justify. I was blind, but now I can see. I can see the ugliness of my racism and white privilege, the countless ways it did and does damage to others and to myself. I understand that I can no longer tolerate even a “little racism” in my life. I do not want my daughter to grow up in a racist household. More importantly, I do not want any sons and daughters to grow up in a racist society.
It has to end. Now. With my generation. With me. With you. With us.
For more wisdom from Jim, see his blog.