I teach Ethics at the local community college. I'm obligated to use the book approved by the powers that be in my department, and I wasn't satisfied with the author's entry on equality and discrimination. So I created my own presentation for the class. My goal was to help them understand just how complicated the issues actually are. The following week I surveyed the class to see how they thought I did, and to find out if they had any suggestions for me. One student wrote: "You can say how you feel about black people." I've been asking myself the same thing ever since. Here is the reply I've been working on. I don't know if I'll send it:
You asked how I feel about black people. I spent a few days thinking it over. I'd never thought about it in those terms before. I know how I feel about individual people, but it's easy to say that men and women like MLK, bell hooks, and Sojourner Truth are admirable. But to think about blackness as a unifying factor... well, it's a bit outside of my experience to celebrate an identity in that way.
I have a sense of how every day is a sort of celebration of whiteness. The thing is that if you're white it doesn't always feel like that. It feels usual, normal, and that's largely due to the fact that white is the norm many of us never question. It's taken a long time to expand my awareness of my own culture, and the privileges I have within it, in order to recognize that. I don't feel "white", and I only learned it was an identity through my interactions with people who experience my whiteness much more acutely than I do. So I asked myself, if I don't feel anything significant about white people, what can I possibly feel about black people?
That's not to say that being black has nothing to do with my admiration for the three people I named above (or any of the other people I admire, for that matter). To take pride in a heritage that is devalued by the larger society takes great strength. Unfortunately, not everyone is strong enough to handle it, and when your very existence is predicated on it - on being able to withstand the weight of other people's prejudice - well, let's just say it makes me angry to know that some people are crushed under it. And it is anger: not sorrow or pity. I suppose that comes from the differences between our experiences of these issues. I've never had to learn to react in any other way because racism has never posed a direct threat to me. (Here, I'm responding to something he wrote about learning to handle racism without expressing his anger.)
But that doesn't mean it hasn't hurt me.
When I think of all of the ideas I don't have access to - all of the philosophies, books, music, poems - all of the things I will never know because the person who had it in them wasn't allowed to compose it... Philosophy is 97% about the things dead white guys wrote. The other 3% accounts for a handful of women and people of color. And to me, the things that 3% wrote are meaningful enough that I could teach the same class you just took entirely on their writings. Amazing, isn't it? All of the ideas that must have been lost, or ignored, or never written in the first place because the would-be author wasn't "strong enough" to handle a whip, a bullet, or a fist? Because that undiscovered genius wasn't "good enough" to deserve an education? That's bullshit. Oppression hurts us all, and everyone who has ever experienced it has my admiration. Even if they do nothing more than survive.
So, how do I feel about black people? My honest answer is that I don't know. My admiration for MLK, for example, is born of his own words and deeds: what he said and did within a the confines of an injustice no one should ever have to bear. I'd have admired him outside of that system, I think, but I can't say the same of those I now look up to for merely surviving it. That is because there is a part of me that doesn't want to believe a person's character is entirely created by her or his circumstances. I feel anger, but I can't say that I feel it for the people who experience that injustice. Perhaps I feel it with them, but that doesn't seem right either. How can a person feel for or with an entire population? I'm angry at a system that is oppressive, and that anger is, in some sense, blind to the identities of those who are oppressed. It says nothing of how I feel about black people, and everything about how I feel about racism. It's only on account of a growing awareness of my own whiteness that I suspect this blindness to identity is a symptom of whiteness - that feeling that race doesn't matter in and of itself. Which is to say, I might not see it because I embody the norm. Access to that kind of knowledge isn't denied me because of racism, but because I cannot know how you experience racism from the inside. I'm trapped, in a sense, by my own perspective. But I am trying to find a way past whatever limitations I find, wherever I encounter them.