So we have a bit of a white male problem in this country at the moment, don’t we?
Now, I don’t mean the normal “problems” people cite when they make such sweeping statements—for example, the historical propensity for blackface or other derogatory entertainments, Trumpanzees going wild and shooting up synagogues or mailing bombs to their perceived enemies, lonely youth self-radicalizing online until they finally express their hatred of women at gunpoint, Liam Neeson’s fantasies about murdering black people, or just the basic structural violence foisted upon this world by billionaire elites gorging themselves on their caviar and their mistresses while millions starve. For once, I actually don’t mean any of that.
What I mean, instead, is just how badly we deal with our own pasts.
I’ve quoted before from psychologist Carol Gilligan on how boys are socialized to be men from the start. Statements like “boys don’t cry,” delivered from a male figure of authority, are less about what boys are or are not and more about what men are—men are people who don’t cry. Girls are socialized into specific gender roles a bit later in life and can often remember the shock of the transition, while the memories of boys contain no such shock because boys are raised to be men from day one. Maleness is not hard-wired, but it can feel like it, which makes non-conformity feel all the more threatening, because it is not a return to form but instead stepping out into the void.
Racial expectations are also learned pretty early on. Kids pick up cues from their parents regarding how to react around certain groups of people, and where territory is contested, as during times of social strife, the upbringing of children will be much more heavily racialized so as to prevent even the appearance of “defection.”
The point is that some of this is written deep in the brain. Not that it becomes instinctual, something that will be eternal and unchanging, but you will know when you are violating the programming, because those deep habits and thought patterns will be pulling at you. I know gay people who are out of the closet and happy but who still have a nagging feeling that they are going to hell one day. That’s how deep things run.
Now, those of us with the power of our normative race, gender, and sexual orientations, we can break our programming, but that doesn’t mean that old wounds won’t leave a scar. Indeed, coming into a mindset other than the one with which we were socialized tends to occur in stages rather than in a Damascus Road moment. When I was a teenager, and I went to see a movie with male friends, we usually sat with a space between each of us so that no one might think we were “together,” because that’s how heavily gender and sexuality were policed and self-policed. I had a few gay acquaintances in college but still had trouble feeling entirely comfortable around them. My own transformation started more intellectually than anything else, and so even tough I would have no argument, and knew I had none, when it came to equal rights to love, my attitude toward open expressions of that love was probably something like: “Well, I don’t care what happens between two people, but just keep it behind doors—I don’t want to see that stuff.” At some point, I realized that this attitude was rather derogatory, and I guess I was fine with it all. But even then, as gay people were more and more visible in society, and I could round a corner and see two guys holding hands or something—well, I was fine with that, but for just a moment I had to remind myself that I was fine with it.
That programming can run very deep, and we might evolve more quickly than we can scrub ourselves of those near-instinctual reactions. And the disconnect between how we feel in our gut and what we know to be right can create a bit of shame. Sometimes, that shame can manifest itself in being over-nice to the person whose presence triggered that feeling. It’s like meeting the ex of your current girlfriend—you smile and shake hands with vigor and talk loudly: “I am so genuinely pleased to meet you. No, I am not at all threatened by this social interaction.” And you can see that with race. For a few years of my life, I was a member of a church that was all white, though I was sure this was just an accident or demographics or something. Anyhow, I was serving as usher one day when a black family walked in after the service had already started. There were no seats available, but we pulled out the chairs and set up a new row, shook hands with everyone, offered them whatever assistance they needed. And then when the time came to great guests, everyone else in the church poured over to this black family on the last row and over-nicedit. No better way to make someone feel unwelcome than by insisting again and again that they are welcome, but it’s just how that distance between gut reaction and the better angels of our nature can manifest itself.
But this insistence on niceness has a dark side, and that is denial of the not-so-nice gut reaction. People who have been confronted with some racist act or another will, almost inevitably, and especially if they operate in social circles where racism is less welcome than it is in the current administration, insist that “I am not a racist.” But then why did you call the police on that little black girl who was running a lemonade stand? “Uh, well, I have a deep and abiding concern for food safety standards. I’ve been doing genealogy for a while, and it turns out that my great-great-grandfather died of botulism.” Sure.
People can do racist things while insisting that they are not racist because they have not truly interrogated the gap between that deep programming and the self they strive to be—or at least the self they imagine they project unto the world. And if you’ve not interrogated that gap and have an understanding of your own transformation, you cannot help but to respond poorly when confronted with artifacts of your past that threaten to cast your whole present being into doubt. Better to say with Benedict, “Gentlemen, I am not as I have been,” than to make-believe that you aren’t really the person in blackface in that yearbook, because that’s the reality—we are beings in transition, all the time.
But there’s a danger of making this too focused upon the individual, so I wish to make another point—it’s not just about us. We may never achieve full bodhisattva-hood and eliminate all of our instantaneous reactions to whatever “others” roam this world, but we can at least model the best behaviors we can for the next generations. We need to think about this future and bring it into the purview of our hopes and dreams. Many immigrants to the United States did not come over to work in a Chinese laundry or a coal mine or a lonely factory somewhere—they came over with the idea that their descendants should have it better than they do now. Likewise, undertaking the work of anti-racism is not about achieving for ourselves the plaudits of enlightenment—it’s about modeling a better form of society for those who come after us, who will refine that vision even further. So many people, rather than admit their failings, turn reactionary when confronted with them, because their story is solely focused upon themselves as individuals. But if we widen our field and take responsibility for future generations, we have a greater opportunity to contribute to the kind of world we want to live in, as flawed as we are.
Even if we never get to that promised land, we can nonetheless be great models of marching through this desert.