John G Bell


Fall '02 - Hill & Gilliam

Book Response: Learning to be White by Thandeka

A. Important things about ...

  1. the power and limitation of dialogue

    With all the machinations suggested by this book over the development of racism as a tool for control, I start to wonder if a real and effective movement for dialogue that created some kind of emergent class solidarity would find itself meeting equally real and effective opposition. If this book and Goad in “The Redneck Manifesto” both agree that “racism is only a smokescreen, a cynical diversionary tactic.” Then the kind of violent reaction to the civil rights movement's transition toward addressing class and economic issues is inevitable to a movement for dialogue that addresses these same issues with emergent class solidarity.

  1. American or world society

    The notion of a broad, indivisible middle class and the doctrine of equal opportunity form a liturgical refrain in our society. These act as a kind of bread & circus to distract people from looking at the real state of things in this county. The double bind experienced by the acolytes to white culture between the advantages and the costs of racism serves as an effective method of control, at least de facto if not by design.

  1. these specific groups

    It seems to me that the white supremacists are all about a vicious protection of self-worth and identity. This seems like it could easily be turned against the ruling class by showing how racism is a tool of the elite. If the white supremacists could be shown that the cause of the problem is that they've been manipulated and duped into fracturing class solidarity, that they'd turn on the ruling elite all of the invective violence and anger they have misdirected elsewhere. I've long been confused by the self-destructive belief system of the working people that support elite power structures, especially the support of republican conservative power structures. The double bind, and the control that this implies, really helps to start explaining this more clearly.

  1. myself

    I recognize the mechanism of shame as the result of attempting to reconcile the ideal self with the actual self as having a role in my thoughts about myself. This is not so much in relation to racism and becoming indoctrinated into white culture as it is in trying to reconcile my internalized perfect self as presented by parents, instructors and ultimately myself. I've had a life long struggle between my promise and my performance but have realized this is a sysyphean task since the ideal self can always be imagined that remains beyond one's performance no matter how hard or perfect that performance might be. This has more to do with the larger mechanism of the shadow self, as in the Jungian sense. The development of racial identity as shown in this book is just one facet of how the development of the shadow and shame about the shadow's existence is part of the development of one's acceptable identity.

B. Talking points

  1. Memories

p11 “I asked her to recollect her earliest memory of knowing what it means to be white.”

I remember my mother and I visiting some relatives that were an interracial couple. I'd play with my cousin while she visited with the adults. I remember talking to my mother and finding out that we had to visit and not talk about the visit around the rest of the family because some of the family wasn't comfortable with the idea. Then again, these clandestine visits also existed for the other side of the family, my grandfather's gay brother.

One of my other early memories of being aware of race was when I lived in North Carolina, where my mom and I moved for a year. That probably seems obvious, but I don't think I really became aware of race until a specific incident. I had a black friend and we'd hang out after school. I remember one time going to his house and sitting outside talking while his mom made us some lemonade. Somehow we started talking about singing and ended up sharing. I had actually been a pretty musically inclined child and would sing made up songs to myself. In fact, I might have started singing to myself as the trigger to the conversation. Anyhow, I remember my friend making fun of my improvisational song about a butterfly and his insistence that what I was doing wasn't real singing. He then demonstrated a bluesy song of his own, which was quite good. I asked to learn this from him but he refused saying I'd never get it. After this I didn't really hang out with him anymore. That was also the day I stopped singing in public.

  1. The Shadow

p17 “Shame is the death of the unloved part of the self because it, apparently, is just not good enough to be loved.”

p127 “we can explain the invisibility of the white shame as a major race problem in white america”

This is the Jungian idea of the shadow. This is a larger mechanism than just racism. This reminds me of the Robert Bly book, “A little book about on the Human Shadow.”

p17 (of Bly) “Behind us we have an invisible bag, and the part of us our parents don't like, we, to keep our parents' love, put in the bag.”

Bly then goes on to talk about how this shadow material is increased by teachers and peers, etc ... The formation of the shadow is a major problem in the psychological development of our society. In the Bly book the process seems more or less inevitable and the opportunity for re-integration of the shadow material by a more mature psyche is part of personal development. If the development of the shadow is so pervasive, it's not the shadow that is the danger but rather the control over us that the shadow provides others, the amount we can be manipulated by our own shadow. The “impaired sense of a core self, an inability to relate to others with self-integrity” is a much bigger problem than just about racial identity.

  1. Counterrevolution

p51 “poor whites were indeed white supremacists who extolled their own merit in racial rather than class terms.”

p53 “the grand outcome was the almost complete disappearance of economic and social forces on the part of the masses. One simply did not have to get in in this world in order to achieve security, independence or value in one's estimating and in that of one's fellows.”

Racism out of class warfare is part of the control. Racism itself fractures horizontal class solidarity among the poor/working classes to the advantage of the ruling class. If dialogue develops as a way of increasing communication between people, thus healing some of these fractions, and thus creating class solidarity , then there could come serious and organized resistance from the ruling elites.

Is this the effect, perhaps intentional, of the vast notion of a classless society? That idea we're all middle class and have inalienable rights and equal opportunity is a method of control by detaching social value from economic and social engagement and power. This is the fragile illusion of dignity that is fractured for the loggers by the conflict between the environmentalists and the industry and for the white poor by the conflict between the power elite and the radicals during the civil rights protests.

  1. Giraffes and Jackals again

“Bork's major point is that white, heterosexual men are caught in a double bind. They submit ... they are then dismissed as replaced by persons who have not submitted.”

The logical construct here is the same dilemma I have with the interaction between the Giraffes and the Jackals, a compassionate listener confronted with the Other that's willing to take value without return. So, in the terms of this book, I could rewrite the dilemma as the wages of dialogue versus the wages for dialogue.

  1. Theatre

p104 Heinz Kohut “'autonomy is impossible' because to be a self is to be in relationship with others ...”

p104 “human experience operates in 'a domain of core-relatedness'”

p123 Nussbaum “become 'philosophical exiles from our own ways of life, seeing them from the vantage point of the outsider and asking the questions an outsider is likely to ask about their meaning and function. Only this critical distance, Diogenes argued, makes one a philosopher.”

The types of theatrical conflict and transformation are examples of this relatedness in a stylized form: intrapersonal, interpersonal and extrapersonal. Theatre is a representation of this interdependent and contemporaneous existence. Theatre then adds the additional level of ritual conflict and transformation, that between the audience and the production. This kind of ability to see and experience this is what theatrical work trains one to do also.

C. Outrageous statement or claim

p3 “must use the term white whenever she mentioned the name of one of her euro-american cohorts.”

p61 “the racial as well as class diversity hidden by a blanket use of the term white.”

So which is it? The author makes this contradiction but then continues to use the term “white” for what she clearly recognizes as a diverse collection of cultures. The idea of a “white” culture is a social construct, but somehow that's what we're supposed to both get clear on and of. I'm pretty sure it's about finding a language that speaks about diversity without hierarchy instead of becoming comfortable with generic, blanket terms.

I definitely want to become more aware of my cultural history and the lost memories of my immigrant ancestry. I think this kind of diverse background should be celebrated without the idea that being different is either somehow threatening nor that it somehow implies superiority.