Last, night, I joined in a conversation at my son’s Quaker school about Ta’Nehisi Coates’ book, Between the World and Me. It was a fairly diverse crowd—ethnically, if not economically. Everyone there was well educated, thoughtful and, with one honest exception, liberal. I was especially thankful for the opportunity to listen to two black intellectuals and a Quaker elder who lived in Detroit during the 1967 riots.
We worked our way through various responses to the book, including praise for Coates’ use of the dream as metaphor, which I wrote about here. I appreciated hearing new (to me) ideas from folks I don’t usually encounter. A black man who teaches high school history pointed out that one of the horrors of slavery was not that white people thought black people weren’t human. It’s that they knew how human they were, and were able to manipulate the relationship to get what they wanted from them—their labor and obedience.
While he agreed with another’s statement that we all need to study black history more in depth so as to avoid surface slogans and platitudes, he added that white people should spend more time with white history as well. He cited as an example the Stamp Act Riots, which we might see through a lens of patriotism, but could also be seen as an example of colonists behaving quite badly, being destructive and displaying a great capacity for cruelty.
Another man who had met Coates at Howard University, went on to earn a law degree, and now teaches at another Baltimore high school, pointed out that black Americans have been incredibly loyal to white Americans, and that the rest of the world is watching to see what they (we) do next. It’s not the case in other countries; in this man’s view, there is more open animosity elsewhere. This fascinates me. Maybe Americans are better at avoiding the issue, as in Chris Rock’s image of sorority girls saying, You’re just not Kappa material.
Another point he made especially resonated. He said that white people don’t need black people to make a living. But black people cannot make a living without interacting with white people. They simply don’t have that choice; if they want access to certain institutions of learning and employment, black people have to study and get along with white people.
As a woman, this rings true. Frequently over the years of architecture practice, I found myself as the sole woman in a meeting with fifteen or twenty men. I never questioned the oddity of this. It was part of the price of entry into a male-dominated profession. I didn’t see myself as a pioneer out to change the system. I sought only to be taken seriously, to do my job well and to be heard. It was only over time that I began to wonder more deeply about the situation. I had only two women mentors in all those years. Why are there so few women in the building professions?
Still today, white men band together in fraternities of finance and leadership of corporations. Women remain an anomaly, land mines to negotiate around with care. We are tolerated as long as we don’t rock the boat too much or increase our numbers enough to threaten white male supremacy. Even now, the best way to advance is to get along and play by the men’s rules.
At one point in last night’s discussion, one white man expressed his incredulity and frustration that many white people actually have themselves convinced that we have squared the history on slavery and that racism is a thing of the past. Someone responded that if people benefit from something, they aren’t going to give it up willingly. Until they see a good reason or they are forced. We are told that information and education are keys to building awareness, first steps towards changing untenable situations, but it doesn’t seem to be enough.
Conversations like this are a necessary aspect of life on the threshold between cultural stories. Racial tension, pushback, denial and fear are bellwethers of the crumbling old stories of hierarchy and supremacy and control. And that’s because, as one woman pointed out, these conversations are challenging. They may be mandatory for students (eliciting the occasional complaint letter from a parent who doesn’t see the point), but for adults, they are voluntary. This feels like too slow a pace to catalyze the kinds of changes that are needed. Is it even possible to make conversations about race mandatory for adults? We hardly even bother to vote.
I was reminded last night of the trap we are all caught in, this mindset of hierarchy, and how it distorts our relationships and interactions. It distorts my own self-worth and motivations. All of us are programmed to think in hierarchies, and so we see ourselves in positions alternately superior or inferior, depending on the situation. One powerful disincentive to facing the objective reality of racism and white supremacy is the belief that we would have to give something up, something precious to us. For someone “below” me to gain status, I would have to lose something, so the habit is to see it as a zero-sum game.
In fact, when I sit and listen in a conversation like the one last night, I gain: in insight, in awareness, in understanding, maybe even in compassion. All I give up is a bit of my ignorance, and good riddance. At moments like this, I find myself with an overwhelming desire to rid myself of all hierarchical thinking, but I know it’s not that simple. It is in our culture’s DNA. It colors everything. And yet, if not hierarchy, then what?
Hierarchies exist in nature, certainly, but as nested wholes, as microcosms and families and ecosystems working together for the greater emergence of wholeness and Life. They function as dynamic communities of co-creation, and are worthy models for human action. Rather than radical overthrow of our flawed models of reality, it is possible to keep turning towards more accurate ways of both seeing and being in this ever-evolving world. Think of how life is programmed to heal, to reach for wholeness: when you cut yourself, your body knows how to seal the wound, how to regenerate healthy tissue. You don’t have to tell it what to do. What a perfect model for change that does not seek to destroy anything, but only to become whole again.
I daresay that very few even moderately evolved white men like to control and dictate all the time. It’s what they know; it’s how they were raised, what they were promised as their birthright. And yet the dark side is, it’s lonely at the top. Alienation and stress are the legacy of constant anxiety and fear that you will be pushed off the plateau. You will lose status if you show any signs of weakness, including emotion, not knowing answers, sentimentality, in short anything that smacks of political correctness or earns the label, “like a girl.”
Last night, someone pointed out that everyone is waking up to the misery of living with (white) supremacy, whites included. As I noted in this post, the impossible demands of hierarchy take everyone down eventually. The simple fact is: connecting with each other makes us happier. One of the black high school teachers said this last night, and I was thrilled to hear it from someone else’s mouth other than my own.
I want to have more of these kinds of conversations, where we puzzle over how much language matters and ask each other things like, Would you call it a riot or an uprising or a rebellion? At one point, a woman of color noted her frustration with Coates’ selling out and going to live in Paris, preferring it to America in some ways. I wanted to ask, Doesn’t he have a right to his happiness too? And, Have you been to Paris? It’s pretty wonderful. Yes, the French have their own xenophobia and dark colonial past. But why begrudge a man his shot at happiness, as he defines it? Does he owe the world more than that, more than this book?
I’m glad I said nothing, because one of the high school teachers responded that this debate goes on in the black community all the time. Should I buy a house here, in this black neighborhood, or get out while I can? The choice is fraught with all the burdens of history and meaning that the choices of white people are not used to carrying. It is not simply reducible to safety, as we tend to view it, but verges on concerns of faith and redemption. As we go forth into the unknown territory of the crumbling old stories, our choices do matter. It is by our choices that we cultivate new stories of wholeness, of interconnection and belonging.