One of the privileges of being white is that you do not have to think about race. On TV if a black person does something illegal you often hear about it, whereas if the guilty party is white, the reporter bypasses mentioning the fact. White folks who end up walking the path of reconciliation often have an “Oh crap, I am white” moment. This is the time when a white person realizes what it means to be white and all of the privilege this involves… history… and even pain that comes with it. Folks at this stage of reconciliation often feel guilty and even shame for the cultural privilege that they have discovered. It is not uncommon for folks at this stage to say things like, “I feel bad about myself, ” “I hate being white, ” “I wish I were Black/ Latino, ” “White people are to blame, ” “It’s my fault.” White guilt does no one any good if it does not lead to just actions.
I had one of my first “Oh crap” moments when I was at Asbury Seminary. I had signed up for the Black History and Theology course. The professor was an African-American adjunct from Detroit. During class one day he started talking about racism in the North. In my ignorance I was puzzled thinking racism was predominantly a Southern thing. He started talking about a town (back in the Underground Railroad days) that had dedicated a building that had been used to hold slaves that had ran away from the South, only to be returned to their “owners.” This place was in the town of Huntington, Indiana… I about fell off my chair, knowing this was the town of my birth, and yet I had never heard of this! I realized that day that there is a disease in our society called “White Amnesia.” White amnesia causes folks to forget history and those suffering from the disease often say things such as, “I never owned any slaves, ” “That was in the past… get over it, ” “If people weren’t so lazy and worked harder they would be successful like my family, ” “White people have always lived here.”
A couple years later I was visiting the Huntington County Museum and I came across a bulletin for the “Dedication of the Lambdin P. Milligan Slave House.” In the short document I learned about Mr. Milligan, a respected leader in the community that also was a Southern sympathizer and desired to have slavery brought back to Indiana. He was arrested for plotting an armed rebellion and was arrested and tried by the military. Long story short, he was wrongfully tried as he should have been tried locally (Habeas Corpus) and was eventually let out of jail. He was welcomed back into Huntington with a hero’s welcome and the document tells us, “Yes a citizen of Huntington County risked his life to protect freedom for us and all Americans.”
About the same time as this discovery I also came across a book by James Loewen called, Sundown Towns: A Hidden Dimension of Racism in America. A sundown town is a place (many located in the North and Midwest) that would historically not allow people of color in after dark. In some places there were derogatory signs demanding people out by sundown while in other places there were sundown laws! Suddenly, the white amnesia began to fade and I began to see a clearer reality of the white enclave of my birth. Loewen argues that if a town is 90+% white in our day in age, than there is a good chance that it is so on purpose. For a list of possible sundown towns and the research on them up to date follow Loewen’s webpage. The next stage of reconciliation is moving from guilt to action.
This stage of reconciliation is crucial in that white folks may try to avoid the guilt, and simply sit back in the comfort of their white enclave. Just recently I entered a Facebook group made up of predominantly white people from a small town. As the issue of racism came up and was widely commented on, someone chimed in, “Can we please move on to another topic.” This is the temptation at this stage… to move on to the next topic. Rather than staring the reality of history in the face and challenging oneself to live differently, too many people simply want to move to the next topic. Walking the path of racial justice is not an easy one in our society, but if things are going to continue to get better, we must stay on the topic at hand a while longer. In the next blog, I want to talk further on moving from guilt to action.
“What White People Can Do about Racism” is a collection of thoughts by Chris Lahr. Through this blog series he hopes to touch on lessons learned from his journey of living in a small predominantly white town in Indiana to living in a city (Philadelphia) where white people are currently the minority. Check out the first post in this series here. Chris will be teaching the workshop, “What white people can do about racism” at the CCDA Conference in Indianapolis on October 13, and 15.
Chris Lahr is a Recruiter and the Academic Director for Mission Year. He is also a part of the Simple Way in Philadelphia. He is a writer and a speaker. For information about having Chris speak, email Jen Casselberry.