The general state of race-relations in America has recently been highlighted, nationally by President Clinton’s “Dialogue on Race” and in California by ballot propositions like 187 (limiting government benefits to illegal immigrants) and 209 (eliminating state-sponsored affirmative-action). The desire for an unemotional and realistic conversation on race — where we stand, where we are headed, and where we want to be — is noble and desirable. It seems, however, that our initial attempts have been thwarted as much by the terms of the conversation as by the subject itself: just as the underlying context, assumptions, and forms of historical discrimination were largely defined by its beneficiaries (to whom ‘race-relations’ were a closed issue), the underlying context, assumptions, and forms of the fight against discrimination — and, more generally, of our discussions about race — have been largely defined by those to whom ‘race-relations’ have historically meant ‘race-based oppression’ — to whom ‘race-relations’ were very much an open issue and a dominant factor of their lives. While this is understandable, and perhaps even just, it almost ensures that racial difference is viewed and debated as a chasm to be crossed — or into which to fall — rather than as a boundary to be transcended.
These essays were intended to broaden the scope of the dialogue. The first was originally submitted to the San Jose Mercury News for consideration as an opinion piece. The two were later submitted as a pair to both the San Francisco Chronicle and Newsweek for proposed inclusion in an ongoing series on the “National Dialogue on Race”. Neither was ever accepted for publication.
Part 1 of 2: White Man
3 November 1996
I am a heterosexual white male approaching middle-age. Although I am agnostic, I was raised in the traditions of Protestant Christianity. Although I acknowledge and respect other cultures, I was schooled in the traditions of western civilization.
I harbor no malice toward those who are not heterosexual white men. I treat them no differently because they are not so, neither with distaste, nor with disrespect nor with disregard. Among those few people with whom I am completely comfortable and completely free, I count about equal numbers of men and women, one homosexual, three Asian-Americans, two Catholics, one Mormon, two Jews; although I categorize them here as society demands, it does not normally occur to me to think of my friends in this way. At the moment this inner circle includes no African Americans, no Hispanic Americans, no Native Americans, because I have encountered none who have connected with and embraced my interests, my goals, my philosophy of life, my cultural preferences, my personality quirks. For symmetrical reasons, no African Americans, no Hispanic Americans, no Native Americans include me in their inner circle.
I am a white-collar professional. I exist in the upper middle-class and hope, like most people, someday to be wealthy enough to pursue my interests rather than my sustenance. But I was not born to either condition. What I have now, and what I hope to have in the future, I have earned through sacrifice, delayed gratification, long hours of hard work, planning, vision — and yes, intelligence. Bad fortune could have made it harder, but did not; no good fortune made it easy. Although I compete with some in the marketplace for my labors, and employ others to do the things I find impossible or unproductive or distasteful, I do not cheat them, nor oppress them, nor coerce them, nor degrade them. In most endeavors I am smarter and more skilled than some, less smart and less skilled than others; I find neither condition a reason for shame, or remorse, or obligation.
Like all Americans, I descend from immigrant ancestors. The first of them arrived here more than 350 years ago, some as indentured servants, some as those served; the circumstances of the rest are a mystery obscured by the twilight of time. My family, broadly defined, has acquired and depleted great fortunes, created great works and lesser, provided chapters and footnotes and unremarked background for the books of history.
I admit to having, in the past, given up my seat on a train for a woman, opened a door for a woman, carried luggage for a woman, allowed a woman into line ahead of me, paid for a woman’s meal. I have done the same for men; I consider these things courtesy.
I admit to sometimes laughing at jokes based on sexual or racial or religious or national stereotypes or on the misfortunes of others. Some are funny, even while they are cruel; humor and cruelty have never been mutually exclusive.
I admit to sometimes judging people on their appearance, rather than on their character. Character judgment requires sustained contact and observation, a luxury not available for most daily interactions; when you depend on a stranger to serve you well or treat you well or wish you well, is it prejudice or prudence to trust the familiar over the foreign, the meticulous over the unkempt, the deferential over the aggressive, the one who embraces over the one who alienates?
I have never owned a slave. I have never treated a woman as a sex toy. I am not a cross-burner or a rapist or a gay-basher or a wife-beater or a white supremacist or a sexual harasser. I am not a bigot or a chauvinist. I have never used my race or my sex or my position as an opportunity or an excuse for dominating anyone, degrading anyone, dehumanizing anyone. I take what life fairly offers me, and what I can wrest from it by honorable struggle.
I am an individual. I represent no one but myself.
I am the oppressor.
That, at least, is what I am told daily by the righteous foes of sexism and racism and imperialism and homophobia and xenophobia and poverty and class. That, at least, is what I am called daily by the righteous advocates of feminism and afro-centrism and multiculturalism and gay-rights and immigrant-rights and economic-justice and social-justice. That, at least, is the personal stereotype by which the world judges me.
I am (so I am told) part of the white-male power structure. I can’t deny it, I can’t reject it, I can’t free myself from it. Everything I am (so I am told), everything I have, everything I can be I owe to the perks of my position; my own efforts, my own ambitions, my own skills and intelligence are for naught without that supporting structure to prop me up. The fact that I feel no such power, that I remember no such encouragement or assistance, that I feel no kinship with this mythical brotherhood is irrelevant.
I am, I suppose, the “angry white man” so much discussed and dissected of late, angry at my loss of status, at my loss of power, at my loss of control. Except that I am not angry and I feel no loss. I am frustrated at being misjudged, dismayed at being misunderstood. I refuse to accept either, refuse to bear a guilt that is not mine.
I am, I believe, colorblind, as colorblind as is possible under the daily bombardment of race and sex and class that is American culture. That allows me to perceive shades of gray where others perceive only black and white. Whose is the better vision?
© Copyright 1996, 2005, Augustus P. Lowell