, , , , , ,

75c66a78fDeputy sheriffs patrol a Chicago street in 1970 after a dozen Contract Buyers League families were evicted. (Courtesy of Sun-Times Media)

I came upon an amazing article in The Atlantic, written by Ta-Nehisi Coates titled, Reparations. I was referred to the article by reading a dialogue between Rebecca Carroll and Jess Zimmerman posted with The Guardian on December 7:

Dear white people: your discomfort is progress. Keep talking about Ferguson – and beyond:

A black person and a white person started a conversation about how to have ‘the race conversation’ on Facebook, Twitter and everywhere.

At one point Ms. Carroll gives what she calls a white people primer:

  • Do protest; do not take selfies as you protest and then post them on social media – good for you, I don’t care, not what it’s about.
  • Next time you are shopping in an upscale store and no salesperson is watching you, ask them why they aren’t watching you.
  • Check your tone, your tenor and your composure when you’re engaged in dialog with black and brown people. Literally. Don’t say “I get it” because you don’t.
  • Read Ta-Nehisi Coates Reparations piece in The Atlantic, and then read it again.
  • If you are a celebrity or public figure and have a national platform, use it, because the young folks are watching you every second. I’m not talking about Erase the Race or USA for Africa type action (fine), I mean go hard in a national campaign, publicity junket type way (see: Chris Rock). Because your celebrity is among the most extraordinary, astonishing privileges there is. As Chris Rock likes to say: “I love being famous. It’s almost like being white.”

I, on the other hand, am not almost like being white; I am pasty white with a heritage that has some historical significance to the discussion about race and justice.  I won’t restate all that Mr. Coates writes so thoroughly and eloquently, other than to echo Ms. Carroll’s white primer advice: Read it… and then read it again.

In Chapter X of his article (yes, it’s that long – but worth the read and re-read), he recounts the German experience of making amends for the Holocaust as it relates to the American need to make reparations with African Americans:

In 1952, when West Germany began the process of making amends for the Holocaust, it did so under conditions that should be instructive to us. Resistance was violent. Very few Germans believed that Jews were entitled to anything. Only 5 percent of West Germans surveyed reported feeling guilty about the Holocaust, and only 29 percent believed that Jews were owed restitution from the German people.

“It’s very hard to accept white supremacy as a structure erected by actual people, as a choice, as an interest, as opposed to a momentary bout of insanity.”

“The rest,” the historian Tony Judt wrote in his 2005 book, Postwar, “were divided between those (some two-fifths of respondents) who thought that only people ‘who really committed something’ were responsible and should pay, and those (21 percent) who thought ‘that the Jews themselves were partly responsible for what happened to them during the Third Reich.’ ”

Germany’s unwillingness to squarely face its history went beyond polls. Movies that suggested a societal responsibility for the Holocaust beyond Hitler were banned. “The German soldier fought bravely and honorably for his homeland,” claimed President Eisenhower, endorsing the Teutonic national myth. Judt wrote, “Throughout the fifties West German officialdom encouraged a comfortable view of the German past in which the Wehrmacht was heroic, while Nazis were in a minority and properly punished.

This is me, holding the bag. I grew up with this “Wehrmacht” narrative: that somehow an enriched and cultured people were hijacked by Nazis. The truth is more pervasive than a conspiracy of silence, and as time goes on, it has been shown to have involved most of Europe, quite happy to have Germany take their Jews at discounted prices.

I wonder why race and justice should affect me so much?  I grew up in a sleepy town with very few non-whites.  One year an African American Soldier and his family came up from the U.S. to train at the Armed Forces base in my home town. I remember my grade 3 school mates going to their house and lining up at the front fence just to catch a glimpse of the little boy of the family. It was rather like visiting the zoo – hoping to see the exotic visitor in town (who knows what this family thought as they saw dirty nosed elementary kids lining up at their property line?).

Leaving home, traveling, marrying a woman of Indian descent, having children of colour, and having good friends from the Caribbean & elsewhere, has done a lot to inform my very parochial upbringing, but I have to say, it took me a while to admit to Ms. Carroll’s bit of advice:

Check your tone, your tenor and your composure when you’re engaged in dialog with black and brown people. Literally. Don’t say “I get it” because you don’t.

I don’t get it. As impoverished, as fatherless, as discriminated as I felt for being of German descent in a Canadian military town, I have never experienced what my friends experience still.

My Friend’s Experience:

My very good friend, David Lee Pong (of Trinidad,) and I have gone through the States en-route to South America some half dozen times. I have joked that I have accompanied him in order to carry his bags – since he is a gifted teacher/preacher, and I’ve loved being around him ever since we were in track together at University. Of course, he has never thought of me as his baggage handler; he is more gracious and generous than that. Our travels have often revealed a few telling things that speak to prejudice:

  • On occasion, there has been the embarrassing mistake when our foreign hosts think “I am the main speaker” for their campaign/conference (couldn’t they believe that my Sino-African friend was the faithful and brilliant one?!).
  • When clearing U.S. Customs or returning through Canadian Customs, I have never been stopped to have my baggage checked. My interviews with customs has been polite and short. In contrast, every (that should read: EVERY) time I’ve travelled with David, he has his baggage checked and/or is detained for further questioning.

I don’t get it. Despite being intentional about learning, and being compassionate in social justice, I walk with so much ignorance… just like my ancestors before me.

So, this is me still learning. This is me re-reading the Ta-Nehisi Coates article. This is me still enamoured by the enigma of it all; the puzzle that we don’t seem to be able to look past the epidermis in order to see the worth of the other who is in front of us – the mystery of our worth to the One who made us for Himself.  For to be able to see that would take a deeper look; this is what I am searching for.