Last month, I had the great privilege of delivering the baccalaureate address for the class of 2022 at Amherst College. This was such an honor and I am incredibly grateful to Harrison Blum and the whole office of Religious and Spiritual Life for their support in making this happen.
…The comfort of invisibility, the ease of ignorance
As I continue to study the ethical foundations of equity, particularly as those foundations show up in public policy, I learn more about the various personal motivations that seem to sit at the heart of cultural belief. I’m struck by how, in a very general way, when I engage ‘non-people-of-color’ on questions of race, they are frequently at a loss as to how to speak of themselves. This is most vibrantly true when engaging white liberals, which I do an awful lot of as a Unitarian Universalist minister. Asking white liberals to talk about not just race but specifically what it means to be white, I have regularly heard the reply “well, ‘white’ is nothing” right before I hear an embarrassed laundry list of ways in which white people have oppressed non-whites across the globe as part of the European colonial project for centuries.
They might be intimidated by being asked this question by a black man. True. Yet, this lack of fluency about the self is troubling in a world that becomes more racially volatile every day. It also plays into the narrative being fostered by conservatives who criticize the potential “discomfort” in talking about race. All humans throughout time have done horrific and wonderful things. They have done these things as cultural and ethnic groups and as individuals. For that reason, I believe it is better to take an historian’s posture and consider those histories objectively through hard fact. Howard French’s new book Born in Blackness: Africa, Africans, and the Making of the Modern World, 1471 to the Second World War does this beautifully and reveals the complexity in the origins of blackness and offers a lucid perspective on how it has been handed down to us today.
Regardless of our individual racial identities and regardless of the un-scientific politics that created race as a social construct, we all need to have a language and an understanding of race in today’s world. Whether we want to accept it or not, race impacts all humans. But, applying modern, subjective perspectives of good and bad, guilt and innocence to historical racial actions and attitudes is counterproductive. History is meant to inform us so that we can change and grow and maybe even be better. It is not there to simply affirm what we want to believe after the fact. The current impulse to erase, retell and reframe racial histories because of modern embarrassment comes from the same flawed motivation that gave us Confederate statuary. Trying to be post-racial like this is a bit like trying to put toothpaste back in a tube. Race is a mess, and we are better off focusing on recognizing it for everything it is, cleaning up what we can and making use of what we can’t.
There are examples in human experience of what better use of challenging or unwanted information might look like. In the 1980s no one wanted or asked for the horror of AIDS. In the gay community, we used the slogan “silence=death” with regards to being able to speak about HIV/AIDS. We had to look at the destruction squarely and honestly and speak up. This meant coming out of the closet, educating ourselves and educating anyone who would listen. We became experts in the disease and how it was transmitted in order to just stay alive…and vaguely sane. We learned objectively about our sexual practices and choices and how they could impact our lives and those we loved. We didn’t stop having sex…we had smarter better informed sex. This allowed us and the rest of humanity to be better for what we learned in the trenches. The same holds true of race, racialization and racism for all humans. Silence=Death.
Where this lack of self-awareness about race is becoming truly dangerous today is in the silencing of educators and historians in the interest of not causing certain students “discomfort” in their learning process. This metaphoric (and sometimes literal) book burning is manifesting through legislation that portends to provide parents with more autonomy around how their children are educated.
Don’t mention anything to do with sexuality or gender because you as a parent aren’t ready for them to know about it…and certainly, children, adolescents and teens have never been willing to take sexuality into their own hands.
Don’t talk about the history of racism because we fixed that…right? I was sure we already overcame…right?
What You Don’t Know
From the perspective of this black gay body, it seems that the (largely) conservative reluctance to name whiteness in the conversation of race and the liberal position of helpless ignorance about whiteness have a lot in common. Both positions seem to have a close relationship with an assumed invisibility that is cultivated in cultural whiteness and how that invisibility affords a rather plush ease in navigating society in a cloud of ignorance. I’m naming invisibility as ignorance here while resisting the urge to point a finger or lay blame. Not to save anyone discomfort, but because I have a deep faith-driven belief in redemption. Embedded in this fairly stark assessment is a generous sense of respect for the intellect of the scholars and politicians who are invested in shutting down any conversations about race as a system or theory.
Sharing some of my personal perspective may be useful here. I have never lived in a world where I could be invisible. I have always lived with the unexpected possibility of sudden and extreme verbal, physical, professional, or social violence aimed at my race or sexuality (or both) lurking around the corner. It has been overt (being called the N-word, being spat at, etc.), but most often it is subtle and unintentional (“do you have a wife?”). Women of all types can identify with this. They never know when or where or to what extent they will encounter weaponized masculinity. Hypervigilance for us becomes hardwired. We are not fragile or “snowflakes”, rather we are exhausted and fed up because it is a constant in our lives.
When I encounter those who operate entirely outside of a similar on-guard relationship to the world, it is very easy for me to recognize. While I am at constant threat of being capsized, they sail through the sea of conflict and challenge oblivious to even the slightest breeze. And it is intentional, they are well equipped. This is more than just carrying Peggy McIntosh’s invisible knapsack. It is knowingly loading the knapsack with additional items…a hat, goggles, headphones, gloves, a compass, a lifeboat, an oxygen tank and if necessary, a full hazmat suit as protection.
I don’t necessarily believe that this this indoctrination into ignorance is entirely or even intentionally hostile. I am sure that many of the good people of Florida and Texas and South Dakota (and Boston) plain and simple don’t want to talk about this stuff. They would rather go watch football or hockey. They’d rather keep things binary…on, off; good, bad; male, female…so that they don’t have to learn a new language or try to understand something more complex than a tic-tack-toe game. It’s just easier (for them.) Frankly, human beings can sometimes appear on the surface quite a lot like dogs…wanting to take the path of least resistance to pleasure…more belly rubs and ear scratchies please!
But the dastardly complication of all this is that we aren’t dogs. We are complex creatures with big brains that invite us to understand our complexity whether we like it or not. Although we increasingly allow machines to do some of our big brain work, as human beings we thrive on understanding and having the opportunity to decipher and explore. We have never been just a simple string of zeros and ones. We are .5s and .0007s and 1.56879s and everything unmeasurable in between. We are thoroughly analog and so is the world in which we exist. On a very basic level of our shared humanity we crave the complexity of our analog life…along with some belly rubs.
As I mentioned at the beginning of this post, I am engaged in an ongoing study of equity and ethics. One of the most important principles that has emerged for me is how equity can only thrive in collaboration with representation. An equitable education will not be presented in safe dollops of homogenous, manicured meringue. An equitable education will offer full pictures and representations of what actually exists in all of its shapes sizes and colors. Likewise, equitable systems of government, community and religion can only emerge if there is the opportunity for full representation of what is possible and who can be at the table. Equity does not filter out reality to avoid “discomfort.” Equity embraces the messiness and conflict and seeks equilibrium between the parts.
Take note: you can’t be at the table if you are invisible. The politicians, and strategists and leaders who are invested in these efforts to counter “woke” culture and paint whiteness as a victim of an over intellectualized liberal elite don’t want to be at the table and they don’t want to work harder. What is more, they don’t want anyone else to be at the table. They want everyone to be as invisible (and ignorant) as they see themselves. This isn’t a matter of “anti-woke”, this is anti-equity. It is a dangerous agenda that embraces the comfort of invisibility and the ease of ignorance. It turns its back on one of the most fundamental principles of education: the desire to learn how to learn.
The anti-equity agenda is actively being manufactured and refined and it is growing. More than technology, it is the new super commodity. This agenda is as lethal and potentially far reaching as the commercialization, manufacture and refinement of sugar was centuries ago…and you see where that got us.
 Peggy McIntosh, “White Privilege: Upacking the Invisible Knapsack,” Peace and Freedom, August 1989, chrome-extension://efaidnbmnnnibpcajpcglclefindmkaj/viewer.html?pdfurl=https%3A%2F%2Fpsychology.umbc.edu%2Ffiles%2F2016%2F10%2FWhite-Privilege_McIntosh-1989.pdf.