Learning to talk about race and privilege

This book was approximately 0% enjoyable, but I am still glad that I read it.

Over the past year or two I’ve been engaged in an informal, personal reading project on the theme of “try to understand America” — you know, since I live here and all. So I have been reading books about America, on and off, and more and more of my reading has come to centre around that great big issue of race. I don’t keep any sort of reading plan for this project, but I do keep an eye out for books that look like they would help me further my understanding, particularly in regards to the American racial divide. A few months ago So You Want to Talk About Race by Ijeoma Oluo came up as a promoted book on my county library’s website, and so I added my name to its long hold list and waited for it to show up.

Its cover copy calls it “An actionable exploration of today’s racial landscape, offering straightforward clarity that readers of all races need to contribute to the dismantling of the racial divide.” I would say that’s accurate. It’s also a hard and uncomfortable read, as should probably be expected. I had to take a lot of breaks to think about things. But though there are a lot of areas where Oluo and I disagree (for example, I will never support Planned Parenthood, for anything, ever), I appreciate her perspective and the explanations she offers. So much of the commentary around racial issues — on either side of the divide — is so very reactionary that it can be hard to figure out what is a real position and what is a strawman and what is something in between. Oluo answers questions about things like what people actually mean when they talk about “systemic” racism, and what being told to “check your privilege” is actually asking you to do, and the question (that I think a lot of us struggle with) of “what if I talk about race wrong?”. It is a gift to be able to encounter these questions and their answers outside of the heated environment of immediate debate, allowing for time to digest and consider on the way. Her examples were very clear and helped me to understand some new things.

Yes, racism and racial oppression in America is horrible and terrifying. The feelings it brings up in us are justified. But it is also everywhere, in every corner of our lives. We have to let go of some of that fear. We have to be able to look racism in the eye wherever we encounter it. If we continue to treat racism like it is a giant monster that is chasing us, we will be forever running. But running won’t help is when it’s in our workplace, our government, or homes, and ourselves. (7)

What I found most personally helpful was Oluo’s discussion of privilege. She defines it, quite simply, as “an advantage or a set of advantages that you have that others do not” (59). These areas of privilege often rest on things outside our control, like our skin colour or the nation we’re born in or the relative affluence that our parents enjoy(ed). And being privileged in one area doesn’t mean being privileged in all areas — consider, for example, someone who grew up wealthy (privileged) but also has a physical disability (unprivileged). Most of us will have some areas where we are privileged and some where we are not — that’s perfectly normal. So then what’s the point of examining our privilege? Is it so that we can feel guilty? Should we be apologizing for areas of privilege — which, again, are mostly outside of our control anyway? Not so; nor should asking someone to “check their privilege” be used as a method of shutting down a conversation.

Rather, it’s asking us to be aware of how the advantages we may have had can leave us blind to others’ struggles. It’s asking us to be aware that where we’ve ended up in life is not only due to our own hard work and merit, and that others might work just as hard and be just as meritorious but still end up in a worse position because they started several steps behind. And it’s also an opportunity, to identify “those areas where we have the power and access to change the system as a whole. […] When we identify where our privilege intersects with somebody else’s oppression, we’ll find our opportunities to make real change” (65).

This is a lot like what Andy Crouch talks about towards the end of Culture Making: spending our cultural power alongside of / on behalf of those who have none. So checking our privilege — or examining our cultural power, to use Crouch’s term — is a chance to ask ourselves not only where we may have gotten a head start in life, but how we can use that to advocate for others. Examples:

  • I was born and raised in a stable, wealthy, democratic country. What can I do on behalf of refugees? What can I do on behalf of those who are still living in war-torn or impoverished countries?
  • I grew up in a stable home and my parents have been married to each other for all of my life. How do I care for the widow and the orphan? How can I support single mothers? How can I advocate for children in foster care?
  • I grew up in a home that valued learning. I received a good public education and went on to both an undergraduate and a graduate degree. How can I work against barriers to education?  How should I vote when it comes to things like public school funding? How can I support teachers and students? How can I help ensure access to the scholarships and bursaries that paid for so much of my own education?
  • I’ve never been hungry. I’ve never been homeless. What can I do on behalf of the poor? How can I address food insecurity in my neighbourhood or county? If the city wants to build a homeless shelter or halfway house in my neighbourhood, will I publicly voice my support?
  • My skin is white, which means that I have been able to largely ignore a lot of racial “stuff” over the years. When people of colour tell me how their experiences are different than mine, do I listen? When I hear a racist joke or prejudicial remark, am I willing to say something? Am I willing to confront my own racial biases?

As Oluo writes, “Every day you are given opportunities to make the world better, by making yourself a little uncomfortable and asking, ‘who doesn’t have this same freedom or opportunity that I’m enjoying now?'” (69). None of us are going to be working towards all of these things at the same time. But if we are willing to examine our advantages, and to create the habit of looking out for those who are less advantaged, we can be working towards more of those things, more of the time. And that’s probably a really good thing. I don’t think we need to feel guilty for the various privileges that we’ve enjoyed — but we shouldn’t feel complacent, either. As a Christian I believe that we are called to use our blessings to bless others. And though Ijeoma Oluo is an atheist, I think we can certainly agree on that.

“What are you anyway?”

“What are you anyway?” The bluntness of the woman’s tone puts me on edge. […] The woman doesn’t get the subtlety of my response. “Well, I’m looking at you and I can see what you look like. But,” she struggles, “what are you?”

What she doesn’t say, but what is implied, is that I look so white. But I’ve revealed that I’m not 100 percent white. My appearance isn’t to be trusted. That seems to bother her. (235-6)

I just finished reading White Like Her: My Family’s Story of Race and Racial Passing by Gail Lukasik. I had actually come across her story in shortened form previously, in this Washington Post article; it piqued my interest and I sent away for the book to be delivered to my library’s hold shelves. It’s not written in the best prose out there, but the story it tells about race in America is illuminating,

The story of Lukasik’s family illustrates the complications of racial makeup and identity in America, especially in the South, and especially in Louisiana. Historically, Louisianans lived in the three-tier caste system, made up of whites on top, slaves on the bottom, and “free people of color” in the nebulous middle. The free people of color originated from manumitted slaves, from free black emigrants from Europe, and from the children (sometimes acknowledged, sometimes not) of white Louisianans and their black slaves, and later on, from the relatively common plaçage arrangements set up to get around laws against inter-racial marriage. Over time, the free people of color simply became what we would now call biracial. In the antebellum years many were considered legally white (and/or had terminology/labels applied describing theor proportionate mixture of blackness and whiteness: mulatto, quadroon, octaroon, etc.).

In the 20th century, things got dicier with the “one-drop rule” of the segregated South that said, in essence, having even one black ancestor means that you are legally black. In Louisiana, a person would be considered black even if only 1 of their 32 great-great-great grandparents were something other than white. (Just for reference, and if you will excuse this instance of Godwin’s law, this is more stringent than the Nazis were in determining Jewish descent and identity.) This of course was tied up with white supremacy and eugenics and other nasty things. But what happened when you were mixed race, considered legally black, but looked white? When the census-taker came to the door, that form only had two options for race. You were black, or you were white. So what did you tell them? And more importantly, how did you live?

The author’s mother, Alvera Frederic, had to make those choices. On her birth certificate she is listed as “colored”. In one census she is listed as black; in another, white. She left her family in New Orleans behind forever, “crossing over” the colour line and moving to Ohio, where she married a white man who never knew she wasn’t as fully white as he was. Lukasik was a grown woman when she discovered her mother’s secret, and Alvera’s pain and shame over being found out compelled Lukasik to keep that secret until after her mother’s death, some seventeen years later.

After Alvera’s death, Lukasik’s search began in earnest, beginning with an appearance on Genealogy Roadshow and ending with the discovery of a large, multi-racial family into whose arms she has been welcomed — it is a poignant story and a touching one. The book tells not only the story of her mother and her family, but gives a lot of historical context about their lives. In the end, Lukasik finds her African ancestor: a woman named Marta, born into slavery, her parents most likely brought on some of the first slave ships from Senegal. As she tells Marta’s story, Lukasik wrestles with what, if anything, having a black ancestor means (or can mean, or should mean) to her:

But even after I discover Marta, it changes nothing about my sense of racial identity. I have no claim on black identity, no right to declare myself even mixed race. And yet, my African ancestry is there in my DNA: 7-9 percent, more than one-drop, enough that up until 1983 in Louisiana I would have been designated as black.

What does it mean for a blatantly white woman to tell the story of her distant slave ancestor? “What gives me the right?” I ask myself. Is 7-9 percent African DNA enough? Does it matter that it’s me telling her story, as long as her story is told?

My search has never been about claiming a black identity. It springs from another place — the desire to know what my enslaved ancestors endured, how they assimilated into their time and place, and how they survived. I carry their DNA like a badge of honor. (202-3)

More than anything, White Like Her provides a compelling argument for the notion of race as a social construct. What does it mean to be “black” or “white” or “mixed”? Is it your facial features, skin tone, or hair texture that defines your race? Your DNA proportions? Your acknowledged cultural identity or preference? The answer seems to be all of these — or none of these — or some of these, some of the time. And what happens when you’re not white enough for the white community, but not black enough for the black community either? Lukasik quotes an email she received from a young mixed-race woman:

People usually think that I’m Hispanic or at least mixed, and sometimes they’re just unsure. I do come from a very bi-racial or multi-racial family. As a result I definitely have a few of my own racial issues to be honest. Looking the way I do I have personally never been accepted by the black community for the most part, a concept called colorism, you may have heard of. Kids teased me and called my white (though I don’t look white to most white people I don’t think, but by black standards definitely not black enough). […] Even in this time, there are clearly advantages [to being thought white]. It’s sooo complicated. (233-4)

It’s sooo complicated, indeed.

My one beef with White Like Her is the sheer amount of speculative material it contains. I understand that genealogy can provide more questions than answers, and that names on baptismal records and death certificates don’t tell you anything about what that person thought or felt, or how they lived. Lukasik indulges in a lot of “Did she think that…?” and “What was he feeling as…?” which got somewhat tedious. But more alarmingly, in what is supposed to be a biography, Lukasik makes up letters between some of her ancestors, and the reference to the fact that they’re made up is brief enough that a careless reader could easily read it. This isn’t historical fiction; those should never have been included.

Imaginary correspondence aside, I’m glad to have encountered White Like Her as I continue to think and learn about the “sooo complicated-ness” of race in America.

Race in America (a self-education project)

There is part of me that really hesitates to engage with this topic, because I know I’m ignorant in many ways. And even though I live in America, I’m not American.[1] I’ve lived three years slightly north of the Mason-Dixon line, and one year slightly to its south, but I grew up and lived most of my adult life in Canada, and things are different there. I’m not saying that Canada is a magical post-racist paradise; we have plenty of problems of our own. But still … it’s just different.

On the large scale, our history is profoundly different, especially in regard to the history of black Canadians. There were no plantations in Canada. While there were African slaves present in the country, they were mostly house slaves or farmhands, and their total number seems to never have been more than a few thousands (the majority of whom were brought with Loyalist settlers fleeing the American Revolution). Abolition was enacted in Upper Canada (now Ontario) in the 1790s; the slave trade was abolished in 1807 by an Act of Parliament; slavery itself, ditto, in 1833. And Canada, of course, was the fabled last stop on the Underground Railroad. So… culturally, historically, it’s just a completely different beast.

On a more personal level, I grew up in Toronto — which is generally hailed to be one of the most, if not the most, multi-cultural cities on the planet. Over 50% of Torontonians are visible minorities; the city’s population hails from over 200 ethnic origins and speaks more than 160 languages. So that environment is my own baseline for normal.

But then I moved to the States, and began to realise that I had been thrust into the midst of a divided country whose politics and history and culture and racial tensions I didn’t really understand. (By the way, don’t let anyone tell you that Canada and the US are so culturally similar that they might as well be one country. Anyone who says that has never lived in both countries; it takes a lot more to unite a culture than a common language.) At any rate, I can frame my growing awareness with a series of snapshots from my first year or two in the USA.


Snapshot: We are talking with a married couple who entered seminary with us: she is black and he is white. They had previously lived in Columbia, SC. She makes reference to the fact that “Columbia is still fighting the Civil War.” I don’t understand what she means. As the conversation keeps going it gets spelled out: they left Columbia in part because of how uncomfortable they were as an interracial couple there. They were tired of being discriminated against. They were tired of being stared at in the street. She was tired of the people at her church not being able to tell the difference between her and the only other black woman in her parish.

Snapshot: Another conversation, this time with a classmate who grew up in the Deep South. He confesses that even though he knows it’s wrong, it’s still jarring to him to see whites performing menial or service industry jobs because culturally he expects those jobs to be filled exclusively by black or Hispanic people.

Snapshot: Hanging out with friends at their house, another couple from a southern state. He is telling a story about one of their son’s former teachers and refers to her as “from the islands.” I don’t understand what he means: “She’s what?” He glances awkwardly at his children (ages 5 and 8, or thereabouts). “You know… from the islands.” It dawns on me. “Don’t worry,” I tell him, “I’m pretty sure they already know black people exist.”


So what do I do with all this? The same thing I do whenever I want to understand something: I read. This has been a slow and sporadic project of self-education on the topic — I’ve read fiction and non-fiction, and of course many articles on the subject that I stumble upon or that cross my facebook feed. A lot of these have been read months or even years apart, but as I look through my book log I can trace their path as one of the particular reading trails I’m following. Here are some of the footsteps I’ve taken along that trail:

Black Like Me by John Howard Griffin: In 1959, Griffin, a white journalist, chemically darkened his skin until he could pass as black, and then spent six weeks travelling around the Jim Crow south. This account is drawn from the diary he kept over the course of the trip and was first published in 1961. His book opened the eyes of whites across the nation as to the real living conditions of black Americans; it also saw him hanged in effigy and having to move to Mexico for several years for his family’s safety. (I recognise the complicated nature of reading/believing/etc. the account of a white man pretending to be black rather than the account of someone, you know, actually black — but this is still most definitely worth reading. Here’s a good Washington Post article on Black Like Me.)

The Book of Negroes by Lawrence Hill (published in America under the title Someone Knows My Name): This sad and lovely novel by Canadian author Lawrence Hill follows the story of Aminata Diallo, an African woman captured into slavery at the age of eleven. She ends up as a slave in North Carolina, before making her way to Canada during the American Revolution. The title refers to the historical document known as the Book of Negroes, a register of black loyalists who escaped behind British lines during the war and were eventually settled in Nova Scotia. I re-read this book every couple of years; there is also a mini-series.

Please Stop Helping Us: How Liberals Make it Harder for Blacks to Succeed by Jason Riley: This was set out on one of the Black History Month display tables and the rather provocative title grabbed my attention. I read it; I would say that it lives up to the initial promise of provocation but certainly provides much food for thought. Critics are divided; I’ve seen reviews that laud it, and others that pan it. It certainly checked off a lot of boxes for me in terms of looking for diverse viewpoints; I would be interested to read a direct response to it, if one exists.

Underground Airlines by Ben H. Winters: This novel takes place in an alternate, modern-day America where the Civil War never took place and slavery still exists in four southern “hard states.” The protagonist, Victor, is a former slave who now works as a bounty hunter for the US Marshalls, tracking down escaped slaves and infiltrating the abolitionist movement, for reasons that are… complicated, to say the least. It’s a harrowing book, not only because of the story that it tells, but in its parallels to life today. A line that struck me and has stuck with me (possibly slightly paraphrased): “When black means poor and poor means dangerous, pretty soon black means dangerous.” And isn’t that how it seems to go?

Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison: I know we’re not supposed to admit it about seminal, classic texts — but this was a bit of a slog for me. It’s a long book, and dense, and at times I wished I were reading something a little more gripping. It was good — I’m not surprised at the place it holds on many “top” lists of 20th-century fiction — but it was slow when I wanted to be reading something fast (this is a reflection on me as much as on the book, I think). I may revisit it in a few years and see if my impression changes.

Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance: This is more tangentially than directly related, but I think that it still fits here. It seems that whenever the question of white privilege arises, someone starts asking, “Well, what about poor whites? What privilege do they have?” Hillbilly Elegy is a fascinating book and answers the question of “what about poor whites” (at least those in Appalachia). The privilege of the hillbilly — which seems pretty scant, I think — is that, all else being equal, it is still easier in this country to have light skin than dark.

Stamped from the Beginning: the Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America by Ibram X. Kendi: I haven’t read this yet; it’s currently sitting on the library’s hold shelves waiting for me to come pick it up. But I am especially intrigued that it is concerned with the history not of racist acts but of racist ideas — because, after all, does the idea not precede the action? I am looking forward to diving into this one after I get through the books ahead of it in my current to-read stack.

So that’s where I am. I know that I’m just dipping my toe into what’s out there and I have much more reading to do. And I may never understand as much or as well as I want to — but I am starting, all the same. Suggestions for further reading are always appreciated.


[1] Of course, this is a bit of a cop-out. I’m not American, but I do live here. And Anselm and Perpetua, by virtue of their birth, are United States citizens. So what happens in and to this country needs to matter to me, because one day it will matter to them.