One thing it doesn’t mean is whatever most of us usually suppose it means. In “The Enduring Whiteness of the American Media,” an essay published in May 2016 in The Guardian’s “The Long Read” series, the longtime New York Times reporter Howard French, who is black, wrote:
The media industry has long been selective in opening up spaces for African American people, while silently reserving all the rest for members of the white majority – and the showering of great prizes on black writers such as [Ta-Nehisi] Coates, however deserved, was in a way a celebration, by the people who maintain this exclusion, of their own enlightenment and generosity.
There is a tradition of elevating a single tenor for the entire race, or less commonly, a small number of people who were deemed worthy of the attentions of a national audience. This is where the James Baldwin comparisons that have so often been drawn with Coates become interesting. Baldwin, like Coates, occupied this carefully guarded stage. To be sure, neither of them were asked their feelings about this, and if they had been, neither could have approved. Coates, for his part, has rejected the very mantle of the public intellectual. Baldwin, before him, had clearly understood this trap and rebelled against it, vowing not to allow himself to become “merely a Negro, or even, merely a Negro writer.”
This process of assigning discrete bandwidth to a singular black figure for a limited, if indeterminate period of time (the whims of the majority will decide) is ultimately a mechanism for feeling good about oneself. That figure can always be pointed to, cited at cocktail parties, maybe even invited, as evidence that black opinion is being heard, even better, perhaps, if it is angry, because that demonstrates white forbearance.
I get what French is saying, I respect it, I even agree with it. And yet, as I read it, there was something about his claim that bothered me. What was that? I wondered. And I pushed it to the back of my mind, partly because it seemed churlish, partly because I have many other things to think about and do. Anyway, how annoying, constraining, even dehumanizing it must feel to be James Baldwin or Ta-Nehisi Coates and find oneself thus pigeonholed. And who was I to be bothered by Howard French pointing that out?
Then something occurred to me: I don’t go to cocktail parties, much less name-check Coates or Baldwin at them to demonstrate my bona fides in forbearance, enlightenment, or anything else. I don’t get invited to cocktail parties. Where does French get off lumping me in with people who go to cocktail parties? If he’s not doing that, then what does he mean by the phrase “the white majority”? And, for me as a writer always in search of an audience, there is no assigned bandwidth, no ready-made pigeonhole. At least a pigeonhole, for those who have one, can serve as a kind of calling card, a way to get noticed at all. I couldn’t be pigeonholed if I wanted to be. Or rather, one could argue that from birth I was pre-pigeonholed in the most constraining pigeonhole of all, the one that’s so big and obvious that it’s essentially invisible.
During the period I was coming into maturity and trying to find and assert my vocation as a writer, the 1980s and 1990s, perceived or acknowledged literary merit in America seemed to be morphing into a matter of ethnic and/or sexual identity. It was the era of the rise of what came to be called identity politics. If you belonged to a group that was historically oppressed, you had a leg up. Don’t get me wrong; on balance that’s mostly a good thing. It was because of that trend that I was first exposed as an undergraduate to Zora Neale Hurston, Derek Walcott, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Maxine Hong Kingston, and many other wonderful and important American and global writers, both historical and contemporary, whose work I might never have noticed, much less read, on my own. (Lifelong thanks for this to Professor William L. Andrews.) But still, for me as a writer, it made things harder. I suppose I could point to my ancestors who presumably fled the potato famine in Ireland. But that was something like 175 years ago, so it really doesn’t count anymore. Plus, I’m white.
Too bad, you might say. You white males have had it too easy for too long. Deal with it. Well, I am dealing with it. I’ve been dealing with it through all the vicissitudes of an unaffiliated writer’s career now spanning a quarter-century. But there’s more to be said than that.
For me this is unavoidably a personal issue, for the same reasons I have to assume it is for millions of others. Yes, the essentialization or pigeonholing that I’m objecting to is ironically analogous to what is also done to black and other non-white people. But am I not also entitled to object to it? What I mind the most is that the conflation of all white people into one undifferentiated sociopolitical blob called “white people” leads to my being associated, against my will, on one hand with a metropolitan elite class that I don’t belong to and that has never done me any favors, and on the other with a lumpen mob of racist ignorami.
I can’t help being white. I am what I am. Or, if you want to get meta about it, I am what my identity has been constructed to be. Or whatever. But my identity need not, should not, be constrained by my whiteness and/or maleness. If it were, then I might as well give up writing entirely and slouch away to live down to the stereotypes that American society has decided to assign to white males, especially during political seasons. But caution should be exercised when yielding to the urge to scorn or condemn those widely and easily lampooned Donald Trump supporters, because the fault line between “us” and them is defined not only by race but by social and economic class, and political correctness can all too readily shade into snobbery. The liberal mistake is to suppose unthinkingly that “we” reside on the virtuous side of the fault line. Who is “we,” anyway? What you mean “we,” kemosabe?
If I’m thin-skinned, imagine how this stuff plays among the tens of millions who are less self-aware or articulate. Daily during the historically divisive 2016 presidential race we’ve been assailed with assertions that, for example, Donald Trump “polls well” among “white men” or that, per a Guardian headline, the Confederate flag a year after the Charleston massacre still reflects “white anxiety.” I have to remind myself: I am white, and I certainly am anxious, but this doesn’t describe me.
And then there’s the opinion article I happened on in the Washington Post, provocatively headlined “Is white rage driving our racial divide?”, in which Pamela Newkirk promoted a book by Carol Anderson titled White Rage and offered only the token softball criticism of wondering whether it might be less “rage” than “a cool and calculated effort to retain economic and social primacy” that motivates white people to keep black people down. In fairness, Newkirk’s reference is more or less specifically to damaging public policies initiated by Ronald Reagan. But how am I, as a person who is white, to avoid the guilt by association with those policies that Newkirk is all too clearly implying? Newkirk ends her piece by commending White Rage as “a sobering primer on the myriad ways African American resilience and triumph over enslavement, Jim Crow and intolerance have been relentlessly defied by the very institutions entrusted to uphold our democracy.”
I could write a spinoff essay of equal length parsing the string of abstract terms (“resilience … triumph … intolerance … democracy”) in that sentence, but the upshot is that, as C.L.R. James observed in The Black Jacobins, “In politics, all abstract terms conceal treachery.” It’s high time we all – and certainly, to be sure, white Americans first and foremost – got over our stubborn insistence on cherishing those “very institutions entrusted to uphold our democracy.” The way things really work is not like that. But Newkirk makes no allowance for the possibility that Americans who are white might also possess the capacity to see the institutions for the web of rackets that they are. And I don’t appreciate being categorized and used – politicized – in ways that shove me into a position I would never willingly occupy.
So I’m grateful, not only as a fellow American but as a white person, for the candor of brave Tommy DiMassimo, the 22-year-old student who jumped onstage with Trump in Dayton, Ohio in March during the primaries, and who afterward explained himself to Guardian reporter George Chidi:
He’s making white Americans either look insane and violent and ready to bomb the world … or just sort of privileged and neutral … and that doesn’t save you either. The only way to secure a safe future for myself as a white American is to stand up to white supremacists like Donald Trump. … It’s insane. I don’t feel like I live in a sensible country any more that just has structural issues within its government. I really feel like I’m in some kind of Star Wars spinoff and Donald Trump is some kind of cheap, bad villain.
In short, what America needs today is a lot less tendentious political rhetoric from all sides, and a lot more meaningful and specific political action from the likes of Tommy DiMassimo.
To possess a strongly felt sense of personal identity and purpose, and then to be reduced in others’ eyes to a mere member of a generic sociopolitical category, is galling. Yes, I know: join the club, and white men don’t get to complain. But I’m not a mere white man. I am myself. And while, as Howard French claims, “white people” in some generalized sense might still have some kind of secret key to the executive washroom of the American media establishment, I certainly possess no such key. And French, as a veteran journalist and now a professor at the prestigious Columbia School of Journalism, should appreciate the truth expressed by William Prochnau in Once Upon a Distant War: David Halberstam, Neil Sheehan, Peter Arnett – Young War Correspondents and Their Early Vietnam Battles:
Despite its myths, American journalism was not a game for radicals. To be a radical on an American newspaper you had to own the newspaper. Journalism was a game for team players, an extension of the establishment. Always would be.
“White people” don’t own newspapers or television networks. Particular rich and well-connected people, admittedly most of them white, own them. Meanwhile, as an individual middle-class white male who doesn’t own a newspaper, I don’t get to be a spokesperson for anyone or anything. And that’s okay, because I don’t want to be one anyway. I want only to be the writer that I’m cut out to be.
But if I’m just any old white guy, why didn’t I just go to law school or whatever, and leave it at that? A clue, if not an answer, lies in something my father once told me: “Well-adjusted people don’t become writers.” But why was I not well-adjusted? And where does that great sense of vocation and purpose that I’ve always felt come from, anyway? And what is the point of it? Why not just yield to the status quo, especially since the path of least resistance for white males like me is allegedly a red carpet? Or, as my dad once asked in exasperation, “Why do you always have to do everything the hard way?” All good questions, mysteries in fact. But for me as an ambitious young would-be writer, the stumper was that there was nothing in either my personal story or my background that should have prompted anyone to publish anything I wrote, or even that should have prompted me to write at all, in the first place. So I had to do things like pursue and execute one-on-one interviews with Aung San Suu Kyi (at her famous lakeside house in Rangoon in 1996, when that was extremely difficult to do) and with Paul Farmer at his famous clinic in Haiti, and face the business end of a loaded rifle during a coup d’état in Cambodia, and live in Pakistan for half a year two years after 9/11. In other words, I had to do journalism. And in truth, having to do journalism has proven the greatest of blessings to both my career and my life. James Fallows says that journalists get paid to learn and, while I’ve never been paid a lot, I have learned a lot. And thus I’ve been able to stake a claim to being a writer worth reading.
Along the way, I’ve internalized an ethic of putting my language and narrative skills to good public use by quietly but implacably declining to yield to official and authoritative institutions the entitlement to decide for me, or for anyone else, what words and stories mean. Norman Mailer put it well: “There is that godawful Time magazine world out there,” he said, right around the time he was writing masterpieces like The Armies of the Night, “and one can make raids on it.” That’s easier said than done, as I know from many years of trying. Back in the day, hardworking (white male) journalists like (one example among many) Charles Mohr had to deal up close and personal with the cultural, political, and commercial might of the actual Time magazine in its heyday. I know something of what Mohr suffered from Time’s emasculation of his epic 1963 cover story on the notorious “dragon lady” of South Vietnam, Madame Nhu, having had my own similar, albeit vastly less earth-shaking, run-in three decades and a couple of media eras later with US News & World Report. In its day, US News was the poor (white) man’s Time or Newsweek – or, as we used to call it, the RC Cola of weekly newsmagazines. Already circa 1997, when it falsified my reporting on high-seas piracy around Southeast Asia, US News was limping along under the well-intentioned and doomed editorship of James Fallows (given the job on a mean-spirited dare by owner Mortimer Zuckerman, as punishment for naming names in his book Breaking the News). It was barely extant, much less relevant in the then-incipient digital age. Time and its ilk just don’t pack the wallop they used to – and that’s a very good thing. Railing against any such magazine anymore would be utterly pointless.
Nonetheless that is just what the Indian writer Pankaj Mishra, in a display of his own peculiar brand of tone-deafness, did in a Guardian piece in September 2010, trying hard to find some nefarious significance in the (white male) novelist Jonathan Franzen gracing the cover of Time on the occasion of his latest novel’s publication. Mishra seemed to think it had something to do with “postpon[ing] by a few years the literary novelist’s final destiny of cultural irrelevance” by way of the bestowal of Time’s allegedly Oz-like imprimatur:
For Time “great” and “American” signify the passionate ambition and energy of white men, never women, and literature is summed up by the big, panoptic novel about the American, usually suburban, condition, not the formally resourceful poem and short story or intellectually rigorous essay. Furthermore (and this may be a legacy of its cold war triumphalism), Time assumes the great American novel to be of universal interest simply because it is about America – as distinct from America in the world, the resonant subject of two underappreciated American novelists, Robert Stone and Norman Rush.
Good for Robert Stone and Norman Rush if they’ve done what Mishra says they’ve done; I’ve never read either of them – maybe I should. But my head-scratching response to Mishra was to wonder: Does anyone even take Time magazine seriously anymore? Does anyone read Time? Where could I even buy a copy, even if I wanted to?
Mishra is maddening to read because he has a way of stating the obvious as though he were the first and only person ever to discern it, and the rest of us are in need of his instruction. Pointing out the pretensions of Time magazine in the 21st century is like complaining about claims of papal infallibility or the divine right of kings; it just doesn’t need to be done anymore. The sour aftertaste left from reading Mishra arises from the nagging impression that his eloquence is wasted in the service of nothing more elevated or useful than white-male-baiting. “I don’t think of myself as a literary critic,” he declared in a characteristically pompous piece in the New York Times Book Review in 2010. “I write about novels and short stories. But I am reluctant to describe what I do as ‘literary criticism,’ as I like to move quickly beyond the literariness of a text – whether narrative techniques or quality of prose – and its aesthetic pleasures, to engage with the author’s worldview, implied or otherwise, and his or her location in history (of nation-states and empires, as well as of literary forms).”
What Mishra is insinuating is that you and I as writers – mostly, I suspect, I, from almost exactly the same kind of background as Jonathan Franzen – have no agency, no real personal freedom to explore experience and meaning. Instead, what we have is a “worldview, implied or otherwise,” which Mishra will proceed to elucidate for our edification, which he gets to do not only because he’s smarter than we are but because he’s Indian, i.e. not white. An implied worldview is the funnest kind to elucidate, since the self-defined non-literary critic can claim better understanding of it than the writer himself. If you accept Mishra’s terms, there’s no way out of the labyrinth of racially essentialized Western-dominated colonial, postcolonial, and quasi-colonial history, and the poisoned payoff is only to feel bitter glee when the hubris of the white West meets its comeuppance.
I respect Howard French a lot more than I do Pankaj Mishra. There’s no comparison, except that to point out what French calls the enduring whiteness of the America media is of limited usefulness, and in some ways beside the point. As an individual practicing journalist, being white does give me many advantages – but not all the advantages that I need to do my work and have a livelihood and a career. As a lifelong freelancer without the advantage of a New York Times or Columbia School of Journalism salary, I have to find my income wherever I can, while also shouldering unaided responsibility for the maintenance of my own credibility and integrity. I make what raids I can on the ever-shifting iterations of that godawful Time magazine world out there, but I also have to work with the media that we have.
Still, given the urgency of our times, I ask myself daily how I can make myself useful. In the times of turmoil we’re all trying to understand even as we live through them, answering that question unavoidably involves confronting who I am sociopolitically, whether I like it or not, and what that might mean about where I’m coming from and whatever it is I have to say. So, for example, in a January 2015 speech at Texas Christian University titled “Beyond Ferguson,” I introduced myself to a racially mixed student audience thus:
Milwaukee is where I grew up. Actually, the point of where I grew up is that it’s very much not Milwaukee. I grew up in a town called Oconomowoc, thirty miles west of Milwaukee, at the far edge of suburban Waukesha County, Wisconsin. When I was growing up there were fewer than 10,000 people in Oconomowoc, all of them white. Today there are about 15,000, still all white. It’s a classic upper-Midwestern small town, really a very nice town, an idyllic place to grow up – if you’re white. Milwaukee native Moshe Katz, who is white but Jewish, summarized what you need to know about my hometown when he told me: “There’s a side of Oconomowoc that is the wonderful beauty of America. But then there’s another whole side of it that’s more than scary.” There are towns like Oconomowoc in suburban counties all around America, and in those towns live white guys who grow up to become cops. I know those guys. I went to high school with them.
Later in the talk I quoted my friend Tom Derry in Michigan as once having said to me: “Why are you a writer? Because you couldn’t be a major league baseball player. Same reason I’m a mailman.” Then he added: “I was gonna be a Detroit cop. Am I ever glad the Post Office hired me.” Who Tom is and what he’s about matters because, as I told the TCU students,
just as it’s important for us to acknowledge the humanity and the specific, personal identities of those who are on the blunt receiving end of police brutality, it’s also important to remember the humanity of someone who, but for the grace of the United States Postal Service, might well have become a police officer, as well as for the many men and women of similar backgrounds who did.
Tom Derry is definitely a white man, but he is a human being, not a category. There’s a lot to say about Tom Derry. This is the point that my friend the anthropologist Joshua Shapero was getting at when he read “Beyond Ferguson” and gently chided me for
the whole “this kind of guy,” “that kind of guy” typification business. I get it, of course, and it’s necessary to make a point and to a large extent true, and I think in the end your goal is to show that this kind of typification in fact crumbles under scrutiny. The problem is that stereotypes literally have lives of their own, and they are a major pain in the ass to get rid of once you let them in … sort of like bedbugs? I think that’s why the best fiction has really strong characters. When the character is strong, there’s no need for stereotypes, and ultimately the writing can do something toward cracking them open from the outside in without having to waste time exorcising them from the inside out.
One thing I never signed up to be was any movement’s white-liberal fellow traveler. That might be the only thing I have in common with the Nobel laureate Nadine Gordimer, who not only wrote fiction with really strong characters but also maintained a state of extreme political alertness for decades, as is clear from a reading of the 740-page volume of her collected nonfiction with the wonderful double-entendre title Telling Times. And even she could not, or would not, entirely avoid sociopolitical categories, because she lived most of her long life under a regime that insisted, at gunpoint, on reducing human beings to stereotypes. Gordimer knew that her identity, as a witness to and participant in unfolding human history, was determined both by the nature of the society in which she lived and by her response to it. That’s why she was not a Jewish writer, even though she was Jewish, or a woman writer, even though she was a woman, but she was a South African writer. And, as she herself often made a point of pointing out, she was not just a South African writer but a white South African writer. What she meant by insisting on the racial identifier was that in the South Africa she lived in it simply was not legitimate, or even possible, to claim to be color-blind. That’s also the case in the America we live in today, with all due caveats about how it’s not the same. It’s not exactly the same, but it is more the same than many of us care to admit.
Each of us faces the task of finding his or her place in the scheme of things; each of us has particular work to do. Wendell Berry understood this so well, and as a result pushed so hard against the presumption that to have a career as an American writer you had to live and work in New York, that he pushed himself out of Columbia University and all the way back to Kentucky, where he went on to have the very distinguished career that was his to have. William Prochnau’s Once Upon a Distant War is an excellent and valuable account of how a small and motley coterie of young foreign correspondents in Saigon in the early 1960s set the tone for how the Vietnam War would be covered in the American media, and not incidentally made names and careers for themselves. In it he asks us to believe that Neil Sheehan, because he was working-class Irish from the wrong part of Massachusetts, and David Halberstam, because he was Jewish and from “the outer edge of Bronxville,” overcame social obstacles in breaching the bastions of Harvard University and the New York Times. I do believe it, but it seems relevant to me only in the way that, say, ancient Rome is relevant: It is relevant, but it’s also ancient and remote, hard to relate to. What seems more pertinent to this Midwesterner is that Sheehan and Halberstam both grew up in the Northeast and at a special historical moment, when families like theirs could afford to send their sons to Harvard. America’s prestigious Northeastern institutions are not only metropolitan and arguably national, but also parochial and regional, even local. My father came of age at the same moment, but in Dallas. And, although he was in fact accepted at Harvard, his family couldn’t afford to pay for it. Furthermore, as he reflected many years later, “I would have been eaten alive at Harvard.” He meant that not intellectually, but socially. For my part I’m grateful that, in my own time and place, the great publicly funded University of Wisconsin happened to be just an hour west on the Interstate from my Midwestern hometown.
So I emerged from the American system of public secondary and higher education, circa 1987, like any garden-variety suburban white guy to look at, but with a chip on my shoulder, something to prove. So I went off to Bangkok to become an Asia hand. And one thing I discovered in Asia was my own whiteness. In Asia, in that pre-9/11 time, to have white skin plus a blue passport equaled a measure of personal freedom that I was perfectly happy to embrace and enjoy, as well as to leverage to gain the kind of access I felt I needed to do my work as a journalist. At the same time, in Thailand, I found that the price of that freedom was to have to live with the pervasive presumption that one must be a sex tourist, just as in Haiti a white person must live with the chagrin of being assumed to be a missionary.
What living in, and freely traveling around, Asia brought home to me was the privilege inherent in belonging to the dominant majority tribe of a continent-sized country, with internal and de facto external freedom of travel, a single and prestigious currency, and a middle-class culture more or less replicated in every metropolitan area coast to coast. My parents had exercised that freedom, and had modeled it in advance for me, by leaving Texas and heading to North Carolina, then New England, then Wisconsin, and eventually Colorado – with the important caveat that in New England they were made to feel, as my father put it in retrospect, like “country cousins.”
My father, literally one generation off the East Texas farm, comes from exactly the demographic that has become (albeit not without justification) the butt of liberal caricature as Tea Party and Trump supporters. Thus he is not just any old white liberal, neither metropolitan nor elite. As a working-class white Southerner of his generation, my father earned his awareness the hard way. He once told me that, if his minimally educated parents had not made his education the top priority of their family life, he would likely have ended up a machine-tools guy in a factory, like his father. Lester and Wanda Casey gave my father a priceless gift, and he ran with it all the way to three master’s degrees and a proficiency in ancient Greek. And beyond that – and even more important – he chose a life path of intellectual and moral honesty. Knowing my father as I do, to read glib journalism and ideologically-driven academic reverse racism about an abstraction called “white rage” enrages me – or at least annoys me – on his behalf, and my own.
Still, it’s true that my country and the world it dominated were my oyster: From a young age I knew that, should I so wish, I could pick up and make a go of living anywhere I wanted, up to and including New York City, which (perhaps in equal parts intimidated and disdainful) I never did, or California, which I did do and enjoyed. And that racial self-confidence that I blithely accepted as my personal birthright extended across oceans. So off I went to Asia, because I could. And it was there, and in Haiti, that I learned that my white privilege is really the privilege of imperial power. The flip side, what is beginning to dawn on white Americans circa 2016, is that when the power goes, so does the privilege. We’re finding ourselves confronted with the real-time lived reality of an empire that has lost its grip on its own self-justifying ideology and is now collapsing in on itself, even as we private individuals and households struggle to get on with our lives – just like the Soviet citizens whose stories and voices 2015 Nobel literature laureate Svetlana Alexievich documents in Zinky Boys, Voices from Chernobyl, and Secondhand Time.
My father had this stuff figured out long before I ever did. When he was very young, “in the fifties, right during the Martin Luther King time,” he wrote a letter to the editor of the Dallas Morning News. And, to its credit, the paper published it. “I kept it and still have it, but I don’t know where it is,” he told me. “If I find it, I’ll send you a copy. They were having some kind of movement about becoming a ‘world city.’ They were talking about wanting to be all cosmopolitan and everything. And I asked how Dallas could be a world city, when it was still a segregated city.”
I think what rendered my dad able to write that letter was his rural and working-class background, which allowed him to see clearly that power and prestige are ephemeral and fundamentally meaningless things. More specifically, it also allowed him to understand that there are white people and then there are white people: that not all white people are the same. Some of the white people run Dallas, and Texas, and America. Most of the rest of us don’t. What you do with an understanding such as my father earned at a young age by direct life experience, native intelligence, and his parents’ example is another matter. Thomas Sutpen in William Faulkner’s great novel Absalom, Absalom! gained similar understanding as a boy and went on to do bad things out of resentment and wounded pride. So did Willie Stark in All the King’s Men, and perhaps likewise in the real world someone like Donald Trump. But the bad deeds done by some don’t invalidate the truth of the understanding.
The essays collected in Nadine Gordimer’s Telling Times are arranged chronologically, as they should be. The book opens with “A South African Childhood,” published in The New Yorker in 1954, in which Gordimer depicts movingly and subtly how her deracinated Jewish immigrant family situated itself, as best it could, within white society, while finding its living, as it had to do, within what adult hindsight allows her to see as the country’s exploitative caste economy. A typical white South African, Gordimer informed her Eisenhower-era American readers, would scarcely “think about the fact that whatever your work and whatever your life, your reason for performing it where you do and living it where you do is the existence of the gold mines. … My father’s little business was a good example of how trade grew into the full feather of provincial luxury from scrawny beginnings in utility.”
Much later in the book, in “Questions Journalists Don’t Ask” (2003), she asks herself, “What is the most important lack in your life?” and answers: “I’ve lived that life in Africa without learning an African language. … So I’m deaf to an essential part of the South African culture to which I’m committed and belong.” I find inspiration in Gordimer’s brisk, purposeful intentionality about accepting her limitations with good grace while making herself useful as an emissary back to her own tribe, putting her whiteness to good use so to speak. In The Power of Myth, Joseph Campbell tells Bill Moyers that one “archetypal” narrative universal to all cultures is of the young person who leaves the village, has an adventure out in the wider world, then returns with what Campbell calls a “boon” for the community. My story is that of a young middle-class white American who traveled a lot, had adventures, then returned in middle age prepared to share some of the things I learned out in the world, in hopes that they might be useful to my community. Thus I found myself ending my “Beyond Ferguson” speech by saying:
Yes, it is racial. At the same time, there are other things going on that involve all of us. To say that it’s racial is accurate, but parochially American. … The question we face is whether those who enforce the law should themselves be above the law. Apparently there are some people in America who believe that they should be. But I can tell you, from my years of experience as a witness to events in Haiti, Pakistan, Thailand, Burma, Indonesia, Zimbabwe, and other countries that have suffered under dictatorships, that impunity for the people who hold and who enforce state power is a bad idea.
In a similar vein, Howard French expresses well what I take to be the essential point of his essay, a point I wholeheartedly endorse:
The importance of diversity in the media – as in other sectors of society – is not about scoring points in some imaginary scale of civic virtue. It has nothing to do with the granting of favors – or even concessions – by a white majority. It is akin to restoring vision to a creature with impaired sight, making it whole and allowing it to function at the full limits of its perceptive and analytical capacity. The majority cannot understand this – cannot realize that it is partly blind – because its own provincialism has persisted uninterrupted for so long.
French is very correct to point out that the American (white) majority doesn’t realize that it is partly blind. And the thing called white privilege – privilege that accrues from the mere fact of being white – is real. But none of us these days can help noticing that America is enduring its period of greatest domestic turmoil since at least the 1960s, and that our country’s power globally is waning, perhaps even on the verge of collapse. And I’m willing to make the heretical claim that that’s not entirely a bad thing. The period of upheaval and confusion that we’re living through is changing the American media, and much else, for the better. The creature’s sight will not, simply cannot, remain impaired much longer. And that, believe it or not, is good news; there is a salutary aspect to our current turmoil.
I readily acknowledge that I’ll never understand what it’s like, or what it means, to be black or female or gay or Hispanic or Asian or transgender. I’m none of the above. Similar to Nadine Gordimer, I don’t speak the languages of those communities. I do understand, though, what it feels like and means to be coming from where I’m coming from. I know what it means, for one thing, to be a country cousin in the eyes of the gracious, well-bred, exclusionist metropolitan agenda-setters. I also understand some things about the world as a whole, things I’ve come to understand the hard way. My answer to my father is that the reason I do everything the hard way is that it’s worth it. And, as someone who at a young age ran screaming away from the ersatz stability and certainties of late-Cold-War-era middle-class America, I know what it means to be out of kilter with the status quo. Well-adjusted people don’t become writers.