That Thing with Feathers: Hope and Literature in a Time of Upheaval
Karin Anderson writes during the Salt Lake City curfew imposed during Black Lives Matter protests. She recalls a turning point in her understanding of self and the systemic racism so many are crucially continuing to protest in cities around the world.
White on White
by Karin Anderson
Exactly twenty-four years ago I attended an academic conference in South Carolina designed for women professors in the humanities and sciences to understand one another. We didn’t do all that well, because it’s a difficult job, and the peculiar chemistry of the group made it tougher. I was eight months and three weeks pregnant, blond and waifish but for the huge protruding stomach, my nametag emblazoned my Utah sourcing, and an outspoken, six-foot-tall black anthropologist kept singling me out as the discrete emblem of white pretensions.
"They understood the bigger institutions I represented, even as I believed I was simply myself..."
She was a good spotter, actually. I am a singular emblem of white pretensions. By the time I attended that conference I understood this much. I’d been a naïve and wide-eyed Mormon missionary in Georgia before marriage and motherhood, and at the very least I’d learned that beneath the tired antics of American racial pleasantries, black people saw earnest reformer types like me coming from a mile away. They knew me and my functions, my lines, my earnest intentions, my thin homilies. They understood the bigger institutions I represented, even as I believed I was simply myself – somehow unique in my chosen-people wagon-train convictions, unmitigated European bloodlines, my state-university indoctrinations and interventions.
As a pallid sister missionary, I had said breathtakingly stupid things. I had learned the superficial scripts of see? I’m not prejudiced like the other people who look and sound exactly like me and I mostly passed through black people’s lives as an insignificant nuisance. A housefly. But a few people were fed up enough, or generous enough, to engage with me one on one, human to human. I didn’t learn fast, and I haven’t learned well enough (how DO we learn to unmake our inherited racial selves from root to branch?) but by the time I showed up at that conference in South Carolina – pale, grieving a fast-dissolving marriage that at least provided ample material security, and pregnant with my fourth child (and my god, now, just about to turn twenty-four, she’s so beautiful it’s staggering), I at least knew to keep my mouth shut.
But still that woman came after me. A few other participants – black and white – approached me after hours to mutter condolences. Most of them just kept their distance, hoping to sidestep contagion. The anthropology professor pointed in my direction when she talked about white women who thought they weren’t racist because they don’t say the n-word. She knew better. She looked me directly in the eye as she stated that only African American professors ought to be teaching African American subjects. White pretenders must not speak for black people, ever. She sent thick waves of exasperation my way as she interrupted presenters, bringing the subject back to privileged white spaces and white geographies. She took opportunity to tell us how sick and tired she was of white women crying in her presence, groveling in apology for America’s racist history. She didn’t need to see one more tear from wispy white liberals who thought they could fix a goddamn thing with their tender sensibilities. I passed her in the market streets beyond campus one evening and she pointed directly at me, gesturing to her bemused companions. It was horrifying and humiliating, and it felt cosmically personal to be picked out as the bodily representative of – well – everything my physical body represented in a nation defined by racial signifiers.
I don’t know her personal history, of course. Maybe I was just the most stereotypically white-looking person in the room. Maybe she associated me with a teacher, or colleague, or neighbor, or department chair. I’ve lived among writers, artists, academics, passionate religious practitioners, editors, and other varieties of real, on-the-ground, ideological human beings long enough now to understand that high principle and personal idiosyncrasy play out in wild collision. There’s no magic formula to answer the forces that make us into our categorical selves before we have any say in the matter.
"Although my temperamental chemistry leans toward personal exchange, measured compromise, and situational contingents, there’s much to admire about an unyielding public crusader..."
Although my temperamental chemistry leans toward personal exchange, measured compromise, and situational contingents, there’s much to admire about an unyielding public crusader – especially for a cause as urgent, unmitigated, and purely brutal as American racism. I came home from this notoriously “racist” region of the United States with my first clear understanding that I was white, and that white was no insignificant classification, anywhere, in the brutal expansions of American history.
I wish my whiteness were insignificant, but when I try to make it so – especially in seasons of recurring and escalating racial cruelty in the nation I call home – I feel the piercing heat of the anthropologist’s pointing finger. I remember the rolling motion of the being inside of me, the imminent next generation of American whiteness and its ineradicable meanings. I’ve incinerated all delusion that I have anything valuable to say about race to black or brown people. I have plenty to learn from them, though, and so do my children and students of every race and philosophy.
As a white woman writing this on a day that my hometown, Salt Lake City, is under riot curfew, I do have a few things to say to white people about race in our home places. We remain silent and paralyzed at our peril, and more crucially, at our children’s peril. I do know how obnoxiously we can meddle, and I know how much it stings when we’re called out, legitimately or merely nastily.
American white people don’t need black or brown people’s personal approval before we join the American project of transforming our violently racialized nation. We’re not in any position to be fawned over. Plenty of black people are fanatics. Jerks. Philosophically inconsistent. Hypocritical. Annoying. Bigoted. Too angry for our delicate sensibilities. They can’t get their story straight. They can’t let the past be the past. Oh, wait – this is a human roster. It’s not “their” job – in fact, it’s not even ours – to become perfect human beings before we turn our hearts and heads to change. That’s the point, right? Imperfect, screwed up, hurt by history and ideology, too deeply entrenched to fix anything for good in our brief lifespans: that’s all of us. All. Of. Us.
White Americans have no call to require black or brown people – individually or categorically – to offer approval before casting the right votes, sacrificing pride or immunity, making stupid mistakes and, more crucially, learning from them. Perpetually. People of color don’t have to cater to the white learning curve, although it’s very kind when they do. White people have a huge obligation to catch up. We have a huge obligation to catch up, and it takes real time and attention. Often it requires us to stop and actually listen, and think, even though this is all very urgent. It’s an American inheritance, and we’re Americans. People of color have produced a mighty river of stunning, mind-altering writing and thought. They show up on the news. Sometimes they own Twitter (and if your name is Karen or anything like unto it – just deal with it). White people will have to suffer stereotyping, waking up at night considering the ways individuals do and do not epitomize those stereotypes – just like everyone else in this nation marked by ugly racial category.
White people have got to lose the White Savior delusion – no single person will fix this. At best we’ll go down among our kind, in a nation filled with angry, pain-filled, obscure, and ignorant human citizens of every race, origin, exception, and persuasion, still engaged in the national discourse of human respect, the pursuit of happiness, the over-the-rainbow dream of equality, plenty, and continental beauty. The memes won’t do it, the pithy one-liners won’t enlighten the ignorant, and individual degrees of stamina will barely shift the inexorable roll of the tanks.
Hardest, maybe: white Americans, we have to lose the starry-eyed reverence for our intrepid colonizing ancestors. I get it: they suffered. Many had nowhere to go. They worked hard and made sacrifices. They loved the land. They were products of their times and contexts. For the sake of not arguing, fine. But we aren’t them. Plenty of people will continue to hold us responsible for our ancestors’ crimes, and white people will be, as long as white people insist on defending or reiterating them. But we live now, and our children will live beyond us and the limited narratives we cast them in. It’s all of us on the planet now against all of them on the planet then. The old divisions are theirs, and ought to die with their founders. My relatives love to invoke old aphorism that those who don’t learn history are doomed to repeat it. Maybe so, but that’s too simplistic. If we read history with an over-worshipful eye, we insist on repeating it. The stories that make us are awfully hard to unmake, but the real future – the one we can’t make out because history gets in the way – is still out there, waiting for our children and grandchildren and beyond – if we’re willing to give them new ways of being on a nearly exhausted planet. Every single one of them. We can’t lose that dream; we have to stand back, and lean forward, and let it find form.
A gardener, writer, mother, wanderer, and heretic, Karin Anderson is a professor of English at Utah Valley University. She is the author of Before Us Like a Land of Dreams and hails from the Great Basin.
This project has received funding from Utah Humanities (UH). UH empowers Utahns to improve their communities through active engagement in the humanities.
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