Waking Up White, Part 2 - The History Trap

(Part 1 - Waking Up can be found here.) 

“White people are trapped in a history they don’t understand.”  --James Baldwin

This summer a group of friends and church members have been reading the book, Waking Up White and Finding My Place in the Story of Race by Debby Irving.  On Monday, September 17th I attended Debby Irving’s talk at First Presbyterian Church in Greensboro.  The place was packed with mostly well-intentioned white people seeking to confront racism in our society and our lives.  I was one of them!

What Debby presented wasn’t a tutorial of how to address racism, but a history lesson of how racism has created our the society and world we live in.  She exposed a history of racist policies that white people have never had to address nor confront.  My eyes were certainly opened.

For example, take the American GI Bill.  The American GI Bill was a program that intended to help our veterans who fought in World War II to receive an education and inexpensive loans to buy homes and rebuild their lives after being at war.  But the GI Bill did not benefit everyone.   Of the over one million African Americans (plus Native Americans, Latinos, Asians, etc) who fought in WWII only a tiny fraction were able to access this program, while white men greatly benefited by receiving a free education and cheap loans to buy a home.

In conjunction with the GI Bill, the federal government and lending institutions created areas in which white people could buy homes through these affordable loans.  This practiced called “redlining” created communities that were segregated not because of preference but policy.  I grew up thinking that the black and brown people who lived on the other side of the tracks did so because it was a choice.  It was not a choice.   It was a forced and controlled policy of bias and racism that created the very community I lived in.  This policy reinforced and ingrained racism into my very understanding of how communities are formed, and what I believed about black and brown people.

A powerful moment happened when Debby showed slide after slide of cities around the country with red lines drawn around the areas which were deemed dangerous and unfit for investment, because as the policy stated, “Negros would decrease the property value.”  Debby showed us images of the cities of Boston, Asheville, Winston-Salem, and finally Greensboro.  As the last slide of our city appeared, an audible sigh of disbelief and disappointment echoed through the room. 

This is our history.  A history that white people (and especially white men) have never had to confront because the policies and regulations of our own government and even the U.S. Constitution have benefited them (me). 

In this uncomfortable historical truth, I often hear that all people can be racist.  Of course this is true.  People of all persuasions can hold prejudices and biases against others.  But when one group of people (white people) have all the power and enshrine their prejudices in policies that create our society, then we cannot excuse a system of racism because of one person’s prejudices.

After hearing about policies and regulations that have lifted up white people and displaced people of color, I felt trapped in a history of which I cannot escape.  I have been formed and shaped by this history and these policies, while falsely believing that all people have been treated equally. 

This is a history I cannot ignore anymore.  I must confront policies that have benefited white people and neglected all others.  I must expose myself to a history I have never been taught.   I must see our history in all its ugliness, not just the parts about slavery and civil rights but also the history of places like Tulsa and Wilmington.  I must confront a history that black and brown people have had to experience (and still experience) in their bodies for generations. 

It might be difficult to confront the truth of our racist history.  It might make me uncomfortable, depressed, and even defensive.  But as Jesus can tell you, if you face the truth, this truth can set you free.  At the very least it will wake me up to the reality of racist policies so ingrained in our society that they influence how I see other people.

I’m not fully awake yet, but at least now my eyes are open and the truth I now see can set me free to confront a history that has held me captive for too long.