What do they mean by 'white'?

Opinion: Columns

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By Tom Holmes

For the last month, all the members of the Poplar Park Community Church seemed to be talking about has been the killing of George Floyd. All online, of course.

Pastor Walter Mitty heard Austin Channing Brown interviewed on NPR about her book, I'm Still Here, decided the book might shed some light on the issue, and had Bernie Rolvaag mail him a copy from his History/Herstory Book Store.

The first thing that caught his attention before he even opened the cover was the book's subtitle: Black Dignity in a World Made for Whiteness. She described herself as a "Black woman navigating white culture" and explained, "my story is not about condemning white people but about rejecting the assumption — sometimes spoken, sometimes not — that white is right; closer to God, holy, chosen, the epitome of being. … It's about surviving in a world not made for me."

"So she's talking about whiteness as a cultural thing, I guess," thought Mitty.

The more he read, the more confused he became. He wondered what she meant by whiteness and white culture. And why did she capitalize the word "Black" but not "white?" When she referred to white culture, was she talking about Donald Trump or white supremacists or rednecks or hillbillies or Anthony Fauci or Bill Gates or Alexander Vindman or what?

He had moved to Poplar Park years ago from Manitowoc, which had been all white, and had to learn to navigate in a very multicultural environment, so he thought, "What's so novel about Black people having to navigate white culture?"

What he decided to do was to send out an email on Monday to all of the Brown and Black members of his congregation in which he included some quotes from the book and asked the members to help him understand what the term "white culture" meant.

Within 10 minutes he received a response from LaShaun Smith who complained, "In our high school all of the teachers try to make us white. They correct us when we don't use proper English, lecture us about soul food being unhealthy, and force us to take classes that have nothing to do with me wanting to become a hip hop artist."

LaShaun's mother, Florence, wrote that it's not about white or black culture but about what's right and what's wrong, which made him recall the Rev. Johnny Christian in his Hour of Power broadcast agreeing with Senator Tim Scott that just because we find a few bad apples we should not cut down the entire tree.

In contrast Sharissa Hawkins sent an email in which said that in her social work practice in the city she saw that the sheer number of bad apples on the tree should tell everyone that the tree has to go.

The Aschenbrenners got wind of the email and decided to add their German American two cents to the discussion saying they felt fine with the term white culture because for them it stood for hard work, respect for authority, reverence for the flag, keeping your feelings to yourself and doing everything the right way.

Having not received the clarity he had been longing for, the next day he called Dominique at his office on the 52nd floor of the Chase Tower in the Loop to pick the brain of his trusted congregational president.

"Maybe what Ms. Brown is getting at when she uses the term 'white culture,'" he began, "is what I encounter every day here at the bank. When I first started, I quickly figured out that if I wanted to climb the corporate ladder, or even just keep my job, I had to fit into the corporate culture created by the elites at the top which dictated that I come to work wearing a suit and tie, leave my Ebonics at home, make work a higher priority than my social life and always keep focused on the bottom line."

"But," Mitty protested, "that's not who you are."

"That's not who you are either, Pastor, but I concluded early on that if I want to take care of myself, help my family still living on the South Side, and support the church I love, I have to make some money."

"And so?"

"And so I had to become bi-cultural. I had to learn how to work the system here without giving my soul away to it. But I'm not unique, am I? Unless they have the power that goes with being at the top of the heap, isn't that what everyone has to do? Figure out how to work the system without losing their integrity?"

"Maybe that's what's bothering me about the book," said Mitty. "Brown uses the term 'white culture' when she should be calling it a culture controlled by people with power."

"Let me put it this way," said Dominque. "I think Derek Chauvin is a lot like President Trump. To me, Trump is not as much a racist as he is a bully. Same for Chauvin. Bullies tend to pick on people who are vulnerable, and in this country a disproportionate number of Black and Brown people are in that category. If you recall, the people he 'fired' in his TV fantasy show were mostly white. Same thing is happening now that he is in the White House.

"Seems to me that when people get power, it's like a drug, and few can resist being ruled by it. As far as I can see, there are bullies in every shade of black, white and gray: North Korean, Chinese, Hutu, Ugandan, Syrian, Russian."

After hanging up, Mitty's mind wandered back to Manitowoc, the community that had been all white when he was growing up, and he wondered if Austin Channing Brown would call them racist.

Mitty sighed. "Diversity is hard work," he concluded. "It's not just racial differences but how people view the world. I wonder how Dominique would get along if he moved to Manitowoc."

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