January 22, 2010

Merriam Webster defines whitewash as “to whiten”:  transitive verb : to make white or whiter intransitive verb : to become white or whiter

Last night I was at a teach-in in honor of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  It featured a panelist of Seattle civil rights activists. A black student noted that “The Martin Luther King, Jr. I heard about from my parents when I was growing up is quite different from the one I learn about in school.  Now, it’s all about him and love, love, love, and not very much about the radical things he said and did.”   A panelist agreed that too often the focus on Martin Luther King has been softened, obscuring some of his more radical writings and challenges to power.

I suspect whitewashing.

Tim Wise writes about “enlightened exceptionalism” in Between Barack and a hard place: Racism and white denial in the age of Obama.

Enlightened exceptionalism [is a] form that allows for and even celebrates the achievements of individual persons of color, but only because those individuals generally are seen as different from a less appealing, even pathological black or brown rule. If whites come to like, respect, and even vote for persons of color like Barack Obama, but only because they view them as having “transcended” their blackness in some way, to claim that the success of such candidates proves the demise of racism makes no sense at all (p.9).

Transcending one’s color means, of course, that they become more white. I vividly recall the sorrowful voice of a man, who identifies as Latino, as he described his experience of white culture when we shared stories at an institute I attended.

I’ve had to change so many things about myself to fit into white culture. I’ve changed how I speak, how I dress, how I act. I’ve even learned to play golf, which I hate, because that’s what is expected and, as a person of color, I need to do what’s expected to be successful. I’ve changed so much; I don’t even know who I really am anymore.

Whitewashing exacts a horrible price.

What we are taught about the history of the United States is one of the most instructive examples of whitewashing. As I said in an earlier post, it’s all about who is telling the story. I’m shocked about the lies I was told. I’m outraged at the decisions made by people who look like me to render invisible the contributions of people of color except for a small number of  those they decided fit the category of “enlightened exceptionalism.”

If you are a white person willing to have your world shaken up, read A Different Mirror: A story of multicultural America by Ronald Takaki or Lies my teacher told me by James Loewen. Here’s an essay I wrote about Takaki’s book.

Takaki essay

What scares me is how unconscious I can be about participating in whitewashing. The system of whiteness counts on me being a willing and ignorant participant. For that system to change, I need to learn from the radicalism of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. who encouraged us to be creative extremists in challenging injustice.  May we take the risks to make it be so.

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