Building a New Way

READING From “The Souls of Black Folk” by W.E.B. Du Bois, 1903.

After the Egyptian and Indian, the Greek and Roman, the Teuton and Mongolian, the Negro is a sort of seventh son, born with a veil, and gifted with second-sight in this American world,—a world which yields him no true self-consciousness, but only lets him see himself through the revelation of the other world.

It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one's self through the eyes of others, of measuring one's soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his twoness,—an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.

The history of the American Negro is the history of this strife,—this longing … to merge his double self into a better and truer self. In this merging he wishes neither of the older selves to be lost. … He simply wishes to make it possible for a man to be both a Negro and an American, without being cursed and spit upon by his fellows, without having the doors of opportunity closed roughly in his face.

A longing to merge one’s double-self into a better and truer self. The chance to be seen as fully human, fully valued, fully who one is. And as safe on the streets and under the law as one’s neighbor.

Lord, dear Lord above, God of mercy and love
Please look down and see your people through.

If you are not a person of color you do not have the lived experience of double selfhood that DuBois writes about. But if you are female, or gay, or trans, or a member of any non-predominant group, you have probably experienced a taste, if not the magnitude and breadth, of that experience.

I was in a meeting a few weeks ago – related to some work I have done in the community. There were eight of us in the room. We have worked together long enough to trust and enjoy one another. Part way through the meeting I noticed something.

The seven women present, none of whom is shy, all of whom hold or have held responsible positions, were deferring to the only man among us. I’ll call him Sam. “Sam should convene the next meeting; Sam is our best spokesperson.”

It occurred to me, briefly, to point this out. I didn’t.

Why not? I asked myself that question later. Lots of good reasons. And maybe I was off base – misperceiving what was happening.

Why did we defer to Sam? He might actually BE the best spokesperson in the group. And/or – maybe something else is going on.

I exist – we all exist – within a cultural context that puts men first. We could call it a male supremacy culture.

Male supremacy culture is an uncomfortable phrase. And there have been changes, progress, over time. I’ve seen them in my own lifetime, including in the working world. But the context remains – powerful, pervasive, and very, very often not fully in view. It dehumanizes and objectifies women. And women internalize that diminishment and objectification, in the ways that DuBois describes.

Another story:

I get my healthcare at the Baystate clinic on in Northampton. Last week I had my annual physical, and got a flu shot. I mentioned this to my husband Booker when I got home, just to complain about the fact that my arm was a little sore. Booker is a primary care doctor who works in another Baystate clinic, in downtown Springfield.

“What do you mean, you got a flu shot?” he asked, clearly annoyed. “You mean Northampton has them in and is giving them to their patients? We’ve been told we won’t get them until October.”

Why did Baystate’s Northampton clinic have flu shots in stock in early September, while Springfield did not? Maybe the Northampton administrator responsible for ordering flu shots is more efficient than their counterpart in Springfield. Or maybe something else is going on.

The patients and healthcare providers in Northampton are mostly white. The majority of those patients have private insurance. The patients and healthcare providers in Springfield are mostly non-white. The vast majority of those patients are insured by Masshealth.

Am I implying that Baystate is a deliberately racist institution?

No. But it exists in and is part of – we all exist in and are part of –a cultural context that puts white people first. We could call it a white supremacy culture.

I know that many people are uncomfortable with using the term white supremacy this way. Booker tells me using that term is like telling someone they have cancer. No one hears a word said after that.

But maybe it’s good for us to be uncomfortable. The fact is that the context remains – powerful, pervasive, and often not fully in view. It dehumanizes and objectifies people whose skin is brown. It affects all of us.

The local and national news are full of stories that relate directly to – I’ll use that uncomfortable phrase – to white supremacy culture. A few years ago we followed the story of the harassment and eventual departure of an African American teacher at Amherst Regional High School. The state attorney general recently released a report citing evidence of disciplinary bias and a hostile atmosphere for non-white students at Easthampton High School.

Last week, a biracial middle school child in a small New Hampshire town was taunted with racial slurs and subjected to a mock hanging by older students. Someone found a noose on the Amherst college campus. The city of St. Louis erupted in protests recently over yet another acquittal of a police officer charged with murder of a black man.   I don’t think this is the liberal press creating fake news.

A final story (I’ve told this one to some of you):

Our son Daniel is bi-racial. His wife is from the Philippines. They live in Tennessee. After their son was born, a nurse came to get information for the birth certificate.

Name? Kaleb Rael Lisay Bush (all four of those names require spelling out).

Race? Dan was momentarily stumped. But he’s a very concrete and logical thinker. “Well, his mother is Asian, so I guess he’s more Asian than anything else.”

The nurse was dubious. “What are you?”

“I’m half black, half white.”

“Well,” she said, “technically he’s black.”

Dan shook his head. “Put him down as ‘other.’ ”

This wasn’t 1925, or 1955. This was two years ago, in 2015.

Lord, dear Lord above, God of mercy, God of love
Please look down and see your people through.

Today’s service and workshop are an invitation to all of us to confront some challenging feelings and facts. To ask ourselves what we can begin to do to redress the wrongs of a culture that treats white people as the measure of normal, devalues non-white experience, puts white people first, and works hard to deny or disavow all of that.

They are invitation to begin to get better at noticing how that culture is operating, and to ask ourselves questions. To take risks at being uncomfortable, at feeling foolish, or incompetent, or embarrassed. To find another way, a new way, a better way.