Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Journeying from Silence to Empathy

In the latest edition of The American Conservative, Rod Dreher has an exceptional cover story, "My People, Black & White," in which he recounts his recent journey toward empathy across the color line. An unlikely collaboration between Dreher--the White conservative Catholic--and the Black actor Wendell Pierce set the stage for his transformation. Part of his journey led him toward the hidden history of his place of birth. He writes,
I was born in 1967 and went to integrated public schools in my small Louisiana town. Nobody talked about what things were like under segregation. Looking back, it’s bizarre how we kids—we white kids, anyway—were raised with near-total ignorance of the world into which we were born, a world that was passing away even then. We knew that segregation had happened, of course, but we only heard about Jim Crow and civil rights on television, and it was easy to believe all that was a long time ago and far away.
My memory of my hometown did not include Klansmen, racial terror, or any of the things that were common throughout the Deep South. So you can imagine my shock when, shortly after I returned to my hometown in 2011, a white friend passed on to me an Ebony article from 1964 that described the scene outside of the West Feliciana Parish courthouse on October 17, 1963, when the Rev. Joseph Carter became the first black parish resident to register to vote in 61 years.
It was ugly, and that night ended with Klan terror. The sheriff and the registrar of voters quoted in the story speaking with racist gruffness to the old black preacher are now long dead, but they were men whose names I grew up respecting. The courthouse where a white mob cursed the blacks was on the other side of my backyard fence.
All this went down only four years before I was born, and I never knew it. I think it safe to say that virtually no whites of my generation know this history—and that is no accident. Ours is a small place, and there can be no doubt that whoever was under those white sheets would not be a stranger to me. These were—are—my people.
A decade ago, some sympathetic whites in my town undertook an oral history project of the civil rights movement in our parish. They met with only modest success. “It was so hard to get people to talk about it,” said one of the organizers, still puzzled after all these years. 
There are two key points here that only became clear to Dreher in his middle age. The first is that he was born into a world he knew nothing about. The second is that his ignorance was not accidental; it was imposed. To these two insights we may add a third: his story is not unique. For millions of White Americans, Dreher's story is our story. A deep and abiding silence covers our own history. 

In his brilliant reflection on power and the production of history, the late Michel Trouillot explained how we ought to think about silence. He wrote, "the presences and absences embodied in sources...are neither neutral or natural. They are created. As such, they are not mere presences and absences, but mentions or silences of various kinds and degrees. By silence, I mean an active and transitive process: one 'silences' a fact or an individual as a silencer silences a gun. One engages in the practice of silencing.

We know that stories are not really stories unless they are told. And if a story is to continue from one generation to the next, it must be passed down. Silences are not so different. Silence is not the absence of a story; it is the presence of a different kind of story. In the spaces between what is said, we learn lessons that are likely to be more powerful than the most exciting tales explicitly told. In the spaces between what is said, we unconsciously absorb our most basic beliefs about the world. Those spaces are not naturally occurring; they are carved, hollowed out, crafted.  

How do you hear silence? How do you see absence? These questions go a long way toward explaining the power and seeming naturalness of the kinds of silences Dreher writes about. He was born during the civil rights movement and yet knew nothing about it or why it was necessary. How could this be? Many of us are unaware of these silences because they only become apparent under some kind of outside pressure. In Dreher's hometown, the silences were exposed when well-meaning people thought it would be nice to do an oral history of the movement. Why was it so hard to get people to talk? One begins to ask oneself uncomfortable questions. Don't the elderly long to impart their wisdom and experience to the next generation? What kind of pasts make people reluctant to speak? Is silence imposed on pasts about which we are proud, or those of which are are ashamed? 

We may see the outlines of these silences in other subtle ways. A stray comment here, an awkward pause in conversation there, may hint at what is lurking in those spaces.  As young people, we may have made an innocent comment about something we learned at school and then watched in surprise as tension filled the living room. We may have been excited to share some new understanding we had gained, only to find that sharing it only produced misunderstanding and hurt among White friends. We may have learned that some things are just best not talked about. When it comes to race, we may have learned that a metaphor that would ordinarily indicate impairment--colorblindness--somehow represented enlightened thought.

This is not a trivial concern. These silences are destructive. They lead directly to the dehumanization of people of color. As Dreher found, silence is intimately connected to our lack of empathy for the people White supremacy has harmed. When the story of White supremacy is carved out, expunged, silenced in our own lives, we necessarily deny the stories of those who have been oppressed by it. Many people of color remember times they shared their experiences only to have White friends (or "friends") discount their stories. And why? Because for us to truly hear the story would require a reorienting of our own stories, a confrontation with our own silences so dearly held.

James Baldwin was one of many Black writers who declared that of all White supremacy's victims, Whites themselves were perhaps the most pitiable. To be sure, they gained some material advantages. But White supremacy left them mentally and morally impoverished. Baldwin spoke of White Americans as a class of people whose entire "system of reality" had been "corrupted" by their inability to make peace with their history. 

That's what these silences do. We're nurtured on them until reality itself becomes an affront to us. There is much sordid complexity in America's history of White supremacy. Yet there is much that is not complicated at all. Why, then, are we so confused, so alienated from our past? Silences have been taught so well that many of us are nearly unable to hear the very words that are being said when a conversation turns to the subject of race. I mean this literally. On more than one occasion White people have broached the possibility with me that I either am or may appear to be anti-White. They were not being mean. They were expressing innocent confusion. And the silences were so formative in their lives that they lacked a mental framework to make distinctions between phrases like "White people" and "White supremacy" and "individual" and "systemic." Speaking about these things exposed the silence and turned reality itself into a source of threat.

The silencing of our history makes empathy across the color line a nearly impossible task. It makes us incapable of understanding the world around us. We see the average White family with ten to twenty times the wealth of the average Black family, and we can't explain it without reference to vague intimations of racialized work ethics. We see how different the average Black and White neighborhood look, and racist myth is the only explanatory tool we have available. We see disparities in crime rates and fret about "black on black crime" as if it is a function of Blackness itself.

We can stay amid the silences, or we can pursue empathy; we cannot have both.  

I worry this is all too esoteric, but I don't know how to address it more clearly. There's an old Christian saying: you don't realize temptation is there until you try to resist it. In a similar way, the silences seem invisible until you resist them. Once you see them, there's no going back. You find out that the dehumanization of African Americans is not just something that regretfully occurs sometimes. It is normative and routine. It is pervasive. (I believe close reading of polling data backs up this point.) Explaining its persistence returns us to another of Baldwin's vital points: if Black people move out of their "place" in my imagination, then my conceptions of self and nation are uprooted too. If Black people are not what we thought they were, then America is not what we thought it was. 

We don't even want to think about how deeply rooted this is. It recalls Walter Johnson's argument in his book on the antebellum slave market. In the course of his research, Johnson was struck by how often enslavers "represented themselves to one another by reference to their slaves." Frederick Douglass, in his first autobiography, remarked upon the perverse pride enslaved people might take in their owners. Less understood is what Johnson was getting at--the dependence of the enslaver on the enslaved for his (it was usually a he) very identity. They lived through their slaves. One thinks of the worries of southern diarist Mary Chestnut on the eve of the Civil War: "Are they [her enslaved people] stolidly stupid or wiser than we are, silent and strong, biding their time?" This was more than a technical question about the likelihood of an escape attempt. It was a question about herself.

Let's wrap this up. 

As Dreher and Pierce collaborated they shared their stories. They talked about their family histories. Dreher was surprised by how much they had in common, but he noticed that Peirce's family had faced oppression that was unlike anything his own family experienced. It was around that time that he became aware of how much he didn't know about the place he grew up and the people who lived there. A key moment came when he spent a day with Pierce's uncle, Lloyd Edwards. Hearing his brutal stories, Dreher finally crossed over the line, trading silence for empathy:
At one point, I blurted across the dining table, “Lloyd, how on earth are you not angry all the time?”
No sooner had the words left my mouth than I thought: oh.
In that unguarded moment, a lot about our country’s life that had been obscured from my vision became clear...
Has that same question ever spontaneously risen in you? If not, don't feel bad. But realize that empathy is not won cheaply, and committing to the journey is the most important thing you can do. 


  1. Jesse, this is so good. . . .not that I'm qualified to be a critic of your writing. You your ability to analyze, see abstract ideas, and put them together in a piece like this is amazing. Sometimes your writing is waaay over my head. But I actually understood most of this and it made me think about my experiences in that period of history. There were lots of silences. . . even in my community that was almost totally white. Your understanding of it all is remarkable. Please keep writing about this until we all understand what you see.

    1. You're too kind! It's encouraging that you enjoyed it.