On racism, white saviors, and being honest with ourselves

About a month ago – for reasons too vast to explain in a 1,000 word blog post – I found myself creating a timeline of “Racism and Immigration” in the United States for the convent’s biannual community gathering.

And because I can never do anything half-way, I wound up filling 21 large bulletin boards for the Sisters.

The only reason I stopped at 21 is because I ran out of bulletin boards.

Seriously. There was no shortage of information.

I’m considering creating a wallet-sized version of my work so the next time I hear someone claim this nation was founded on Christian principles, I’ll just whip this puppy out and say, “OH YEAH?!”

The magnitude of the information I found was overwhelming. There were times I had to get away from my computer. Take a walk. Breathe in some fresh air.

The weird thing is that I knew this stuff. I was a history major. My studies focused primarily on American history. I even took a course on Civil Rights.

Still. When you see everything together, all at once… it’s maddening…

And once again, it was plain to see how much my family benefited from America’s racism.

Sure, they were poor immigrant farmers who worked hard to make a life for themselves in Dakota territory. But the only reason they were allowed to make a life for themselves in the Dakotas is because they were white and the people who were forced off the land weren’t.

Indian_Land_for_Sale_Poster

So there you go.

Did my family understand what was happening? Did they care? I have no answer for that.

My guess is they had some kind of awareness, but they looked the other way. After all, it’s what most of us do. We see things we don’t like, but it doesn’t affect us — or it somehow benefits us — so we look the other way.

Except my work on this timeline meant I couldn’t look the other way. It stayed with me long after I left work.

It’s with me still.

One of the photos I spent a lot of time with was a familiar one. I’m sure you recognize it:

Little rock

We usually see it every February during Black History month.

The year is 1957 and the girl in the white dress is Elizabeth Eckford, one of the “Little Rock Nine” — the nine African-American students who desegregated an all-white high school in Little Rock, Arkansas.

I got to thinking about the woman behind Elizabeth. The one baring her teeth. A look of sheer hatred on her face. I wondered what she thought of the photo. I mean, if I’m seeing it every February, she must see it too.

How do you live with something like that? How do you explain it to your kids?

Or is it something she’s proud of? “Yes, that’s me and I’d do it again!”

Little rock (2)

But that’s freezing her in time. Not allowing her to grow as a human being.

A little bit of snooping gave me the story: her name is Hazel Bryan and she was 15-years old when the photo was taken.

Fifteen years oldLet that sink in a bit.

How many stupid things did you do when you were fifteen? How many expressions of hate crossed your face?

Yeah. Me too. Only in our case, there was probably no camera around to catch it.

As it turns out, Hazel was ashamed of that photo. It pained her every time she saw it. Years later she apologized to Elizabeth and it looked like they might become friends, but that’s a Hollywood version of the story. Real life rarely plays out so sweetly. (You can read the more complicated story here.)

Speaking of Hollywood, one thing I thought about as I looked at the picture: who would I be in the story? Had I lived in Little Rock during that period, would I be one of the people walking behind with a smirk on my face? Or if I was friends with Hazel — would I be sneering too?

I know who I’d like to be. I’d like to be the girl who broke from the pack. The one who stood next to Elizabeth and became her friend. The one who made her feel welcome and included.

You know. The one who never existed.

But if I’m being completely honest with myself, I’d probably be the other girl in the photo. The one who looked away just as the picture was taken.

looking the other way

Because that’s the way I’ve always been. I’ve never taken part in a protest, marched, or did any other daring activity. Heck, even when I saw friends and family showing their insensitive whiteness on Facebook regarding the Kaepernick/national anthem controversy —  did I leave a thoughtful comment, lovingly correcting them? Or even a snarky comment?

I did not. Instead, I just avoided Facebook until the controversy died down.

I looked the other way.

But there’s no looking the other way anymore. We can’t wish this gone or pretend we’re colorblind. We’d just be fooling ourselves and that doesn’t help anyone.

As the speaker told the Sisters during one of their meetings (they let me sit in for one of the days), “Racism is more than racial prejudice. It is more than individual attitudes and actions. Racism is the collective actions of a dominant racial group.”

Meaning whether I’m a nice person or not has very little to do with it. If we ain’t gonna change the system, it’s just gonna keep happening…

Timeline 19

I could easily have continued the timeline to the present, but I decided to end it with the “Unite the Right” rally in 2017 and a challenge by Martin Luther King Jr. — a paraphrase from the book of Amos, 5:24:

“Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.”

I figured the Sisters would appreciate it.

If you’ve been keeping track, you’ll notice I’ve only shown you 19 bulletin boards when I claimed I did 21. The fact is, I didn’t take a picture of the other two. One was an “Additional Information” board, where I left copies of speeches, in-depth articles, and other items I couldn’t fit on the timeline. For the last one, I put up a blank poster board and asked the Sisters to add their thoughts and memories. My hunch was they’d have some interesting ones.

It was one of my better ideas.

Remember how in a previous post I told you these Sisters were a bit radical? Back in the day, several of them were involved in protests, some took part in civil rights marches, and a few spent time in jail. In other words, they never looked the other way.

I’ve so much to learn.

Listen, I realize this was a heavier post than I usually write, but it’s been occupying my thoughts for some time and I needed to let it out. Fortunately, I came across something funny that is related to the subject at hand. (No, really!)

Imagining myself in the “Little Rock Nine” story led to think about White Savior movies. You know the ones I mean, right?

Wikipedia has an interesting entry on the genre. I particularly appreciated this bit:

(…) continued cultural hypersegregation led to the common misbelief, by many American white people, that the nation had reached a post-racial state of social relations. (…) That reappearance of the white-savior narrative occurred because the majority of white people in the United States had little substantive social interaction with people of different races and ethnic groups.

Seems pretty clear, right? The less social interaction we have with each other, the less aware we are and the more insensitive we become. Meaning the less willing we are to support real social and political change, and then… my God… we get movies like this:

All kidding aside, I don’t have an easy answer to any of this, probably because no easy answer exists. But interacting with people different than us, following a wider circle on social media, reading books and novels written by people of color (I recommend Jessmyn Ward and Paul Beatty), dismissing the white savior flicks and watching “BlacKkKlansman” instead (or hey, have any of you seen “Sorry to Bother You” yet? That’s a trip!) — all of these seem like a good first step.

And if you know of any second, third, fourth… tenth step? Let’s get this conversation started…

Author: CJ Hartwell

After spending most of her life in Phoenix, Arizona, CJ Hartwell moved to the middle of Minnesota. Is she nuts? Probably. For updates on her sanity, click on the link to follow by email.

47 thoughts on “On racism, white saviors, and being honest with ourselves”

    1. Where in AZ are you? I spent most of my life in Phoenix and attended NAU (that’s where I met my husband).

      As to the movie, I’m now afraid some screenwriter is going to stumble onto this and think, “Hey, that could work! I wonder if we can get Jennifer Lawrence to play the savior?”
      *sob*

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  1. Well said and I’m impressed with your research. Well done. When will your book be out?

    and you bring up an interesting point – the dominate race, white in America, does benefit from racism. Which is what drives and perpetuities it. To end it, we have to be willing to give up those benefits and be willing to stand with the nine.

    not easy.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Andrew. This baby took a whole lot of time to birth, but research is kind of my thing so I loved every minute of it.
      Seems like the first big hurdle is getting people to see how they unfairly benefit from the system, then the next big hurdle is getting them to agree to give it up.
      Yeah. Not easy.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. How interesting, as you post this excellent story, I’m listening to Bryan Stevenson’s audiobook Just Mercy; the Story of Justice and Redemption. Taking a break, I first thought about conversations with American Native friends. Zoe, (protagonist in some of my blog posts) frequently points out the subtle differences in the ways many people respond to each of us, (she’s half Winnebago). And yet the People genuinely welcomed me at pow wows.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I looked up Stevenson’s book and it looks like a good one. Thanks for the recommendation.
      Zoe sounds like an excellent friend, able to bring a little more awareness into your life. That’s something to be treasured!

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      1. Usually I prefer to read. Reading this one would tear my heart out and rage would put me over the edge. If his book doesn’t promote reality checks something’s wrong. And yes, almost daily I thank God for great friends who challenge me in most amazing ways. ☺

        Liked by 1 person

  3. What a thoughtful, insight post. 🙂

    I presently work in an area of Canada that is mostly indigenous. I thought I understood, but I didn’t and can’t really ever. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission requires us to be truthful about the past and ourselves, to reconcile ourselves to that truth, and to do our best to address the damage. But when I really think about it, the damage and fallout is so extensive and full… My family and I have indirectly benefited from that damage (and we always will). I took the opportunity to sign the reconciliation document, but saying the equivalent of “I’m sorry,” seems pretty shallow.

    In the end, I think that all we can do is be honest, take responsibility, and try our best to do better.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. And here I thought Canada had no shady past. Lesson learned.
      It’s true that when you consider the magnitude of all these years and years of racist acts — and all those souls who never knew freedom or safety — it’s heartbreaking. You’re right, we need to take responsibility and do better!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. This is a deeply thoughtful and important post, CJ. I was blind to this white savior trope (mostly I watch movies for entertainment and escape from deep thinking, but that’s an excuse).

    I wrote about Little Rock last year on my blog – my grandparents from the northwest lived there 25 years and were never accepted. They deplored the racist attitudes, and so were shunned. My aunt graduated from Central a few months before the Nine arrived. She has some stories from her time there (as soon as Grandpa retired they all returned to Portland).

    I know that racism is not just a southern issue, of course. It saddens me that we seem headed in exactly the opposite direction of where we should be going. I never really know what I should be doing to change what’s going on. I think what you’ve created is very good, but it certainly needs exposure beyond the convent. Clearly the nuns don’t need education on the subject.

    If you have any action ideas, I’m all ears.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. No doubt. There’s a lot of whiteness going on in many places. I won’t claim that they were exceptional in fighting for desegregation or anything. It’s just where they happened to grow up and it felt like home to them. Arkansas never did.

        Liked by 1 person

    1. Once you’re aware of the ‘white savior trope’ you can’t unsee it. Amazing how prevalent it is, and more than a little embarrassing how you ever missed it.
      You’re correct in that the nuns didn’t need to be educated on the subject — though you might be surprised by how many did not know much of the history. Several asked for the timeline to be put in a booklet form so they could study it more carefully. I passed out several of those yesterday.
      The purpose of their meetings — as I understood it — was to 1) make us aware of the need for social & political change and 2) discuss ways of getting there. I attended their Wednesday meeting, I was told their last day was pretty intense with discussion and they decided to continue exploring more ideas and ministries. Keep in mind the youngest nuns at this convent are in their 50s and several are in their 70s and 80s, but they don’t quit!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Thanks for the explanation, CJ. I felt like I may have come across as critical, but did not intend to be. I just sometimes feel like we sensitive types “preach to the choir”, because it’s hard to figure out how to enact change. I feel this is what I end up doing most of the time. I really wish I knew what do do about bigotry in this country.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. No need to apologize, I didn’t read it as critical. Trust me, I agonized over whether to post this or not, for the exact reasons you stated. Finally I decided I had to because otherwise I was going to explode!

          Liked by 1 person

  5. Great post, CJ! The bulletin boards are impressive. How awesome is it that you are working in a position where you can use your education and skills to put this together. Hoping you write a post about what the nuns had to say about their experiences too! That would be super interesting.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Rhonda! It’s amazing how much of my past experiences and training has come into play at this job, more than any other job I’ve had. It’s kismet!
      There were a few non-nuns at the meeting too and one told me of how she joined in one of the protests — I can’t remember where it was. Anyway, her brother was in the National Guard and they were called in to “keep the peace” at the same protest. She said her younger sister had a nightmare that her brother shot her sister. I can’t even imagine living in that time period.

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  6. That’s quite a project. I think I would have found it incredibly depressing. But I’d also be inclined to look beyond the white versus colored perspective and think in more tribal terms. Racism isn’t limited to white people.

    At its base I think it’s fear based; fear of the unknown, fear of others, fear of just getting up in the morning and subsequently looking for someone besides yourself to blame for your problems. I fear that’s a problem inherent in humanity, and has no solution beyond the “walk a mile in their shoes” method.

    One final thought. One reason I enjoy travel is it proves conclusively that skin color or nationality has no relationship to character.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Yes, I agree with you — though you made me realize that I should have been more clear. There was so much more I could have written, but it was already a terribly long post. (Maybe I’m overly concerned with length. If it needs to be long, make it long!)
      The speaker started out by making sure we understood the definition she was using for Racism — and I should have done that too. Racial prejudice has to do with individual attitudes and actions, and we all do that. Black, white, brown or purple, we all have racial prejudices. Like you said, it’s a problem inherent within us.
      Racism, as she put it, is the collective actions of a dominant racial group — so for the U.S., that’s the white culture.
      From the beginning, everything was slanted in the white person’s favor. So that was the point of the timeline, to help us see that. Hence, why it focused on white vs. POC. As the speaker put it, Racial prejudice + Power = Racism.

      Liked by 2 people

    1. Thank you!
      I read an article today that was talking along those same lines. How much of what we take for granted was set into place long before we got here, and every bit of it helps us. Pretty eye-opening!

      Liked by 1 person

  7. I love this post and the string of comments following. I shared the blog on my Facebook page but wonder if any of my FB friends will actually read it. Maybe if it dealt with the patriarchal privilege, they might. But that’s a whole new set of bulletin boards that goes back way further.

    Anyway, it occurred to me that, growing up in a mainstream American church, all the people in the Bible stories had little skin pigment and anglo American faces. In those churches, you were judged not just by your skin color but your dress. I remember when I was a young girl, some “hippies” (early / mid sixties) came into the service. People gave them a wide berth and glared at them. I identified with them and could not figure out why the adults were acting that way. Not a single person spoke to them during or after the service. It had a very strong impression on me.

    When I was 17, I was converted (to Christianity) and started attending church again. We were now the people that got glared at when we walked in with our blue jeans and long hair (and created a smoking section outside the back door). An elder actually said “We prayed to the Lord to send some younger people to our church but we didn’t know he’d send YOU.” He thought it was funny (or did he?). But the pastor and a few folks there made it worth staying until we found a more accepting church with more programs for our growing family. But that was Wheaton (IL) back in 1974 /75 so it was amazing we found a church that would actually let us in.

    Anyway, the point of my rambling was triggered by Dave’s comment about “tribes.” That IS something we, who maybe are more progressive in our attitudes towards skin pigment or country of birth, might still have some work to do. Just like in that church that glared at us, I found that I had to step outside my comfort zone and get to know some of those people glaring at me. By doing that, there were a few people that became friends.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. This definitely got the comments going, that’s for sure! More than any other post I’ve written. (Oh, and thank you for the share! According to my stats I’m getting several visitors from Facebook, so maybe they are reading it. 😉)
      It always pains me when I hear of churches who missed the memo on being loving and merciful. Seems like Jesus was pretty clear on that!

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  8. What an excellent job you did in laying out these boards! I can only begin to imagine how that affected you!

    I’m a white 3rd generation Canadian. If I go back 4 generations, my forefathers were poor servants at worst, poor fishermen at best. Canada was their ticket to personal freedom. I don’t know how they treated First Nations people when they arrived here, but I have encountered First Nations people who hate me and call me a Colonist because their ancestors hated the whites and it is what is passed down from generation to generation.

    We lived in the Middle Eastern country of Qatar. Racism was prevalent, but not necessarily based on color. Arab vs Asian vs everyone else. On any given day, you simply didn’t know if being white was going to be a good thing or if it was going to earn you a reprimand and exile to the back of the line. (Whites and Asians probably wouldn’t even be there if the Qatari’s didn’t need the labour and technical advice.)

    I guess my point is that between 16 and 27% of the world population is ‘white’- and that number is dropping quickly for many reasons. White America can beat themselves up for their past sins, and they can heap blame and shame on themselves now for the privilege of being educated or having a job or being successful. They can talk about how they need to do something differently… but that seems to be where it ends.

    But, what if non-white America has actually already arrived at a post-racial state of social relations and White America isn’t listening to them and doesn’t realize it?

    Like you, I think it is important to follow a wide circle of people with different ideas. I’d recommend the YouTube video ‘Black Lives Matter, Racism: A Conservative Perspective (Larry Elder Interview by Dave Rubin)’ or YouTube ‘Thomas Sowell on the Myths of Economic Inequality.’

    “Hating people because of their color is wrong. And it doesn’t matter which color does the hating. It’s just plain wrong.” — Muhammad Ali

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  9. What an excellent and detailed timeline on a very important subject! I am curious if you see patterns in the history of racism. It seems to me that we make progress toward equality and then fall back again. I know that people who look and speak different, or come from different backgrounds, can initially be intimidating. After breaking through that first impression; however, we are all human beings with the same concerns and basic needs, and just trying to be happy.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I am soooo glad you asked that question, Joe! Yes, I did see patterns – all over the place!
      You’re right, every time there was a movement in the right direction, it was followed by a regression. (Much like now, I think,) The thing I found most frustrating was how it seemed like every time we improved our treatment toward one group, we’d find some another group to mistreat just as bad if not worse. We never learned!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. That is so interesting, Christi. It seems like the proverbial swinging pendulum. We all have to work to overcome our inherent biases, so that society can swing in the right direction and make further progress against racism. Thank you for inspiring me to stop and think about this.

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  10. This is a fantastic post, Christi. I am in awe, once again. I know you had a lot of internal debate about releasing this one into the ether, but this is such an important conversation. We should be so far beyond this situation by now, but we aren’t, and part of the shame does lie with the otherwise-good people who look the other way when they should speak up. Your words help us move forward…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. God, I sure hope they help us move forward. We really need it.
      At the meeting I attended we watched a old episode of Dateline from the early 90s. They did an undercover thing following two guys, one white and one black, doing the exact same things — applying for a job, shopping, looking at apartments, etc. — both with same education, background, both dressed nicely. The difference in how they were treated was terrible. They were in St. Louis, but Diane Sawyer said it could have been any city. I hate to believe that but she’s probably right. The video is on YouTube and if you read the comments people left, many say “nothing’s changed” and “that happens to me all the time.”
      I’m thinking of doing a follow-up post just to cover some of the things that arose in comments here.

      Liked by 1 person

  11. I stumbled across this post while scrolling through my wordpress reader in an effort to soothe my soul after seeing some disappointingly racist comments about a film I recently saw, and goodness, I’m so glad you wrote this, and I’m so glad I read it. I know how scary it can feel to actually speak up about racism – even with white privilege on your side – and I’m grateful for those of you who, in your own ways, speak up or take action. Thank you for starting a very important discussion, even though it was probably a scary thing to do.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you so much for taking the time to comment – I really appreciate it. It’s true, we get nervous thinking we’ll say the wrong thing whenever we try to talk about this, so nervous we wind up saying nothing. But of course the other side isn’t afraid to say something, or to leave hateful comments such as the ones you found.
      I’m glad my post improved your day a little. You’re comment definitely improve mine — thanks again!

      Liked by 1 person

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