White Like Me, Interview

1. Can you tell ZNet, please, what your book, White Like Me: Reflections on Race from a Privileged Son, is about? What is it trying to communicate?

White Like Me is an examination of what it means to be white, particularly, though not solely in the United States, using personal stories as opposed to statistics and heavy academic analysis to look at the issue of racism in this country.

It’s sort of a memoir really, which explores six major themes: first, the way that whiteness confers a legacy of advantage built up over generations; secondly, the way that being white still today pays dividends, in the justice system, housing, education and elsewhere; third, the idea that whites can choose to resist racism and privilege, but doing so takes practice; fourth, that even progressive whites often inadvertently collaborate with racist structures, and that we have to be mindful of how easy it is to do so, so as to be on guard against perpetuating injustice; fifth, that racial privilege, while benefiting whites in relative terms, actually makes most whites worse off in absolute terms: culturally, materially, and in other ways; and finally, that in struggling for justice alongside people of color, whites can begin to regain a part of our humanity compromised by unjust social systems.

I’m hoping to communicate that whiteness bestows advantage as well as responsibility for addressing those privileges, both individually and collectively. The purpose is not to feel guilty but to recognize the way in which our racial elevation in this society has really weakened the social support structures and systems of mutuality upon which we all depend.


2. Can you tell ZNet something about writing the book? Where does the content come from? What went into making the book what it is?

Writing the book was a very personal experience, since so much of the material came directly from my own life history. For many years I’d been wanting to do a book on racism that would make all the same points I always try and make about the topic in my speeches or columns, but that would do so without statistics and overly academic analysis. I really wanted to tell stories to illustrate how whiteness works, because I think lots of people respond more strongly to that kind of approach.

The inspiration, most directly, came from thinking back to high school, when I, like lots of other white folks in this country were asked to read John Howard Griffin’s classic book, Black Like Me. As you may recall, it’s a book written by a white journalist, who traveled through the Jim Crow South in 1959, after taking Psorlen–a drug that turns your skin dark. Griffin wrote about what it meant to be black, after “becoming black” for one summer.

While Black Like Me was interesting and valuable, especially for the time in which it was written, I always found it interesting that, in effect, teachers who still assign it, are only asking white students to think about race from the perspective of what it means to be something they aren’t–black–when in fact, whites have plenty of experience with race, as whites.

In fact, I think that for whites, if we would get clear on what it means to be exactly what we are in this culture, we’d have a much better understanding of racism, and what it means to be anything but white–much more so in fact that from simply reading about the black experience, Latino, Asian or indigenous experience, though of course we must do that too.


3. What are your hopes for White Like Me? What do you hope it will contribute or achieve politically?

I hope it will spark conversation, even argument, about the ongoing role of race in the U.S. (and elsewhere for that matter), and get people thinking about a subject that is extremely difficult for whites in particular to discuss. I hope it can provide a spark for other white readers, in particular, to examine their own lives, privileges, and commitment to resisting injustice, and get them thinking about ways they might work to become better allies to the people of color already involved in fighting racism as a matter of survival.

I think antiracist activism is less likely if people don’t make a personal connection between their own lives and the large institutional structures around them, so by trying to bridge the personal and political in my book–by putting my own stuff in the street as the saying goes–I’m hopeful that others will make similar connections and renew their commitment to equality, or find a new commitment they had never acted on before.

Finally, I’m hoping that the book can influence that part of the white liberal/left that has long downplayed the role of racism in society, or viewed it merely as a residue of the class system, instead of seeing it for the unique, though certainly related, oppression that it is. Oh, and I hope it will get folks thinking about other privilege systems too and how they operate and overlap: class, gender, sexual orientation, religion, ability/disability status, all of them.




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