Before long, my wife and I will go to church for the last Sunday celebration of this year's Black History Month. As is often the case at our church, there will be a "soul food" potluck after the service, to which we are making a small contribution.
I often feel awkward in such settings. It is not that church services themselves make me uneasy. Nor, certainly (especially!), is it the potluck that gives me pause. Instead, it is the tacit reinforcement of my own ethnic identity that comes across during discussions of race.
I am almost prototypically WASP, as may have been mentioned once or twice. Although I reject the notion that they ought to be imposed as normative upon others, I do more or less align with the "traditional" values of the Midwestern American working class. There are ways I behave for no better reason than that I have been taught that they are right for me to do, and a number of them are very much those which have been decried as destructive to impose as normative, as the unmarked. As a result, I very much feel myself to be the unmarked, the disconnected. I am removed from my upbringing in a number of ways, and any kind of celebration of solidarity and return to roots highlights that removal.
Also, particularly as regards issues of African-derived ethnic identities, I fumble for understanding. I do not wish to be inadvertently offensive--there are times I want to piss folks off, but I want them to be on purpose and under control, rather than the results of groping inadequately. But because I am white and grew up in the United States, I seemingly must fumble; for me to discuss race at all is a tricky thing, one which inevitably brings up questions of authority to speak and accusations of reactionary whining.
What right do I, a privileged middle-class white boy, have to wrestle with such questions as how race is constructed? I embody the system that has prevailingly done so in the United States for centuries, to the detriment of others. If I am awkward or uncomfortable, then I should thank my lucky stars; I could be beaten and downtrodden, instead.
I am aware of the truth of this, of course. How can I not be, living where I live, having grown up where I did, teaching the students I teach, and simply paying attention to what goes on around me? And therein lies another source of awkwardness: the perception that, as a member (though I did not choose it) of the unmarked, therefore oppressive, group, I have no right to complain...ever.
Perhaps I do not.
Perhaps there is no sense in any complaint about the issue, from any quarter.
Who among us can go and change that which has already happened? Who can go back and unwrite all the indignities and horrors and atrocities visited upon people through the millennia of human existence? Can the people who were themselves wronged be righted? In part, perhaps, and those who are being wronged now can be offered some attempt--necessarily inadequate--at recompense; those imprisoned wrongly can be released and something of what they had restored to them, those who look askance at others for things those others cannot help can be taught better--and those who will not learn treated as befits the deliberately ignorant. And the rest of us can do as all of us must do; work to do better henceforth.
What else is there?