Chapter 3. First Encounters of Another Kind

Chapter 3.

First Encounters of Another Kind.

The stereotype acts both as a justificatory device for categorical acceptance or rejection of a group, and as a screening or selective device to maintain simplicity in perception and in thinking. Once again, we point to the complicating issue of true group characteristics. A stereotype need not be altogether false….We can distinguish between a valid generalization and a stereotype only if we have solid data concerning the existence of…true group differences. Allport, 192.

The initial fact, therefore, is that human groups tend to stay apart. We need not ascribe this tendency to a gregarious instinct, to a “consciousness of kind,” or to prejudice. The fact is adequately explained by the principles of ease, least effort, congeniality, and pride in one’s own culture. Allport, 19.

Along with valuable emerging scholarship on “propertyless” whiteness, Harris’s point that poor whites do possess the property of whiteness helps to recast debate on the tragedy of why those who derive so little material benefit from white supremacy often firmly cling to white identity, the only property they hold…All of the best critical studies of whiteness old and new implicitly warn us against claims that any significant drama in US. History is “really about race” or that any single dynamic is isolated from the social processes within which it unfolds. Roediger, 24.

A moral position is not a slogan, or wishful thinking. It doesn’t come from outside or above. It begins inside the heart of a character and grows from there. Tell the truth and write about freedom and fight for it, however you can, and you will be richly rewarded. As Molly Ivins put it, freedom fighters don’t always win, but they are always right. LaMott, 109.

I was born in New York City and spent my first four years in Spuyten Duyvil, a little green corner of the Bronx, just north of Manhattan Island. I am fond of telling people my first years were in da Bronx, and some of the happiest memories I have of times with my Dad are those times spent on the “terrace” behind our home listening to Mel Allen play-by-play of “da Bronx Bombers”. Dad was a Yankee fan. Allie Reynolds, Moose Skowren, Phil Rizzuto, the great Yogi, Mantel, Maris, Whitey Ford, those were all familiar names between us. But the truth be known, I don’t have any real memories about my birthplace. When I was four years old, Dad came home one day and announced to my Mom that the house was sold and we were moving to Hamilton, New York, home of his alma mater and his future place of employment as university physician. As far as I know, that was the first Mom knew about the change in our life circumstance.

Growing up, Hamilton was the best of small-town America, made somewhat less provincial by the presence of Colgate University, Dad’s alma mater on the hill. Everyone pretty much knew everyone else. The grocers, the police, the volunteer firemen, the telephone operators – yes, my first telephone number was Hamilton 129 – everyone spoke to everyone else as if we knew each other. It was a very safe place to be. And it was a very white place to be; so, perhaps I should say it was a very safe place for me to be and grow up. I started kindergarten and graduated from high school with pretty much the same group of people. Fifty-one graduates in the class of 1960 and I’d say forty-five of us were together at the start in the fall of 1947.

We basically sorted out into the Townies and the Aggies. The Aggies were the farm kids and the Townies were the kids who lived in Hamilton. There was economic variation within and across these two groups but generally speaking, we who considered ourselves the Townies also considered ourselves better off. I never knew if the Aggies saw themselves having any particular sub-groupings. Clearly, some of the farming families were more prosperous than others but that didn’t seem to affect their relationships, much. From our Townie perspective, they all seemed to hang together and school augmented this perception. We were tracked long before tracking became an issue of concern. Most of the Townies were college bound. We took the courses that would prepare us for college entrance. Most of the Aggies would graduate to work on the family farm. A few would go on to agriculturally oriented colleges and universities. The Townies had several subgroups: the jocks, the intellectuals, the artists, the musicians, and everyone else. Everyone else usually translated into the kids of little means who lived down by the basket factory. Even in Hamilton, NY, there was “the other side of the tracks” and we knew the families who lived down there had it rough. You could see it in the bruises, smell it in the clothes, and watch it play out in school as we separated ourselves into those for whom school was a struggle and those for whom school was not.

But we were small in number. So it wasn’t as if we were segregated from each other. I rode the bus with, sat and talked to, played soccer with – the whole gang. We were in school together. When choice time came, though, we self-segregated. In the lunchroom, we sat with our own. On the playground, we played with our friends. Even then, we sorted ourselves predictably on the economic scale that separated us by ease of living. So early encounters with difference were very natural to me. This is the way life was. Some people had means, others didn’t. Some people had opportunities, others had few. Sam was Italian, Billy was Irish, Roger was Armenian, but we were all white, we were all Americans. And that’s just the way it was here in small town America. I was born lucky. My family had means and even though I wasn’t geographically a Townie, for I lived a mile and a half from the village park, for all sociological purposes, I was. I walked like them, I talked like them, I was seen as one of them. I grew up White with all the unquestioned privilege and assumptions about who we were that came along with the synonymous existence of being white and American. They were one and the same.

So my first encounters with kids who looked different from me were more dramatic for the unquestioned mono-hued existence that I lived. They were also more dramatic for the actuality of it all.

Every summer they’d suddenly appear as if they’d crept in under cover of night. Black migrant laboring families arriving from someplace south of us, families who followed the crops, families who returned to the large truck farms year after year, families who stayed for maybe two to three months, families who it seemed to me were just like the slaves I’d seen woodcuts of in my schoolbooks. Large groups of chocolate dark, strange speaking people would suddenly arrive in Madison County, carried in on patched together rattletrap cars, rusted junker school buses, blue smoke spewing panel trucks. Their clothes were threadbare and tattered, faded and torn. Their odor was dusty and acridly palpable. They lived their migratory days with us in what my family called Labor Camps but what my friends called The Nigger Camps. Places not much better than chicken coops, minimally converted to house these farm laborers. Sometimes I’d see them downtown, I’d pass them on the sidewalk, and I remember feelings of fear, of being scared in their presence.

Why fear? Our home was bordered on two sides by a large field that was always planted in beans back then. Later it was cattle corn, but in my younger years, beans were it. A different kind of street noise signaled the arrival of the pickers. We’d look out and see, already too early in the morning, old cars and pickup trucks and stake trucks full of workers pulling up along side the road, unloading their human contents to bend to the task of the harvest. I used to watch them from the corner of our property. God, it must have been hard work. Hot summer sun, bent to the task, bushel after bushel being thrown up to the gathering truck that would make the rounds of the various fields where the pickers were employed. Often one or two either parched dry or in need of vertical exercise would walk to our house and ask for water. My Mom was scared of them and fearful for my safety as well. She’d tell me to get in the house if I saw them coming. I wanted to get some water and ice ready for them on the terrace picnic table but Mom just turned on the hose and went back inside, fast. I picked up her fear and anxiety and I think that’s why I felt caution and fear on the sidewalks of our little town when we’d pass by each other, rarely making eye contact, always looking away, wondering if they were embarrassed to be seen looking the way they looked.

Interesting, they were a “them” to me, not a “people.” Our community didn’t know what to do with these migratory collections of fellow human beings, so clearly in need. I don’t think any of our local church congregations or social organizations ever took it upon themselves to make the life circumstances of these laboring people any easier. At least I don’t remember any stories to that effect. What I do remember is that white Mennonite church people from other states would travel almost in parallel to these groups. They would settle in town and they would provide for their needs by making links to our churches. So it would be the Mennonites who made the connections, not us. They would bridge local resources to these laboring farm workers. They would make requests for clothes and food and medical services and education and our Catholic, Baptist, Methodist, and Episcopalian churches would respond through them. They were a buffer. You never saw one of these workers in church, ever. At least not in my church. The same was not true for school, however. School was the one place we could meet up and form a relationship.

A boy named Samuel returned to our class three years in a row. I look back now and wonder what it must have been like for him to have to go to our school, or the school in the town that he would next travel to. I wonder now who made the decision that he would attend and how did he get there. No school bus ever stopped at the Labor Camps. Some one, some adult, some parent who believed in the importance of school must have done whatever it took to get him there. There were others, too. More of them girls than boys. But not many. They’d show up. Maybe if they were lucky be introduced to the class. And sit with us day in and day out as we did our 3Rs.

This is just so much of a stereotype but Samuel became popular with us boys because he was big, and fast, and could play football pretty well. So during elementary school lunchtime and gym time, we’d get to choose up sides and have a game or two and every team wanted to choose Samuel. He was a pretty serious kid. Maybe a pretty scared kid. But we had fun with him and I think he with us. He’d sit with some of us for lunch, unlike his female counterparts. I remember he’d eat a lot of food. He could go through more tuna fish sandwiches on Friday than I and that was saying something ‘cause I loved those mayonnaise-laden sandwiches. Ma Yackel, the lunchroom Czarina would cut us off after three. I’d often trade him a sandwich for carrots. Something inside my brain or heart or both made me know he needed the food more than I. Samuel was hard to understand, he couldn’t read hardly at all, but we’d help him through if the teachers would let us. Samuel was the first person I knew who looked like the people in those pictures I saw in the red History Book. I distinctly remember wondering if he knew about any of that but of course, I didn’t ask. No one talked about lynching in school, then, or ever, for that matter. And then, just as he’d arrived, one day he’d be gone. The peas would be picked, the beans gone, his family would move on, and it would be over.

In my whole time growing up in Hamilton, there was one Black family that lived there and that was Charlie Wright and his wife. I never knew where Charlie worked. All I knew is that he was the most spectacular drum major the Fountain Fire Company #1 Drum and Bugle Corps ever had. Charlie Wright played out the best stereotype of the high hatted, smart stepping, happy talking, ever so compliant black man that I ever saw. He was in his last days as drum major, probably nearing sixty years of age, when I first started to play in that very fun group and I remember just beginning to gain a consciousness of a different side of him than I had seen when I was younger, just before he ended his run. I saw him alone one day, after we’d finished our parade. Alone, and serious, and in the midst of people, very by himself. Many people said hello to him and he always responded with his resplendent smile. But it seemed that was where it always ended. He seemed very by himself. Although he was known far and wide as the person who gave our group its own special pizzazz, I remember thinking this man appeared totally alone in the midst of all the music. And of course, I didn’t act on that observation. I just noticed.

Even with Charlie, I heard town folks use the N-word when they referred to him. Never my family. But people who should have known better. Thing was, that’s just the way it was. There was rampant prejudice against the migrants, particularly. And I bet Charlie Wright, if he’d been able to tell his story, he’d have a thing or two to mention as well. It bothered me. My Mom often talked about treating everyone with respect and even though these laboring farm workers scared her, I never heard the N-word in my house, even though Mom had been spat upon by a “big, black woman” while getting on a bus in NYC where Mom had gone to visit Minnie, her own Mom. But the society of the school bus was a different matter. Jimmy Cheesbro lived on Madison Hill in a very big white house and he, like I, rode Bus 5 every day. I don’t think his Dad was a farmer but they had a big barn, some horses and were involved in agriculture in some way. Jimmy was a big, tough kid with a quick temper, quicker fists, and a very foul mouth. Bully would be too kind a word to describe his relationship with lots of his peers. Jimmy would brag about how he and his friends, they’d polish off a bottle of rum and then get in one of their pick-ups with their twenty-twos and take off for one of the N-camps. One of his buddies would drive through the camp while Jimmy would hung over the tail-bed of the truck, shooting upside down at anything that moved. They’d do this in the early evening when people were out and about, some cooking over open fires. If this story was true, and I have no reason to believe it wasn’t, I never heard of anyone reporting the incident(s) or moving to stop it.

How was social justice played out? Over very long distances. Trick or Treat for UNICEF once a year. More regularly, Sunday morning offerings for poor people very far away. My high school church group worked hard to sell plates embossed with the image of the First Baptist Church. After a good deal of research and discussion which I remember did have the effect of opening our eyes and naming the poverty that was out there in the world, we sent the proceeds off to Albert Sweitzer’s African leper mission work. Sweitzer’s secretary wrote us back in real ink and said the Doctor was too busy to write but wanted to make sure we knew how much he appreciated our effort and how well the money would be used. To bad he didn’t ask us to look around our own community. We were all institutionally blind, so it seems, to the grinding poverty that was right in front of our noses.

The only good story I ever heard involving an act of kindness was double-edged. An act of kindness maybe, but still replete with the same racial epithets, inspired by the vision of quick profit. One afternoon that was late both in August and in the day itself, after the heat had begun to transform to the coolness of evening, a knock came at our front door. Not many people ever stopped by our house so a knock at the door was always something of a surprise. I answered it and it was Bruce, a fishing buddy of my Dad’s, though considerably younger. Bruce was a veteran of the Korean “Conflict” and was getting on his feet in Hamilton as a jack-of-all trades. Bruce was always enthusiastic but that afternoon he was bubbling out of himself. He said we had to come and see what he had in the back of his truck. When we walked down the little hill that was our driveway, he hauled a large garbage can off the back of his truck, took off the top, and there in the bottom of it was the ugliest turtle I’d ever seen. “Turtle soup tonight! Gonna take it out to the N-camps and sell it for dinner. They love turtle soup. I’ll get maybe $20 for this baby.” I heard later on he’d taken $10 for the turtle and that they were “real appreciative.”

I think about these stories now and just shake my head. All these events happened in a context of unquestioning acceptance. Only once do I ever remember a voice raised against an epithet; otherwise, no voice raised against an unkindness bragged about, no voice raised to question the treatment of the pickers, no voice raised to offer comfort or clothing, or anything to ease what must have been an awful existence. This was simply the way things were in Hamilton. We had our roles. We lived them out. The few experiences I had were solidly framed by racial stereotypes – Samuel the athlete, Charlie the dancing drum major, turtle soup for dinner, and the poor people in the world lived somewhere else. It wasn’t until after I’d left for college that dialogue and eventual confrontation began to challenge public attitude with regard to the racial attitudes and oppressive behaviors that were present right there in our little community. And I suspect that was only because Colgate had begun to admit a wider range of students without, of course, realizing that the world was changing and students of color were arriving with a different attitude about what constituted proper behavior between and among themselves and white folks. In the same year that Colgate established a Black Student Union, armed graduate students took over the administration building at Cornell University to demand academic rights and support services heretofore denied them.

Change was in the air. It was about time.

Chapter Two. Race Becomes The Window

Chapter Two.

Images In My Brain

Questions Out Of My Heart.

Race Becomes The Window

There are many ways I could have come at this issue of privilege, many positions I could have taken to deconstruct the privilege I embody in my teaching role as a white male. I could have looked at privilege in terms of economic privilege. In my early years of teaching, my seventh and eighth graders “came from nothing,” as I might even have said at that point in my life. I was educated into teaching at a time when poverty equated with cultural deprivation. Thus with Ray and Bobby, Moses and Christine, Mary, Della, Mart, and others, I could easily have spoken from my teacher self said they came from very little with respect to worthwhile prior experience. I accepted that framing of their lives.

I could have looked at my maleness and the power that carried with it as I worked my way into school systems. After a scant three years of teaching in the schools of my first and only city school system, the director of personnel told me I was in line for an assistant principalship. What was that all about? I think my gender had something to do with it although at the time, I just figured it was because I was a good teacher. Being a good teacher naturally meant I’d make a good principal. Easy equation. It didn’t dawn on me that there might be some additional preparation necessary to be a good assistant principal! It was all about perceived competence and being able to control kids and gender had a lot to do with all of that. Voice, size, ability to challenge, threaten, back it up. But I was blind to any of that analysis at the time. It was just as natural that my elementary teachers were all female and my secondary math and science teachers, male. Likewise, it was natural that my high school administrators were male and my elementary principal was female. It was natural to me that all my college professors were male. Men were wise. Men were smart. Men held the keys to the kingdom. Women “manned’ the offices and postal rooms and food courts and dining hall kitchens. Clearly, knowledge about gender bias in social institutions was unknown to me. Gender was not a window through which I connected inequality and privilege.

My first sighting of the relationship between privilege and inequalities happened through a very different window and happened when I was quite young. Even now I can remember that at the time what I felt was profound, and filled with dissonance. What I did not know at the time is that the particular window that worked for me would be the window that would eventually take hold of my consciousness as the single most important nexus of inequality, power, and privilege our nation could offer. That inequity is the inequity bred from racial prejudice. Race became the social justice lynchpin for me and the narrow conceptual window through which privilege and power and control and oppression all began to make sense.

My awareness of race prejudice as the most divisive issue tearing at the fabric of our democracy occurred for me when I wasn’t yet using the tens column to write my age. My awareness was enflamed as much by strong emotions as it was by intellectual understanding. I believe this event held such power for me for so many years is because my introduction to racial prejudice was an visual event of 9.4 on the Richter scale. What I saw and simultaneously concluded was seared into my cognitive apparatus where it remains almost as powerfully entrenched to this day.

First occurrences can be like that. First occurrences when they are accompanied by powerful emotions get burned into the psyche. Chemically, the connections are made in a way that any future occurrences, similar enough to recall the first, will trigger the felt emotions of the first impression. Thus, the new event is experienced with close to the same high emotional energy of the ancient first impression.

Recent unpacking of the physiology of emotions in the cognitive processing of information suggests this is the case. The fight or flight response happens deep in the mid brain in a place called the amygdala formation. The amygdala is responsible for sending emergency warning signals to other parts of the brain that demand immediate reaction. Like the startle reaction from a fire alarm ringing three feet from your ear, when the amygdala calls, you go. Only milliseconds later does cognition mediate what’s going on. The first impression is reaction. Thought comes later. Fleeing the reach of a famished saber tooth tiger is more important to our specie’s survival than thinking, “Now what should I do here with this large tiger who appears to be looking at me as if I’d make a nice meal?” By the time we’d taken a reflective pause to answer that question, the tiger would have her fill.

Here’s one Rathbone example of what I mean.

When I was nine years old, Dana Walker and I were playing “Catch” in front of Dana’s house. Growing up, Dana was one of my few playmates whose home I could walk to. I grew up “in the country” as we said. The only boys I played with were Dana, who lived a quarter mile up the dirt road, and Stuart, who lived a half mile over the hill that rose from the dirt road just behind my home. I crossed the same small spring fed stream on my way to either house. Dana’s Mom was a homemaker, his Dad worked at the local weekly newspaper. I held the impression their family struggled a bit. Their old farmhouse showed it. Dana had absolutely the best hay barn for swinging and jumping and rough-housing. I knew it was a great barn because my Mom told me to stay out of it whenever I left to journey up the road to Dana’s house, without exception! I wasn’t there the day the swinging rope broke and Dana broke his arm but my Mother didn’t have to say, “I told you so!” for that event to register. I knew. The generally un-mowed portions of Dana’s property, replete with ancient climbable apple trees, meant there were great spots for two active boys to play cops and robbers, cowboys and Indians, or whatever good guy/bad guy American myth we happened to be playing out on that day. This day, it was baseball. Of course it was also part of my ongoing education about how privilege operated and who had power and who didn’t, but like the lessons on gender, it was years before I’d even have a clue as to the social positioning that was happening in that barn and in and among the apple trees. Even more so, between Dana and myself.

Dana had an old Beagle named Pal. Pal was always kept in the house because he occasionally decided to be a mean old Beagle so I never saw him much until this day. Dana’s younger brother Robby – isn’t it always the younger brother? – let Pal out of the house, unbeknownst to Dana and I. Dana knocked one past me and as I was bending over to pick it up, Pal charged me from behind and nailed me good right in my goodie locker. It hurt, I was bleeding, and I was mightily embarrassed when his Mom ordered me to drop my pants so she could see the damage done. Well, if blood spent and damage done were somehow equal, there was enough damage done to scare us all! Dana’s Mom called my Mom, my Mom jumped in our ’41 gray Plymouth coupe and picked me up, and down we went to see my father, the doctor. He was a kidney specialist but at this point in his career he was mostly the university physician at Colgate University. Same routine with the pants. He took one look, went for the smelly antiseptic liquid green soap, and simultaneously started to whistle and wash me off. By this time in my life, I knew to beware whenever I heard that whistle. But that’s a story for another time. Oh how I hated that dog. As the burning of that soap ebbed and flowed, my hate for Pal only increased.

The point I’m getting to here is that even today, I am shall we say, “unfond” of Beagles, especially Beagles with graying whiskers. I can smell them coming! It could be the gentlest dog in the world but the amygdalic juices that seared the dogbite/old beagle/embarrassment/burning soap connection into my cognitive structure still fires up today when a Beagle and I meet eye to eye. I have to consciously stay present because a whole bunch of hard wired neural synapses flash, “Cover up and get the hell out of there”. The power of first impressions. The hard wired, emotion seared physiological reality of dramatic first impressions stay with us forever. That’s why my first encounter with race is so present in my life over fifty years later.

Reconstructing Why

I keep coming back to these images. All are experienced. All are “felt.” They effect emotional impact in my heart, my viscera, my breathing, all together at one time.

This picture of police, uniformed and plain clothes, a trained German Shepard, and a “colored man from the South” is one of them (Figure One). There are many more. Americans beaten, set upon by animals trained to kill, fire hosed, screamed at, gestured to. This was the time of the civil rights movement in the United States. It was my high school and college years. 1955 through 1968. From thirteen years old to twenty-six years of age. These were my formative years. My social consciousness, begun by my Mom, provided for by my Dad, augmented by my first church, placed in perspective by Prof. Lindley, was forged by the searing intensity of these images.

This morning I woke up at 339am. And the images started reeling through my head, once again. I lived about a mile and a half from town. We didn’t have a television until somewhat late in my growing up life. Maybe 1957. It was a steel black and white “portable” with a long, slender chrome handle on top. Two tone. Cream and some kind of redish brown. Another thing Dad brought home late one on his return from the biweekly sojourn to his NYC upper west side office. I never saw it enter our home. It was just there when I got up the next day. It sat in the living room protected by its protective plastic wrap for weeks. It was there I watched the flickering images of an unfolding American history that didn’t make sense to me.

There was another source of images in my young life, images that didn’t make sense to me that I cannot forget. One particular image haunts me to this day. That image was in an oversized, illustrated book of American history : pictures, woodcuts, broadsides, and drawings and text from colonial times onward that my parents had on our “library” bookshelf. Lest this word “library” conjure up visions of oak paneled sitting rooms, smoking jackets, and cigars, our library was really a small sitting room that tied the old and new parts of our converted country farmhouse. The room had two easy chairs, a huge window that faced south, and was shelved on the bottom half of the walls and the adjacent walls that framed that window. The oversized red book sat on its side on one of those lower shelves hidden and almost purposely out of the way. I would take it out and leaf through it, reading the text and reading the pictures. It was a surprisingly comprehensive documentary of America’s history. My brother has it now. And though a little jealous, I’m glad it remains within the family. My memory tells me that in that book, somewhere was a picture of a lynching.

This may be the one. As an even younger child, I kept returning to this picture. Staring at it. Fascinated with the horror of it and wondering, how could this be. How could people do this to one another. What had these black me done. Look at the faces of those white people. How could they be there, do that. They look happy. How was that possible. This is a scene of obscenity, horror. It was awful. I couldn’t stop looking at what they had done. And the evidence of this picture would indicate neither could they.

I remember distinctly having the same feeling that I did later on in life when I would look at what we used to call “scantily clothed women,” a phrase used before Lenny Bruce and the courts began the unfinished journey of defining what we now call “pornography”. I literally felt that I wasn’t supposed to be looking at this. I remember having to remember to breathe while looking at the lynching. I felt guilty. There was something wrong with what I was doing. My mother and father, for that matter, wouldn’t like me leafing through that book. I felt like there were pictures and words in there that I wasn’t supposed to see. They would be angry at me for viewing what must have been something like a secret. A horrible secret. A horrible secret best left shut away in the red oversized book that lay on one of the lower shelves in that small sitting room we called a library.

In these early experiences of peeking through that book, I gathered within a visceral fascination to the elements of degradation and horror and power and oppression that we now fit ever so neatly into a concept called politely “social justice.” These two words roll so effortlessly off our tongues. Social justice. The impulse to right the wrongs of society, to make our lives better for everyone, equal protection before the law, equal opportunity, ensuring high outcomes for all students no exceptions, no excuses. It seems to me now the impulse was so much more primal and basic than that. No more terrorizing and mutilation and killing of human beings and no more police actions that put dogs on people to keep them in line.

The first moments my eyes gazed upon those hangings were definitional for me. This is why social justice work for me is first and foremost anti-racism work. This is why I still believe that everyone in this country has to understand the deep, deep rooting that racism, personal and institutional, has in this country. This is why I believe all the other reasons we do social justice work must originate in the struggle for racial equality in this country. My social conscience, my sense of social justice, my understanding of the absurdity of race as a biological concept are entirely fused together because of the impact that one image had on me. What I understand now is that the red book and its attendant image of the lynching became the window through which my concept and definition of social justice originated.

I can see it now where I didn’t see it before. My fascination with the images that beamed out of the American south in the late fifties and early sixties, the images of the Montgomery Bus Boycott, the burning buses of the Freedom Riders, the pictures of the Black college students sitting at the Woolworth lunch counters, the iconic photos of the hundreds who marched from Selma to Montgomery, the pictures of King speaking at the great Washington Rally, the tilted black and whites of the kids standing down Bull Connor’s fire hoses in Birmingham, Alabama, Malcolm X sprawled on the floor of that Harlem Ballroom, I stared at them all, all because of my fascination with that original image of the two tortured souls swinging in the tree, dangling above the white mob. I stared at them all despite the fact that this little kid didn’t want to be found out that he was looking at something I would now call America’s dirty pictures.

There were other early experiences that affected my particular reaction to these pictures, for sure. Mom was fair and good to most everyone she came in contact with and she clearly expected that from me. Dad the kidney surgeon was paid in collections of eggs left at our front door or hand made seven-piece bamboo fly fishing rods given to him by patients who couldn’t afford to pay for his services in money. And of course there were the ladies of the First Baptist Church who left no doubt on Sunday morning or Wednesday afternoon Church School that Christians were to be always good and kind to everyone, and that we young ones should take up and live the golden rule or for sure there would be hell to pay.

These occurrences in my life were just everyday life. Nothing out of the ordinary. But the images of unnatural, undeserved, and most certainly horrible and excruciatingly painful death and juxtaposed celebration were wholly unordinary to me. My viewing of them was like the historical record had smacked me across the face and dropped a symbolic leather glove of challenge. My eyesight caused my concept of America to shift, and kept bringing me back again and again to those two bodies swinging in the tree, silently voicing my growing sense that injustice was present and alive and very much a part of America’s history. No one said it better than Billy Holiday.

Strange Fruit

Southern trees bear a strange fruit

Blood on the leaves and blood at the root

Black body swinging in the Southern breeze

Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees

Pastoral scene of the gallant South

The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth

Scent of magnolia sweet and fresh

And the sudden smell of burning flesh!

Here is a fruit for the crows to pluck

For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck

For the sun to rot, for a tree to drop

Here is a strange and bitter crop.

Music and lyrics by Lewis Allan (Abel Meeropol), @1940.

My mind wanted to proclaim this cannot be, this isn’t right, not in America. This happens elsewhere, not here. And yet, this was here. These photos are not from South Africa or Brazil or even those places that existed for me only as photo essays in the National Geographic Magazine, places like Madagascar or Tahiti or Brazil or Timbuktu. In seventh grade we’d memorized the Preamble to the Constitution and the beginning of the Bill of Rights. These pictures, these images gave lie to those words. It didn’t make sense to me. It wasn’t right. I don’t remember talking about it at all in school. My friends didn’t talk about it. My dialogue was an inner dialogue. My family never spoke about the Civil Rights struggle in America, or anyplace else for that matter. The only peace advocate who’s name I ever heard mentioned was Mahatma Ghandi, and then it was just that my mother had strong feelings about his simple white wraps. And though it was years before I finally figured out what my response to those pictures needed to be, the die had clearly been cast, and significantly for me, the die was a visual die, the die was pictures, not words.

Privilege, and its attendant capacity to have power and influence and control, even to death, of those without it, first emerged as an idea worth taking apart through the window of understanding provided by those images. Race and privilege were related. If you were of the Black race (“race” wouldn’t achieve its rightful place as a socially constructed concept for another fifteen years), then white people had power and control over all aspects of your life. That power and control was grounded in white privilege, something I clearly possessed but something I didn’t know I possessed and if I had known it, I surely wouldn’t have wanted it. But at the time, I didn’t know that just because I didn’t want something didn’t mean I wasn’t to have it. Like it or not, I had it. I couldn’t get rid of it. The trick was to figure out what to do with it. But it took me another forty years and many much more experience that I had to learn from and many people who know it or not, served as my teachers and helped me figure that one out.

It’s amazing how clear these very same images are to me even today. Damn. It’s almost fifty years since the Boycott. They are icons that define to me why I do what I do. Even today, when my focus on the purpose of my work dims or gets fuzzy, or gets replaced by other inclinations, or just gets buried under a pile of committee driven, multi-tasked responsibilities, the lynchings will themselves into my consciousness at the oddest times: on a run, on the walk to work, in the middle of a class, while someone else is talking. I can hear the voices. I see the gathering, I hear the screams of torture. They are always there, even now, in my cognitive matrix, quietly insistent, urging my attention. Don’t forget. Don’t forget us. Do something about this. Everyone White in America should do something about this. We cannot do this alone. Don’t you see. This is the power we have. We are dead. This is what we are trying to tell you. We die in vane if you fail us. This is our burden and your legacy. You have to end this. You.

It took me a long time to find my place in the movement, and even longer to understand what my place should be, and the longest time of all to know what I could change, what I couldn’t, and what I wanted to do about all that.

The JoHari Window of Interpersonal Awareness

Johari Window

Go to the link to see the actual window. If you prefer to use your imagination, imagine a 2×2 matrix defined horizontally by these two categories: Known to self and Not known to self.

defined vertically by these two categories: Known to others and Not known to others.

Label the top two cells from left to right cell one and cell two .

Label the bottow two cells from left to right cell three and cell four.

Each cell has a name.

Cell one = open awareness

Cell two = blind awareness

Cell three = hidden awareness

Cell four = unknown awareness.

Read on. From

The Johari Window, named after the first names of its inventors, Joseph Luft and Harry Ingham, is one of the most useful models describing the process of human interaction. A four paned “window,” as illustrated above, divides personal awareness into four different types, as represented by its four quadrants: open, hidden, blind, and unknown. The lines dividing the four panes are like window shades, which can move as an interaction progresses.

In this model, each person is represented by their own window. Let’s describe mine:

1. The “open” quadrant represents things that both I know about myself, and that you know about me. For example, I know my name, and so do you, and if you have explored some of my website, you know some of my interests. The knowledge that the window represents, can include not only factual information, but my feelings, motives, behaviors, wants, needs and desires… indeed, any information describing who I am. When I first meet a new person, the size of the opening of this first quadrant is not very large, since there has been little time to exchange information. As the process of getting to know one another continues, the window shades move down or to the right, placing more information into the open window, as described below.

2. The “blind” quadrant represents things that you know about me, but that I am unaware of. So, for example, we could be eating at a restaurant, and I may have unknowingly gotten some food on my face. This information is in my blind quadrant because you can see it, but I cannot. If you now tell me that I have something on my face, then the window shade moves to the right, enlarging the open quadrant’s area. Now, I may also have blindspots with respect to many other much more complex things. For example, perhaps in our ongoing conversation, you may notice that eye contact seems to be lacking. You may not say anything, since you may not want to embarrass me, or you may draw your own inferences that perhaps I am being insincere. Then the problem is, how can I get this information out in the open, since it may be affecting the level of trust that is developing between us? How can I learn more about myself? Unfortunately, there is no readily available answer. I may notice a slight hesitation on your part, and perhaps this may lead to a question. But who knows if I will pick this up, or if your answer will be on the mark.

3. The “hidden” quadrant represents things that I know about myself, that you do not know. So for example, I have not told you, nor mentioned anywhere on my website, what one of my favorite ice cream flavors is. This information is in my “hidden” quadrant. As soon as I tell you that I love “Ben and Jerry’s Cherry Garcia” flavored ice cream, I am effectively pulling the window shade down, moving the information in my hidden quadrant and enlarging the open quadrant’s area. Again, there are vast amounts of information, virtually my whole life’s story, that has yet to be revealed to you. As we get to know and trust each other, I will then feel more comfortable disclosing more intimate details about myself. This process is called: “Self-disclosure.”

4. The “unknown” quadrant represents things that neither I know about myself, nor you know about me. For example, I may disclose a dream that I had, and as we both attempt to understand its significance, a new awareness may emerge, known to neither of us before the conversation took place. Being placed in new situations often reveal new information not previously known to self or others. For example, I learned of the Johari window at a workshop conducted by a Japanese American psychiatrist in the early 1980’s. During this workshop, he created a safe atmosphere of care and trust between the various participants. Usually, I am terrified of speaking in public, but I was surprised to learn that in such an atmosphere, the task need not be so daunting. Prior to this event, I had viewed myself and others had also viewed me as being extremely shy. (The above now reminds me of a funny joke, which I cannot refrain from telling you. It is said that the number one fear that people have is speaking in public. Their number two fear is dying. And the number three fear that people have, is dying while speaking in public.) Thus, a novel situation can trigger new awareness and personal growth. The process of moving previously unknown information into the open quadrant, thus enlarging its area, has been likened to Maslow’s concept of self-actualization. The process can also be viewed as a game, where the open quadrant is synonymous with the win-win situation.

Much, much more has been written on the Johari window model of human interaction. The process of enlarging the open quadrant is called self-disclosure, a give and take process between me and the people I interact with. Typically, as I share something about myself (moving information from my hidden quadrant into the open) and if the other party is interested in getting to know me, they will reciprocate, by similarly disclosing information in their hidden quadrant. Thus, an interaction between two parties can be modeled dynamically as two active Johari windows. For example, you may respond to my disclosure that I like “Cherry Garcia” by letting me know what your favorite ice cream is, or where a new ice cream shop is being built, kinds of information in your hidden quadrant. Incidentally, it is fattening, so be careful on how much you eat!

We believe disclosure to be healthy, at least that’s the impression one gets after reading Freud. However, Anita Kelly recently wrote that self-disclosure of personal secrets has its dangers. We are often better off not telling secrets regarding our sexual behavior, mental health problems or large-scale failures. “If you give people information about yourself, you give them power over you,” she says. Monica Lewinsky’s disclosure to Linda Tripp and the ensuing scandal that enveloped President Clinton is a case in point. Be forewarned that most secrets get passed along to at least two more parties. People also misjudge how others respond to secrets. Sometimes you get negative feedback. For example, a women who reveals that she was raped may be seen in the future as a victim, or by men as damaged goods. Now, if you must tell your secret to someone, chose that person very carefully. Chose someone whose response will give you some insight into your problem. Unfortunately, such a person is often hard to find. So if you cannot find anyone appropriate, consider this: that keeping secrets is healthy and tasteful, because it is a way of managing your identity, and indicates you are secure and have self-control. But it takes energy, because you have to be on constant guard not to accidentally reveal something that is potentially damaging.

As ones level of confidence and self esteem develops, one may actively invite others to comment on one’s blind spots. A teacher may seek feedback from students on the quality of a particular lecture, with the desire of improving the presentation. Active listening skills are helpful in this endeavor. On the other hand, we all have defenses, protecting the parts of ourselves that we feel vulnerable. Remember, the blind quadrant contains behavior, feelings and motivations not accessible to the person, but which others can see. Feelings of inadequacy, incompetence, impotence, unworthiness, rejection, guilt, dependency, ambivalence for loved ones, needs to control and manipulate, are all difficult to face, and yet can be seen by others. To forcibly reveal what another wishes not to see, is “psychological rape,” and can be traumatic. Fortunately, nature has provided us with a variety of defense mechanisms to cope with such events, such as denial, ignoring, rationalizing, etc.

The Johari window, essentially being a model for communication, can also reveal difficulties in this area. In Johari terms, two people attempt to communicate via the open quadrants. On the simplest level, difficulties may arise due to a lack of clarity in the interaction, such as poor grammar or choice of words, unorganized thoughts, faulty logic etc. This induces the receiver to criticize you, the sender, by revealing something that was in your blind quadrant. Then, if the feedback works, you correct it immediately, or perhaps on a more long term approach take a course in reading and writing. On a deeper level, you may be in a group meeting, and while you secretly sympathize with the minority viewpoint, you voted with the majority. However, blind to you, you actually may be communicating this information via body language, in conflict with your verbal message. On an even deeper level, you in an interaction with others, may always put on a smiling, happy face, hiding all negative feelings. By withholding negative feelings, you may be signaling to your friends to withhold also, and keep their distance. Thus, your communication style may seem bland or distant.

And let’s not forget the parable of the blind men and the elephant. Our society is constructed so that many of us get very specialized, knowing only a small academic field very well, while being virtually ignorant of all others. This specialization is blinding many of us to what is happening in the world today. According to R. Buckminister Fuller, this system of education was done on purpose, to channel the most intelligent people into specialties, enabling them to be more easily controlled. Noam Chomsky has made similar comments with regards to the manufacturing enterprise, and how Adam Smith’s writings have been purposely misrepresented. See my webpage On Education.

In the construction of this website, I am putting more of my knowledge into the open quadrant. I am consciously using the Johari model to improve my awareness of the world. If you see one of my blind spots, please feel free to contact me, and let me know!


Luft, Joseph (1969). “Of Human Interaction,” Palo Alto, CA:National Press, 177 pages.

Kelly, Anita E. and McKillop, Kevin J. (1996), “Consequences of Revealing Personal Secrets.” Psychological Bulletin, v120(3), pg. 450 .

Roan, Shari (1996). “Our secrets are spilling out all over,” Los Angeles Times

External Links: Annenberg BOLA Contact

Last updated 26 April 1999

Copyright © 1999 by Duen Hsi Yen, All rights reserved.


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The hidden curriculum of hesitation

Haven’t posted much in a while. Been involved with a fascinating round of Doctoral dissertation defenses as well as Master’s orals. I think I’ve got most of the necessary stories down. It’s hard work shaping the overall text which is the major effort at hand…narrowing down the concept for each chapter and the specific themes that flow from that concept. And finally, trimming and/or expanding the narratives to fit the overall whole. I’ve spent a week creating several entries to the book, entries that take the form either of an introduction or an actual first chapter. Today, i think I nailed the first chapter, at least with enough specificity to allow me to go on to chapter two. I’m poking around in the area of maximum blindness for me – that area that other folks would see exceptionally well. It’s a bit nerve wracking. My good friend Andrew suggested I write about my feelings given the fact that if I were having these feelings, other people, white people particularly, might be similarly inhibited by feelings similar to mine. Unpacking mine might help them unpack theirs. We move in duo… . This ended up as C1 – the hidden curriculum of hesitation.

Oh yeah, I’ll also try to post JoHari’s window. If I can’t do the window, at least I can do a link. It’s an old gem!

Feelings Before I Write.

Should I Really Be Doing This?

The Hidden Curriculum of Hesitation.

I think I’m on the white hot edge of writing honest thoughts writers describe as the point of no return. Deciding to share what I have written is not without it own special form of panic. If the real truth be known, I harbor doubts about whether any of what I have to share will be interesting enough to keep a reader reading. I’m not trying to be a well informed pundit here. I’m not writing from the usual place of academic expertise. I’m writing about an area that almost by definition, others know a whole lot better than I do. Q2. Ohhhh yeah. The area of the JoHari Matrix that contains awareness known to others, unknown to self. Starting out writing about events in my life that others know better is downright scary. Maybe also stupid! Why would anyone choose to do that? My doubt is coming through in very uncomfortable feelings.

In my doubt I hear laughter, imagine the sting of personal attack, and feel embarrassed. I encounter my own personification of shame and doubt speaking to me: “Well what did you expect? There are experts in this field. What could you possibly add? What you have to say about working with your own whiteness is neither enough nor is it particularly edifying or even accurate for that matter.” Self doubt dies hard.

The laughter. Some of this laughter comes from Black folks. You’ve read my attempts to come to terms with something that you live and breathe every day. You read my imperfect words, my intellectualizations, my real inability to truly see the effects of my pigmentation on how society perceives and treats you. You laugh because its easier to laugh than cry. You’ve cried enough. Your laughter is a sardonic laughter that acknowledges 10,000 stories by people like me can’t do anything about your. Give it up, you say. It don’t mean a thing.

I worry about personal attacks from all sides. Blacks will attack me for being so numb for so long. How could I not act with all that was around me, right in front of my eyes. I saw all these injustices going on and still I chose to work within the system. What a honkey! (Is that word still used?) They will say I am weak and without courage because I chose to work in only safe places. I am unworthy of respect. From Whites, the attacks will come from two directions. The first attack will be from what I think is the more conservative, essentialist side. They will tell me I’m out of my mind. What I’m describing is just the product of an overactive imagination. Prejudice and bias are part of the human condition. They will say its just so much navel gazing to try to separate myself and see my behavior as influenced by privilege. I’m spend way too much time dreaming up things that aren’t there. They would encourage me to get a real job.

Liberal whites, expecially those who are already considerably knowledgeable about White privilege, will join in as well. They also will not believe it took me so long to see what was right under my eyes for most of my life. And now that I’m at least aware of some of the effects I have on others for what I am (not who I am) it’s way too late to mean much of anything to anyone, certainly them. Others have gone way beyond where I am in my analytical work. And they’ve done it better and much more comprehensively. Too bad I wasted a career. I might have been half good at this work if I’d started forty years earlier. Too bad I didn’t have a mind, then.

Part of my reticence to share my writing is firmly grounded in my feelings of shame. I will spend some time on the role of alcoholism in my life later on in these stories, but for now, one consequence of my lived life is the rather constant tendency to second guess myself, put myself down, criticize my work as I imagine others might criticize me. So at this moment of clicking on these keys, Mr. Shame has got me by the throat and he’s hissing into my face, “No One Will Care! Your life is mundane, predictable, uninteresting, mindless, even. Don’t You Get IT? Nobody will care what you have to say. You already feel stupid enough. Can’t you imagine how really stupid you’ll feel if you share any of these so-call ideas with anyone! Don’t compound your inabilities by putting yourself out there.” I picture myself agreeing with him, tucking my tail between my legs, and slinking off to my room of “if onlys:” if only I had done this sooner, if only I’d read more expert witnesses, if only I could get it just right, if only, if only, if only.

My feelings are jumbled. The pit of my stomach is a dull ache; not pain really, more a pressure, present and constant. Even my breathing changes when I choose to stay with these feelings for more than a moment. It gets shallow and more rapid. What’s that all about? The little boy in me is wanting acceptance again and he’s scared that putting this out will lead to rejection by my family, my friends, colleagues known, and colleagues unknown. He wants to be loved, not hated.

And yet I realize these feeling, though real enough, are all products of my psychic imagination. What purpose do these psychic questions and barriers serve? Interesting question. Do other White men besides myself who consider the effects of their own whiteness on their careers ever feel the same feelings I do? In the same places? Do they unconsciously rub their solar plexi when the dull numb pressure becomes insistent? What was it like for Paul Gorski? What was it like for Gary Howard? Did they feel weird or have weird feelings when they began their work of writing down their radical racial revelations?

I begin to wonder if the terrain is so unsettling, so unknown, that the project is in actuality, quite a big risk and the feelings, therefore, more natural. I also begin to think that because I have these feelings, the topic is an important one to write about. If I have these feelings, what about all the other teachers of no color who desperately want to do something about how teachers unknowingly promote social injustice in the classroom but can’t quite get a handle on how to go about it. They, too, may have these feelings.

Maybe any white person would experience a psychic tremble at the thought of jumping into this discussion of participation in constructing our country’s racial past and present. After all, it wasn’t too long ago the racialized beings in the world were THEM, not Me. What they hell am I doing trying to turn the THEM into ME. I’m reminded of something Shirley Hill once said about a white gospel choir in which I sang. She commented to a

friend, “Now, they even want to take this away from us. It just makes me so damn mad.”

Now I was pretty clear how that comment made me feel. Guilty. And worse than any old guilt, it was White guilt. Here I was trying to enjoy myself, sing with the spirit, even project an appreciation for the gospel music so many Black singers and congregations had brought to us and Shirley gets to the utter core of her reality and accuses us of stealing. Accuses me of stealing. Stealing! Me!

Those feelings in the pit of my stomach, the psychic tremble when thinking about jumping into the discussion of my certain historical collaboration in constructing the institution of our country’s racism, maybe these are all just other kinds of signs of my own guilt. “Good intentions, excused.” That’s what Albert Ellis said the function of guilt was. Feeling bad about not doing something about an issue, a situation, a certain context you know should be different but you just haven’t gotten around to do something about it. Feeling guilty lets me off the hook. That’s the snapshot Ellis would make of these dynamics.

When I write about how privilege has framed my perceptions, choices and behavior, I begin to see my complicity in keeping me on top and others not on top. Not necessarily consciously (although there have been times when I have knowingly used my privilege to gain advantage for me or my family), but effectively nonetheless. The guilt comes when I choose to go beyond the blinders of my white world and acknowledge how others have to live and how our system of political power works to keep inside groups influential and self-serving and groups on the outside, ineffectual and powerless.

What is so interesting about this position, and perhaps even key to removing myself from the guilt spotlight is my fuller realization that I’m here by the roll of some genetic dice. Regardless of my skin color or place of origin eons ago, my biological parents borned me into the upper middle class professional culture of the borough of Manhattan in New York City and my skin pigmentation guaranteed me sure access to all the rights, privileges, and responsibilities there of.

I know I have a racial past as well as a racial present and racial future. My white guilt knows my contribution to it. My unquestioned, unrecognized, and if I keep to my own kind successfully, unchallenged contributions. When I make that step into the spotlight, then I have to rationalize complicity in everything from growing up on stolen land to daily letting others witness injustice to knowingly allowing racially biased instructional events pass unnoticed in my classroom because I need to get on with other subtleties of content. Let me tell you, staying out of the spotlight, hiding in the murkey shadows of awareness that define unexamined systemic racism is a whole lot more comfortable to do, especially because I am the dominant culture and the dominant culture sets the standard for what’s right, proper, and spozed to be. Plus, I don’t have to feel guilty in those shadowy places of unexamined behavior. “Just do it!” is a catchy phrase. Live your life. Don’t worry, be happy. Well, happiness all depends upon whose “it” you are just doing. Just doing my “it” comes at great expense to all those people shoes “it” is excluded by my “it.” And because they are on the outside looking in, they are a whole lot more aware of what my “it” looks like than I am.

So coming to terms with the way my own whiteness, male whiteness, even, a double whammy in terms of privilege, means I have to begin to live within a brutally honest zone of self definition in order to be clear about who I am, the who I want to be, and how I want to represent myself to others. Most particularly, to the other younger white versions of my self who are thinking they might want to be teachers someday.

That honesty plays out something like this. The truth of the matter is I’ve never slurred anyone racially. The truth of the matter is I didn’t advocate for separate but equal facilities in 1894. I didn’t cause black army units to be segregated in 1942. I didn’t make decisions that gave young black learners outdated facilities and decades old schoolbooks in 1936. I didn’t sell anyone into slavery from the Charleston Slave Market. And for damn sure, I haven’t thrown any ropes over tree branches to lynch anyone across the entire 350 years of domination by people of my skin color of our darker skinned counterparts. I haven’t avoided public facilities used by Black Americans or people of any other ethnic group for that matter. I haven’t ignored or hurt children in school because of their skin color. I make it a point to say hello to everyone I pass, especially people who I think might appreciate the recognition and greeting. The list could be endless. Its point is that I have not been responsible for past grievances.

Except for one thing. Look at that litany of “haven’ts.” The events that ring truest are those that are historically placed. I wasn’t alive when they happened. I hear this a lot from my students these days. Racism isn’t my problem. I wasn’t alive when all those awful things happened! But guess what? We are alive now. Institutionalized racism is part of the fabric that defines the ways in which we are all living together right now in this country, all of us. It’s absolutely true I didn’t cause anything to happen before I was a mote of DNA. It’s also absolutely true that I am most surely a participant in all the ways systemic racism augers to keep me on top politically, economically, socially, and even it might be argued, professionally, now. Dominance has been confirred on me, as Peggy McIntosh so aptly suggests. Power, whether I sought it or not, is mine to wield. And the standards of what’s spozed to be, were set by people who look a lot like me.

So this shifts the white guilt dilemma just a bit, since I’m being brutally honest. The greatest guilt to be had in all this is not the guilt felt from my historical past, but the guilt felt from my failure to act in the historical present! And that means stepping into the spotlight. Is claiming to have avoided public facilities used by Black Americans really mine to say? Is claiming not to have ignored or hurt children in school really my judgment to make? And that saying hello thing. Who’s to say my making sure I say hello to Black students on campus especially is appreciated by them? Maybe they get really tired of having to make me feel good by responding back? Once I acknowledge the fact that just because I judge a situation to be right in a certain well meaning way, doesn’t mean it’s in fact, right! My Black friends might receive my actions in quite a different way than the way I intended them.

What this means for me, of course, is that the world under my feet suddenly, for as long as I choose to stay in that spotlight, shifts composition from bedrock to ooze. My footholds are reality shift dramatically. I can never again infer that what’s right for me will have beneficial consequences for my students, for example, especially my students of color. Certainty becomes a negotiated reality. What I can hope for is an agreement that some portion of what I declare may have a kind of universal truth to it, but I have to be ready to understand that from another perspective, the some portion looms large. They will have their portion of truth as well.

Standing in that spotlight of white awareness means I acknowledge myself as a multicultural being, one among many, not a representative of the standard around which all things are judged and enforced. Standing in the spotlight means I stand less as an expert but more as a witness to my own place in this really interesting world and in my witnessing what it is like to be me, comes my kinship with others as they work to define their place in their own particular spotlight. My witnessing means I am an ally and a friend, but not a participant in your reality. The only reality we can participate in is the one we create together in our present and future moments.

Maybe Shirley would say the same about these efforts of mine. “Leave the analysis of racism to us.” You caused it with your history of deliberate lawmaking and mindless adherence to the racial totem pole. You can’t possibly figure yourself out. Leave it alone. Let it be. Don’t mess with what you can’t change. She makes me think maybe it’s plain wrong for to take on this deconstruction of my racial past. This process is best left to those who have a racial past. You haven’t a clue. Leave the deconstruction to us. Let us alone. Don’t stir things up.”

But that doesn’t sound right to me even in this state of sweaty hesitation. Shirley’s is old thinking, right for a time perhaps, and maybe even still right for now in circumstances that are more safely viewed from a far away distance. Leaving the work of deconstructing racism up to the descendents of the African diaspora has a necessary protective quality to it, especially (I imagine) for Black Americans who are reminded of their separate status by daily acts of maginalization that happen again and again and again. What is it the T-Shirt slogan says? “I made it through another day.”

But that attitude won’t help us move along together and from my privileged perspective, doing this work separately has only kept us separate. Retreating to our separate lunchroom tables helps us lick our wounds and helps us recharge our own separate group identities. But not working on this together won’t help us figure out what’s going on between us. Retreating to our separate lunchroom tables won’t help us learn how to live together, work together, play together, argue together, be honest with one another together.

What’s kicked me over the edge now – in terms of race – is simply realizing what it was I had to do through the intervention of a model. Of course it helps to know something of the academics of White studies. But that’s natural. I am an academic. But I can do that and never get out of my reading chair. Worse, I can learn all that stuff and keep it in my head, and never behave differently except by telling everyone how much I know. But that isn’t the point, at least it isn’t the point for what many of the black students I’ve read would have me do. The point is not to be an expert in the field, but to be expert in myself. What is important is to know my story from the vantage point of race and privilege, to be able to share it comfortably or uncomfortably in class so that I prepare the way ahead for others in my class to do the same thing. That’s what I’m told makes a classroom safe and honors the contributions of others. Getting up close and personal about what happened to me, what I learned from those experiences, and how that learning changed and deepened over the years as I learned more is what I should be doing. That’s the point. Forget the demons that sap my courage. Just tell them my stories and what I’ve learned from them. Introduce them, tell them, interpret them as best I can, and leave them open for others to ponder. That’s what I can do best.

The purpose of this book is not to put that past and present into an abstract context. The purpose of this book is to show what I learned from this past and how it affected my teaching what I’m learning about this past now and how I am bringing that into my teaching. I think I’m the best teacher I ever was right now in my career. I think many of my students would agree with me. I think this is so because the reflection on my racialist past informs decisions I make as I teach today. I’m not saying I’ve arrived or that I’m the world’s greatest teacher. I am saying that consciously attending to my racialist past makes me do different things today in my classes. This story may be useful for other teachers who continually work to get better at this craft. There are a lot of us out there and I think we could afford to communicate with each other more than we do. This book, despite my feelings of uncertainty, is my attempt to do so.

In all actuality, when that little boy goes back into his room and my adult side reasserts itself, when I put Old Mr. Shame back in his chair, I hope that what I have to say stirs controversy. I hope others do get incensed about how long it took me or how blind I was or how little I really understood about being in the role of “other” in this American culture. Advancing the dialogue about how racism formed the approach to teaching of one white teacher in this American society may be a very good thing. Showing how one white teacher got smarter about his whiteness over the years and changed his teaching will be a very good thing. Advancing the dialogue about where white teachers stand in the face of the ever shifting pigmentation of American society will be a very useful thing. Advancing the dialogue about what white teachers can do in the face of the ever shifting pigmentation of American society will be a very useful thing.

I’m the only one that can do that. No one else can do this work about me. Only I can do this work about me. Will it benefit others? Maybe. Who knows. My task is not to worry about and just tell the stories the best I can. That may be enough. That may plow enough personal terrain that now lies fallow and untouched in other white teachers who can connect to my experiences. Turning it over may permit other stories, their stories, to take root, to become obstacles that get tripped over in their own life terrain. When you trip over something, you tend not to do what led to the tripping, twice. But I can’t decide that. What you do with what I put before you is not my decision. That’s up to you. My job is to identify the yeasty stuff in my life in terms of these issues of race, culture, whiteness and teaching and just tell them the best I can. Just get on with it. Don’t wait ‘til I’m fully awake. I may never be fully awake to all the ways racism and whiteness affects what I do. But I can never be fully asleep again and how that plays out for me now should be worth something to someone.