In the New York Times article below (click on screenshot), a letter from someone called “Whitey” inspired a discussion by Cheryl Strayed, bestselling author of Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail, and Steve Almond, an American essayist and short story writer. Strayed and Almond write an advice column for the paper called “The Sweet Spot”.
Here’s “Whitey’s” letter:
I’m riddled with shame. White shame. This isn’t helpful to me or to anyone, especially people of color. I feel like there is no “me” outside of my white/upper middle class/cisgender identity. I feel like my literal existence hurts people, like I’m always taking up space that should belong to someone else.
I consider myself an ally. I research proper etiquette, read writers of color, vote in a way that will not harm P.O.C. (and other vulnerable people). I engage in conversations about privilege with other white people. I take courses that will further educate me. I donated to Black Lives Matter. Yet I fear that nothing is enough. Part of my fear comes from the fact that privilege is invisible to itself. What if I’m doing or saying insensitive things without realizing it?
Another part of it is that I’m currently immersed in the whitest environment I’ve ever been in. My family has lived in the same apartment in East Harlem for four generations. Every school I attended, elementary through high school, was minority white, but I’m now attending an elite private college that is 75 percent white. I know who I am, but I realize how people perceive me and this perception feels unfair.
I don’t talk about my feelings because it’s hard to justify doing so while people of color are dying due to systemic racism and making this conversation about me would be again centering whiteness. Yet bottling it up makes me feel an existential anger that I have a hard time channeling since I don’t know my place. Instead of harnessing my privilege for greater good, I’m curled up in a ball of shame. How can I be more than my heritage?
Now Strayed and Almond respond earnestly, reflecting back the values of critical race theory and intersectionalism with statements like this:
Almond: . . . This feeling is especially acute right now, I suspect, because you’re suddenly immersed in a milieu that reflects your privilege back to you. We do live in a culture steeped in white supremacy and class bigotry, as well as patriarchal values. But the solution to this injustice isn’t to wallow in self-hatred. Instead, heed the words of the writer bell hooks. “Privilege is not in and of itself bad; what matters is what we do with privilege,” she writes. “We have to share our resources and take direction about how to use our privilege in ways that empower those who lack it.” You’re not going to empower others by disempowering yourself. . . As a straight white male raised by two professionals in an American suburb, I know I was born into a life of extraordinary privilege. But it wasn’t always that way. It took me many years to begin to recognize these advantages as unearned, the product of corrupt systems stacked in my favor. The rise of political actors and demagogues who promote white supremacy, misogyny and racism is, in part, an effort by the privileged to reject these truths.
Strayed: You ask us how you can be more than your heritage, Whitey, but what Steve and I are suggesting is that you need to own it first. As you seem well aware, your race granted you privileges that were and are denied to people who are not white. This is true for all white people in America, no matter how racially diverse their childhood neighborhoods were or were not, no matter how much money their families had or didn’t have, no matter how difficult or easy their lives have been. Every white person should be ashamed of that injustice. Which is different than being ashamed of being white. You don’t have to relinquish your heritage to be an ally to people of color, Whitey. You have to relinquish your privilege. And part of learning how to do that is accepting that feelings of shame, anger and the sense that people are perceiving you in ways that you believe aren’t accurate or fair are part of the process that you and I and all white people must endure in order to dismantle a toxic system that has perpetuated white supremacy for centuries.
Well, beyond the fact that we’re all supposed to all feel burdened by our original sin of being white, and that racism is “structural”, these responses aren’t out of line with what guilt-ridden liberals are saying these days, and do admit of the continuing fact of racism. But how does a poor coal miner or a homeless person relinquish their “white supremacy”? How can they be “allies” when they’re struggling themselves?
The person below person claims—and I have no way to verify it—that the letter from “Whitey” was in fact a hoax, reminiscent of the erstwhile hoaxer Godfrey Elfwick, who seems to have disappeared but was really good at pretending he was an Authoritarian Lefist (a status indistinguishable from parody) and taking those people in.
McGrath is much like Elfwick, as you can see by reading his/her Twitter feed. And it’s curious to me that McGrath (who identifies herself as an “activist”, a “healer,” and a “radical intersectionalist poet”) wasn’t vetted by the Times to make sure this person was real and had a supporting (rather than a satirical) internet presence. The letter from Whitey does smack of satire, but I’m (PCC[E]) reading it from a cynical viewpoint.
Since I have little time to post, and because Grania’s opinions are often sounder than mine, I asked for her take on the letter from McGrath (was McGrath a troll, or falsely claiming credit for someone else’s letter?) and on the responses by Strayed and Almond. Grania’s response:
Yes, it certainly seems she was a troll. It appears though that her letter is a perfect Poe that the NYT staff couldn’t see through. The letter content is certainly over the top, but it’s also perfectly consistent with the sort of stuff one sees on Twitter where self-professed woke individuals make sincere humble-braggings about their purity of thought.It just reinforces my opinion that being woke / identitarian means one operates essentially as if in a religious Christian cult, albeit one without a god (although she may be “bell hooks”) or a leader. So long as your claims are rooted in the basic tenets of original sin and guilt, people will approve of your self-abasement and self-flagellation and entirely fail to examine them critically.I really hope that this is not representative of what college undergraduates are paying several 100 grand to learn.The replies [by Strayed and Almond] are almost funny, but I’m not laughing. Actually I feel nauseous.