A little over a year ago, my book “Understanding and Combating Racism: My Path from Oblivious American to Evolving Activist” was published. Since then, I have presented either in person or via Zoom to hundreds of people; the blog posts on my website have been read by untold thousands; and the book is in circulation throughout the local library systems and perhaps others.
In the dozens of programs, interviews, book signings, and discussions I’ve had about my memoir, I’ve typically framed any conversation speaking about the risks, rewards, unintended consequences, and new discoveries within my antiracism journey. The overwhelming positive reception I have received in discussing the difficult and challenging subject of the enduring racism in our midst has been very gratifying.
To be sure, there have been a few instances of being labeled or identified in unimaginable ways. These have been rare but impactful, depending on the source and circumstances; likewise, being shouted at for simply holding a Black Lives Matter sign and an American flag at a silent vigil on a street corner together with other likeminded people. However, the rewards of hundreds of cars honking in support far outweigh these infrequent encounters as well as the knowledge that no matter whether in support or shouting some retort, there has been recognition of a problem and perhaps an opening for individual reflection.
And, of course, any pain that I encountered cannot compare to the routine daily micro- and macro-aggressions that Blacks endure just because of the color of their skin.
Regarding new discoveries over the past year, several have provided guidance and inspiration for my ongoing work and the path I am on. As one example, I have gained a heightened awareness of the importance of respectful, deep listening. This is especially significant given that I am the one in control at any program podium or when writing my blog posts … plus further exacerbated by something I can’t control at all: namely, being an older, white male and the associated, common typecast characteristics!
Secondly, and in an attempt to not be easily offended and to keep my sense of humor as situations arise, I coined the term “FOWG-ies” or “Fragile Old White Guys” to portray the dominant personification of most of the negative reactions I have received about my book and associated work. Moral of the story: keep a sense of humor despite the challenging subject matter and don’t be easily offended!
But perhaps the key discovery—and I put it in the form of another term I use to explain the incredible depths of white supremacy or racism—is what I call “White Confoundedness.” I define WC as a toxic mix of many factors living within those who believe they are white. These include feelings of guilt, naivete, defensiveness, obliviousness, fear, anger, outrage, trauma, resistance to change, being ill-informed, avoidance of history, denial, silence, arrogance, and many others.
The best way to portray what I mean by this definition is to quote actual statements that people who believe they are white have said to me, such as:
■ “I had/have Black neighbors/friends/coworkers and I always got/get along with them.”
■ “I’ve been profiled too”; or “I’ve experienced ‘reverse racism’ in my job.”
■ “I’m afraid of _____” (there are an infinite array of possibilities).
■ “But what can one person do?”
■ “I don’t see color” or “I’m color blind”
Arguably the most confounding is “I know there’s racism but I don’t believe it,” and the person who said it even acknowledged that there was an inherent contradiction within those words. This is when I began to realize that the racism waters were murkier than I ever thought imaginable and have made me rethink the work I am trying to do.
But the worst thing is when there is nothing said at all and there’s just silence or a complete lack of any inquisitiveness.
I want to expand on the statement regarding being afraid. An initial question I would ask in response is, “So how do you think being fearful of ‘whatever’ impacts your daily life or basic freedoms?”
Pick your word or phrase of what you might be afraid of. To contrast those fears to the variety of fears and challenges that Blacks bear is something I have derived from Ta-Nehisi Coates’ book “Between the World and Me.” His book is written in the form of a letter to his young Black son about Coates’ experiences living in America. In a mere 146 pages, the words “fear” or “afraid” are used 63 times in portraying the physical hazards of daily Black male life. For those who are not Black, there is literally no comparison whatsoever to either the daily fears and loss of freedom that Blacks experience even when just walking into a Starbucks in Philadelphia or bird watching in New York City’s Central Park, two actual, relatively recent examples.
I have compiled a list of what I believe triggers “WC” as well as some associated possible mitigation techniques that I discuss in my presentations. Suffice it to say that “WC” gets further complicated by external forces such as White Christian Nationalism, which basically is foundational to today’s White Supremacy political agenda. What follows from that is the variety of ways racism can be portrayed by some institutional, mainline Churches to their respective congregations, assuming they say anything at all from the pulpit or otherwise. No wonder those who believe they are white can get confounded so easily!
To conclude, I’d like to reflect back and refresh some of what I said last year in a Q&A with the Rochester Beacon’s Smriti Jacob as to how we as a community can be more trusting and come together to achieve racial progress.
I first want to reiterate that continuing education development regarding antiracism should be emphatically embraced and actively promoted by our many local colleges and universities. Likewise, leaders (especially white) of faith communities, affiliated organizations, and interfaith groups must step up their “game” so that there can be a deeper understanding of the evils of racism as well as provide support and encouragement for its eradication.
Regarding the business sector, who are the new “Joe Wilson’s” (the impactful Xerox CEO of the 1960s who joined forces with the influential Rev. Franklin Florence) that can inspire business leadership to act with redefined commitment and intentionality in addressing the disgraceful racism and poverty all around us, especially associated with our children, the future hope?
Nonprofits have a huge responsibility as well in the antiracism space with younger leadership such as Simeon Bannister of the Rochester Community Foundation taking the helm from the older “boomer” generation who have left a lot of work still to be done. And I cannot ignore our government leaders who must do a better job seeking and building the “common ground” among all their diverse constituencies and colleagues despite the many imposing challenges and political differences. We each must play a vital role in helping them with this work.
Lastly, and I believe most importantly, all of us who believe we are white have to do much more listening, invite deeper diversity to our respective “tables,” allow the “others” to lead, and take the necessary steps to move away from our racial confoundedness with radical and loving intentionality.
These are my ardent hopes for 2023 and beyond. I am grateful to the Beacon for the opportunity to share them.
Bill Wynne is author of: “Understanding and Combating Racism: My Path from Oblivious American to Evolving Activist.” He can be contacted through his website, wewynneauthor.com.
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