Wednesday, October 23, 2019


Article Index

Sean Heron: I grew up in the City of Cambridge, Massachusetts, the center of liberal thinking in the only state that McGovern won in 1972. Depending on my mother's marriage status we either lived in a solidly white upper middle-class neighborhood or in a lower-middle class black neighborhood. In the black neighborhood we actually lived on a street were everybody was white, but the houses at the ends of the block and on all the surrounding streets were occupied by blacks. I attended a small Quaker Friends school in the neighborhood, so I had very little contact with the (black) neighborhood kids who didn't live on my street. For a short while I played street hockey with some of my black neighbors. I had been invited by a black friend of mine who I went to school with. This series of informal street hockey ended after I was brutally beaten up by this group of kids. I was beaten up by 5 black kids. My friend didn't participate but he also didn't do anything to stop it. Later he came to my house to sheepishly apologize and explain why he didn't stop them. As he put it there was nothing he could do. He was caught between two worlds. We both knew at 13 years of age that it had to do with the color. In an awkward way we were negotiating through race politics as they had trickled down into our adolescent lives.

Like my neighborhood, the Friends school was also a kind of white middle class liberal island within a working class black neighborhood. On two sides of the school were housing projects. The soccer field between the school and the projects behind the school was a consciously contested zone. Before playing in the field we usually had to clear the field of broken glass and debris. One day we cleaned up the remains of a piano which had been destroyed in the field. It was not uncommon to come to school in the morning and find an abandoned car in the field. The serenity of most of our home lives was in stark contrast to the violence and destructive vandalism which emanated from the housing projects. So as my life was middle class it was lived in these areas of urban transition where changes in neighborhood demographics were starkly marked. In a very subtle but important way I knew the geography of my neighborhood by black and white.

In college I wanted to understand why it was that neighborhoods were so segregated. I wanted to know what forces were at work that made those color boundaries so clear. From my own personal experience I knew that those physical boundaries contributed to my understanding of race and how it functions in the social world. I began to see how the mechanisms at work in these micro relationships and experiences on the north side of Cambridge could be translated to every community in the country. In short that was were I first understood race, racism, and where I stood in its matrix.

I have been yearning for the opportunity to discuss with other white men who I feel share my political values about what it means to be white and male. There has always been a part of me which was suspicious of whites moving between their whiteness and other identities. In Cambridge in the late seventies and eighties reggae music and rastafarianism were very popular with the down-dressed college prep crowd. There were white people who set their hair in locks and took on mellow mannerisms. I was struck by how easy it was for these white people to move between these different identities. It became clear to me that to some extent what they were rejecting was their own whiteness and that made me uncomfortable. I was uncomfortable with it because I thought their experimentations were based in their privilege. It is a special type (although not unique -- there are many other examples) of teenage experimentation with identity in that it is an effort to take on a new race identity.

My general point is this: white males do exercise enormous power in this society. One of the powers we have is the freedom of movement. By this, I mean the freedom to move through both physical and social space. Progressive white men who work in communities of color, say as urban planners, have the freedom to move between the community of color and the world of whiteness. My experience is that white men who work in these communities, or who work for causes such as affirmative action, are not usually conscious of the contradictions of their position precisely because they enjoy this freedom of movement. Progressive white men do not understand each other in most cases as acting together in opposition to white male privilege. This is because most of their interactions with other progressive white men takes place within the larger place of whiteness. The question I am posing is "What would it be like if progressive white men didn't have that freedom?" That is, if they didn't have that larger place of whiteness to go to?

In my work in poor communities of color it became clear to me that, whatever I thought I was, people immediately saw and understood me as a white male. They knew where I was coming from. Identity is a tension between how you see yourself and how the world sees you and classifies you, fitting you into one of its neat little boxes. I don't have anything that exoticizes me. I am white and a man, so my struggle is to own that identity and take responsibility for it. It would be a dead end for me to think of myself as anything else. I used to think that it was important to make jokes about whites as a way to be explicit about my whiteness. But, I am beginning to resent and find offense when people make generalizations about whites. I used to use jokes in a banter which allowed race to become a conscious and de-energized thing in inter-ethnic settings. I would even go as far as to say some of my jokes to ease that tension become something like that of a "white minstrel."

For all of my bravado in saying I want to be proud of my whiteness, I do not want to be part of that larger whiteness or maleness which is sexist and racist and which gets its power and identity from the oppression of others. At this time I do not know where this place is that I want to be. I do know that one way that white privilege is exercised is the ability to move through both physical and social space with considerable ease. So such an effort to create a new space for white men must be authentic in its efforts to remain fixed. The discussions about race have been aided by the those who have begun to rework the old and now obsolete construct of white and black. Most of these reformations have been taking place on the side of the equation which has been traditionally black. Those who are of mixed race and mixed ethnic backgrounds are now marking out a place of their own. I wonder how the efforts of the men in this little group, and especially those who come from poor rural working class backgrounds, to find new spaces on the white side of the equation are similar to those who try and find new spaces for themselves on the black side. One thing we can't forget is that in this whole question of identity, I can't be white unless someone isn't. It is important that in our efforts to break down these strict boundaries we understand how this contributes to the empowerment of those who are oppressed by racism.