Monday, October 14, 2019

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Eric Rofes: I don't know about the rest of you, but I can't listen to much of this talk without feeling embarrassed and uncomfortable. And it feels embarrassing and uncomfortable to talk about it too -- to talk about being a white man and to talk about what that means in an atmosphere where race is so highly charged -- a place where white men talking about being white are seen as whiny and complaining, as saying "I want to be a victim too!" So I sit here and feel some of these feelings of discomfort and I think, I just want to shut up. I don't want to be here. I don't want to talk at all.

But I'll get over it. I want to say a few things about my background and my research interests here. My major understanding of myself growing up in New York was as a Jew rather than as a white person. It was a time of much confusion around questions of race and questions of anti-Semitism. Jews and Blacks were in a very different sort of relationship than we are today. My own experience of being white was minimized by the fact of living in mostly Christian white neighborhoods, where I was identified as a Jew and made fun of and picked on because I was Jewish.

I've often wondered why we lived where we lived. I think the question of where we live is a very political question. My father was a leftist of sorts and my mom was certainly liberal, but they were from a Left which didn't really examine racism -- at least not in terms of racism as a lived reality. They voted the right way, they supported the right causes, they talked a great deal about the Black civil rights movement, but we lived in white neighborhoods.

Since I was about ten years old, I was sent each summer to an experimental summer camp for Blacks and Jews. Often, there were a lot of working class Jews, but I was raised middle-class. Summer camp in the late 1960s and early 1970s provided me with my first understandings of the painful, ugly realities of race and racism. There were real divisions in this camp -- you got in trouble with your own kind if you dated outside your "type." It kind of felt like "West Side Story" which was very popular at the time. Camp gave me my first experiences with real live people who were not white. I never really saw this as significant until I went to college where I found myself with a lot of white people who were meeting people of color for the first time. I don't feel like it gave my any great knowledge or superior ability in dealing with racial issues, but it did give me an early childhood experience with real relationships: some friendships, some dating with people who were not white but black, people for whom the race issue was very charged and present in their lives. It got me thinking. Growing into adulthood, I felt the pull not to identify as a white man. I think a lot of white men, particularly liberal and progressive white men, myself included, want to identify as anything other than our gender and our race. For me, that first took the form of wanting to identify as a Jew and wanting to adhere to the position, which I now disagree with, that Jews are not white. Then this identity question crossed over and entered into my sexual identity as I identified as a gay man. I saw my sexual identity as somehow saving me from being a white man.

But over the past five to eight years, I have worked in mixed race organizations, it has become particularly clear to me that I am a white man. And with that identity comes very significant assumptions and privileges that too often go unexamined. I feel lucky to have been involved in organizations which were struggling questions of how the organization could be "owned" by people of different races and by women as well as men.

Lately, as you all know, I have been interested in the role of white men in the affirmative action debates. I am particularly interested in the absence of white male voices supporting affirmative action. What are the racial and cultural dynamics that support this absence? As a related question, I'm interested in the images of white men circulating in the public discourse around affirmative action. These are almost always images of white men who oppose affirmative action, and who oppose it in a whiny sort of way. Here at Berkeley, while there have been one or two white male professors who have spoken very loudly in support of affirmative action, for the most part, from what I see at the rallies, in the organizing efforts, and in the media, I haven't heard white male voices.

I think there is a question about whether we should even hear those voices. This question is one we should openly discuss. I say that because I feel that progressive white men are pushed to do one of two things: to roll back their politics and end up opposing affirmative action, because they understand their interests to be compromised by affirmative action. Or to sit around silently. To say nothing and to do nothing. And that's no good.

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