Cameron Dryden and Sea Stachura are two writers, he African American, she Caucasian. This past summer they read two books that markedly changed their understanding of the racial American experience: Red Summer: The Summer of 1919 and the Awakening of Black America by Cameron McWhirter and White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism by Robin DiAngelo. While the books address different subjects and eras, they felt there was a kinship between the subject matter they wanted to explore. The below is that exploration.
Cam: The year 1919, one hundred years ago, was an interesting time. I only recently learned about Red Summer, the period from April through November 1919 when there were more race riots, lynchings and violence against African Americans than any other year. I only learned of it when Sea, you mentioned it to me and recommended this book.
Sea: That was a year that was also a formative time where African Americans really took stock of who they were…
Cam: And their power, what their rights were, and really began to turn the tide in the fight for civil rights.
Sea: This was a period in time that I had heard about, but not in a very specific way.
Cam: I like to consider what can we learn from history? How does it inform us? What are the patterns we see in ourselves, in our society?
Sea: One of the things I found amazing about this time was not only the violence but also the shift in the way the majority responded to it. It wasn’t unusual for there to be lynchings of African American up to that time. What was new was this time African Americans fought back.
Cam: Right. 1919 was right after World War I. A number of African Americans had fought in the war. When they returned, white and black soldiers kept their guns, so when the lynch mobs entered colored neighborhoods looking to start trouble, people fought back.
Sea: Black Americans were less willing to accept second and third class citizenship.
Cam: Let’s pivot to the topic of White Fragility.
Sea: I don’t know if I can—I’m way too fragile! (laughter)
Cam: What is the phenomenon of White Fragility, as Robin DiAngelo describes it?
Sea: DiAngelo is a sociologist and a diversity trainer. She refers to White Fragility as the insulated environment of white protection (that is, our social environment in North America) that allows white people to exist in a sort of racial comfort while lowering white people’s ability to tolerate racial stress. It is a state in which, “even a minimum amount of racial stress becomes intolerable, triggering a range of defensive moves.”
Cam: She mentions this can be everything from a white woman’s tears, to white men becoming louder and more belligerent. Fear, guilt, silence, escape—leaving the situation.
Sea: Robin makes the point that racism is not something that everyone has. There’s a song in the musical, “Avenue Q” that goes:
Doesn’t mean we go around committing
Sea: That song came to mind when I read Robin’s book because she would say that’s not true. Everyone can be prejudiced. But in our nation only white people can be racist. Racism carries with it domination, the power not just to favor one group over another but also to fundamentally harm the “other.”
Cam: Redlining so African Americans can’t purchase homes in certain neighborhoods. Glass ceilings for minorities and women advancing in corporations.
Sea: That power is what distinguishes “racism” from “prejudice,” racism being far more damaging.
Cam: People in the majority have a certain innate power in certain respects: treatment by police, the justice system, ease of getting mortgages, etc. At the same time having great difficulty discussing racism. Robin gives the example of her teaching a seminar where she defines racism and a man pounds the table shouting, “a white man can’t get a job in this country!”
Sea: And he’s speaking in a primarily white group with a few black people.
Cam: And Robin wonders, how can the man be so oblivious to the effect his rage is having on the entire group, especially the people of color? You can’t handle the mere mention of racism and are so self-absorbed that nothing anyone else is thinking matters in the moment. The only view that matters is the view of the white person or group.
Sea: One of the things that draws Red Summer towards White Fragility for me is that racism and white fragility are concepts that, by virtue of not discussing them, have their power. They are the unspoken standard. When that got challenged in 1919, whites exploded.
Cam: A good example of this is the media coverage during Red Summer. Every article in all the major newspapers attributed the riots that took place to negro troublemakers.
Sea: The white violence was also presented as justified, when in fact the opposite was almost always true.
Cam: I was shocked to read excerpts in Red Summer of numerous articles from major publications. Sometimes they published unsubstantiated, inflammatory claims such as a black man raping a white woman, even when the claims were demonstrably untrue. The exceptions were the colored newspapers which did often dig deeper.
Sea: But they weren’t the primary news sources most people read.
Cam: Lest we think we’ve left this kind of majority media prejudice behind we recently saw the same bias in media coverage of Native American protests at Standing Rock in North Dakota. Thousands of Native Americans protested, and hundreds were arrested in protests spanning many months, yet the major media seemed to lose interest after a few weeks.
Sea: We repeat history far too often.
Cam: It makes you wonder whether there are systems intentionally pitting us against one another. Red Summer also tells the stories of politicians using the race riots to their advantage. In several cities, mayors left alone the white lynch mobs so as not to anger their base, but then the riots quickly spun out of control.
Sea: That goes back to the fundamental difference between racism and prejudice. When whites were killing blacks, that was okay. But when whites began to die, the situation was suddenly more dire.
Cam: What lessons can we take from Red Summer? One is not to allow messages of fear of “the other” to divide us.
Sea: Another is not to allow the barriers that separate us from one another to prevent us from talking.
Cam: Let me personalize it: How might I, as an African American, reach out to white men and women to dialogue and strive for inclusion at work, at church, at school, and in social settings.
Sea: And find ways to provide opportunities for one another.
Cam: Let me close with a story: When I was young, I lived in a primarily Jewish apartment building in Brooklyn, New York. At some point, my parents, both African American social workers, received a notice saying the building was going to admit more low-income people. My mother was against it, arguing that our quality of life, our schools, would decline.
Sea: That’s amazing.
Cam: My father argued that fighting against the measure would deny opportunity to members of our own race. Sometimes when inclusion goes against our own preference, we still need to fight for it.
Sea: One of our take-aways is that we as individuals, as a species, as groups, are easily manipulated. We like to follow. And fear, the tiny reptilian brain at the back of our heads, drives our worst behavior. Much of how society is structured around racist ideas and institutions makes it hard for us to recognize when we are practicing crappy behaviors. That’s why I read these books. Maybe becoming aware of these tendencies will help us remove some of those scales on our eyes.