Looking back, it was hardly coincidental that I picked up Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman shortly after DJT was elected to office. It was clearly the catalyst for my first steps of in-the-home activism.
Watchman takes place in the 1950s, 20 years after To Kill a Mockingbird. Scout—now called Jean Louise—returns to her hometown of Maycomb, GA from New York City where she’s been living and working. She discovers [SPOILER ALERT] that her father, Atticus Finch, is not the morally upstanding, liberal-leaning, “everyone is equal” touting man she thought he was. Instead we learn that Atticus is in fact a more complex person, a more realistic character; we learn Atticus is a White man in a position of power attempting to maintain the status quo of White Supremacy in Maycomb.
(Slight divergence: Jean Louise’s recognition of Atticus’ true and full self instantly reminded me of my various “awakening” moments to systemic racism and other forms of oppression over the course of my life this far.)
It’s revealed in Watchman that Jean Louise escaped to New York City. She fled the tight confines of Maycomb and the South: those confines that she could see or feel directly. Despite being reared in the Deep South, Jean Louise was raised “color blind” (and thought her father was as well). She was “woke” to gender, race, and class prejudice and would bluntly call it out, but she was “blind” to structural oppression and participated in upholding it—as most citizens did and do on a daily basis. Other than railing against Maycomb citizens (royally pissing them off) and family members (hurting their feelings) Jean Louise takes little action to effect change. She kicks up dirt and runs away, again and again.
Finally, at the end of the novel her Uncle Jack asks
“Jean Louise, have you ever thought about coming home?….You may not know it, but there’s room for you down here.”…. You’d be amazed if you knew how many people are on your side, if side’s the right word. You’re no special case. The woods are full of people like you, but we need some more of you.”
She started the car and backed down the driveway. She said, “What on earth could I do? I can’t fight them. There’s no fight in me any more…”
“I don’t mean fighting; I mean by going to work every morning, coming home at night, seeing your friends.”
“Uncle Jack, I can’t live in a place that I don’t agree with and that doesn’t agree with me.”
It’s the next part that got me:
“…the time your friends need you is when they’re wrong, Jean Louise. They don’t need you when they’re right—”
“I mean it takes a certain maturity to live in the South these days. You don’t have it yet, but you have a shadow of the beginnings of it. You haven’t the humbleness of mind—”
“I thought fear of the Lord was the beginning of wisdom.”
“It’s the same thing. Humility.”
I came to understand that the rail-and-run technique was personally and professionally ineffectual about a year and a half ago. I paid a price for it, and have worked against feelings of self-righteous motivated activist since. But what I hadn’t done was gone home and sought to engage my family members. I had not yet tried to humbly interact with their true and full selves around the topic of race and our Whiteness.
Luckily, I these conversations were happening with my husband. So I asked if he would be open to gifting ) Robin DiAngelo’s book What does it mean to be White? to the four households in our immediate family (my parents; my sister and her partner; my mother-in-law; my brother- and sister-in-law). He agreed.
When holiday time came, each book was accompanied by a letter (the text of which I included at the bottom of this post). We asked that family members “exchange with us the gift of conversation around [the book’s] contents in the coming months.”
I can report that the books were received well and some family members have started reading them. I’ve already had more nuanced conversations with my parents—one of which hasn’t started the book—about race and Whiteness in 2017 than I have in my life. My husband reported having at least one reflective conversation with his mother, who I believe hadn’t started the book at that time but has as of today.
There are many action steps I’m being encouraged to follow and public places I can convene in to demonstrate my dissent with the current administration, its actions thus far, and what I/we assume will be its actions moving forward. I propose, like Uncle Jack, considering dialogue in the home as well. The Powers That Be run strong, deep, and silent. Examining them openly as a family might be one of the cornerstones of change for the future.
This holiday season, we want to share with you the gift of the book What does it mean to be White? and ask that you exchange with us the gift of conversation around its contents in the coming months.
Our lives are gifted with abundance. We have loving parents, siblings, siblings-in-law, a beautiful niece, and cuddly pets. All of us have places to live. We are all employed and/or have the means to eat, be clean and clothed, transport ourselves places, and maintain our health. We have strong support networks.
It is because our lives are gifted with abundance, with privilege, that we don’t want to take this for granted. We want to actively be responsible citizens at the national level, local level, and family level.
We’re all White and we live in an increasingly multi-racial, multi-ethnic, multi-cultural country. This past year, we’ve clearly seen how deeply racism still runs in this country. And this past year has forced us to confront the reality that we (personally) aren’t addressing racism, our White identity, and Whiteness in all the ways we could be.
We want to talk with you about these highly important topics. We see this book as a way to begin to have the conversation. And maybe, this way, we can work toward effecting positive change in our country (and the world) by starting in our homes.
We love you all very much.