An Open Letter To Michael E. Dyson
Dear Mr. Michael E. Dyson, NY Times:
In your essay for The New York Times, “Death in Black and White”, you said of White Americans:
You cannot know how we secretly curse the cowardice of whites who know what I write is true, but dare not say it. Neither will your smug insistence that you are different — not like that ocean of unenlightened whites — satisfy us any longer. It makes the killings worse to know that your disapproval of them has spared your reputations and not our lives.
You do not know that after we get angry with you, we get even angrier with ourselves, because we don’t know how to make you stop, or how to make you care enough to stop those who pull the triggers. We do not know what to do now that sadness is compounded by more sadness.” -@MichaelEDyson, NY Times, July 2016
There is one line...”Neither will your smug insistence that you are different — not like that ocean of unenlightened whites — satisfy us any longer.”…
Mr. Dyson,…You are right.
My binoculars got cracked when I went to work in a Walmart and saw the glass ceiling hitting me as a female and my coworker as a black. By the time I had spent a couple years in Eggleston Square, Roxbury, Massachusetts as a Medication Officer to mostly poor black men, supervising blacks from Nigeria, Guyana, Haiti…I threw those cracked binoculars away, disgusted at myself for ever putting them on.
I was the white child who’s father had a favorite riddle:
“Q: You know what the difference was between us in the Polish ghetto and the Negros in their ghetto in Detroit in the 1950’s?
A: The Food.”
He and my mother, when they saw our whitewashed history books from school, told us the stories about the marches, Rosa Parks, MLK, and Malcolm X. They wanted us to know.
They told us about Motown, The Ink Spots, about Jazz, about how the first Americans to dance in church (think of 8 year old me, 1970’s Vatican II folk mass with full band) …weren’t the Shakers here in New Hampshire. The Shakers didn’t dance.
My parents taught us that it was the Negros who danced in American churches first, and were still dancing in Evangelical churches today. (Hence why I could be found on Sundays dancing in the pews, clapping and singing.)
As I read your essay, I pondered,
as I have often done:
How? How did I grow up being taught all that, but still ended up with White binoculars that were heavy, uncomfortable, and after my stint at Walmart, cracked?
Why? Why did it take so long to just… like my fake assumed sexual orientation…to tear those cracked binoculars away, and crumple them deep in the nearest trash can?
Mr. Dyson, now that I am old, disabled, poor…with two black ex-stepsons, a cousin who is a cop, and again a target of White Straight Christian America, I think I know a little of how and why.
When you are born white you are – like all newborns – born with no binoculars at all. You are born completely un-racist, non-sexist, completely fine with any gender or sexual orientation, unaware of ableist concepts.
The problem is that precisely because you ARE white, you CAN pass, …the culture and society around you not only constantly offers those binoculars, they make them so sparkly, so pretty, so easy to “just try on”. There is so much applause, delighted ” Ahhh’s”, and compliments when you do “try them on”.
And, just like a slave collar, once they are on…they can be damn hard to get off.
Unlike a slave collar, most of us Whites are never beaten or whipped into having binoculars strapped on. Most of us are not ripped from our homes, lives, loved ones, and branded with a Confederate Flag to force us to put the hated things on. You are correct that most of us never grow up in ghettos with substandard schools, and constant slurs, hate speech, and discrimination.
Slaves, kidnapped or defeated in war, fight the collar from before it is locked around one’s neck until they are either broken emotionally numb or until they gain freedom or die.
Whites – at least in part – put binoculars on willingly. Then they gain status, perceived acceptance, and sometimes nicer clothing or places to live. Like when a plantation slave gets “chosen” to be a House slave, Whites can become so attached to trivial trappings they will literally defend, vote for, and hand the whip to their masters, the uber-rich or corrupt religious leaders.
Many Whites are at this very moment planning to try and elect President a person who is a Master, uber-rich, powerful, and used to ordering people to do horrible things. I am sure you know that is how powerful the hold of slavery can be. What you may have missed is just how many Whites are House Slaves, bragging about the fact they have binoculars and only point them at FOXNEWS. They have absolutely no concept that it is wrong for police to shoot and kill Black humans. They can barely even see Black humans from their spots in the plantation House.
Fortunately, when any person tastes true equality and freedom, they become hungry for it, and this includes White humans. But it is not as simple as taking off a usual, steampunk era pair of binoculars.
Once they learn they have binoculars on, Whites then have to fight the internal battle to admit they erred, sinned in donning them. After that brutal examination of conscience, they then have to confess, at least to themselves, what they have done. They have to forgive themselves, and reconcile the brain and the heart back together, so they can change how they speak and act.
But they remain vision impaired until and unless they actually either tear the binoculars off, or – like me, have them cracked and partially torn by life and eventually are able to hold their breath and rip what remains stuck to the skin off.
That is how and some reasons why so many White Americans see the world dimly, distorted. Even when they know it is because of the binoculars. Even when they are saying and acting the true way. Freedom does not come easily to Whites, and there is plenty of pressure to stay on the plantation, especially by uber rich masters who want to keep their valuable House Slaves.
Another reason why?
The one thing those White binoculars do show, magnified 10x, is the amount of work, pain, self-doubt, and learning that occur when one of us tries to take them off or has them cracked or ripped off by life. Fear – of pain, discomfort, of SEEING becomes the lock keeping binoculars on our White heads, covering our eyes.
Mr. Dyson, you are right. Those of us Whites who have been able to shed those horrid binoculars have no right to be smug about it.
We have no right to stand there, to SEE reality, and then turn off that video and do nothing.
Free Whites do have a unique responsibility to take action, to speak up, to march with you, but remember you lead your own march.
We do have a sacred calling to at least TRY to keep the binoculars off the White kids, and to encourage our White brothers and sisters to truly see the light, to accept the way everything they know as real will be turned inside out when they get those binoculars even half off.
We Free Whites have a responsibility to remember when we vote just how distorted our vision can be, simply because we are White, and therefore not jump at trusting what the White man or woman with gold plated binoculars shouts at us to vote for. We Free Whites, like Black, Latino, and other minority Americans must choose carefully in November, or the uber rich Masters will enslave all of humanity.
Non-Whites cannot be passive victims of discrimination, and have not just the right but the responsibility to bring police violence against blacks to everyone’s attention.
As you said, none want violence upon violence. Not Blacks, Not Whites, Not Police. No One wanted what happened in Dallas to happen except (a) the people suffering from brain diseases who don’t know any better, and (b) those who stand to profit in votes or money from pushing an Army Veteran, or any human, to this kind of violence. (Note:The internet is flooded with expressions of condolence, but none are trending from the NRA. Just an example.)
Free Whites will never have the same vision as Blacks or Latinos, or Native Americans. However, that doesn’t mean we need throw the baby out with the bathwater.
Free straight Whites will never be able to see as well as Free Whites who aren’t, and Rich Free Whites will always be challenged by pride, lust, greed, envy in what they see, just as Rich Blacks, Latinos, etc. are. (One reason higher taxes on the uber-rich can be seen as a moral imperative to reduce the agitation that leads to violence perpetrated by Masters.)
However, because Whites who have done the journey of self examination to self-reconciliation do try to say the right things and do the right actions, they should and can be encouraged by Blacks to take the next steps to remove the binoculars they still wear.
Free Whites can, at least, see better for having taken the binoculars off, so they do deserve the prayers of the Black, Latino, and other communities when they try to do the right thing, when they do act, and especially when they put themselves in harm’s way standing next to you when the bullets fly.
All Whites need to see more Non-White news, live in integrated communities, go to integrated schools and churches, and have more non-white friends. It loosens the glue-ish crud of prejudice around the edges of the binoculars. This will be challenging for both Whites and Blacks.
Free Whites will need a lot of patience, as we will still screw up sometimes because of the damage done from those binoculars.
Yes, Free Whites who do nothing, or who act like they know everything, or act like they are so much better than everyone else do deserve your condemnation. But the Free Whites like me, homebound, struggling to speak out, or simply reading a lot of what you Blacks have to say, trying to learn from you….we need help and support from the Black community, not scorn for failing to stop the violence.
Yes, even us Free Whites need to have you give us reality checks, and yes, keep us humble.
However, it must be out of love, not because you wish, like a sexist does of women, to control us, to have your “turn at the whip”.
Blacks, like all people seeking equality, must remember not to go over that line into becoming the ones handing out binoculars that only see Black.
Yes, in your words, art, music, protests, marches, and lives, remind us that the illusion of the binoculars – that we Whites are special, better, privileged – was just that, an illusion. Keep reminding us until Whites get it right. Then, we can celebrate together.
I believe that back in the 1970’s my parents felt helpless (like you do now) to stop our culture and our society from offering us bright shiny binoculars, but made a conscious decision to have us see at least some of Black reality first, and to remember it.
Did it help me, later in life, to finally shed those horrid cracked lenses? I think it did. So much so that when my kids were little, I repeated what my parents had done. My White kids learned about MLK and Motown before they could walk. I made sure to watch the history books for whitewashing and the science books for Evolution and Biological diversity.
When I learned my biracial 8yr old stepson sang Black rap songs with absolutely no understanding of why they are important, I spent entire afternoons sharing old cassettes by street rappers from the 1990’s, my Run DMC and DrDre’s “Chronic” CD’s, along with Ella Fitzgerald, Dizzy Gillespie, and my 1940-1950’s Blues collection, talking about how each birthed the next type of music, about what those lyrics meant to a Black inner city kid, and why it mattered.
This was before his Dad and I were plunged into chaos by domestic violence and female relational abuse. Before I had the scars from the binoculars burned off my face by life today.
I still had somewhat impaired vision back then, I still had White prejudices, but I tried, and that trying by Whites does have value when we can be realistic and humble about it. No, I never was able to change the racist tendencies of small town police or my ex-landlord. I never accomplished anything huge. But I did more than just sit there and ignore the problem. My tiny White efforts did have value, just like the small efforts my parents made in the 1970’s. Mr. Dayson, this is not an unwinnable struggle!
Remember my story of my youth, of how pretty and tempting the binoculars can be, so when equality comes, none of you are tempted, perhaps like the first Dallas shooter was, to paint the lens on a pair of binoculars black and strap them tight to your eyes.
Blacks and Whites, men, women, and trans, poor and not poor, gay and straight, young and old, abled and Spoonies….we can all be Free, but we are all capable of submitting to new kinds of bondage. Each day, each of us must choose.
You don’t have to know all the answers on how to stop what started in Dallas, the downward cycle of violence. We Free Whites don’t know what to do about it either. Let’s just keep brainstorming, keep trying, and keep working, imperfectly and humanly, together.
Mr. Dyson, I am old, but my ex-stepsons are black young men in their teens and twenties. My cousin is a good cop. My little granddaughters, so far, don’t seem to be playing with binoculars much.
Like a lot of old disabled people, I spend a lot of time praying for them, for my black Haitian friend of 10+ years, for Dallas, Baton Rouge, Minnesota. God broke the pride I had that was misplaced. God reminded me that two young black men, one good cop, an old friend and her family, and two little white girls still need saving from the damage binoculars and violence can do.
When I am well enough, I blog, write to politicians, run a small online community that tries to be barrier free. I am truly a lay Franciscan religious: poor, a bit scruffy looking, mostly talking to plants in the garden, my dog, birds, trees, and God, simply doing little things! It isn’t much, but it is something!
So, Mr. Dyson, don’t lose faith or become frozen with indecision. Don’t give up on us Whites just yet. At least for them, our children, our police family members, let’s keep trying, let’s keep helping each other all walk together, and let’s heal this land we love and ourselves.
Brenda Ann Eckels, aMGC
Strafford County, NH