I've been wondering why white people have so many predictable responses to conversations about race.
Part of it has to do with what I've come to understand as the Three Levels of Identity but I think I've found another angle and it's about time.
This is a bit rough, but perhaps you can help me flush it out.
I've found that how white people respond to conversations about race depends heavily on which time frames they are holding in mind.
For the sake of simplicity and clarity, I will lay out four time frames and how white people seem to respond when this is the time frame they are rooted in (assuming they have an accurate understanding of the time frames we're talking about).
Prehistory (dawn of the human race): When responses are rooted in the prehistorical times of humanity you will hear comments about race that sound like Bill Clinton's recent comment, "We are all mixed race." You'll hear how we are all from Africa and so must all be related and so there are really no differences between us.
Ancient History (Indigenous Europe): When responses are rooted here, you'll hear, "But my people were oppressed too! My ancestors were indigenous too. So we're all the same." I find white people, when learning about their ancestral history tend to zoom back to the time their ancestors were oppressed and colonized.
Recent History (the past 500 years): The tone shifts when conversations are rooted here. It sounds more like, "Waugghhh! White people are awful. We've done such terrible things." We are firmly in the territory of white guilt now.
The Present: When people have zero historical context I think there are two different ways it seems to go. One is denial of, "People of colour must be exaggerating. It's not that bad. They're playing victim." with the implication that white people have it more together and, if put in the same situation as people of colour would quickly transcend it. And the other is, "Wow. Things seem to be really rough for people of colour. There's a lot of poverty, racism and abuse from police. What can I do to help?" But, without understanding the history, it's hard to appreciate how far things have come and what hasn't changed much. It's harder to understand the intensity of reactions from people of colour around these issues. There's some white guilt, but not as much as those who have a more keen understanding of recent history.
As Howard Zinn put it, "If you don't know history it is as if you were born yesterday."
Four time frames. All of them true.
Each of these time frames begs us to say, "This is who I really am."
I think that, for white people, there is the immense twin-headed temptation to want to either skip the Recent History chapter or to make it the whole of the story.
To skip recent history might look like not wanting to face the way that our ancestral cousins, directly related or not, were the architects and implementors of a system of racial oppression or it might look like wanting to ignore one line of our family because they were abusive but it always looks like disowning a certain group of our ancestors. It always looks like cutting a large swath from the fabric of time.
To make it the whole story seems noble in the way that all self hatred seems noble.
Certainly this is true of more than just white people. I don't know if there is an ancient culture or elder spiritual lineage in the world that doesn't include dark times in its history and moments of incredible shame. But I will let those cultures, people and lineages speak for themselves.
I think what is being asked of us is to learn them all, to remember the Big Story, to trace the threads of how it got to be this way and to hold the whole story. I think we're being asked to hold the present not in isolation but to place it like an egg that promises the future into the nest of recent history and to place that nest onto the tree of ancient history in the forest of our deep, prehistory.
I think that's the only way we can understand it. When we can hold the Big Story and say, "This is who I really am. All of it." then we have the chance to become something else.
I think that our understanding of the Big Story of our past is our only way forward to the possibility of things being different.