White Baby Steps

Stephanie Gottschalk



Stephen Colbert built a reputation for not being afraid to go to the deep or dark places while hosting his Comedy Central show.  He does not shy away from tension, but uses humor to soften it or sharpen it. During his first months as the new Late Show host on network television, he has changed tactics a bit, but remains consistent with his reputation.

I was excited when he invited DeRay McKesson to be a guest on his show. DeRay McKesson is a leader in the Black Lives Matter movement and influential in what is being called the new civil rights awakening among younger generations of African Americans. DeRay came on the show to promote some specific proposals for improving community policing as one of the organizers of Campaign Zero. He and Stephen started there, but back-tracked to discuss topics that run from people’s reactions to Black Lives Matter, the All Lives Matter backlash, issues around policing and respect for police, white privilege, and dismantling racism. Throughout the exchange, both of these men demonstrate a non-anxious and honest presence that demonstrate the glory and the tragedy of where we are with regard to race relations in the US.

We are at the place where programs and presidents are simply not enough. They don’t dismantle white privilege, they distract from its self-perpetuating presence. They are not enough because they don’t address the complex history and heart of racism -  ideas and fears that have grown and infiltrated our society and become a normative. We need conversations that get at the ideas and assumptions behind the actions, emotions, and realities of our nation. 

What is the reason that we talk past each other so much? How can we build enough trust to move forward?  In the urgency of movements, trials and protests, when is it appropriate to slow the conversation down enough to get some understanding? At a time where we desperately need concrete change because it is a matter of life and death, we can’t get there without some relationship and trust. It is not something one group of people can do on its own.    

The Conversation

Things to Admire: Stephen and DeRay both acknowledge the others’ statements, even if they weren’t in total agreement. They didn’t take the other person’s point of view as automatically ruling out their own. They were honest. Stephen tries to demonstrate humility and vulnerability. While he gets the credit for switching seats, we see that he remains the driver despite the symbolic action. Even after letting go of the position of power behind the desk, he feels the need to give DeRay permission to ask him questions, a privilege that is taken for granted when Stephen sits at the desk and DeRay is in the chair.  It is interesting to look at some more of Stephen’s responses and reflect on what they might tell us about where white people are with white privilege.
  • How can I identify my own white privilege?  
  • I’m not sure I understand it enough to know what to do.
  • I can’t speak for other white people.
  • I feel guilty...
  • I am so blessed that I fear that it will be taken from me.  
  • You can’t have my money.  You can’t have my show.

Things to Notice 1

Colbert demonstrates a willingness to think about white privilege and a desire to clear up his own confusion and ignorance about what that means. At at time when significant numbers of people and media use racial terms differently or incorrectly, this matters. We don't seek out this kind of education as often as we should.Asking what 'woke' means helps white people understand the bigger conversations and it shows that it is important enough to ask when we don't know rather than save face or ignore it. Using racism as a term for powers and systems that are biased against one group and privilege as the term for powers and systems that are biased in favor of another group helps us understand the connection. Learning the terms, the nuances of language, and when to use one word or the other helps make conversation possible.

Things to Notice 2 

Colbert inadvertently switches from using the word 'privilege' to using 'blessing' and implying a connection there. Does this means that any success is an act of divine favor, a reward for hard work, and a reflection of individual circumstance; not a web of race-based forces at work? The truth is that I can work hard within a racist system. To name one factor is not to completely deny the other. Both can be true for white people. We just tend to see our hard work and not see the systems. We say: "I worked hard and anyone who does the same would get the same results." Research and Statistics tell us otherwise. Flint tells us otherwise - babies with brain damage will have to work harder for less. When we substitute blessings for privilege, it makes it easy to ignore systems in favor of a belief that God has approved and caused inequality and so to question the privilege is to question God, faith, or my own integrity. We forget that God holds us accountable for how we use our blessings to bless others, especially when we got them by unfair means (Jacob.)

Things to Notice 3

 When DeRay mentions the assets Colbert has that could be used to fight against racist norms, Colbert quickly asserts control, saying, "You can’t have my money or TV show." Bam! We see Colbert automatically go into self-preservation mode. And that is exactly what people of color are saying to beneficiaries of white privilege. They say that the automatic mode for our institutions, our personal decisions, and our culture is about protecting what is ours, fear of what it looks like to change, and a deeply-imbedded self-preservation reaction to perceived threats. All of this operating under the surface and normative -we can assume that most of Colbert's predominantly white audience would agree that Colbert shouldn't give up his money. Self-preservation instincts on both sides of an altercation become a self-fulfilling prophecy of disaster. This is part of the black distrust of a police officer’s argument that he or she feared for her life from unarmed black people. This knee-jerk fear happens so much more in cases involving blacks and the common courtesies, presumed innocence, and dignity (even of the guilty) seem not to apply to them. The self-preservation norm can even top treasured Constitution-based ideas of due process that say that only the state (and really, only certain states) can sentence a person to death after a fair trial. Using this kind of reason does nothing to elicit compassion from many white people, who regularly write off the gravity or outrage of the shootings by saying that so-and-so was a criminal or was disrespectful to the officer.

Connection Points

As white people, we may be able to hear convincing points that bias exists and comprehend that we are able to function better in this society because it was built with our needs, thoughts, and interests as the norm. But we don’t know what to do. Dismantling white privilege sounds like losing. And encouraging loss in a “second place is first loser” world is crazy; kinda like participation trophies. I think we also automatically hear that the solution would have to be extreme, like where we have to give up every possession or offer ourselves up to be crucified. (It is Jesus who asks that from us.) Inner turmoil and cognitive dissonance abound: How can the world be better if we lose? What about my kids? It is not my fault that we are here, how can I be expected to bear responsibility for the solution? I resent being made to feel that my whiteness is something shameful.

And in that one instant, we might just grasp what people of color have been saying for decades. It is unfair to dis-advantage and shame a whole group of people at once. That kind of loss and degradation can’t be made up for in one program or one generation or one prominent success story (like a president.) It's a big deal. That kind of loss stings and wears down and burdens and infuriates. And when we start to grasp it, we can choose to allow all the feelings to come: guilt, distress, compassion, fear, selfishness, selflessness, confusion, outrage, helplessness. We can realize that our dismay at the prospect of that life is nothing compared to those who have actually lived within its tensions - All. The. Time. We can acknowledge and lament the pain of where we are as a society without knowing the answer. 
Baby steps.  

Which, again, is why I hope to see more of these public conversations that can go deeper and get us off the uncomfortable merry-go-round of our current reality. Despite stories, facts and figures, many white people continue to divert the conversation when it sparks guilt, anger, or discomfort. (See Colbert’s joke about drinking a lot.) We respond to other people’s pain much better when it involves no pain of our own or the glorified pain of martyrdom. And filled with frustration at this callously indifferent refusal to engage, many black people continually try to stop our diversions by bringing the conversation back around to the pain. To point out convoluted thinking, ignorance of history, and unapologetic hypocrisy to prevent us from retreating into a safe, white bubble where discussing 'race issues' is optional while they have no such option. Listening and real conversation is the first step off the merry-go-round. Maybe, if we can all just care enough to do a lot of this, we can agree that racism is our common enemy and do something holy about it.  


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