Illusions of superiority

By Robert Jensen

Published in In the Fray · May, 2004

I stepped onto the speakers’ platform at the Virginia Festival of Books in Charlottesville with Newsday editor Les Payne to discuss our chapters in his book When Race Becomes Real. Bernestine Singley, the other panelist, had edited the book.

As I walked to my seat, I was well aware of Payne’s impressive record. I had read his work, and I know he is a more experienced journalist than I am. He’s won more prizes and written more important books than me. Payne has traveled more widely and reported on more complex subjects. He is older than me, and has done more in his life than I have. I also have heard Payne speak before, and know that he is a more commanding and more forceful speaker than I am.

So, as I sat down at my seat, I did what came naturally; I felt superior to Les Payne. If it seems odd that I would feel superior to someone I knew to be more talented and accomplished than I am, then here is another relevant fact: Les Payne is African American, and I am white.

I didn’t recognize that feeling of superiority as I sat down, or as I made my remarks on the panel. It wasn’t until Payne started reading from a chapter in his book and explaining how he came to write his essays that my feeling became so painfully clear to me.

Payne talked about how, as a teenager born in the segregated South who attended high school in the North, he had struggled to overcome the internalized sense of inferiority which grew from the environment in which he had been raised. He talked with a quiet passion and power, about how deep that sense of inherent inferiority can appear in African Americans.

At some point, I made the obvious connection. Part of the reason that the struggle Payne described is so hard for African Americans is because white behavior is a constant expression of that feeling of superiority, expressed in a fashion both subtle and overt. My mind raced immediately to that feeling of superiority I felt as we had taken our seats. I had assumed, despite all that I knew about Les Payne, his record, and his speaking ability, that I would be the highlight of the panel. Why? It might be because I’m an egotistical white boy. Maybe I’m a white boy with delusions of grandeur. The former is almost certainly true. The latter may be an exaggeration. But whatever my own personal weaknesses are, one factor is obvious: I am white and Payne is African American, and that was the basis of my feeling.

The moment that particular feeling hit me, I was literally left speechless, fighting back tears, with a profound sense of sadness. I struggled to keep focused on Payne’s words, but it was difficult to do as my mind raced to cope with what I was feeling. Payne finished, and Ms. Singley started her reading. When the speaking period ended, I was forced to engage in the ending, and I did my best to answer a question asked of me. But I remained shaken.

One of the ‘good’ white people

Why all of this drama? It was because I fancied myself one of the “good” white people, one of the anti-racist white people. I am politically active, and have worked hard to incorporate an honest account of race and racism into my school’s teaching.

But in that moment, I had to confront that which I had not yet relinquished: the basic psychological features of racism. As Payne talked honestly of struggling with a sense of inferiority, I had to face that I had never really shaken a sense of my superiority. As I write these words, the feeling of that moment of sadness returns. Do not mistake this for superficial shame or guilt. Do not describe me as a self-indulgent white liberal. The sadness I feel is not for me. It is sadness about how deeply embedded in me is that fundamental reality of racism; the assumption that white people are superior.

That doesn’t mean I’m a racist. It doesn’t mean my political work or efforts in the classroom don’t matter. Instead, it means that what I say to my students about race — that the dynamics of domination and subordination run deep, affecting us in ways we don’t always see clearly — is true not only in theory. It is also true in my psyche.

I have long known that. On the platform with Payne that day, his words forced me to feel it. That wasn’t his intention; he was speaking to the audience — which was primarily African American — not to me. Whatever the intent, he did me that service. But I am most grateful to Payne not for that, but for something that happened later. After the event, I was planning to drive to Washington, D.C. When I mentioned that to Payne, he asked if he could ride with me and catch a flight from D.C. back to New York. I jumped at the chance, in part because I wanted to hear more about his research for his forthcoming book on Malcolm X, but also because I wanted to talk to him about what had happened to me on stage.

In the few we drove together, I took advantage of Payne’s experience in journalism and asked his opinion about a range of issues, in addition to pumping him for insights into Malcolm X’s life. And, finally, I asked if I could tell him about what had happened on stage.

It turned out, not surprisingly, that Les Payne is a gracious man. He listened to my story, nodding throughout. Nothing I said seemed to shock him. He is, after all an African American in the United States; I didn’t expect that I would shock him.

It was after I had finished that Payne did something for which I will always be grateful: He didn’t forgive me. That is, he made no attempt to make me feel better. He didn’t reassure me that I was, in fact, one of the good” white people. He simply acknowledged what I had told him, said he understood, and continued our discussion about the politics of race in the United States.

Part of me probably wanted him to forgive me. Part of me probably wanted the approval of African American person at that moment, to help eliminate the discomfort, which I was still feeling. But what would that have accomplished for him, for me, or for the world? Without knowing it, Payne during the panel had given me the gift of feeling uncomfortable. In the car at this time, perhaps with full knowledge of what he was doing, he gave me the gift of not letting me off the hook.

When I dropped him at the airport, I had no illusions. The day had meant much more to me than to him. He had been willing to teach me something, and then he went on to other things. His personal struggle with internalized inferiority was largely over; his chapter in the book made that clear, as did his interaction with me. It was easy to tell by the way he spoke and carried himself that Payne doesn’t spend a lot of time worrying about whether white people are better than him. But I was left with the unfinished project of dealing with my internalized sense of superiority. And it was clear to both of us that such a project was my responsibility, not his.

The gender question

The story of that day in Charlottesville can’t end there, of course. On the platform with us was Bernestine Singley, who is every bit as black as Les Payne, and every bit as accomplished a lawyer and writer. Why am I focusing on him and not her? Why did he spark this realization in me and not her?

In part it was because of what Payne talked about on stage; his remarks and his chapter had pushed my buttons. Also, I have known Singley longer and have a more established relationship with her. We live in different cities and are not friends in a conventional sense, but I consider her (and I hope she considers me) a trustworthy ally and comrade in the struggle, and a friend in that context. Singley and I also have very different styles, and when we appear on panels together we clearly are
not competing.

With all that said, it’s also difficult to miss the fact that Singley is a woman and Payne is a man. There was not only a race dynamic on stage, but a gender dynamic. It’s likely that I was, in classic male fashion, focusing on the struggle for dominance with the other man on the panel. This perception of myself also is hard to face; in addition to being a good white person, you see, I’m also a good man. I’m one of the men who is on the right side. But I also am one of the men who, whatever side he is on, constantly struggles with the reality of living in a male-supremacist society that has taught me lessons about how to vie for dominance.

Introspection on these matters is difficult; people in privileged positions often are not in the best position to evaluate our own behavior. But looking back on that day, it appears to me I walked onto that platform with an assumption of my inherent superiority — so deeply woven into me that I could not in the moment see it — that had something to do with race and gender.

From those assumptions, it is hard to reach a conclusion other than: I was a fool.

I use that term consciously, because throughout history white people have often cast blacks as the fool to shore up our sense of superiority. But in that game, it is white people who are the fools, and it is difficult and painful to confront that. Somehow, I had allowed myself to believe the story that a racist and sexist society still tells. Yes, I know that Jim Crow segregation is gone and the overt ideology that supported it is mostly gone. But in the struggle to change the world, what matters is not only what law is, or what polite people say in public. What matters just as much, if not more, is what we really are, deep down.

All this matters not just because white people should learn to be better or nicer, but because as long as we whites believe we are better, deep down in places most of us have learned to hide, we will not feel compelled to change a society in which black unemployment is twice the white rate. And in which, as a recent study has found, a white man with a criminal record is more likely to called back for a job interview than a black man with no record.

In the United States, the typical black family has 58 percent as much income as a typical white family. And at the slow rate the black-white poverty gap has been narrowing since 1968, it will take 150 years to close. At the current rate, blacks and whites won’t reach high school graduation parity until 2013, nearly 60 years after the Brown v. Board of Education decision. That is an ugly society.

The first step for white people is to face that ugliness, to tell the truth about the system we live in and tell the truth about ourselves. But that means nothing if we do not commit to change, not just to change ourselves, but to change the system. We have to face the ways in which white supremacy makes white people foolish but forces others to pay a much greater price.

We have to stop playing the fool and start playing for keeps.