Tears We Cannot Stop: A Sermon to White America (Dyson)

“What,” I was asked once, ” is white culture?” (Roediger’s comment seems to be apt: Is there a white culture without domination?)

Those who know me know that I am rarely at a loss for words. This time, though. . .

After a pause longer than the conference leader wanted, I said, “I don’t know. I hope it’s not the Ku Klux Klan and the Confederate flag.”

Dyson has a better answer. Nothing. I mean, I know race is a social construct, but I admit I had never thought of it this way. There was a Rabbi’s sermon going around a while back that Jews should withdraw from being white and become Jewish again. That seemed too self-serving at the time. To renounce one’s membership in a group that had been so beneficial for so long just when that group was finally being scrutinized and criticized. So how do we abolish the white race without relieving it, us, of responsibility?

There is much to chew on in this book. For a while, I was kind of annoyed by Dyson’s tone. He kept saying that he was sure certain things were bothering we white readers. And largely, they didn’t. They were just eloquent though familiar arguments. Even a few I didn’t find convincing. His argument about the “n-word” (sorry if that’s wimpy; I’m just not going to write it or say it) seems too neat. A few things did emerge that ruffled me. This was the first extended moment:

When you stop believing that we are radical when we can be more conservative than you, that we are one color when we are a plethora of shades, and that we are related to each other and not you when you are related to us in more ways than you can count or may care to know.

The first point, if I understand it, confuses me, especially in the context of this book. It may a question of defining terms. What is “radical”? What is “conservative”? The “plethora of shades” piece is not one I recognize. At the very least, it seems reciprocal. And I think the lack of reciprocity in the third point, well, I get how whites need blacks and are related to (dependent?) on them, but that blacks are somehow independent (outside) of that relationship? I need more sentences here in order to be convinced.

And I am willing to listen. This is, after all, a sermon. Dyson wants to tell us, not to discuss with us. But I don’t think questioning or disagreeing is the same as not understanding. Certainly, there are any number of things I don’t have any kind of intellectual, historical or emotional access to (encounters with the police, for example), but Dyson, surprisingly defensive (and I think a bit off-target) about academia, is not preaching to the completely uninformed. With a few exceptions, he’s relying on ethos here. We are to trust him because he’s him. Well, that’s not always enough.

Dyson in Parma June 5th – free, but you have to register


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