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Same Color, Different World: How White Power Works

Posted by porlapaz on April 1, 2008

Calenthia Dowdyby Calenthia S. Dowdy, Damascus Road trainer and professor at Eastern University

Entering the crowded cafeteria my eyes darted around for a place to sit and eat lunch. “Akbar” (not his real name) a student from Kenya was sitting alone so I decided to sit with him and chat a little bit. Akbar was a transfer student from Daystar University in Nairobi and I enjoyed talking with him, hearing about his experiences both in Kenya and the U.S. We were both at a predominantly white Christian college in the U.S., both had similar skin color, he was African; I am African American, but clearly our worlds were very different. Akbar would tell me about his adventures in the city as an African who was sometimes mistaken for an African American. He shared his frustration of being taken as a thief when store security followed him around while he shopped. “They think I am African American” he would say. “Many African Americans steal and many are violent.” “Aw come on Akbar, do you think that’s really?” “Yes, I see it for myself now that I am here but before I came here, the missionaries in Kenya warned me saying I should not associate with blacks here because they are violent, I should only associate with Christians.”

This dialogue among many other disturbing conversations with Akbar took place a long time ago but they have never left me and they continue to resonate in dialogues I have had with other Africans living here in the states. An African colleague recently came into my office to express a heartfelt concern, “Why don’t African Americans like Africans.” A Nigerian man asked me why African Americans have not attained more status especially with all the opportunities they have in America. Are they just lazy? While taking a town car to the airport in Denver just a few weeks ago, the driver, a gentleman from Morocco talked about how great America is and how anybody can make it here. He loudly wondered why so many black people have not done better in America. “What’s wrong with them?” Similarly, many African Americans carry frustrations regarding Africans. What’s going on?

Kofi Glover, Ghanaian professor of political science at University of South Florida, first states that “a shared complexion does not equal a shared culture, nor does it automatically lead to friendships. Whether we like it or not, Africans and African-Americans have two different and very distinct cultures.” Glover also points out that many of our perceptions of each other are rooted in “all the negative things we’ve been taught about each other. A lot of African-Americans were taught that Africa was nothing more than just a primitive, backward jungle from whence they came, while Africans have picked up whites’ fear of blacks. Our perception of African-Americans is that they are a race of people who carry guns and are very, very violent.” (Quote from “African vs. African-American: A shared complexion does not guarantee racial solidarity,” by Tracie Reddick, The Tribune Co. 1998.)

Internalized Racial Oppression (IRO) persists between these groups. Africans and African Americans stereotype and point fingers at each other while the broader scheme of white power and privilege quietly consumes us and preserves itself. The divide and conquer trickery of white power is that it maintains itself by creating infighting between people of color groups, thus diverting our attention away from the real problem, that of white power and privilege. As people of color we must find ways to come together to fight the common enemy of white power, and refuse to let that power continue to divide us.

14 Responses to “Same Color, Different World: How White Power Works”

  1. John Verba said

    This is really interesting. 90% of this opinion piece is about how two very different cultures have naturally developed very different mindsets, whether “we like it or not.” (What is there to like or not? The settings and cultures are very different…how does one then personalize the natural outcomes of that reality?)

    So…that’s all very logical and easy to follow, and then, in the last paragraph, it’s like we have to swerve across six lanes of traffic to go pick up “white privilege,” which is the REAL reason, evidently, that people who were raised an ocean apart treat each other as strangers and can’t really get to know each other unless and until they make the effort to.

    How is that constructive in any way? You could invite the African to hang out with you, and then take them into the inner city (and take yourself there, too) to see what kinds of curriculum, “mentors” and opportunities (or total lack thereof) exist there…examine where the money goes and who oversees it…see what troubles exist and who is working to correct them…and see who just likes to keep people not knowing each other so, yes, certain leaders and influencers can maintain their standing in the community.

    You’ll understand your African friends and bridge the gaps of understanding between you to whatever extent you’re willing to open yourself and your homes to one another…starting now and moving into the future. To throw up your hands, bemoan the past and insist he join you in being fixated on this particular issue/cause is precisely what he’s talking about. He sees opportunity and a promise in reaching for it, “like it or not.”

  2. Katie Verba said

    Here’s a thought:

    Just because people have the same skin color doesn’t mean they have the same thoughts, or should have the same thoughts, or anything like that. You can’t assume that people with the same color skin will act or think the same way. You also can’t assume that, if they don’t get along, it’s because of another racial group dividing and conquering them, and “creating infighting between people of color groups.”

  3. A Sarah said

    Katie Verba said:

    “Just because people have the same skin color doesn’t mean they have the same thoughts, or should have the same thoughts, or anything like that. You can’t assume that people with the same color skin will act or think the same way. You also can’t assume that, if they don’t get along, it’s because of another racial group dividing and conquering them, and ‘creating infighting between people of color groups.'”

    Right. You can’t just assume any old thing that pops into your head. You need to back it up with personal experience and analysis. Which is exactly what Calenthia very clearly provided, further backing up her point with the Kofi Glover reference, a political scientist who has further studied these issues. I see the two previous comments being far more full of assumptions than the entry they’re responding to.

    And as for the exhortation that “[j]ust because people have the same skin color doesn’t mean they have the same thoughts, or should have the same thoughts…” Um, right. That was, like, kind of the point of the Glover quote.

    John wrote: ” then, in the last paragraph, it’s like we have to swerve across six lanes of traffic to go pick up “white privilege,” which is the REAL reason, evidently, that people who were raised an ocean apart treat each other as strangers and can’t really get to know each other unless and until they make the effort to. How is that constructive in any way? ”

    So you don’t think it even PLAUSIBLE that white-dominated institutions portray African-Americans as lazy, violent thieves? And that Africans pick up on that? And that that kind of infighting hurts people of color? And that one of the perks of being white is that we only have to care about that dynamic when we want to?

    Because surely if it were a thesis that were even PLAUSIBLE — leaving aside for the moment the fact that it is, in point of fact, pretty well-attested — it would be “constructive,” as you put it, to talk about it, right? In the interests of justice? Even if it might occasionally give white people like me an ookey feeling because we don’t like thinking about how we benefit from racism?

  4. John Verba said

    A Sarah…

    Why is it infighting. though? I mean, I’m not sure where you live and what you’re assuming, but I can tell you from knowing people in the public housing a block away to the Howard University students (from Trinidad) in our basement to professionals who live in the (affluent) burbs to the daughter of a Washington Post columnist who attended both Hampden and Syracuse (and has strongly held opinions about Howard U students)…all of whom are black…to (also black) friends who’ve been in prison, or homeless, that, well, they’re each pretty independent people.

    And, being human, they’ve been very much formed by their economic standing, educations and the mindsets of those who raised them.

    They don’t feel particularly obligated to all act like each other, in my direct and extensive experience…though, of course, they might all just be “acting” for my benefit, because some people show different sides of themselves to different audiences…like the way I’m not talking to you the way I’d talk to a kid from the inner city or to a millionaire black owner of an 8(a) company.

    Instead of debating plausibility and assumptions, just go ahead and say how many black people you know who would rather not have you feel “ookey,” but would like to know you as a person and share their lives and experiences with you. They’re out here to know, you know.

    I’m sorry you feel ookey. Is it plausible that you could just move somewhere where you’re in the 3% minority, lend a hand, make some friends and move beyond theory? I mean, for real. Is it possible that instead of saying you feel “ookey” that you might just go live somewhere where you don’t have to accept anyone’s portrayal of the people around you through the media (or though PhDs who’ve “studied the issue [from afar],” because you know them?

    I’m pretty sure there are some very nice older black women around here who could reassuringly tell you, “It doesn’t help anyone for you to feel ‘ookey,’ dear…because, you know, it’s not really all about you, in the end.”

    Blacks aren’t lazy, violent thieves, by the way. Academicians aren’t all former dweebs hiding from the real world. Not everyone is the ‘burbs is scared to death of having their children kidnapped by a stranger or their house broken into…even if home alarm ads pound their supposed vulnerability into their heads day after day. I can’t imagine thinking that way about a “people.” Like…you see a bunch of kids with sticks in your alley, wilding around, looking for cats to kill one day. That tells you about…those kids. Right there. Just them. No one else.

    The older kids in the hood steal the minivan of the 20-something Polish guys down the street five or six times, but never touch ours. That’s…interesting. We should probably get a political scientist to drop by one day and study that, I suppose. ; )

    And I’m not mentioning all the good things and the good people here. And the great things and the great people here. I assume you’re already well aware that for every Section 8 trouble spot on a block, there’s 40 homes full of people who just want to have nice lives and treat each other well.

    If you assumed otherwise…don’t assume…come see.

    I am, honestly, sorry you feel ookey. I hope you come up with an action plan for working through that, cause experiencing life second-hand certainly creates the potential for gaps in understanding.


  5. A Sarah said

    John, I’m appreciating the dialogue here. Thank you for continuing to engage me. I want to be careful here because on the one hand I’d sort of like to share a personal reflection that I think relates to what you asked; but on the other hand I don’t want to make this all about me because I’m really interested in the topic of the essay.

    But honestly? For me, no — there really isn’t any way I could go anywhere and “lend a hand” without lapsing, on some level, into the Nice White Lady Saving The World mentality. That’s not to let myself off the hook or retreat into theory; it’s just being honest. I see you’re in DC. I lived in the Georgia Ave-Petworth neighborhood several years ago, providing housing for homeless families. (By “providing housing” I mean “having them move in with us.”) We didn’t have an income or anything, but thanks to donations and dumpster diving we lived pretty high on the hog. (Maybe you know the house I mean, even!)

    Know what prompted me to go and do a thing like that? The first anti-oppression training I ever attended. (Not Damascus Road. It was an in-house one done by the church I was attending at the time.) I was FLOORED that there was such a thing as white privilege, and that I’d been benefitting from it my whole life without knowing it. I had always thought that racism was just a problem that afflicted people of color, and was mostly over anyway, so the thing to do was just to “help” the poor, afflicted people living in the “inner city.” I had NO IDEA that I’d had this debit card called white privilege – giving me access to vast stores of wealth that I’d never worked a day for and indeed hadn’t been put there honestly – that I’d been using to make purchases my whole life. I even used it to purchase “community service opportunities”! Anyway, I was stunned and horrified.

    So at that training I played the role (which I now know to be a familiar, even culturally-scripted one) of the “crying white woman” who pleads to be exonerated, told she’s not really all THAT bad because she does good things for the world and tries to help, and who anyway encounters sexism so she can’t ever really be on the “oppressor” side, and whose forbears may have amassed wealth in a way that was helped along by racist laws but really now everything’s fine because all the nice people are SO OVER that and totally “colorblind” now, etc. etc. (In the process I derailed the discussion and made it all about me me me me, a fact which I regret to this day. Which is why I don’t want to do that here. But maybe I’m failing. Feel free to let me know, ‘k?)

    Anyway: my nobly going to HELP! THE! POOR! was a kind of last-ditch effort to prove that I wasn’t really all THAT bad. Of course the take-away point from this should not be, “And that’s why economically-secure white people shouldn’t do anything about poverty. Because they might have impure motives while doing so.” The point is, all my “helping” didn’t rid me of that debit card or make me 100 percent racism-free. I recall another white woman writing an article for the newsletter for that community in DC, in which she struggled with the fact that one of the Salvadoran parents who actually LIVED in our house asked her, a volunteer/friend, “Where do they keep the [some item I can’t remember.]” She wrote that she wanted to say, “I’m not a ‘they.’ I’m not a ‘they.'” But of course she was a “they.” How could she NOT be a ‘they’?

    Anyway, that’s why I don’t want to get rid of that ookey feeling. I hope I never stop feeling ookey. I hope it prompts me – and I am WAY falling short in this currently – to stop trying to grace the world with my do-gooderism. I hope I stay ookey-feeling enough to listen and take direction from the communities that my inner Nice White Lady Saving the World might be tempted instead to “help.” And, heck, I’m really glad that Calenthia’s essay brought out a new side to that ookiness. :) (How’s that for a backwards compliment?)

    I have to cut this short… I need to get some other things done this morning…

  6. A Sarah said

    Uh, somehow a closing parenthesis became a smiley. Sorry about that. Second paragraph.

  7. John Verba said

    Sarah…that’s so cool that you were here, and that we have more in common than we’d ever have, um, assumed. : ) I think one difference in how we come at things is that my dad was a coal miner from long before they, as one person dismissed it, here, “Make really good money.” And the area I came from, according to USA Today, has 10 out of 10 of the metro areas in the US where people move the least…even regularly moving into their parent’s homes. So…you know, 12 year olds living in Petworth who’d never been to Maryland didn’t really surprise me.

    And, now, over the past several years, Johnstown, which once had 75,000 people, has gotten down to around 25,000…and this despite a newspaper ad I saw in 1989 that read: When the Going Gets Tough, the Tough STAY PUT.

    That one was run by a local steel company…but I’m pretty sure the union could have run the same thing. Neither group in power seemed to have the least interest in saying, “You know guys, for your own good, you might want to start planning for a different reality here…maybe in a different place.”

    In the end, though, 2/3rds of the people did have to leave. So if those second-and-third generation Ellis Islanders were experiencing white privilege, they could probably have used a bit less of it.

    I think that’s why I see the dynamics of the inner city and recognize, “Oh…there doesn’t have to be a conspiracy against you. As long as you have no real financial leverage, leaders who set themselves up to not be questioned (and teach you to distrust and resent), and parents (and even teachers) who drill things into your heads like: Don’t get your hopes up; and They’re asking too much of the kids, you each have plenty to overcome long before you, yourselves, ever run into ‘white privilege.'”

    Like…wouldn’t you have been equally dismayed to learn that in some company (coal) towns there used to exist a company store…and some of your salary was paid in company script, only good at the company store…which could set its prices so you could never quite make ends meet, so your sons, then, inherited the debt, keeping them right there where the powers that be wanted them to be?

    And that’s not to deflect any attention to that situation, from reconciliation, at all. It’s just to say that there are always poor and powerless, and privileged. And anything that gets you thinking you’re the Nice White Lady Saving the World…or shouldn’t be…is, for whatever reason, getting you off-point, I think. Why couldn’t you simply be the kind of cool lady that some Petworth black guys might remember as, “The lady you could count on to give it to you straight. I’d talk to her and she wouldn’t sugarcoat things…she’d tell me what people she grew up with knew to do…and wouldn’t pretend that it wouldn’t work for us or that she couldn’t presume to give us direction…”

    Then if those guys are the same way, you’ve done something. You gave the tools to build something to people that, to be frank, some people don’t want to have them. And those people in power who don’t mind keeping people uninformed don’t all look the same, either.

    It’s neat to know you were here, though. : ) But, yeah…I can appreciate what a foreign environment it was for you. Now…my question is…since having the homeless move in with you wasn’t really sustainable in the end, I’d think, what were you thinking of doing that might, in fact, have achieved a more permanent change? This stuff is systemic, after all. So change will only come out of strange and unsettling expectations…pursued over time…that can actually be attained.

    I’d think you had some dreams of that while you were here…? : )

  8. A Sarah said

    John Verba: “And that’s not to deflect any attention to that situation, from reconciliation, at all. It’s just to say that there are always poor and powerless, and privileged. And anything that gets you thinking you’re the Nice White Lady Saving the World…or shouldn’t be…is, for whatever reason, getting you off-point, I think. Why couldn’t you simply be the kind of cool lady that some Petworth black guys might remember as, “The lady you could count on to give it to you straight. I’d talk to her and she wouldn’t sugarcoat things…she’d tell me what people she grew up with knew to do…and wouldn’t pretend that it wouldn’t work for us or that she couldn’t presume to give us direction…”

    Gosh, I dunno… Every other time I’ve had neighbors I’ve been content to have relationships that consisted of, “Hey, could I borrow an egg?” and “Would you water the lawn when I’m out of town?” etc. Why would it need to be any different in Petworth than in Friendship Heights? I mean, how do any neighbors think of any other neighbors? I could be any number of things to my neighbors, I guess, and I could think of MYSELF as any number of things — but my ACTUAL being in the world is that of someone who has white privilege and is all too often blind to it: in other words, someone who has been formed to think various lies, such as: that I can go into spaces belonging to people of color and not only expect a warm welcome but that people will thank me for the privilege of gracing them with my presence, that I probably have something new and really smart to bring to a situation, that I have oodles and oodles to offer and only a warm feeling in my heart to gain, and that I came by all the previously-mentioned items honestly. I mean, that’s what I PERSONALLY need people not to sugarcoat FOR ME, lest I forget it and start running for sainthood all over the place again by condescendingly “helping out” in a way that builds me up by making me Benevolent Boss of the World.

    Also, I just want to flag that how I act as a *economically-privileged* Nice White Lady “helping the poor” is a different dynamic from how I act as a “*white-privileged* Nice White Lady who has been formed to think of people of color as needing my oh-so-brilliant insight and wisdom and help and so on and so forth. In other words, the classism works differently from the racism; indeed, it’s internalized racist superiority that has formed me to elide the two.

    (I say that only because I brought up Nice White Lady syndrome and my time in Petworth in response to your mentioning the possibility of lending a hand, and I just wanted to flag that I realize the class dynamic and the race dynamic worked differently.)

    I’m really feeling uneasy about making this about me and my experiences, instead of about Calenthia’s essay, but I’d love to continue this over email. (Uh… could one of the moderators pass along my email address to John? I’m not comfortable just posting it for all the world to link to. Would that be okay?)

  9. A Sarah said

    Oh. Or I could just offer to meet you at my own (new and not ready for prime time) blog:

    Definitely not as pretty as this one though. :)

  10. John Verba said

    Well, you can certainly email me at That’s not my main address, which I’m hoping to keep free of spam for as long as possible, but it’s one I’ll check if there’s a reason.

    And…well…to get back to what this blog is about…one of the leaders in our church’s Damascus Road program noted that we’re kind of out on our own in the land of: Now that we’re trained, what do we actually DO? Evidently most such programs are more about awareness…I assume because they don’t really have as much of a diverse population to serve.

    If that’s the case, though, those groups could always raise and send money into DC and it would be put to good use. We have a 25-year-old tutoring program that’s about to close its doors.

    And…I do appreciate how yucky some people feel about “telling” anyone else what to do…and it doesn’t have to be about color there. I mean, years ago when i was looking for a soccer program for the kids, I stopped up on 16th street at the tennis center and robust, happy people who look like they came from the American U neighborhood scrambled around trying to find their leader and get me an application and make sure I knew everything I needed to know. Then we drove up to Takoma Park and I pretty much had to step in front of someone to get them to see me. No eye contact. People seemed uncertain and put-out. The usual weak handshake. No introductions, etc. And…that’s fine. I mean…people are people…very different from one another. You accept them as they are. But, yeah, the “who am I to tell you what to do” crowd is as prevalent as the “do you need to know how i got here, would that help?” crowd. But, see, if you stop trying because someone said, “Why would I need help from you?” then you don’t get to reach the “oh, man, yeah, I’m glad you’re here” person.

    And if you’re doing it for a feeling of self-esteem, it’s going to end badly anyway. ; ) I’ve had companies spend hundreds of thousands of dollars getting my words out to people to make change happen. If a guy in the inner city or at a charity sees in me the potential that some millionaire or Ivy League MBA did, good for them.

    If we can get our program into the action phase, someone can always pick up the phone to a charity that historically has generated hope and improvement for the disenfranchised and say “What can we set up and how do we do it?” It takes humility and pragmatism, but, you know, the models are out there.

    What I’ve always told the program here is, “Yes, it really is very, very difficult to bring about change by just talking about it. Impossible, even.” I’ve never questioned that at all.

    If you’re sitting in Harrisonburg, let’s say, and you want to drive to Wheeling, and you’re serous about it, you ask someone who’s made the trip before. It you just want to be polite, be liked and feel kind of warm and fuzzy, you might ask someone who’d love to get there, but has never been. Then you’ll proceed to get lost on the way and you won’t get any further than Front Royal, but at least you won’t have troubled anyone and you’ll all have meant really well and you’ll feel good about the earnest effort.

    I’m more the, “What’s Andre Agassi’s school about? What about that school in Chicago that the guy on Oprah Winfrey’s Big Give program helped out on their last episode? What about the program that adopts an inner city class and gets them all into college? What do they know that we don’t? What do they do that we can use?”

    Millionaires get to recruit help where they can then say, “You know, I have no idea how to get from A to B…that’s why I’ve hired you.”

    You seem to be suggesting that, you know, poor people should only be allowed to get help that asks them how to solve their problems. ; ) Does that give you a clue why I tend to think it’s ironic that the people who most need the help keep getting the worst “help” they could possibly find?

    And, yeah…I can remember living in Clifton, VA, where the neighbors only asked how we were and if we thought it would rain…across their big long fences in their big long yards. And then one day you realize, “Whoa, I’m useless here, and God will hold me accountable for that.”

    NOT “I have to go achieve sainthood and save the little guy.” I mean…sheesh…where do people come UP with this stuff? Haven’t you ever stood on the side of a mountain and looked out on a hundred of your friend’s homes under water up to their roofs and thought, “Well…this is our lives?’

    So that, years later, when you hear Randy Newman singing “Louisiana,” with the chorus, “They’re trying to wash us away,” you know that feeling. You people mean nothing. You can live or die. No one cares, really.

    In that context, give me, any day, the annoying crotchety white woman — or even Korean grocer — who’s frustrated as hell that black kids are dying in the streets, and doesn’t particularly worry whether someone is bothered that their neighbor should really only need a cup of sugar, but doesn’t.

    How can you save the little guy? You’re nothing without God. Nothing you own or do, no place you visit without His purposes in mind gives your life meaning or purpose. You’re dirt, basically…made relevant in His service. So…you ARE the little guy, blessed to be able to be of service…praying to be sent people who will earnestly ask, “Can you help me?” : )

    Oh…and…sheesh…why in the world would you walk into a setting like this taking for granted you’d be welcomed, liked and trusted? One thing I understood from starting out blue-collar, there’s a level of hatred in the heartland that people in DC can’t even fathom. (I mean, I’ve been treated more politely being mugged here than I was by friends and family back there. = ) ) But even so…um…there’s all sorts of reasons for people not to trust each other.

    That’s why you learn to question approaches and say things like: OK, just between us and taken at real face value, this is just about having like-minded people get together and agree on how ookey life is, right? : ) And that’s ok…some people really do need to get together and talk about injustice, coz that’s their thing.

  11. John Verba said


    I’m feeling pretty naive and oblivious at the moment, because I only just realized what this group is about. I clicked on the article “How to Change the World: Read These Manuals First” and started reading about community involvement, and, honestly, I just assumed I’d finally found where I’d read about stuff like:

    My inner-city-Baltimore school-teaching sister-in-law, who was once approached by a former student who’d started a program for inner city youth that was having real success getting them ready for life and into college and such. He said to her, “This is all because of you.” She said, “What did I do? I only had you for one class in math.” He said, “You wrote an inspirational quote on your chalkboard each day, I wrote them down in a notebook and they inspired me to start the program.”

    Or…perhaps about building residents joining together to form a co-op and get their hands out of a slumlord. That happens.

    Or…about someone like the guy I started talking to at 7-11 yesterday, who lives in the low-income apartments, and who left with my business card, saying, “Yeah, I know how important it is to understand and learn from how these (more affluent) people think. What WE say is, ‘Each one teach one.'”

    I don’t want to assume anyone there would think, “How quaint and misguided,” or wonder how many of my sister-in-law’s quotes were from black people, no matter the difference they’re made. But…having realized that all three of the “save the world” books seem to be about organizing and empowering the community to get the people in power to fix things for the people out of power, it seems to me that (and correct me if I’m wrong), this group is focused on:

    1. Getting people who have more to “fix things” for the people who have less…which, if you, personally are someone who resents people who have more, probably feels really good…and a bit like retribution and long postponed “fairness.”

    2. Letting the people who would like their lives to improve know that you expect nothing from them. You understand that they’re helpless victims of an unfair system. You want them to know you’ll work your butts off to make sure they get what they don’t have from people who do — unfairly — have it.

    And that leads to two other realizations:

    1. You really have absolutely no idea how condescending statement 1, above, sounds to some people below the poverty line.

    2. You’d never think that perhaps Calenthia isn’t a very viable spokesperson for the “Each one teach one” fellow, and that he, too, might find your belief that she is more than a bit odd.

    But…what you have found is a certain corps of people who are very happy in the role of telling you how their people are and what their people want…who tell you that what black people really want is for other people to step up and take responsibility for what was done to them…which is a perfect fit for people who kind of have a contempt thing going, both of others and of themselves, as an intrinsic part of their personalities.

    Someone should, definitely, made bad property owners eliminate lead paint in residences and keep up properties and, you know, make sure the water in the toilet isn’t frozen solid…which it was one winter in some properties around here. But if I’m living there and you don’t then go on to work with me to prepare me to never have to live in such a property again, and, in fact, choose to avoid advising me on the pretense that that would be, um, condescending of you, well, I’d start thinking I’m just a pawn in your game between you and the people you like taking on.

    I mean, I’d be glad for the outcome where I’m living in a safer, warmer place. I’d agree the treatment was unfair…but I’d also see that you guys aren’t the ones who are going to then ask, “What do you folks need to know and to do to give yourselves the leverage to determine your own destiny…” because you’re not as much about empowering the poor by giving them opportunities and information they’ve not had as you are about identifying injustices and holding people accountable.

    And…that’s a cause. And it’s where your hearts are, apparently. But, yeah, it took me this long to realize that justice and fairness, in this context, seems to mean, “Let’s get the people who should be taking care of you to take care of you.”

    And the part where you then prepare them to not be exploited again, that’s the more demanding and messier role, so that’s where you go, “Who are we to tell you that?” and go off looking for another property to make whole so people get more fair treatment.

    I’d think reconciliation is more about treating people like equals, and really letting them in on what works for the people who’ve have it better…so they can choose to use it or not.

    That will sounds arrogant to some, and not at all arrogant to others, so you politely sidestep the some and work with the others, each working with the people — of whatever color — who share the same perceptions and dreams.

  12. A Sarah said

    Hey John – Thanks, I’ll look forward to being in touch over email! I just wanted to quickly say, though, in relation to your last comment — I’m just another commenter like you. :) I went to exactly ONE Damascus Road training, that’s all, and I just went as me so we don’t even have a team from our church. I do lurk around the anti-oppression blogosphere, so when this blog went live I thought, “Hey, I’ll try to go give a new blog some comment love.” Maybe someone with more Damascus Road experience can chime in here as far as what they’re about? Or if not, there’s an interesting thread called “Allies Talking” that you might check out, if you don’t mind profanity, over at:

    I kind of got on another Nice White Lady’s case there – in retrospect maybe a bit too harshly, since in my own experience it took harsh words to make me wake up and smell the privilege. But then someone else said they thought that limited discourse. I think the thread is still active.


    Okay, so I FINALLY have a comment on the subject matter of this actual entry, LOL: This essay really helped me to understand better a dynamic at a Catholic church I attended for a couple years. The church’s background/identity was, intentionally, as an African-American Catholic parish: this was stated right at the top of the mission statement, it was reflected in the liturgy and the use of the acacia tree as the church’s symbol/logo, and in the saints’ days that were celebrated, etc. (It had started as a so-called “mission parish” in the south – which, from what I understand of the history, was very often code for “All the black people go to church here, away from all the white people” – and met in a dentist’s office for a long time.)

    That said, a large number of liberal white folks also went to this church, as well as a large number of people recently from Africa. This was pointed out to me when an African-American friend of mine went along with me to mass one Sunday. (We were co-counselors in a summer program for high schoolers and were taking the Catholic participants to mass. My friend didn’t ordinarily go to my church since he wasn’t Catholic, but volunteered to go since we were friends and we needed two adults. ) After church he said something like, “Huh… I’ve heard this was the African-American parish, but there were also a lot of Africans here too.” I said something to the effect that he sounded surprised, and he said, “A lot of Africans don’t like to be thought of as African-Americans.” At that point we got interrupted by something work-related, so we weren’t able to continue that conversation, but I remember that being news to me. If I’d given it any thought at all, I probably would have arrogantly assumed the opposite: that African, African-American… any way you slice it, it’s still “different than white,” which means “essentially the same,” right? Because everything should be defined in terms of whiteness, right? (There’s that privilege showing, again!)

    What’s also interesting about that very church is that, at some point in its history – or at least this was the story that got handed down in hushed tones by parties to both sides – all the Latino/Latina Catholics left that church en masse to go to the other, bigger Catholic church in town that had previously been “the white church.” Again, this is just the story I heard many years after the fact, but it seems that there was some bad feelings that the Latino/Latina Catholics’ introducing their traditions – I think particularly various devotions to Our Lady of Guadalupe – were threatening the African-American character of the church. Some people intimated that the white clergy and bishop tried to effect “reconciliation” in a really hamfisted way that showed no real understanding of the stakes, with the result that one Sunday, literally, the Latino/a fraction of the church took their Our Lady of Guadalupe statue and left in a group to go to mass in the other part of town.

    And meanwhile white folks like me were, years later, showing up there every Sunday, oblivious of all of this, and wanting (on some level, I think it’s safe to say) some kind of cultural tourism experience and/or some kind of credit for going to a multiracial church. (Not ONLY that — the church certainly had enough other strengths to draw people — but I think at least that, in the case of the white folks that attended. No, wait — I need to qualify that. Some same-sex white couples went to church there because they found it a safer space than the other Catholic church in town.) White folks like me who didn’t have a dog in the cultural identity fight, because we have the privilege of defining the dominant culture anyway, and so could just kind of sit that fight out and never have to wrestle with the issues it raised.

    Anyway, that’s what this essay made me think of.

  13. John Verba said


    I think the common ground we have is probably that if we were both in the church you just described and my whole group walked out over something, I’d probably just sit there. And then if you came over and asked, “Should you have left with them?” I’d probably say, “Well…I came here seeking God, and…they didn’t take Him with them when they left, so…I’m still here.”

    Then we’d probably sit there for a while thinking, “Yeah…what IS, really, the priority of all the various people when they do all the various things they do?” In our current church, a LOT is said about not offending folks, about not distracting folks, about not questioning folks, but the church is kind of foundering. Meanwhile I’ll open an article on association management that notes that an association board that does everything in its power to avoid “dissent” will quickly result in an association in stasis…at best. Basically, the goal will become to not offend, distract, or question those who are most easily offended, distracted or ready to term a challenge a “contradiction,” or the like.

    People will come to me and say, “You know, there are polite and sensitive ways to get what you have to say across, that won’t upset people.” And, being a bit of a wordsmith, I’m well aware of it. They sound like, “Isn’t it a…um…day? Don’t you feel…er…something. Aren’t you looking forward to…doing…what you like to do? Well…I’m so glad we had this heart-to-heart talk.” : )

    So…I think where you and I find our common ground is where lasting common ground is always to be found. We both found a way to realize: God told her her identity is in Him. God told her to LOVE other people, not to never make any of them uncomfortable. God has told her to seek her purpose in Him…directly…not to take detours so that lots of people speak well of us, and everyone knows we put this certain other identity first, and that second.

    I think we could sit there in that pew and, either one, say, “You know, I have a lot of trouble making sense of anything that’s not just…love God, love your neighbor (and show it in action, the way Jesus did).”

    We’d agree to that, I bet, and then I’d probably say, “I think the way it works is that anyone who ever says, ‘To love me, you must agree with my point of view’ has a second agenda. Like…it’s only logical that all sorts of Samaritans would have earnestly argued to you, had you existed in Jesus’ time, that the Good Samaritan was actually a pretty lousy Samaritan, as Samaritans were ‘supposed’ to go. I mean, there he was…helping out a definite ‘non-ally.'” ; )

    I think one day you’ll just suddenly realize: Oh…this is confusing only because we’re trying to make the temporal mean something, and to make the eternal irrelevant. The Good Samaritan is in the bible because he was “good.” The “Samaritan” part could have been any of dozens of identifiers.

    So anyone who ever pops up to say, “I insist that you see me as a Samaritan…and will insist that you do, subconsciously, even if you say you don’t…and will insist that you do even if the next Samaritan doesn’t care what box you try to put him in one way or the other…”

    I think we’re OK in replying, “Well, that’s fine. Now, are you a good Samaritan, or some other kind?” : )

    And if that sends them away sputtering, well, it just means that standing on the common ground that Jesus provides is not their top priority.

    Maybe some day they’ll be back to say, “I am a Christian first. Exploited. Lost. Hurt. Confused. Judged. Condemned. Hated. Loved. Seen. Invisible. Resented. Privileged. Sick. Healthy. Tired. Frustrated. Whatever…a lot of that comes from others. But what I want you, as a Christian, to see in me, as a Christian…IS a Christian.”

    That’s where you and I seem to find common ground. You like “wrestling with issues”…but you’re willing to wonder whether you really want to be seen, first and foremost, as a wrestler.

    Which reminds me…I’m going to have to do a lot less wrestling for a while to catch up with living.

    ; ) Thanks for the opportunity to hone and test convictions and understanding.


  14. A Sarah said

    Hi John – I haven’t emailed you yet because I’m swamped with grading. I’m not sure I understand every part of your train of thought, but I guess what it boils down to, for me, is: “Hey, self. Don’t pretend to know much about the love of Christ when you’ve got your boot on someone’s neck and refuse to admit it. And you’re white, so… Better check where you’re stepping.”

    I’m still not sure if, where, or how you see those boots at work in your own life. Maybe you’ve said so and I missed it; that’s said honestly, not snarkily, because it’s sometimes much easier to catch someone’s meaning in conversation. But from my own vantage-point, that’s where we’re missing each other.

    Okay, gotta run…

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