I do not know many Negroes who are eager to be “accepted” by white people, still less to be loved by them.
— James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time
While wandering around the library several years ago, a book caught my eye: What Doesn’t Kill You Makes You Blacker: A Memoir in Essays. The title was too provocative to leave on the shelf, so I took it home and got to know the author, Damon Young.
I recommend the book for many reasons, but the essay that has sunk down into my consciousness is about Young, a Black man, and his relationship with white people.
Yes, as a white person I am predictably most interested in the white-person chapter.
I also recognize the problematic optics of a white person writing a column about race. Thank you for allowing me to acknowledge the awkwardness.
Young played basketball every week with a regular group of men, for years. He even socialized off the court a time or two in their homes. Despite this, Young wrote, “[A sense of abstract discomfort] happens enough for me to know just how much of an outsider I am — how different my world is from theirs.”
At the same time that Young felt like an outlier, he also felt unable to escape from a prescribed existence. Young wrote about the constant awareness that “my world exists within theirs.” He felt that even when he was exclusively with Black people, even in his own home, he knew that “relatively safe and superficially black space is enveloped by whiteness.”
“I don’t invite them [the white guys] to my house because I just don’t want them in my house,” he says. “I haven’t been possessed with the inclination to grant them that privilege. . . .
“These are not bad guys. But they are white, and whiteness already takes up too much space for me to volunteer my own.”
Young’s honesty set my white fragility into a full-on flare. I set aside the book, curled up on my bed and, soaked in self-pity, whimpered, “Why does anyone even try? What’s the point?”
Reading Young caused me to rethink my relationships with Black people, especially the people I consider friends. I wonder how many felt like Young. Even after countless hours of shared experiences together, did they still have the abstract discomfort of being an outsider? Did my whiteness envelop them so that I couldn’t truly see or know them?
With a heavy heart, I fear the answer is, at least to some degree — yes.
I am awash in guilt and disappointment. How could I be so pathetically naïve? So selfishly content in my own experience to never wonder how they felt?
There is also great sadness and frustration. How will it ever be any different?
Don’t worry, I’m not about to reveal a plan for racial reconciliation.
I appreciate Young’s decision to create healthy boundaries for himself. Reading about his experience, I’ve developed a deeper sense of gratitude for Black people who allow white people access into their space.
In particular, I wrote this column to publicly express gratitude to the Black people who allow white people to be part of their spiritual home, the church.
I’m thankful for the Black people who preach, write, teach and serve in church leadership, offering their prophetic voices to those who have ears but do not always hear.
White people become defensive when we are corrected, called out, criticized. I know I’ve bristled back in a corner or two when confronted with uncomfortable truths.
But the reality is that white people cannot be redeemed from our racist sin unless it is pointed out to us. We have no recourse without the fellowship of Black people.
Most remarkably, considering everything that has gone down between white people and Black people in the United States, both past and present, Black people are willing to call me a sister in Christ. They invite me, with all my white baggage, into their spiritual house, and I am grateful.