Wednesday, November 22, 2006

White Rage: A Few Baha'i Thoughts

(Photo of a white man attacking a black man with the American flag during a Boston race riot. Can you say irony?)

Many of you have probably heard about the most recent strange event in American race relations when not-so-funny man Michael Richards (one time "Kramer" of Seinfeld) showed his "true colors" during a stand up comic routine. For those who haven't heard, he got upset with some African American hecklers and screamed "nigger" several times and made a reference to lynching. If you want to watch it, you can try and do so here. I don't know the man so I have no idea what he is like in his personal life. Maybe he didn't really men what he said and just had a Mel Gibson moment. Only God fully knows the hearts of human beings so I'm not even going to go there, but the incident has stimulated some reflections on an important but not frequently talked about issue in American society: white rage. Wait, don't I mean black rage? That many black people in America get heated quickly about race is something folks on both sides of the racial divide are well familiar with. White rage, however is just as common and potentially more damaging because whites continue to have greater power to negatively impact the lives of blacks and other minorities in our society than the other way around. A classic of Baha'i literature, The Advent of Divine Justice, offers a psychospiritual analysis of the challenges which must be overcome by white Americans if they are to play a positive role in achieving racial unity:

"Let the white make a supreme effort in their resolve to contribute their share to the solution of this problem, to abandon once for all their usually inherent and at times subconscious sense of superiority, to correct their tendency towards revealing a patronizing attitude towards the members of the other race, to persuade them through their intimate, spontaneous and informal association with them of the genuineness of their friendship and the sincerity of their intentions, and to master their impatience of any lack of responsiveness on the part of a people who have received, for so long a period, such grievous and slow-healing wounds." (Shoghi Effendi: The Advent of Divine Justice, p.33)

This masterful statement identifies three psychospiritual challenges facing white Americans:
1. A usually inherent and at times subconscious sense of superiority.
2. A tendency toward revealing a patronizing attitude toward blacks.
3. Impatience at the lack of responsiveness to their positive gestures toward blacks.

These three challenges offer three possible origins of white rage.
1. The sense of superiority: Many white people are sick and tired of the social pressures placed upon them in the post-Civil Rights Era to speak and act as if they really believed that blacks are their equals. Some white Americans are profoundly ambivalent about racial equality and this causes stress which, when it builds enough, can explode.

2. The patronizing attitude: Many white Americans see blacks as a "people of perpetual problems" who require the benefits of white charity and good will. There may be some acknowledgment of the historical roots of many of these problems on an intellectual level and a white person may even see themselves as a champion of racial justice. The attitude that gets expressed, however unconsciously, is patronizing. Some well meaning white Americans are getting sick and tired of hearing about the problems of black people and feeling obligated to do something about it. They're sick of being made to feel guilty for racism and have so called "compassion fatigue". Resentment quietly builds in the heart and eventually comes out.

3. Impatience: Many white Americans are sick of trying to be nice to black people who don't seem interested in being nice to them. Even people who receive the daily blessings of a social order based on skin-color privileges need to feel loved, and being repeatedly rebuffed starts to make them feel bad and they eventually get really mad.

If we are ever going to achieve the goal of racial unity that is required for America to fulfill its true spiritual destiny, we have to examine critically the fact that many whites are just as angry, if not angrier than blacks are about race in our country. This does not just mean those who are conscious, overt racists but the many, many more who see themselves as "liberal" or "progressive" and are in denial about how angry they really are and how it may be effecting their behavior long before it comes out in a white rage episode. Ultimately this is not an issue of blaming whites for their anger, but being honest about it so there can be an opportunity for healing. The Baha'i view of the psychospiritual challenges facing whites may offer one framework for beginning to understand what is necessary for the healing to begin.

Let neither [whites nor blacks] think that anything short of genuine love, extreme patience, true humility, consummate tact, sound initiative, mature wisdom, and deliberate, persistent, and prayerful effort, can succeed in blotting out the stain which this patent evil has left on the fair name of their common country.
(Shoghi Effendi, The Advent of Divine Justice, p. 40)