Thursday, January 22, 2015

On Minimizing Black Pain

            Early in the rule of Adolf Hitler the magazine The Christian Century reported on the emerging persecution of the Jews in the fledgling National Socialist regime.  In response to the article one G. F. Hedstrand of the “Covenant Book Concern” in Chicago wrote a scathing letter to the editor.  “The Jews can squeal much,” Hedstrand wrote, “without meaning much by it, and he does not need to be hurt much in order to squeal much.”  He asserted “the Jews are not persecuted in Germany because of their religion, but because of their political and economic activity.  They are communists many of them and ‘persecuted’ the nationalists before the latter came to power.”  He concluded with this piece of advice: “They are children—reminding one of the coloured race—in their mental makeup.  They must be spoken to with authority or they will not believe you.  This is just what the nationalists are doing.  They are not persecuting the Jews—they are talking to them in the only language they know.”  One hopes that Hedstrand had the grace to experience deep shame when just over a decade later they were raking Jewish bones out of the ovens of Auschwitz and Buchenwald.

            Since the murders of young black men in Ferguson, Missouri and elsewhere, evidently for the crime of looking dangerous, various mostly middle-aged and older white males have made it their task to lecture African-Americans on how they ought to respond to living in their own skins and confronting the pain of their own community.  In soothing, reasoned, and patronizing tones African Americans have been told that, after all, all lives matter and that if young black men would just do what the police say they would not be shot for no apparent reason.  We are all equal before God, they intone, and the color of our skin doesn’t matter.  Such statements are beyond insensitive and ignorant, they are inhumane and deeply offensive.  Those who make such statements are the heirs of Hedstrand in his insistence that the Nazis were just speaking to the Jews in the only language they understood.

            I am an older white male myself.  My generation of white males (baby boomers) is used to lecturing people on what they ought to think and how they ought to feel.  When it comes to race it has been called “whitesplaining” and we are the past masters of it.  But we also mastered the art of “mansplaining”, making equally offensive and idiotic statements to women.  So why do we do this?  I think we are trying to preserve the comforting illusion that there is a level playing field.  That women and minorities who “squeal”, to use Hedstrand’s word, are simply incapable of making it on their own.  And they need our infinite wisdom to see where they went wrong.  We want to hold onto the equally comforting illusion that we have really had no extraordinary privileges and have accomplished everything purely on our own merits.  So the pain of mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers, grandmothers and grandfathers is frantically ignored or minimized to preserve our privilege and deny our advantages.  This is for me galling, humiliating, and frustrating.  We ought to have the integrity and courage not only to acknowledge our privilege but the reality of the suffering, grief, and justified fear of the black community.  Otherwise we are no better than G. F. Hedstrand and so many others. Dear brothers, in the face of pain of African Americans, women and so many others we have victimized, we ought leave off “whitesplaining” and “mansplaining” and for once in our long lives keep our mouths firmly shut and, for God’s sake, listen for a change.

John E. Phelan, Jr.

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