Feb 29 2012

Know Good White People: Wrestling the term ‘White Pride’ Out of the Hands of the Klan

Jean Rankin was a wife and mother of thirteen children living in a modest home overlooking the Ohio river in what was the “free state” of Ohio. Through her window she could see a clear and gorgeous view of Kentucky, where thousands of enslaved African Americans lived under the cruel system of American chattel slavery.

For forty years, leading up to the Civil War and the abolition of slavery, Jean and her husband John opened their home to offer food, lodging and directions further north to nearly 2000 fugitive slaves seeking freedom.

As a mother, and as an American woman who descended from enslaved Africans, I am awed and humbled by this family. When I think about putting my own freedom and my own children’s lives at risk to serve others, it is a frightening, daunting idea.

While researching this subject of whtie anti-racists in American history, I am finding hundreds of stories of courageous and inspiring people like the Rankins who have been left out of mainstream hero worship. I hope you will agree that it is time to remedy that omission. These are amazing American heroes our children should know about.

Know Good White People: Wrestling the term ‘White Pride’ Out of the Hands of the Klan is an homage to anti-racist white Americans whose lives embodied the ideals of “freedom and justice for all” that our forefathers prescribed at the birth of this nation. Why have they been excluded from our national memory? What has their absence done to our collective psyche in terms of race relations?

The idea for this project came, in part, from an article I read about a young girl named Lisa McClelland who tried to start a “Caucasian Club” at her high school. Long story short—for her own safety, she eventually had to change schools.

Prior to her exile to another campus, the 15-year-old insisted her proposed club would be “a positive organization dedicated to honoring diversity” and a place to learn more about what it means to be white.

Amid the firestorm of controversy Lisa sparked, a KKK representative welcomed her to join their group, and the local NAACP spokesman slammed her idea, calling it racist in name, if not intent. He said,

“When we use the word ‘white’ or ‘Caucasian,’ it has always been associated with racial bigotry. Using that term opens up old wounds…”

What message is sent to young people with the omission of white anti-racist heroes from our national history? White Americans will not (should not?) bother themselves with issues of racial justice?


May 3 2008

Proud to be White?

Lisa McLelland was a 15-year-old at Freedom High School in Oakley, California who yearned to belong to one of those campus clubs where students gather to celebrate cultural pride and a sense of shared history, like the Black Student Union, the Asian Club or Latinos Unidos. Lisa, whose ethnic background includes Dutch, German, Irish, Italian, Latino and NativeAmerican, didn’t quite fit in any of the existing clubs, so she decided to start a “Caucasian Club” where she could explore what it means to be white.

Before her idea could get off the ground it exploded into a firestorm of controversy that led to community outrage, worldwide media coverage, and McClelland’s eventual exile to a less hostile campus.  Though Lisa had insisted her club would be a forum where students could explore racial dynamics and discuss how “whiteness” affects those who aren’t white (among the activities planned for the group were film discussions, guest speakers, and trips to museums), her critics were not convinced. In the weeks preceding McLelland’s flight from Freedom High, she endured daily harassment and threats of violence from those who didn’t believe her mission was to create what she called a “positive organization dedicated to honoring
diversity.”

Local NAACP spokesperson Darnell Turner spoke strongly against the eager sophomore, calling her proposed Caucasian Club racist in name, if not intent:

“When we use the word ‘white’ or ‘Caucasian’ or whatever, it has always been associated with racial bigotry. Using that term opens up old wounds, and we don’t need to go there.”

It seems the adults involved either agreed with Turner’s assessment, or were afraid to openly disagree—Lisa could not find a single Freedom staff person willing to serve as an advisor to her proposed club, nor was she offered support from any community organizations committed to racial unity.

One adult who did extend a helping hand to Lisa was a representative of the Ku Kux Klan who contacted the teenager to applaud her efforts, and welcomed her to join their group. Lisa promptly informed them, “I’m part Latino, half of my friends are gay, and I don’t believe in your cause.”

Lisa and others of her generation, who missed the civil rights movement and must rely on parents and teachers to inform them of America’s racist history, are left asking the questions, “Why is the word ‘white’ so strongly associated with bigotry?” and “What can we do to change that association?”

In 1933 Carter G. Woodson wrote in his book Miseducation of the Negro:

“When you control a man’s thinking you do not have to worry about his actions. You do not have to tell him not to stand here or go yonder. He will find his ‘proper place’ and will stay in it.”

Those words aptly describe the miseducation white Americans receive regarding their “proper place” in the fight for a racially just society. The heroes in that fight are invariably depicted as non-white men and women like Dr. King, Harriet Tubman, Mahatma Ghandi, Cesar Chavez and others who stand (and will stand for generations to come) as admirable, emulatable models of human rights warriors.

Mainstream American hero worship has included pitifully few white anti-racists (try to list the names of five white individuals widely known to have actively fought against racism), leaving young whites who wish to be a part of the solution with few role models who look like them. Since textbook authors have decided that white pride rests solely on the shoulders of Christopher Columbus, Thomas Jefferson, George Washington and the like, without a club, conference or other extra-curricular venue, where will Lisa
and her generation go to learn of white men and women who risked their lives and livelihood to fight against racial oppression and for human rights?

By omitting the antiracist efforts of individuals like Thomas Paine, John and Jean Rankin, Carl Schurz, Jessie Ames, Viola Liuzzo and thousands of other courageous white Americans, our history books indirectly teach that white people do not (should not?) fight for the rights of non-whites.

For far too long white supremacists have had exclusive use of the words “proud to be white.” Know Good White People hopes Lisa and her white peers will gather to study, reflect and discover a new paradigm for choosing their heroes–so they can take their rightful place in the battle to undermine white privilege and eradicate racism, and in doing so might discover a new, unifying and healing definition of the term “white pride.”