But Aren’t We Good White People?

Christine Clark

Christine Clark

My white family history is, perhaps, somewhat unique—I never heard my parents use a racial epithet, and I was taught that being good white people meant we (including I) should never use one either. My white family history is also very usual—I still learned racism, to be racist, and to protect my white privilege. Reconciling the unique and the usual in my white family history has, and continues to be, a necessarily uncomfortable journey. Herein I examine the role of discomfort in this journey.

In the movie The Prince of Tides, a Southern, white mother and her daughter and younger son are home, going about their early evening routine, when three violent, white male escaped convicts happen upon their house. The men force their way in and proceed to brutally rape all three of them in eyesight of one another. As the rapes are occurring, the older brother arrives to the house, sees what is happening through a window, and enters with a shotgun with which he kills two of the men, while his mother stabs the third. Immediately thereafter, the mother directs the children to “clean up” the house and dispose of the bodies while proclaiming, “this never happened.” From that point forward, none of the four of them ever speak about the incident—to one another, or to others.

Some twenty years later, the older brother is killed, triggering the sister to attempt suicide. As a result of the suicide attempt, the viewer learns that the sister had been in therapy with a Jewish psychiatrist to whom she had presented herself as the child of Jewish Holocaust survivors. The psychiatrist explains to the surviving brother that she immediately knew the sister was not Jewish, but wondered why she would choose to portray herself as the child of parents who had suffered such great tragedy.

The psychiatrist’s wondering got me wondering about how all family members tell their histories and why, and, more specifically, why my white parents had told me my white family’s history through a social justice lens.

In 1923, my father’s father, the Reverend Edward Oliver Clark, organized what, in 1924, became the Chevy Chase Baptist Church, situated in Northwest Washington, D.C., just outside Chevy Chase, Maryland. He pastored that church from 1924 to 1956. It is of note that the church proclaims to have “restarted” its mission in 1998, and my grandfather’s founding role is no longer mentioned. Next time I am in D.C., I will stop by to see if the bronze plaque of him that was affixed to the outside of the church for as long as I can remember is still there.

From my father, I was taught to understand my grandfather’s pastoral commitments as forward thinking. The main story that my father told and retold during my childhood and into my adulthood as illustrative of this thinking was about how my grandfather taught theology for a year at Howard University, an HBCU, during the “Great Depression,” and did so without compensation. As a result of this role, my grandfather had occasion to invite one or more Howard University students to his home during holidays, ostensibly because these students’ could not afford to travel to their own homes during these periods.

My father describes his engagement with these students as having had a profound impact on his own consciousness regarding race and racism. I am eternally grateful for that because I surely benefitted from it—I am a different person today than I would have been had he not been so impacted. Elsewhere (1999) I have written about how I was raised to be antiracist, largely because of my parents’ progressive Christian values that, though Protestant and Presbyterian, are best described as Liberation Theology-like in the vein attributed to the Catholic Jesuit tradition originating in Latin America. But in critically reconsidering my parents’ intentional antiracist teaching, I discovered a racist element in their teaching me to become only antiracist, and not also what I coin as “antiracist racist.” While these two things may look very similar at a superficial level, the difference between them is vast and significant. Both confront injustice, but antiracists avoid confronting their own privilege when such confrontation calls them into question ‘where they live’ so to speak; when it costs them something, perhaps too much, personally.

Employing an antiracist racist lens, I wonder how those Howard University students experienced my grandfather’s invitation to share the holidays with his family. Could they have said no? If they had, what might have been the consequences? Further, what were their experiences of being in his home and with my father? Was it even true that they were not in their own homes for the holidays for financial reasons, or was this just assumed because of the Depression context, or the general relationship between racism and classism, without regard for the particular economic circumstances of these students (i.e., as, perhaps, from families that were more well off than a minister’s family—black or white)? I also wonder why my grandfather taught at Howard for only a single year. Was that the pre-established term of this appointment, as unpaid “service”? Or, could he have been asked or, at least, encouraged to leave because, though forward thinking, antiracist even, his theological teachings were not yet liberated enough—still too uncritically white—to meaningfully affirm his black students?

I also wonder why no one in my family, myself included, ever asked these questions of my grandfather, my grandmother, my father and/or his sisters, my mother, or simply of ourselves. I wonder why I have yet to take a trip to the Howard University library (despite having previously lived in the Washington, D.C. metropolitan area for eight years, and despite still traveling there quite regularly in the eight years since leaving).

While I do intend to make that trek to Howard’s archives to see what actual truths I can uncover about my grandfather’s time there, I am also interested in critically re-considering what my grandfather’s story, exactly as it has been told and retold to me all my life, can teach me—what purpose it serves in my white family history. Returning to the sister in the Prince of Tides, the viewer comes to understand that claiming to be the child of holocaust survivors was her way of coping with the rape while maintaining fidelity to her mother’s insistence that she deny the rape ever happened—she could, in essence, talk about it without actually talking about it. Accordingly, in addition to challenging my grandfather’s story in order to reveal its impact on “the racial other,” I am also interested in leaning into the intent of the story as told to discern its impact on me as “the white one.”

It is clear to me from my growing up, that my grandfather’s story was but one of several similar stories told to construct an overarching narrative of my family, over at least five generations, as more forward than backward thinking in the most general sense. I was to understand myself, and my family as, basically, good people, even good white folk, who though we were limited by our generation (e.g., my mother’s great-, and great-great-grandmother’s families enslaved Africans), we strove, in some way, to think the right thing, and, if possible—if it did not cost us too much personally—to do the right thing. It is also clear to me from my growing up, that this overarching narrative was at least as much aspirational as it was actual—we were not as good, and I am not as good, as we/I have aspired/still aspire to be. So why can’t we just face that history and ourselves? Wouldn’t doing so actually make us, in fact, more good or good in more realized, less solely aspirational ways? Of course it would.

But good is a problem. Writing in the book Occupying the Academy, Juárez and Hayes (2012) define the problem of good in this way:

Good, as a problem, is exemplified by the actions of the eight white clergymen in Alabama who openly opposed, and actively worked against, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. during the Birmingham street demonstrations of 1963, all the while enunciating ideals of common brotherhood, community, and understanding (Carpenter, Durick, Grafman, Hardin, Harmon, Murray, Ramage, & Stallings, 1963). When individuals and groups who profess commitment to goodwill and the democratic ideals of social justice, yet simultaneously do everything within their power to ensure that such commitment and ideals are never realized, the problem of good becomes visible.

We define the problem of good as the insidious paternalism embedded within white liberalism, its privileging of the collective histories, characteristics, and interests of Whites, and its emphasis “on the individual to the exclusion of the group, on liberty instead of equality, [and] on gradual rather than precipitous changes” (L. Bennett, p. 84 in The Negro Mood and Other Essays, published in 1964 by Johnson Publishing Company of Chicago).

Good is antiracist, the problem of good is that it is not also antiracist racist. So while facing our history and ourselves, would make my family and me more good, it would also cost us something—in a word, comfort. Challenging white privilege in everyday life, even in small ways, disrupts comfort—one’s own and that of others, even of racial others. We are all conditioned to protect the comfort that comes from being good in thought and action. When we are not good, we, and most everyone around us, become uncomfortable. But until we become comfortable with being uncomfortable, with being not good, we cannot become really, truly, good.


Dr. Christine Clark, EdD. is Professor & Senior Scholar in Multicultural Education, and Founding Vice President for Diversity and Inclusion in the Department of Teaching and Learning, College of Education, at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.  

Speak Your Mind