Processing Privilege, Determining Action (Reviewing Isabel Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Suns)

Once I picked up and started to read Isabel Wilkerson‘s The Warmth of Other Suns I put down all other books. It’s difficult to describe the particular power of this book’s information, story, history, research, and writing. It’s unlike anything I’ve ever read. I wish I had read it years ago. I wish everyone read it. I know that it is again on bestselling lists thanks to the Black Lives Matter movement and an awakening to the cruel past and enduring present of racial injustice in the United States. I’m included (sadly, after some soul searching) in the broad swath of U.S. society previously unmotivated to be stirred to daily action by the type of social movement stirring the Zeitgeist now. Like many, I had not previously been inspired to actively address these issues by working toward meaningful change as a matter of urgent need. This comes with no small amount of self-criticism and guilt. Why did I take so long to wake up to something so obvious and damning? More importantly, what do we do next? I share the skepticism expressed by many, particularly Black Americans, that the protesting and social media professing underway in 2020 isn’t enough and doesn’t constitute action in and of itself. Also like many, I don’t have a good answer for what action does need to come next. Not exactly. I have some ideas though. I’m open to anything, I think, and want to put that to the test.

I want to analyze what The Warmth of Other Suns means to me. I can’t remember being so affected by a book before, fiction or nonfiction. I didn’t want to put it down. I woke up in the night shaken, haunted by Jim Crow. I’ve gone 40 years, some of which were spent as the product of homogenous neighborhoods in Massachusetts and Ohio but some other years were spent in proximity to non-white populations as neighbor, coworker, and fellow citizen, without feeling this pressure before. First and foremost, Wilkerson’s majestic and informed prose links the legacy of slavery — a continuous and defining factor in North America since 1619 — with Reconstruction, Jim Crow, and the continuity of systematic racism deep into the 20th century. While she doesn’t overtly link the continuation of these horrors to the present day, at least in this book, my mind immediately made all the connections necessary for me to be shook. It is now impossible for me to think about the police killings of recent years as anything other than on the same spectrum as Black inhumane treatment as slaves and widespread lynching commonplace in the United States in the 100 years following the Civil War.

It is evident that the justice and equality improvements fought for and earned in the 1950s and 1960s would not have been possible without mass protest. The type of mass protest that made a great percentage of white Americans uncomfortable and led them to criticize the very tactics that effected change while notionally admitting problems existed. Those sentiments are present today, woven into the fabric of our current political reality.

As a personal note, part of my self-analysis is focused on how and why I have lived so blind to modern racial injustice until this year. I think part of it is a general individual focus. I’ve written about that elsewhere in the blog and will probably explore more later too. Part of it is generational. Part of it upbringing. A large part personality-based too. I’m not someone generally unaware of the plight of humanity around me. But I think throughout my life I’ve thought that appropriate laws were in place to continue to make a difference and/or a critical mass in the population was committed to change to let things naturally progress. That shocks me to think about now that my eyes are opened. The Atlantic’s Jennifer A. Richeson published a must-read piece capturing a lot of these elements:

I want to contrast some elements of my upbringing with this personal orientation toward keeping my head in my own bucket of sand (a significant part of my privilege). I was born in Massachusetts and lived there my first two years in the all-white and lightly populated countryside of central New England. My dad joined the Navy, however, and we moved first to Guam and then to the Hampton Roads area of Virginia. I’m sure I was exposed to a more diverse set of Americans in those areas but I can’t remember many specifics. We moved back to Massachusetts when I was six and my homogenous upbringing continued. At eleven we moved again to Northeast Ohio and settled in a suburb between Cleveland and Akron. While our town itself lacked diversity, I was struck as a teenager by some parts of the area that were predominantly Black. I even remember thinking and asking why there were so many Black people in Ohio as my little mind tried to puzzle what I knew of slavery, the South, and population movement in U.S. history. The Great Migration wasn’t evident to me until later in my history classes and even then didn’t resonate the way it should have. I honestly don’t know what was more to blame: the curriculum, the teachers, or myself. I graduated, returning to Massachusetts and matriculating to a college described in a review as “diverse as a box of nails.” I took a Black History course as a senior there and remember being energized by some of what I learned. But it didn’t resonate in such a way that I saw injustice and racism around me. It felt like, well, a history class. I have to blame myself. I focused on me: my career, my hobbies, my life, my progress. Maybe it took being settled in career and family to open my eyes, selfish as that is to admit (there’s that privilege again).

As a career federal member of the DC federal workforce and representing the United States abroad on occasion, I’ve had the honor to work with diverse, brilliant colleagues who inspire me on two levels. Their success and personal attributes always stood out as they worked alongside me as amazing human beings. But the concerns and the challenges they continued to face on a daily basis also serves as powerful motivation. Many of these people — and a world that needs them as leaders — are foremost in mind as we face the next era of change together. Change, like it always does, needs to be at every possible level of life and government. That’s daunting but it’s also clear. I know I can do something at work. I hope I have the courage to risk more and face real consequence in the workplace to effect this change. Things need to change. There should be new “winners and losers” throughout a process built over generations to be conducted one way, at least in the short term. Around town and with regard to government, well, let’s see what happens next. I’m open to suggestions and will keep my radar up. I know that general protesting and slacktivism won’t be enough. Voting should mean something, of course, but there are many variables outside of our control that perplex and scare me.

One response to “Processing Privilege, Determining Action (Reviewing Isabel Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Suns)”

  1. […] Wilkerson’s Warmth of Other Suns moved me in ways few books have. Reading Caste, her second book, was a different but no less […]

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