Butler & Grappling with White Privilege

Octavia Butler

Octavia Butler


In response to Friday’s post about Octavia Butler’s Kindred, my colleague Sybol Anderson, a woman of color in our philosophy department who teaches Hegel, asked me to address two questions:

1. What story or stories in your family reflect or address the legacy of slavery for you?

2. What would make Kevin [the protagonist’s white husband] ready to *hear* (and not just listen to) everything Dana went through? What in that process do you think would ready Kevin for the whole truth of Dana?

I learned about the importance of such questions in the racial awareness exercises I went through last week. Too often whites see the indignities suffered by people of color as “their problem.” We may be sympathetic, as Kevin is sympathetic, but until we fully acknowledge how we ourselves have benefitted from slavery and its legacy, we can’t grasp “the whole truth of Dana.”

Actually, no one can ever grasp the whole truth of another, which means that privilege will always carry with it certain blind spots. We can, however, make a good faith effort to become less blind.

Before I turn to myself, let’s take a look at Kevin. Here’s a partial list of ways in which his perspective is different than Dana’s:

–while they are both starving workers doing temp work, he can breezily suggest that she take a longer lunch break, even though it could could cost her her job. He doesn’t need the work as much as she does;

–he can afford to be blind to the racism of his sister and is surprised when she opposes their marriage. Dana is not at all surprised and in fact predicts the opposition. In other words, naiveté is a luxury only the privileged can afford;

–Kevin automatically expects Dana to type up his manuscripts. (The year is 1976 and feminism is still struggling to make inroads.) Later, Dana’s slave-owning ancestor will expect her to do his correspondence, one of many ways in which the book links the two men;

–when he journeys back in time, Kevin, who eats at the master’s table, has a more benign view of slavery than Dana does. The following conversation, begun by Kevin, makes this clear:

“It’s surprising to me that there’s so little to see. Weylin doesn’t seem to pay much attention to what his people do, but the work gets done.”
“You think he doesn’t pay attention. Nobody calls you out to see the whippings.”
“How many whippings?”
“One that I’ve seen. One too goddamn many!”
“One is too many, yes, but still, this place isn’t what I would have imagined. No overseer. No more work than the people can mange…”
“…no decent housing,” I cut in. “Dirt floors to sleep on, food so inadequate they’d all be sick if they didn’t keep gardens in what’s supposed to be their leisure time and steal from the cookhouse when Sarah lets them. And no rights and the possibility of being mistreated or sold away from their families for any reason—or no reason. Kevin, you don’t have to beat people to treat them brutally.”
“Wait a minute,” he said, “I’m not minimizing the wrong that’s being done here. I just…”
“Yes you are. You don’t mean to be, but you are.”

–Kevin and Dana pose as master and slave when they arrive in 1820s Maryland so that Kevin appears to be sleeping with his property. Kevin never appreciates how awkward this is for Dana:

I felt almost as though I really was doing something shameful, happily playing whore for my supposed owner. I went away feeling uncomfortable, vaguely ashamed.

–when they return to the present, Kevin appears to blame Dana for having drawn him into her suffering. He’s also more worried about whether she’s slept with the master–a threat to his own masculinity–than he is by the fact that she has been whipped.

You may conclude from these examples that Kevin isn’t a very nice guy, but he’s actually the best of the whites. He loves Dana, he does all he can to save her, and when he goes back in time he risks his life to collaborate with the underground railroad. Butler isn’t really blaming Kevin. She is just showing how systemic racism and sexism impact even good people.

Dana, meanwhile, feels that she can’t tell Kevin everything that she has been through. Is she worried that the relationship couldn’t handle such truth telling? Whatever the reason, she doesn’t tell Kevin all the details of Rufus’s attempted rape and of her killing him:

Kevin would never know what those last moments had been like. I had outlined them for him, and he’d asked few questions. For that I was grateful. Now I said simply, “Self-defense.”

Why is Dana grateful? Is it because she herself doesn’t want to acknowledge how bad it is? Or perhaps she instinctively feels that she should cater to a white need to not be rendered too uncomfortable. As Lucille Clifton puts it in a poem that she wrote with me specifically in mind (you can read that story here),

as if when i choose words
i must choose those
that they can live with

As I said in Friday’s post, I think Dana and Kevin would be much better served by being more honest, with each other and with themselves. Race conversations are very difficult, however, even amongst people who love each other. An important first step for the Kevins of the world is to acknowledge how we have been shaped by our pasts.

So what are my own connections with slavery? Let me start with a general fact and then get personal. I recently read in Forbes the following report about what it means to be born white vs. what it means to be born black or Latino in this country. If whites do so much better, it’s because their wealth and assets haven’t been hampered—in fact, they have often been enhanced—by slavery and its legacy. Here’s from the article:

The typical black household now has just 6% of the wealth of the typical white household; the typical Latino household has just 8%, according to a recent study called The Racial Wealth Gap: Why Policy Matters, by Demos, a public policy organization promoting democracy and equality, and the Institute on Assets and Social Policy.

In absolute terms, the median white household had $111,146 in wealth holdings in 2011, compared to $7,113 for the median black household and $8,348 for the median Latino household. (All figures come from theU.S. Census Bureau Survey of Income and Program Participation.)

This is what is called the racial wealth gap.

So where specifically has my family intersected with slavery? Although most of my family came to America after slavery had ended, they still came to a country made wealthy by slavery. My great-grandfather, an accountant, tried farming but quickly decided he could make more money and have an easier life as a bookkeeper.

My father, meanwhile, taught at the University of the South, a college that was built on slave wealth and that was specifically established for the sons of plantation owners. Although my father fought the college’s segregation policies during the 1950s, there was a way in which he—and I—absorbed some of the white paternalism of that environment.

Unprejudiced though I thought I was, I can point to far too many instances throughout my life where I thought I was supposed to be a white savior. As a result, when I have had my blindnesses pointed out to me, I have felt unappreciated and have withdrawn from the struggle for social justice. My own hurt feelings were more important to me than the suffering of people of color, which were far worse. (Another aspect of privilege is that it can afford to withdraw.). While, like Kevin, I deserve some credit for caring, like Kevin I need to learn more and do more.

In the end, the important thing for Kevin and Dana to commit to the marriage and do whatever it takes to make it work. They are stronger together than apart.

Further thought: Here’s one contribution Kevin brings to Dana’s plight. She is understandably hysterical after his first trip back in time and is in no emotional state to make cool-headed decisions. Because he has the advantage of detachment, he is able to figure out how the time travel works and how she must assemble a travel kit.

I think about this as I watch figures like Cornel West endorsing the Green Party’s Jill Stein, even though a vote for her aids Donald Trump. There are good reasons for African Americans to be suspicious of Hillary Clinton, but that is the marriage we have. Clinton won’t make things immeasurably worse. In fact, working as partners, she and her African American supporters could make them a lot better.

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