Bernie Sanders and Me—and All the Rest of Us Privileged White People

This past week, Bernie Sanders got caught with his white foot in his mouth. Of the current presidential aspirants, Sanders is probably the one I admire most. I hadn’t expected such insensitivity from this consistently liberal and intelligent politician. On economic and many other issues, he represents me well.

I gasped as I heard his brusque reply to the Black Lives Matter protesters; but then I blanched. (Read that last word as “punny”—not funny.) Like I so often fail to do, he too wasn’t listening; he didn’t take a breath. Maybe he felt defensive at having been shown up as less than on top of the situation. Ouch!

I’m sympathetic with Sanders. How many times have I said something and felt uneasy as I become conscious of having said something—out of my own white and privileged point of view—something not “politically correct.” Recently I read this tweeted assessment of political correctness: “I think it’s time to retire the term #politicallycorrect . It implies that treating others like humans is a political—not a moral issue.”

We keep hearing, “There’s a conversation we should be having.”

Speaking of those ‘conversations’ reminds me: Almost fifty years ago, some of the Charlotte Fair Housing Association cohorts had brought a serious message to the board meeting; so heavy that the usual jousting and determined planning wasn’t going to happen that night.

“You guys, listen up,” Frederick Ford said to us white members.

“We’re going to have to go separate ways now; the brothers and I need Whitey to go talk to your own folks. We’ve gotten this [Fair Housing] thing started real good together, but the next work’s got to be done separate from each other.”…There was a long pause.

Back in the sixties, I had almost become more comfortable being with black and other new friends, than with my own family and most of my old friends. So Freddie’s message—that it was time for some [real work]—didn’t sound like anything ‘cozy’ to me! What was this “conversation” we were supposed to have with our white families and friends?

Later in the evening I asked, “So, Freddie, what are you and both the Jim’s and the others not here tonight going to be doing now?”

“Sister, we are going to be studying our Black Pride.” Then he continued, “You gotta’ understand—all of you. It’s time for you to start spreading the things you been talking with us about—with your white friends.”

I could feel blood rising to color my lily white face. Without fully comprehending, I must have felt the sting of rejection join my sense of ‘peril’ and ‘discomfort.’ It was time for me to have a conversation about racism with white people.

Decades later, the “separate ways” scenario seems to be turning around. But how often will Bernie and I miss this opportunity that the Black Lives Matters movement is offering?

An article in my husband’s Humanist magazine offers information that Bernie’s advance team should long ago have laid before him to read—advice that all of us white people can learn from. The message is so out-of-our-experience of what it means to be white; it is subtle and nuanced, but also simple.

“Listen up, fellow white people,” the article begins:

“If we care about racism—and, we bloody well better—there’s something we need to do. It’s enormously important. If any other action we take is going to be useful, we need to take this one. And sometimes, it can be really freaking difficult.

 We need to shut up and listen. “Black lives matter” means—among many other things—that black voices matter. So white people need to listen to those black voices. In person and online, with friends and colleagues and friends-of-friends and in-laws and strangers, wherever there are conversations about racism, white people need to listen.

Listening means not talking….” Read the entire article