Before retirement (2 1/2 years ago), I fantasized about belonging to a book group. The first one I joined I’ve been very happy with: The Great Books Discussion Group at my local library. I am a former Literature major, so reading excerpts from the “great works” of literature is right up my alley. I learn so much from each of the members who bring their own wealth of experience and perspective to the discussion.
Now I am suddenly in a second book discussion group. A few weeks ago I wrote about a speaker I went to hear at the invitation of family friends. The speaker was David Billings, a Southerner who has devoted most of his life to understanding and resisting racism. Mr. Billings has written a book, Deep Denial,that should be required reading for all college students. In fact, it probably would have more impact if it were required reading in high schools across the country, so everyone would have some exposure to it. Given the deeply engrained racism still present in the United States, that scenario is unlikely to come true.
Today I attended the first meeting of the discussion group. It was well attended; 16 people were present. There was only one person of color. Since the book focuses on White Supremacy and how white people have colluded to create a political climate wherein whites often feel superior to nonwhites, it’s hardly required reading for people of color.
We formed a big circle and the coordinator asked each of us to spend a minute or two discussing our response to the early part of the book: the prologue, forward and Chapter One, in which Mr. Billings outlines the early history of White Supremacy in the United States. It was interesting to hear each of the responses, and particularly from those who said they grew up in a “bubble” and had never thought much about racism before now.
I shared that having a staunchly German mother and a Southern father, it was impossible for me to not think about racism. Both parents held racist beliefs and practiced racist behaviors that they had learned, I assume, from their forebears. I began to feel uncomfortable with those beliefs. From an early age I had often said to myself: How is it that I was lucky to be born white, and others not? How much has this simple act of fate defined my life? Even though we were poor and my parents had a limited education, I knew I was part of a privileged group (white) that afforded me opportunities that others would never have if I worked hard enough for them.
I am glad this book exists because it will help me to better understand how our nation became so racist, how we’ve figured out a way to institutionalize racism, and how to overcome whatever traces of racism are still coursing through my veins. As Billings said so eloquently: “Our belief in white superiority has seeped into every facet of our lives in America. It’s in our cultural DNA.”
For me, reading and coming to terms with the ideas in this book is a journey. I know I will never be fully “cured” of racism, but I see this discussion group as an opportunity to examine our national history of racism, as well as my own personal journey. It felt really good to share this journey with a group of people who have their own influences and histories to overcome and are not ashamed to admit it.
Thank you, David Billings, for doing such important work for the good of us all.