The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
-- W. B. Yeats, “The Second Coming”
The book on us is that we lack intensity. The book of those whose opinion we care about.
There’s another book on us, of course. The book of those who say we are the devil’s spawn, godless, traitors, killers of what is Christian and American. But we don’t read that book. We don’t care about the opinions of those who have always metaphysically reviled us. They are to us buffoons. Unless they bring their guns. Then they are buffoons with guns.
The book that hurts us is the book of those with whom we would be solid. When people of color say they can’t trust us, because we lack passion and our solidarity is lukewarm, it staggers us. When they say we can’t be solid with them because we’re people of privilege, we feel ashamed. We don’t know from oppression, they say. If we did, we’d be as passionate as they are.
We’d like to say, we have the courage of our convictions. We’d like to say, we have studied the situation, we have risen above our location, we can see the struggle for justice from the height of our principles. We know where our loyalties should be.
And what good are you up there in your balloon? says the hurtful book. White people can’t jump, don’t know how to clap their hands, can’t sway without falling over. You lack rhythm, have left your bodies and lost your souls. Your truth is not incarnate.
I rise each morning in a particular place and time, to do work that gets my attention. Some days I am proud of what I have done. Then I’m tired, and I have to recreate myself. I go home. I read. I write. I look out the window. I meditate. In my own way, I pray. I go to sleep. If I don’t recreate myself, I can’t come back in the morning. Not honestly. I can fool myself for a while. My well-trained reflexes will continue to operate. Only the spiritually gifted will notice that the soul has gone out of my eyes.
I have a reasonable chance, on a given day, of fulfilling the prophet’s requirement. Today I might love kindness, act justly, and walk humbly with my God. If I fail today, I may succeed tomorrow. If I succeed today, it’s something. I can’t do everything. Part of humility is knowing how much I cannot do.
To our kinfolk of color we would extend the hand of fellowship. Welcome. We know you were unjustly treated. We know you deserved better. We have read your story, in books and in your eyes. We want for you to do well. That’s how we were raised.
We want for you to do well. To say such a thing sounds condescending, but not to say it is a sin. We want it in principle, because it is right that you should do well. We want it also in our bodies, to ease the sickness at the pit of our stomachs. We are nauseated by what our country did to you.
I don’t say that our pain is your pain, or its moral equivalent. But we would like you to know that we also hurt from injustice. We have trouble getting that across.
The hurtful book says we are privileged. I learn that, though I do not have all advantages, I am privileged because I am tall, and firstborn, and male, and born to people who valued education. I also learn that white folks are privileged because they are white.
It’s hard to get your mind around the thought of privilege when you’re not rich and you’re not powerful, and you’ve more or less barely survived. So perhaps I don’t deserve to have survived. I have been rescued a number of times, given several chances to succeed. For others it’s one strike and you’re out. Or none. To me it has seemed a hard struggle to get here, and here seems no place of eminence; but the little I have should perhaps be taken away, because I got it by unfair means, born as I was with fair skin, blue eyes, male sex and blond hair.
If you say I’m privileged, you’re saying I’ve got the things you want and deserve. Among those things is power, to determine my destiny and that of others. If I hold such power, I hold it therefore in trust. I should use it not in triumph but in doubt. I cannot be of single mind about it. Some of it can be given away, but not all. It’s hard to deploy one’s power if one feels unworthy to do so.
You may not recognize my struggle of discernment as passion. You may think I am dispassionate. And yes, I am dispassionate; I must disown the instinct of privilege, which is to grab and consume, and to make of others the means to my happiness. I must rise above entitlement and climb out of my native joy, before I can come to meet you.
So I don’t come to your story as you do. Yet I want to hear it, I want to take it in, I want to grow my nerves into it. If I learn your song, my passion will not be yours; it will be the passion of a person born elsewhere, who came to meet you. I will have learned it, and you will have to hear it from me, in my own accent and idiom, inflected with harmonies that my parents lovingly taught me. That’s the best I can do. It has to be good enough. It’s all the conviction I’ve got.