White Men Challenging Racism: 35 Personal Stories / Edition 1

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White Men Challenging Racism is a collection of first-person narratives chronicling the compelling experiences of thirty-five white men whose efforts to combat racism and fight for social justice are central to their lives. Based on interviews conducted by Cooper Thompson, Emmett Schaefer, and Harry Brod, these engaging oral histories tell the stories of the men’s antiracist work. While these men discuss their accomplishments with pride, they also talk about their mistakes and regrets, their shortcomings and strategic blunders. A foreword by James W. Loewen, author of Lies My Teacher Told Me, provides historical context, describing antiracist efforts undertaken by white men in America during past centuries.

Ranging in age from twenty-six to eighty-six, the men whose stories are presented here include some of the elder statesmen of antiracism work as well as members of the newest generation of activists. They come from across the United States—from Denver, Nashville, and San Jose; rural North Carolina, Detroit, and Seattle. Some are straight; some are gay. A few—such as historian Herbert Aptheker, singer/songwriter Si Kahn, Stetson Kennedy (a Klan infiltrator in the 1940s), and Richard Lapchick (active in organizing the sports community against apartheid)—are relatively well known; most are not. Among them are academics, ministers, police officers, firefighters, teachers, journalists, union leaders, and full-time community organizers. They work with Latinos and African-, Asian-, and Native-Americans. Many ground their work in spiritual commitments. Their inspiring personal narratives—whether about researching right-wing groups, organizing Central American immigrants, or serving as pastor of an interracial congregation—connect these men with one another and with their allies in the fight against racism in the United States.

All authors’ royalties go directly to fund antiracist work. To read excerpts from the book, please visit http://www.whitemenchallengingracism.com/

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

“It is inspiring to read about white men who are working on the complex task of eliminating racism. In these times of backlash against civil rights gains of the past, we need more fighters like these. Yesterday's movement was truly interracial and today's must be as well.”—Julian Bond, Chair, NAACP, and Professor of History, University of Virginia and American University

”With range, depth, and integrity, the narratives in this collection flesh out both the ‘promise and the way of life’ of white people who have taken on racism as central to their life work. White Men Challenging Racism is a valuable contradiction to the construct of ‘angry white men’ that has fueled racial backlash over the past twenty years.”—Mab Segrest, author of Memoirs of a Race Traitor

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780822330967
  • Publisher: Duke University Press Books
  • Publication date: 5/1/2003
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 392
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.20 (h) x 1.20 (d)

Meet the Author

Cooper Thompson is a senior consultant at visions, a multicultural consulting organization.

Emmett Schaefer is Adjunct Assistant Professor of Sociology at the University of Massachusetts, Boston.

Harry Brod is Professor of Philosophy and Humanities at the University of Northern Iowa. He is the editor of The Making of Masculinities.

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Read an Excerpt

White men challenging racism

35 Personal stories
By Cooper Thompson

Duke University Press

ISBN: 0-8223-3096-2


Just Living

This is a book about the personal experiences of thirty-five white men who are trying to live a just life, sometimes successfully, sometimes not. To varying degrees, the white men in this book all think of what they do as simply what they must do, as if it is no longer a choice; they are just living their lives. And the task of challenging racism and other forms of oppression is integrated into their day-to-day existence in such a way that their lives are permeated with questions of justice, personally and politically. Challenging racism is, for these men, just living. This book is an attempt to provide some space for the reflections of a group of white men who we believe are living just lives in many different ways.

The narratives include incidents from and comments about complex and rich lives and reflections on antiracist activity. Some of the narratives speak about critical events that led to a life of activism; some of them speak about blind spots when it comes to racism or another form of oppression; some of them speak about offenses in relationships and mistakes in strategy; some of them speak about regrets of actions not taken. And there are expressions of pride in describing accomplishments and victories.

These narratives are like photographs. It is as if each of these white men weremomentarily presenting himself to us and you. These narratives are not comprehensive life histories. The white men profiled in this book made decisions about what they wanted to reveal about themselves and what they didn't want to reveal. We encouraged them and sometimes challenged them to reveal more about their most favorite and least favorite sides of themselves.

Why Another Book about White Men?

Given the critical role that people of color have played in the lives of white men who challenge racism and given the fact that it is largely people of color (and to a lesser extent white women) who have given their lives to fight racism, you may wonder why we are writing a book exclusively about white men. In fact, we were occasionally asked, "Why are you focusing on white men? Aren't people of color the true heroes? Why are you ignoring them? Don't white men already get more attention than they deserve? And what about the work of white women in challenging racism?"

We spent many hours talking about these questions with people of color and other white people. Afiya Madzimoyo, a friend and colleague who lives in Atlanta, Georgia, and other women of color consistently told us that there is a desperate need at this point in history for white men to love themselves as white men; Wekesa Madzimoyo, her husband and another friend and colleague, supported us in our learning to love our white male brothers. Afiya and Wekesa emphasized the importance of our being with other white men, praising them for their accomplishments, and challenging them when they didn't "get it."

Wekesa is also emphatic that people of color need to break the centuries-old pattern of taking care of white people; we know from experience that we and other white men have fallen into patterns of looking to people of color-and white women-for encouragement and affirmation as we take on the task of challenging racism. In our worst moments, we have depended on people of color to acknowledge our good efforts, and if they didn't thank us profusely, we decided that they weren't grateful. Or we have avoided contact with other white men, believing that there is little chance of getting support from them. We believe that it is our responsibility as white men to give ourselves the "strokes" we want and need.

We are certainly not the first white people to decide that our work is with other white people. This is what Malcolm X and many other people of color said when asked by white people what their role might be in securing civil rights for African Americans. After reading many of these narratives and giving us feedback, Curdina Hill told us, "White people aren't really doing antiracism work unless they're working with other white people." In a variation on this theme, Winona LaDuke told Rick Whaley, one of the white men interviewed for this book, "You need to know prayers in your own people's language."

We believe that the narratives in this book do what Afiya and Wekesa and other people of color have encouraged us to do. By holding up these white men who challenge racism, we are celebrating their lives. By asking them to be vulnerable about their mistakes and shortcomings and by asking questions that push their understanding of themselves and oppression, we are challenging them. By supporting them and getting support from them, we are encouraging white men to use their white male privilege fully. It does nothing for racial justice if we are meek and shrink into a corner, abandoning people of color and white women to fight racism on their own. The struggle for racial justice needs all of us in the center of the room.

Just as we hoped our questions were challenging to the men we were interviewing, so we also hope that their answers prove challenging to our readers. In particular, we hope what they say challenges the images that usually arise when people begin to speak of men in connection with the issue of racism. All too often, in our view, introducing the topic "men and racism" into a conversation quickly narrows it down to a discussion solely of the problem of "angry white men." But there are other men, other white men, other than these "angry white men." These other white men have anger and many other feelings, as their words show, not toward people of color or women (against whom the anger of the "angry white men" is said to be directed), but against racism and sexism and injustice generally. And they act on those feelings not in hostile acts of rage against other, marginalized people, but in acts of solidarity with those other people and acts of compassionate confrontation toward other white men.

Why, then, yet another book on white men-and this time, irony of ironies, one that even claims to be in opposition to racism and sexism? Because the widely held gendered image of racism-it's "angry white men," not "angry white people"-needs an equally gendered counterimage of antiracism-antiracist white men, not antiracist white people. Because groups of people, even dominant groups of people, are not monolithic. And it's important to know this. To really know it, not just in the abstract, but in the concrete details of these people's lives, as they themselves speak about them. We need to have some personal knowledge of men who have crossed racial lines in pursuit of racial justice, against the dominant stand of their own dominant group. Such knowledge empowers all, whether dominant or subordinate, because it opens the horizon and raises the bar of the possible in pursuit of justice and may even help to empower and inspire others to do likewise.

It is not that we believe that white women don't have much to teach us. They have taught us much, and we hope to keep learning from them. In fact, our personal experience tells us that there are many more white women than white men who actively challenge racism, and we suspect that there is more contemporary antiracism literature written by white women than by white men. Given that, it seems particularly important to focus on white men, to fill in this gap.

Some of the white men we interviewed also had concerns about being part of this project. A few of them were surprised that we wanted to talk to them because they didn't think they had done enough. Others were reluctant because they didn't want to seem like heroes or be in the spotlight. For example, John Cole Vodicka is adamant that the real heroes in southwest Georgia, where he works, are the African Americans who are willing to stand up to overtly racist white sheriffs and judges in the face of threats and retaliation. Chip Berlet told us, "When you told me you were doing a book about white men who fight oppression, I thought, 'Oh great, this is gonna be another one of those bang the drum and howl about the burdens of fighting racism and sexism!' I see my personal battles as an inconvenience and nothing compared to the burdens of people who feel the sting of oppression." Even so, some of the white men we talked with admitted that some recognition is important to them and keeps them going.

We have chosen to primarily explore the experiences of white men who challenge racism and not their experiences challenging sexism or other forms of oppression. We don't believe that racism is more important than other oppressions. Indeed, we are committed to the proposition that there is no hierarchy of oppressions and no priority of one liberation struggle over another. But because of where we are in our personal lives and where we believe our nation at this moment stands in its political life, we have chosen in this book to highlight antiracist struggles. It seems to us that many white men have explored and taken seriously the personal and political impacts of sexism, while racism has been treated as if it were only a historical phenomenon or deemed too difficult to change. It seems critical, therefore, to hold up white men who are committed to challenging racism.

We are aware of the problems in using the word "white." Some argue that the very concept of "whiteness" is an oppressive fiction that falsifies a much more complicated social reality. For others, it is an all too real phenomenon but one that must be thoroughly rejected. For others, it is a simple biological fact to be accepted. For us, in the context of this book it is shorthand for people of European descent who have, for the most part, been whitewashed into losing or giving up their identities as European Americans with specific ethnic and national roots. "White" is, for us, primarily a historical and political, rather than biological, concept that has given these people unearned privileges that have had and continue to have tremendous impact on all of our lives. We use it merely to describe, not to endorse, certain identities and institutions, along with their racialized relations of power.

In addition to being asked why we were focusing exclusively on white men, we were also questioned about the fact that we are three white men. "Don't you run the risk of not knowing what you don't know? How can you objectively assess other white men? What is your accountability to people of color? Isn't this just another example of the use of your own white male privilege to enhance your own status as white men?" When we first contacted Tobin Miller-Shearer to see if he was interested in being interviewed, he asked us about the involvement of people of color in our project. Because we didn't have a formal structure for getting the advice of people of color and because he takes very seriously the creation of structures of accountability to people of color, Tobin was initially hesitant to be interviewed.

We did not create a formal structure of accountability. We did consult regularly with people of color and white women in our lives, and they have given us feedback. For example, Curdina Hill was struck by the ways that some of these white men seemed so wounded from incidents in their child-hoods, so she wondered if we had asked them about their personal healing in the interviews. We realized that the question had not occurred to us. We had asked about isolation and the need for support but not the need to heal from past wounds. One of the things that Curdina persistently notices in white men is the residue of old pain and how this negatively impacts white men's relationships with people of color and therefore reduces the effectiveness of their efforts to challenge racism. We assume that there are other things we have "missed"; we assume that we have gotten some things wrong. In a sense, we are trying to do what we have asked the interviewees to do: we're sharing our work with you, knowing that you will see our strengths and shortcomings.

Our Approach

Early in this project, we knew that we didn't want to write a book that critiques the lives of other white men. The three of us have been socialized quite well to study others, find their flaws, point out those flaws in a patronizing way, and proceed to tell them what they need to do differently. We decided instead to let other white men speak for themselves and place ourselves in the role of listeners and learners. The methodology we chose for doing this was to find white men whom others describe, or who describe themselves, as challenging racism; interview them face to face; transcribe and edit parts of the interview so that it read as a first-person narrative, with an occasional question or comment from us; rewrite sections for clarity and arrange the material for dramatic emphasis; and last, review and edit the narrative with the interviewee so that it reflected what he wanted and was willing to say about himself. We were clear that we wanted this to be a collaborative process.

In looking for white men to interview, we wanted a diverse group in terms of age, place of residence, sexual orientation, class background and current class identity, spiritual tradition and practice, racial and ethnic identities of the people of color with whom they see themselves in alliance, and type of activities they do to challenge racism. We wanted "experts" who know that they are on a journey of learning about themselves and others and the world. We wanted white men who were willing to talk about their accomplishments and failures, who could be both proud and humble. We wanted white men who would be willing to be vulnerable in print. For the most part, we wanted to profile white men who were relatively unknown outside of their geographical communities or field of work. Notable exceptions are Herbert Aptheker, Stetson Kennedy, Si Kahn, and Richard Lapchick, although they are hardly household names.

We formally or informally interviewed about one hundred white men in the process of choosing these thirty-five. We know of or heard about well over one hundred white men challenging racism whom we didn't interview. Based on the number of white men we identified and the fact that our search was, at times, casual and never exhaustive, we know that there are many more white men in the United States who in some way challenge racism.

The interviews were both structured and spontaneous. We prepared for each interview by having a set of questions we wanted to ask, and the questions we actually asked depended on what happened in the interview. The broad questions we wanted to explore included the following: What do you do to challenge racism? How do you do what you do? Why? How did you come to be committed to doing what you do? What mistakes have you made? What are you proud of? What's the meaning for you of your various cultural identities? How would you describe your relationships with people of color? With other white people? How do you get support? Where is your community?

When we first started conducting interviews, we prepared a relatively long list of questions based on these themes and then kept those questions in front of us, on paper, as we conducted interviews. (This list is in the appendix.) We eventually realized that it would be a more cooperative strategy to share these questions with the interviewee prior to the interview and did so. At about the same time, we began to trust that we could keep the questions in the back of our minds as we gave the interviewee our full attention. We never asked all of these questions; we tailored our questions to the issues that we felt would be most salient in each interview and then modified them. Sometimes the person we were interviewing took the interview in directions that we hadn't anticipated; sometimes we took the interview in directions we hadn't anticipated; most of the time the interview seemed to have a life of its own.

Our decision to create first-person narratives from interviews was inspired by the work of Studs Terkel (Race); Bob Blauner (Black Lives, White Lives), and Timothy Beneke (Men on Rape). We liked the directness and intimacy of this approach. Using first-person narratives to explore complex and multidimensional material also appealed to our desire to use storytelling as a device for learning and teaching.


Excerpted from White men challenging racism by Cooper Thompson Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Introduction: Just Living 1
Herbert Aptheker, 86, radical historian: San Jose, CA 17
Stetson Kennedy, 85, journalist and Klan infiltrator; Jacksonville, FL 27
Art Branscombe, 81, fought for a racially integrated neighborhood; Denver, CO 37
Horace Seldon, 77, coalition builder; Boston, MA 44
Pat Cusick, 70, community organizer; Boston, MA 51
Nat Yalowitz, 70, social worker and organizer; New York, NY 60
Jesse Wimberley, 43, organizes working-class white men; West End, NC 73
Jim Hansen, 42, executive director, United Vision for Idaho; Boise, ID 82
Chip Berlet, 52, researches right wing groups; Cambridge, MA 90
Joe Fahey, 44, union official and labor organizer; Watsonville, CA 99
Mike McMahon, 60, community organizer with Central American immigrants; Houston, TX 109
David Attyah, 34, graphic artist and founder of Think Again; San Francisco, CA 121
Si Kahn, 57, singer / songwriter and executive director of Grassroots Leadership; Charlotte, NC 132
Steve Bailey, 43. executive director of Jump-Start Performance Company; San Antonio, TX 143
Tim Wise, 33, writer, lecturer, social critic, and activist; Nashville, TN 152
Billy Yalowitz, 42, community-based performance director and choreographer; Philadelphia, PA 164
John Allocca, 39, bilingual Spanish teacher; Boston, MA 175
Bill Johnston, 60, former Boston police officer; Emerald Island, NC 185
A. T. Miller, 43, teacher and director of multiculturalism at University of Michigan; Ann Arbor, MI 194
Ken Kimerling, 56, lawyer for Puerto Rican and Asian American civil rights; New York, NY 203
Monte Piliawsky, 57, teacher and historian; Detroit, MI 212
Lonnie Lusardo, 56, consultant and community organizer; Seattle, WA 222
Lee Formwalt, 51, historian and dean at a historically black college; Albany, GA 228
Nibs Stroupe, 55, minister of a multiracial congregation; Decatur, GA 237
John Cole Vodicka, 53, founder of the Prison and Jail Project; Americus, GA 249
Richard Lapchick, 56, advocate for racial and gender justice in sports and society; Orlando, FL 258
Chris Shuey, 46, environmental health specialist; Albuquerque, NM 265
Terry Kupers, 58, psychiatrist, prison activist, and author; Oakland, CA 272
Rick Whaley, 51, Native American treaty rights advocate; Milwaukee, WI 280
Jim Murphy, 54, firefighter and advocate for children's rights in Southeast Asia; Boston, MA 289
Sean Cahill, 38, researcher with the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force; New York, NY 299
Tobin Miller Shearer, 36, director of a Mennonite antiracism initiative; Akron, PA 305
Jason Wallach, 32, grassroots coordinator for the Mexico Solidarity Network; Chicago, IL 314
Bill Vandenberg, 31, co-executive director of the Colorado Progressive Coalition: Denver, CO 322
Matt Reese, 26, community activist; Louisville, KY 330
Appendix 339
Endnotes 343
Suggestions for Further Reading 351
About the Authors 355
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