Granting my summertime birthday wish, my three teens deigned to spend time with me floating on rafts at a local quarry, playing a version of 20 Questions. Each of us would think of a person—any human being on the planet—and the rest would have 20 questions to guess who it was.
Shia LeBeouf. Bill Gates. Leo DiCaprio. Robert Downey Jr.
Round after round, I began to notice how frequently we drummed up white males.
“No more white males!” I ranted, playfully. “Come on, people! Get creative!”
As we were playing, a black teen from my kids’ school swam over and joined our game. (Polite, savvy, he chose the same kinds of “people” we were choosing.)
The data rolling off our tongues—among one black, one Indian, and three white folks all raised in America—confirmed what I suspected: The message many of us have inadvertently internalized is that to be a person is to be an American white male. The insidious, hidden assumption is that everything else—having too much melanin, not enough testosterone, or speaking a non-English language—is somehow less than fully human.
Questioning Our Assumptions
That Dylan Roof massacred nine black people in Charleston five days after our trip to the quarry is, as Austin Channing Brown has noted, the “logical conclusion” of the white supremacist ideology exposed in our little quarry game. (Other victims of the same wily logic have been Middle Eastern, Latino and Asian.)
Does “white supremacist ideology” feel too strongly worded for a benign game of 20 Questions? If so, I get that. I really do.
For a lot of white Americans (myself included), it’s both an intellectual stretch and, if we’re honest, an emotional one to admit that “white supremacy” could in any way apply to us. After all, horrific crimes such as rape, torture, and murder have been committed by white hate groups blatantly espousing white supremacist ideology. But a number of Christian women from whom I try to learn—Chanequa Walker-Barnes, Austin Channing Brown and Jennifer Bailey, among others—have challenged me to consider the many ways those ideas still impact the daily living of every person in our country. In fact, the wisdom and voices of these prophetic women are the very reason that I’d used my lighthearted words to point out our unwitting connection between “personhood” and “white male.”