Being Hard on White People

July 13th, 2010

I think it was an act of synchronicity that, after reading last week about the 50th anniversary of the publication of Harper Lee’s classic novel “To Kill a Mockingbird,” I stumbled onto a Washington Post column defending the work (which I did not know needed defending). It is a story—set in the Jim Crow South—about a white lawyer who defended a black man against a charge of raping a white woman. Columnist Kathleen Parker pushes back on modern day critics who take Lee to task for creating a protagonist—defense attorney Atticus Finch—who is far too congenial an opponent of injustice. She highlights one example of text that critics have pounced on in which Finch was too compassionate toward his racist neighbors: “In explaining people and events to his young daughter, Scout, Finch noted that these were not bad people (even though some did want to commit violence against blacks), just misguided.”

After reading the column I was all about the critique of the book. I had read the novel in school as so many U.S. kids have and I did not appreciate fully the subtle messages. First, Finch was way too easy on the racists, as Parker highlighted. Second, Finch was one of these tall handsome, privileged Anglo white guys who always seem to come to the rescue of poor, downtrodden people in the movies. The marine protagonist in Avatar, Clint Eastwood’s character in Gran Torino, Oskar Schindler in Schindler’s List, and choose your high school teacher from any host of movies about poor inner city kids. Boy, I was into it.

And then something dawned on me. What is wrong with a person helping people who need help? What’s wrong with a white lawyer standing up to defend a black man who most saw as indefensible? What was wrong with a guy (albeit it kind of a blue guy) working to save the habitat of indigenous blue-looking people? What wrong with a man saving people from the genocide? These are noble and courageous acts and the stories should be told.

The problem I had was that the artistic and entertainment-oriented context in which they are told has its drawbacks.  I resonate with the critique that the overwhelming number of stories with “white saviors” in them can create the impression that white saviors are the guys who really get things done and that, in an odd sort of way, if you aren’t that guy, you won’t be as good at overcoming your own privilege to do good and just work. These stories and movies create role models and role models can enhance the efficacy of people who identify with them to do the things the role model does. And when you rarely, if ever, see someone like you doing these great acts, you come to believe that is not something you can do. I think these arguments are valid and worth discussing in depth.

But, what I really want to get to is how good white people/characters like Atticus Finch and Oskar Schindler and the other protagonists just can’t quite be good enough. I see this effect in my work all the time with managers, especially white managers in the U.S. When it comes to diversity (and race especially) it is very difficult for white people to do enough righteous work to make amends for the injustice they often feel responsible for perpetrating. Finch’s choice to defend Tom Robinson wasn’t enough; he needed to beat down the racists. In Schindler’s List, Schindler even breaks down in a wrenching scene in which he bemoans not having saved enough Jewish victims from the concentration camps.

On one hand, these “you-could-have-done-more” critiques, the almost obsessive concern with how these individuals could have been even more virtuous, draws attention to how virtuously they actually did behave. Kind of like saying to someone “Don’t think about pink elephants” makes it really tough for the person not to think about pink elephants. But in fact, theses criticisms get in the way of really moving forward when it comes to healing across difference. Those who hold do-gooders to a higher standard, whether these be external or internal critics, invalidate the real human work that goes into creating real justice. Looking for extreme heroism gets in the way of seeing real everyday heroism. Extreme heroism is only achieved by movie characters and the small minority of truly extraordinary people who live in our communities. That doesn’t get all the work done that needs to be done. Everyday heroes do most of that work. People who try their best and do pretty well, but also fall down. Finch gets to have a moment in which he can’t deny (indeed, he even has compassion for) his racist neighbors. Oskar Schindler gets to do his best to save as many people as he could and that’s it.

So, when we look at white people who dare to try to do better when it comes to race, men who try to do better when it comes to gender, straight people trying to do better with sexual orientation, it’s critical to celebrate the incredibly difficult task they have chosen to undertake. These are the role models we will need to initiate and sustain change in organizations and in larger society. You go, Atticus Finch.

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