Free, White And Twenty-One by George Merrill


This phrase, ‘Free, White and Twenty-One’ represents a significant, albeit unfortunate, piece of the American story, particularly for whites who once felt an unassailable sense of entitlement. It declares that anyone free, white and twenty-one is beholden to no one. But let’s talk some about color for a minute. It gets complicated.

Is white even a color? Many say yes, others say maybe, some say no. A few will tell you yes and no. Personally, I think white is a color.

Although I’ve never seen one until just recently, I read how several “Flag of the Races” had been created in the sixties to highlight the realities of racial diversity. One flag had five colored stripes comprising red, black, brown, yellow and white, all woven into the same fabric, representing the skin hues of various peoples, worldwide.  The flag celebrated color differences, but differences woven into one fabric, as we’d hope our nation of immigrants would be.

Racial segregation in the United States, however, has been framed primarily in binary terms, white vs. non-white.  I believe the way America frames race is pejorative. While reading the other day about how the white majority will soon become the minority in the States, it occurred to me that in common racial parlance, white is not assumed to be a color.

This must be why we have wound up calling non-whites, people of color. I question the designation, “people of color.” In fact, it’s a misnomer.

Words make a difference. Words can harbor unwholesome notions; they can cloak hidden agendas that actually divide members of a community. The use of certain words can support untruths, and are more than just white lies, or more disturbingly still, exclusively white lies. The truth is that the worldwide population is nothing else but people of color. The only legitimate distinctions we might make is what the particular hue might be.

The phrase ‘people of color’ suggests that the world’s standard for skin color is white and everyone else’s is therefore, colored. Or that black and brown are colors and white is not. If I tell you, as an Episcopalian, that all others who are not Episcopalian, are non-Episcopalians, you’d see right through me. You’d know I was framing the discussion in such a way inferring that Episcopalians remain the measure of all things with the additional suggestion of their superiority.

As I think about it, the words ‘white’ and ‘non-white,’ are words that have carved the entire human universe along racial lines and I don’t recall anyone challenging this distinction until fairly recently. Like so much in the unexamined life, a lot gets taken for granted that would not stand up to the light of day. The assumption of a world divided into white and non-white is not the comforting thought it had once been, especially today for white Americans. Today’s whites are soon to become a minority in the United States. With this new population shift comes some serious soul searching for whites. What will happen to the sense of well-being that we whites once enjoyed by being a majority as well as having the vaunted status that being a majority can suggest?

The way we word things makes a difference.

In a similar way, we treat the earth as we treat one another, that is, we may honor and treasure others and the earth or simply use the earth and other people as marketable commodities. The distinction between human and non-human, like white and non-white, many still cling to. It can be useful in suggesting a position of strength in any bargaining situation. Some of the destructive overdevelopment and species extinctions we’ve created have resulted from the ‘non-human’ having no voice in how the water, the air and the earth is used.

Corporate money still overpowers any local or state environmental protections as we can already see here on the Shore and on the national scene; The present administration is rapidly rolling back the environmental protections that once offered a voice for the land, water and the air. In a discussion of using the earth’s resources, all parties bring lawyers to the table, except the natural world under discussion. Especially here on the Shore we can see where this is taking us. The natural world is severely underrepresented because it is, well, non-human, as if being human is still the measure of all things. The Environmental Protection Agency, originally created to protect the planet does not represent our planet any more. The planet is now being represented by Corporate industries.

The present administration has launched a vicious character assault on immigrants, many of whom are of skin colors other than white. Part of the strategy is to stoke an old fear in white Americans, the fear of the “other,” the ‘people of color’ who are not white. Listening to our leadership stoking fear is a variation on a familiar theme popular during the Jim Crow era. We were warned that blacks were dangerous because, if not kept in their place, they would rape our women, steal our money, devalue our property and murder our children. Today the administration imputes to migrants’ similar attributes – although updated: if we admit immigrants they will steal jobs, deal drugs and be members of gangs, and of course, rape our women. Listening to the president’s rhetoric or seeing his tweets is like ‘déjà vu all over again.’ However, this time it’s not only blacks who are being maligned, but Muslims and other Middle-Eastern peoples.

I am not color blind. I would not suggest I’d be better off if I were. I would say just the opposite; best to be very aware of color. I am very much aware of a person’s skin hue. I am blessed to be old enough to be curious about a person’s difference rather than fearful of them. What are their stories? How do they see life? What has been their history? There’s a trove of marvelous stories we white have never heard. I have heard some and many are inspirational. We’re the poorer for never having heard them all.

Just imagine a world that is all white. I find it chilling. We’d be like the Inuit. Everywhere we look we’d see only vast expanses of whiteness. I’ve known some folk that relish just such all-white landscapes. They find diversity unsettling.

It’s color that add spice to life.

Columnist George Merrill is an Episcopal Church priest and pastoral psychotherapist.  A writer and photographer, he’s authored two books on spirituality: Reflections: Psychological and Spiritual Images of the Heart and The Bay of the Mother of God: A Yankee Discovers the Chesapeake Bay. He is a native New Yorker, previously directing counseling services in Hartford, Connecticut, and in Baltimore. George’s essays, some award winning, have appeared in regional magazines and are broadcast twice monthly on Delmarva Public Radio.

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