While working with some of my kids (the at-risk ones, as they categorize them, whatever that means) one day, we broke into small groups and had a discussion with a takeoff from a story in the Old Testament. In our small groups we talked about questions of identity, and the discussion naturally lended itself to issues of race. The kids–two of whom were black, one hispanic–began to discuss the issues with race that they were confronted with daily. One related a story of a recent trip we took a museum at the university (from which I graduated) in our city where he felt judged because he was black and because of the attire he was wearing. He felt that the white people saw him as “ratchet.”
The “white gaze,” (a term he didn’t use, but one Toni Morrison aptly supplies in the Bluest Eye) whether real or perceived, influenced his experience, as he believed that the “white gaze” saw him as a stereotypical poor black kid, conspicuous and suspicious, and destined to continue in the poverty of his existence. The fact that he was black coupled with the fact was dressed in gym shorts and shirt led him to see himself trivially. His identity, as he understood it, was constituted by the perception of the “white gaze” and its defining him anti-typically to the white privileged students inhabiting the university. He was the opposite of those who studied there, who embodied promise and future, who dressed with “nice” clothes, namely, those who were white. While he, on the other hand, was just another ratchet, black kid from the ghetto.
The power of the “white gaze” is that of manipulating and coercing the object of its glare into a narrowly confined normativity–that is, whiteness. Unless he assented to the reality of whiteness, he would remain its retrograde opposite, black. Under the weight of the gaze in this context, he held the options of dressing “nicer,” or of behaving in a certain manner that would allow him to move beyond his current symbolic identifiers. Either way, the “white gaze” made known the threat of race, encroaching upon how he understood himself normally within his community, impelling him fit its quarantines and sanitations.
During the discussion with him and the other two kids I felt compelled, from my position as a “discussion leader,” to offer guidelines for how to think through and respond to the situation. Simultaneously, I was troubled to offer any apology for the university context which he was visiting. Further, I was at a loss to offer any prescriptions for understanding racial identity. Part of the hesitancy of speaking to racial matters is due to beginning to come to grips with the realities of white privilege, which this last year and a half has afforded me. And from experiencing, to some, however minor, degree, the real guilt of colonialism. But even more so, part of it had to do with a sense of the inappropriateness of my commenting, justifying, or offering guidelines. I was unable to articulate or think through this sense, however.
In a late unpublished paper, Yoder reflects on patience as a method in moral reasoning through a series of 19 types of considerations and subsequently argues against absolutist claims brought against him. What interests me here is one of the considerations (18.a), though it is certainly bound up in several of the others.
Yoder discerns a certain “audience-sensitive” patience in moral reasoning. By this he means that within particular settings particular points which may be intrinsically valid become invalid because of the audience’s inability to hear (as Yoder admits, this is related to the “readiness” patience he describes earlier). For instance, a gringo, he says, may lack the credibility to make a critical claim against a liberationist because he (here assuming the “master class” of white and male) does not sense his point can be respected. This is a sort of “reflexive ad hominem” argument; that is, a critique coming from the gringo about the efficacy of liberation theology directed towards a group of El Salvadoran priests in South America will lack the credibility to carry any weight because it comes from the gringo himself. As Yoder says, “[i]t can be that the only honest way to represent what I stand for is not to speak just now.” Patience, in this case, means remaining silent knowing that those around you are not ready nor able to hear what you have to say.
Moving back to the story of our discussion group described above, it is helpful to see that this kind of “audience-sensitive” patience offers a better way of thinking through and acting in the situation. Against the impetus that I sensed to offer a prescription or resolution to the racial issue our kid was experiencing, Yoder’s discernment of patience can be a means beyond simple answers. Without absolutizing the need of white males to remain silent at all times (though this might be a good idea in itself), there may be contexts and conditions, like the one I experienced with the kids I work with, where the only proper response is patience embodied in reticence. However unsettling it may be to the need to justify oneself in words and answers, a wise consideration that is sensitive to its listeners may require a patient and honest silence.