Have you lost your righteous mind?

Episode 7: Tsunami of privilege

Share on Facebook
Share on Twitter

By Michael Romain on 'America to Me'

Staff reporter

A very astute white student in Jessica Stovall's class made the trenchant observation that he doesn't understand why the white kids in James Sieck's AP American History class "can't talk about race like we can." 

"If you can't go into the curriculum because of your own personal feelings, then that's not a good student to me," he says. 

That's one of the more memorable insights in this seventh episode, but after some moments of reflection, this argument assumes that even academic curricula are somehow free of the racist inflections of the mostly white men who helped shape them. 

William Sanders Scarborough was one of the founders of the American Philological Association and generally regarded as the first African-American classical scholar. He wrote a textbook in Ancient Greek that was used widely at the university level. He was also a former slave. 

In 1909, Scarborough was barred from attending an association meeting in Baltimore, Maryland, because the hotel where the meeting was to be held refused to serve him and had threatened to sue the association for breach of contract if it canceled. Someone else read the paper that Scarborough was due to read at the meeting. 

To this day, the overwhelming majority of undergraduate classics majors and faculty members in the classics is white. According to the Society for Classical Studies, only 2 percent of full-time classics faculty members are minorities. 

At this point, it's been pretty well established that the study of Greek antiquity was quite literally whitewashed, as Sarah E. Bond, an assistant professor of Classics at the University of Iowa, explained in a widely referenced 2017 essay.

"Most museums and art history textbooks contain a predominantly neon white display of skin tone when it comes to classical statues and sarcophagi," Bond writes.

Many Western statues, reliefs and sarcophagi, Bond explains, "were, in fact, painted. Marble was a precious material for Greco-Roman artisans, but it was considered a canvas, not the finished product for sculpture."

And yet generations of high-level history students and even professors and PhDs have considered the ancients "Anglo Saxon ancestors" — evidence of how "not a few Westerners have attempted to racialize antiquity, making history into white race history and classics into a lily-white field, complete with pictures of blond ancient Greeks," as historian Nell Irvin Painter writes in The History of White People. 

A similar whitewashing extends to the teaching of American history in schools.

For instance, a 2018 report by the Southern Poverty Law Center's Teaching Tolerance project showed that fewer than 10 percent of American high school seniors could identify slavery as the cause of the Civil War. Less than one-third of them could identify the 13th Amendment as the formal end of slavery in the country, the Atlantic points out. 

If the white students in AP American History cannot competently talk about race, despite their advanced academic pedigree, then it's because the people who create the curriculum have made it so — the social and historical context in which the curriculum was created has made it so. 

This is how whiteness lives on. Whiteness is stitched into the minds of white people and black people alike — reified as a neutral or even benevolent norm — by the disciplined, studied avoidance of its implications. 

For a black person, living with such normalcy takes a social and psychological toll. We must deal with notions of inferiority, shame, degradation and worthlessness — to name a few forces. Black people must escape the indoctrination into whiteness as a matter of survival. We must shake the myth (which means confronting it) in order to keep our "righteous mind," as referenced in Episode 7 by Denzel Washington's character from a scene in the film The Great Debaters. This takes constant struggle. 

For the white person, living with whiteness also takes a social and psychological toll, which most white people have been careful to make others pay. But the moral debt, accrued by centuries of plunder and domination, strains to be recognized.  

I cringed listening to the reprehensible closing arguments made by Jason Van Dyke's lawyer (who made a mentally ill teenager out to be a ravenous beast) and statements by the police union representative in response to the guilty verdict (the rep was outraged that Van Dyke was even on trial for shooting a black kid 16 times). Whiteness has turned some white people into moral monsters. 

In Take This Hammer, a 1963 documentary about San Francisco's race problem, James Baldwin, in the words of the writer Brandon Tensley, returns to white people the problem of "the nigger" (Baldwin, after all, must maintain his righteous mind). 

"I didn't invent him. White people invented him," Baldwin says. "If I am not the nigger, and if it's true that your invention reveals you, then who is the nigger? ... Well, he's unnecessary to me, so he must be necessary to you. I'm going to give you your problem back: You're the nigger, baby, it isn't me."

To be white and not grapple with the moral consequences of your whiteness is to lose your "righteous mind." To see some white people in this episode attempting to reclaim their righteous minds — like that student in Stovall's class — is refreshing.  

CONTACT: michael@austinweeklynews.com   

Email: michael@oakpark.com

Love the Journal?

Become our partner in independent community journalism

Thanks for turning to Wednesday Journal and OakPark.com. We love our thousands of digital-only readers. Now though we're asking you to partner up in paying for our reporters and photographers who report this news. It had to happen, right?

On the plus side, we're giving you a simple way, and a better reason, to join in. We're now a non-profit -- Growing Community Media -- so your donation is tax deductible. And signing up for a monthly donation, or making a one-time donation, is fast and easy.

No threats from us. The news will be here. No paywalls or article countdowns. We're counting on an exquisite mix of civic enlightenment and mild shaming. Sort of like public radio.

Claim your bragging rights. Become a digital member.

Donate Now

Reader Comments

13 Comments - Add Your Comment

Note: This page requires you to login with Facebook to comment.

Comment Policy

Christopher Bell  

Posted: October 16th, 2018 11:36 AM

Drew point well taken but there is little doubt that there are some great/caring teachers who go above and beyond to help all kids win. My son had Williams and he is superb. His class is very well taught and he inspired my son. I also wish more context was provided and narrative expanded - for example, explain there are 1,000 blck students - 250 are very high performing, 600 are average and for the purpose of this docu-series we will focus on those who are not doing well. OR highlight a kid of any color who came from humble beginnings and really did well. That would be inspiring to all. Finally, they keep pushing getting ride of track system (Ep 9) whish is asking a lot of many in the community. One thing is for sure, this is not a net positive for OP (which is perhaps NO ONE from River Forest agree to do it (plenty of black folks). Time will tell

Drew Rein  

Posted: October 15th, 2018 9:17 AM

This docu-series was becoming a slog until Anthony Clark showed up. I still feel this is very scripted and heavily edited to show a narrow perspective but Clark was a breathe of fresh air and really connects with the students. Wish mine had had him. Cannot wrap my mind around the Noble teacher and why he keeps popping up for seemingly no reason.

Edgar Hiestand from Oak Park  

Posted: October 12th, 2018 12:39 PM

Michael Romain's choosing to title this commentary "Have you lost your righteous mind?" is so apt. --So apt a question by Melvin B. Tolson, the Wiley College Professor debate coach played by Denzel Washington to his Greater Debater students. But also so apt a question to all of us black and white watching America to Me in this community OPRHS. community. Glad that many in our congregations are seeing / hearing this.

Kline Maureen  

Posted: October 11th, 2018 9:19 AM

if you're looking for a low-cost theater outing without a trip downtown and interested in these topics, I highly recommend the OPRFHS Theater Dept.'s new production opening this weekend in the Little Theater: CLYBOURNE PARK, showing October 12, 13, 19 and 20th at 7:00 p.m. in the - sort of a sequel to Lorraine Hansberry's "Raisin in the Sun" about a home that was the first on the block in 1959 to be sold to a black family, beginning years of white flight in the Clybourne Park neighborhood. Fifty years later, in the now all-black neighborhood, a white family wants to buy the house to tear it down and build their "McMansion" - playwright is Bruce Norris; it won the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, and a 2012Tony Award for best play and focuses on issues of racism, reverse racism, fair housing and gentrification. (teacher & director Michelle Bayer notes that it is more suitable for a mature audience with strong themes and language) More info: http://www.oprfhs.org/activities/documents/Performing-Arts-Schedule.pdf

Bruce Kline  

Posted: October 10th, 2018 6:24 PM

Mr. Romain's expressive melanocentric ramblings come mighty close to those of the late Frances Cress Welsing MD.

Tom MacMillan from Oak Park  

Posted: October 10th, 2018 5:54 PM

@Jason - agreeing is great and its kind of easy when the subject is that imagine boondoggle. The kids shown on the TV show need more class time, more teacher time. Not more pool time or a fancier lunch room. Some sort of extra after school, summer school type programs so they can catch up as much as possible. That can be done with tax money that has already been collected.

Rob Ruffulo  

Posted: October 10th, 2018 4:14 PM

I agree with Alex, this is an extremely racist and hurtful article. Not surprised. OP and the writers (NOT Journalists, they are not at that level) keep separating people by race, gender, income, etc...makes it very clear we are all not equal when we should be. Robet Milstein, have you ever worked a beat as a Chicago police officer when you are not sure you are coming home alive that day?? Do not blame the office until you have been put in that situation yourself. Police officers in the City should all walk and protest, lets see what the city is like with no police.

Jason Cohen  

Posted: October 10th, 2018 3:17 PM

@Alex, what's racist about this? How do we actually tackle any of this if we aren't actually willing to look at what it means to be white or black in this country. Who's going to change their behavior if they don't challenge that behavior at all. At the end of the article it even notes the progress made. I don't see this as racist at all. I see this as opening up ones mind to help try to understand what's going on. I have literally never walked out of my house and thought to myself I wonder what my skin color will impact in my world. Lots of people have that experience and it's not very positive for them. There's good reason to talk about this.

Jason Cohen  

Posted: October 10th, 2018 3:12 PM

@Tom, we don't always agree but I have been thinking the same thing to be honest. I have tried to keep an open mind about the Imagine plan as it relates to the issues brought up in the documentary series and I can't see how this massive project helps move the needle. The one thing I keep thinking is that we could really offer lots more flexible tutoring options. This isn't meant to be a request of the teachers to do more. Let's play great tutors to be be available for all students. This has a cost but compared to this giant project it's a drop in the bucket and might actually help.

Alex Garcia  

Posted: October 10th, 2018 2:02 PM

An exceptionally racist commentary, even by Michael's recent standards. When does the race-baiting stop, Michael? OakPark.com Editors: Maybe it's time you considered whether this column adds to a constructive debate on issues du jour or whether it merely serves to divide.

Tom MacMillan from Oak Park  

Posted: October 10th, 2018 10:57 AM

We have gotten to episode 7 and I am still trying to figure out how an Olympic pool with seating for 600 is going to help any of the kids do better in their time at OPRF. It angers me to think kids need help, while the school has been sitting on $100 million in taxes they already collected and the only big idea being imagined is how to sneak in a pool for 90 white kids to swim in, for a quarter billion dollars. When is the school board going to wake up and take control back from a handful of people with their pool at any cost agenda.

Robert Milstein from Oak Park  

Posted: October 10th, 2018 10:36 AM

The author of the article says " some white people. He does not paint all while people at all. The qualifier word Some is important, but the bigger point is that a young man was shot 16 times by an officer who showed little restraint. All (yes all)races have monsters in their midst, they also have many good people. Read what is written not what we think was written.

Rob Ruffulo  

Posted: October 10th, 2018 6:12 AM

This is ridiculous, painting white people as Moral Monsters "Whiteness". A very racist comment. Why don't you state that black people, including yourself, can be moral monsters? GIve both sides of an issue. If McDonald was mentally ill, why didn't his family get him help?? With the millions they received, they could not get him the best help possible??

Facebook Connect

Answer Book 2019

To view the full print edition of the Wednesday Journal 2019 Answer Book, please click here.

Quick Links

Sign-up to get the latest news updates for Oak Park and River Forest.

MultimediaContact us
Submit Letter To The Editor
Place a Classified Ad

Classified Ad