The Long View, I: On Being White
John Biewen is audio program director at Duke University’s Center for Documentary Studies and host of the audio documentary podcast, Scene on Radio. In that series, John has explored whiteness, masculinity, and democracy. During a 30-year career, he has told stories from 40 American states and from Europe, Japan, and India.
Krista Tippett, host: This is always a starting point for meaningful change inside ourselves and our families and communities: We pull up stories we’ve been raised on in the light of what we know now. We see what was not being said, hear the questions we scarcely allowed ourselves even to think. We recover lost chapters. My colleague in radio and podcast, John Biewen, has been doing this with the interwoven questions of what it means to be human and what it means to be white. In a series called “Seeing White,” to which many people have turned in 2020, I think John has modeled something. As a documentary investigative journalist who’d covered race with the best of intentions and rigor, he realized he’d been turning to others — people of color — to be searching about racial rupture and healing. He then turned the lens back on himself.
So that’s the conversation ahead between me and John Biewen. It starts simply — tracing the racial story of our time through the story of a single life. It’s an exercise each of us can do, beginning with a curious eye on our childhoods and hometowns. And if we do this searchingly, it becomes a step towards a more whole and humane world, starting with ourselves.
[music: “Seven League Boots” by Zoë Keating]
John Biewen: We don’t need everybody to see all of this, in order to change the world. We just need enough of us. I do think there are probably more people than ever before that are recognizing these things and being willing to do the work, and being exposed to journalism, to books and documentaries enough to be able to see not only the way our brains work, but these stories that we’ve been taught, these narratives — that we can let go of them. And we need to.
Tippett: I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being.
John Biewen is audio program director at Duke University’s Center for Documentary Studies and he’s host of the Center’s audio documentary podcast, Scene on Radio. In that series, John has explored whiteness, masculinity, and democracy. During a 30-year career, he has told stories from 40 American states and from Europe, Japan, and India.
Tippett: Well, first of all, just to say, it’s really important to me that my sense of our audience is that all kinds of people are listening, people who are listening who vote Democrat, and people who are listening who vote Republican. And it’s a moment where our fellow journalists are rolling out opinion polls that will be a yes/no or up/down or multiple choice question, that tell us that fewer people are interested in Black Lives Matter or supportive of it than were a few months ago. And I just have refused to work with that as evidence or to let that affect how — pushing what we’re learning and what, I think, many people are learning, North and South, red and blue, opening to this larger reckoning and awakening, of which Black Lives Matter is a part. And I do believe this is gonna continue to shape our world, moving forward. And I believe that our listeners cross all kinds of lines. And so I want to be thinking about people across all kinds of constructed lines, as we’re speaking.
I think not everybody, but more and more diverse people than we imagine or than the news gives us the impression, are taking up this challenge of learning, questioning themselves, creating a world they want their children to live in, and up for the challenge of being the generation of our species that is ready to grow up. I really — I believe it, but more than that, I’m ready to throw my energy behind it. So that’s where we are. That’s where I’m starting, here. This is not just a neutral, informational conversation. I know that’s not what you do, either.
Biewen: [laughs] Well, I appreciate that a lot, and I think I’m in a pretty similar place, honestly. And I’m sure we’ll get to that.
Tippett: A really fantastic place to start is with where you, personally, sit, in terms of all these constructed, formative divides. So, you do straddle a lot of these lines that are defining us and that are in danger of defining our reckoning around these matters of what it means to be human and who we are. And so how long have you lived in North Carolina? You live in the South.
Biewen: I’ve been here since 2001, so coming up on 20 years.
Tippett: The entirety of the 21st century, almost. [laughs]
Biewen: Yes, well, I moved here a couple months before 9/11, and been here ever since.
Tippett: And you grew up in a liberal family in the Northern liberal state of Minnesota, where I am sitting now. [laughs]
Biewen: We have traditionally thought of Minnesota, at least in these decades, as being liberal.
Tippett: I guess I wonder, if I ask you the question this way, how would you start to tell the story of what it means to be white in America, through the earliest story of your life, the background of your life?
Biewen: Well, I guess a really important thing that comes to mind, when you ask it that way, is seeing myself absolutely as the default, generic person. And as a “white” person in southern Minnesota in the 60s and 70ss, when I was a child, that’s very easy to do. There’s a sense that —
Tippett: When you say “default,” do you mean, like, the baseline person — the norm?
Biewen: Yes, people look like me and my family, and then there are other people — the way that we say it at one point in Seeing White, we say that “white people are just people, and then race is something that other people have,” so that occasionally, you see a Black person or a Native American person, and they are racialized: “Oh, there’s a person who possesses the characteristic of having race,” [laughs] “and I’m just a human.” So when I think back on my childhood, I think that’s how I went through the world, moved through the world.
Another thing that comes to mind is my understanding of that place and of history. It strikes me so powerfully now, that I was born 99 years after the US-Dakota War, which was a bloody — actually, in that region of the country, fairly cataclysmic event that I’ve done a documentary about since. 99 years. That’s nothing. And that happened at a time of intense in-migration of Europeans to that part of the world. And so it was so new — it was so new, when I was born. And I could grow up as an 8- or 10-year-old child, and look around and say, “This is the way the world is. This is how it’s always been in this place.”
Tippett: And you could see yourself as that default person.
Biewen: Exactly. And if I heard about a farmer whose family had been there a hundred years? “Wow, that’s almost forever.” And now a hundred years — especially having done a whole bunch of documentary work, going fairly deep into history, I see how short a time a hundred years is. And that changes your perspective dramatically, too.
Tippett: I’m curious — I’ll say that especially — not just in 2020, but especially — moving through 2020, and really, moving through these last years in our country, yes, we’re learning things about history that we didn’t learn in school. But I also — I’ve found this to be a time of remembering what I think of as embarrassing stories from my childhood of that cluelessness. Somewhere, you use this language of the “drip-drip” of whiteness, the relentless drip-drip of whiteness. I don’t know. Are there stories that you think of from school, or racial interactions that you had, or ideas you had, that you look back and really cringe and realize that they were formative and you didn’t even think about them until you were forced to? Do you know what I’m talking about?
Biewen: Yes. Which to choose? [laughs] There’s the really concrete experiences, like — the town that I grew up in, Mankato, Minnesota, was — at least in my experience of it — was probably 99-plus percent white. And so there would be one family of Black kids in the school that I went to, for years, for example. And then I remember a time when another child — I can’t remember the circumstances, but there was a boy my age who came to our school — I would’ve been in about sixth grade or something. And I remember — I remember distinctly, participating in that thing that now I’ve heard about a thousand times from Black people as that kind of painful experience, of standing around that boy — and I actually can’t remember his name — but two or three of my friends and I, touching his hair and noticing the kind of bouncy quality of his hair, and “Isn’t that kind of cool?” Talk about a cringe, fifty years later — almost fifty years later.
Also, more broadly — this sense that racism, too, was a place that happened elsewhere. And in fact, I grew up in a family where race was talked about: my dad, in particular. And he’d gotten a kind of strong sense of social justice and concern about it from nuns [laughs] who were his teachers in Catholic schools, but also, he was an English teacher, and he would make sure that we saw the Sidney Poitier movies when they came on, or To Kill a Mockingbird or A Raisin in the Sun, and he taught those books. So we had this consciousness, and absolutely, racism was off-limits in our house. But at the same time, the world where those things were happening, where those terrible injustices were happening, was someplace else. And not only were we innocent, but kind of our whole region was innocent. So my parents didn’t seem to have much of a recognition of the history in that place, of what white people had done to Native Americans and what our culture had done to Native Americans. But it wasn’t really about me.
Tippett: So [laughs] I was looking — Gustavus Adolphus, where you went to college, they wrote an article about you and the headline was, “Philosophy major becomes radio producer.” Ever seen that?
Biewen: Is that what the headline was?
Tippett: Yeah, that’s the headline. [laughs] So I want to ask you this question, and I don’t even know — I wonder if you think about now, after all you’ve been observing with this, what the spiritual consequences of that — what you just described — in you were, however you would use that word, “spiritual,” more philosophically, more religiously?
Biewen: Well, I know that you sometimes, on your show, you ask people about their — and maybe —
Tippett: Well, I guess the way I’m pointing at it now is, I think that the way we’ve all been — especially around whiteness — that has been a spiritual background [laughs] of the childhood and of the life of anybody who’s white, in this world. And so that’s how I’m focusing it, thinking about it being focused in this conversation we’re having.
Biewen: I might get to your question in a kind of roundabout way, but let me start by saying, so my parents were Roman Catholic, and they left the church by the time I was about seven years old. So in Mankato, MN, it was pretty unusual to just be a kid who didn’t go to church.
So now, I guess, you could describe me as a practicing Buddhist: And sometimes I’ve thought that there’s a parallel, in some ways, between some of the key ideas that Buddhist teachers talk about and a process of anti-racist work, which is, there’s an element of letting go of, loosening your grip on, aspects of your identity or of the things that you thought you knew, and of a growing comfort with a process like that and sitting with discomfort or with that process of, I like to say, strengthening your letting-go muscle, which is a kind of paradoxical way of saying …
You know, having spent decades of thinking that I was one of the good ones, one of the good non-racists, because of the way I was raised and because, look, I’m a public radio journalist, and I’ve reported on race, and so clearly, I’m one of the good white people — to then be confronted with history and facts and analyses that make you go, Oh, wait a second, there are several deeper levels here, and there’s much deeper work that I still have to do, and being, I guess — with trepidation, and with limitations, I’m sure — trying to have the courage to do that work.
Tippett: You really turned that lens personally, but then you are a journalist and an investigative journalist, and you also turned it at your profession and at the questions you were asking as a journalist. Here’s — somewhere, you said as you started to think about whiteness in yourself and in the place you grew up in, that “whiteness is actually the story.”
Biewen: Yes, that white people are the story. Yes, and so as a journalist who, on and off throughout the 30-plus years I’ve been doing this, I thought of myself as someone who was interested in race and covered race. But what that almost always meant — pretty much always meant — was that I told stories, I covered issues, I produced pieces that had to do with people of color, pointing my microphone at people of color — so telling a story about life on the reservation for Native Americans, or what’s going on with efforts to deal with poverty in a low-income Black community, or a historical documentary that looked at what had happened to Black people during the civil rights movement — and coming to realize that there was an elephant in the room in all of that reporting, and that the elephant in the room was white supremacy.
And it’s not that those pieces were not acknowledging racism; they were often about racism. But it was always — that sort of reporting fit neatly into a framework of the “bad apples” — and we’re gonna point that out and we’re gonna shine a light on it, as a good journalist. But the larger systemic analysis — that was not there. That analysis and that acknowledgment were not there. So that in the process of turning to look at whiteness and saying, as you said, whiteness is the story; white people are the story — yeah, that’s a really consequential shift in perspective.
Tippett: The elephant in the room is us. [laughs] It’s us.
[music: “Upset” by The Album Leaf]
Tippett: I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being. Today, exploring the matter of being human and being white with documentary journalist John Biewen.
[music: “Upset” by The Album Leaf]
Tippett: It’s very familiar to me — as you say, you grew up in a place where you’d have one Black family in the school. And yet, this story of whiteness and of this very dramatic and, at times, very violent distinction of “white” versus “nonwhite”, was so deep in the soil of that place that you lived, where I live now — even, as you said, that Mankato — did you grow up in school in Mankato, learning about the US-Dakota War, which had a higher death toll than Wounded Knee or Little Big Horn?
Biewen: Yes, exactly. No, I did not. Did not hear a thing about it in school. Almost the more important point is that I don’t remember it ever once coming up in any conversation that I was in or that I overheard among adults, my whole time growing up. And I live in the South now, and the Civil War [laughs] shows up in conversation. And the history of this place, its racial history shows up, is acknowledged and alluded to, fairly often.
Tippett: Wrestled with, for better and for worse, but it’s alive.
Biewen: Exactly. It’s an acknowledged part of the story of this place; you really can’t escape it. And that’s almost more — that that violent upheaval in 1862 in the place where I grew up, it was as if it were Napoleon at Waterloo: it was just some other little factoid of history, but it wasn’t alive in that place as part of its story, in a meaningful way.
I think that’s changed some, honestly, though, actually, since I was a kid. I don’t live there anymore, but I think it actually is acknowledged much more now than it was then. For the record, I want to acknowledge that.
Tippett: What I learned from your — and I live in Minnesota now. And I agree with you. I grew up Oklahoma, and I have actually been really impressed, coming to Minnesota, about how the history has been remembered in recent years — I would say, pretty vigorously. But just from what I learned from you, and I’ve actually talked to people about this, but it’s kind of these pieces of our history that you’re shocked that they didn’t register, because it’s almost hard to take in, against the backdrop of the heroic story [laughs] that we grew up learning in school. And that Mankato as the site of the largest execution in US history — the US government hanged 38 Dakota warriors the day after Christmas, under orders from President Lincoln, in 1862, at the height of the Civil War. So that memory that’s so alive, that you’re living with in the South now, is the same period of time as this.
Biewen: Exactly. Exactly. So that really stood out to me when I, first of all, learned enough about that story, about what had happened, to have it really start to sink in, but also at that point had moved to the South, and that contrast was really very striking. I think a very important difference is that the South lost and was devastated, and life changed here in a dramatic way as a result of the Civil War. In Minnesota, people like me — people who look like me in the overwhelmingly dominant white culture of that place — were the winners.
And we trace in the documentary, we trace that history of how, for a time, after the war and the mass execution in Mankato, it was a big deal and it was something, naturally, that people talked about. But then, after a time, there was a realization, as the historian Mary Wingerd told me, that “Uh, this is not such great PR,” when we’re trying to get more settlers to come out here to Minnesota. “Let’s just stop talking about that.” And in fact, let’s talk — to the extent that we acknowledge the Native Americans who were here before us Europeans and are still here — let’s talk about them in sort of romantic ways, that this is a nice, exotic aspect of this place, but almost in a kind of Disney-fied way.
There’s a human desire that I think is shared by people everywhere, which is, “Let’s not talk so much about the really painful parts of the history of this place where we live.” That’s pretty close to universal, especially when that history reflects poorly on…
Tippett: Poorly on us.
Biewen: … on us, those of us who are in charge now.
Tippett: Your ancestors.
Biewen: [laughs] Right.
Tippett: It happens in families, too, if you think it’s a larger canvas for what we do with what shouldn’t have happened.
Biewen: Yes. And I think there are layers to it. There is, on the one hand, maybe a conscious decision, as I was talking about a minute ago, say, five or ten years after those events happened, to say, “Uh, we’re trying to get settlers to move out here,” as a kind of official — the state leaders and people like that — “Let’s stop talking about that.” And then there’s also, then, the process of the story being rewritten to reflect — and so, for many years, as you know and some of our listeners will know, there was a version of that story that basically talked about it as if — about the Dakota people just kind of rose up and went crazy one day, and started attacking the white people because they’re savages.
Tippett: Right, there was a redrawing of who were the victims and who were the perpetrators.
Biewen: And the “Sioux Uprising” was the term that was used for a century. And so then there was a need, not only to begin to remember it more fully, but also to just tell a more accurate version.
Tippett: After a short break, more with John Biewen. You can always listen again on the On Being podcast feed — wherever podcasts are found.
[music: “Lisbon” by Arms and Sleepers]
Tippett: I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being. Today I’m with my fellow journalist John Biewen. We’re exploring what he’s learned, including about himself, though creating his 14-part audio series “Seeing White.” Many have turned to this series — myself included — as part of searching and learning amidst 2020’s ruptures.
[music: “Lisbon” by Arms and Sleepers]
Tippett: I think your Seeing White series, as much as anything I listened to this year, just very matter-of-factly brings into relief — this is a fact, that race is manmade; it’s invented; it’s a social construct, but you interviewed a scientist who said, “Genetically, a roomful of humans of different races is still more alike than a flock of penguins,” [laughs] and really just brought this home, this core piece of reality and truth that we have to let register, and if we let register, it changes — it must, then, as we walk forward, change so much.
Biewen: That was a shift for me, too, that I find — even though it’s never really — it’s very, very squishy, I think, the messages that we get about what race means. I grew up experiencing it as significant; that there was something, and as more than a paint job; that we’re all 99.9 percent the same, and the science says that it’s really, literally, just a few genes out of the tens of thousands of genes that we all have, that determine things like skin color, eye color, whether your hair is curly or not, whatever, the things that we associate with “race.” And so I have found it to be significant and noticeable, to just have that shift, to just — I don’t know; I see people differently now, which is to say, I see people as more the same now.
Tippett: And again, I think there’s this kind of — it’s almost a recovered memory. Maybe that’s a good analogy — this recovery of how America has done this, the white/nonwhite and how who was white was, in fact, always flexible. So in some ways this awareness was there, because it was manipulated. Do you know, what I remembered — I keep having all these recovered memories from when I was getting ready to interview you — I won an essay competition, growing up in Oklahoma, in high school. I think I won fifty dollars, which was a very big deal. And it was called, “How My State Got Its Name.” Do you know what “Oklahoma” means?
Biewen: I don’t.
Tippett: They put two Choctaw words together. It means “red people.”
Biewen: Oh, wow.
Tippett: So I did grow up in a state which was the former Indian Territory, and it’s like these layers and layers that we just started to unpeel with Mankato. We don’t really have time to do that. But it is kind of the original geologic layer. And it was also this creation of a category, of “red.” You and I grew up with talking about “yellow” people, which would be Asian. And so in some ways we’ve come far, but we kept using language and our imaginations and constructing worlds around that.
Biewen: And I think that sometimes, it can be confusing to people when they hear that people — like we have both just said that race is not a real thing, biologically or genetically. And people — “What are you talking about? Just look around.” Clearly there is this kaleidoscope of difference in terms of what you might call ethnicity or whatever, where there are dozens and dozens of — there’s a whole spectrum. And so there is difference, but the idea that there are three or four or five racial groups and that those distinctions mean something, and particularly, that there’s a hierarchy, because that’s what it was invented for; that’s why race was invented, to create a hierarchy —
Tippett: And that people would be treated fundamentally differently, based on that particular difference.
Biewen: The people who called themselves white created this concept and created and added, created, a hierarchy. It was built into the idea from the start, both in terms of the slave traders who invented Blackness and whiteness for the purposes of justifying the Atlantic slave trade, and then as we got into the scientists, Linnaeus and Blumenbach and the early people who were codifying and categorizing and naming the world — that they did the same thing: we called it science and said there were four or five or six races; the people we call white are the superior one — that is a story that people made up. That’s what it is.
Tippett: It’s also a story that our brains can comprehend and latch onto. I feel like one of the things that makes me hopeful about potentially this being the century where we turn a corner, is that we’re understanding that this is how our brains naturally work. And I think we’re learning to perhaps work with that need we have to categorize, and question it, and not let it dominate us internally. I don’t know; you’re a meditator — you know what I’m talking about? That is a technology for understanding what’s happening in your mind, and shifting it.
Biewen: Yes, and I think the question is, we don’t need everybody to see all of this, in order to change the world. We just need enough of us. And that’s right. I do think there are probably more people than ever before that are recognizing these things and being willing to do the work, and being exposed to journalism, to books and documentaries and this and that, enough to be able to see not only the way our brains work, but these stories that we’ve been taught, these narratives — that we can let go of them. And we need to.
And I think that’s part of it, too, and I think maybe that’s what you were alluding to, is there’s this — and that’s one reason, I think, that this moment of deep crisis is both alarming and scary, but also somewhat hopeful and hope-inducing, is that moments of deep crisis have been the moments when societies have often been able to take these bigger turns and pivot and do something very differently, and to take on and to shed some of their — and actually, to adopt some ideas that were considered fringe and radical just a few years before, because now we see the necessity, in fact, of adopting those ideas and those ways of being.
[music: “Blue Dot Sessions” by In Paler Skies]
Tippett: I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being. Today, exploring the matter of being humans and being white with documentary journalist John Biewen.
[music: “Blue Dot Sessions” by In Paler Skies]
Tippett: I love that observation, and I want us to walk forward with that, that we don’t need everybody to be in the same place, to move forward, because it’s come through loud and clear, in the conversations I’ve been having this year — and this seems to me the frontier we have to step onto, still a little underpopulated, of white people talking to other white people, white people talking to themselves, and then there being this reckoning that is individual and collective and that looks — just as what you did, as a journalist — you started turning the lens. And you were asking different questions.
Tippett: I think a really pointed way, which I think could get me into trouble, is —
Biewen: Get into trouble, Krista.
Tippett: Ok. Truly, this is a question I’ve asked myself this year, and I feel like I have to take it on this seriously, which is, there are the things people say, the attitudes they publicly hold, and there’s the way we live. So it’s been possible to not be actively, consciously racist, but to be absolutely living in a way that perpetuates injustice and dehumanization. And sometimes I have wondered, are people who just openly say disparaging things about people of other races, are they necessarily more racist, or are they just more honest? If you really stack up all of us, how we’ve been living, including people who feel very consciously non-racist, but haven’t actually been antiracist, in this new language we’re using. To me, we’re on much more of a level playing field, as white people, than we have imagined; than certainly the liberal end of that has imagined. I don’t know; does that feel too extreme to you?
Biewen: No, it doesn’t. I think you’re right; it’s hard to know, ultimately. How do we measure how racist a person is and put a — [laughs] quantify that, somehow? So I think you’re probably right, to a very significant extent, and I think maybe an even more, but closely related important point is to say that those kinds of things are not the most important issue anyway; that the individual attitudes of someone, or whether they tell racist jokes, that’s not the issue. That’s not the problem, fundamentally, and it’s not the solution, to get people to be less racist individually, in their hearts and minds. That’s one of the big takeaways of our work on the podcast, is that — from people, certainly, like Ibram X. Kendi — is that the systemic change and change in policies and practices and actions and systems, is where the energy needs to be. And how can I contribute to that work?
Tippett: Do you know Ruby Sales? She’s a civil rights elder, theologian; wonderful, one of the elders who’s with us. And she said to me in 2016, “There’s a spiritual crisis in white America”; that it was a crisis in white America. And she said, “There’s nothing wrong with being European American. That’s not the problem. It’s how you actualize that history and how you actualize that reality.” And she said, “It’s almost like white people don’t believe that other white people are worthy of being redeemed.” She was looking at our electoral — because this has real world political consequences, especially in our current political crisis. I also think of James Baldwin writing that “white people in this country will have quite enough to do in learning how to accept and love themselves and each other. And when they have achieved this, which will not be tomorrow” — this was in The Fire Next Time — “and may very well be never, the Negro problem will no longer exist, for it will no longer be needed.”
Tippett: It actually is a truth of life, if you can’t love yourself, you can’t love anyone else. And if white people can’t figure out how to care about each other’s well-being — that that’s part of this reckoning, as well.
Biewen: Yes, and I don’t know exactly what Ruby Sales or James Baldwin had in mind when they said those things, but you know what comes to mind for me, at least in our moment, is, yeah, if you think about the intense political — call it tribal, political — division among white people —
Biewen: I think that when Black intellectuals, for example, will talk about anti-Black racism as being at the core of Trumpism, it’s not that I think that’s wrong, but I think the impulse by one group of white people to stick the finger in the eye of another group of white people is just about as powerful. And sometimes, when I see — I’m on Twitter too much — and when I see, for example, a person of color saying, “You white people need to be talking to each other,” and there’s a feeling of, “Ha, I wish that it were that easy,” because those divisions seem very, very, very deep.
Tippett: Somewhere — you said this in script, and I don’t know if somewhere in one of the episodes of Seeing White — I actually think this was about policies towards the Indian tribes. You were talking about Jefferson. And that’s just a story we haven’t even started to tell. I was recently looking at Jefferson and how he laid the groundwork for what later happened in the Trail of Tears. You said, Jefferson, “His argument with himself raged, but his self-interest won out.” And I wrote, “wow,” because that just kind of says it all. And I feel like Jefferson becomes, in hindsight, as we learn, he’s so quintessentially American. He was elite and about the common man, and all at the same time, he transcends our divisions, or he resides on every side of them, at least in our imaginations. And that sentence, “His argument with himself raged, but his self-interest won out,” [laughs] is another way to — it’s a headline of our history up to now.
Biewen: Yes. And I feel really implicated in a statement like that. I think that what it makes me think of — and of course, what I was talking about there was his view towards slavery and the fact that he could say very harsh things about the evils of slavery. But he still owned 130 human beings when he died, 50 years after he wrote the words “all men are created equal.” But yes, I think that — and this is the danger and the caution for all of us, as white people, if we’re trying to do this work and we’re trying to be anti-racist or trying to move the country toward an antiracist future, is that we always have the privilege, the option, of bailing.
Tippett: Living in ways that are contradictory to our beliefs, our values, our stated values.
Biewen: Or to just not be part of the conversation or to not be part of the work. There’s always this choice, to engage or not engage in movements or in work that will change things in this country. And we can opt in and opt out, very comfortably. And there are few people around us, especially if, like most people, we’re mostly surrounded by other white people, who are going to call us out for that.
And I think, when I think back on somebody like Thomas Jefferson, I think he knew. I think he absolutely knew that slavery was evil, that it was deeply, deeply wrong and immoral. But the people around him who mattered the most, there was literally just not that much public pressure that was going to require him to do what he knew was right. When I reflect on that, I find it hard to get too high on my high horse, in thinking back on somebody like that.
Tippett: I wrote this down; it’s something that you said or wrote. I’m just gonna read it to you. You were riffing on The Washington Post tagline, “Democracy dies in darkness.” You know what I’m talking about?
Biewen: Was I?
Biewen: Remind me.
Tippett: “The idea that democracy dies in darkness and therefore thrives in light, for me calls to mind the opening lines from Audre Lorde’s 1985 essay, ‘Poetry Is Not a Luxury.’” Is that you?
Biewen: No, that’s not.
Tippett: [laughs] Oh, somewhere in your — well, it’s really good.
Biewen: It is good.
Tippett: “The quality of light by which we scrutinize” —
Biewen: Oh, I know where that came from.
Tippett: What is that?
Biewen: It’s Lewis Wallace in our most recent season. Lewis Wallace wrote that.
Tippett: “’The quality of light by which we scrutinize our lives has direct bearing upon the product which we live, and upon the changes which we hope to bring about through those lives.’ The quality of light by which we scrutinize our lives. That will define not just the stories we tell, but what those stories mean and what they make possible.”
I guess I want to say, I feel like you’ve been modeling something. You are a journalist. You are a documentary investigative journalist. But I think that kind of turning the lens, saying, “Am I looking in the right place? Am I asking the right questions?” and then deciding to delve into what you can discover, is actually modeling something that each of us can do with the stories of our families and our communities, our hometowns. And then what do we do with that new understanding of who we’ve been? And how do we turn that towards who we can be?
Biewen: Well, thank you. I think we need a certain kind of curiosity, the quality of light by which we scrutinize our lives, as Audre Lorde says, the quality of light that we apply, that we shine. I’ve said elsewhere that we need to be, particularly as “white” — and I’m a cisgender white male — that we need to be willing to approach these questions with humility and vulnerability that we traditionally don’t bring to the table, and it has not been demanded that we bring it to the table, at least by one another, and that we need to do that, if things are gonna change.
As I said in one place, all that our systems of hierarchy and injustice — racism, classism, etc., etc. — all that they need to just keep rolling along is for all of the “good white people” to just go about our lives, being good, nonracist white people, because the systems are embedded deeply enough in our society, in our culture, that they function pretty much on their own, and so that we need to be about disrupting them. And that takes a certain kind of openness in the way that we scrutinize things, the way we look at ourselves, the way we look at our relationship to the world as it is, the way we look at how we all got to this moment. And we need to be willing to rethink things, and do things differently, more to the point.
[music: “Caspian” by Hymn For the Greatest Generation]
Tippett: John Biewen is audio program director at Duke University’s Center for Documentary Studies and he’s host of the Center’s audio documentary podcast, Scene on Radio. In three seasons, explorations of whiteness and maleness build to a searching look at the contradictions and possibilities of democracy. You can listen and learn more at sceneonradio.org — that’s sceneonradio.org — or wherever you listen to your podcasts.
[music: “Caspian” by Hymn For the Greatest Generation]
The On Being Project is Chris Heagle, Lily Percy, Laurén Dørdal, Erin Colasacco, Eddie Gonzalez, Lilian Vo, Lucas Johnson, Suzette Burley, Zack Rose, Serri Graslie, Colleen Scheck, Christiane Wartell, Julie Siple, Gretchen Honnold, Jhaleh Akhavan, Pádraig Ó Tuama, Ben Katt and Gautam Srikishan.
The On Being Project is located on Dakota land. Our lovely theme music is provided and composed by Zoë Keating. And the last voice that you hear singing at the end of our show is Cameron Kinghorn.
On Being is an independent nonprofit production of The On Being Project. It is distributed to public radio stations by WNYC Studios. I created this show at American Public Media.
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And the Lilly Endowment, an Indianapolis-based, private family foundation dedicated to its founders’ interests in religion, community development, and education.