How One Privileged White Guy Lived

A couple of posts ago, I noted that Doug Wilson is famously fond of blues, the cries and clamor, initially, of Black men and women suffering not just broken hearts, but also suffering under the degradation heaped on them by the rich, the powerful, and the strong — and as the blues became the voice of Southern Blacks, it spoke eloquently of, and to, the injustice of race and power. 

So it seems an ironic choice for a slavery-defending paleo-Confederate, if you get what I’m saying, and provides a near-perfect definition of the term “guilty pleasure.”

My father, also a white man accorded “white man privilege” at birth in 1935, liked jazz, another largely African-American art form.  “Liked” doesn’t begin to cover it, actually; the stereo began blaring at about 5:30 a.m. and didn’t wind down ’til about 10.  He was president of Tucson’s Jazz Society, a noted critic and jazz archivist, and had an astonishing collection of 33s, 78s, CDs, cassettes, sheet music, and jazz-themed art on the walls.  He couldn’t play anything, didn’t sing, and yet mentored many aspiring artists while nurturing artistic contempt for the likes of Kenny G and what he called “music to get your teeth cleaned by.”  His 2009 funeral was a New Orleans jazz service; later that year, the Jazz Society had a memorial concert for him.  Steve Emerine was, by any measure, a jazz guy.  Whose daughter, by the way, hates jazz, and whose love of bluegrass caused him no end of feigned grief.

But my father was known for much, much more than jazz.  He was the only son of the second wife of a firebrand journalist who was working in Scottsbluff, Nebraska, when Grandma Lou went into labor.  My grandfather, born a white male in 1900 on a hardscrabble ranch in Calhoun, Colorado, got kicked out of town a lot, affording my father, raised an only child, a considerably less-than-stable childhood.  Papa would hire on to edit a small, rural newspaper, or start his own, and immediately look for graft and injustice — white men behaving badly, wherever he was — and tear into them in print.  Politicians on the take weren’t safe from his anvil-like Remington typewriter; businesses that shafted their workers and boss men who whored with government found their exploits, meticulously researched and documented, on front pages that normally featured State Fair winners, and Papa would catch hell.  Hell thus raised and caught meant another move, and, by the early 50s, Idaho seemed to have a good number of small towns sufficiently spread out to keep him employed long enough to get Dad into Boise State College and then, later, the University of Idaho.

Papa was born a white man, poor as dirt — not just economically bereft, but isolated and perennially exhausted from ranch work.  But he knew that he had something — white skin — that the Mexican and Black workers around him didn’t.  He was, as an unabashed feminist, aware that he had something the world-weary women around him didn’t, something that he could use not only as a weapon of conquer but also as a chip, a playing card, in a game they could never play.  He lied about his age to fight in World War I and lied again to fight World War II.  He had his maleness, his white skin, a sharp mind, a gift for writing, and not much else.  But he was an activist, an agitator for societal good, and a gentle man angered only by injustice.  I adored him; as I grew up, I began to see how he had molded my father into his likeness — a despiser of unrighteous gain and a fierce opponent of the oppressors. 

So I grew up with a man who, while lacking any measure of economic power, was nonetheless born in the U.S. with white skin and a male body.  He’d be 77 now, solidly in the company of a generation of white men who were lavished with racial and sexual privilege, pursued more, leveraged it into generational privilege for their sons and a measure of security for their daughters, and assumed — celebrated, even — that if all was well with them, then, truly, all was well with the world and would, and should, continue unquestioned.

Dad didn’t fit in.

He and my mother raised my brother and me in an activist household — we picketed, we protested, we boycotted, we marched, and we sang at airbases with candles poking through Dixie cups that were never quite up to the task of ushering in the end of the war or the gains of the civil rights movement.  But that was the easy stuff, the singing, the vigils, the picketing, the boycotting.  So was joining, in 1962, Tucson’s nascent NAACP, which he remained active in until his death.  My father’s calendar was full; his employment was sometimes spotty.  He inherited his father’s gift for writing and his unbridled anger at social injustice.  The daily newspaper he worked on in the 1960s assigned him to write an article about how the American Southwest benefited from South African apartheid.  He refused — a white man who could not, would not, ever countenance the idea that the entrenched oppression of indigenous Blacks in South Africa by men who looked like him could in any way result in “benefit” to anyone.

He was fired, and we got to watch a lot of afternoon TV with him as he carved out a career as a freelancer.  

My parents hosted Democratic get-out-the-vote drives, which always fell around my November 2 birthday.  They opened our home to pacifists and anti-war activists, La Raza meetings, and an organization devoted to providing after-school activities for the kids in the largely Black neighborhood across the street from our house.  He had Quaker friends accused by Joe McCarthy of communism and chipped in to pay the man’s salary when he was suspended by the Tucson School District, regardless of whether or not he himself was working steadily.  We had spare Christmases made sometimes more so when he and my mother knew of a family in need of beds or clothes or food, and when neighbors passed around a petition in 1976 to get a Black family “out of our neighborhood,” he and my mother invited the petitioner into our house, where I was listening to records with the daughter of the targeted family.  More kids than I’ll ever know had their Little League fees paid by him; Gerardo and Harold Lee and Jaime and so many more got to play because he bought them shoes and gloves.  Dad’s friends were the weird Quakers, the always-angry union activists and the United Farmworkers Union organizers, the Blacks who picketed with him at segregated country clubs and rallied to make the NAACP a voice for justice in Tucson, and the occasional journalist not afraid to confront the wrongs around him.  He cried when his friend and fellow journalist Don Bolles died in a car bombing by the mob, and when I was a teenager, he held me close when his activism resulted in a months-long spate of death threats against him. 

He knew the privileges sinfully conferred on him at birth were symptoms of a society gone madly astray, and while he only knew Jesus as Lord for about ten years before he died, he wouldn’t have cottoned to erudite, windy, and ultimately self-congratulating pastoral treatises about the “goodness of God” for privileging people like him for no reason other than that they were . . . people like him, white American guys.  As I said earlier, he would’ve held men like Doug Wilson at arm’s length as a brother in Christ and would turn his keyboard toward “Christians” who reveled in privilege without ever questioning its sinful genesis.  A theological sophisticate he wasn’t; a humble, bumbling believer in Jesus he was, and he’d have had no use for Christians cavorting with oppressors and gamboling about in fields of injustice. 

Did he “deserve” to listen to a predominately Black art form?  Of course not.  Music is music, and you like what you like.  But my father, as vastly imperfect as he was, lived a life focused on providing for us and providing for the needs of people around him, largely because of his keen awareness that his at-birth coronation as a Privileged White Male was an injustice to those not so anointed.  I don’t wish that Dad had had a chance to meet Doug Wilson; I think that wouldn’t have gone well, as my father had little patience with the pompous and pretentious. 

But I do wish, and pray that, Wilson would consider that the robes of privilege and the crown of power his sex and race have guaranteed him are not robes of righteousness nor crowns of virtue.  It doesn’t take a deep dive into murky hermeneutical waters to grasp that, but it is a considerable risk:  Those plush robes will, in God’s grace, more likely than not be used to bind the wounds of those suffering.  But the mess that results is the true privilege, the privilege of sacrificially giving of oneself to the God who privileges his Church by abolishing the man-made divisions of sex, race, and class.

2 Responses to “How One Privileged White Guy Lived”

  1. Happy Ford says:

    I wish I would have known this fact about your dad. We could have talked for hours. I too LOVE Jazz from the very first Hot Jazz in Paris after the first world war up to the Classics we all know, Coltrane, Miles Davis, Theo Monk. The list goes on. I would have loved to talked to him. My dear friend Johnny Lister was a jazz fan too, I cataloged his entire LP collection, which consisted of about 800 records. I looked up the artist and put a little blurb about each one, as I filed the cards. It was such a eye opening experience. I learned so much that summer about Jazz and how it started and how it continued.

  2. Rose says:

    this is lovely.

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