By G. Wayne Dowdy
In another letter to Colonel John McLeod Keating, managing editor of the Memphis Daily Appeal during the 1878 yellow fever epidemic, your correspondent describes how he tries to combat the stain of white supremacy.
Dear Colonel Keating:
Over the last week or so, I have been thinking about white supremacy and the pain it continues to inflict on our land. I think the majority of us whose skin is white should be examining this legacy during these odious times.
I remember the first time I was treated differently because I was white. In early 1984 I went with my grandmother Lucile to South Carolina so she could help take care of my great-grandmother Jessie Heckle. One afternoon my grandmother and I were walking down a nearby sandy road when her brother Raymond drove up in a Jeep. Sitting next to him was a dark-skinned black man. When introduced, he tipped his hat and would not look me in the eye. In all my 19 years I had never seen any person act that way. It made me sick to my stomach that a grown man felt the need to be deferential to an undeserving white boy. I kept that moment tucked away for I believed few white people would understand how I felt.
Over the years I have been called ‘boss,’ a term that was often used during slavery and segregation. It would be easy to accept the seductive influence of unearned privilege, but fortunately my parents and grandparents taught me to treat everyone fairly. As a result, I have tried to always treat my fellow humans with dignity and respect. Last week I went to have the oil changed in my car and was again reminded of the unequal relationship that exists between black and white Americans. The mechanic who worked on my car was black and throughout the encounter he called me ‘boss man.’ I told myself that I am in no way superior to the man working on my car. In fact, his skills are certainly far more valuable than mine.
As I have written here, I do believe in equality. One thing that troubles me about our current dialogue is that we continue to claim there is a black race and a white race. This is false. There is only one race, the human race. Each of our brains are the same size, everyone has an opposable thumb, and all of our organs are in the same place. It is nonsense to believe that because my ancestors lived farther away from the equator than others, I am somehow superior. However, it is important to remember that this pernicious legacy is a part of all white Americans and each of us should do what we can to remove this taint from our souls.
Meanwhile, the COVID-19 pandemic is raging out of control and I will share more in a future letter.
your humble correspondent