The Too-Small World of a Good White Person

By: Jeanne Cameron

(Guest sermon delivered at May Memorial Unitarian Universalist Church, Syracuse, NY, May 26, 2019)

Good morning. I’d like to begin with a brief meditation on history written by the remarkable James Baldwin –

History, as nearly no one seems to know, is not merely something to be read.  And it does not refer merely, or even principally, to the past.  On the contrary, the great force of history comes from the fact that we carry it within us, are unconsciously controlled by it in many ways, and history is literally present in all that we do.  It could scarcely be otherwise, since it is to history that we owe our frames of reference, our identities, and our aspirations.

Thank you for the opportunity this sermon has given me to look closely at the whiteness embedded in my own history, identity, and aspirations. For the last decade, the reality and power of my whiteness has become ever more visible to me, because I’ve been given a rare gift that too few white people, as a result of our racially segregated society, are ever given: close and loving relationships with many black and brown folks.  A number of years ago, my Fingerlakes area community college began building residential housing, drawing large numbers of students from Harlem, Brooklyn, Queens, Staten Island, and the South Bronx.  Many of these students come to my college because their parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and older siblings want them out of the city, off the block, out of danger. These are the good kids in the madd city Kendrick Lamar sings about.

Like many of you, I imagine, I’ve been an advocate of racial equality my entire adult life.  My Christian mother raised me to believe that all God’s children are equal in God’s eyes. My disciplinary training, as a sociologist, revealed for me the many ways our social institutions operate to disadvantage people of color.  I’ve understood at an intellectual level that it’s easier to be white in the U.S. than to be black or brown. And I’ve long thought of myself as a “good” white person. But this sense of myself began to unravel in 2012 when one of my students, a Dominicana named Jenii, wrote, “I wish I could see you past being white, Jeanne. I try, but I can’t.” This became, what the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous, calls a jumping off place for me.

These days, like Jenii, I can not see myself past being white, and I’m learning to welcome the discomfort this sensibility inspires.

I’ve been working on this sermon for about a month now, and the challenge has been, what can I say of use in fifteen minutes about something as pervasive as whiteness? How can I take this gift my students have given me and render it in such a way that it may inspire other white people to find their own jumping off place? Throughout this thinking and writing process, one of my students, Anthony Watson[i], has been a constant companion in my mind and imagination. I’ve been working closely with Anthony for the last year. If I were asked to describe him, I’d say he’s self-aware, big hearted, deep-thinking, and fully present.  I might also mention his stellar work ethic as a student, the fact that he never misses a class or a homework assignment, and seeks always to do his best work. When asked to describe himself, he writes –

My name is Anthony Bryant Watson. I’m 5’10, 270 lbs. I’m also black. And no, that’s not how I identify myself. But before my name, comes my appearance and with my appearance comes stereotypes. Stereotypes that made me feel and think I was to be nothing but dangerous at a very young age, but I’ve grown to overlook those stereotypes, which helped me value my name and who I am. I repeat my name is Anthony Bryant Watson. My name was given to me by two people I love dearly. The two gave me the type of structure that gives me balance, balance that helps me respect myself and everyone around me. They were able to teach me things that shaped my character, things like making mistakes in life is acceptable if I can learn to grow from them, and in honor of the two who share the same last name as me, I protect our last name by the way I carry myself with respect and integrity. Again my name is Anthony Bryant Watson and the things I honor and protect are what identifies me.  

I am struck by how much Anthony’s words would mean to me, if I were his parent. I am struck by how closely, as a student, a worker, and a human being, Anthony mirrors what I would most like to see in my own children. And I am struck by the fact that Anthony cannot go home this summer because his parents and younger siblings have been living in NYC homeless shelters for the last year, casualities of gentrification in historically black and brown neighborhoods across the city. This sermon, about the whiteness of homeownership, is inspired by Anthony and his family, as well as by Ta-Nehisi Coate’s 2014 essay “The Case for Reparations.” In Reparations, Coates documents the obstacles errected to deny black families access to the single most important source of wealth in working and middle-class families in the 20th century – homewonership.  To keep black families out of white neighborhoods white homeowners signed restricted covenants – legally binding promises to never sell their homes to folks of color. To keep black families from buying homes at affordable prices in black neighborhoods, the Federal Housing Authority crafted the policy of redlining designating such neighborhoods as ineligible for government-sponsored, low-interest mortgages. As a consequence of restricted covenants and redlining, black families desiring a home of their own were relegated to a system called contract buying. White real estate moguls bought properties in black neighborhoods, selling them to black families at exorbitant prices with none of the protections offered by FHA loans. One missed payment resulted in absolute forfeiture. The forfeited property would then be sold to another black family.

Wealth in the form of homeownership is a multigenerational phenomenon.  We carry its history within us.  And its significance to our white fortunes extends far beyond the roof over our heads, to safe neighborhoods and good schools for our children, superior first-responder rates, police who protect and serve us, poison-free drinking water, and an absence of the many environmental hazards found in black and brown communities. The history of white homeownship is the history of a world apart (Coates, Between the World and Me).  

While the material roots of a world apart have their origins in restricted covenants, redlining, and contract buying, white denial of this history has its roots in a particular myth surrounding the American Dream of homeownership, something I’m calling “being set.”

Being set, as I’m talking about it, is a version of the American Dream conceived and recalibrated over generations, within white families whose members were at one time working class. Being set is not an entitlement. Rather, it’s a willingness to work in a sustained way on something now in order to “be set” at some future point.  

A key element of “being set,” once you arrive, is the satisfaction that your own agency brought it about. And I think this is one of the reasons so many white people, with the same sort of working-class roots as me, bristle at the idea that anything we have is unearned. Many of us have parents and grandparents who worked hard all their lives, taught us to do the same, and we’ve tried to raise our own children with that same sharp work ethic.

My own biography is a story of being set.

My mother, born in 1919, was a self-employed hairdresser who for many years of her life also did most of the work running a small dairy farm, because my father was consumed by alcoholism.  She washed zip-lok bags and plastic forks for reuse and never threw out a yogurt container because it might someday come in handy. On week-days, she was up every morning by 6, worked 10-hour days in her shop doing hair, cooked dinner, cleaned up, and sometime around 7 or 8, she’d sit down for an hour of TV before retiring to bed with a book. Weekends were reserved for all of the work she couldn’t manage on the days she did hair. The day before my mother was given a diagnosis of terminal cancer with 8 months to live, she was in her shop, in the house she had worked to own, doing hair. She was 73 years old. 

Raised on my mother’s work ethic, I’ve been working since the age of twelve, and was grateful even for the two worst jobs I’ve ever had – chambermaid at a really sketchy lodging place and breakfast crew member at Wendy’s. I was the first in my family to go to college, worked my way up to a Ph.D., and for the last 26 years I’ve poured my heart into a job I love, responding to  email on evenings and weekends, sharing my cell phone number with my students, and continuously laboring to improve my craft. I work my tail off. Although not nearly as hard as my mother.

My mother had always been the hardest working person I’d ever known personally. And then I met Betsie. Betsie is the mother of the Jenii, the Dominican student, who inspired me to see myself white. For most of Jenii’s childhood and adolescence, Betsie worked three jobs simultaneously in order to pay the rent and keep food on the table in their South Bronx apartment. She is driven by two dreams: college education for her daughters and homeownership in a safe neighborhood. Unlike my mother, she has never been able to achieve both.

In 1965, my mother, by then a single-mom like Betsie, was able to secure an FHA mortgage for a tiny house on the edge of the town where I grew up. It cost $14,000.  By contemporary middle-class standards, this house had humble written all over it. My mother remarried a year or so later, to a high school dropout with a State Highway Department job, a good wage, and excellent benefits. He was also a hard worker, who welcomed every snowstorm because it meant overtime, which he never, ever turned down. Not even on Christmas, because the OT rate doubled. As a result of their hard work, they paid off the mortgage, and because they were both depression era children, they were frugal and saved money. Neither ever possessed a credit card.

In 1988, when I was pregnant for our oldest child, my husband and I bought our first home. It cost $41,000 and needed a ton of work, which we did ourselves.  We qualified for a government-sponsored, first-time buyer, low-interest mortgage with only 5% down, which my in-laws loaned us. In the 1950s they had purchased their own home for $12,000 in a Rockland County community 14 miles north of the George Washington Bridge. Like our house, theirs had been a fixer upper, and they and their children did all the work themselves. They sold it several decades later for over $500,000. Consequently, they had no problem loaning us the 5% down.

When my mother died in 1993, I inherited $30,000.  My husband and I, hard-working and frugal like our parents, used part of that money to update our kitchen, which we did ourselves, and the rest we socked into the remaining mortgage.

Seven years later, we bought our current home for $69,000.  It was a disaster of a house, but it had lots of potential and one of the biggest back yards in town. We had few savings, but lots of equity in our first home, thanks to my inheritance. So we applied for one of those credit card deals offered only to people with an impeccable credit history – borrow $25,000 with no payments and no interest for thee months – to use as the downpayment for the second house.  We had six weeks between the closing on the house we would move into and the house we currently occupied.  I’m not sure I’ve ever worked harder in my life than during those six weeks.  With the help of a few friends, my husband and I labored from sun up to sun down every single day that summer.  Our jobs as teachers, of course, made this work possible.

Five years after moving into house number two, we invested $25,000 into finishing the attic, again doing most of the work ourselves.  But the project did not actually cost us a dime.  We made money, in fact, because we paid for the attic by refinancing our mortgage following an interest rate decline. When the project was complete, we had the same number of years left to pay off the house, but our payments were about $50 less a month. Again, our impeccable credit history, built on the larger history of white homeownership, paved the way to a lower mortgage for a bigger and better house. A year ago, we made our last mortgage payment.  If we follow the standard white narrative, our children will inherit the house or the proceeds from it. Our parents’ history lives in us, our history lives in our children, and their history will live in our grandchildren.

In the meantime, Anthony cannot go home this summer because his parents and younger siblings are living in a NYC homeless shelter.

In “A River Runs Through It,” Norman Maclean writes, “All there is to thinking is seeing something noticeable which makes you see something you weren’t noticing which makes you see something that isn’t even visible.”

In the too-small world of this good white person, I was taught to notice the relationship between my hard work and being set, and to feel right and satisfied by it. Jenii and her mother Betsie, Anthony and his parents, and dozens of other students and their families have taught me, in the words of Ta-Nehisi Coates, to notice that folks of color work twice as hard for half as much. By enlarging my world, my beloved students have also revealed what was not visible to me before – my white fortunes, regardless of my hard work, has been subsidized by the twice- as-hard labor of generations of black and brown people. To quote Coates again, my Dream rests on their backs, the bedding made of their bodies.

In a 1963 letter to his nephew, James Baldwin, wrote,

“I know what the world has done to my brother and how narrowly he has survived it

and I know, which is much worse, and this is the crime of which I accuse my country and my countrymen and for which neither I nor time nor history will ever forgive them, that they have destroyed and are destroying hundreds of thousands of lives and do not know it and do not want to know it…. but it is not permissible that the authors of devastation should also be innocent. It is the innocence which constitutes the crime.”

I hope that this sermon may inspire you to do your own “being set” inventory, to become less innocent with each passing day, and then to speak and act on what you discover. In an essay titled “The Condition of Black Life is One of Mourning,” Claudia Rankine writes “History’s authority over us [can only be broken if we refuse to maintain] a silence about its continued effects.” Let us break the silence.

Thank you.

Author’s note: I took this photo in March, in Lincolnville, St. Augustine.  Lincolnville is the city’s historically Black neighborhood, home to the St. Paul AME Church, the Lincolnville Cultural Center, and many other landmarks of Black art, religion, and accomplishments.  It is also a victim of gentrification.  The juxtaposition of these two signs took my breath away.


[i] Anthony has graciously given me permission to use his name, his words, and his story in this piece.

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