Culture

How I Overcame My Soul-Crippling, Deep-South Addiction to Whiteness in 5 Steps

In Mississippi, the drug of choice is racial superiority. But there are ways to kick the habit.

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I am a Mississippian as well as my family’s most notorious drunk. But six years into sobriety, I discovered that alcohol wasn’t my only addiction. Even more insidious was my soul-crippling dependence upon whiteness. I couldn't get through the day without seven or eight stiff shots of feeling superior. That began to change when I decided to write novels about Mississippi. I knew very little outside the white-bubble in which I was raised, and therefore was blind to the story of nearly half the population. Only after interviewing hundreds of black Mississippians, listening to their stories, did I begin to fathom the immensity of the lie behind my superiority and the real cost of my addiction.

Will my home state, which I dearly love, ever overcome its addiction to racism? The recent nasty fight that gave Sen. Thad Cochran a narrow victory in the GOP primary runoff election over tea party favorite Chris McDaniel was fueled with accusations by Cochran that his opponent had ties to the KKK. That's just the latest indication that the Deep South is still sick with racial bile.

It’s not that we haven’t had our share of interventions. I was thirteen in 1964 during Freedom Summer. That’s when hundreds of Yankee college students intent upon registering blacks to vote showed up at our door uninvited to let us know how far our disease had progressed. They kept after us even after we murdered three of them, Schwerner, Goodman and Chaney. But like the Civil War, Reconstruction, Brown Vs. Board of Education, and the Ole Miss riots with the Federal Troops, we chose denial over recovery.

Of course we attempt to appear in control of our racism by following the law. On paper, blacks can vote, live where they like, have better shot at jobs, run for office and get elected, go to school with whites (at least the few whites who haven’t fled to segregated private academies), and they can’t be refused service for the color of their skin. They can live mostly without the fear of white violence. 

But white superiority lives on, because our hearts were never committed to recovery.

Unlike the rest of the former Confederacy, these changes didn’t come because we saw reason or had a change of heart or even acted out of our own economic best interests. The Federal Government had to intervene, sometimes with guns, to force us to change our ways—we would never have done so voluntarily. This only increased our resentment and our commitment to get even.

It shows itself today in any measurement of public or individual welfare. Mississippi is fiftieth at anything that has to do with quality of life—income, health, lifespan. education, public services—you name it. If we’re not last, it’s only because Alabama put in overtime that year.

Why, after centuries living side by side with black folks, can’t we get it right?

To defeat any effort aimed at the welfare of the general public in Mississippi, all one has to do is claim that the effort is going to dilute one’s stash of whiteness by disproportionately benefiting blacks. It’s the easiest way to get poor whites to vote against their own self-interest. During the depression era, Mississippi refused funds to train farm workers to operate tractors because blacks would be allowed to develop those same skills. Today, it’s health coverage, educational initiatives, voting rights, public services of any sort. The objections offered are frequently couched in terms of economics, fraud or local autonomy. But those aren’t the real reasons. Just like the Civil War, it’s about protecting the purity of our drug of choice, whiteness.

It will be a while before the majority of Mississippi whites see blacks as true “fellow citizens,” deserving of the same kind of government patronage and quality of life we ourselves feel entitled to. I don’t think this attitude is limited to Mississippi, of course, but if there’s a skid row of racism, it’s us. Everything in Mississippi is seen through the lens of race. We can’t approach the simplest of questions without knowing who’s white and who’s black. And whatever the question, more often than not, blacks are viewed as the problem, the burden or the threat. Always have been, since that day they were brought over in chains. I believe there will be a polygamous gay marriage officiated by the head of the Mississippi Southern Baptist Convention before the average white Mississippian admits that the Civil War had anything to do with the evils of slavery or that things weren’t better under Jim Crow.

I’m not saying that breaking an addiction is easy. It’s tough, especially with so many enablers like the GOP, right-wing media, and the history textbook editors over in Texas telling students that our cravings are justified—even virtuous.

But, if you happen to hit bottom, there is hope. Recovery is possible. I’m not the best example, I still struggle. But I’ll share my first five steps with you:

1) I came to believe that I am powerless over my racism. I’ll always be a racist, and might as well stop pretending otherwise. Voting Democrat or watching Oprah won’t cure me. It goes too deep.

2) I came to accept that racism was a gift of love. No evil person made me a racist. Racism was given to me by those whom I love the most, because they wanted me to feel special. Nor am I evil because I accepted the gift. But today I will be responsible.

3) I admitted that it feels good.I enjoy the privileges of whiteness. As soon as I stop pretending otherwise, then I can begin spreading it around.

4) I seek out other recovering whites and listen to their stories. It’s important to find a way out of the right-wing noise machine. Stop listening to those who try to incite the anger and fear that drives my craving.

5) I continually share my story. Not about how I used to be a racist, but how I still struggle with racism, day by day.

Denial will be your biggest enemy. Become familiar with common rationalizations, such as: Yankees are just as bad. Blacks are worse racists than whites. It’s about heritage, not hate. Slavery wasn’t so awful. I loved our maid like a mother. I read The Help.

You will develop your own list. Mine’s inexhaustible. But remember, even if they were all true, that doesn’t change the fact that I’m an addict. I crave whiteness every day.

Why should you change? A lot of reasons: emotional healing, creating a stronger nation, increased capacity to love, ensuring a brighter future for our children.

Mississippi may be last in many things, but we’re first in one: we’re the most religious. It would seem, then, the most important reason to get sober is for the eternal state of our souls.

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Jonathan Odell is the author, most recently, of the novel Miss Hazel and the Rosa Parks League (Maiden Lane Press, 2015).