In May, I had a conversation with a colleague about possible events to host at the Lillian E. Smith Center, especially during a pandemic with limited travel. He suggested a symposium focused on whiteness since Smith’s work explores both the construction and deconstruction of whiteness. We had this conversation after the murder of Ahmaud Arbery. After the murder of Breonna Taylor. Before the murder of George Floyd. Before the summer of protests. What arose out of this conversation was “Untangling Whiteness: Reflection and Action,” a virtual symposium on October 15 that examines the construction of whiteness and calls upon us to work towards a more equitable society for all.
Throughout her career, Smith interrogated her own whiteness and the roles it played in her life. She talks about learning from her parents that all men are created equal and to love your neighbor as yourself while at the same time they would tell her that she is superior to a Black person. In the opening of “Growing into Freedom,” she writes,
And because I was born in [the South] and have lived most of my life there, I find it difficult to think without emotion about my South–and race. Segregation, White Supremacy, the Negro’s Place are not words to me, nor theories, but a way of life, a tragic way which I, and others like me, white and Negro, have lived since birth.
Smith understood the ways that racism, prejudice, and oppression affected her, as a white woman, just as much as it affected the oppressed. She knew that in order to move towards equity she must interrogate and come to terms with her own self, and this is what she did throughout her work.
In the same essay, she relates a story, that she told numerous times, of a young girl named Julie whom her family took in while they lived in Jasper, FL. A white women’s club “suspected” Julie was white, living with a Black family who had just moved to town. The white clubwomen “persistently” interrogated the Black family to the point where “the child was forcibly taken from her adopted family despite their tears and protests.” The women placed Julie with the Smiths, and she roomed with Lillian.
Eventually, the women “learned,” or “determined,” that Julie was “Black” and placed her back with her family. Lillian asked why Julie had to leave, and her mother told her, “Because . . . Julie is a nice child but she is colored. A colored child cannot live in our home.” Lillian pushed back, saying that Julie lived with them for three weeks, but her mother persisted, even when Lillian said, “She’s the same little girl she was yesterday.” Her mother shut Lillian down, telling her she was too young to understand.
While she was too young to fully understand why Julie went away, she “knew [her parents] had done something which did not fit in with their teachings, with what they said and held dear.” She understood there was a disconnect, a severing of the lessons her parents taught her and their actions towards Julie and Blacks in the community. This understanding of the disconnect increased as she grew, to the point where in “Buying a New World With Confederate Bills” (1943) she flatly stated, “It is just possible that the white man is no longer the center of the universe. It is just possible that even German nazis, British imperialists, and white southerners will have to accept a fact that has been old news to the rest of the world for a long, long time.”
Below is the information about “Untangling Whiteness: Reflection and Action.” You can head over to the website to find information about the presenters: Andrew Aydin, Dr. Sindre Bangstad, Andrew Beck Grace, Josina Guess, Dr. Sarah Higinbotham, Dr. Jane McPherson, Dr. Jennifer Morrison, Connor Towne O’Neill, Dr. Veronica Watson, and Dr. George Yancy. You can also register for the symposium on the website.
“There are things to do now in the South, things that we all can do to bring ease to the tension felt throughout our region. Somehow we must believe this. Believing it, we shall break the spell we have put upon ourselves. We know that a man can paralyze his own body. Torn by his hates and his loves, his conscience and his desires, his fears, his guilt, a man can lock himself in a grip like death and become a thing like the dead.”
These are the opening words of Lillian Smith’s “There are things to do” from the Winter 1942-43 issue of South Today. Over the course of the article, Smith outlines everyday things that white readers, who she addresses the piece to, can do to end racism, segregation, and oppression. Throughout her life, Smith worked to interrogate whiteness, both within herself and within society as a whole; she worked tirelessly to move the nation and the world towards a more equitable existence. However, society has not achieved equity as the disparities in individuals suffering from COVID-19, the murders of individuals such as Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, Rayshard Brooks, Oluwatoyin Salau, and other events have shown.
The protests that occurred for weeks after the murder of George Floyd highlight that the war that Smith, Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, Cliff and Virginia Durr, Rosa Parks, Lonnie King, John Lewis, and others fought is not over. The protests have been an awakening for many whites about their own privilege and complacency in systems that continue to perpetuate inequality, and they have begun to realize, as the slogan states, “Silence is violence.”
Smith understood the ways that the construction of race strangles the roots of our existence. She writes, in Killers of the Dream, “that the warped, distorted frame we have put around every Negro child from birth is around every white child also.” That frame wraps itself around the roots of the tree, stunting and warping its growth, strangling it and preventing it from growing straight.
“Untangling Whiteness” is both a symposium for reflection on whiteness—its privilege and its construction—and a call to action to lead us to a more equitable society for all. Lillian Smith knew the importance of symbols and their power on the mind. In 1944’s “The World: Our Children’s Home,” she wrote about training children “to respect other people and their basic needs regardless of color, religion, economic status, or sex.” “Untangling Whiteness” heeds Smith’s clarion call by calling upon us to do the same through our actions, our policies, and our work.
In the introduction to the 1961 edition of Killers of the Dream, Smith writes, “I wrote [this book] because I had to find out what life in a segregated culture had done to me, one person.” Smith confronted her own whiteness in the process of her work, and her reflection and action inspire “Untangling Whiteness.” Until one confronts oneself, action cannot occur.