I am the youngest of four boys and having older brothers was a blessing and a curse. In high school some teachers or other students heard my last name and instantly had expectations based on what they knew about my family. I couldn’t control their preconceived notions about me based on who I was undeniably related to. They may have had positive or negative expectations based on their previous interactions with one of my brothers. This is something that was out of my control. But I could control their first impression and give them the opportunity to know who I really was.
I have a love/hate relationship with the word brother . The word brother implies kinship and connection. Something held in common, but not necessarily by choice. Two guys who grew up together and maintained that closeness might not look at themselves as friends, but as brothers. The abbreviated forms (bro, bra, bru) imply that same thing, but with less serious tone. And “bro” has turned into something much less reverent, calling to mind fraternity houses and dudes in polos though still implying relationship.
When I am talking with my brothers, I occasionally use one of these terms, jokingly. It feels weird to use it in a serious way. We all know that we are brothers and don’t feel the need to use that term to make certain we are aware of our familial relationship. Plus, it makes me sound like Buster Bluth.
There are some other places where the term brother is also used. Sometimes, at church, I will hear someone use the word in a sentence like, “peace to you, brother”. It still makes me prick up my ears, but church is a lot like family. You may be able to pick your church, but you can’t control who else is there. Being addressed as “brother” at church suggests that we are all part of a community and a family and have something in common. Relational terms make some sense in that context, but it still feels somewhat out of place to hear the word “brother” used to address another person.
I was called “brother” twice in the last month by people who were complete strangers. It seemed weird at the time and feels even weirder as I reflect back on it. The first time was at a Coburn’s in Park Rapids, Minnesota on the fourth of July weekend. I was grocery shopping and went to use the bathroom. After washing my hands and proceeding to the door, I held it open for someone who was on his way in. As he passed by, he said, “Thanks, brother.”
Now, I’ll mention that this guy was white. I think that this changes how the word brother can be interpreted in this context. If this was a person of color, I would, in all honesty, be flattered. To be referred to as “brother” by someone who is of another race is unifying. It makes me feel like we are not all that different. But this guy was white.
This would not necessarily have been quite so noteworthy to me, except for the fact that I thought I saw him wearing a shirt that said “White Pride” on the front. I don’t think that being white is anything to be ashamed about. People wear hats that say “Native Pride” on them. James Brown sang, “I’m Black and I’m Proud.” I think both of those things are pretty cool. Both of those groups suffered at the hands of other people, who were usually white. The fact that they are around is a testament to their strength and something to be proud of.
It’s okay to be proud of who you are, especially when the group you are a part of has been through a lot and you are here now because they endured. They persisted. Now, if his shirt would have said “Norwegian Pride” or “Irish Pride” or even “German Pride” I would not have thought twice about it. But the fact that it said, “White Pride” and he called me brother, gave me the creeps.
Brothers are family. You can’t choose your family. But sometimes, people might try to imply that you have a kinship because you look like them. There are a lot of different ways that people can look the same. I can’t change the fact that I have size 8 feet or dangling earlobes, but I don’t feel a connection with everyone else who shares these same qualities. These similarities, however, don’t have the contrived cultural significance that race does. When some guy with a “White Pride” shirt says, “Thanks, brother” it feels like he is saying, “You and I are in this together and we have to look out for each other because those people who look different than us want what we’ve got.”
The second time that this happened, I was at the recent North Dakota United Against Hate Rally in Fargo. The rally was organized in order to raise awareness about some of the hate that refugees and other visible minorities have faced in Fargo. I had a sign that had the Nazi and Confederate flags (both representing groups that America fought and defeated) crossed out and a sign that read, “Hate is for losers. Seriously. Read a history book.” Standing right in front of me was a guy wearing a red hat that said, “Make America Great Again” and I thought, “oh brother.”
At first, I was slightly irritated and even felt somewhat threatened. I felt like I had to question this person’s motives and agenda for attending such a rally. But gradually I started to think about the fact that he showed up. Even if it was while wearing that hat. Even if it was to intimidate the people who were there. Even if it was with an opposing viewpoint that he wanted publicized; he showed up and, whether purposefully or not, gave himself the opportunity to hear from people who have faced racism and prejudice and violence right here in our community.
If only he would have listened, but for the most part, he didn’t. He spent much of his time talking to reporters when it would have been better spent taking in and understanding the perspectives of those who actually face discrimination. He even smiled and laughed when a passerby yelled profanity during one of the speeches. I overheard some of what he said while he was talking to reporters, but I wasn’t there to listen to what he had to say. I was there to stand up against hate. I was there to put love into action. Even when someone’s views are deplorable.
While he was being interviewed by a reporter from HPR, I decided that I needed to show him what love in action looks like. I walked up and told him that I hope he feels as welcome in this community as everyone gathered at the rally should feel. I didn’t tell him this because I actually condoned his presence there. I told him because I wanted him to know that EVERYONE should feel welcome in this community. I wanted him to have a glimpse of the welcome he could receive if only was also willing to extend it. He said, “thank you, brother” and again I felt myself cringe at hearing that word. Kind of like, “we might not understand each other, but you being white makes us brothers and we have to look out for each other.”
That’s fine. I will look out for this guy. Just like I will do my best to look out for everyone else. No matter who you are, what you look like, or what you believe. I will always try to look out for the best interests of all people. But maybe, in all honesty, I don’t need to look out for him; I need to watch out for him. The kind of ignorance and hate that he attempts to justify has to be called out. And we all need to be the ones to raise our voices.
As a white person in a predominantly white country, I know that I have benefited from looking like the majority of people here. I don’t think that being called “brother” by a stranger who does not share my values is necessarily beneficial, but this incident is an explicit example of how a white person (like myself) may be viewed in a more positive light simply because they are white.
This is a very simplified version of the concept of white privilege ; white people benefitting from individual or institutional racism even if and when they are unaware of it happening. This is something that is often difficult to explain and even more difficult to grapple with on an individual level. A friend of mine recently posted a video on Facebook labeled “Black Woman Destroys The White Privilege Myth.” In this video, a woman with the online handle Bernytree66 describes white privilege as “the concept that, no matter what, if you’re white you are doing better than any black person ever because your skin is white.” She goes on to say, “It doesn’t matter if you’re homeless. It doesn’t matter if you are in prison. It doesn’t matter because you are doing way better than every black person because you’re skin is white.”
That is not a description of white privilege. That is a description of white supremacy. And actually, it was linked from the Facebook page of Milo Yiannopoulos, who infamously said, “Behind every racist joke is a scientific fact." I find it interesting that a man who promotes racist views and denies the existence of white privilege would post a video of a black women denouncing racism because she has mistaken it with white privilege. That is like a rabid pro-cat person posting a video of a dog person denouncing dogs for always “jumping on the counter and stinking up houses with their litter boxes.”
White privilege is a difficult concept to grasp. It takes work. It is like understanding how radio or infrared waves are constantly flying through the atmosphere unnoticed. But some people have noticed these usually unseen forces and have tried to use their privilege to help even the playing field for everyone. This is why legislators put policies like affirmative action in place. But if you can’t understand the concept behind why it is there, these policies seem to simply put white people at a disadvantage.
That may be one of the reasons that so many white people feel disenfranchised. They may have never seen themselves as having any advantage and now policies that appear to be benefiting other people are putting them at a disadvantage. Or maybe they are aware of the advantages that they have had, but want to see these benefits stay in place and not be offered to anyone who they don’t deem deserving. And sometimes, they look at someone else who is white and assume that this person must share those same beliefs.
And maybe they call them, “brother.”
I can’t control my skin color. I can’t control it when someone views me in a positive light because I look a certain way. I can’t control the way that other people view me and address me, but I have control over that first impression. I can make my views known and I can use the privilege that I have done nothing to earn to be a positive force in the world. I can show love to everyone I meet. I can participate in dismantling organizations that support and perpetrate hate by loving everyone even harder. Because, as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said, “hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.”