Audience Blog

Audience Blog #9: Bill Murrah (Knoxville)

Audience Blog #9: Bill Murrah (Knoxville)

Progress Theatre’s “Audience Blog” features responses to live PT performances written exclusively by show attendees we meet on tour.

How did you hear about PT?    — I am connected to the information network of Knoxville’s Carpetbag Theatre and received a notice of the performance of The Burnin’.

Was this your first PT performance, workshop or engagement?   — This was my first experience attending a Progress Theatre performance/activity.

When was the last time you made progress?    — After viewing the play and being asked to share thoughts on the PT blog. For several years I have had unformulated thoughts about the affects of racism on Whites. Being asked to write down those thoughts helped make them more clear. After writing the piece, I sent it to about 20 friends and acquaintances and received a number of responses. The most moving were from African American and Latino friends. One stated, “Thank you Bill for this intriguing excerpt of your work on your recovery, it has stirred many emotions within me and took me back to my childhood and growing up years where I was on the extreme opposite of you….” This was from an African American woman who grew up in the 50’s and 60’s in Mississippi. Another was from a Latino leader concerned about the impact of racism on his people, “It is also reflected in self hate and lack of confidence among Hispanics and other minority groups.” Thank you to Progress Theatre for deepening reflection about racism in Knoxville.

Confessions Of a Recovering Redneck: Racism’s Affect on White People

In August of 2016 Progress Theatre presented a performance of The Burnin’ in Knoxville, Tennessee. In the reflection/talk-back session afterwards, playwright Dr. Cristal Chanelle Truscott pointed to the lack of empathy shown by some Whites in the play, and in society, for people of color who not only live nearby, but are an intimate part of their lives. For survival reasons, it has been necessary for African Americans to understand the actions of Whites and the motivations for those actions. On the other hand, those in power have been able to be blind to the lives and feelings of people of color. It was Dr. Truscott’s comment about lack of empathy that triggered these reflections.

Without going into detail, I should point out that I was raised in apartheid Alabama in the 50’s and 60’s. My hometown of Scottsboro was the site of an infamous trial based on trumped up charges of rape against nine African American youth. I entered a White Southern Baptist college in Birmingham the very month of the Sixteenth Street Church Bombing. There weren’t just incidences of violence here and there; and there weren’t merely racist jokes and comments, with subtle and not so subtle prejudices expressed. The very air in which we swam was infused with racism: home, extended family, school, church, community, everywhere. It was a system based on enforced legal and extra-legal codes of superiority and inferiority.

My first memories as a young boy include socialization into this racialist system. I was being taught to live in the society I was given. Yet, as a young boy I was not only socialized to be a little racist (not a violent one, however) but also to understand that as a mature white male I was to look down the social ladder at females and children as well. White men were to make the decisions. Women, children and people of color were to obey. We were better than them, less emotional, more wise, more capable.

We often talk about the system of racism and its debilitating affect on people of color. The point of this reflection is to look at its debilitating affect on Whites, the people who are to most benefit from the system. The big question I present here is this, “What has to be done to people, especially as children, to train them to be the guardians of a racist system?”

One is that they have to be made ignorant of their own history. When I was growing up, there was virtually no mention of the Scottsboro case in my town; although, I later found that people all over the world were quite familiar with it. People around the world supported the “Scottsboro Boys” and it was a major cause célèbre with wide publicity. But not in my hometown. Our Alabama history books were silent about the case. How many of the store owners, farmers, and town leaders whom I saw every day had played a role in trying to legally lynch the nine youth? That part of my personal history was blank. After I left the South I learned volumes about Southern history, White and Black, that was denied to me. In order to train people as racist, not only the history of the oppressed must be censored, but history of the oppressor as well.

Another lesson that must be taught burgeoning caretakers of a racist system is that the ability to empathize with others must be removed. Thus my response to Dr. Truscott’s post-performance comment about the fact that some Whites have not shown empathy toward people of color. It is true that Whites have not shown empathy. But there is more to the story. Perhaps Whites, we, have not shown empathy because we don’t have empathy. And perhaps we don’t have empathy because our empathy has been removed. I am suggesting here that in order for an oppressive system to exist, not only does something have to be done “to” the oppressed, but something has to be done “to” the oppressor. The oppressor is making a deal with the devil. I will trade my ability to be empathetic toward others, i.e. squash my ability to “feel”, in order to gain material wealth and goods. I will train my young White boys to believe falsely that they are better than any other people so that they can gain and manage material wealth with no concern for others. Let’s dig one layer deeper.

In order for White males, and I write as a White male, to be on top of the social and economic ladder, a part of their essential humanity must be removed. Not only are they not able to feel the joy and pain of others, but they are isolated from the human community, even from other White males with whom they are in constant competition. They, we, are socialized in a way that causes us to be alone. We are stunted in our ability to be in an equal, nurturing relationship with our wives, our families, our children, our friends, and other members of the human community. An absolutely essential source of our soul’s nurturance is eliminated. Part of our soul dies. We are reduced as human beings. There is pain whose source remains obscure to us. Little wonder that indirect results are often depression, self-medication or violence.

I don’t want to say that the dynamics described above are true for all White people, but I can say that they have been true for me. I think they have been true in some way or another for many. And, I think they are expressed in some way or another across our society. What this means for Whites is that the same racist and sexist system that has oppressed women and people of color also oppresses me, certainly in a very different way. The system depends on my being ignorant of my own history and the history of my town and country. It depends on my being diminished as a human being, not only unable to be empathetic toward others but actually losing an essential piece of my very human nature, separating me from the warmth, nurturance and inclusiveness of the human community. Whites have another reason to dismantle the oppressive system, not just out of guilt, but out of our burning desire to liberate ourselves and join the larger web of humanity.

Bill Murrah was raised in a rural area outside Scottsboro, Alabama, attended Samford University in Birmingham and then Union Theological Seminary in New York. Activities in New York included internships in Harlem and the Lower East Side and support work for a Puerto Rican revolutionary group, the Young Lords Party. Bill returned to the South in 1972 to do community organizing in inner city Knoxville where he and his wife raised two children and currently live.

⇐⇐ Read Audience Blog #8: “Can Artists Change the World?” by Val Lyle

Read Audience Blog #10: “Making Progress” by Andrea Casas ⇒⇒

Progress Theatre

September 14th, 2016

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