David Billings speaks about his book on internalized racism
The author of “Deep Denial: The Persistence of White Supremacy in United States History and Life,” David Billings combines his life growing up in Mississippi with the history of the struggle for racial equality.
Billings came to Greensboro for a book signing on Jan. 24th at the Westminster Presbyterian Church. Being a leader of anti-racist workshops for 36 years, he was invited by the Guilford Anti-Racism Alliance to speak about his journey.
“I use myself as an example,” said Billings. “I went back to the time I was born in 1946 in Lacona, Mississippi and I would tell a story about that. Then I would talk about what was going on in the nation at the time.
“I took it all the way through most of my life. I would tell a story and then say this is what was happening in the nation. The internalized racial superiority was what I was looking for.”
While Billings teaches about internalized racial superiority, he finds it important to not exempt himself from the issue.
“My brother-in-law, one of them, said ‘Well if you do that, tell the truth. Make yourself vulnerable.’ There are things in that book I’m not proud of, but to tell the truth I would have to own it.”
His book is not just about hate groups like the KKK, but also what Billings’ wife calls the “knowing class.”
“We usually blame the haters for racism, like hate groups, skinheads and klan members,” said Billings. “But the white supremacy I know is that of the ‘knowing class’… Those who are educators, ministers and social workers. They can be in any of the professions that if you ask us ‘Are you a racist?’ or anything about racism, we would answer ‘No, I’m not racist’ but we wouldn’t do anything. We would just be against it.”
Billings works with The People’s Institute, an organization committed to undoing racism.
“Our premise at The People’s Institute is that you have to organize,” said Billings. “You can’t educate racism away, you can’t legislate it away. You’ve got to build a base and have that base learn how to confront power arrangements. That, for me, is white supremacy, not having to question it. Not even having to own it, it’s just there for you.”
Billings’ book was published in October 2016. Though he started the project way before Donald Trump became President, a surplus of people may now be interested in anti-racism workshops.
“The book has been well received and part of that is…trying to get an explanation or an understanding because so many of us couldn’t read the tea leaves,” said Billings. “So many people are coming and looking for answers. You have to start understanding the nation’s history. You have to understand what goes on in the nation. It’s both historical review, but it’s also extremely immediate.”
To Billings, white people like himself are programmed to be uninformed and emotional about racism.
“We get upset because we’ve been programmed to be upset and that is not analyzed in terms of the larger white culture. Even when there are courses taught at universities, it’s usually an elective. There is no field in which you have to demonstrate an understanding of the nation’s race construct in order to be so dubbed a lawyer, doctor, or teacher.
“We just kind of other-direct. It’s the poor white people, it’s this, it’s that, but it’s really not. That’s a part of it, but it’s those of us who live it out without being aware of it. Someone like myself, I’ve been doing this work for a long time. I’ve paid some price for it but I still embody it.”
Billings believes a big part of understanding racism is through listening and telling stories. He believes we come from a culture where people just think about how they are going to respond instead of listen.
“I have to set the stage because people don’t necessarily understand what racism is if there is only a definition and it’s very intentional that that’s so. You can’t organize or undo when everybody’s operating on different facts or truths. We study everybody in this country, except white people. When you study white people, you just study people. The adjective is not put in front.”
The first story in Billings’ book is about a specific moment that he believes changed him and began the path he is on now.
“The first story in the book about the murder of my uncle, the reaction in the town and the fact that members of the Ku Klux Klan came to the house and asked my father and his brothers…’What would you have us do?’
“I was in the other room. I wasn’t old enough, but I listened and they said ‘We don’t want you to do nothing. We’re not that kind of family.’ I exhaled, because I wasn’t sure. My family was a big influence, some for the better and some for the worse.”
Members of the Guilford Anti-racism Alliance such as Deena Hayes Greene, Monica Walker, Shelby Smith, Jennifer Schaal, Suzanne and Tom Plihcik hope that the book signings with Billings can boost local organizing.
“I see the book as an opportunity to bring people into the study of anti-racist analysis, who otherwise might not be exposed,” said Schaal. “It takes effort to even recognize how it’s working for us because it’s normative.”