Adonis Diaries

Archive for March 5th, 2016

Why kids should go barefoot more (and probably adults, too)

During an unseasonably warm day this past winter, my husband and I walked with our three boys to the playground down the street from our house.

The sunshine was toasty and the boys were quick to take advantage of it. As soon as we arrived, all three of our little boys immediately shed the light jackets they had been wearing, along with their shoes and socks, and took off, small bare feet pounding and bouncing on the playground’s rubberized soft surface.

They ran fast, climbed easily, using their feet to wrap around the poles they scaled, clearly delighted. It wasn’t long before a few other children at the playground caught on and attempted to remove their shoes and socks.

Lauren Knight. February 29, 2016

“NO!” one mother shouted, “Do not remove your shoes and socks,” she told her son.

When he whined and asked her why not, she simply stated, “We always keep our shoes on outside.”

This was nothing new; we have, for years, been the odd family out at the playground, the ones who play chase, balance on a slackline nearby, and practice handstands shoeless, sometimes all five of us at the same time.

On one occasion, a parent would not let his son take off his shoes when we invited him to come onto our slackline — not only did the slackline end up covered in mud, but the little boy gave up quickly — he was unable to keep his balance with his shoes on.

Another time, a father chastised me to his child for allowing my children to go shoeless, implying that I was endangering them somehow. The judgements don’t bother me; I am secure in my parenting choices and have made them purposefully and fully-informed, but it did make me wonder why so many parents of young children forbid them from taking off their shoes outdoors.

I decided to research the myths and benefits of going barefoot, and what I found out may surprise you.

Two common reasons parents give for not allowing their children to go barefoot outside include fear of injury to the foot, and fear of picking up some unsavory disease or illness through their feet.

Unless you are in the city where there is broken glass everywhere, the likelihood of injuring one’s foot is minimal, especially on a soft rubber surface where it is easy to see and avoid stepping on objects.

Both children and adults who go barefoot frequently also have a heightened sense of their surroundings and can easily spot a sharp object they need to avoid.

Children’s feet also toughen up the more they go barefoot, leading to more natural protection.

As far as picking up an illness or disease from going barefoot, our skin is designed to keep pathogens out, and you are far more likely to spread or contract an illness through your hands (think public doorknobs, sinks, keyboards, and hand rails) where germs are most plentiful.

(Unless the skin is injured)

Also, children are much more likely to put their hands, not their feet, in their mouths and touch their faces and eyes, where disease or illness most commonly enters the body.

Parasites are not likely to be transmitted through the foot in a developed country. (In Non-developed countries, they go barefoot anywhere)

Since the advent of modern plumbing, hookworm is much less common, especially in non-tropical regions that experience cold winters. A child is much more likely to contract a mosquito- or tick-borne illness than a parasite these days.

In fact, shoes actually create an opportunity for illness by trapping bacteria and fungus (along with the darkness, heat, and moisture) and holding them against your feet, establishing an ideal environment for the growth of icky things like athlete’s foot and toe fungus.

Kevin Geary, parenting guru, teacher, and author of Revolutionary Parent, a site dedicated to raising physically and psychologically healthy kids, argues that shoes are actually quite bad for children.

Shoes destroy feet, preventing proper toe spread, which interferes with the foot’s ability to function properly, and prevent proper movement development, which can make children be more susceptible to foot and lower leg injury.

The benefits of going barefoot, however, are plentiful.

1. One major benefit of allowing a child to go barefoot is that it strengthens the feet and lower legs, making the body more agile and less prone to injury.

2. It enhances proprioception, the sense of the relative position of neighboring parts of the body and strength of effort being employed in movement. In other words, going barefoot helps a child develop body awareness.

(3. Skin of feet have a much better resistance, or coefficient of friction, to slippery paths)

Geary explains that the nerves in our feet are sensitive (the sole of your foot has over 200,000 nerve endings– one of the highest concentrations in the entire body) for this very reason; they make us safer, more careful, and better able to adapt to the ground beneath us.

4. When barefoot, we are better able to climb, cut, pivot, balance, and adjust rapidly when the ground shifts beneath us, as it does when we walk on uneven terrain, or anything besides concrete and pavement.

5. Dr. Kacie Flegal, who specializes in pediatrics, wrote about optimal brain and nervous system development of babies and toddlers, stating that being barefoot benefits a young child tremendously. “One of the simplest ways to motivate proprioceptive and vestibular development is to let our babies be barefoot as much as possible.”

6. She goes on to say, “Another benefit to keeping babies barefoot is the encouragement of presence of mind and conscious awareness. As the little pads of babies’ feet feel, move, and balance on the surface that they are exploring, the information sent to the brain from tactile, proprioceptive, and vestibular pathways quiet, or inhibit, other extraneous sensory input. This creates focus and awareness of walking and moving through space; babies get more tuned in to their surroundings.”

7. Another benefit of going barefoot is that it encourages a natural, healthy gait.

8. Adam Sternberg wrote about the topic for New York Magazine in 2008 and cited studies that reveal the damage shoes are doing to our feet; in particular, that we humans had far healthier feet prior to the advent of shoes.

Sternberg further reported that despite these findings, people are still not actively encouraged to go barefoot outdoors.

Podiatrist Dr. William A. Rossi said it all when he wrote, “It took 4 million years to develop our unique human foot and our consequent distinctive form of gait… in only a few thousand years, and with one carelessly designed instrument, our shoes, we have warped the pure anatomical form of human gait, obstructing its engineering efficiency, afflicting it with strains and stresses and denying it its natural grace of form and ease of movement head to foot.”

And finally, going barefoot is a joy to the senses, especially to young children who experience all the newness of the tactile world around them.

Think of the relaxing feeling of walking on soft warm sand at the beach, the refreshing feeling of cool dewy grass in the early morning of a summer day, the feeling of slippery wet mud squishing between toes in the garden, the feeling of the rough bark of a climbing tree, the surprise at the splash of a puddle underfoot.

All of these sensations are available when we allow our children to experience a bit of shoe-free time. Perhaps you should join us and kick off those shoes at the playground and in the back yard. Enjoy your feet and what they were made for.

Lauren Knight is a frequent contributor to On Parenting. She blogs at Crumb Bums.

Nimr al-Nimr street, Tehran: signpost for troubled Iran-Saudi ties

Tehran’s diplomatic quarter, in the north of the capital, lies in the shadow of the Alborz mountains, their snow-capped peaks overlooking tree-lined avenues and elegant pre-revolutionary palaces.

Police posts guard foreign missions, though the building that used to be Saudi Arabia’s embassy is now damaged and empty.

Sultan Sooud Al-Qassemi shared this link

“Iranians tend to see themselves as the descendants of an ancient civilisation and Saudis as upstarts – “unelected emirs and kings” enthroned by western imperialists.

Iranians have regional reach – most impressively in the form of the Revolutionary Guards; the Saudis have little more than cash.

Riyadh’s dependence on the US is a source of scorn. “It is not enough to have a chequebook,” quips Foad Izadi of Tehran University. “People who are associated with the Americans do not want to fight.”

Outside it stands a shiny new blue sign marking Nimr al-Nimr Street, in honour of the Saudi Shia cleric whose execution in January triggered a furious assault on the embassy and a profound crisis in the already troubled relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia.

Tehran has a long tradition of politically-inspired street names.

Winston Churchill Avenue, near the British embassy, was renamed for the IRA hunger striker Bobby Sands.

Off Valiasr Street is Imad Moghniyeh Square, commemorating the Hezbollah commander killed by the Mossad or CIA.

Nearby is Khaled Islambouli street, remembering the Egyptian Islamist executed for assassinating Anwar Sadat in 1981.

The assault on the Saudi embassy (and consulate in Mashhad), was apparently orchestrated by the Basij, the volunteer force of the Iranian revolutionary guards. And it followed warnings from Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the Supreme Leader himself, of “divine vengeance” if Nimr was killed.

But when the Saudis hit back by severing their ties with Iran, the attack looked like an own goal because it diverted attention away from the execution – one of 47 on the same day.

Riyadh insisted the cleric was a violent extremist, while Nimr’s followers in the kingdom’s eastern province portrayed him as a “martyr” and peaceful activist representing a persecuted minority.

Saudis were outraged by what they saw as Tehran’s interference in their internal affairs, especially since Nimr was a Shia ayatollah. They were unimpressed by the detention of the embassy rioters and the dismissal of a deputy governor – or by condemnation from President Hassan Rouhani and Mohammad Javad Zarif, his foreign minister. Both had been under attack by hardliners for not doing enough to confront the Saudis.

And the timing was disastrous, coming just before “implementation day” following last summer’s nuclear agreement when international sanctions would finally be lifted. “It was the worst thing that could happen,” said one Tehran-based diplomat. Even Khamenei conceded later that it had damaged Iran and Islam.

It also felt like the last straw in a relationship had been rocky since the 1979 revolution and Saudi backing for Saddam Hussein in the first Gulf war.

In recent years Iraq, Bahrain, Lebanon and Yemen have all been sources of contention and anxiety, along with Barack Obama’s tilt towards Iran and his efforts to tackle its nuclear programme. Overall, Tehran’s growing confidence is at Riyadh’s expense.

“The Saudis feel Iran is gaining and they are losing,” one senior Iranian adviser observed before the Nimr affair. “Iran is ascending and the Arab world is in limbo. Saudi Arabia is playing an angry, reactive violent game.”

The Saudis lambast Iran for their support for Bashar al-Assad and their Lebanese Shia ally Hezbollah. The Iranians blame Riyadh for backing jihadi groups and the Wahhabi ideology that in part inspires Isis.

National rivalry is overlaid with viciously sectarian language that exploits both Sunni-Shia animosity and Arab-Persian hostility. Each accuses the other of fomenting terrorism.

(The Sunni-Shia animosity was orchestrated after Iraq invasion of 2003 by the USA, Israel and Saudi Kingdom)

Iran ramped up its anti-Saudi rhetoric at the start of the Yemen war last year and turned up the volume after the 2015 hajj tragedy in Mecca – in which 460 Iranians were amongst at least 2200 pilgrims killed (including the former Iranian ambassador to Lebanon).

Iranians relish needling the Saudis: on social media King Salman is compared to Abu-Bakr al-Baghdadi, the Isis “caliph.”

A spoof Iranian video shows a Saudi leading an army of sheep into battle while bragging about heroism and victory. Saudis reciprocate: clerics vilify Shias as “Rafida,” or Zoroastrians.

When watermelons imported from Iran were found to contain chemical pesticides they were nicknamed “Safavid watermelons” -a reference to the dynasty that built a powerful Persian nation-state and confronted the Ottomans from the 16th century.

In a new book studying this tangled relationship, the Iranian scholar Banafsheh Keynoush notes the growing prominence of intelligence personnel on both sides, which makes it even harder for them to deal sensibly with each other – despite good intentions at the top.

“Iranians at senior levels have anxiously made it clear to me that their intent is never to undermine Saudi Arabia irreparably, mindful that doing so could further fuel extremism,” she writes.

Last week the Saudis announced the arrests of 32 people in the Eastern province who were said to have been spying for Iran. “They are still throwing mud at each other,” observed the diplomat. “But they will have to find ways to climb down.”

Iran, noted Izadi, “already has too many enemies. The Saudis have a lot of money so picking a fight with them is not really in Iran’s national security interest.”

The likeliest candidate for backchannel diplomacy is Oman, the only Gulf state with close links to Iran – and which helped achieve a breakthrough in the nuclear talks. Qatar may also be able to mediate.

And last week’s Iranian elections have strengthened Rouhani and Zarif – who has spoken privately of the need to mend fences with Arab neighbours.

Mohammed Bin Salman, the powerful Saudi deputy crown prince and defence minister, is capable of springing surprises. Agreement on oil production quotas at a time of plummeting prices is another urgent matter for both countries.

Russia and China are also anxious to narrow the gap so that Tehran and Riyadh can be kept at the same table for efforts to translate a fragile Syrian ceasefire into some kind of political settlement.

Yet given the fraught history of Iranian-Saudi ties it’s still a fair bet that the new sign on Nimr al-Nimr street won’t be coming down any time soon.

Note: Saudi Kingdom orchestrated this new wave of labelling Hezbollah as a terrorist organization by the Gulf Emirates and cancelling the $4 billion earmarked to Lebanon to strengthen the Lebanese army


White debt. Forgotten debt.

Confusing whiteness with ownership

Confusing the difference between compliance and complicity

Tacit Laws, tailor-made for white people

The power to punish. (Privilege: Private law)

The word for debt in German also means guilt. A friend who used to live in Munich mentioned this to me recently. I took note because I’m newly in debt, quite a lot of it, from buying a house.

So far, my debt is surprisingly comfortable, and that’s one quality of debt that I’ve been pondering lately — how easy it can be.

I had very little furniture for the first few months in my new house and no money left to buy any. But then I took out a loan against my down payment, and now I have a dining-room table, six chairs and a piano.

While I was in the bank signing the paperwork that would allow me to spend money I hadn’t yet earned, I thought of Eddie Murphy’s skit in which he goes undercover as a white person and discovers that white people at banks give away money to other white people free.

It’s true, I thought to myself in awe when I saw the ease with which I was granted another loan, though I understood — and, when my mortgage was sold to another lender, was further reminded — that the money was not being given to me free.

I was, and am, paying for it. But that detail, like my debt, is easily forgotten.

‘‘Only something that continues to hurt stays in the memory,’’ Nietzsche observes in ‘‘On the Genealogy of Morality.’’

My student-loan debt doesn’t hurt, though it hasn’t seemed to have gotten any smaller over the past decade, and I’ve managed to forget it so thoroughly that I recently told someone that I’d never been in debt until I bought a house.

Creditors of antiquity, Nietzsche writes, tried to encourage a debtor’s memory by taking as collateral his freedom, wife, life or even, as in Egypt, his afterlife.

Legal documents outlined exactly how much of the body of the debtor that the creditor could cut off for unpaid debts.

Consider the odd logic, Nietzsche suggests, of a system in which a creditor is repaid not with money or goods but with the pleasure of seeing the debtor’s body punished. ‘‘The pleasure,’’ he writes, ‘‘of having the right to exercise power over the powerless

The power to punish, Nietzsche notes, can enhance your sense of social status, increasing the pleasure of cruelty.

Reading this, I recall a white Texas trooper’s encounter with the black woman he pulled over for failure to signal a lane change. As the traffic stop became a confrontation that ended with Sandra Bland face down on the side of the road, she asked Brian Encinia, over and over, whether what he was doing made him feel good. ‘‘You feelin’ good about yourself?’’ she asked.

‘‘Don’t it make you feel good, Officer Encinia?’’ After asking the same question Nietzsche asked, the question of why justice would take this form, she came to the same conclusion.

When I was 19, the head of my college’s campus police escorted me to an interview with the Amherst Police.

The previous night, a friend and I had pasted big posters of bombs that read ‘‘Bomb the Suburbs’’ all over the town. ‘‘Bomb the Suburbs’’ is the title of a book by William Upski Wimsatt, whom we had invited to speak on campus.

The first question the Amherst Police asked was whether I was aware that graffiti and ‘‘tagging,’’ a category that included the posters, was punishable as a felony. I was not aware.

Near the end of the interrogation, my campus officer stepped in and suggested that we would clean up the posters. I was not charged with a felony, and I spent the day working side by side with my officer, using a wire brush to scrub all the bombs off Amherst.

Twenty years later, I tried to watch a video of a black man being shot in the head by a University of Cincinnati campus police officer.

I didn’t want to see it, but then I thought of Emmett Till’s mother asking the country to see her son’s body and mourn with her, so I searched for the video. But I didn’t get past the first frame, because the Chicago Tribune website ran an Acura commercial after I hit play, and the possibility that the shooting death of Samuel DuBose in his old Honda was serving as an opportunity to sell Acuras made me close the window.

With the long, slow pan across the immaculate interior of a new car on my mind, I reconsidered the justice behind my own encounter with a campus police officer.

The word ‘‘privilege,’’ composed of the Latin words for private and law, describes a legal system in which not everyone is equally bound, a system in which the law that makes graffiti a felony does not apply to a white college student.

Even as the police spread photos of my handiwork in front of me, I could tell by the way they pronounced ‘‘tagging’’ that it wasn’t a crime invented for me.

I was subject less to the law as it was written than I was to the private laws of whiteness. When the laws that bind a community apply differently to different members of the community, as Bettina Bergo and Tracey Nicholls write in their 2015 collection of essays, ‘‘I Don’t See Color,’’ then privilege ‘‘undermines the solidarity of the community.’’ And that, in turn, undermines us all.

‘‘The Condition of Black Life is One of Mourning’’ is the title of an essay Claudia Rankine wrote for The New York Times Magazine after the Charleston church massacre.

Sitting with her essay in front of me, I asked myself what the condition of white life might be. I wrote ‘‘complacence’’ on a blank page. Hearing the term ‘‘white supremacist’’ in the wake of that shooting had given me another occasion to wonder whether white supremacists are any more dangerous than regular white people, who tend to enjoy supremacy without believing in it.

After staring at ‘‘complacence’’ for quite a long time, I looked it up and discovered that it didn’t mean exactly what I thought it meant. ‘‘A feeling of smug or uncritical satisfaction with oneself or one’s achievements’’ might be an apt description of the dominant white attitude, but that’s more active than what I had in mind.

I thought ‘‘complacence’’ meant sitting there in your house, neither smug nor satisfied, just lost in the illusion of ownership.

This is an illusion that depends on forgetting the redlining, block busting, racial covenants, contract buying, loan discrimination, housing projects, mass incarceration, predatory lending and deed thefts that have prevented so many black Americans from building wealth the way so many white Americans have, through homeownership.

I erased ‘‘complacence’’ and wrote ‘‘complicity.’’ I erased it. ‘‘Debt,’’ I wrote. Then, ‘‘forgotten debt.’’

I read several hundred pages of ‘‘Little House on the Prairie’’ to my 5-year-old son one day when he was home sick from school. Near the end of the book, when the Ingalls family is reckoning with the fact that they built their little house illegally on Indian Territory, and just after an alliance between tribes has been broken by a disagreement over whether or not to attack the settlers, Laura watches the Osage abandoning their annual buffalo hunt and leaving Kansas.

Her family will leave, too. At this point, my son asked me to stop reading. ‘‘Is it too sad?’’ I asked. ‘‘No,’’ he said, ‘‘I just don’t need to know any more.’’ After a few moments of silence, he added, ‘‘I wish I was French.’’

The Indians in ‘‘Little House’’ are French-speaking, so I understood that my son was saying he wanted to be an Indian.

‘‘I wish all that didn’t happen,’’ he said. And then: ‘‘But I want to stay here, I love this place. I don’t want to leave.’’ He began to cry, and I realized that when I told him ‘‘Little House’’ was about the place where we live, meaning the Midwest, he thought I meant it was about the town where we live and the house we had just bought.

Our house is not that little house, but we do live on the wrong side of what used to be an Indian boundary negotiated by a treaty that was undone after the 1830 Indian Removal Act.

We live in Evanston, Ill., named after John Evans, who founded the university where I teach and defended the Sand Creek massacre as necessary to the settling of the West.

What my son was expressing — that he wants the comfort of what he has but that he is uncomfortable with how he came to have it — is one conundrum of whiteness.

‘‘Tell me again about the liar who lied about a lie,’’ my son said recently. It took me a moment to register that he meant Rachel Dolezal. He had heard me talking about her with Noel Ignatiev, author of ‘‘How the Irish Became White.’’

I had said: ‘‘She might be a liar, but she’s a liar who lied about a lie. The original fraud was not hers.’’ Because I was talking to Noel, who sent me to James Baldwin’s essay ‘‘On Being White … and Other Lies’’ when I was in college, I didn’t have to clarify that the lie I was referring to was the idea that there is any such thing as a Caucasian race.

Dolezal’s parents had insisted to reporters that she was ‘‘Caucasian’’ by birth, though she is not from the Caucasus region, which includes contemporary Armenia, Georgia and Azerbaijan.

Outside that context, the word ‘‘Caucasian’’ is a flimsy and fairly meaningless product of the 18th-century pseudoscience that helped invent a white race.

Whiteness is not a kinship or a culture.

White people are no more closely related to one another, genetically, than we are to black people.

American definitions of race allow for a white woman to give birth to black children, which should serve as a reminder that white people are not a family.

What binds us is that we share a system of social advantages that can be traced back to the advent of slavery in the colonies that became the United States. ‘‘There is, in fact, no white community,’’ as Baldwin writes. Whiteness is not who you are. Which is why it is entirely possible to despise whiteness without disliking yourself.

Even as I said this, I knew that he would be encouraged, at every juncture in his life, to believe wholeheartedly in the power of his own hard work and deservedness, to ignore inequity, to accept that his sense of security mattered more than other people’s freedom and to agree, against all evidence, that a system that afforded him better housing, better education, better work and better pay than other people was inherently fair.

My son’s first week in kindergarten was devoted entirely to learning rules.

At his school, obedience is rewarded with fake money that can be used, at the end of the week, to buy worthless toys that break immediately. Welcome to capitalism, I thought when I learned of this system, which produced, that week, a yo-yo that remained stuck at the bottom of its string.

The principal asked all the parents to submit a signed form acknowledging that they had discussed the Code of Conduct with their children, but I didn’t sign the form. Instead, my son and I discussed the civil rights movement, and I reminded him that not all rules are good rules and that unjust rules must be broken.

This was, I now see, a somewhat unhinged response to the first week of kindergarten. I know that schools need rules, and I am a teacher who makes rules, but I still want my son to know the difference between compliance and complicity.

For me, whiteness is not an identity but a moral problem.

Becoming black is not the answer to the problem of whiteness, though I sympathize with the impulse, as does Noel. ‘‘Imagine the loneliness of those who, born to a group they regard as unjust and oppressive and not wanting to be part of that group, are left on their own to figure their way out,’’ Noel wrote recently in his own narrative, ‘‘Passing,’’ the story of how he left a lower-middle-class family and a college education to work in factories for the next 23 years.

I met Noel after he left the factories for Harvard, when he was the editor, with John Garvey, of a journal called Race Traitor.

In it, I read about groups of volunteers who worked in shifts using video cameras to record police misconduct in their cities. I read about the school-board member who challenged the selection practices that had produced, in a district where only 22 percent of the students were white, a gifted program in which 81 percent of the students were white.

Race Traitor articulated for me the possibility that a person who looks white can refuse to act white, meaning refuse to collude with the injustices of the law-enforcement system and the educational system, among other things. This is what Noel called ‘‘new abolitionism.’’ John Brown was his model, and the institution he was intent on abolishing was whiteness.

Refusing to collude in injustice is, I’ve found, easier said than done.

Collusion is written onto our way of life, and nearly every interaction among white people is an invitation to collusion.

Being white is easy, in that nobody is expected to think about being white, but this is exactly what makes me uneasy about it. Without thinking, I would say that believing I am white doesn’t cost me anything, that it’s pure profit, but I suspect that isn’t true.

I suspect whiteness is costing me, as Baldwin would say, my moral life.

And whiteness is costing me my community. It is the wedge driven between me and my neighbors, between me and other mothers, between me and other workers. I know there’s more too.

I have written and erased a hundred sentences here, trying and failing to articulate something that I can sense but not yet speak. Like a bad loan, the kind in which the payments increase over time, the price of whiteness remains hidden behind its promises.

‘‘Her choice to give up whiteness was a privilege,’’ Michael Jeffries wrote of Dolezal in The Boston Globe. Noel said to me, ‘‘If giving up whiteness is a privilege, what do you call hanging on to it?’’

As Dolezal surrendered her position in the N.A.A.C.P. and lost her teaching job, I thought of the white police officers who killed unarmed black people and kept their jobs.

That the penalty for disowning whiteness appears to be more severe than the penalty for killing a black person says something about what our culture holds dear.

The moral concept of Schuld (‘‘guilt’’), Nietzsche wrote, ‘‘descends from the very material concept of Schulden (‘debts’).’’ Material debt predates moral debt. The point he is making is that guilt has its source not in some innate sense of justice, not in God, but in something as base as commerce.

Nietzsche has the kind of disdain for guilt that many people now reserve for ‘‘white guilt’’ in particular. We seem to believe that the crime is not investing in whiteness but feeling badly about it.

Even before I started reading Nietzsche, I had the uncomfortable suspicion that my good life, my house and my garden and the ‘‘good’’ public school my son attends, might not be entirely good. Even as I painted my walls and planted my tomatoes and attended parent-teacher conferences last year, I was pestered by the possibility that all this was built on a bedrock of evil and that evil was running through our groundwater.

But I didn’t think in exactly those terms because the word ‘‘evil’’ is not usually part of my vocabulary — I picked it up from Nietzsche.

‘‘Evil’’ is how slaves describe their masters. In Nietzsche’s telling, Roman nobles called their way of life ‘‘good,’’ while their Jewish slaves called the same way of life ‘‘evil.’’ The invention of the concept of evil was, according to Nietzsche, a kind of power grab.

It was an attempt by the powerless to undermine the powerful. More power to them, I think.

But Nietzsche and I disagree on this, among other things. Like many white people, he regards guilt as a means of manipulation, a killjoy. Those who resent the powerful, he writes, use guilt to undermine their power and rob them of their pleasure in life. And this, I believe, is what makes guilt potentially redemptive.

Guilt is what makes a good life built on evil no longer good.

I have a memory of the writer Sherman Alexie cautioning me against this way of thinking. I remember him saying, ‘‘White people do crazy [expletive] when they feel guilty.’’ That I can’t dispute.

Guilty white people try to save other people who don’t want or need to be saved, they make grandiose, empty gestures, they sling blame, they police the speech of other white people and they dedicate themselves to the fruitless project of their own exoneration.

But I’m not sure any of that is worse than what white people do in denial. Especially when that denial depends on a constant erasure of both the past and the present.

Once you’ve been living in a house for a while, you tend to begin to believe that it’s yours, even though you don’t own it yet. When those of us who are convinced of our own whiteness deny our debt, this may be an inevitable result of having lived for so long in a house bought on credit but never paid off.

We ourselves have never owned slaves, we insist, and we never say the n-word. ‘‘It is as though we have run up a credit-card bill,’’ Coates writes of Americans, ‘‘and, having pledged to charge no more, remain befuddled that the balance does not disappear.’’

A guilty white person is usually imagined as someone made impotent by guilt, someone rendered powerless. But why not imagine guilt as a prod, a goad, an impetus to action?

Isn’t guilt an essential cog in the machinery of the conscience? When I search back through my correspondence with Sherman Alexie, I find him insisting that we can’t afford to disempower white people because we need them to empower the rest of us. White people, he proposes, have the political power to make change exactly because they are white.

I once feared buying a house because I didn’t want to be owned. I had saved money with no purpose in mind other than the freedom to do whatever I wanted. Now I’m bound to this house, though I’m still free to lose it if I choose.

But that isn’t the version of freedom that interests me at the moment. I’m more compelled by a freedom that would allow me to deserve what I have. Call it liberation, maybe. If debt can be repaid incrementally, resulting eventually in ownership, perhaps so can guilt.

What is the condition of white life?

We are moral debtors who act as material creditors. Our banks make bad loans. Our police, like Nietzsche’s creditors, act out their power on black bodies.

And, as I see in my own language, we confuse whiteness with ownership. For most of us, the police aren’t ‘‘ours’’ any more than the banks are. When we buy into whiteness, we entertain the delusion that we’re business partners with power, not its minions. And we forget our debt to ourselves.

Correction: December 13, 2015
An article on Dec. 6 about race and the moral issues that come with being white in America misidentified the source of a quote from the writer Ta-Nehisi Coates. His comments about slaves being “the down payment” on America’s independence, and freed slaves becoming “this country’s second mortgage” following the Civil War, came from his book “Between the World and Me,” not from an article he wrote for The Atlantic.





March 2016

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