A Pinned Butterfly: Excerpt (№1) From The Story of My Life in Racist America

Joe Mcfatter
7 min readJul 31, 2020


(A Senior White Man’s Interracial Life and Lessons)

James Baldwin — one of the greatest of American writers — once wrote that they (white people) are impaled on their history like a butterfly on a pin.” I certainly will not be so bold as to try interpreting the full intent of Baldwin’s cogent simile, but the root premise is clear: we (white people) as a “culture” in America, hold ourselves captive by our own prejudices and racism. We are dried, static creatures of what our full potential is, in what could otherwise be — socially and economically — a much brighter existence, a fully collaborative coexistence with people of color.

Butterflies are made to sail, to navigate and explore their inhabited spaces, partaking and contributing to the fullness of divine beauty. Instead, we have pinned our white skins and white egos to a whiteness board of ignorance, hatred and confusion, unable to enjoy and partake of the full richness of the cross-racial panoply of life. As a Buddhist, I see white America having drank the three root poisons that the Buddha warned against: greed, ill will and delusion….all leading to only suffering. Our white culture is the product of greed, manifested in a few white men “owning” other black men, women and children,for the purpose of making the white men wealthier; ill will toward those same black men; and, the delusion of white men thinking they are truly superior to black men.

Even after truly struggling for decades to totally break free of the whiteness board (not “white” board, mind you), I myself fully apprehend — made even clearer as a result of my self-analysis at this time — that while I may have been successful in “unpinning” myself, I still have a few long filaments that hold me to the board, much like a hot air balloon that yearns to rise to kiss the Sun, but is held checked by ropes to the Earth. This writing endeavor then is as much a self-exploration of my own whiteness as it is a message to Whites collectively, and I pray the tension of writing this eventually snaps the last filament still arresting my fully soaring. Only by telling my personal story authentically, of the struggles I have gone through that bulwark the observations I offer herein and the conclusions I draw, can I render what I wish to convey with the emotion and truth necessary to be meaningful in swaying others (“others,” meaning Whites). So reader, be prepared for a roller coaster ride.

My late wife, beautiful Black Queen she was, used to say to people about me, if the topic arose, “He’s not White, he’s Caucasian”; to her there was a difference: white meant Whites who by their behavior were somewhere on the scale of cultural ignorance/prejudice (“whiteness”) cum racism. Caucasian to her identified me as someone who she recognized as being of European extract, but not being a racial bigot (yet I was undoubtedly “culturally ignorant” in many ways, especially in our early days together; even today I continue to learn). Funny as it may sound, she and I really never had any feelings or dialogue having to do with us personally being an interracial couple; we were just two people in love. She would, however, share things occasionally about some Whites who had raised her hackles. She was very Afrocentric and self-assured in her identity, to the point that she could mingle and circulate and be on stage in front of any white audience; but woe be to any white person who did show themselves to be racist!

Now I realize she had greatly over-simplified this thing called “whiteness.” Frankly this word only came into my own vocabulary quite recently…as I said, I am still learning. I have felt for decades that we Whites have an American white culture, but because I myself existed within it, I could not detect its’ characteristics fully, as I can today. As viewed by Blacks — and other cultures I am sure — white culture, although not monolithic by any means, still exhibits attributes in style, preferences, expressions, reactions and language that make “us” who we are — white Americans; and, a lot of that is downright funny to “others,” yet we are often totally oblivious.

As I will address further into this story, we Whites are so self-immersed in our collective ego, our minds cannot readily discern the many manifestations of us, “that make us — us” which affect people of color in just about every way imaginable. Oddly, we also tend to still refer to one another’s European ancestry, such as German, English, Italian or Spanish……or others of course, but then differentiate ourselves collectively from black people. Studies also indicate that there are predictors of whether a respondent is White or Black. One study found that we Whites are more likely to have dogs and own flashlights than Black people. What conclusion can we draw from that? Does that possibly correlate with whether Whites also own more guns than Blacks? Seems like we are afraid of something, so what is it? I suspect it stems from the trauma we collectively carry as I discuss later….subconsciously we harbor guilt and fear.

Over the years I have been blessed to have my black extended family grow and grow, and have accumulated black friends and acquaintances from all walks of life, professionals to street dudes to activists and revolutionaries. But even today there are a few very close to me, who if disturbed or angry with me, resort involuntarily to placing me behind the whiteness veil, which may elicit a few choice words like, “you can’t understand because you’re White!” as an explanation for my attitude, behavior or voiced opinion.

Sometimes even after all these years I am confused at such attitudes, and sometimes may feel my being White is a handy hammer with which to tap me. Truthfully, it hurts. However, that is their right, as I shall argue in this book, and more often than not they are correct: I said or reacted as I did because I am White. It is not the place of Whites to offer defense of attitudes, arguments, explanations, facial expressions, words and behaviors that Blacks may find offensive; likewise it is not our place to feel that we are “good Whites,” without any guilt in racial matters, and put on our armor of “so don’t try to make me feel guilty.” This defensiveness derives directly from the innocuous nature of whiteness: in one way or another all Whites are “guilty” so long as we benefit — and we all do today — to the detriment of Blacks, a condition which sums up the entire societal milieu of today. Blacks have been forced to learn about Whites for centuries, now it is our turn to really learn about African Americans, and Africans in America, as fellow human beings. Many Whites resent having the finger pointed at them, and in their defensiveness will push out their chests and say, “I am proud of being White.” I counter: “Why not just be proud of being an individual human being, if you need to be proud at all?”

I have learned to be accepting of occasional negative reactions from black people, acquaintances and others, for I know it is grounded in their personal experiences of being Black in America. No one is “color blind,” and even though my wife saw me as a Caucasian, she by no means saw me as other than a person of European extract. Likewise, when I looked into her eyes, or the eyes of any Black person or other person of color, while I connect with the person inside, I cannot help but see their hue and all the features that make them unique as an African American, or other ethnicity. That is one of the joys of being human, that each of us is a unique creation.

It is said that the eyes are the window to the soul. I am sure that white racists — and many Whites who seldom have occasion to speak to a black person — do not, will not, look directly into the eyes of a black person, and to some extent, vice versa. They may look at the black person, but not into the eyes, or they may just shoot glances at or talk past the black person, aware of their own frailty. I suppose by avoiding looking into those eyes, a white person does not have to acknowledge the humanity of the black person, for to see the humanity of the “other” would shatter the white person’s notion of superiority. They would see in the eyes of the “other” the reflection of their own hate and weakness.

Most Whites remain so inculcated and trapped in our whiteness that we are not even aware that we have our own white culture, albeit a mix of many sub-cultures and ethnicity of European descent. To us our culture is normative and subconsciously we feel — “everybody is supposed to be like us, think like us….” — so we are blind to what we are. But most importantly, for the discussion at hand, we are mostly incapable, without going through a steep learning curve, of apprehending what our whiteness does to black people. We “white-barked trees” are blind to seeing the whole forest we live in, with all the other beautiful types of trees that make up the divine beauty of the forest.

I am in my eight decade on our planet Earth. I feel my experiences have “ripened” — like a nice avocado that is ready to be savored — to just the right degree for me to write authoritatively on the subject of “white people in the context of Black/White race relations.” (I cringe at having to use the word “race,” since there is really only one race — the hue-man race.) Likely if I had put off this story any number of years, my desire to help my fellow Whites may just spoil from disdain, devoid of any remaining optimism, and not be fit for even guacamole. The sorry state of race relations as expressed in today’s political public forum urges me on, however. (To be continued…)



Joe Mcfatter

Retired engineer, native Texan, writer.