To White People Resistant to Dismantling Systemic Racism When The Murder of George Floyd Wasn’t Enough
This Is Your Fight Because You Have Skin in the Game of Anti-Racism Too
Because of racism, white people aren’t free. If the most extreme forms of how our society is permeated with anti-blackness don’t move you — if the time it took for George Floyd to die and the manner of his death wasn’t enough — maybe recognizing that you have skin in the game will convince you of the vicious imperativeness of eradicating racism. I won’t and can’t say more skin in the game because, when Black people have quite literally paid with their blood and their lives for hundreds of years to even get us to where we are today on the issue of racism, you can’t possibly have more skin in this, but the push to dismantle racism is and should be your fight too and no, not because reverse racism is a thing because it isn’t. Every white person has self-interested reasons to wish to hasten the demise of racism. Even if you can’t muster compassion for black human beings who have died at the hands of police or are subject to the many ways society is proven to oppress Black people collectively and individually, you should consider your own self interest at least.
You, as a white person, may feel exhausted by conversations around race and racism, especially lately. This may partially be because you are totally blind to your own privileges or have difficulty identifying the ways in which you have benefited from white privilege so you feel angry or defensive when someone acknowledges its existence. You may point to things about your personal biography that you don’t associate with that privilege. You will point to being born poor, having had a difficult childhood, or to never having had anything handed to you, as a way to distance yourself from it. No one wants to feel that the things they have are unearned or that a system is stacked in their favor and this is especially true when they have failed partake in the privileges most commonly associated with their demographic in such a system. When you see little or no tangible proof of the alleged privileges that you receive in society, it’s hard to feel consciously bad about them. Conversely, when you see Black people who have privileges that you don’t, it’s easy to feel indignant and to point to individual Black people as proof that white privilege isn’t working or doesn’t exist. This idea that any departure from the rule disproves it has attained the mythological status.
White privilege has costs not just to the people of color that it oppresses, but to its beneficiaries. You may not recognize in yourself and your own life the burden that white privilege and the systems that uphold it have on your psyche as a white person, but it is there and I imagine that it is heavy and that when you start to reflect on it you will notice its weight. What is the weight? It is knowing that the privileges that you have because you are white are unearned and inequitable and that therefore you can never rest easy in the full enjoyment of their spoils. This fact is the basis of white guilt and exists even if you yourself don’t want to acknowledge or can’t recognize these privileges. All you need to do to see that this exists within you is to ponder the question: would you as a white person be willing to trade places with any Black person, particularly a Black woman, in our society (other than Oprah)? If the answer is no, you have proven my hypothesis. White people can either choose to channel the guilt in order to dismantle the system and do away with the discomfort or defend it fervently by denying its existence so that the guilt feels unjustified. Repeating the lie that these privileges do not exist makes it feel believable because any lie when repeated enough sounds like the truth. Another common way that people will do this is by blaming people of color for their societal outcomes. A close cousin of the denial of white privilege is the narrative that suggests that if Black people made better choices they would have better outcomes when in fact this isn’t the case. One need only compare the maternal mortality rates of Black women to those of white women to know that lifestyle, educational attainment, and other things that we perceive to be choices aren’t the only factors at play in how people are received or exist in the world. These anecdotal stories are offered so frequently as evidence to nullify white guilt and/or to maintain white privilege and for no other purpose.
What white people who lack some of the more material privileges, especially economic ones, associated with white privilege don’t realize is that their poverty in particular is intimately tied to the existence of racism and their exclusion from this form of whites privilege is part of a system designed to aggregate those privileges in as few hands as possible and that the vast majority of these hands are white and male despite the false narrative that it is poor brown and Black people, particularly Black women, who are robbing them of resources via undocumented immigration and the legal welfare system.
What’s more is even poor white people do quite obviously benefit from white privilege as compared to poor Black people— the statistics show it, even if anecdotal evidence doesn’t always support the reality. This doesn’t just mean financial privileges either, but all the affirmative privileges psychological, monetary, and corporeal that being born in to a white body accrue. Some of these intangible privileges that Peggy McIntosh so eloquently outlined include an overall sense of safety and security as you move around the world and comfort with the knowledge that anything you do will reflect on you and not necessarily every member of your race, among countless others. So the idea that lacking some privileges such as financial security or education, negates these other less tangible privileges is a false equivalency. Lacking one does not negate the other. In fact, many of the benefits of white privilege are intangible and invisible, but still make it easier to aggregate other and more tangible privileges associated with whiteness although it is fairly easy for Black people to identify them as our exclusion from them has made us study them more closely. For example, society’s proven preference for white sounding names makes it easier to get better jobs allowing for the easier acquisition of material wealth. This preference exists not because people with white names are better workers, smarter or more qualified, but because the system of white privilege assigns higher value to things associated with whiteness.
On a social level, nothing gained from racism, like white privileges, can be rightfully gained and nothing denied from other people because of racism can be rightfully denied. If it isn’t enough that people are dying for you to see the efficacy of eradicating racism, consider how nice it might be to live in a world where your race isn’t a scarlet letter for unearned benefits. If you hate the idea of white privilege, dismantling it is the surest way to ensure that it isn’t constantly bandied about.
To the extent that white people have benefited and are benefiting and will benefit from racism and its systems, those privileges are ill gotten. To the extent that Black and other races of people have been excluded from them because of their races, that exclusion is wrong. That white people having collectively benefited the most in all these and other ways from racism is a fact, but in a society that strongly values self determination and individualism, it would be a relief for most white people to know that other people didn’t see your privileges, this way. Until then, all privileges assigned to white people because they are white are tainted by the lens of white privilege, which is the product of racism, and white people will constantly have to deal with the insecurity and frustration that such privilege acknowledging scrutiny produces. White people want to not to be constantly subject to such suspicion regarding their status and privileges the same way Black people don’t want all of our educational and economic successes to be attributed to affirmative action — an attribution that is in and of itself a function of the system of white privilege.
This is white people’s struggle too because this load and the guilt it produces arises out of racism and white supremacy and therefore, because, of the inherent toxicity of racism itself, anything associated with it is toxic and that toxicity has no place in a free and just society, which most of us agree is the ideal. The best and only antidote for the virulent and venomous ideology of racism and the dismantling of unjust racially based privileges, which is also the only way to ensure that white people will and are perceived as having earned anything fairly which will reduce social resentment of white people and the guilt white people feel around them, is to take proactive and retroactive steps where necessary to dismantle racism. Only then can we, people of all races, be free and be treated individuals and not as standard bearers for our respective races. Until then, denying your privilege does nothing except maintain it. If you feel the impulse to use these arguments, acknowledge it, and learn to reject it.
On a primitive psychological level and in another way, racism and its tentacles, like anger, poisons not just its intended victims but its proponents, voluntary and involuntary. Racism poisons white people as much as it punishes everyone else for not being white. The psychological harm is evident in the extremes that people who are openly racist will go — the fierce denial they cling to in order to contradict the existence of white privilege and racism even in the face of statistical evidence and other forms or proof and the violent, extreme, and seemingly illogical behavior it motivates. It’s not just in the subconscious and sometimes conscious impulses to kill, police and degrade Black life, but it bubbles to the surface when apparently nice white ladies erupt in racist diatribes when challenged in even small ways by Black people and other people of color, and then go on to assert that they aren’t racist. People like this are often times believed because many seem to think that you can hold racist ideas and/or use them as tools against people of color and not be racist when the fact is you cannot.
Racism isn’t always going to be cops killing unarmed Black people. It rears its head in otherwise benign situations in the form microaggressions that work in consort with other forms of racism to ensure that people of color are constantly aware of their assigned status in our society or their deviation from the assigned status, even when they defy stereotypes or racial norms, which is in and of itself a form of psychological oppression. Racism is acting at various levels of our social world at once. That’s why the idea of eradicating racism can feel so daunting and why people tend to excuse what they perceive to be less racist behavior when they should not. There is always something more racist, more costly, and more extreme to point to to absolve less racist actors of their guilt or association with racism. There is apparent comfort in this relativism.
Extreme racists strike most less racist people as “mentally ill.” When such people are caught on camera and are ridiculed, as they have been more frequently of late, it’s not often that less openly racist people recognize themselves in these extremes, but they should. All racism exists on a spectrum, and that spectrum exists in all of us and therefore the worst bits that exist in the worst racist, exist in all of us and at every layer of our society. When white people in particular fail to acknowledge this, when they fail to acknowledge their own racism and call more subtle forms of racism a hoax or resistance to it overreacting or brainwashing, they let the virus of racism spread unchecked. You can’t both think racism is wrong or be or want to be anti-racist, and not be willing to acknowledge it in all iterations, and until you acknowledge it, you can’t begin to undo the psychological harm that racism inflicts in you and on you.
Every day that racism persists as a permissible ideology, the heft of it remains on the shoulders of white people too. Racism isn’t a boulder white people stand atop hands on your hips as it crushes Black and people of all other races. No, it’s a Sisyphean boulder white people voluntarily and involuntarily hold over all of our heads, which means yours too. As and if it crushes us, it crushes you. And the longer you uphold it, the weightier it gets because every second it persists the benefits that arise from it are increased and the system that maintains and produces them is fortified. To paraphrase Emma Lazarus, white people cannot be free of this burden until we are all free of it. To the extent that white people stand the closest to the wretched stone of racism, you have to help us all to cast it off, and if it can’t be done so quickly, then simply to start to put it down.
None of this is to say that anti-white bias can’t or doesn’t exist, but to acknowledge that there is no system stacked so hegemonically and monumentally against white people that literal monuments have been built to its staunchest champions and these monuments are defended more fervently than living white people are. There is no where in the world where that is true for white people when it is true in many places for Black people, including here, which is anywhere on earth where you may be reading this writing. You should want these monuments, literal and figurative, and the systems that protect them to fall because their continued existence means that white people will be condemned to keep doing illogical mental gymnastics to defend them or to be forever subject to accusations of and associations with racism.
Imagine a world where your actions and words were taken at face value or how you intended them because they don’t mirror the underlying biases and anti-blackness that currently pervade our world. Awareness of these biases on both a conscious and subconscious level is why you get so defensive when someone points out racism to you. You know theoretically that racism is wrong and may believe that deeply, and so you don’t want to be associated with it. That’s why you try to distance yourself from it instead of acknowledging and learning from your role in it, not realizing that that distancing only reinforces the system. And, if racism weren’t something that repeats itself in oddly predictable ways, which it does, so much so that many Black people can easily compare notes, white people would be accused less of racism because there would be less ways to be passively racist. You should seek to be more conscious of racism and not less because the more conscious you are of it, the less likely you are to perpetuate it. Until racism is properly dismantled, you must be careful not to hate the indictment of being called a racist more than you hate racism because the act of denying racism only empowers and obscures it and so the denial of its existence is often also racist.
If white people learned to hate racism more than you fear being called racist, you would learn to spend less time trying to challenge the accusations themselves and more time dismantling the system. You would simply say, “I did a racism!?!? I can’t believe I did that. I’m so sorry,” and maybe, “I’m trying to learn to do better so that we can work to dismantle the lies upon which that act of racism was premised,” and then go and do that. Wouldn’t that be nicer and easier than constantly fighting about about the word while leaving racist systems that result in these accusations unchecked? Each time a white person is accused of racism and the system isn’t challenged, it resets an endless countdown to the next act of racism and/or accusation of it.
Imagine a world where you didn’t have to hear so much about white privilege and about Black experiences and Black lives as they relate to white privilege — where stories can just be stories and not framed always through this fictional narrative of race. I can promise you there aren’t many if any Black people who want to keep talking about this diametric problem forever either. We all want to get it over with hopefully in our lifetimes if such a thing is possible, but we need your help. You have to put the boulder down and convince other white people to put it down for yourselves as much as for anyone else.
I promise you, white people, that the only way to that world isn’t to silence Black voices, to abuse us with the accusation that we are “playing the race card,” or to label those doing the work of social justice somehow simultaneously as snowflakes and extremists, but to amplify and center them. The single and only way to get to a world where whiteness and white privilege aren’t always in question and seen as suspect, is through it — through the sticky, murky, thankless work of challenging white privilege and racism in yourself and the people you love. And if you want to get to that world, you must start now, today, and make haste.
You must because you see, you have something to gain from the dismantling of systematic racism too — a kind of freedom from the oppressive insecurity that it engenders.
So put down the weight.
Once that’s done, we can all carry on talking about and doing other things.
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