I went to Northeast Regional for most of my K-8 education, but not all. For third grade and about half of fourth grade I went to Pillsbury Public School. Pillsbury was a completely different world than Northeast Regional, the most important difference was there were actually students of color in my class. In fact, the majority of my class was black and brown. I still remember the names of my first black friends: Richie and Cory. My year and a half at Pillsbury was not long, in the grand scheme of things, yet it remains one of the most important periods of my life. During some of my most crucial formative years I developed meaningful relationships with people of color. Of course, at the time I wasn’t thinking like this, I just thought my friends were cool and fun to be around. But those experiences, the exposure to a different worldview and culture, changed me. I know that now, simply because I am telling this story.
After my time at Pillsbury I returned to Northeast Regional. Apparently my father was concerned with my math performance and was told by my teacher not to worry about it because computers would do all the math for me when I got older. This led my parents to pull me from Pillsbury and re-enroll me at Northeast Regional. While I was glad to be among the friends I had grown up around, they saw me differently. I now listened to hip-hop. I wore my hat backwards. I remember being called a wigger at recess and fighting someone who had once been a friend to me. Apparently I had “forgot I was white.” This would be a trend that would continue for the rest of my life. Sometimes folks ask me what I am, other times it is more hostile and I am reminded that I am, in fact, white. These interactions used to be a huge source of anxiety for me: I am proud of who I am and my ancestry (Irish). I never felt like I was putting on fronts or trying to be something I am not. Today I don’t feel that same anxiety. After years of struggle, appropriation, reflection, and study I feel like I know the source of this conflict and tension: whiteness.
It is one of the most powerful and poignant quotes I have come across, “So long as you think you are white, there is no hope for you.” James Baldwin shifted my whole paradigm. Whiteness, rather than an objective fact based on level of melanin, was a mindset, a worldview. Now everything came into focus. I was called a wigger because I didn’t relate to the values and worldview of white America. As a working class kid from Northeast Minneapolis I should have identified black and brown folk as my enemy, as a threat to my economic security. I was supposed to invest in the promise of social mobility my white skin afforded me. I refused. I saw the similarities in my story and the experiences of Richie, Cory and every other friend of color I had made since third grade.
I now understand whiteness as a worldview, as a set of socially acceptable norms that govern the lives of all of us. It’s important to explicitly state here that while I believe whiteness is a worldview I know white privilege is objective and can be measured. No matter what I do I can not escape the reality or white privilege or refuse to participate in it. What I can do, however, is actively call it out and work to dismantle the things that make that privilege possible. With that being said, it is the worldview of whiteness that lead to the death of Trayvon Martin. It is this set of socially accepted beliefs that caused George Zimmerman to view Trayvon as suspicious. Ultimately, whiteness is what acquitted him; both because the jurors saw their own worldview reflected in Zimmerman’s and because the law actually allowed space for a not guilty verdict. This worldview is called white supremacy. It is ubiquitous and it can be adhered to by all races, creeds, genders, sexual orientations, and religious affiliations. Due to the omnipresent nature of white supremacy we, as a whole, are socialized and oriented towards its blanket acceptance. A colorblind rhetoric is now a sufficient marker of a non-racist, and racism is reduced to the manifestation of individual prejudices and biases. Because of this socialization many individual whites, who have never thought of themselves as racist, found themselves being called on the carpet. I myself have lost several white acquaintances over my reaction to the verdict. Many whites cannot fathom they collude with racism on a daily basis, or that their worldview amounts to the perpetuation of white supremacy. I am not a religious man but a saying I often here my more church inclined brothers and sisters say seems relevant here: The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was making the world believe he doesn’t exist.
It doesn’t have to be this way. It is entirely possible for whites to identify with an alternative worldview. The majority of whites have more in common with people of color than they do with the wealthy, elite whites that run this country. It is time for whites to step up and be willing to recognize that the promise of wealth and the “American Dream” is largely a myth. The future of humanity lies in whites refusing colorblindness and confronting white supremacy in all its manifestations. It lies in whites joining and supporting people of color’s call for real systemic change. This does not mean just the end to “Stand Your Ground” laws and Stop and Frisk, but rather the more proactive stance of demanding racial consciousness at all levels, in every institution. As much as we emphasis math, science, and reading we should emphasis cultural competency, it should be a requirement to even step foot inside a teacher training program. We should demand our politicians center racial justice in their platforms and be willing to vote for the ones that do: even if they are not Democrats! We should demand impact analysis be developed in conjunction with community and completed for every policy decision. And, perhaps most importantly, we should demand reparations. This is the future. This is how we end white supremacy. This is how we get justice for Trayvon and ensure an end to the Ge