Over the past 18 months or so this country has been forced by the #BlackLivesMatter movement to face the reality of racism and white supremacy. The killing of Jamar Clark in Minneapolis is the latest tragic example of the necessity of this movement. While many white folks have resisted the message, with varying degrees of vitriol, many whites have begun, sometimes for the first time, to really consider race and racism. For those folks I thought it would be beneficial to provide some basic ideas to wrestle with and understand, as I see them.
- Our lives are different because we are white. The most common way this idea is expressed is through the term white privilege. What this looks like in real life takes many forms. It is not having to ever question if you are being pulled over because you are Black. It means not having to worry about if you will survive the interaction. It means never having to represent “the race” in classrooms. It means never having to worry if your name will get your resume thrown out before consideration. It means seeing people who look like you being represented in media with nuance and complexity as opposed to one dimensional stereotypes. But, it is not just limited to these “psychological wages of whiteness,” whiteness has also materially benefited those of us with less melanin. White privilege looks like being able to go to college because your dad can cosign a loan by putting his home up as collateral due to FHA loans which were denied to people of color. It looks like being able to own property, period. It means having access to management, therefore having the social capital to network for the next promotion. To put a twist on Dr. Cornel West: Whiteness matters.
- Privilege is a symptom not the disease. While whiteness is often framed as a privilege, it is actually a sickness. When someone calls us out for acting in racist ways they are noticing our sickness, our job is to find the cure. Whiteness is the product of a system meant to simultaneously justify the fact that rich white landowning men controlled all the resources while keeping working class whites focused on who was “below” them rather than on the system that oppressed them as well as Africans. The effects of this strategy are still being felt today. Capitalism is decimating the planet and its people while racism continues to be used as a wedge between working class whites and people of color in order to prevent the relational power necessary for recreating the economy from developing. Whiteness relies on this individualism because it must isolate people; it must turn us into individuals disconnected from communities and their collective strength. This creates the cultural void capitalism’s consumption is desperately trying to fill. We are destroying our planet for the sake of profit all because we have conflated happiness and healing with wealth. Those of us who are seen as white are a bit closer to this mirage, but like all mirages we are left with simply sand. Real health is in community and relationships; real health is in sustainability and respecting creation, and as the saying goes: health is wealth. Whiteness keeps us from this knowledge through our “privilege” and capitalism exploits this ignorance.
- We actually benefit. When we take #BlackLivesMatter seriously and do the work of considering the origins of white supremacy and racism we come to the most liberating conclusion: we are living a lie. Because whiteness is marked by consumption and isolation it can only produce sickness. When we work at unlearning whiteness we move closer to community, closer to relationships that can heal us, closer to our truest selves. There is nothing more liberating than that. The resulting relational power is transformational
- It is hard, continuous work. Unlearning whiteness is a journey. Literally every day we have to make intentional and conscious choices to evaluate our knee jerk reactions; we need to ponder where each feeling comes from. We may have a solid systemic frame but fall back into whiteness in interpersonal relationships or vice versa. Put simply, whiteness is the path of least resistance and that can be compelling, but we must push back. An often used metaphor is the moving walkways at airports. You don’t have to be walking to be getting somewhere. Whiteness is the moving walkway, we must be actively walking against it. All. The. Time.
- Listening is always the best choice. So many white folks tell me they don’t engage because they don’t want to make a mistake and be seen as racist. That makes sense. Shit, even the KKK doesn’t own the label! Something that will help with that, I think, is to focus on listening. Don’t critique or even ask questions right away. Take what you hear and let yourself be uncomfortable. Fight against the initial defensiveness that comes up so naturally.When you get home, or to the office, or wherever find a book or other resource and try to get as much info as you can on the subject.
The world is changing. This is a good thing. My hope is that those of us who are considered white don’t miss the opportunity because we are too afraid to go through the growing pains. I hope these brief points help folks who are just engaging this work to make some sense of what’s going on. For those interested in continuing to learn check out works like “The Wages of Whiteness,” “The Possessive Investment in Whiteness,” “Working Towards Whiteness,” and “Racism Without Racists” to just name a few.