I’ve written about white privilege on this blog in the past, and I don’t plan on stopping. The first time I was introduced to the concept was in college, in a speech given by Tim Wise. (The address he gave us was a lot like this one.) Tim talked about privilege as a pathology, a mental dysfunction that causes white folks to be afraid of others and worry about what’s coming for our status. Whether we like it or not, this pathology comes for all of us, sucking us into situations where we put the security of our privilege in front of the well being of our friends, neighbors, family, and, mostly, people we don’t know.
Tim’s words lit a fire in me, one that would lead me to seek out more voices thinking about whiteness, racism, and white privilege over the next decade and change. It also helped me change how I saw my classmates, and understood conversations about race happening on our campus. It was around then I started to grok what I now understand to be a Truth of our age: There’s no such thing as a white person who isn’t racist.
My grandparents were racist — some more obviously so; my parents, both racist; my wife, racist; my brother, racist; my wife’s parents, racists; my aunts, uncles, cousins, friends, acquaintances, co-workers past, present, and future: all of us white, all of us racist. I love them all. Some of them are in interracial relationships, many of us carried signs and marched in the streets, or wrote letters to our city, state, and federal officials this week. Doesn’t matter, we’re all still racist!
We’re racist because we represent the default power group in a white supremacist society. American capitalism, American politics, and the workaday experience of our lives were designed, supported, and perpetuated by white people around our interests often at the expense of, or at least disregard for, others. A good example of this is how every time a white person gets called racist, they take offense to it, like you accused them or serial murder or being a member of the KKK. It’s not like that!
You can be racist just by going to work and not speaking up your colleague does something more obviously racist. It’s a racist and privileged position of power to exist in that environment and plausibly not know the thing your colleague said was racist.
What do we do about that? One thing we can all do is stop taking offense when someone calls us racist. When someone says a thing you did, said, or witnessed was racist, they’re expressing their experience, trauma, and pain. By taking offense and denying them, we’re denying all of that and in the process, denying their humanity.
Another thing we can do is start reading our history. We need to stop assuming everything we learned in our high school history books was true, complete, and accurate. There were several Twitter recently asking how many people in their network learned about Tulsa in school. It was almost unanimous across different threads: Very few people learned about the largest racially motivated massacre in American history. Twitter polls are not scientific but the results are striking: Out of 5449 votes, about 376 said yes. A sea of “no” in replies. 366 votes, 71 said yes. 27,358 votes, 1,423 yes.
Another thing we didn’t learn in school was red lining. Sure we read Raisin in the Sun, but what we didn’t learn is it wasn’t just White folks in the Chicago suburbs denying Black folks access to the franchise of homeonwership. The Federal Housing Administrion played a massive role, too, by drawing lines around their neighborhoods, coloring them in red, and flagging to banks that people in their communities shouldn’t be given loans.
The curriculum are schools are made to teach is not giving us the basics, and our teachers are in a bind where events like Black Wall Street compete with the hegemonic view of the basics of our history in a short amount of time. Many Black families teach their kids about events like these because they know the schools aren’t. It’s a civic responsibility to fill in those gaps and make sure we know them, and that our kids know them.
We can also demand change. Call our elected officials and demand they recognize racism across our states and local communities and take direct action to address it. We need to become abolitionists, dedicated to tearing down the systems that unjustly corner and disproportionately affect our Black and Brown siblings.
Finally, we need to recognize that it’s not over. It’ll never be over and we need to carry that with us until the day we die.