Note to my white self…
During the past year, you’ve received hundreds of responses from people either provoked or inspired by your writing. Some have called you disloyal and racist, accusing you of inciting hatred and inflaming racial tensions. Others have applauded your words with glowing accolades, calling you noble, wise, brave and heroic. Be careful. The accolades are more dangerous than the accusations. Constantly remind yourself of these truths.
That you never use the N-word, tell racist jokes, or express deliberately racist opinions does not make you noble. It simply means you are not a bigot. People who brag about not being blatantly racist imply – though they seldom realize it – that they’ve made some great sacrifice, that they’ve given up some white prerogative out of the goodness of their heart. Ironically, thinking the absence of such behavior noble is the surest indication of deeply ingrained racism.
While I’m glad you’ve advanced beyond such shallow understandings of racial enlightenment, recognizing your unconscious racism and accepting your daily participation in white privilege does not make you wise. It simply means you’ve come to see what every person of color already knew about you. You are hopelessly enmeshed in your white privilege. While being aware of this reality is positive, don’t act like you’ve discovered something newsworthy. If there were a headline, it would read, “Ignoramus Finally Looks More Deeply.”
That you speak out to your white peers about systemic racism and white privilege does not make you brave. It simply means you’re finally taking some responsibility. As a white person, you risk very little in calling out and condemning such behavior. Ironically, your immunity to censure only emphasizes your privilege. The brave ones are those people of color who stand up and speak out knowing the possible consequences. You risk losing a few friends. They sometimes risk their lives and livelihoods.
While I’m pleased you’re doing more than simply speaking out, attending Black Lives Matter events and contributing to organizations who are fighting on behalf of people of color does not make you heroic. It simply means you are being a decent human being. Expecting accolades for such behavior – though you seldom realize it – suggests that people of color should be grateful for all you are doing. Don’t expect credit for repaying a long overdue debt.
Be so careful.
There are two kinds of white ugliness. The first kind of ugliness is exemplified by those who claim or imply that black lives matter less than white lives. It is easy to identify and condemn. The second kind of ugliness is far more subtle. It belittles people of color by implying that the respect that white people demand and expect of one another is a generosity when extended to a person of color.
Here is how to test whether you are guilty of this second kind of ugliness. Attend a Black Lives Matter rally and listen to what people of color are saying about white people. When they are critical of white people, listen to your internal dialogue. If you are defensive and outraged, you are likely experiencing your discomfort at not having your white generosity acknowledged. You are not getting the credit you think you deserve for attending their rally. They are not treating you as you’re accustomed; as a benevolent and enlightened white person.
You are not the guest of honor.
Your presence in the fight for equality and justice does not make you noble, wise, brave or heroic. It makes you empathic, someone willing to sit uncomfortably in the presence of someone else’s pain. If what they say about white people does not apply to you, be glad. If it does, be honest. This, more than anything, is what people of color yearn for from white people. In some ways, they are more comfortable with the blatant racist. At least they know where they stand.
The greatest obstacle to racial reconciliation in America is in ending this second kind of white ugliness, the kind so pervasive in progressive and liberal circles. When supporting people of color is about feeling good about yourself, you have objectified people of color once again. Like the slave owner, they are a means to your end. They are the context for you to be noble, wise, brave and heroic.
In the story of the emancipation of people of color, you – as a white person – can play a role. Some have chosen to be the villains. Many have chosen to be spectators. A few have become allies and accomplices. None are heroes. That role rightly belongs to only one group of people – the people of color who’ve paid for their freedom and their civil rights with their blood, sweat and tears.