Note to my white self…
You should be used to it by now.
It happens repeatedly. You acknowledge your personal struggle with racism and a white person – rather than admitting to their own racial prejudices – accuses you of self-hatred. You challenge racist attitudes and behaviors in white people and a white person – rather than addressing the malignancy of racial injustice – accuses you of being racist, of hating white people. Your accusers often follow their attack with a defense of white pride. They complain, “Why are white Americans the only ones who can’t be proud of their race and heritage?”
I know you were initially surprised by such responses. For you, honest self-examination is a sign of self-respect rather than of self-hate. Acknowledging your personal struggle with racism has led to greater self-awareness. You feel good about that. For you, challenging societal and systemic racism is an act of integrity. As a responsible adult, you intentionally critique the societal groups to which you belong. You don’t simply defend them. You acknowledge their flaws and offenses, past and present. You commit to correcting these ills and imperfections in yourself and in society.
You do not hate white people.
Most of your family, friends and acquaintances are white. You love and care about them. What has changed in you is not your opinion of white people, but your appreciation for people of color. You are slowly learning to love and care for them as well. You no longer see them as alien and their complaints as irrelevant. You are finally seeing them as fellow citizens, deserving of equality and justice. Racism, once an abstraction to you, has become a focus of time and attention.
As a white person raised in a historically racist society, it is your responsibility to carefully examine your attitudes and behaviors, to see yourself as you truly are. In examining your attitudes and behaviors, you will also become aware of how they permeate your society. You will see your culture in new and often disturbing ways. To refuse to acknowledge white cultural dominance and privilege would simply be intellectually dishonest. Understanding the racist themes within American history should not make you proud of your race or heritage.
This is the terrible truth.
You are part of a group of people who have historically and repeatedly done great damage and evil to those who were not white. That other groups of people might hate white people is understandable. Your response should not be self-hatred. It should be embarrassment followed by regret and action. If you love yourself and your white friends and family, you cannot perpetuate ignorance, apathy or justification. You must change. You must speak out.
Those who accuse you of self-hatred and of hating white people are defending a corrosive American myth, one in which white people are portrayed as generally treating people of other races fairly. They are upset at you because you are challenging this convenient delusion. When another white person accuses you of racism, of hating yourself or of hating other white people, understand their motivation. You are asking them to do something most people resist. You are asking them to be self-reflective and culturally critical. You are asking them to do something that you have experienced as difficult and painful. You are asking them to be courageous.
This is especially frightening because at some deep level they are aware of their prejudices and privileges. They recognize that acknowledging what you are saying and writing will demand change on their part. The myth of racial equity is so alluring because it absolves them of this responsibility. It allows white people to do what we’ve been doing for hundreds of years – to blame the victim of our racism for their oppression.
Remember that. The proper pronoun when talking about white attitude and behavior is “we” and not “them.” We white people who acknowledge racism and privilege and we white people who resist its reality have this in common – we all continue to richly benefit from a culture of white dominance and privilege. By rule, white Americans are racist. That you have become aware of your racism is positive, but it is a beginning and not the end. Your task – when it comes to being white – is to become an exception to the rule.
There are exceptions. There have been white people – throughout American history – who have recognized the injustice of racism and have radically aligned themselves with people of color. While they have always been a small minority, they have often been instrumental in bringing about change, challenging the myths and delusions that sustain racism and white privilege. Though they have often paid dearly for their disloyalty, they have persisted in the face of censure and condemnation. Being told you hate yourself is of minor consequence. In the past, those expressing your opinions were sometimes lynched or killed. They would not be impressed by your acknowledgment of personal and societal racism.
They would respond, “What took you so long?”