Note to my white self…
I am afraid of white people.
This is not easy for me, as a white person, to admit. Nor has it always been the case. For most of my life, I felt safest and most comfortable in the presence of other white people. While I occasionally encountered a distasteful white person, most white people treated me with kindness and respect. They were my family and friends. They were my tribe. It was when I encountered people of color that I felt fear.
That is no longer the case. Increasingly, it is white people who cause me the most concern and discomfort. Much of this growing fear comes from watching my eleven year old black daughter navigate and explore the world without her white parents looking over her shoulder. Last week, when she rode her bike to the local ice cream shop, her mother and I worried until she came home. What if some white person, seeing her as a threat, called the police to complain? What if some white person, emboldened by the present political climate, chose to target her for racial harassment?
I wish those were irrational fears, but I know they are not. I’ve read too many stories of black people targeted for harassment or abuse simply for being black. In the past, my daughter benefited from the protection of our umbrella of white privilege. As a cute child, she was endearing. But that is all shifting as she becomes a black teenager. She has become a potential threat in a culture uncomfortable with assertive young black women.
When my daughter was a child, white people irritated me with their assumptions and bias, but I found it generally harmless. Not any longer. When I am with my daughter, I find myself looking at other white people with caution, even suspicion. I notice the ones who don’t acknowledge her existence, looking straight through her. I see those who stare at her with hostility. I recognize the fear in their eyes. It is the same discomfort I once had in the presence of people of color. Occasionally, I see something more sinister – a hatred for this child they do no know.
But, even when I am not with my daughter, I find myself less and less comfortable in large groups of white people. I’m aware of the absence of people of color. I miss them and the perspectives they bring. I wonder if the white people I’m with have that same sense of loss. Or are they like I used to be, happy to be together as a tribe and free from the discomfort of sharing the world with other tribes.
I’ve read enough by people of color to know what my tribe is capable of, the ugliness and violence we’ve so easily inflicted on those we identify as different or less. I’ve moved beyond the whitewashed history of my childhood to understand the racism built into American culture. I recall all the racist and bigoted statements I’ve heard or expressed in my many years with white people. Even today, many in my tribe, assuming I think as they do, expose their potential to harm or tolerate the harm of non-whites. They frighten me.
Indeed, the more another white person revels in their whiteness, the more they frighten me. Their obsession with whiteness usually involves diminishing or denigrating people of other colors. When people of color revel in their identity, it feels different. They’re declaring the value of what they can contribute and not the deficiency of all others. Black, Native American and Latino power demand a place at the table. White power demands the seat at the head of the table.
My recognition of this difference reveals how I’ve changed. I no longer belong to the white tribe. I belong to a rainbow tribe, of people comfortable in diversity, thrilled by exploring differences, committed to sharing the world equitably. People of color are no longer threatening to me. They are interesting and exciting. Many of them are part of my new tribe. While I will always be white, I am no longer proud of that identity. Indeed, I am increasingly aware of how dangerous the white tribe can be to my daughter, to my friends of color, and to the society I seek to create and protect.
This fear isn’t completely negative. It makes me a better ally to people of color. I better understand and appreciate what they’ve always experienced. I am more aware of the world as it is rather than the world as I assumed. My fear of white people makes me a better citizen of this nation. I am more likely to work passionately for justice and equity, to oppose those asserting white supremacy. After all, those being brutalized by police, separated from their children or threatened with the loss of civil or voting rights belong to my tribe. Their pain is my pain. Their dreams are my dreams.
In the end, my fear of white people is a sign of hope. The more white people share this fear, the less our society will have to fear from white people. As more and more white people abandon their tribe, the less power white people will have to perpetuate a racially divisive society. As more white people join the rainbow tribe, white people will become less and less frightening to everyone. Finally, people of every color can focus their efforts on building a society where no one need be afraid.