Note to my white self…
Don’t give up.
I know you’re frustrated. You’re surprised by how insidious racism can be, how it permeates our culture so completely that even many of your white progressive friends and acquaintances repeatedly express racist opinions. Don’t give up on them. Not so long ago, the racist themes they so casually propagate tripped off of your tongue. They are reciting what white people were taught. Diminishing the role and impact of racism is standard fare in our culture.
I know you’re exhausted. You’re tired of defending NFL football players, Black Lives Matter protestors, reparations advocates and Maxine Waters, of having to justify the behavior of people of color to many of your white progressive friends and acquaintances. Don’t stop defending people of color. Think about how exhausting this constant critique must be for them. Blaming the victim for their response to their oppression is a common distraction from addressing the underlying abuse.
Keep in mind that many of your progressive friends and acquaintances diminish and distract because – at some deep level – they understand that ending racism in our society is their responsibility. White supremacists and racist conservatives are not the primary obstacles to ending systemic racism in the United States. For most of those people, racism will only die when they do. If racism is to end in America, it will require white progressives to finally and completely abandon their complacency and subtle support of systemic racism.
Your task is twofold. First, you must continually monitor your biases, attitudes and opinions with the goal of eliminating your own tendencies to diminish and distract. Second, you must patiently challenge this tendency in your white progressive friends and acquaintances. Ironically, calling out the blatant racist expressions of white supremacists and racist conservatives is a distraction. It may make you feel enlightened, but it accomplishes little. Your responsibility is to call out the far more subtle racism of many of your white progressive friends and acquaintances.
Systemic racism in the United States is not sustained by rabid white supremacists, but by a whole system of subtle racist opinions and critiques. Here is a short list of the racist opinions you once expressed and commonly encounter within progressive circles:
Critique the approach to racism rather than racism
“I just wish (the NFL football players, the Black Lives Matter protestors, the reparations advocates or Maxine Waters) would use a less combative approach to addressing racism”
You’ve made such critiques. Recognize them for the distractions that they are. White progressives often flee to the moral high ground to escape from the rushing and fetid waters of racism. Rather than dive into those waters, we stand idly by while people of color try not to drown. Telling them to stop thrashing around – though technically correct – does little to help them survive. Our criticisms imply our role is not to end racism, but to define the rules under which people of color can oppose it. Too often, this defense of civility or critique of strategy distances us from our responsibility to ally with those who are oppressed.
Diminish racism by focusing on other social ills
“I think the best way to address racism is to focus on more basic social problems like broken families, unemployment, inadequate education, gun violence, drug abuse or poverty. By addressing these social ills, people of color will also benefit.”
You’ve made such arguments. Hear them as the diminishment of racism that they are. White progressives often imply that progress can only be made if we address universal societal issues rather than racism itself. We suggest that addressing the poverty of all people will result in prosperity for people of color. We offer this as a strategy to “trick” other white people in helping people of color. After all, the Democrats allegedly lost the presidential election because they ignored the plight of white working class people. These arguments ignore what every person of color knows – people of color have been at the back of the line for every single social or economic initiative in American history. Rosa Parks taught them it isn’t good enough to be allowed on the bus.
Respond to present racism with reminders of past progress
“Don’t you think our society is less racist than it was in the past? I wish (the NFL football players, the Black Lives Matter protestors, the reparations advocates or Maxine Waters) would focus on all the progress we’ve made.”
You’ve offered such optimism. Understand how ridiculous that sounds to people of color. They know the terrible cost of that progress “we’ve” made. They see – in our present administration – how fragile that “progress” can be. They also know the Civil Rights movement was opposed by about 75% of the white population, with even higher levels of resistance in the South. The system only changed when some white progressives became accomplices with people of color, risking life and liberty to protest against injustice. It changed when – unlike today – politicians like JFK and LBJ risked their careers and alienated portions of their party in order to challenge racism. Those white people who stood on the sidelines criticizing Dr. King are no different than those who criticize Black Lives Matter. If we want to take credit for the progress of the past, we must be part of challenging injustice today.
Encourage the racist trope of the violent person of color
“When people of color advocate for or resort to violence, their behavior is counterproductive, making it more difficult for me to support their cause.”
You’ve reinforced negative stereotypes about people of color. Whenever you give credence to claims of black violence, you encourage an age old racist device. Historically, the incidents and levels of violence perpetrated on people of color by whites far exceed the incidents and levels of violence perpetrated by people of color. When people of color resort to violence, it is usually when they have abandoned hope in any other option. They act violently knowing that their actions will be brutally suppressed by white culture. Yet, repeatedly, at the slightest aggressiveness by people of color, many of their progressive white supporters fade into the ranks of the white mobs that beat, lynch and kill. People of color are not the race of people most deserving of a violent characterization. When progressives pretend this isn’t the case, they actually justify continued white violence.
These are the common white progressive complaints you must abandon and challenge. This will be frustrating and exhausting. Many of your white progressive friends and acquaintances will resist your pushback. They will not like your continual reminders that white progressives – and not those crazy Trump supporters – are the chief impediment to racial reconciliation and equity in the United States. Only when white progressives abandon these supports to systemic racism, will the pillars of racism in America finally crumble.
Stop complaining of your frustration and exhaustion. Come down off your moral high ground. End you attempts at diminishing racism. Give up your theories of inevitable progress. Support those who are defending themselves – sometimes violently – against abuse.
Get off your ass and back to work.