The Culture of Whiteness

The Culture of Whiteness

Note to my white self…

You were born into whiteness.

This is quite different than being born with white skin.  There is nothing intrinsically negative about any skin pigment.  All children arrive in the world as culturally empty slates.  The assumptions and prejudices around skin pigment have to be carefully taught by those in power.  In the United States, those in power have always been white.  The lessons they’ve taught are intended to maintain and defend this concentration of power.

You were taught people who look like you are superior.

This is why it is so difficult for you to see your attitudes, opinions and actions as racist.  Whiteness has been constantly presented to you (and to the people of color around you) as pristine and preferable. You were taught that white is the color of purity, even though this is not inherently true. For nearly a billion Indians, red is the color of purity.  In China, white signifies death.  Connecting the color of white with goodness is a cultural decision.  At a deep level, you were taught whiteness is good and people of others skin pigments are less worthy.

You were taught people who look like you are normative.

This is obviously not the case.  People with white skin pigment are a minority in the world.  However, as a child born in the United States, you were taught to see white people as the rightful majority rather than a demographic anomaly.  According to this mythology, white power in the United States was not the result of the systematic suppression and oppression of people of color.  White power was a God ordained blessing bestowed on favored children or the well-earned reward of a superior group of people.  This narrative makes it easier for you to ignore the inequities and injustices from which you benefit.

You were taught to justify your privilege as a white person.

Whiteness, since it is a human ideology based on false assumptions and prejudice, must be constantly rationalized and maintained. Reality inevitably challenges the premises of whiteness.  When you meet an incredibly brilliant or compassionate person of color, your assumption of intellectual and moral superiority is shattered.  When you engage with the wider world, you discover whiteness is only normative in Hollywood, Wall Street and Seventh Avenue.  Therefore, essential to the sustainability of whiteness is its defense.

You were taught to defend whiteness by denying racism, diminishing the perspectives of people of color and deflecting criticism by attacking those who refuse to relent.

This is almost reflexive in you.  Take the example of an unarmed black man being shot by the police.  Even if you are aware of our biases, you still have to overcome your indoctrination.  Your first thought will probably be a suspicion that the black man did something to deserve to be shot.  You (and police officers) have been taught black men are criminal and violent.  If the police officer was white, you will assume he was not acting out of any prejudice. In situation after situation, your first inclination will always be to deny any racial animosity or dynamic.  Since white people are good, the fault must lie with the person of color.

You cannot allow other narratives about whiteness to prevail.

You will feel compelled to diminish the perspectives of people of color.  When video evidence makes it nearly impossible to deny the role of racial prejudice in an incident, you will tend to focus on any information that diminishes white culpability.  You will note the alleged moral failings of the black man while asking that the white officer be given the benefit of the doubt.  You will imply the black person provoked the situation.  You will disregard the stories of other people of color who’ve been pulled over by the police for the slightest cause.  Since whiteness is normative, you will refuse to accept that your experience with police is not everyone’s experience.

You must defend whiteness at all costs.

Your final response, should denial and diminishment fail, will be to deflect the criticism.  You will offer statistics suggesting these racially motivated shootings by police are rare.  You will imply the incident is being politicized.  You will find an instance where a white person was mistreated (preferably by a black police officer) and argue that such abuses can happen to anyone.  If all else fails, you will accuse the critics of being racially motivated.  They are the racists.   You will “back the blue” even when it is whiteness you’re defending.

This is the culture of whiteness.

While you were not born with it, you were indoctrinated into it.  Being aware of this indoctrination, while important, does not immediately free you from its power.  When your whiteness is challenged, you will often find yourself reflexively denying, diminishing and deflecting.  These responses are ingrained and difficult to discard.  With practice, you will identify these reflexive responses more quickly and be able to acknowledge their ugliness, but this may take years.  With more awareness, you will see these responses more clearly in other white people and in the larger culture, but your awareness will always be clouded.  People of color will continue to point out prejudices you cannot see.  Gradually, if you are vigilant, the power of this indoctrination will weaken.

You will always be white.

There is no shame in the pigment of your skin.  It is your active or passive participation in a culture of whiteness that is problematic. Once you become aware of this indoctrination and its negative impact on yourself and the lives of people of color, you become responsible for moving from participation to opposition.  You will always struggle with the remnants of your indoctrination.  You will always need to listen to people of color.  But, if you willing to work at it, you can be free of the need to deny, diminish or deflect.

You can be free at last.

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Never. Not Once

Never. Not Once

Note to my white self…

In light of the recent events at a Starbucks coffee shop, it seems prudent to understand what such incidents teach you as a white person.

You have never been asked to leave a coffee shop because you haven’t purchased a beverage yet.

You have never had a store clerk call the police to have you removed from the premises.

You have never been arrested for asking to use the restroom.

Never. Not once.

You have never had black men yell “Honky” and throw garbage at you from a passing vehicle.

You have never had a person cross to the other side of the street when they see you.

You have never had people stare right through you when you said “hello.”

You have never had someone tell you they hate you because of the color of your skin.

Never. Not once.

You have never had a security guard follow you around in a store.

You have never had a police officer stop you on the street and ask what you’re doing.

You have never been pulled over for a broken tail light.

When you have been pulled over, you have never worried about being killed.

You have never had a police officer tell you that you fit the description of a suspect in a crime.

Never.  Not once.

You have never been told your natural hair isn’t appropriate for work.

You have never had someone act disgusted when they accidently touched you.

You have never worried that you didn’t get a job because of the color of your skin.

You have never had someone touch your hair without your permission.

You have never been told you should move back to Europe where you came from.

You have never read death threats written on a bathroom stall.

Never. Not once.

You have never been complimented for being “more honest or articulate or competent” than most white people.

You have never had someone ask “What are you?”

You have never been called a “boy” since you became an adult.

You have never had someone lock their doors when you walked by their car.

You have never had someone ask why white people like “steak and potatoes” so much.

You have never had a customer ask for a different employee to serve them.

You have never had to have a black person come to your aid and insist you be treated with respect.

Never. Not once.

Yet you know people of color who have experienced many – if not all – of these incidents (or their equivalents), often repeatedly.  Because of this reality…

You should never think your experience as a white person in the United States is the same as the experience of a person of color.  Every experience – even the most trivial – has the potential for discrimination and danger for a person of color.

You should never deny the persistent and systemic racism in the United States.  There is no place in the United States where a person of color is immune from the impacts of racism.

You should never forget how often you benefit from the privileges of being white.  There is no place in the United States where a white person loses the power and privilege of being white.

You should never diminish the seriousness of any instance where a person of color is treated with disrespect.  Micro-aggressions are not minor instances of racism.  They are the tip of a huge, submerged system of racism

You should never stop addressing the racism within yourself and within our society.  If people of color must be constantly vigilant, so must you.

Other white people will be frustrated with your continuing focus on racial equality, dignity and justice.  Don’t listen to them.  Don’t waver.  Don’t look away.

Never. Not once.

Color Blindness Is A Disability

Color Blindness Is A Disability

Note to my white self…

When it comes to race, color blindness is not now – nor has it ever been – an admirable goal for a white person. Color blindness, both physically and metaphorically, is a human deficiency.  It has a negative impact on a person’s ability to navigate in a world where recognizing and discriminating between colors is a necessary and valuable tool.  While you – and most other white people – were taught to strive for color blindness in your racial interactions, this is not commendable or helpful.  Color blindness is always a disability.

Think about it.

Where else in our culture is a lack or deficiency in sight considered preferable? Parents are rightly saddened by a child born blind.  A loss of vision in an adult is considered a tragedy.  The restoration of sight is thought miraculous.  When used as a metaphor, blindness is almost universally negative.  Acting, judging or loving blindly is irresponsible. To be blind to a condition of life is a cause for concern. In “Amazing Grace,” we do not sing that “I could see, but now I’m blind.”  To do so would be ridiculous.

Though physical color blindness is certainly less traumatic, it is hardly celebrated. When severe, color blindness is a dangerous condition causing many difficulties for those so afflicted.  An inability to discern between red and green makes every major street intersection challenging.  When it comes to identifying colors, discrimination is not a negative activity.  It is a positive attribute allowing the person to make better judgments and avoid mistakes.  That, when it comes to race, color blindness is upheld as noble should seem odd.   That, in a white dominated culture, color blindness is applauded should be suspicious.

Why, in this instance, has a white dominated culture used a lack of visual acuity as a positive metaphor?

You know why.

As with all things white, this practice is advantageous to white people. By extolling color blindness, you escape the responsibility of identifying, acknowledging and addressing real social, economic and political disparities between yourself and people of color.  You can pretend, though racial prejudice is deeply embedded in your psyche, that the color of someone’s skin does not influence your attitude, judgment or actions.  You can even use the exaltation of color blindness to further oppress people of color.  People of color who refuse to affirm the positives of color blindness can be accused of “reverse racism” and identified as morally deficient.  After all, good people are color blind.

Think about how absurd that sounds when applied to the physical condition of color blindness.

Can you imagine a culture that extoled the physical condition of color blindness as superior and condemned those who discriminated between red and green? How would you explain a culture where not being able to see differences in colors was considered admirable, as something to brag about?  What would you think of a culture where people were pressured, even if they could see the differences, to ignore this discernment and pretend that they couldn’t?  How would you judge such a culture?  Wouldn’t you assume something odd or unacknowledged was behind such an attitude and behavior?

Such is the case with the use of color blindness as a positive metaphor in a white dominated culture. The something odd or unacknowledged is white privilege.  This privilege gives white people the power to demand that people ignore real disparities and inequities in how people of different skin colors are treated in our culture. According to the proponents of color blindness, if we refuse to see the differences, they will go way.  This claim that there are no real differences between black and white in America is as absurd as claiming red and green are the same.

Here is the truth.

Color blindness is not your goal.

Your goal as a white person is to see yourself and people of color as they truly are, to recognize how differences in skin tone continue to seriously impact the experiences of men, women and children in our society, that these differences privilege some and oppress others. To treat people equally, regardless of the color of their skin, isn’t inherently admirable or just.  When justice is blind to past injuries, this blindness is also negative.  When justice does not acknowledge the color of someone’s skin, it inevitably perpetuates rather than rectifies injustice.

Color blindness is not your goal.

To ignore the inequities that still exist because of differences in skin color is insulting and irresponsible. It is only in removing our blindfolds, that we become capable of seeing discrimination for what it is; the diminishment of some colors more than others.  The reason color blindness is metaphorically extoled and blackness is metaphorically maligned has the same ugly source – racism.

Stop claiming to be color blind.

It is not true.

It is not admirable.

It is not helpful.

I Don’t Hate White People

I Don’t Hate White People

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?”

I Am Not A Hero

I Am Not A Hero

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.

Paying My Reparations

Paying My Reparations

Note to my white self…

I’m really glad you understand the depth of the injustice inflicted on people of color in the United States. You’ve done your homework.  You’ve educated yourself about the genocide of Native Americans, the horrors of slavery, the massacre at Wounded Knee, the reign of the KKK, the exploitation of Chinese workers in mines and on the railroad, the institution of Jim Crow Laws, the exclusion of people of color from the New Deal, the internment of the Japanese, the oppression of migrant workers and the continued mass incarceration of people of color.  You’ve expanded your understanding of history beyond the whitewashed version you were taught in school.

I’m glad you’ve become a proponent of reparations, of systemic compensation for systemic oppression. This isn’t a popular position in a white culture enamored by the myth of a level playing field.  You can expect to be mocked and vilified for suggesting white people have a responsibility for the racist acts of their ancestors, for pointing out the presence of systemic racism today and for acknowledging the need to balance the scales.  Stand firm.  Your verbal support for reparations helps deconstruct justifications for past and present injustice.

But verbal support isn’t enough.

You’re not naïve. You know, in this present political climate, the odds of reparations becoming a reality are slim to none.  You know that for the past twenty-five years, US Representative John Conyers has introduced the HR 40 bill, calling for a study of the impact of slavery and appropriate remedies, and has watched both Republican and Democrat Congresses ignore that bill.  You know rhetoric is unlikely to make reparations a reality.

So don’t be guilty of what conservatives claim. Don’t let your support for reparations be an act of virtue signaling.  It is far too easy to support reparations when they are unlikely to ever occur.  You can claim nobility without any personal cost.  If you really support reparations, you don’t have to wait on other whites to agree.  You don’t have to wait on a Congressional study committee.  You don’t have to wait on legislation remedying past injustices.  If you truly believe in reparations, you can begin paying them today.

Here are a few simple suggestions…

  1. Make a significant monthly donation to organizations that work with or for people of color. Treat that donation as a monthly debt obligation and not as an act of charity. Give enough to notice the difference in your bank account.
  2. Seek out businesses and professional services owned by people of color even if they aren’t the lowest bidder. Invest in the entrepreneurial endeavors of people of color, knowing that traditional sources of capital are often denied to them.
  3. Offer your products and services to people of color at a discounted price. Eliminate any economic behavior that exploits people of color. Make certain domestic workers, roofers, and landscapers aren’t being exploited for your benefit.
  4. Tip people of color twice the norm when they serve you.
  5. Assist a person of color in attending college or vocational school.
  6. Attend events and performances created and sponsored by people of color. If you are never the minority at an event, make that happen.
  7. Financially support people of color who are seeking political office.
  8. Consider including people of color and their causes in your will, thereby redistributing your accumulated wealth.

Since you are in favor of reparations, begin today.  Until you begin doing these things, your economic footprint is exactly the same as that of a white supremacist.  You both benefit equally in the advantages of white privilege. Neither of you are paying your debts.

Be the change you want to see. If thousands of white people like you began to pay reparations, the economic scales in America might begin to subtly shift.  In that process, more people of color will be empowered and political momentum could change.  Perhaps, if enough people commit to personal reparations, “justice will finally roll down like water and righteousness like a mighty stream.”

(This post is the third in a three part series on reparations.  The first post in the series was “How To Tell If A White Person Is Racist With One Simple Question” and the second post was “A Reasonable Reparation.”

Reminders For Recovering Racists

Reminders For Recovering Racists

Note to my white self…

Congratulations! You have committed to being an ally to people of color in their struggle to end systemic racism in America.  You are sharing anti-racist memes, donating to anti-racist causes and even attending anti-racist protests.  Good for you.  However, don’t forget your most helpful contribution in this struggle.  First and foremost, address the unconscious racial bias within yourself.  Here are six daily reminders as you navigate life as a white person…

It is impossible to be aware of your unconscious racial bias.  If you were aware of them, they wouldn’t be unconscious.  This means, as a white person, you should never say, “I was not being racist.”  This implies you are aware of your every motive.  This is very unlikely.  When your motives are challenged, it is better to respond, “I was not consciously or intentionally being racist.  Thanks for making me aware.”   This is more honest and reflective.  It also implies a genuine interest in becoming aware of your unconscious racial bias.

When someone of color points out a racial bias, they are most likely correct. When interacting with people of color, they are much more likely to be aware of your bias – one they have consciously experienced countless times – than you are.  Could they be wrong?  Certainly.  However, it is more likely you were unaware of your bias.  Immediately responding “I was not being racist,” without carefully reflecting on their perception, may actually suggest another unconscious racial bias – people of color should not correct white people.

Being unconscious of a racial bias is not an excuse. An unconscious bias is not less problematic than a conscious bias.  It is just the opposite. An unconscious bias is much more dangerous.  You can address a conscious bias, but an unconscious racial bias can repeatedly do damage.  When someone makes you aware of a racial bias, don’t say, “I didn’t mean to be racist” as if this excuses your behavior.  If you were unconsciously standing on someone’s toes, you were still causing them pain.  The proper response, when a racial bias is exposed, is always an apology.

For every racial bias of which you are aware, you can assume there are several of which you are not. The racial bias of which you aware is usually the tip of an iceberg.  Therefore, when you become conscious of a racial bias, it is always worthwhile to dig a little deeper in your own psyche.  For this reason, having an unconscious bias challenged need not be understood as an attack on your character.  You are being offered an opportunity to better understand yourself.  Exposing one racial bias may allow you to become conscious of others.

In any interaction with a person of color or discussion about racism, it is best to assume you will be bringing some unconscious racial bias into the interaction or discussion. Assuming your interactions or discussions will be free of racial bias is arrogant. Accepting the likelihood that you will be acting out of your racial biases allows you to be receptive, rather than defensive, if someone challenges your attitudes or actions.  Remember, the person of color – based on many encounters with white people – already assumes you have conscious or unconscious racial bias.  They don’t expect you to be unbiased.  They expect you to respond to any challenge with defensiveness.  Surprise them.

Becoming aware of an unconscious racial bias does not eliminate it. A bias took many years to develop.  If it is an unconscious bias, it became so normative that you could not see it.  Becoming aware of an unconscious racial bias is merely the beginning of the process of becoming less racist.  Initially, you will continue to act out of that bias.  All that has changed is your awareness.  Only with time can you diminish the power of a bias to influence your behavior.  Expect to have your bias pointed out to you repeatedly. When challenged, respond, “Thanks.  I needed that reminder.” With each reminder, you will become less likely to act out of that racial bias.

In the battle against systemic racism, always remember  – as a white person – you are part of the problem as well as the solution. Purging the unconscious racial bias within yourself is the first and greatest contribution you can make.