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.