A White Un-Blinding
For me, the biggest gut-punch of this calamitous year has been my racist awakening. Of course I knew there was racism but, until George Floyd’s murder, I did not understand how it is woven into the DNA of our country. White people have been intentionally sheltered from its existence.
White people who think they “succeeded all by themselves” willfully ignore the foundation of this country which is literally on the backs of black enslaved prisoners. White people who argue “they had no help from anyone” don’t see that they popped into this world with a headstart, from a lineage of people who could own property and vote and have jobs and make laws and get mortgages and go to school.
Why was this so hard to see? I mean goddammit I live in the birthplace of American slavery. I have watched the sunset from the pier where the first slaves were brought ashore. I have picnicked on plantation grounds. I’ve toured Williamsburg and Jamestown and Monticello where “slave quarters” are always dutifully pointed out like outdoor kitchens. My state was the capitol of the confederacy. My state closed down schools rather than integrate. In my state, black people could be denied mortgages well into the 1970s.
And yet, I didn’t see color. This blinding of white people is essential to systemic racism. I don’t think my white friends are evil or stupid. I think they don’t know. I think they are victims of the blinding that keeps powerful people in power.
I really believe our country cannot go forward until we heal our natal wound. Racism is a white problem, and I want to be part of the white solution. I’m willing to stand in the space of discomfort for a more honest account of our history.
Why George Floyd?
A black woman asked me, “What was it about George Floyd that got white people going?” It’s not like he was the first — or the last — black man to be brutally murdered, on camera, by a police officer.
Looking back now, I think it was a combination of two things for me. First, the vivid horror of seeing with my own eyes the atrocity of a white man abusing his state-granted authority to kneel on a man’s neck for an inconceivable eight minutes and forty-six seconds WHILE HE STARED INTO THE CAMERA. How could anyone defend this? And yet, second, white people did defend it. Some directly: “he deserved it,” “blue lives matter too,” and “it was staged.” Some indirectly: “these protesters are destroying property,” “these protests have gone on long enough,” and “everyone should just get along.”
I followed the news, feeling heartbroken and impotent as events unfolded, and wondered what I could possibly DO to help heal this horrid, festering wound. It’s so big and I’m one person. I came up with one thing: LOOK FOR IT. This is when my eyes began to open.
After the ugliness of the 2016 election, I withdrew into my bubble, unfriending/unfollowing those who expressed hatred, ignorance, intolerance or ugliness…as if, what, my silence punished them?! I see now that that was me avoiding discomfort. I was enjoying the privilege of my white skin that I can choose to avoid discomfort while others cannot choose to avoid danger. I know that I cannot change what is in anyone’s hearts and minds, but my silence allows it to grow within its ranks — hatred reinforcing hatred in the absence of opposition — like an uncontained fire. I made a pledge: when I see racism of any degree, I will call it out. If possible, I report it. I am not seeking to change anyone’s mind. I’m looking to stop the spread of the fire.
White people, freedom from racism won’t be handed to us. White people created the problem, and white people will have to resolve it. It takes effort to learn the ways black history has been SYSTEMATICALLY withheld from us. It is painful to realize how we have directly benefited by government programs (FHA mortgages, Social Security, GI bill, etc) that were categorically denied to black citizens. It is humbling to realize you may have said or done some stupid, shitty things in your ignorance. Your heart will break when black friends begin to reveal the egregious insults they have endured beneath your blind stare.
It takes work to understand, but please, please try. Stumble, bumble, scream and cry, but keep trying. You will be helping to heal our country.
This article helped my understanding, although it was a long, difficult, read. Even the tally in the subtitle — 250+90+60+35 — hurts. It’s a good place to start: “The Case for Reparations — Two hundred fifty years of slavery. Ninety years of Jim Crow. Sixty years of separate but equal. Thirty-five years of racist housing policy. Until we reckon with our compounding moral debts, America will never be whole.”
We’re going to have to get uncomfortable. White privilege includes having history rewritten so that we don’t have to acknowledge uncomfortable facts. A meme went around that listed historical incidents that have been intentionally kept from white awareness. I present it here, with links added for your reference.
It’s no accident that:
- You learned about Helen Keller instead of W.E.B. DuBois (an American sociologist, socialist, historian, civil rights activist, author, writer and editor, first African American to earn a doctorate at Harvard)
- You learned about the Watts and L.A. Riots, but not Tulsa (A 1921 massacre in which mobs of white residents, many of them deputized and armed by city officials, attacked black residents and businesses) or Wilmington (an Election Day massacre by white supremacists).
- You learned that George Washington’s dentures were made from wood, rather than the teeth from slaves.
- You learned about black ghettos, but not about Black Wall Street.
- You learned about the New Deal, but not “red lining.”
- You learned about Tommie Smith’s fist in the air at the 1968 Olympics, but not that he was sent home the next day and stripped of his medals.
- You learned about “black crime,” but white criminals were never lumped together and discussed in terms of their race.
- You learned about “states rights” as the cause of the Civil War, but not that slavery was mentioned 80 times in the articles of secession.
Racism is perpetuated by people who refuse to learn or acknowledge a full accounting of America’s history. You have a choice.
Some Things I’m Learning about White Privilege
It’s not okay to be color-blind. This is EXACTLY the primary privilege of white skin. POC do not have this privilege. My deep gratitude goes to two black friends for patiently taking the time to help me understand this. It was a gift they didn’t have to give.
There is a difference between a RACIST and RACISM, and they need to be dealt with differently.
Put simply, a racist needs to believe in their superiority. This may be for many complicated reasons, which they may or may not be aware of. My current approach: reflect what I see and stand firmly in a space of openness to support their growth if they step in that direction. I used to reject them, but I am now more sensitive to dehumanization in any form, which is another form of superiority.
Racism is the SYSTEM, extending back for many centuries, that creates advantages for white-skinned people, building power generation after generation after generation. Those of us born into the world with white skin benefit from this system, whether we admit it or not.
Do you see how these circle around?….color-blindedness allows racism to stay in place, reinforcing a sense of (racist) superiority that feels good and reinforces color-blindedness.
For this reason, “racists” exist in shades of gray. ANY sense of superiority, ANY desire to keep the system in place, ANY resistance to change, ANY fear of losing what’s “mine” illuminates my own racism. It’s likely that we white people are all somewhere on this spectrum.
So my work is to constantly scan my heart for these responses as I watch the news, read social media, and talk to friends.
We say we want things to change. A lot of times we think this means changing “them,” “the racists.” Is it possible the real change — I mean, the shift that can TOPPLE THE SYSTEM of racism! — needs to occur in the individual hearts of white people, like me, who can’t fully understand our privilege?