A message to my fellow white folks

A message to my fellow white folks,

I know this might hurt a bit but this is something I’ve wanted to say for a while.  We are racist.  Racism is our default setting.  It was brought to us through white supremacy, which dictates that everything white is right, a system that seeks to maintain the control and power of white people.  This is reflected in our government, business, laws, justice system, and the teaching of history in education, and no, the section on slavery doesn’t make up for it.  Now I know a few of you are going to be defensive about this, I was at first too.  It’s the reaction most of us have when we think we are “tolerant” and “accepting” of different people and cultures.  Then when we find out we’ve actually been acting like jerks our whole lives, it’s a bit unnerving.

Our racism is explicit.  Some of us actually say and believe that black and brown folks are lesser humans so we call them by names we made up to assert our supremacy. Rush Limbaugh thinks he can say N****a, because one black person said it wasn’t offensive to her.  Well he’s also a racist, he puts it out there for the world to see, and people still listen to his radio station and make excuses for him every day.  We call the cops on a suspicious looking black boy in a hoodie walking down the street, and then cry self-defense when that boy fights for his life.  We are still racist. We hide behind our keyboards and post comments questioning the experiences of black and brown folks every time they share a negative experience. We are still racist.

Those of us who engage in explicit racist endeavors are likely a lost cause, much like Rush Limbaugh.  Not that there isn’t some hope for change but I’d rather spend my energy teaching white people who have feelings of empathy and love rather than hate.

Our racism is implicit. We tell racist jokes at a party, but because it is a joke it’s okay.  We have been taught to be suspicious of black and brown folks our whole lives. We walk down the street, or see a black or brown person and think, “maybe I should get my keys out and be ready to stand my ground just in case they decide to steal my purse.”  We make excuses for George Zimmerman, “but he felt threatened,” “but he’s Hispanic, not white.” We say we are tolerant and accepting and then ask a black President to present his papers, because to get elected he must have scammed the system.  We make an assumption that because someone speaks Spanish they must have jumped the border and are leeching off our social services and welfare system.  We demand that people get drug tested for welfare, especially because we think the majority of recipients are people of color.  Or we make statements like, “what are you,” when asking about someone’s race or ethnicity. We are still racist.

I say this for our own good.  We might not realize some of the covert things we do or say are racist, but they are.  Getting defensive when someone calls you out for saying the N word and then saying “but I have black friends,” still makes what you said racist.  Our friends of color cannot give us free passes anymore for that bad joke, or touching their hair “because its so soft,” or for not questioning when someone says something racist in our presence.

We have an immense amount of privilege because of our whiteness and unless we work to change the default setting of racist, we will remain as such.  I, like most white folks I know, do not want to be called a racist by anyone, however in the light of the last few weeks in the U.S. I have come to the conclusion that I am one.  I always thought I was one of the “good white people” who doesn’t hold those beliefs, and was taught better than that.  But the notion of a “good white person” is just an idea that we are better at hiding or minimizing our racism than people in that explicit category.  I work hard daily to change my engrained negative attitudes about race and to support communities of color, but my privilege is that I can take a day off if it becomes too daunting of a task.  It is our responsibility to stop taking days off when it gets to be too much, because our black and brown friends don’t get the privilege of that, and we owe it to them to be better allies.

I’ve thought over the years, “yeah, I actually understand or can relate to the experiences of people of color,” but the verdict announcing the acquittal of Zimmerman turned that idea on its head.   I was sad, heartbroken actually, at the realization that a 17-year-old boy could just be walking home and end up dead because of racism.   But then looking into my partners face, a black man from Aurora, CO, I realized, I have no fucking idea what he goes through on a daily basis being black in America.  This muscular, confident man was scared in that moment.  He was angry and sad and also disappointed that he expected an acquittal, and instead what he heard was white folks on the news saying, “now, now, don’t go around rioting because you disagree, the jury has decided.” I was outraged as well, but my anger comes from the place of wanting to protect him from that kind of hatred and discrimination on a daily basis.  I know that I can’t protect him, but I can commit to being a better white ally to communities of color everywhere.

I made a decision to stop rejecting the idea that I could be racist, and instead think about it, as a default setting that has to be changed. I have to do better.  I have to help other white folks realize this in themselves.  I have to stop being complicit around groups of friends who say things I think are wrong.  I have to interrupt more, and not be afraid to mess up a bit. I also have to listen to my black and brown friends experiences because if they are willing to share I should be more than ready to really hear them.

Hannah Wilks

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4 thoughts on “A message to my fellow white folks

  1. Thank you Hannah that was wonderful–I know this sounds hokey but I am crying as I write this because I am so proud of you–you are a wonderful person –I will try and do better–and I hope that each person who reads this try’s a little too

  2. You know, I just find this to be a tad contrived. I think it discounts any individual efforts one can make to be a good person. Instead it calls for social change and what are we supposed to do as individuals to make that happen?

    Cross our arms and tap our feet, occasionally looking out the window to see if the world suddenly forgot to be racist.

    White people have lots of privilege. That doesn’t mean we are racist. That is called white guilt and it doesn’t make anything better. If you tell me I’m racist just because I’m white, what’s to stop me from shrugging my shoulders, being like “oh, well” and not trying to be a better person? You’re condemning me to being a racist.

    You summed up perfectly what people should be trying to do in your last paragraph: “I have to stop being complicit around groups of friends who say things I think are wrong. I have to interrupt more, and not be afraid to mess up a bit. I also have to listen to my black and brown friends experiences because if they are willing to share I should be more than ready to really hear them.”

    Especially the part about not being afraid to mess up a bit. If you mess up, that doesn’t make you a racist, it makes you human.

    Social change can only happen by the swelling efforts of individuals.

  3. Robert, I assure you it does not come from a place of guilt. Rather, from a place of accepting that the system of dominance we grew up under was constructed with racist attitudes and actions, which is why I called it a default setting. The acceptance of that setting is certainly not a call to remain complacent and take no action, but rather see the default of racism as a place to change from. If we actively deny we can be racist then we aren’t working from a genuine place to improve and change behavior. I did lay out a few ideas on what to work on, but this short blog wasn’t meant to be a comprehensive list of action items.

    Hannah

  4. It just sounds like the exact same rhetoric as white privilege, which is important. To become an advocate for social change as a white person, you have to recognize the immense privilege you have and slowly learn how to deconstruct it. Some problems people run into when trying to communicate this is they often sound like they’re saying something like “you have lots of privilege and are a bad person consequently, shame on you.”

    The privilege white people have today comes from long-lived and deeply ingrained institutions that favor white people. We can label this system we grew up in as racist, but that does not mean all white people inherit that racism, they instead inherit the privilege that it affords them.

    You know, I get what you’re saying and agree with it all 100%, except the idea that white people are innately racist, like how we are born without the ability to talk but we must learn how to speak. I do think we are innately privileged.

    That being said, Peggy McIntosh said something in her “Knapsack of Privilege” article that I think resonates with your general idea:

    “For this reason, the word ‘privilege’ now seems to me misleading. We usually think of privilege as being a favored state, whether earned or conferred by birth or luck. Yet some of the [examples of white privilege] work systematically to over empower certain groups. Such privilege simply confers dominance because of one’s race or sex.”

    If you’ve never been able to read this piece, it has been a staple of social justice education for a while:

    http://www.amptoons.com/blog/files/mcintosh.html

    While I don’t agree with everything Peggy wrote, I think her general idea is a lot like yours and I find it more effective than saying “white people are, by default, racist.”

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