Listen up, y’all. We need to have a talk. One of those real, no bullshit, tear-away-the-politeness talks that gets down to the actual meat of a thing, instead of dancing around it in pretty-shiny-white circles that pretend to mean something. This isn’t cotillion or cocktail party or church potluck talk – though it probably should be.
Mostly, white America has been fooling itself for a very long time. We’ve somehow managed to talk ourselves into believing that we live in a “post-racial” society, in which “color-blindness” can symbolize anything other than what it really is – a defect in our vision – and we can convince ourselves that racism was obviously bad, but that it only existed in the past. That once the Jim Crow laws were overturned, once schools were forcibly integrated, we could pat ourselves on the back for being enlightened and considerate, and go on about our business without worrying about race-based social injustice, anymore. We could gasp in horror at “the way things used to be,” and feel like good people, because we don’t act that way, now. Goodness no!
Fairy tales are nice, sometimes, for children. Even as children, though, we learn that fairy tales are make believe. That there is reality, and there’s fiction, and that we can’t hope to live responsible and fulfilling lives, if we conflate the two. Somehow, though, we managed to miss the memo that the whole idea of the present as a “post-racial society” is a fairy tale, too. We know Santa Claus isn’t real, unicorns don’t exist, little green dudes don’t live on Mars, but we missed this hugely important thing about the reality in which we live. So, let me break it down for you.
Racism isn’t some monster under the bed we’ve managed to outgrow. Racism is real, it’s current, it’s still a problem right now, every day, right here where we live, no matter which part of the country that happens to be. It still affects a very large portion of our population, on a daily basis, in damaging and horrific ways. Pretending we can’t see that won’t make it go away. Pretending we, as white people, haven’t all benefited from its presence won’t make those benefits – or the corresponding hardships placed on minorities as a result – cease to exist.
Now, this doesn’t mean that your life doesn’t suck, too. Maybe it does. The fact is, though, that our ancestors were given advantages that the American ancestors of people of color were simply not able to access. I’m not talking about the folks who fought in the Civil War, either, but people who are most likely your parents or grandparents, who had opportunities available to them that were categorically denied to people of color, often through cleverly worded prejudicial clauses in law or policy.
Let’s look at housing, for instance. Where we live largely determines what kinds of services and opportunities we are able to access. That’s just simple fact. Another fact: home ownership has always been a part of the path to financial stability, in this country (and the burst of the housing bubble in the 21st century doesn’t negate the advantages of home ownership, currently or throughout history). When programs were established to lend money to people for the purpose of purchasing a home, beginning with the New Deal in the 1920s, and continuing beyond HUD programs in the 1990s, the programs were blatantly racist in practice. Loans that were made available in the mid-twentieth-century went almost exclusively to whites. And when I say almost exclusively, I’m talking over 98 percent, before 1968. This little bit is only one tiny part of how the US, as an institution, privileges white people over people of color, in housing. There is an ocean of historical evidence of much more widespread, race-based housing discrimination, and that little bit I just mentioned is only a drop in that ocean. It isn’t just historical, either. Housing policies, while much more circumspect in their racism, are still quite racist, still quite biased towards white people, and still oppressive to the “Other.”
Image description: Illustration of a house with a white picket fence, under the words, “The American Dream”
So, there’s one way in which our forebears had a leg up, whether or not they were racist. They still reaped this benefit of a society which clearly and unapologetically favored whites over people of color. One way in which we, as white people in the US, now, still reap the benefit. It isn’t saying our lives are fabulous. Personally, I can’t afford to own a home. All other things being equal, though, I would be more likely to qualify for a home loan in a ‘good’ neighborhood than would a woman of color. Still. Now.
Let’s consider another measure of quality of life: employment. Until 1964, it was in no way illegal to be openly discriminatory in hiring practices. That’s only 51 years ago. When either our parents or grandparents were very likely the majority of the workforce in the US. Again, not ancient history, even for those who don’t think that the phrase American history is an oxymoron. Until 7 years later, in 1971, businesses could still get away with creative policy-making, skirting the non-discrimination laws by making rules that were unrelated to the actual requirements of a job, yet would disproportionately disqualify minorities seeking employment. Cute little tricks like in-house “intelligence tests” that were specifically written to favor whites’ education and experiences over those of minorities, yet bore no relation whatsoever to the job being sought. For all this progress, the laws established in Griggs v Duke Power, in 1971, were put in a stranglehold in two 1989 rulings. One of those, Wards Cove Packing Co. v Antonio, basically flipped the script. Instead of requiring companies to bear the burden of proof – in other words, making the companies prove the policies in question weren’t discriminatory – it placed the burden on the employee being discriminated against, placing yet another barrier in the way of justifiable equal employment litigation. After all, many of these discriminatory policies rested on the disparities in the education received by white people, as compared to the education available to people of color. The decision in the other case, Patterson v McLean Credit Union, basically stated that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was only applicable to hiring practices, and held no sway over post-hire advancement or workplace harassment or prejudice faced after someone was hired. I hate to sound redundant, but this is NOT ancient history. This happened in my lifetime, and probably in yours. 1989.
There are SO many other ways in which institutionalized racism in this country has been and continues to be perpetuated. If I wanted to go into even a significant percentage of those, a blog post wouldn’t do it. I’d have to write an entire series of books. An encyclopedia of injustice. Aside from housing and employment, which I’ve really barely skimmed across, here, there are blatant and ongoing inequalities in education, historical representation within education, social support systems, law enforcement attitudes, prejudice, and approaches, prosecution, detainment, media representation… the list goes on and on and on. And in every generation since the grand old US of A became a nation, every single one of those things has been inherently, institutionally biased to benefit white people, and to oppress people of color. In spite of the big, flashy legislative signs of progress towards equality, every single one of those things is still biased towards white people. So, even if your own individual life sucks, even if you’re otherwise oppressed because you live in poverty, or because you’re disabled, or because you’re a woman, if you’re white, you’ve still benefited from generations of disparity.
An individual who has benefited from institutionalized oppression is NOT inherently a bad person. We don’t need to feel guilty or ashamed or like some kind of evil because the current system has given us an advantage, in comparison. Recognizing and owning the fact of your white privilege doesn’t mean you have to be ashamed of yourself. You probably didn’t create those laws. You probably don’t overtly discriminate against people on the basis of race. But let’s face facts, here. Chances are pretty high that, because of things like unequal historical representation in education, and biased portrayals in the media, and being brought up to believe, at least subconsciously, that all things white are inherently better, it’s very likely that you hold some internalized biases, yourself. Being brought up white in the US, it would be pretty miraculous if you didn’t. Again, this isn’t about making you feel bad, though your feelings are really not the point. Recognizing those little seeds of bias buried in the way you interact with the non-white world is a good thing. Unpacking those beliefs, examining them, picking them apart, and using the knowledge you have, now, to put them to bed, is essential in becoming a socially aware, socially responsible human being.
Now, this is where it gets a bit sticky. If you don’t actually care about your fellow human beings at all, you may just want to stop reading, right here. Continuing would only be a waste of your time and mine. As a matter of fact, if you’re that guy, then just “go away,and never come back,” Gollum. I’m speaking directly to white people who do care, who don’t want the system of institutionalized racism to continue to exist. This is where we put our money where our mouths are, so to speak.
One of the reasons that the employment and housing discrimination is so easy to overlook, so easy to outright ignore, is because both things are often much less about what you know (i.e.- how qualified you are), and much more about who you know. Since these institutionalized advantages have been around pretty much as long as the US has been around, the people in control of such things as housing, employment, education, and legal proceedings are much more likely to be caucasian than any other race. Not just by a tiny margin, but by a whole damned book. We, as white people, are far more likely to exist somewhere within the six degrees of separation sphere of landlords, property managers, business owners, hiring managers, police officers, prosecutors, and judges. Even if we don’t, chances that they will give us a fair shake are pretty good, because we look like them. Because even progressive white people have often internalized a certain underlying conditioning, which exists in nearly every aspect of our culture, that tells them white is inherently better.
They are more likely to listen to us, to actually hear what we’re saying. More likely to give real consideration to a cause that has our voices raised in protest. This is where our privilege can do some good.
And this is where we, collectively, are failing our fellow human beings.
Black people are still not given equal employment opportunities, or access to equal housing or education. They aren’t being sentenced comparably to their white counterparts for criminal convictions. They make up roughly 13% of the population, yet they account for over 37% of the prison populations – and it is NOT because they commit a vastly larger proportion of America’s crime. Our nation’s police force is murdering unarmed black men and women in terrifying numbers.
Yet when they tweet #BlackLivesMatter, we respond with #AllLivesMatter. Which is missing the point. When white social media laments that a beloved lion was killed by a sport-hunting American dentist, black people are reasonably upset. After all, the same people who are crying over this lion killed on another continent often didn’t have a thing to say about Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Sandra Bland, Sam Dubose and so many more, when they were killed, right here at home. If they dare to mention this strange dichotomy, we respond with things like We can care about more than one thing at a time, you know, or You don’t get to tell us what to be passionate about! Again, because we are missing the point.
The point is, racism is alive and well in the US, and we don’t get to pat ourselves on the back for being allies, if we aren’t actually being allies. Tweeting #AllLivesMatter, or getting defensive when someone is describing their lived experiences as black people, is missing the point. Getting pissed off when someone uses the term “privilege” is not being an ally. Allies don’t walk into a space that oppressed people have carved out to speak about their oppression, demanding that the oppressed people watch the tone in which they describe their experiences, or demand change. Allies do not walk into those spaces, demanding that the focus shift to their feelings. Allies are there to support, to amplify, and to listen. They’re not there to take charge, and make the rules. As white people, when dealing with matters of race, we’ve already been in charge for a very long time, and we’ve been royally mucking things up.
We’ve been mucking things up because, instead of listening to people of color, when they tell us what the issues are, we want to argue. No, no, that can’t be it. It must be this other thing over here. When they tell us how to address these issues, we create more by telling them that our ideas – you know, those ideas white people have been coming up with for decades, in response to racial inequality, the ones that haven’t actually worked? – are somehow better than theirs. We’re saying that what they really need is a white hero to ride in and save them from their own less valid ideas. In essence, what we’re doing, instead of being the helpful allies we think we are, is perpetuating the problem. We’re saying the same things that are born out of the roots of the very issues people of color are literally dying for. We’re saying that our feelings are more important, our experiences nullify their own, our defensiveness deserves more consideration than their oppression.
And that’s really not okay.
So, Dear Fellow White People:
Stop tweeting those awful banalities like #AllLivesMatter. Of course all lives matter. The whole point of the #BlackLivesMatter movement is that black lives haven’t mattered as much, in this country, as white ones. EVER.
Stop wailing when someone points out that you are using your privilege to silence them, or center yourself in a movement that IS. NOT. ABOUT. YOU. Recognize that it isn’t an insult, but a plea to stop using your experiences of our culture – which happened in a world where you, by virtue of your skin color, are viewed as somehow more worthy as a human being – to negate theirs.
Stop trotting out tired old racist tropes without understanding where they originated, when faced with media accounts of people being murdered by the very people who are supposed to protect them from murderers.
Instead, educate yourself. Do your own damned research. This is the information age, so there is literally NO excuse for demanding that an oppressed person educate you on the history of their oppression.
Instead, speak up about the injustices you see. Nobody is saying you can’t, or shouldn’t, draw attention to animal cruelty or sport hunting. At the same time, though, use your white privilege to draw other white people’s attention to Sandra Bland, or Sam Dubose, or simply the fact that black women make only 64 cents for every dollar made by white men.
Instead, stop talking over them, and actually listen to what they’re asking. Put yourself in their shoes.
How about, maybe, you give us equal access to housing, jobs, and education? How about you start sentencing us by the same standards you use when sentencing white people for the same crimes? How about, perhaps, you get your police to stop killing our young men and women in the streets? How about you value our lives as much as you value your own?
It’s really not that much to ask, is it?