Dear White People,
It will probably come as no surprise, but I sometimes (OK often) get complaints about my “dear white people” posts. These complaints are sometimes phrased diplomatically. Other times not so much. But most seem to break down into the following categories. So if you are one of quite a few people who have recently written to me to bitch about my blog, here you go. (Others are welcome to listen in.) :
- Your words make me feel bad Please notice, I NEVER engage in personal attacks. I get piles of hate mail on a daily basis and have yet to respond in kind. This blog is safe space in that respect. Safe space means respecting the dignity and worth of all people and not letting anyone be personally denigrated. That said, there is a big difference between safe space and comfortable space. We are talking about racism here. It is not a comfortable topic. I can only sugar coat my words but so much. If I make the conversation comfortable so none of us white people ever need to feel bad about anything, it will become meaningless. So we need to make a decision. What matters more, white feelings or black lives? I believe black lives matter more than white feelings. So don’t ask me to sugar coat my words any more than I already have and let’s get past the need to feel good all the time and deal with this grown up topic like grown ups. This brings me to the next related objection
- You are trying to make me feel guilty ashamed Actually, as I have said many times, I think shame, or sense of worthlessness as a person, is what STOPS white people from healing from our own internalized prejudices and working to end systemic racism, so no, I don’t want you to feel shame. Guilt is another story. Guilt means recognizing you have done something wrong and need to change it. Anyone with a conscience experiences guilt. Recognizing healthy guilt and taking action to change whatever it is we feel guilty about is called morality. Morality is a good thing. Let’s be moral.
- Not all white people are racist. Let’s deal with some definitions here. Personal racial prejudice = having negative feelings about others based on their actual or perceived race. Some people have more personal racial prejudice. Others have less. Still more are really good at hiding their prejudices. Even more still aren’t even aware of the prejudices they have. I suppose it is theoretically possible for a person to have NO personal racial prejudice, but, frankly, I have yet to see it. I know for a fact, I am not there yet. There are still levels of unconscious bias I still have to work on. Systemic racism = social, economic, political, cultural, and other systems that have disparate impact on certain races. We all grew up in a racist world full of racist systems. We didn’t all personally create those systems, but we do all either suffer from or benefit by them and, those of us who benefit from systemic racism, i.e. white people with white privilege, have a special responsibility to be about the business of dismantling racist social systems. So, yes, we are all racist in SOME sense and it is not a personal attack to say so, nor is it shameful to admit it.
- “Not all white people are horrible” First of all, I never said that. In fact, I am pretty sure I have been quite clear that I believe in the inherent goodness of all human beings, including those of us who society deems white. Without it, we would have no hope in the face of such an enormous and long standing national sin as racism. I am also quite aware that we are all in different places in our, hopefully, anti-racist journeys. However, regardless of where we are on our journey, we can still ALL do better. Overcoming racism isn’t just an item on a to do list that you can check off and move on. It is a lifetime commitment. Either you are in or you aren’t and, if you are in, you still have work to do. Furthermore, responding to anti-racist messages with a “not all white people” response is usually a way of avoiding an uncomfortable discussion that really needs to happen whether we like it or not. That brings me to the next objection.
- Saying “white people” is racist because it labels people- “usually these comments come from the “colorblind” set so I will combine my response to this with my response to the related statement “I am colorblind.” No, you aren’t colorblind. None of us are. We are all capable of looking at another human being and making a good guess about how they are perceived racially. If you are trying to say that you try to treat people fairly, regardless of race, that is nice, but it is still not enough. As I have said before, there is a lot more to dismantling systemic racism than learning to be personally nice to folks. If you mean to say race is, basically, an artificial social construct, then I agree with you. It is. But it is a very deep seated construct that has led to the construction of many racist systems and simply pretending it doesn’t exist, or doesn’t matter to you, won’t make it go away. Furthermore, playing colorblind is not a loving thing to do. If you care about a person, you want to know something about them beyond the fact that they are some abstract humanoid. Part of knowing a person is understanding something about their racial identity and experience.
- Racism is a sin of the past that had nothing to do with me a.k.a. the “I never owned slaves” defense I never owned slaves either. To my knowledge, neither did my ancestors. But I DO benefit from the white privilege that came from white supremacy and, because that is so, I am responsible for trying to change my society. If you are also willing to take responsibility and work for change, I invite you overcome these objections and get to work.
Dear white people who “celebrate” MLK day,
Please do not ask me to hold hands with you while we all get teary eyed singing “We Shall Overcome” unless we can at least agree that a big part of what WE need to overcome lies in US. (Even then, we may not want to engage in this ritual but let’s at least start here.) Ever since MLK day became a holiday white America (and yes there is a white America and yes it does differ from non-white America) has been busy watering down and trivializing his legacy. We hear small clips from “I Have A Dream” and love the part about being judged by the “content of our character” and not the “color of our skin” because, when you listen to that all by itself, you can almost convince yourself that MLK himself would endorse our “colorblind” fantasies of race being a thing of the past and all we have to do is hold hands and sing “We Shall Overcome” once a year and it’s all good (which, btw, is why we maybe shouldn’t). But then there’s the rest of the speech, like the part about check marked “insufficient funds.” Can we talk about that? Even if it means we might have to fund it? Just asking.
Can we read the “Letter From a Birmingham Jail” along with its indictment of white people and churches and even liberals and face the facts that even those of us who make a big deal out of being “good people” have failed to be just in a most fundamental way when it really counted?
How about this quote? “Whites, it must frankly be said, are not putting in a similar mass effort to reeducate themselves out of their racial ignorance. It is an aspect of their sense of superiority that the white people of America believe they have so little to learn.”
So, when we, as white people, say WE shall overcome, what is it we are overcoming if not our own ignorance, our own internalized privilege, and our own sense of superiority?
I know this is an uncomfortable conversation to have. Part of the reason is, I think, so many of us think admitting to white privilege means saying we are bad people (and let’s not even get started on what admitting to a legacy of white supremacy might do!) I keep pondering the reasons why overcoming racism is so hard for us as white people and I think it all boils down to shame. Deep down we know something is wrong, but we are too ashamed to admit it. It threatens our sense of goodness and even our deeper sense of self worth.
So let’s look at that. Does admitting to the racial ignorance and sense of superiority MLK accused us of having mean we are bad or worthless as people? Actually, I would say the opposite is true. I think being willing to admit these things, and then WORK to OVERCOME them is a sign of recognizing one’s own true worth.
James Weldon Johnson said “in large measure the race question involves the saving of black America’s body and white America’s soul.” I believe my own soul is worth saving. That is why I choose to do the work and invite you to join me. So, instead of holding hands one more time and singing that song one more time, how about we REALLY try to overcome something, starting with ourselves?