Sisters. It is time we talked. We just elected someone to be our president whose racism is so obvious that the KKK is now marching in celebration. The polls all said he would not win. But he did. The polls said white women in particular would vote against him. We did not. That means a bunch of us lied and said we weren’t voting for him but, once we were alone in that voting booth, we did. We voted for an admitted sexual assailant over another white woman who could have been our first female president and many of us did it in secret.
Why? I hear all kinds of explanations. Hillary is so bad. Emails. The economy. The dems don’t listen and so on and so forth. I could argue against each one but I won’t because deep down I don’t think any of these reasons are real. If they were, we wouldn’t have done this thing in SECRET.
When do we do things in secret? We do things in secret when we want to present one face to the world and another to our community and even to ourselves. We hide our racism under white sheets, social masks, coded language, and voting booths. We are so good at hiding our racism that we even hide it from ourselves. We say we are electing a KKK endorsed candidate DESPITE all the hateful things he said about people of color not because of it. We use the language of “greatness” and “unity” without considering who it is that will pay the price for it. Even when faced with a “not PC” candidate who “tells it like it is” meaning he is OVERT in his own racism, we still pretend he didn’t just say what he did. We still find a way to vote for the racist without making it SEEM like we are racist ourselves, often believing we really aren’t. Sometimes we do it by playing with language that makes it possible to BE racist without being CALLED racist or even thinking to ourselves privately that we might BE racist. Others just lie.
Well guess what. As a white woman, I am calling us out. We just did some really racist shit. Racist, racist, racist and yes, I just cussed. Oh my.
Why do I think this happened? The best explanation I can come up with is the way so many of us have been socialized to think about black men. Dating back to the era of mass lynchings and probably sooner, we were told black men were predators wanting to rape us and that our “virtue” and “womanhood” needed protection. I remember when I first became a police officer and white men wanted to get me off the job by trying to scare me by pointing to the “dangers” of the job, they almost always used the language of “What are you going to do when confronted by a BIG, BLACK, MAN?” When men are trying to get us to cooperate with the patriarchy by setting up boogie men, it’s never white assailants. It’s this mythological “big, black, man” that keeps us in line, obedient to the “nice, white, men” who perpetrate it in order to maintain dominance. We don’t like patriarchal dominance. That’s why many of us identify as feminist.
But even when we are feminist-fighting patriarchy, we still don’t fight the racism that lies within ourselves and our movement. From the beginning white American feminism has been racist. The first wave of feminism (the suffrage movement, Seneca Falls etc.) explicitly rejected black women. When it was apparent that the right to vote would either come first to black men or to white women, the white suffragettes were quick to betray their black sisters. Check out the history of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony as it relates to their treatment of Harriet Tubman and Sojourner Truth. That is the side of our movement we don’t like to look at, but desperately need to, because we never overcame it. We, white feminists, are still in the business of betraying our black sisters.
We will even turn on other white women if they get too close to black people, particularly black men. That is what I believe just happened to Hillary Clinton. She allied herself with President Obama and paid the price for it.
According to the exit polls, Black women were more than willing to support a white woman for president. They turned up in great numbers to do so. But they were the only ones who did.
We white women made a different choice. In secret.
We took our “souls to the polls” and lost them.
We have to do better than that. Starting now.
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?
Dear White People,
We haven’t talked in a while. I think it’s time. I know we are all still digesting the “White People 101” stuff, so I won’t say this is “White People 102” yet, but there are a few more items we need to add to the list so here goes:
- Just in case anyone on the planet is still wondering, and apparently some are, no you don’t get to put on a wig and black face and call it “trans-racial.” Trans-racial is a thing, but it has to do with people of one race who are adopted by people of another race. In other words, it is a genuine lived experience not a form of masquerade. The fact that white people CAN masquerade is a symptom of white privilege, not an answer to it. That is all I am going to say about that because…
- Just because the story I am referring to in #1 is more likely to be turned into a “reality show” does not mean it is more important. Just days before we were all up in it, black children were attacked by white civilians and police at a pool party in McKinney, Texas. If we want to know about the “black experience” we need to put down the spray tan and pay attention to that because that is the real reality of race in this country.
- When a nearby country (like the Dominican Republic) decides to disenfranchise and deport its own citizens because they don’t like what color they are we need to speak up about it.
- When it comes to racist, domestic terrorism like the mass murder of black people in their own church, we need to call it what it is the same way we would call it what it is if the perpetrator was Muslim or black or anything else besides a white American. We also don’t get to play the “I don’t know how this could happen” game because if we have been paying any attention to American history, white attacks on black churches in the form of shooting, bombing, fires etc. is not new and, if we honestly don’t know how it happens, we had better figure it out really fast.
- Whether it is police abusing black kids at a pool party or racist terrorists killing black people in their churches or any other manifestation of racism in our nation, let’s stop playing the “few bad apples” game. Yes, there are bad cops, there are good cops who have bad days, there are white people with psychiatric conditions who kill people and who need our prayers. But there are also longstanding patterns to this violence and we don’t get to ignore those obvious patterns just because we can see the humanity of the perpetrators. In fact, if we find ourselves noticing the humanity of white perpetrators in ways in which we do not notice the humanity of black perpetrators of other crimes we really need to check ourselves out on that.
- As always, dear fellow white people, let’s love ourselves, not with the kind of “love” that needs to hoard privilege and hold onto systems of supremacy, but with a real love of ourselves as fragile, vulnerable humans united with other fragile, vulnerable humans who know we are all ultimately connected, who want to move beyond oppressor and oppressed in a common humanity and who know that we can do better.
It has been fifty years now since the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and others in the Civil Rights movement crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge into Selma. On some level, we all want to identify with this historic event. Anyone who can remotely claim a connection to it (and some who probably can’t) proudly do so. I have heard it said that if everyone who claims to have been part of the original march actually was on that bridge it would have fallen. This is what happens with history. When it is happening, only a few choose the right side. When it is over, we all claim it. Now MLK has his own holiday and we were all on that bridge marching with him.
Except we weren’t. Look again. There is more to that scene. On the other side of that bridge there were a whole lot of white men, some cops and some deputies. Sheriff Jim Clarke (of KKK fame) ordered all white males in Dallas County over the age of 21 to report to the Court House and be deputized. Many of these deputies then joined other officers under the command of John Cloud and prepared to meet the protesters with force on this “bloody Sunday.” Some of these white men must still be alive today but, as far as I know, none of them have spoken out. They don’t seem eager to admit to being there, let alone to tell their stories. Fifty years later, it seems nobody wants to hear from or speak from the wrong side of history. But the wrong side of history has its truth to tell too.
When I imagine the events of that day I naturally want to identify with the protesters. I would like to believe I would have their kind of courage. I would like to think that I would have been on the right side of history and perhaps I would have been. But, if I am honest, as a white person and as a retired cop, a huge part of my own story is probably closer to those police officers and deputies than it is to Martin King. So I wonder, what were these officers and temporary deputies thinking?
Until they do speak out, we don’t know. So I am going to take the liberty of guessing. First of all, I bet they were scared. The fact that so many were forcibly deputized speaks to the deep anxiety white people in Selma must have felt. I imagine some of them were thinking thoughts like “These f—ing n—rs, who do they think they are coming here and causing trouble in this peaceful town? I had way better things to do today than stand here by this damn bridge and do this dirty job. I don’t want to be here.” I bet others were angry at King thinking “That coon King is a damn trouble maker. How does he have the nerve to call himself a Reverend? Ministers are supposed to be about peace and law and order, not politics and protest. We all got along here fine until this outside agitator came into town.” I bet others, standing on the east side of the bridge, focused on their physical discomfort thinking “ My feet are tired. I am hungry. I have to pee. I would rather be home today than doing this.” I bet others were thinking things like “These protesters just want attention. We don’t have a race problem here. White folks and Negroes get along fine with each other. It’s just a matter of everyone knowing their place and staying in it. King is an outside agitator creating problems where there are none. He encourages people to break the law like they are doing today, disobeying a lawful order to disperse. If they don’t turn around they will get what they deserve. All I know is I am coming home safe today and I will do whatever I have to do to make sure I don’t get hurt. I am ready for them. Just let them try.” I wonder if, in the midst of them, there were at least a few who saw something good in King and in the protesters, but were afraid to say so lest their community reject them as n—er lovers. I wonder if there might even have been at least one of two who wondered if what they were doing was right. I am betting, though, that most of them felt like THEY were the good guys, not the protesters. I bet most of them really believed that they were doing the right thing, standing up for law and order and public safety, protecting themselves and their families from something evil and bad. I doubt very many believed on that day that they were on the wrong side of history.
I wonder how, fifty years later, these men feel about what they did. I would love to ask them, if any were willing to speak. But even more, I wonder where I stand today. I would like to believe I am making choices about my life that I will later feel proud of that will put me closer to being on the right side of history. Don’t we all? But the truth is, history is always clearer in hindsight and human beings always make mistakes. Police make mistakes. Protesters make mistakes. Bystanders make mistakes. But there is still, as King often said, a moral arc in the universe. History is going somewhere and it matters where we stand. Even if none of us can know perfectly, we can all get a clue. If the path we have chosen involves beating someone bloody it is likely to be wrong. If the path we have chosen is full of “us versus them” it is worth questioning. If the path we have chosen somehow denies the full humanity of all God’s children, we are likely to be on the wrong side of history. So let’s hear the stories of the past, from both the right side of history and the wrong side of history. Let’s have enough humility that, at least in some ways, we might be wrong and let’s move forward as best as we can in ways that lead us closer to the right because, in the end, God’s justice and God’s peace will prevail and when that moral arc of the universe eventually does bend toward justice, it will matter what side we were on.