The privilege and racism of white people and why it’s not okay
I. Our inevitability problem
Ta-Nehisi Coates (TNC) was on Charlie Rose the other day—a really wonderful interview which I’ll likely have to watch a few more times to glean everything I possibly can from it. It’s a look inside the mind of a man who has been referred to by Toni Morrison as “…fill(ing) the intellectual void that plagued me after James Baldwin died.”
At one point, TNC took umbrage with MLK’s rhetoric about the arc of history being long but bending toward justice. To summarize his point: You can obviously look at the world the day MLK was murdered, then look at today and see clear and evident progress, but for Eric Garner—MLK himself and so many others—their arc abruptly stopped and there is no justice for them. No matter what “good” or progress or change comes from it, there is no justice for those individuals. Progress does not equal justice, and progress is not inevitable.
I do understand that sometimes you have to dream of the world you want until it is so. This is a huge part of the African-American tradition in the United States. In music and literature, since they were forced here by whites, black writers and musicians have used “storying”, and the idea of “Elsewhere” as referenced by Kevin Young in his book The Grey Album, to imagine themselves into a different reality. The riverside, the mountaintop – these were common metaphors used to keep the dream of freedom alive. MLK and his movement continued this tradition. I’d say Malcolm X, and the Panthers, would be the juxtaposition. The Dream vs. The Reality.
TNC seems to be bucking that age old tradition for the more stark, literal interpretation of the world he sees—The Reality. He speaks of himself and his actual experiences as opposed to weaving his story into fiction or relying on metaphor. His newest book, Between The World and Me, is structured like a letter to his son. He’s not hiding, he’s being as real as it gets, no sugarcoating for White America.
Justice is made of the blood and sweat of people. Of activists either borne of the struggle or those who take up the struggle. I believe that what we need today is a Social Realism movement that breaks through all barriers and into all realms—art, politics, music, the coffee shop, happy hour, the boardroom, you name it. This movement would have ZERO sympathy for apologist behavior from anybody when it relates to sexist, racist, homophobic—any offensive behavior. It would call out this behavior, no matter the setting—not abiding by that old propriety-based trope that there is a time and a place to talk about such things. Yes, there is. The time is always and the place is everywhere.
Progress has been made and laws have been changed and people are better off today than they were in 1957, but in the hearts of white people there is a void. A void that exists because they’ve never been really confronted. Never been told why they’re racist, and why inaction equals complicity. Eric Garner, Sandra Bland, Trayvon Martin, Matthew Shepard, Bill Clayton, India Clark—too many names and too many more being added too fast for us to live in a dream that it gets better. It doesn’t just get better. Either we make it better or it continues. It’s our choice.
II. White supremacy killed Cecil the Lion
Cecil the Lion was a beautiful creature. He didn’t deserve the suffering he endured over his last couple of days. You could call Walter Palmer a lot of things. He’s an asshole for sure—and his apologies have a ring of “I’m sorry I got caught” that I just can’t ignore. He hasn’t said a thing about the practice of sport hunting and how he’s learned a lesson about how depraved the practice is. He’s been doing this for years; Cecil isn’t even the first lion he’s killed—he’s also killed a rhinoceros, jaguars, bears. The man gets off on killing things that can’t defend themselves and he has the resources to support this habit without taking it out on people. He’s the Dexter of the wild kingdom.
As the story developed and white America took it up as their cause du jour, many folks who are involved in Black Lives Matter or other anti-racist work, started asking the obvious question: “One lion dies and you freak out, how about all the Black folks getting killed all the time?” It’s a valid question and one that I hope people think about long and hard.
What I see at play is a privileged white doctor who feels entitled to the life of another being. Palmer isn’t extraordinary and his actions aren’t even shocking to me. Rich white guy kills a bunch of exotic animals—in Africa? We’re supposed to be shocked?
The killing of Cecil and the killing of Sandra Bland, Sam DuBose, et al, share the same root cause, and will have the same result. The dominant white culture in America feels entitled to control whatever they want to control, to the point of taking lives. White people don’t even take the time to analyze what’s going on in these incidents. One key indication is the near silence I hear around the killing of Sam DuBose. Why are white people so quiet about it? Maybe it’s because there is footage, and the footage reinforces the fact that police operate under inherent bias and are predisposed to deadly force even though the situation was nowhere close to warranting it. The footage debunked the officer’s statement, which his fellow officer corroborated. They both lied to cover up Sam Dubose’s murder. It’s all right there on Youtube. If they act outraged for Sam, then they might have to talk about the causes, and they might have to take a look at themselves. And at the end of the day, that’s just not worth it to them if they can just continue on the present course with no consequences or repercussions.
Ultimately though, if history is any guide, whites in America likely won’t do jack squat about it. Cecil will be the last lion killed by an asshole just like Sam DuBose will be the last black person killed by a police officer. We have short attention spans and a real problem with looking inward and addressing our fears. I wish I knew how, as a white person, to break through to get my fellow white people to at least acknowledge their privilege and power and maybe even talk about it—talk about how that power manifests itself in our society in every nook and cranny. How each of us, every day, perpetuates it a hundred times over in a myriad of ways. It’d be a hell of a good start.
III. We’re all racist and it’s not okay
Most of my career as an advocate for people who are homeless, low-income, disabled, etc., I’ve been taught to do what I have done in this sentence when referring to people in conversation. Use “people first” language. It’s the idea that you recognize a person’s humanity first, and their condition second. Rhonda is not a “homeless person”—it’s not like having red hair, it’s not a naturally occurring part of the human condition—she is a person, who is without a home at the moment. So you would say “Rhonda is a person who is homeless” instead of “Rhonda is a homeless person.”
Through my studies in the realm of urban planning, I’ve looked at spacial relationships in neighborhoods and developed a subconscious way of looking at the built environment where I consider accessibility, and a myriad of other factors, when I’m walking down a sidewalk. Generally, my approach is to discern whether a space is inviting and welcoming for anybody that might want to use it, and to figure out how to upgrade that space to make it more open to the community.
I recently came upon an article titled, ‘I’m Not A “Person With a Disability”: I’m a Disabled Person’ and it immediately struck me because it challenged that People First philosophy I’d been indoctrinated in. The author, Lisa Egan, a disability rights activist, states, “I am disabled. More specifically, I am disabled by a society that places social, attitudinal and architectural barriers in my way.”
I find this fascinating not because it’s a semantic challenge to the way I’ve been taught to refer to people, in fact the article didn’t convince me at all to stop using people first language. The thing that got me thinking was the idea presented by Lisa that society has disabled her by not being considerate of people with mobility impairments.
In downtown Olympia we have some of the worst sidewalks I’ve seen in a downtown area. With the exception of sections around newer developments, you can’t continuously travel down any block without coming upon cracks or buckles in the sidewalk, not to mention street trees, parking meters, store signs, displays etc. All creating an obstacle course for an individual in a wheelchair. Try to imagine how that must feel to have to navigate through that or travel out of your way to get to your destination. It must feel like you’ve been forgotten by the local government that hasn’t made it a priority to ensure that you can travel conveniently and safely through your own city. Add to this the fact that our cities don’t really budget for sidewalk improvements, but just kind of passively wait for developments or scheduled maintenance of other utilities to trigger upgrades. Thus we have decades old streets and sidewalks, all patched together over the years. It looks like nobody cares, and to a person with a mobility impairment, it probably feels that way, too.
Anytime I hear a label placed on someone, it gives me pause. I always wonder, “why is it important to apply that label?” What purpose does that label serve?
“I saw this black guy….”
If the end of that sentence is, “…juggling in the park.” Then I have to wonder, why is the fact that the man was black important or relevant to the fact that you saw someone juggling?
Lisa’s article got me thinking more and more about the labels we use and the impact they have on people. It got me thinking about the way labels have evolved over the years. We say “people of color” today, but that’s just an evolved way of referring to black people that started with the N-word. “People of color” itself is a direct derivative of “colored people” a term that is today considered offensive. Am I being overly idealistic if I express that I long for the day when we can eliminate casual references to skin color when we refer to one another? I understand the need to collect data and that collecting demographic information from people can lead to better and more efficient services being provided and money being allocated to the areas of greatest need. So I get the need to create categories for that purpose. But why do we keep doing it in everyday conversation?
When I started thinking about it in terms of race, knowing that race is a construct invented and used to divide people and especially to differentiate them from people of power a.k.a. rich whites, and knowing the way people of color are treated in our society, I started thinking about the point Egan made about society disabling her. We switched from colored person to person of color, but isn’t that the same as what Egan is saying about disability? Both of them switch the burden to the person and away from the system. Race is an arbitrary societal construct used to marginalize and oppress, created by people in positions of power. People aren’t “of color”—they were colored—by a society and a culture that wanted to separate and divide people. Just as society disables Lisa Egan by not providing her and others with mobility issues the means to live the same quality-of-life as anybody else, we stifle black folks too. We’ve prevented them from achieving the life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness that we hold so dear by assigning them an inferior designation. From the beginning, we called them savages and treated them like animals and created a mystique that prevails to this day—yesterday’s savage is today’s thug. This is why white America can watch black people being killed by police, or live in third world conditions in our inner cities and still sleep like babies at night. If as a society, we really did believe that we’re all equal, we would have ended this madness long ago.
We’ve got to stop it
In 1957, when we were all living in a white wonderland and everything was Leave It To Beaver-iffic, we used to physically prevent black people from using portions of the built environment. That became gauche—but only because enough people were beaten and/or killed on TV that blatant, overt manifestations of white supremacy couldn’t be ignored anymore by politicians, clergy, and by the moderate whites who joined the struggle out of sympathy. Some rights were eventually secured, and we’re better off for it, no doubt. But sympathy isn’t equality. Sympathy is a hierarchical device. While we as a nation rallied around the civil rights movement, we never broke the separation, both spiritual and physical, that the construct of race instilled in our culture. Today, we like to think we’ve progressed as a society and have started to transcend race. I think we’re deluded. How can we read the news everyday of police brutality, rampant drugs, poverty and violence in black neighborhoods, combined with little to no opportunity for upward mobility, aka The American Dream, and then turn around and talk about progress in a way that makes it seem like we’ve almost got this problem solved?
We have a lot of work to do as a society. Step one: admit there is a problem. I’m not talking about segregation, income inequality, police brutality, the new Jim Crow, or any one specific issue. The problem we have and need to fess up to is that every single white person, whether we like it or not, perpetuates racism and white supremacy through prejudice and implicit bias that has been transmitted over generations. Some of us are confederate flag waving racists who are proud of it and wear it like a badge of honor. Most of us see those people and write them off as relics, and proffer an ‘ignore them and they’ll go away’ approach of dealing with them. Well we can’t ignore it anymore. Every single white person who claims to be at all liberated should be there to shout them down. Yet we don’t show up. We don’t show up any time racism rears its head, and especially in its more surreptitious manifestations. The racist joke, the hate crime, the hiring panel—we remain silent, because it’s easy, because nobody expects otherwise.
I think people choose to ignore it out of fear. We’re terrified of what we might find inside of ourselves if we look too hard at racism and our society. There is a darkness there that we continue to swallow because it’s too painful to let it out. There is shame, guilt, and complicity, so we deny, deny, deny. We want to think of ourselves as above it, as better people than that, as somehow separate from the problem. We’re not above it. We are the problem. We allow it to happen—the deaths, the imprisonment, the poverty, all of it. It’s our responsibility as privileged white people to get over ourselves, admit our complicity, and start moving beyond it, together.
Rob Richards is a community organizer and cat lover who has called Olympia home for 15 years. He has been involved in founding various projects such as Camp Quixote, and the Downtown Ambassador Program. He has served on the Olympia Planning Commission, the board of the Olympia Food Co-op, and currently serves on the board of the Statewide Poverty Action Network.