I didn’t write the last couple of weeks, overwhelmed by the violence happening in our country and the hate mongering going on in our political discourse. I wanted to do something, but had no idea where to begin.
In the past months, I’ve been paying close attention to African American voices. I’ve spent hours devouring content created by black writers, activists, and artists. It’s a discussion that I needed to hear.
While I can see the ugly shape of overt racism, there’s so much of it that is subtle, nuanced and hard to spy – especially if you’re not the target of it. Listening to the stories these writers and thinkers share has helped me begin to see (although I have much yet to learn) the insidious ways subtle racism is always playing out in our public life, our workplaces and in media culture.
One thing I’ve come to learn is that I had no idea of the profound depths of my white privilege. So this post is to my fellow white people. I’m going to try, however imperfectly, to help us “see white.” To see all the ways that our lives are different, easier, more mainstream and malleable than the lives of people of color. To do one small thing I can do to help fight racism – subtle or otherwise – by ruthlessly routing it from my own heart and my own thinking.
The Advantages of Pale Skin
I can almost hear certain people I know sputtering already. “Privileged? I’m not privileged! I started with nothing and endured (fill in the hardships here). No one helped me!”
I’m not disputing any of that. Your life may have been, and continue to be, incredibly difficult. But there is a layer of difficulty that you don’t have to deal with.
Baked into the story of the American Dream is the idea that you can escape the past. Work hard, do the right thing and your lot in life is bound to improve. Change your clothes, change your accent and you can move in any level of society.
You won’t get mistaken for “the help.” You can go for a jog at night and not be assumed to be up to no good. Your chances of being granted a mortgage or a business loan are much higher, regardless of your credit rating. If you are the victim of violence, the media is much more likely to find a picture of your proudest moments from your social media accounts to put on the broadcast, and not the picture of you partying.
No one’s saying your life is easy. But there is a layer of friction that you don’t have to deal with, all because of a genetic mutation in your skin. “Seeing white” means acknowledging the inherent inequality of that.
I’ve fallen into this trap and it shames me to think of it now. Maybe it’s because I put such value on education, but I’ve believed “scientific” claims about the difference between the races.
It’s all bull. There is no more difference between me and an African American woman than there is between me and any other woman. Whether our skin is white or black, our hair red or blonde or brown, we are all humans, with the same unique limitations and potential. And don’t let any racist pseudo-science tell you otherwise.
One of the ways white people show their privilege is the way they bristle at the words “Black Lives Matter.” What? Don’t all lives matter? Well, yes they do. “Black Lives Matter” is a call that points out that part of our human family isn’t getting treatment that all humans deserve – to be treated like we matter. Racism, violence, economic disparities, crumbling education infrastructure and more have all left our African American neighbors angry, frustrated, and frightened.
When someone says “Black Lives Matter,” they’re not saying you don’t. They’re asking you to stop treating them like they don’t. “Black Lives Matter” doesn’t mean a white life or that a cop’s life doesn’t, no more than “Save the Rainforest” means that all other forests are irrelevant. It means that part of our human community is under attack and that needs to stop.
If your reaction to this is to point out all the ways that you’ve been hurt, that you’ve struggled, then you’ve missed the point. As a white person, no matter what you’ve dealt with, subtle racism is one battle you haven’t had to fight.
So what do we do with that? We start to notice. We challenge our own assumptions, which is hard. We start to call out the racists (subtle or overt) around us, be they on Facebook or at the holiday dinner table, which is even harder. Pained silence is not standing up for anything. It’s complicity.
Racism is a very old, and very deep wound in our country. A lot of people, including me, like to pretend that wound has healed, but it so very clearly hasn’t. And it won’t until people like me acknowledge the subtle racism that keeps hurting our black friends and neighbors. Until we stop being color-blind and start seeing white.