As I white progressive, I have struggled with how to write this post. I know that the white progressives in my audience will struggle to read and process it. All of this, I believe, is to the good.
This past week, as I discussed with my adult children the protests taking place in cities across the country, my older daughter sent me an article called “I, Racist,” written by John Metta back in 2015. This is an extraordinary piece and I urge you to read it right now, before continuing with my post. Seriously, read the article. We’ll wait.
Much of what follows here is my working through of Metta’s piece – the thoughts reflected here are more his than mine. There are four main points to Metta’s argument that strike me as central to all discussions of race in America.
First, “Black people think in terms of we because [they] live in a society where the social and political structures interact with [them] as Black people. White people do not think in terms of we. White people have the privilege to interact with the social and political structures of our society as individuals.”
Second, “The entire discussion of race in America centers around the protection of White feelings.”
Third, “the reality of America is that White people are fundamentally good, and so when a white person commits a crime, it is a sign that they, as an individual, are bad…. People of color, especially Black people… are seen as fundamentally bad.”
And finally, perhaps most important: “White people, every single one of [us], are complicit in this racism because [we] benefit directly from it.”
Last week, my Monday Musings post focused on White privilege, and I suppose this week’s does as well. The truth is, I am thinking all of this through as I write, so forgive me if this comes across as a work in progress rather than as something more finished. I know better than to claim that my thoughts on race and Metta’s essay are well-organized or comprehensive. Like so many of us right now, I am processing, figuring things out, asking myself questions. The fact is, Metta’s observations make for uncomfortable reading for Whites because they are so very hard to refute. But that is also the source of the article’s power and value.
Let’s start with points one and two. Once we accept the notion that Blacks think in terms of “we” while Whites enjoy the luxury of interacting with the world as individuals, we begin to understand how the conversation about race in America has failed so utterly to move our society forward. As Metta points out, Whites take such conversations personally. We see in the notion of systemic racism an attack on ourselves – which leads us to turn conversations about race into conversations about our bruised feelings. White privilege is by definition systemic. It filters into every element of our lives – our health, our shelter, our our finances, our relationships with institutions and their representatives (including police), and on and on.
And, I have to say, most of the progressive Whites I know are open to conversations about privilege and its prevalence. To a point. The problem comes when we turn to the notion of complicity. As Metta puts it, we Whites are unable to “differentiate [our] participation within a racist system” from accusations of being racists ourselves. We conflate the two, turn the conversation to our sense of being attacked and accused, and therefore shut down the discussion entirely. I know this pattern. I have too often gone down that path myself.
Hearing that we are complicit in a racist society hurts. No doubt. Our first response is to deny, to draw a clear line distinguishing ourselves from defenders of the the Confederate Flag, from the idiots who call 911 on people of color in parks and stores and “nice” (re. White) neighborhoods, from those who assault and murder. Defensiveness, though, helps no one, and it certainly doesn’t change reality.
In fact, I would argue this: If only we Whites could STOP taking these conversations personally, if only we could back away from our individual privilege and begin to look at our world and society as part of a larger “we” instead of always as “I, me, my” – in other words, if we could talk about the issues more like Metta argues that Blacks do – we might find that conversations about race progress far more smoothly. Our privilege is actually no privilege at all. It hurts us. It cripples our society. It hurts the people of color around us.
Recently, I happened upon a brief (one minute long), wonderful video that first came out in 2016 featuring educator and activist Jane Elliott. She is White, speaking to an auditorium filled with White people, and she asks them to stand if they would be willing to trade places with Black people in America. Not one person stands up. She asks a second time. No one. And then she tells them the obvious: that they know there is a racial problem in America, and they are willing to accept its consequences for others, but not for themselves. That is privilege.
Only when we can accept that our society is inherently racist, that we as Whites benefit every day, in every way, from that racism – only then can we start to improve our country for all Americans. It’s not enough to differentiate ourselves from the conspicuous racists we see on TV and read about in the headlines. It’s not enough to say “but my heart is in the right place,” even if it is. We have to be willing to do more – something my daughters have been telling me for some time now. We have to donate to organizations that support those who are fighting racism. We have to stand up and say to our fellow Whites, “Open your eyes and ears – see what is happening, listen to the people who live this racist reality every day.” And instead of saying, “I am better than those other racists because I have not done those terrible things,” we have to say, “From this day forward, I will be better than I have been, and here is how.”
Wishing you all a peaceful week.