Events in the last month or so have helped a whole new bunch of white folks understand the systemic and structural nature of racism in our society. I hear this in the conversations I’m having with other white folks, like me. I also see it in social media and op-eds and commentaries. Less and less do white folks attribute racism to “a few bad apples”; more and more we recognize the ways we benefit and black people and other people of color are penalized by the policies, practices, and procedures in all our institutions. All our systems — justice, education, health care, politics, just to name a few – were set up to benefit white people at the expense of people of color.
This understanding is an important step in dismantling these structures, but it is not enough. Another crucial step is for white people to recognize the often unacknowledged ways that we, too, suffer from the disease of racism.
Here’s an example:
You may have seen lists of ways that white people benefit from white privilege and by contrast the ways that people of color do not. One of the most famous was written by Peggy McIntosh. I want to call attention to #25 in her list: “If my day, week or year is going badly, I need not ask of each negative episode or situation whether it has racial overtones.”
This is something I’ve heard many people of color talk about. For example, if they don’t get a job, they ask themselves, “Did I not get it because I’m a person of color?” If a cop pulls them over, or if a store security guard asks to see the contents of their bag, or if a host at a restaurant seats them at an undesirable table, or if a person on the street doesn’t greet them, or if someone gives them the side-eye, or if people in a waiting room who appear to have arrived after them get called before them – the list goes on and on for insults large and small. Some of these actions profoundly affect people’s lives and livelihoods, while others are microaggressions that contribute to an overall environment of hostility. Each leaves a question in their minds about whether or not racism played a role.
This constant questioning constitutes an undermining of people’s confidence. It adds stress to their lives, a continuous undertone of ambiguity and uncertainty about why negative interactions occur – was it random or was it intentional or was it unintended, but still ultimately motivated by implicit racism?
White people do not have to ask this question in the same way. Instead of the uncertainty of a negative episode or situation, white people suffer the uncertainty of a positive episode or situation.
This means that, as a white person, I have to now turn the question on myself in positive situations. Every time I was hired or not pulled over or smiled at or greeted or given a prime table at a restaurant or anything else positive, I have to ask, “Did I earn that, or was that just because I am white?”
For white people this question pulls at the mythology of American meritocracy, which says we are a nation of boot strap pullers and hard workers who deserve everything we get because we earned every bit. Racism calls all that into question. Maybe I have my job and house and reputation and everything else, not because I worked for them, but because I was simply born white.
In this way, racism insidiously causes a similar insecurity in all of us. None of us know if we are treated the way we are because of our character and qualities, or because of our skin tone. The difference, of course, is that white people with that insecurity have the option of putting people of color “in their place” as a way of saying, “Even if deep down I’m not sure why I have what I have, at least I’m better than them.” In other words, racism reinforces itself in a cycle of oppression that gives white people a false sense of our superiority – and we have to prove and protect it, again and again, in a fight with our own psyche that we can never win.
Racism is a societal and structural disease that we all suffer from, and we are all less for it. When white people recognize the ways that racism hurts us, too, we can begin to let go of the power and the privilege in the knowledge that we, and everyone else, will be better off. We can find the will and the ways to stop the cycle and end racism.
Art by Godfried VanMoorsel for Living Artist Project