You know how a lot of times when something hurts the mostand you think you can’t do it, that’s the point right before change happens and everything gets better? This might happen to you as you read this. So hang on if it starts to hurt.
For those who’ve never read me before: I’m a white, 40-year-old mother of two white sons. I grew up in the Midwest, lived in Mexico (the country) and NYC, and now live in the Midwest again.
Those of you who follow me on Twitter know that I tweet a lot about race and racism and privilege in the United States. I know there are people who will say that we’re in a “post-racial” society and will point to the fact that we have a (mixed-race) Black president as evidence to support that view. I think that’s complete and utter crap, and that even if there was any such thing as a “post-racial” society we are far, far from it. This country is mired (and I choose that word specifically, because racism pulls us all down into the mud) in racism and privilege. And white people have to be the ones to stop it.
Let’s back up a little. I listened to a lot of hip-hop and rap when I was in high school--Salt ‘n’ Pepa, Run DMC, LL Cool J (back when he was on purpose), Arrested Development, De La Soul, Heavy D, etc.--and it was all fun and it was all about the beats and the hooks and the rhymes.I loved it.
And then came Public Enemy. I listened and part of me loved it but part of me recoiled and wondered why Chuck D was so angry. Why was he so angry?? I couldn’t figure it out and it hurt my feelings that he was so intense and that I could feel his rage in the music, and I wasn’t who he was rapping it to but who he was rapping it at.
But because I had a sweet, serious mother who’d always given us the time and the imperative to really think about things and analyze what we could and look things up when we didn’t, I kept listening. And as I listened and watched those videos and read interviews and heard them talk it came to me: There must be some experience Chuck D was having that I wasn’t having. And that I couldn’t even see.
That was the red pill. This sudden realization that other people were living things every day that not only were not happening to me, but that I didn’t even see as they were happening and didn’t know existed.
The fact that I had never noticed before, because the things that happened to me as a white person were the default: that’s privilege. Because I am white, the system is set up to conform to my idea of normal, so I don’t even notice that the system isn’t totally transparent. I think that what happens to me, the way people react to me, is what happens to everyone. It’s not. But because I am white, I’m the default, so I don’t notice that other people are having different experiences.
(If this is confusing you, search on Google for the phrase "invisible knapsack" and read what comes up. It’s an easy read. I’ll still be here when you’re done.)
What does this have to do with racism? Well, racism and privilege are flip sides of the same record. Racism is something that hurts some people unfairly. Privilege is something that helps some people unfairly. They don’t exist independently of each other.
White people are trained to be racist, and we have to do a lot of work to undo that. White people are given privilege, and even if we don’t want it and don’t willingly accept it it is always there.
A program note: Racism is combination of prejudice against someone because of their color, and power. If there’s no power, it’s not racism, it’s just prejudice. So a white person can be racist to a Black or Latino person or other racial minority, because the system gives white people power. People of color in this country can be prejudiced against white people, but they can’t be racist because they don’t have power over white people. This is also why the n word is so hurtful (because there’s a power structure behind it) but the word “cracker” just isn’t as bad (because there’s no power structure behind it).
Another program note: There’s a difference between personal racism and institutional racism. Personal racism is when I’m nasty to someone because of the color they are. Institutional racism is when there are barriers to people of certain races that prevent them from applying, from qualifying for whatever the official requirements are, or that make requirements to join or maintain membership impossible for people of certain races. I’m largely not talking about personal racism here, because I’m assuming that you, dear reader, are not engaging in that or are actively working on ridding that from your life. Institutional racism, though, is everywhere, and many white people don’t see it because these systems are “just the way things are” and we don’t question things.
A few completely trivial questions just to make you think a little bit about institutional racism: Why are professional hockey players mostly white? Why are many professional basketball players Black?
I think that institutional racism is out of control in the United States. I also think that institutional racism is more harmful than personal racism. If someone is personally racist to you, you can walk away knowing the person is not worth your time, and eventually arrange things so you don’t have to interact with that person anywhere. But you can’t escape the system. Things are rigged to make it more difficult for people of color to work through the system than for white people to. And that’s every day, and affects your ability to work, to raise your kids, even just to walk down the street without being stopped and frisked.
Note: That doesn’t mean that white people don’t get the shaft sometimes (we’ve all gone to the DMV). And it doesn’t mean that sometimes people of color don’t catch a break, or know someone, or find some program that helps them navigate things. But for the most part, in the aggregate, daily life is much more tiring and demoralizing for people of color than for white people.
(And this is why it is not ok to be “colorblind.” Not ok to say “I don’t see color--I just see people.” Because a) you’re lying--you do notice what color people are. We all do. How could you not? And b) when you say you don’t see color you’re saying that the experience that a person of color has that isn’t your experience isn’t valid. You’re erasing their experience. Their color isn’t the only thing about them, but it is A thing about them that affects them. So by ignoring that, you’re asking them to pretend they aren’t having the experiences they have. The fact that there’s no impact on your life of being “colorblind” is another example of privilege.)
That’s a hurtful realization (at least to me). But don’t look for a way out. Don’t look for an excuse, or a denial, or a justification, Just sit there and let it hurt for a little bit.
It’s not your fault that you’re the color you are, no matter what color you are. We’re all just dealt a hand by fate. But, if you’re white, you have to accept that even though you didn’t choose it, you have an advantage over people of color in the system. That’s just the way it is. Now: What are you going to do about it?
What I choose to do is call it out. By naming it and exposing it for what it is, I steal a little power from it. And I teach my kids to notice and call it out. I can’t change the legal justice system in this country, but I can talk to my kids about the Zimmerman verdict and all the forces that set this tragedy up and that created a system that made Zimmerman think he could kill a kid because he was Black, and then the police system that didn’t arrest Zimmerman, and then the laws that disadvantage people of color, and then the legal system that privileges white people. There’s both institutional and personal racism in the Zimmerman story.
Once your kids see it, they know. And once they know, they start pulling it apart by exposing it. Which lessens its power over them. (It’s as simple to start as exploring with your 5-year old why everyone in a certain place looks alike. You can guess, and speculate about reasons, and then tease out what’s behind it all. Start there, and keep talking about it, and your conversations will scale up as your child understands more.)
Now, up above I said that white people have to stop racism. I know someone out there is thinking “but all the races have to work together to stop racism.” Well, no. Remember that racism is prejudice PLUS POWER. People of color don’t have the power in our system. People of color eat a shit sandwich every day, even if it’s just little things (and sometimes it’s enormous things). I mean, I’m exhausted just hearing the stuff that happens to my friends--think of the energy it’s sucking from them just trying to live a normal life when everywhere they turn the system is telling them they’re Not Normal. So, really, it’s white people that need to start exposing and dismantling this system, because we have access to the power structure.
Why should we expose the system to dismantle it? Well, three reasons come to mind right now (there are tons more, but this is just what I have room for here):
1. It’s the right thing to do. If you are a person of good will who is trying to act in good faith, you will attempt to fix things that are unjust and unfair once you know about them. (If you’re not a person trying to act in good faith then you probably stalled out shortly after my PE story and just skipped straight to the comments to tell me what a racist I am. Whatevs.)
2. Don’t you want your kids to actually be the best? We’re all constantly on the lookout for overpraising our kids so they think they’re amazing when really they’re not. But if we allow white kids to grow up in a system that specifically and deliberately excludes certain other groups of kids, then we’re basically blowing smoke up our white kids’ asses by telling them they’re the best, when in reality they aren’t actually competing against everyone. I want to go hard. I want to compete against the best because it makes me stronger and because then when I win I know I really won. And I want to collaborate with the best, so that I know I’m really doing my best work. I want the same for my kids. If we’re not actively working to create an inclusive system, we’re putting an asterisk next to everything our own kids do. And that’s not fair to anyone.
3. How would you feel if you constantly had to justify your own existence, your own intelligence, your own right to speak and be listened to? And you knew your kids would have to do that every day, too? I’ll just leave that right there.
Take a breath. It’s shitty. Really shitty.
Next post about this: Practical tips for digging in and getting real. It’s not a one-time event, this understand privilege stuff. And we can make mistakes. We have time. Give yourself a hug and give your kids one, too.