Dear Fellow White People,
We need to talk. We have been telling ourselves a lie. It goes like this: racism is individual, it is deliberate and it intends to do harm.
This lie allows us to not only avoid talking about race it also insulates us from acknowledging that as white people we have been and are now the beneficiaries of a system that has been based on racial injustice.
Let’s start with the bedrocks of western civilization: the renaissance, colonization, the enlightenment and even classical liberalism. All of these operated on the assumption that white people were superior to people of color. The Magna Carta, the US Constitution, and European colonization were all based on this assumption. The power brokers and thought leaders held this common belief and institutionalized it. Of course, there were those who decried the racism but they did not wield enough power or influence to bring about lasting change.
This is particularly true in the United States. The Constitution overtly institutionalized slavery and only counted black people as 3/5 of a person. That was only a compromise so southern states would have greater representation. Nearly every institution in the United States was based on the assumption that people of color were inferior. Agriculture, education, industry, politics–etc. Fast forward to 1865 the Civil War and the thirteenth and fourteenth amendments ended slavery but certainly did not end the centuries old belief of white superiority. This is evident by the following one hundred years of racial oppression, segregation, Jim Crow and so many other forms of systemic, widespread, institutional racism. Does anyone really think after centuries of white superiority that now, less than two generations from Jim Crow, we have arrived at a post racial utopia? Of course not.
We know we still suffer from racial inequality in employment and economics, housing, education, criminal justice and almost every aspect of American life. Hundreds of years of racial inequality can not be overcome by restoring voting rights and ending legal segregation.
This is how the lie we tell ourselves about racism becomes so troubling. If we view racism as individual, not institutional, and deliberate, not subconscious, we can easily dismiss it. Worse yet, we can protect ourselves from addressing it. Subsequently we help maintain the systemtic racist status quo.
Welcome to the age of white fragility. Dr.Robin Diangelo defines it this way:
“White Fragility is a state in which even a minimum amount of racial stress becomes intolerable, triggering a range of defensive moves. These moves include the outward display of emotions such as anger, fear, and guilt, and behaviors such as argumentation, silence, and leaving the stress-inducing situation. These behaviors, in turn, function to reinstate white racial equilibrium.”
Here is a short video where she lays out this concept in a concise way.
In short, we intentionally or unintentionally reinforce the lie that racism is an individual problem, not a systemic one. Therefore when someone makes a claim of institutionalized racism we push back because that threatens the very social structure that we as white people know and have relied on. Remember the lie: racism is individual, deliberate and intends to do harm. This allows us as white people to maintain equilibrium. We then only confront racism as we see it on our terms. I have seen this white fragility in myself and others: “I can’t be racist because I have black friends” and “How could I be racist I have a Latino family member?” I only see racism as an individual, deliberate and malicious action or belief not a well established pattern centuries old that has and does disadvantage people of color.
So what do we do? For one, stop acting like if we acknowledge our own advantages from being white we somehow concede that we are categorically racist. Just because you never personally participated in what you might define as overt racism doesn’t mean that you have not been the beneficiary of centuries of institutionalized white superiority. Likewise, just because the ugliest facets of racism like slavery and legal segregation are illegal doesn’t mean that their legacy has no lingering effect on people of color today.
We can also try to really listen to people of color and be open to discovering our own biases. We can’t fix what we don’t talk about. We can not fall victim to the notion that if we acknowledge our racist tendencies we are acknowledging that we are categorically racists. We can stop practicing and stop defending white fragility and start admitting to ourselves that at some level we are the beneficiaries of a corrupt and racist system. We can do our part to correct the generations of inequality by at least being willing to have the conversation.