I want to specify that this post goes out to those living in the good, old U. S. of A. If you’re Canadian, sorry not sorry. You probably feel like you’re watching a dump truck full of tires and fireworks explode from the safety of your own COVID-19 dumpster fire right about now and let me tell you, it’s strange as hell being in the dump truck but I’ll get to that throughout this post.
The last few weeks have been particularly exhausting even for 2020. It started with the video of Ahmaud Arbery fighting for his life against two men who ambushed him when he was jogging in broad daylight. I’d read about Ahmaud’s case back in February, but it wasn’t until the video leaked that the cry for justice was finally taken serious. Breonna Taylor died March 13th when three officers broke into her apartment with a no-knock warrant looking for a man they already had in custody. They didn’t announce themselves. They had the wrong address. Her boyfriend thought they were intruders and fired at them and the officers fired back murdering Breonna after shooting her eight times. In May, well after Breonna’s boyfriend was arrested for attempted murder of a police officer, the FBI announced they would investigate the case.
Then one week ago, May 25th, Christian Cooper was bird-watching in Central park when he noticed a white woman, later identified as Amy Cooper, was letting her unleashed dog run free against the park’s rules. When confronted, she said she would call the cops and say a “Black man was threatening her.” Christian Copper caught her tantrum on video and she later lost her job and her dog, but had the video not gone viral she would have walked away without every being held accountable.
The say day Christian Cooper went bird-watching, another Black man was being murdered. George Floyd kissed the pavement for 8 and a half minutes while a smiling Derek Chauvin dug a knee into his back. Three other officers stood around and did nothing while George slowly suffocated.
Then protests spread across our country like wildfires do late August. I’ve been paying a lot of attention to who is bringing up these conversation and how, and I’ve been taking notes though out.
I’m white. My skin looks like under-baked bread. I say things like, “neat” and stand in the shade whenever I go outside because I’ll wilt like a pathetic gardenia otherwise.
Whiteness acknowledged, I spend a lot of time reading and listening, and throughout this surge of racial tension, I’ve noticed a lot of white people completely misunderstand the depth of what’s at stake. Part I is about the rhetoric I’ve seen white people spew the last week (and whenever racial relationships come up) and breaking down how it’s unhelpful, unfounded, or just outright wrong. We don’t get it, and as a white person who has been there and screwed up, I want to talk about some of the stuff we get wrong. This is just a starting point and I encourage you to read deeper about these issues after you finish this. Part II of this will focus specifically on the protests and rhetoric surrounding civil disobedience.
“WHITE AND PROUD”
“Whiteness” is an identity created around not being Black, so celebrating whiteness is celebrating the violent erasure of others’ cultures, languages, heritages, families and lives. That’s hard to hear and I want to clarify something for those feeling defensive: you can still be proud of your heritage- your Irish, Scottish, British, Norse, French, German, Norwegian, whatever ancestors that sailed over on a raft and ate pickled fish. That’s fine and no one is telling you to shove your ancestry into a secret box hidden in the attic. Just recognize being Irish and proud is a celebration of who you are, but being white and proud is a celebration of who you aren’t, specifically what color you aren’t, and it’s hard to not see that as anything but racist.
Being white and proud is a celebration of who you aren’t
Let’s go back a bit. Our cultural identities are constructed through sociopolitical exchanges and shift according to current affairs. Ireland struggled with the Protestant/ Catholic divide, India has a notorious caste system, Rwanda suffered from the infamous Tutsi genocide after years of subjugation of the Hutus, and China has cultural conflicts between the Hans and Uighurs. These divisions are along cultural constructs rather than hard territorial lines. While the U.S. has been divided religiously, regionally (North and South during the civil war) and culturally like many countries, it is unique in that it adopted skin tone as an important marker for social groups
“Whiteness” as we know it in the U.S. is a relatively modern idea in the course of human history. The initial terminology (and thus division) of “white” and “Black” came about in the late 1600’s when slavery was racialized. Skin tone became a marker for social class and dark skin in particular denoted servitude. Right before the Civil War, Confederate president Jefferson Davis stated that the existence of the Black slave, “dignifies and exalts every white man.” Proximity to whiteness represented the gateway to status. Blackness disqualified an individual from power, autonomy, and the dignity of person-hood. Black skin was associated with slavery, and numerous free Black people minding their own business were assumed to be runaway slaves, arrested, then thrown into slavery. If you wanted to be human in the U.S., you couldn’t be Black. You couldn’t even have Black relatives and be “human,” as specified by the “one drop rule.”
If you wanted to be human in the U.S., you couldn’t be Black
People of color in general were not considered people throughout the U.S. in this time period, as noted by the genocide of Native Americans, abhorrent treatment of immigrant Chinese railroad workers, the internment of Japanese Americans during WWII (when the fair-skinned Germans weren’t), etc. The entire point of being white, then, was to not be a person of color. In fact, the only people considered “people” during this time period were white men. White women weren’t given the right to vote until 1920, Native American women in 1924, Asian women in 1952, and the Voting Rights Act to prevent unconstitutional legal barriers for Black voters wasn’t passed until 1965. 1965! That’s how long it took for all citizens in the U.S. to legally be able to vote, and even then voter registration is still an issue. Most tribal ID’s are not considered valid government issued identification even though tribal governments are legitimate.
At the turn of the 1900’s, Italians, Jews, the Irish, and Slovenians were not considered to be “purely white.” They were called “dirty immigrants” and seen as being bent on overpopulating, consuming precious resources, and stealing jobs. Sounds familiar, right? The first batches of immigrants were viewed as representatives of their entire cultures. The symptoms of their poverty (mental illness, physical deformities because of poor nutrition and access to medical care, alcoholism, etc.) were considered general “flaws” of their entire cultures. Stereotypes were born and continued because they were assumed to be permanent traits of these groups of people.
Yet as people of color began to win their basic rights as humans, the identity of “whiteness” was expanded to include Jews, Italians, the Irish and Slovenians. How might that be possible? Well, people make decisions based on what will best benefit themselves and their families. The enemy of my “enemy” is my friend. Instead of spreading rhetoric about the “evils of the Jews/Irish/Italians/Slovenians,” the “pure white” Americans won over their “lesser white” counterparts by fraternizing with them while simultaneously alienating people of color. For example, President Benjamin Harrison established Columbus day in 1892 to placate Italian Americans after 11 were lynched. The holiday celebrated “citizenry,” “patriotism” and improving “social progress” and was designed to include Italians into the majority white so as to lobby against the “lesser” populations gaining autonomy and the ability to assemble and vote.
You know how whiteness was constructed, but now what? That happened forever ago and you personally had nothing to do with it. Surely we fixed all racial disparities when MLK said that pretty speech and we all clapped, right? Obviously not, and the past week has made this more clear than ever. Our system has been steeped in inequality for so long that it’s stained and it’s going to take more than a few bills and commercials with pretty, biracial people holding hands to fix this.
“WHITE PRIVILEGE IS A MYTH”
One way to actively battle racism is to recognize how you’ve benefited from it even if you didn’t want to. Upon hearing the term “white privilege,” a lot of white people get defensive. They shut down and say, “but my life is hard! I had to work for what I have! Stop attributing my accomplishments to the color of my skin!” Take a breath. No one is saying you haven’t. Being white in the U.S. and benefiting from the color of your skin does not mean you haven’t had a rough life full of turmoil, persecution or trauma–it just means your skin color hasn’t given you any extra problems.
If you are white and live in the U.S., here’s what white privilege looks like
- No one has assumed you don’t speak English
- No one has ever designated you as a representative of your entire ethnicity
- No one has accused you of getting a job/ promotion/ scholarship/ any other benefit because of affirmative action and the color of your skin
- No one has ever assumed you come from a troubled household or that your father is no longer around
- You have not been told to “go back to your country”
- You can find people who look like you in practically every movie, show, news program, commercial, grocery store magazine rack, workplace and classroom
- You can wear a hoodie into a gas station without being suspected of theft
- You never have to wonder if you missed out on an opportunity because of racism
- You weren’t sat down by your parents and given “the talk” about how to interact with cops
- In general, you can interact with cops without fearing for your life
- As we’ve learned with Ahmaud Arbery and Christian Cooper, you can go for a walk or a bike ride without being suspected of breaking the law
There are numerous factors that play into privilege (socio-economics, occupation, education, where you grew up, if your family owns a boat, etc.), but white privilege is a specific privilege that stems from the color of your skin. Immigration can be ruled out as a factor in white privilege: we don’t scream at Swedish or French people that just flew in to “go back.” We just assume they’ve always been here as we pass by them in the street. Yet an Asian or Hispanic person whose families have lived here for generations may be on the receiving end of anti-immigration slurs. Socio-economic status, education level, and age do not discredit white privilege, either. The study I’m about to reference is from the CDC, but there are countless others that show the same racial disparities in childbirth death rates.
- When organized by states with low, medium and high, pregnancy death rates, Black women were three times more likely to die in childbirth than their white counterparts
- Black women with a college degree were five times more likely to die in childbirth than white women with the same level of education
- Black women older than 30 were four to five times more likely to die in childbirth than their white counterparts at the same age
If you can call what’s happening on the streets “political” then you’ve shown your privilege. Politics is talking about whether to add a toll to the highway, or whether a new tax should be implemented to fund education: not whether the lives of dark-skinned people have value. For people living with racial disparities, these matters are not up for debate–they’re personal–and it’s ludicrous to think they would see these murders as anything other than that.
You might not have asked for this privilege, but our Black brothers and sisters did not ask to be oppressed. You might not want this, but the society we live in has already dealt the cards. Denouncing the privilege associated with the shade of your skin also rejects the unique hardships those darker than you have endured. People like Amy Cooper choose to weaponize their whiteness, and we can all agree she’s a complete walnut, but it’s not enough to not be a jerk–you have to actively battle the prejudices within our society, and within ourselves.
This may also manifest as “We’re all humans,” “We’re all one race,” “I don’t see color,” or “I don’t care if you’re white, Black, brown, yellow, red or purple! I’m going to treat you the same.” I don’t know why it’s always purple for the last one, but that’s what they pick every time.
There’s a difference between an idea and its application and systemic racism was standing right there when the ink on the constitution was drying. A group of white men who owned slaves wrote the words, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal” at the top of our Declaration of Independence and proceeded to think they were still good people. Here’s the thing: we are all born equal, but the systems of power in place do not value life equally. Stating “we are all human and that’s it,” is dismissive and ignores the injustice people of color face daily. It’s also a phrase often leveraged to kill conversations about ethnicity, which is the exact opposite of what we should be doing. Maybe you’ve had the privilege of tuning this issue out until it blew up your news feed, but this tension is a daily reality for people of color. They can’t put their phone down and move on with their lives if it gets too heated because society looks at the color of their skin before the contents of their character.
Maybe you’ve had the privilege of tuning this issue out until it blew up your news feed, but this tension is a daily reality for people of color
Yes, we are all humans. We are all created equally. We all have value. BUT we live in a society that treats people differently because of their skin color. This is especially true with our justice system. Black people are 2.5 times more likely to be killed by cops than their white counterparts. In Utah alone, Black people comprise 1% of the population, but 10% of police deaths. Even if you feel like you don’t judge others by the color of their skin (we all do without realizing it, unfortunately), it’s unloving to ignore these disparities, or to assume everyone has the same life experiences as you.
Of course, to focus only on the disparities between ethnicities is to present ethnicity as an inherently negative trait, which it isn’t. Again, ethnicity is one of many aspects of our social identities. Like gender, spirituality, sexuality, occupation and interests, we hold ethnicity dear to us. It’s a part of who we are. If you are a monotheist, say a Christian, Muslim, or Jew, and someone told you, “We all believe the same gods, anyway. I don’t see why you people care so much,” you would feel deeply put out. That person would be denying a fundamental aspect of your beliefs. Depending on your relationship with that person, you might speak out but more likely, you would walk away or scroll on and remember that person as someone who does not accept you. When you post “I’m colorblind” or “All Lives Matter (we’ll get to that one next),” you’re not delivering the peaceful message you think you are.
In the “White and Proud” section, I broke down why celebrating whiteness is racist, so some of you may be confused why I’m suddenly saying ethnicity is not outright negative. You can celebrate your Irish heritage without ruffling any feathers (I mean, maybe don’t get in a drunken brawl on Saint Patty’s) but celebrating whiteness is celebrating not being a person of color. We are considered the norm in our society, as we have the luxury of not having to talk about out race. The identity of Blackness was constructed through different methods than whiteness. The ancestors of Black people living in America did not come here on their own free will: they were kidnapped from their homes, separated from their families, loaded like cattle onto boats with people from other tribes who spoke different languages, beat, starved, and murdered generation after generation by white people. We stole their heritage and labeled them, “Black.”
Strip away every support system, strip away freedom, and there isn’t much else available to define yourself by. Yet, Black slaves continued to sing in fields after being stolen from their mothers and sold to strangers, continued to create their own traditions, marry, fall in love, continued to teach themselves to read and write and escape, both metaphorically and physically. They rewrote their identities–reclaimed what it mean to be Black–despite being marginalized. They continued to persevere for the basic designation of person-hood; a journey that did not end with the thirteenth amendment or the civil rights movement; a journey that continues today. To dismissively say, “I don’t see color” is to deny these victories.
The celebration of Blackness is to remember the injustices of yesterday, the dignity and power of those that spoke up, that blocked streets, that made others uncomfortable until they could see their neighbors as humans, and to remind us that we shouldn’t love others because they are like us, as the construction of “whiteness” would have led us to believe. Others don’t have to be “like us” whatever that means, to be consider valuable. We are different in some ways and similar in others and we are capable of loving each other still.
As proposed by the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, the way we speak influences the way we think and our speech patterns indicate there is still a problem. Saying “we’re all the same” is like saying “I love you because you are like me.” It’s selfish and assigns value to others solely based on how much they remind you of yourself. “I love you even though you are different from me” accepts the wholeness of the person, their complex social identity, their history, their sexuality, spirituality, political beliefs, music taste, and favorite Doritos flavor (nacho cheese forever.) We must value others not because they are exactly like us, but because they are innately deserving of value. We should not have to erase others’ ethnicities, cultures, or perspectives to care about them.
“All lives Matter“
This comic does a great job explaining why “All Lives Matter” is a dismissive statement. Rather than summarizing it’s points poorly or repeating what I’ve already said in the “Colorblind” section, I’m going to move on and focus on why so many feel the need to specify, “All Lives Matter” in response to “Black Lives Matter.“
Let’s look at the statement in its most basic form: Black lives matter. Said another way, the lives of those whose ancestors originated from Africa, specifically those with dark skin whom we in the U.S. refer to as “Black,” have undeniable, inherent value. That’s it. Unless you believe Black people do not have value, the base statement should not be controversial. Stating Black Lives matter does not, in any way, mean that other lives don’t. The statement is not, “Only Black Lives Matter” even though many seem to read it that way.
So why, then, does this statement anger so many? It’s because it’s not about them and they’re not used to that. It’s interesting many of these response rally calls -“All Lives Matter,” “Straight Pride,” or “Not All Men”- did not happen until marginalized populations took a stand for themselves and tried to carve out a space to exist without persecution (BLM, Gay Pride, and#MeToo.) It’s interesting casting video games, movies, TV shows or other visual media with women, people of color, or those in the LGBTQIA+ community are seen as “political” statements no matter how well these characters are written or how hard the actors worked for their roles. It’s interesting that a person’s existence alone can be considered political, and thus up for debate. By interesting, I mean ridiculous. It’s ridiculous.
When someone mentions Pepsi is their favorite soda, you wouldn’t shout, “Coke exists, too!” You wouldn’t stomp around a “Breast Cancer Awareness” March and shout “All Cancers Matter.” You wouldn’t tell a loved one, who after divulging she was raped by a man, that “not all men” are rapists. It’s derailing and obnoxious for the first two and repulsive and horrifying in the last example. One of my favorite rebuttals against “All Lives Matter” is to bring up the “Happy Holidays/ Merry Christmas” debate because it’s usually the same players, but opposite sides. Those who insist “Happy Holidays” erases Christmas also adamantly defend “All Lives Matter” as being inclusive. Bring it up, talk it out, and you’ll be surprised how quickly they get quiet. They suddenly recognize general inclusion can equal erasure.
At the beginning of February, I shared a Facebook post about why White History Month isn’t a thing, for reasons already discussed in the, “Colorblind” section, and it was met with some backlash. I wasn’t surprised, but I was still disappointed, and in defending my point I thought a lot about how the acknowledgement of diverse identities could pose a threat to those in the majority.
Our population has been largely centered around a specific idea of “American” and those who don’t fit into that model are considered variants. Take the term, “African American” for example. We use it synonymously as a formal version of “Black” to refer to people whose ancestors are descended from Africa, but that definition breaks down quickly. A white South African or a brown Egyptian that became U.S. citizens are both African Americans by definition, but we wouldn’t say they’re Black. Going further, the terms, “African American,” “Asian American,” and “Hispanic American” imply there is a default “American” and everyone else is a variant. Considering we don’t use the term, “European American” to apply to white people, it doesn’t take a lot of mental gymnastics to realize the structure of our language presents white people as the default, model American, even though our indigenous populations were here far before us and other people of color have just as a legitimacy attached to their citizenship.
The structure of our language presents white people as the default, model American
This idea of the “model American” is composed of a variety of social identities beyond whiteness: straight, cissexual, Christian, and male are also included. The more boxes you tick off, the more privilege you have. For so long, the particular segment of Americans that checked off every box were legally the only ones able to vote, own land, or easily participate in society. They steered the boat of our country to uphold that power and it wasn’t until oppressed people stood up and fought that they were awarded the dignity of being considered human. Basic, innate rights were never given out in America: they were earned through protest, uprisings, rebellions, and riots. This is true of the Boston tea party, the revolutionary war, Stonewall, the civil rights movement, women’s suffrage, bus boycotts, sit-ins, walk-outs, hunger strikes, and taking a knee. This is true today. I’ll get to the protests in part II.
These social identities are parts of who we are and when hearing criticism against them, the first response for many white people (or men, Christians, cis, or straight people) is to become defensive. Is it the right response? Of course not, but it’s human. In the face of conviction, we cling to anger because shame, guilt and humiliation are tangled emotions requiring deep effort to unravel.
White people, if you want to grow, you gotta accept being uncomfortable. Growth starts with listening and listening is hard. It’s a skill that comes with practice of listening to understand; not to form a rebuttal. That reaction compounds this turmoil. If you don’t know where to start, hit the books but understand it’s not enough to know the violent history of whiteness, know your privilege, or to not say awful racist things to people–you must be actively aware of the racial disparities in our country, the systemic injustice and the internalized bigotry we all have within us and speak up when it counts.
I implore you to do your research, know the history of injustice in your country from all sides, not just what you learned from a high school textbook. And while you’re doing your research, read articles written by Black writers, listen to Black friends and loved ones with open arms and lots of coffee, but don’t ask Black people how to fix this. We extorted Black bodies through slavery, took advantage of Black people by paying them pennies for their labor, and our first response to a video of a man being murdered or a Target looting shouldn’t be wringing emotional labor out of Black people. Let others bring up their pain if they choose to talk about it, but let them do it on their timeline, not yours. Recognize if you’ve been posting “All Lives Matter” or phrases along those sentiments, you might not be someone people of color feel comfortable processing with. That’s okay. Accept their feelings because they are valid and they are real, and do better now moving forward.
Read Hey White Americans (Part II) here.