We are living in strange times—a time where very few people are willing to stand on their beliefs. Instead, equivocation is what’s hot in the streets, even when it comes to being anti-racist or even naming racism. Apparently, words no longer have meaning, or maybe it’s just the natural consequence of the watering down of our educational systems and the cult of American anti-intellectualism.
On Feb. 1—the very first day of Black History Month—the AP Board was busy taking the black out of its AP African American studies courses and teachers were busy hiding the books for fear of catching a case. Here in Maine, a local activist by the name of Richard Ward decided to go into the middle of downtown Portland, our largest and most diverse city, and stand on an intersection with a banner declaring, “It’s OK to be white.”
A passing motorist, who happened to be a journalist, snapped a picture of Ward and his sign and shared it on social media. I happen to follow the journalist on Twitter, and when the picture came across my feed, I decided to share it on my Instagram account, along with some personal thoughts.
I mean, on the first day of Black History Month, a white person—a white man—decided that on a very cold February day, he had nothing better to do than to publicly declare that it’s okay to be white.
I don’t know, but when has anyone decided it’s not okay to be white? Last time I checked, white people as a collective body are still pretty much in charge. Of everything! Sure, you can be a broke-ass white person who is struggling and facing a truckload of hardship, but are we really going to pretend that white skin still does not come with a pretty serious set of advantages?
Let me recap some highlights: You don’t have to worry about the cops killing your men and sons willy-nilly because their wallets supposedly look like guns. Most of you don’t have to fear traffic stops. Many of you still have an economic advantage over Black folks and other people of color.
I mean, white men as a whole still out-earn everyone else. Notions of beauty are still centered on white skin and all that is associated with it. The vast majority of people in charge of running this country are white and the C-suites in companies are still dominated by white people.
No one is creating laws to ban the reading of white writers or deciding that learning about a good chunk of white history is too political. No, at last count, despite some tweaks, our education system still very much values all things white, even down to the fact that the majority of school teachers are white. Even in neighborhoods of color, the many and usually most of those who are teaching kids of color are white.
A child in the United States can still go through the entire K-12 school system without ever having a teacher of color. In my K-12 school years, I had fewer than five teachers of color and that was growing up in the nation’s third-largest city, which was a major hub of the Great Migration—in other words, there was a very sizable Black community.
At the end of the day, the average person of color and specifically Black people, will have to work twice as hard to get what the average white person gets in this world. I hate to quote Chris Rock, but in this instance his words to white people from one of his routines are still quite true: “None of you would change places with me, and I’m rich!”
I say all this to say that despite the uptick in diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts, no one—and I mean no one is—is replacing white people. Our overall culture is still very much centered on white people and their systems. It’s just that the rest of us would like to very much have our culture acknowledged and valued. I mean, my people were forcibly dragged to this land over 500 years ago and forced to work and build this country. As a descendant of those people, it seems only fair that their labor be acknowledged. In this country of my birth. It would be nice to be seen as more than a second-class citizen. A lot of us are tired of being treated as “less than” and, yes, we are vocal about it.
However, it seems that in vocalizing our desire to be seen as firmly human there is a growing number of white people who hear our demands for full inclusion as a threat and believe that somehow that means it is not okay to be white. On the surface, this is almost laughable, until you realize these people aren’t kidding and their pushback grows louder in public spaces. Go back to Charlottesville and remember what Richard Spencer and ilk were chanting: “We will not be replaced.”
That energy has only increased, especially over the last few years, as more white people have found themselves racially radicalized through online chat groups and forums. The early days of COVID and the racial awakening of 2020 have done a lot to radicalize white people to uphold white supremacy.
But the thing is, these people—unlike their white racist predecessors—will not own their desire for white supremacy. On the contrary, they will tell you that they only want for white people to be valued and respected. They say they just want to affirm their white humanity, but seem to lack the understanding that the white culture and white supremacy directly led to global colonization and the wholesale destruction of Black and brown people. They want to erase and ignore their own history—even very recent history of racial wrongs—and pretend it doesn’t still impact everything today. White humanity and dominance literally shaped most of the current fucking world.
Which brings me back to the local activist and my seemingly benign post on Instagram. The post attracted a lot of attention, including Ward. As a result, myself and several other public figures of color in Maine woke up on a very chilly Saturday to learn we are being discussed on 4Chan and in other highly racialized white spaces. At least one of Ward’s sympathizers posted comments on my Instagram and Ward himself left a post on the Blackgirlinmaine Facebook page. All of them asserting they aren’t racist but then describing what fits the textbook definition of racism.
But if that weren’t enough, several followers of this blog and my work started to question whether it was okay for them to be white, and lament over how hard it is for them as white people.
Look, life is hard. None of us are getting a smooth ride. But if you even remotely consider yourself a white anti-racist and you are confused on whether it’s okay to be white, something has been lost in translation and that’s not good. Nuance is a lost art but it matters a great deal.
No one can change their skin color. We have no choice in the matter, and no one should ever feel bad about how they were born. However, as a white-bodied person, once you realize the harm that white domination has done globally to non-white people—and even to white people—you can choose a different path. You can choose to break the mainstream mold of white thinking. You can choose to see how the system of whiteness which is the operating foundation of Western civilization is limited and harmful and you can choose different ways of being.
One of the greatest failures of anti-racism work is that it often inadvertently creates white saviors instead of white people who are actively decolonizing their hearts and minds. It’s why white people struggle to stay in the work long term, because they continue to bring standards of whiteness—and the harmful systems and assumptions that come with it—everywhere they go. They fail to understand that they must separate their white race from their white minds, which will always struggle under the current system of whiteness, to fully see non-white people as their equals.
Even some of you reading this now who think yourself allies: Do you really see me as your equal? Or is there a part of you that still sees me as “other?” Am I a fully embodied person to you? Are other people of color your equals? Or do you still define them by race alone? Do you still judge them by standards of whiteness?
The hardest thing for white people across the spectrum to accept is that whiteness is so normalized that you often see yourself as raceless. But that’s not true, and in today’s world, your whiteness is named more and it needs to be named. Just like my Blackness is named and has always been named. But because of the many historical misdeeds of whiteness, having whiteness named is uncomfortable for white people.
That discomfort causes many to flee from allyship, much less strong anti-racism work, because they have never been taught to fully love their white selves—which includes the acknowledgement of the real material harm that historical whiteness has done. The learning and the growth comes from accepting the duality of whiteness.
What serves no good is to act like white people are being oppressed or ignored when they clearly are not, nor engaging in a pumped-up affirmation of whiteness that is simply white supremacy remixed and regurgitated out as a sad parody of self-love.
As annoying as this moment for me is, I have been here before. I carry the blood of people who labored hard in the cotton fields of Arkansas, enduring the master’s whip. White people talking shit about me on the internet pales in comparison. I worry more for people who cannot face their history and move beyond it to create new, better, and holistic ways to exist in the world.
The uncomfortable truth is that white allies and white racists are not that far apart. The key to breaking the cycle of white dehumanization that restricts both groups requires the understanding that you both need healing and knowledge. It requires white allies to eventually realize that they must also work with their own white people, including the racists that so many of them would rather just make fun of.
I imagine I will lose a few readers and patrons after this post, and that’s okay, I guess. It’s happened before. I hope not, but mostly—regardless of whether any of you leave over this post—I hope all of you hear what I am saying before you go. I hope that all who read this will really understand that while it’s okay to be white, it’s not okay to ignore or tacitly support white supremacy nor ignore your own part is what’s wrong right now. Please let my words sit with you and allow you to recognize the need to understand yourself and your whiteness better—to grow for your sake and everyone else’s.
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