Five years ago this week, I gave a TEDx talk, titled “Inequity, Injustice…Infection,” and last night I rewatched it. I wanted to see how it had aged—kind of hoping that it would feel outdated. Sadly, it hasn’t aged. If anything, I wish I could give another talk, a part two that would be called “The Reckoning.”
Last year, while locked down in the early days of the pandemic, the horrific and brazen murder of George Floyd made many white Americans grapple with the fact that racism is still very much present in our daily lives. For a brief moment, there was a hope amongst some that Floyd’s murder might be a catalyst for change. After all, at that moment, white Americans were snapping up anti-racism books faster than IHOP can whip you up a plate of pancakes.
Corporations and organizations damn near broke their necks creating equity and inclusion statements and if you were a diversity, equity and inclusion consultant or trainer, the skies opened up and dropped so many clients on you that it was like manna from heaven.
Surely, America was standing on the precipice of racial change. Especially if we could vote 45 out of office, right?
Sad to say, if you believed it was going to be that simple, you were absolutely setting yourself up for crushing heartbreak and disappointment. For a country where whiteness is literally woven into the fabric of our Constitution, it was going to take a lot more than one dead Black man to create change. After all, dead Black men being killed at the hands of the state is also a foundational trait.
Don’t get me wrong. There were—and still are—a lot of white people for whom 2020 was truly an awakening. A chance to get their souls rights and acknowledge the generational trauma inherent in being white in America and the harm racism has inflicted upon non-white folks since the inception of this broken and raggedy country.
But for far more white people, even those who proudly showed up at rallies across the country proclaiming that Black lives matter and who eagerly got involved in their community and/or company equity initiatives—and for who truly believe that racism is a scourge that must be eradicated—there is one critical problem: You cannot eradicate racism and seek racial equity without explicitly understanding that racism is just one facet. To be fair, it is a huge facet. But the biggest problem fueling white supremacy and undergirding white supremacy is, well, whiteness itself.
Whiteness is the way that white people and their customs, culture and beliefs are structured as the only correct operating system. It is held up as the standard by which all other groups are compared. Whiteness dictates what is proper and what is not. It’s at the root of why, in recent years, we have been inundated with media reports of the “divisiveness” that is supposedly tearing America apart. Whiteness in recent years has sought to create the false belief that all sides or views are equal—that we have to give space for debate to Nazis, for example—because to declare otherwise is to shine an uncomfortable spotlight on whiteness which might actually move us closer to truth.
The fact is that whiteness is less concerned with truth than it is with the keeping up of appearances.
At this moment, whiteness is comfortable with offering a few nuggets of humanity to Black people, Indigenous people and other people of color, as long as they don’t rock the boat too hard and force white folks to look in the mirror. It’s why even white people who claim to be in support of things like the Black Lives Matter movement become uncomfortable with loudmouth rabble-rousers such as myself.
Given my role in local politics now, there is nothing like reading the comments in the local papers or coming across reports that me—or people who hold my beliefs and who are loud about it—are what is dividing this country. The only thing that makes such words even more comical is when these same people will share that they aren’t racist. They always love everyone, because whiteness in 2021 says it’s bad to be openly racist.
But the Trump years opened up some hard truths about this country that aren’t going back in the closet, and it also helped to create a generation of activists of color and a few good white accomplices who realize that, in the words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., we can’t wait.
After years of anti-racism books dropping like the latest mixtape and mostly-just-for-show equity initiatives popping up everywhere, some of us know that now is the time to push like never before.
Bold words and truth are what are needed to push beyond equity and advance the more important work of fraying the edges of white supremacy and taking away the overbearing power of whiteness. Getting to the other side, though, will involve great discomfort for white-bodied people, because the universal humanizing of Black, Indigenous and other people of color means hearing truths that until recently were not often uttered for white ears to hear.
It means when we tell you our truth, you must not measure it against the standards of whiteness. If you can do that, you will be on the way to dismantling whiteness internally, which is what is needed to move the needle on racism.
We are inching closer to a reckoning where white people must examine themselves and uncover just how deeply whiteness resides within their souls—then actively seek to eradicate it. When a critical mass of white people can toss out the operating system embedded in whiteness and work on healing from whiteness; when they no longer judge Black people or other people of color as being “inflammatory” for merely speaking truth; when they are ready to toe-to-toe with their brethren who are wedded to white supremacy and do so without fear—that is when that is when the reckoning will truly start. There is no nice or polite way to “fix” racism. This country and the resultant healing and justice process will be uncomfortable. That discomfort might be perceived as divisive, but just like physical growing pains, white people who want to be anti-racists must lean into that discomfort, push through the seductive whispers of whiteness that plead for civility and know that the greater discomfort and the louder the whispers, the closer you get to doing the real work of dismantling whiteness.
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