The following are excerpts of a discussion about white denial. Bran is Black, Heather is white.
Heather: When we were talking the other day, and please correct me if I’m wrong in how I’m portraying it, but, you said you were tired of white people exclaiming, “I never knew!” when they hear about the brutality and oppression of racism in the USA. I was thinking about that experience I’ve had, say while reading The New Jim Crow a few years ago, feeling completely baffled by the fact that all this has been going on and I had no clue. I remember feeling so shocked, learning about police arresting Black people for jaywalking, or for hanging out in front of their own homes, for example.
Bran: I’ve said this several times, but you can’t just not know. You can not care, and you can certainly choose to disengage. But not knowing is really not possible. Even in the most homogenous communities, there’s news. We live in the 20th/21st century. I have a hunch even the Amish are aware of what’s going on racially in this country, and in the world at large. So if you don’t know, you didn’t want to know.
Heather: Yeah. I’m going to respond from my experience, but I know from conversations there are a lot of other white people who are having experiences similar to mine. Getting to the place inside of me where I had to admit that I must have wanted to not know was not just uncomfortable, it meant I had to shift my entire sense of who I was. My identity of 45+ years at the time wasn’t mine anymore. It was spiritually and emotionally devastating. I started to see myself and the world differently when I allowed those terrifying truths out into the light.
One example of this kind of examination is that I was alive and aware when Rodney King was attacked so brutally by those police, and I saw footage of the community response to the police getting away with it. I graduated college in 1991, so I wasn’t just a child. I see now that my reaction was extraordinarily racist in a couple ways.
First, I chose to look away and carry on with my life as I was living it. Second, I was able to look away because of deeply racist thoughts and beliefs I had—I would have denied this at the time and believed myself—that the people responding to the verdict were animal-like, not “regular” people that I could understand or respect or even care about. Typing those words turns my stomach, but I had to see that truth as a part of this journey I’m on, trying to shed whiteness and find a way to be white without relying on oppression and violence. I had to uncover and admit my ugliest beliefs before I could start getting rid of them.
Bran: You want to count yourself as a “good person” you want to stay “nice” at all costs. Only the cost isn’t yours. And that’s why you don’t feel the need to count it. You can write a check, or make a protest sign, you can watch a documentary, read a book, whatever performative action you like, but you can crawl right back in your hole, and be just as “shocked” the next time.
There’s a disingenuous innocence claimed by white people, wherein you feign ignorance because you haven’t been taught the academics of race. But we all know there’s a difference between book smarts and instincts. And your instincts tell you what you can and can’t get away with when it comes to the treatment of minority groups. You sense the power you have very early, and you seize it.
You don’t have to look out in the world, because racism is living in you. The call is coming from inside the house. You know, because you instinctively pick up a phone to call police when you feel a POC is “out of line.” You know, because you take authoritative stances in conversations with POC regarding race. You know, because you choose to send your kids to the “good schools,” and you know exactly what “good” means. You take advantage of your privilege without remorse.
I want white people to admit the ugliness. And not the easy ugliness. Admit that you have been angry at a black friend and thought the “N” word, even if you’d never say it. Admit that you have excluded POC from your groups and your lives because you felt they weren’t “like you.” Admit even the darkest, ugliest biases. Confess the whole truth. Become a better person for it.
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