The so-called great racial awakening of 2020 is the gift that keeps on giving—unfortunately, it’s a gift that was questionable at the outset. Now, as the years have rolled on, that gift has alternately been useless or downright harmful for anyone truly concerned with racial justice or in need of such justice.
For many white people, the declaration that “Black lives matter” was grossly inverted. Instead of hearing it for what it clearly meant, so many white people decided to believe instead that it meant that Black lives mattered more than white ones. Mind you, not only was that not the intent, it wasn’t even said by any notable number of people. In fact, it was reiterated over and over that for Black people in the United States, our lives have never mattered to the extent that white lives have always mattered.
Black lives matter, too. Black lives should matter just as much.
For some white people, though, knowing that Black lives have never been valued as much as white lives, they fear repercussions if ever they lose their stranglehold on power. They have a pathological and baseless fear that if they aren’t in total control, they may find themselves as the new niggers of the world.
As a result of this asinine fear, in recent years we have the latest iteration of a kind of “white lives matter” movement. Which is just a rehash of the racist movement of “white pride,” which isn’t about being proud of being white. It’s about being proud of an investment in white supremacy. In the last year, even here in solidly blue Southern Maine, we have racists running around proclaiming that it’s okay to be white.
But white lives have never stopped mattering.
And no one has ever said it’s not okay to be white.
The thing though is that the racial history and baggage of whiteness and white supremacy culture—along with the generations of harm and destruction that white-bodied people have inflicted and continue to inflict upon non-white people—presents a challenge to white people who do not see themselves as racist.
This fall will mark 10 years since I was hired as the first non-white executive director at Community Change Inc. Earlier this year, this very blog celebrated its 15th anniversary. I have spent a lot of time working with and observing white people in anti-racism spaces. It is literally my job. As a result, I have noticed a very interesting similarity between white anti-racists and today’s white racists. Both struggle with what it means to be white in today’s world.
For white racists, it is actually easy to know their struggle. They don’t want to give up their overwhelming power or privilege. They want to continue to receive the dividends that society pays to all white-bodied people. They see a racially and ethnically shifting world as a threat to their oversized slice of the pie of goodies. As a result, they will do everything they can to stave off racial progress. It isn’t hard to understand.
On the other hand, today’s white anti-racists are far more complicated. In part, it’s that too many of them are very much the white moderates that Dr. King wrote about in his “Letter From a Birmingham Jail.” But there are also a lot of white folks mired in self-loathing over being white. They feel the weight and shame of whiteness and they carry it personally—they immerse themselves in embracing all things that are not white, sometimes to the exclusion of their fellow white people. They value learning from and working in community with people of color, yet are deeply cynical of their fellow white people.
There is nothing wrong with learning from and being in community with people of color; there is nothing wrong with feeling bad about one’s part in white supremacy, even unintentionally. But punishing oneself or trying to erase one’s whiteness isn’t the answer.
Ultimately, the work of any white-bodied person involved in anti-racism work has to be working with their fellow white people. To create new ways of being in white spaces that are not rooted and grounded in the oppression of marginalized people. To have enough love to reclaim your white self—the self before you were fed the lies of whiteness as the baseline norm or as the pinnacle. To love deeply enough to create a beloved community with your white brothers and sisters and say “No more!” To weave a tapestry of humanity starting with your white lineage that says “We’re all in this together.” To refuse to live by the rules of white supremacy culture.
If instead you simply wallow in shame and try to somehow “purify” yourself rather than work for change, you will remain stuck between the two worlds, which leaves you ineffective and potentially useless for the long-term work.
I have a colleague in Boston. She is an Italian-American woman who has been doing anti-racism work for over 40 years. Early in my time at CCI, I would silently cringe when I heard her speak of having to learn to love her white self and let go of the shame. Initially, her comments struck me as questionable, but as I got to know her and her journey, it started to make sense. Part of her learning to love her white self was reclaiming her Italian heritage and thinking about what had been lost when her ancestors arrived in the United States and became “white” rather than Italian—or even American. Many white people have stories of their ancestors immigrating to the United States and assimilating. What was the cost of that assimilation? What was lost when your people were seduced into whiteness rather than a rich, vibrant and diverse society?
Your shame around being white will not lead to our collective liberation. We cannot control the past, but we can control the now and create something for the future. Unrelenting shame will not help us in the journey, though. You cannot be a white person in this work who is unwilling to examine yourself and then change and grow. Otherwise, you are just a white savior at best, or a fraud at worst.
Now more than ever—as we see the racists twist concepts of justice around into false oppression—white people who know better have to do better. You have to say it is okay to be white but it is not okay to be a tool of whiteness and uphold white supremacy culture. It is not okay to continue to exalt whiteness to the detriment of all others. It is time instead to dismantle that mindset within yourselves and your community and in the larger world.
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