Last week, when the story about Amy Cooper, the white woman in Central Park who called the police after a black man simply requested that she leash her dog, was making headlines (this was the day before George Floyd was murdered), I sent a text to a couple of close friends of mine, in which I talked about how embarrassing it is to be a white person, given how some whites (like Amy Cooper) behave in such blatant and unthinkingly racist ways.
One of the people I texted replied with a similar text. The other friend must have been busy, for she didn’t reply that day. Then, George Floyd died in police custody. The horrific video of white cop Derek Chauvin’s knee pressed into Floyd’s neck for almost nine minutes is both appalling and sickening to watch. It is not surprising that so many people across our nation and beyond have responded with anger and mass protests.
Almost a week went by — a couple of “news cycles.” I had pretty much forgotten about Amy Cooper and her entitled, spoiled-brat racism. But then on Friday I received this reply to my “embarrassed to be white” text from the previous Sunday. Remember: I wrote that text, and then another friend (also a white male) chimed in with a similar thought. Then this text came from our mutual friend, a white woman.
In regards to your previous texts, especially in light of all things happening now: As white males, these are precisely the things (in concept) worthy of vocalizing beyond this text, your voicing this only here perpetuates the status quo. I will always respect your choices and timing, but playing the game for slow movement not only continues to comfort your already comfortable position as a white male but also buys into the “tranquilizing drug of gradualism.” I love you like brothers, if I didn’t, I wouldn’t say this. And these are things I recognize deserve to be spoken into my privilege, too. Things I hope we all work on.
Like so many whites whose consciences are troubled by the systemic racism in our country, I take pride in trying to be politically informed, in supporting political candidates who I believe are committed to justice and dismantling systems of privilege, and in sharing my opinions — at least among my friends. But I often do not talk about politics beyond my circle of friends.
And that’s what my friend is calling me out on. Staying quiet, in order to “be polite,” is a way of sheltering behind my white privilege.
I don’t like to talk about (or write about) politics for a number of reasons. As an introvert, I don’t enjoy debates, especially when they devolve into arguments or the toxic discourse found in much of social media. As a middle-class southerner, I was taught that politics and religion are topics not to be discussed in polite company.
But let’s be real: that’s a principle for white middle class persons. Being able to avoid discussing politics is a benefit of being privileged. It’s been said that privilege means not having to deal with things. Like the discomfort that comes from talking about painful or uncomfortable subjects.
Subjects such as racism, or sexism, or homophobia, or the ways in which our religious institutions collude with status quo systems of privilege in our society.
In her text, my friend very gently, lovingly, but clearly called me out. At first it stung. But I didn’t have to think about it for very long to know she was right.
I tell myself “I don’t like to talk about politics because it’s not polite.” But the truth is, “I don’t like to talk about politics because my white privilege means I don’t have to do it if it feels uncomfortable.”
But while I shelter in my middle class home worrying about what does or doesn’t feel “comfortable,” African-Americans, indigenous people, people of color, LGBTQ people, and disabled people, among others, bear the brunt of the inequalities that a society built around social privilege wreaks upon them. And that “brunt” includes everything from police brutality, to greater likelihood of being victims of violence, to being denied social and economic opportunities, to countless microagressions that privileged folks simply don’t have to worry about.
Racism is evil. Sexism, homophobia, transphobia, religious bigotry, hatred of immigrants — these are not just social ills or political problems, they are systemic evils that must be denounced and dismantled. All of these forms of social/political oppression and inequality are linked to systems of privilege where both explicit and implicit social values and prejudices work to benefit one group of people at the expense of another.
But here’s the challenge. Systems of privilege typically benefit majorities at the expense of minorities. There are more whites than people of color in America; there are more straights than gay or trans folk. This means that unjust systems of privilege can only be finally dismantled by the people who benefit from those systems.
As a white person in America, I benefit from white privilege, whether I want to or not. And to the extent that I ignore this, I am a racist, because I am ignoring the inequities of our society that benefit people who look like me, at the expense of people who don’t look like me.
Of course, I don’t want to be racist. I’m ashamed of how racism hurts people, including many people I love. But it’s not enough for me to be “not a racist.” I need to be anti-racist, which means I need to be working to dismantle the social privileges that are created out of racism.
To the best of my knowledge, I don’t know a single white person who thinks of themselves as “racist.” And I live in the American south, just a few miles from Stone Mountain, where a huge monument to the Confederacy was literally carved in stone. Even the most conservative southern white recognizes there is nothing moral about being racist. But because racism benefits whites in so many big and little ways, we have created a new social contract: we insist we are no longer racist, only to turn a blind eye on how systemic racism persists in our society — to the benefit of whites and to the detriment of the BIPOC (black, indigenous and people of color) community.
And thus, when another white cop kills another unarmed black citizen, privileged whites rationalize it away by seeing the cop as merely a “bad egg,” a lone corrupt individual (that is, when we’re not blaming the victim). When Colin Kaepernick kneeled, whites attacked him for being “disrespectful” — because to actually respond to his protest would mean facing up to our complicity in white privilege. And in the wake of George Floyd’s death, privileged whites complain about violence and looting during protests, ignoring the fact that the protests would not even be necessary if whites were actually taking responsibility for dismantling racist privilege.
I am old enough to remember the Watts Riots, which occurred almost 55 years ago. We’ve been having this conversation for decades now. The time to dismantle racism and end white privilege is long overdue. Whites have a moral responsibility to look at our own complicity in social inequality. This means we have to start talking about it — and then we have to do something about it.
In the words of a gay black author, Michael Crawford, “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. Your silence will not protect you and it definitely won’t protect people of color.” The article that this comes from is well worth reading: If you’re a white person wondering what to do during the George Floyd protests, I have some advice.
As I have already said, I am not a political activist; in the immortal words of the Kinks, “I’m a lover, not a fighter.” But my friend’s rebuke of me was correct. It’s one thing to avoid a fight when only your pride is at stake. That’s what we call “taking the high road.” But in the struggle to dismantle racism and other forms of social privilege, sitting it out is not an option. We either make a commitment, in both personal and public/political ways, to work to dismantle racism, or we decide that our privilege (and comfort) matters more than doing what is right.
So writing this article is a first step I’m taking to be more proactive about my responsibility to fight racism. I don’t know what the next step will be. But I guarantee you, it’s a priority for me to figure it out — and to do it. I hope you will join me in taking responsibility to do the right thing.
Note: special thanks to Kerry Connelly, whose book Good White Racist? Confronting Your Role in Racial Injustice has been instrumental in helping me to recognize my own complicity in our society’s “original sin” — and is inspiring me to want to do something about it.