Race has come to the fore in the past year, driven by police violence, the disproportionate impact of the Covid pandemic and the Black Lives Matter movement. It has spawned books and commentary such as So You Want to Talk About Race, Caste, How to be an Anti Racist and many others. In the past, issues of race have focused primarily on the victims. This has been true particularly about Blacks, but also about LGBTQ, women, immigrants, Native Americans and people of color generally. The spotlight has been on securing rights denied - voting, marriage - or overcoming discrimination, as in jobs, pay, housing and education. While this has been useful, even beneficial, it has put the onus for improvement on the victims, not the perpetrators; at least until recently.
Whiteness is much discussed these days. What is the role and responsibility of white people in this dynamic? The role has been, and largely continues to be, as oppressors, as the designers and supporters of a system of discrimination and oppression. The responsibility as seen by most white people is to either perpetuate that system or at best hope for reform, usually modest and not affecting them personally. Suddenly white people are being challenged to not be passive bystanders (while remaining beneficiaries) but to actively take steps to change the systemic practices that are at the heart of the situation i.e. to be anti-racists.
You have probably heard the expression lead, follow or get out of the way. Whites have led for the 400 years they have been in America; white men, that is. They alone crafted the constitution we live under, the institutions of governance, the laws that regulate our existence. White men are mostly responsible for the economy - the corporations, Wall Street and the rules of the game. White men have led or have followed other white men for their mutual benefit, but now it is time for us to get out of the way, for what we have wrought does not obtain.
I recognize that I am culturally white but I identify as non-white. I say non-white because it would be presumptuous or worse to say I identify as another race. I can't see myself as anything other than white nor would anyone else. But I am not a color or a race, I am just the default. If you don't specify, this is what you get. However, I tend to identify with the excluded, the outsider, the disadvantaged, the screwed over, even though I am privileged and relatively well off. I am unlikely to be abused by a police officer yet I do not trust cops when I see them. I do not see them as protectors. I know that they can be arbitrary and seldom accountable. Maybe that stems from an incident in South Carolina or from my time working with law enforcement.
A commentator said that whiteness is a state of mind, a belief, not a skin color or even a race. Whiteness is a continuum from racist to oblivious to not racist to anti-racist. Identity, including racial identity, is something that has mostly been imposed from the outside. It is what others label you. These days people often self-identify about sexual identity, gender, religion, ethnicity and race. Often there is a conflict between those classifications. Even with race, individuals who appear from the outside to be people of color sometimes identify as white as numerous studies have documented. There are a myriad of reasons for this but a significant one is that this nation is so culturally white and has so thoroughly defined white as better and more desirable that even some Blacks have internalized those values.
How did whiteness become so toxic? Maybe part of it goes back to our prehistoric ancestors, vulnerable in a dangerous world for whom anything unknown, different, "other," was a threat. Threats would trigger a fight or flight response as the best way to survive. There is also the element of power in whiteness. People who gain power often feel entitled, as if they deserve the power and the benefits that come with it and will not easily relinquish them. In today's world whiteness equals power and entitlement. When others demand equality whites feel threatened. The flight or fight response kicks in in the face of the unknown, the "other." Today this toxic mix is turbocharged by media, social and otherwise, and some people, such as politicians, use it to their benefit, helping drive the fear, the anger and the hate. It is the path to division, to autocracy and to insurrection.
Can whiteness be remediated? It is difficult to see a path for that. People with power almost never relinquish it voluntarily, in part because it is beneficial to them, in part because they believe they have earned it, and in part because they often don't believe that it is a problem. Efforts to address the effects of whiteness tend to be at the margins, and incremental at best. Despite supposed best of intentions progress is often limited or non-existent. Corporations have touted their diversity programs, affirmative action, and most recently support for Black Lives Matter, yet non-white and female representation has made little progress, especially among the upper echelon. More than 60 years after Brown vs. Board of Education schools are more segregated than when the case was decided, and the segregation of schools simply mirrors the segregation of communities. We often hear of the problem that people on the left and the right have their own separate news sources but just as important whites and non-whites have their own grocery stores, restaurants, health care, churches and gathering places.
Most authors who write about the economic, political and social divisions in the country seem compelled to offer a hopeful sign, a bit of optimism for the future and prescriptions for improvement. Usually these prescriptions include education: teaching people critical thinking skills, how to discern information sources and the improved dissemination of facts. This flies in the face of numerous studies that show that we primarily use our critical thinking to bolster our existing opinions, cherry pick our sources and our facts to confirm our existing beliefs. Communication and dialog are also popular as an elixir. The Lincoln Douglas debates are often cited as the pinnacle of political discourse yet they were but a precursor to the Civil War.
What will the future look like? No one knows, of course, but if history is any guide we will see a continuation of the 400-year cycle of marginal progress toward equality followed by violent backlash to try undo or subvert what has been accomplished. Someone said that what we learn from history is that we do not learn anything from history. I think history has demonstrated repeatedly that white violence works and that lesson seems fully learned. Attempts to contain the spread of slavery (recall that Lincoln never proposed the abolition of slavery) were followed by revolt, succession and Civil War. Reconstruction was followed by the Black Codes, White Councils, the KKK and Jim Crow. Brown vs. Board of Education was followed by the de-funding of schools, privatization of education and renewed segregation. The Civil Rights movement and voting rights were followed by the southern strategy of Nixon, Reagan and Trump and wide spread voter suppression. And, of course, the Black Lives Movement was followed by violence and insurrection. Why should the future be any different?
One Small Voice
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