Hello, White People. I’m glad you’re here. Regardless of whether you’re looking for a fight because you’re mad I’m talking about this, or if you’re happy you found some information you’ve been looking for, or if you’re anywhere in between on the spectrum, welcome. Information is good and the more times you are informed about something new or hard, the easier time you’ll have making peace with it. Get comfortable with being uncomfortable for a little while. Sit with it. It’s going to be ok. [ If you’d like to join a group of people trying to figure out how their white privilege supports systemic racism, go here and join our Facebook group. ]
Like many of you, I was born in an almost exclusively white town and grew up in an almost exclusively white town with lots of white people in my state and very little diversity. I used to hear about people of color talking about racism and my first and last thought was usually, “Well, that doesn’t apply to me. I’m not racist,” or, “Is racism still a thing? I just love everybody!”
It took me years of listening to the stories of people of color before I understood that yes, it is still a thing and yes, it does apply to me, and yes, I have racial tendencies. I wasn’t exposed to it like you see in the movies. I’d certainly never call someone the N word or make fun of them behind their back or feel like I’m better than them, so I figured I wasn’t racist. Wrong.
The Difference Between Acting Blatantly Racist and Benefiting From Systemic Racism
If you are a blatant racist, you’re a member of the KKK or other white power hate group. You think white people are better than other races. You enjoy the thought of non-white people being hurt or put in their place. You think slavery was no big thing and why not do it again. If this does not describe you, and you are white, then you are not a blatant white racist person. Congrats. It’s kind of the least we can do.
However, if you are white and you are given the benefit of the doubt in most cases and you don’t have to worry about being killed by someone who hates non-white people when you run to the store for a gallon of milk because you feel safe most of the time and you aren’t afraid of police officers and no one has called you a thug or a terrorist and you fit in with most crowds where ever you go and were given the opportunity to go to a good school and had teachers who called on you in class, gave you encouragement, patted you on the head, and who overlooked your mischief because “kids will be kids” and they didn’t get you suspended and then in juvie by age twelve and then prison by fourteen charged as an adult or had a mom that was able to stay home because your dad had a pretty good job and you don’t feel like you need to prepare your own children before they leave the house on how to “act” and make sure they aren’t carrying ANYTHING that could be mistaken for a gun so they have the best chance of not getting killed before they come home or it was kind of a given that you could go to college if you wanted to and you don’t feel like you have to speak on behalf of your entire race in certain circles and after going to college and being educated and succeeding at life you don’t ever hear that you’re “so articulate” and you don’t have to work four times as hard as everyone around you for only partial credit and when you went to school and took history your people weren’t slaves and the stuff you learned in that history class didn’t try to hide the travesties that had been done to your people and you aren’t worried when a racist bigot becomes president of the USA because it doesn’t affect you that much – then you are benefiting from systemic racism.
Stop defending yourself and proclaiming that you aren’t racist. Start finding ways to be actively NOT racist.
Letting Go of Shame and Guilt
Man, when I first realized I was racist I was hit with a huge ball of shame and guilt. Wow, it was paralyzing. First I argued with anyone who would listen as I listed all the reasons I was exempt from racism. Then I was mad because hey, I didn’t ask to be in this system and why is it my fault what some white people did years ago before I even existed! I had nothing to do with it! I shouldn’t have to worry about it or clean it up.
When I finally quieted down enough to FEEL and sit with my feelings, I realized I was sad. I was super sad that these horrible things happened and there was no way I could change that. I felt helpless.
Part of moving to the next step is realizing that the guilt and shame do no good. It doesn’t help fix anything. It’s like lead around your feet, keeping you immobile and in pain. If you’re a halfway decent person, it’s going to hurt hard to feel and understand the depth of the injustices that have been done to our non-white brothers and sisters. It hurts to witness their pain. You want to push it away or ignore it so you don’t have to feel how much it hurts. But owning our history doesn’t it make it worse, it makes it better. There’s no possible way to learn if we don’t pay attention and take stock of reality.
Know this: the only way is through. Feel it, own it, move on through and ask, “How can I do better?”
Real American History
Here’s a doozy. Remember American history classes through elementary and middle and high school? Well, I hate to tell you this but it was probably a bunch of crap, or at least a large portion of it was, starting with Columbus and the great white invasion across America that nearly wiped out the Native Americans. The founding fathers were racist slave owners, rapists, and bigamists. Did you know we enslaved the Chinese? We forced them to build our railroads and our government worked overtime to dehumanize them during WWII through the end of the Cold War. How about the Japanese internment camps? When it comes to women’s rights, the suffragette white leaders were racists. And President Reagan knew what he was doing when he furthered the “War on Drugs” campaign. And this is just a tiny drop in the bucket of the bill of goods we’ve been sold. Now, does my saying that mean that none of them did any good? No. They did some good. But is it the whole story to say, “Those were good people”? No. No, it is not. Finding out that Gandhi was kind of a jerk and beat his wife doesn’t erase the good stuff he did, but we aren’t doing ourselves any favors when we try and make him ONLY good. He’s a whole, complete, human being with good stuff and bad stuff, just like we all are.
Accepting that these people are both good and bad is hard because it means we have to accept that we, too, are both good and bad. We’re wired to always give ourselves the benefit of the doubt and we really like our heroes to be on a pedestal where we can compare everyone else to them.
All I have to say is Woody Allen or Bill Cosby, am I right? Complex stuff, right there. Easy to write the person completely out. Harder to recognize the good and acknowledge the bad and let them sit there, together, like reality.
Don’t be afraid to learn the truth about stuff. It doesn’t mean your world is ending. It does mean you’ve been lied to and manipulated your entire life. Doesn’t that make you mad? Mad enough to do something about it?
The “Other” and Empathy
I wrote a bunch about the Other here and it might be a good idea to go read that. We have, as a culture, made people of color the Other in our communities. The totally sad and ironic thing is that some of them never asked to be here and a bunch more of them were living here, totally happy before we got here. We stole them from their homes, forced them across the ocean in chains, and if they were “lucky” enough to survive the journey, we beat them and forced them to slave for us, building our Land of the Free, Home of the Brave. We lied to them, stole from them, and killed them by the thousands. And now we shrug our shoulders and go, huh, well, what are you guys so mad about? How can you still be mad? What we’re really saying is, don’t make me think about it and stop making me feel bad because I don’t like that.
Thinking of others as Others hurts us all. There is no way to heal as humans on this earth if we don’t look at everyone and see them as ourselves. And most of this gut reaction of revulsion towards others is based in fear. We don’t want to be like them. Just in case you’re curious, this includes people like Hitler, Donald Trump, and the person that physically or sexually violated you (and me). Putting them in another category, separating them from me, who is a human, makes them less than human, and that hurts us all. Remembering they are human helps remind us to be better people.
Just to be clear, I’m not saying you have to forgive someone who has hurt you and I’m not saying you shouldn’t have boundaries with others or judge their actions as wrong or hurtful. You should absolutely make boundaries to protect yourself and you don’t have to forgive anyone. What I’m saying is that in every instance, to keep us all human, you need to be able to see them as human also.
Oh, man, I can just hear several of you right now getting so angry with me. It’s ok. You be angry. But keep reading, ok? Let’s tackle a super hard one first, because if we can do this one, learning to humanize everyone else is going to be so much easier. And let me say that if you love Donald Trump but hate President Obama, feel free to try this with his name instead.
What makes a Donald Trump? Classic narcissist, liar, able to talk out of all sides of his mouth, charming to those that like him, completely not worried about integrity or ethics, sexist and misogynistic, and he seems to be just fine with that in every way. Proud, even. In fact, he seems to forget after he says some of his declarative statements from one group to the next because he’ll say the complete opposite. I don’t personally find a lot to like there and that could stop me dead in my tracks from seeing him as a human being. It’s easy for me to label him all kinds of things that keep him securely separate from me. It feels much safer. And I admit, I did that for most of the past year.
However, I need empathy in my life. I need it for myself in order to own my life and keep growing up and through and not get stuck when I make a mistake. And in order for me to have empathy for myself, I need to have it for others. So the first thing I have to do is ask, “How am I Donald Trump?” and then I play the game until I come up with at least five things.
- We’re both humans on earth in the year 2016. (<-- no lie, I was stuck with just this one for quite some time.)
- I grew up with a limited American History education and I’m assuming he must have, too, given that his dad was who he was.
- I was told things by my parents that I chose to believe simply because they are my parents and I love them.
- I’ve spent time feeling hurt by others and trying to prove my point so they’d listen.
- Sometimes I lie to myself to get through a situation where I’ve bitten off more than I could chew.
Now I have a basis of understanding him. Do I like him more? No. I like him even less. Do I excuse the things he’s said and done and will do? No. He should be held accountable for every terrible thing he’s done and will do. But he’s a human to me again because I can see myself and my own experiences in him and I look at him with (admittedly, maybe only a little) empathy. If you feel like you need help learning how to feel empathy, here’s a short guide.
Now that we’ve covered the basics of empathy, how does that relate to our situation right now and systemic racism? Empathy is the only path for true understanding. Do you want to stop being complicit in systemic racism? Then finding empathy for those you currently don’t relate to is the only way. And if I can do it with Trump, surely you can do it with people of color you’ve probably never met because you live in a town like I used to.
Ask yourself how you are like a person of color. Where are your similarities? If the truth is that there are no Others (and that is the truth!) and we see ourselves in everyone, how does that change your approach? What privileges have you been afforded in this life that the majority of them don’t have? Do you feel pressured to see your life as “less hard” when you admit that they’ve gone through hard things because you get caught up in comparing? When you humanize them, does it make it easier to relate to them as people struggling through life, just like you, but with several disadvantages? Have you ever felt at a disadvantage and if so, how were you hoping people would treat you?
Does owning our real, factual history mean we are bad people? No. Terrible things have happened in our history and the only way to help them not happen again is to TALK ABOUT THEM. Shine more light. No secrets. In Germany, they teach about the holocaust happening by inviting survivors into the classroom. We could take a page out of that book.
And a few words about justification: The harder we have to hold on to something and prove we’re right and justify why what we did wasn’t so bad or we had good reasons? The more we make others Other. You can read all about it here.
Fair & Balanced News
Oh, the age of online social media. You start a profile, upload your photo, add all your friends and start liking each others stuff. And then you do it on the next platform. And the next. Soon you’ve got all these little exclusive ecosystems where you are surrounded by everyone who agrees with you. They post news stories, you post news stories, you like each others stories and memes and gifs with Stefan from SNL and sooner rather than later, the platform you’ve chosen starts to serve you just what you like to read. Perfecto!
Let’s slap that big hunk over to the side for a sec and look at journalism at large right now. Systematically, we’ve lost our true journalists who held ethic and moral codes to their writing. Dan Rather has been one of the last of his breed and if you follow him on Facebook, you know what I’m talking about. I remember reading the paper growing up and there were facts and there were opinions and hardly ever the twain should meet. And if they DID meet, it was explicitly labeled as an opinion in the sea of facts.
Now we have completely fabricated websites with the exclusive aim of confusing people and muddying the facts. Satire is already confusing to certain generations, but when you add in other websites that are written as if factual, but are in fact complete lies, so much of our country doesn’t even have a chance unless they do what it takes to become educated outside of their little spaces. The lies and hyperbole are too much.
Ok, so pull that first load over and add it to this load. Together, we have the perfect storm of misinformation and living in a Yes-World. You only hear from those that agree with you and you’re reading information that is more opinion than fact and meant to confuse you.
With newspapers and old-style journalism going away, we’ve got to become smarter consumers of information. This is on you, friend. I know it’s much easier to just keep pulling up the same websites you’ve been looking at. It’s comforting to look at the world from those windows. But when our nation is divided this much, we’ve got to get the facts from each side to try and understand each other.
Case in point – on Facebook throughout the entire last year, I was never served one single story that was complimentary to Donald Trump in any way, shape, or form. If I only relied on that information (or TV pundit talking heads loyal to an agenda on their station) I would believe that Trump was 100% terrible and was mostly a buffoon and that the majority of people didn’t like him or buy into his garbage. And that is in fact what happened. I was blindsided this election as the red states went to Trump because I had been safe in my Yes-World where everyone agreed with me. It was impossible for him to win the presidency of the USA. And yet.(***UPDATE below)
I’m willing to bet I’m not the only one this happened to. I now understand this more than ever and I resent the part I’ve played and been played by Facebook. I don’t know that I would like Trump any more than I do now but I would have had a broader understanding of what the rest of the people in my country were seeing and thinking. I would have been more prepared for this eventuality. And that’s on me. And it’s on you, too, if you don’t make an effort to do better.
Finding unbiased and factual news sources is hard. Try some of these links, search through them for yourselves, and please, don’t automatically discount sites that disagree with your world view. Take some of those in and sit with it.
***UPDATE Jan. 2017: Since I’ve written this, I’ve yet to come across a conservative person I know in real life that actually *likes* Trump. I keep hearing why they voted for him *despite* how much they don’t like him. Which always comes back to this: They were willing to overlook his many, many, MANY faults and disgusting behavior because they are white and not affected.
Acknowledging someone else’s worth does not diminish your own. Be open to feeling and learning. If this is the first time you’ve run into this information, maybe reading it for today is enough. Maybe you’ll need to go through some emotional stuff. Maybe you’ve got some guilt and shame and anger to work through. All fine. Keep up the self care.
But as soon as you’re able, come back and read it again. Have you seen our world lately? It needs all the help it can get. We are low on Love and rife with misunderstanding and hate. How long do marginalized people have to wait for white people to learn their own history, own it, and then have a desire to do better?
Read some of the books and watch some of the documentaries listed below. Click over to some of those websites and read some different view points. Find out how you can actively be NOT a racist. And I bet you have people in your family you could talk to. Then try talking about it with your neighbors. There’s probably a social justice group somewhere near you. Will it feel awkward? Heck yeah. Super, duper awkward. But it’s the only way forward, so do it anyway.
If you’d like to join a group of people trying to figure out how their white privilege supports systemic racism, go here and join our Facebook group.
And a little aside to those friends of mine of the religious persuasions: I know you try and surround yourself with beauty and love and focus on the positive. I know you want to pray and have faith and rely on God to solve these hard problems. I know in your heart this doesn’t feel like you. But think on this: you have the OPTION to not be exposed to these types of things, these things that offend you like the N word and looking at lynching footage and listening as someone who speaks coarser language than you shares their story. It is that very option that is your privilege. God uses his many hands on the earth to do His good works. See if and where and how you can help. See if He will strengthen you to witness, learn, and then help heal.
Have something to add to these lists? Talk to me here, especially if you have ideas for other marginalized people’s information.
4 Replies to “A White Lady’s Guide to Systemic Racism”
The Thirteenth was kind of like a punch in gut for me. So much more needs to be said and shared about that.
Mary – I know. It was so hard to watch but so informative. My son and I were transfixed through the entire thing and kept turning to each other and asking, “Did you know that?” Spoiler alert: we did not know that.
Great list, great introspective thoughts. Love at the heart of it.