I was in college, in a multicultural psychology class when I almost started crying in front of everyone when my professor pushed me to elaborate. After stuttering out some confused emotions, she said “What you are feeling is white guilt.”
Just a few weeks later, I fought with a white male engineer friend about whether he should be able to say the n word without a backlash. He was convinced that it was “just a word” and he shouldn’t be penalized for using it. Not that he was throwing it around everywhere he went, but it’s not a huge deal anymore. Black people use it. It’s just a word. It’s not like he’s racist or anything.
When I made a comment just a year or so ago about how expensive Disneyland has become, one person said “Well, I think that’s how they keep the riff-raff out.”
(Note: who says riff-raff. Seriously.)
I can think of other moments where I encountered these racist comments and opinions among my mainly all white groups of friends that I have had throughout the years. These moments are notable because I rarely need to think about race, and my white friends and colleagues hardly talk about it. That’s white privilege. I choose when to think about this toxic part of our world that is sewn into every aspect of our society. I’m not forced to think about it daily and deal with rage and injustice and feeling less than human.
I still encounter these moments, where someone says something so offensive, but in such a casual way that you think they must not know what they’re saying. You thought you knew where they stood- they’ve made comments to you about LGBT rights or global warming. You saw them as someone you relate to. And yet, they start a completely offensive story with “I’m not racist, but…”
When the Baltimore riots were happening, I heard a lot from the people around me about what they thought the rioters should be doing instead. Or what the people who were enraged about young black men and women being murdered on a regular basis by our justice system should do about their feelings. A lot of opinions on what “they” should do. How they should act and react. What about white people? What are we doing about it? It’s not someone else’s problem.
I have always lived along the coast of California (my life is hard) and I am used to a liberal political landscape. But I have realized that in these all-white towns, liberalism only goes so far. “I voted for Obama, but seriously this neighborhood is starting to feel sketchy now that there are all these weird markets and mexican food places around.” I run into that type of crap way too often. And I might be wrong, but this kind of passive racism seems more dangerous than the overt, uneducated, hateful and obviously-wrong-to-everyone racism we see from time to time.
The white people in my town see confederate flags or swastikas and shake their heads. “How can people be so dumb?” They are not racist, because they had a black friend once. They voted for Obama. But then they don’t see police shooting black Americans as their problem – and also, poor cops, right? They are getting such a bad rap with this stuff.
What makes me different? Nothing. What makes me not racist? What makes me not part of the problem, but part of the solution? That’s what I am trying to figure out.
I have wanted to be an ally for minorities for a long time, but never knew how. I post articles that shock me on Facebook, because maybe they will shock others as well, and help spread awareness. I try to stay informed. I have the privilege to have these horrifying truths never cross my path if I wanted to avoid them. So I try to spread the word to others who might never hear the news otherwise.
I find it easy to discuss sexism and homophobia with the people I encounter. I find it easy to find people who feel the same about LGBT rights in my community. Feminists are a little less common, but I have learned how to call people out and bring up sexism relatively easily. I am comfortable defending feminism, even if it makes people feel uncomfortable. I feel like a terrible person when I say that I can’t discuss racism with the same ease. I am adamantly anti-racist and want to be an ally for minority groups in our country who still cannot find basic justices after hundreds of years of horrifying oppression. But I hear someone say something racist and…
“I’m not racist, but…”
After I leave that encounter I think of a thousand things I should have said.
“I’m going to stop you there, because whatever you are going to say after that disclaimer is probably awful.”
“Wait – I bet you $50 what you are about to say is actually racist. Sorry to interrupt, I just really like gambling.”
“No no no no no no no” *runs away*
…See? Not very good at it, even after analyzing it after the moment has past. I just want to do something different than go silent and look like a deer in the headlights. And then everyone keeps talking like nothing awful just happened. We shouldn’t be okay with this.
Two things happened recently that really made me feel like I needed to start examining this more closely – with the people around me and in my own patterns.
1. Gay marriage was declared legal in all 50 states.
2. Someone started an awful story with “I’m not racist, but…” (again.)
I was thrilled when I heard about the supreme court decision. But it was bittersweet. No one should have to live with injustice, no matter how short or long the duration – but it was sad to me that LGBT individuals saw so much progress, while the state of race relations in our country is archaic to say the least. I celebrated, don’t get me wrong. LGBT rights are still not even close to fully realized, and so many groups worked so hard and waited for so long to see this kind of progress.
I just wish I could celebrate something like that for racial minorities in this country.
But every time I listen to the news or look online, I am disgusted at how little we have achieved. So I am trying to figure out what I can do. I don’t want to be a part of the problem. I don’t want to live in blissful ignorance because of my privilege.
I don’t want to be part of the problem. I want to help.
What do you think white people can do to become allies and try to make positive change? If you are an ally, do you have any experiences to share?
I do have some articles that I have found super helpful when learning more about my white privilege and race in the US and some things that have been in the news lately. Check them out if you want to learn more:
What’s wrong with cultural appropriation?
The video of Sandra Bland’s arrest before her suspicious death
A story of injustice and prison
7 ways our justice system is racially skewed
When to take a stand – and when to let it go
Understanding white privilege
*Click on images for source*