WhiteManEars

Here Are the Real Reasons Why We White People Struggle to Admit That Racism Still Exists

Originally published at Everyday Feminism.

When I was 18 years old, I listened to The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill on repeat.

My girlfriend and I would just sit in silence, listening to Lauryn unpack her brilliance, taking away something new each time.

So I was devastated when I heard the (now disproven) rumor that she told an MTV interviewer, “If I’d known White people were going to buy my last album, I never would have recorded it.”

I stopped listening to her because as a young, passionate liberal who “stood up to racism in all its forms,” I couldn’t in good conscience continue to support a “racist.”

Then, when a Latina woman I greatly admired suggested that it’s impossible for people of Color to be racist against White people, I lost it, furious at the perceived double standard.

And now, as debates about racism and a “post racial America” rage in my social media, I see these same frustrations in my fellow White people over and over.

We, as White folks, are upset that “everything is made to be about race these days!” We regularly claim that the “most racist people in the world are [insert group of people of Color].”

Many White people perceive that we’re under attack because people of Color and their White allies are angry with systems of racial oppression – and at us for our complicity in maintaining those systems. We get called names and told that our “White tears” don’t matter.

So we respond with how the dictionary defines racism as “poor treatment of or violence against people because of their race.”

And by that logic, we’re the real victims of racism! Right?

And if that’s our only context for understanding racism, then surely someone thinking I’m racist just because I’m White is racism!

Yet it seems that we’ve come to a place where the single worst thing that we can be called, the single insult that most enrages us, is suggestion that we might actually be racist.

And I get it – because I have said and thought every single one of those things.

But what troubles me most in all of this is that we are so invested in proving that people of Color are “more racist” than we are or that we’re not racist, we are more upset by allegations that we might be racist than about the very real ways that racism plays out in the society around us.

I see my fellow White people so wrapped up in defending the idea that systemic racism doesn’t exist that we are unable to empathize with the real pain caused to people of Color by racism, both interpersonal and systemic.

For goodness sake, even the McKinney police admitted Eric Casebolt was out of line in assaulting a young Black girl for legally observing his actions, yet White people in my life were trying so hard to explain how the officer was in the right and how this “isn’t racial.”

All of this leaves me wondering about the roots of our defensiveness to admitting that racism is alive and well.

Why are we so resistant to acknowledging the countless examples of our racial privilege?

What do we risk by actually empathizing with people of Color and acknowledging how racial oppression plays out in our society?

Almost every White person I know at least claims to live by a strong set of values, and I rarely meet people whose core values say that it’s good for people of Color to be treated as second class citizens.

I don’t think I personally know anyone who believes that their core values sanction their participation in the hurting of other people.

And yet both systemic and interpersonal racism hurt people. Racism destroys lives.

So how is it that we can live more fully into the values that so many of us claim to hold when we’re defensive about whether we might be benefitting from racism?

1. White People Must Choose to Extend Our Personal Values towards Racial Issues

Because otherwise, we continue to contribute to White supremacy.

When someone calls us as White people out for racist behavior or language, we are almost never being accused of being card-carrying members of the KKK.

Yet so many of us are stuck in a surface level, 1950s conception of racism where we can clearly identify it as wearing White hoods and burning crosses.

But even then, racism was far more complex and insidious.

The reason that so many people claim that people of Color can’t be racist is that racism is about more than individual attitudes that we hold.

Racism is about the ways that virtually all of the systems in which we live (economic,educational, judicial, medical, and so on) were created to serve White people (particularly White, cisgender, straight men) while oppressing people of Color.

And even with major reforms over time, this is still true.

So if we only see racism as flying the Confederate battle flag over a state capitol or as an individual racist gunman, it makes sense that we get so damn defensive when the topic of race and racism comes up. Few of us want to be associated with that blatant hate.

But to understand the issues of race and racism that are being tackled by anti-racist movements like #BlackLivesMatter, we White folks need to make sure we’re being clear about the difference between Whiteness (also sometimes called White supremacy) and White people.

One of my favorite authors on the topic, Dr. Zeus Leonardo, lays out this distinction well, noting that Whiteness is something created by wealthy Europeans that subsumes all light-skinned European ethnicities into one identity.

Why was Whiteness created? For social control: to allow wealthy White elites to unite poor and middle class Whites against people of Color.

Whiteness, then, refers to that system of social control and its institutions that were built to serve White wealth and power concentration.

White people, on the other hand, are individuals who have been caste into this racial hierarchy. We are not Whiteness, but we are inscribed with it from birth. As such, we face a choice.

Just as men can choose whether to align with feminism and work for gender equity, White people can choose whether to turn away from defending systems that are literally killing people of Color while we benefit.

And instead, we can choose to invest in racial justice.

To me, that is such an incredibly empowering and liberating realization!

As White people, we have agency about how we will engage with the racial world around us.

And yet so many of us, as I described above, do all we can to convince ourselves, and others, that racism cannot be real (except in the rare cases of a KKK rally). Why?

Well, because there are damn good reasons for us as White people to invest in Whiteness, to invest in those systems that tell us that racism isn’t real and that we aren’t privileged.

Some of those reasons are tangible, as we have real political and economic stakes in being defensive to racial justice movements. Others of those reasons are emotional, and as such, are far more terrifying to actually grapple with.

2. White People Benefit Materially from Racism

Therefore, most of us have an unacknowledged political and economic stake in maintaining White supremacy.

It can be really hard sometimes to feel like we get any sort of political or economic benefit from our racial identity when our lives feel pretty shitty.

I remember once when I had written an article about White privilege, my friend’s dad called him and railed about what I had to say, asking my buddy who works really hard at a carpet cleaning and installation company, “Do you feel privileged right now while you’re busting your ass to feed your family?”

We’re struggling with our mortgages. We’re struggling with relationship problems or divorce. We’re struggling with the other aspects of our identity that are marginalized or oppressed. So it’s hard to believe that there could be any sort of racialized wind at our back.

And I get that!

But benefitting from racist systems doesn’t mean that everything is magically easy for us. It just means that as hard as things are, they could always be worse.

We could face the daily onslaught of overt and covert racism that impedes people of Color on top of all of our struggles.

I could lay out statistic after statistic, article after article, book after book about how White people are privileged in almost every place on Earth that Europeans colonized (all but a handful of countries), but that will do no good if we’re not simply willing to listen.

It’s our defensiveness to understanding the racialized world around us that we must understand if we want to live in a way that better aligns with our values, the values of justice and equity so many of us hold.

After all, those values are in direct competition with our material realities.

If our children are more likely to go to college because they grew up surrounded by Whiteness, wouldn’t we want them to have that opportunity?

Or if we will be more likely to have a comfortable retirement enjoying state and federal parks if we ignore calls from Indigenous people to return land (both public and private), why would we join that movement?

Divesting from Whiteness means divesting from material realities that make our lives better at the expense of other people’s lives – and also  at the expense of solidarity that could, eventually, raise the standard of living for all people, including us.

And that’s really scary to consider!

So to even consider divesting from those systems, we have to dig a little deeper.

3. White People Have an Emotional Stake in Denying White Supremacy 

Because that way, we can avoid dealing with how we’re complicit in its pervasiveness.

Admitting that we’re acting in racist ways or supporting racist systems is terrifying. And it hurts.

Scarier still is doing the deep emotional reflection to understand the ways that we may be truly racist deep down.

And if you’re anything like me, I don’t like doing things that terrify me or that hurt.

So I have an emotional stake in coasting along with the status quo.

I have an emotional stake in reacting defensively to allegations that I have hurt a person of Color with my privileged actions.

I have an emotional stake in pretending that my equitable values are in alignment with the world I create for myself.

Because to admit that racism is real means that the world around me isn’t as I thought it was, and it means that I am living out of alignment with my values.

And that hurts deeply.

So is it any wonder that we fight tooth and nail to deny that racism could be at play in police killings?

Or that we disproportionately vote in ways that actually are against our self-interests (in an interesting contradiction to our economic and political stake) in order to enact policies that hurt people of Color?

Or that we are far more outraged by allegations of our own racism than by the everyday racism that destroys people’s lives?

We are living in a “culture of make believe.”

But living in this fantasy also comes at a tremendous emotional cost.

One of the most powerful of human capacities is our ability to empathize, to see ourselves in another human being even when we may have next to nothing in common outside of our humanity.

And when we defend racist systems and refuse to be self reflective about our complicity in them, we turn our back on that core, connecting aspect of what makes us human.

By investing in Whiteness, we turn our backs on our own humanity.

4. Working towards Racial Solidarity Means Being Vulnerable

Because that’s the only way for us to transform ourselves for the better.

My own investment in working for racial justice didn’t come from being presented with lists or statistics about my privilege. It came from being called upon by mentors, both people of Color and White people, to live more fully into my values.

They asked me to quiet myself and listen to the voice of people of Color who described devastation caused by the everyday interpersonal and systemic racism.

They challenged me to get in touch with my human capacity for empathy.

When I opened my heart to this empathy, it hurt tremendously, and it inspired me to change myself in hopes of transforming my community.

But even further, some of my most powerful transformation came when I was asked to frame my investment in justice not only through empathic concern (how racism hurts people I love) but also through recognizing what I lose by investing in Whiteness (how racism hurts me).

And I’m still answering that question.

But in my journey to understand what Whiteness costs me paired with my ever-evolving desire to be in more accountable solidarity, I’ve found that I am living a more spiritually-fulfilling life than I ever did before.

And that’s because I’ve chosen to live into my values.

All of us as White people are offered a choice, then. Will we choose to live into our values and into our human capacity for empathic concern? Or will we invest in the alluring benefits of Whiteness?

If we choose the former, then we have to resist our inclination to be defensive when talking about racism and our own complicity in its systems. We can’t pretend that we are simply “post racial.”

We have to commit to finding a third way, a way characterized by building accountable relationships across difference and striving for anti-racist solidarity.

And that solidarity is powerful and important. Over and over, we can hear people of Color asking us to set down our shields of defensiveness and call in our own people to change.

But we should also recognize that by allowing ourselves to get in touch with why we are defensive, we open the door to something more than solidarity.

We open the door to powerful self-transformation and to growth as people.

Because by investing in what makes us human and by working to live more fully into values of justice and equity, we invite positive change into our lives.

And in doing so, we set a powerful standard for other White people in our lives: our families, our friends, our colleagues, and, most importantly, the next generation of White people to inherit this flawed world in which we live.

“You Voted for Him Because He’s Black” and Why That’s Okay

Yo, White dudes were PISSED last week!

After all, they took a pretty good shellacking in the election, but man, was this really necessary?  I guess it’s not surprising when this, this, and this were happening before the election, but White men are acting like they suddenly don’t control congress, pretty much every state legislature, business, the banks, and every major media outlet.  Take a breath, grab yourselves some casserole, and chill out!

The reality is, though, that demographics are changing, and they’re not changing in favor of the Republican Party, the Whitest major party around.  Mixed race, Latino, and Asian-American populations are the fastest growing demographics, and all of these groups vote staunchly Democrat.  Plus, women, particularly single women, aren’t exactly flocking to the Right side of the aisle.

I mean, just look at how things broke down in this year’s race for the presidency:

Percentage of Important Demographics that Voted for Obama in 2012
93% of African Americans
73% of Asian Americans
71% of Latinos
67% of single women
55% of women
Sources: Latinos Post and The Guardian

Now, considering that those numbers likely reflect a lot of Democratic voting down ballot as well, there are two things we can assume about these numbers:

  1. Of the two major parties in the U.S., one is more responsive to the needs of women and people of Color; OR
  2. “The next time someone tells me that the Black voters are not bigoted, stick it in the trash can because Black voters are bigoted — 93 percent (of the Black vote went) for Obama, 6 percent for (Mitt) Romney — you’re bigots.” – St. Louis radio personality Kevin Slaten

I cannot tell you how many White folks I have heard in the last week freaking out to much the same tune as our buddy Kevin.  “Latino voters are racist.”  “Black voters are racist.”  “Women don’t vote for real issues like the economy or foreign policy. They only vote with their vaginas.”

Well, I hate to say it, but if that’s how we’re going to interpret these results, then White men, you might want to flip over that coin and look at the other side:

What the Electoral Map would have looked like if only White Men could vote:

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A Culture of Civility – Bullying and Student Achievement

I’ve been working hard lately to finish writing and shooting the content for A Culture of Civility, a three-part video seminar series for schools aimed at understanding and preventing identity-based bullying.

Whenever I talk to students about this project, they immediately get it.  They are excited about a new approach to understanding bullying in schools, and they recognize the need for building a culture and climate of inclusiveness.

When I talk to most administrators and many teachers, though, there’s a disconnect, a skepticism.  And I don’t  blame them.  For those tasked with educating our young people, there are about 25 chainsaws they are expected to juggle flawlessly: state standards, graduation rates, student behavior, state-mandated tests, district-mandated tests, college entrance rates, support for extra-curriculars, parent engagement, and on and on…

Above all, I hear the word “achievement.”  And in many ways, I should.  To quote a famous Bushism, we must ask, “Is our children learning?”  We must ensure that students are prepared for the world after high school, and as such, we need a lazer-like focus on standards and achievement.

But to focus on achievement doesn’t simply have to mean that we focus on tests, standards, and innovative reading, writing, and math instruction.  We need to ensure that students have an environment where they are safe to learn so that our academic work is not in vain.

In their article “School Climate as a Factor in Student Adjustment and Achievement,” (Journal of Education and Psychological Consultation, 9:3, 321-329) Yale University’s Child Study Center researchers Norris M. Haynes, Christine Emmons, and Michael Ben-Avie define school climate as “the quality and consistence of interpersonal interactions within the school community that influence children’s cognitive, social, and psychological development.”  School climate is essentially the sum total of interactions “among staff, between staff and students, among students, and between home and school.”

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“Invisible Oppression:” Cece McDonald and Violence Against Transgender People

Have you heard about Cece Mcdonald?

If you haven’t, you definitely need to read up on her and her case.  In short, “In June of 2011, CeCe, [a Black, Transgender Woman] was attacked while walking to the grocery store with her friends. After a group of White bar patrons shouted slurs at CeCe and her friends—calling them “faggots,” “chicks with dicks,” and “niggers”–a woman in the group smashed a glass into CeCe’s face, cutting through her cheek. A fight broke out and one of CeCe’s attackers [was killed]. The police arrived and singled out CeCe, who was seriously injured, for arrest. The Hennepin County Attorney’s Office charged her with second-degree murder.”  Since her arrest, she has been denied proper medical care and has been housed with male inmates despite the fact that she does not identify as a man and that prisons and jails are notoriously abusive spaces for Trans people (source for account of Cece’s attack and subsequent treatment).

Eventually, Cece accepted a plea bargain for second degree manslaughter (which could carry a sentence of up to 3 1/2 years in pris0n), but she has been clear from the beginning: she acted in self defense.  The man who died that night would be alive if he and his friend had never attacked Cece and her friends, and it was clear that Cece was attacked because of her race and her gender identity.

It is hard to get a clear picture of the levels of violence that Transgender people face in the United States.  After all, the Federal government doesn’t collect hate crime data on Transgender hate crimes, and few states collect any data.  Studies have shown, though, that the rates of violence against Transgender people in the U.S. are SIGNIFICANTLY higher than other forms of violence.  Plus, there is evidence to indicate that the the murder rate of Transgender people is more than 10 times the murder rate in the general population in the U.S..

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Anti-Semitism and Criticism of Israel

I grew up in a community that staunchly supports Israel.  It’s the kind of place where you would regularly see billboards like this one:

In the U.S., there are three main pro-Israeli lobbies.  One is a mixture of interests that sees Israel as a key ally in a region that is volatile and that contains many American interests (like oil – lots of it).  Another consists of Jews and Jewish organizations that support Israel as a homeland for the Jewish people.  The last describes most of the Israel supporters in my hometown: Christian Zionists.  Christian Zionists are Christians who see the return of all Jews to the Holy Land as key to the prophecy of the Second Coming of Christ and the Rapture.  Growing up around a lot of Christian Zionists, I couldn’t help but support Israel for similar reasons, but as I got older, I came to realize that Christian Zionism is super freaky and actually pretty anti-Semitic.

You see, Christian Zionists believe that once all the Jews return to the Holy Land (read Israel), the Second Coming will begin, and in that process, all of the Jews (who many Christian Zionists believe were responsible for the death of Christ the first time around) will be struck down by God for their refusal to accept Christ as Lord and Savior.

So . . . Basically the Christian Zionists want to kill all of the people they claim to support . . . THIS IS THE RIDICULOUSNESS I WAS RAISED TO BELIEVE!!

In college, I was introduced to the other side of the narrative, a side where Israel is not some benevolent home of the Jews (“A land without a people for a people without a land“) but is actually a political pawn of the United States that uses its funding from the U.S. (to the tune of $3 billion per year) to oppress the Palestinians in an Apartheid-like system of suppression.  I learned of the narrative, counter to the dominant one in media and in the Churches and schools I had attended, where Palestinian loss of life and land is wildly disproportionate to that of Israel.

Israeli and Palestinian Children Killed since Sept. 29, 2000.
Source

0 Homes of Israelis have been demolished by Palestinians since Sept. 29, 2000. 24,813 Palestinian homes have been demolished by Israelis.
Source

Then in June of 2009, I visited Israel and Palestine.  In Israel, I saw a bustling, Western country with seemingly-endless resources.  In Palestine, I saw poverty, desperation, and violent oppression.

Palestinian olive trees that were cut down by Israelis after the 2nd Intifada in an effort to damage the Palestinian economy.

The Israeli Apartheid Wall, meant to “protect the Israelis from Palestinians,” though it actually acts as a land grab that cuts deep into the West Bank.

These experiences helped me to understand the tremendous power imbalance in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, with one side backed and funded by the most powerful country in the world and the other being forcefully thrown from their land with little recourse.

As a result, I’ve long been active in the movement to secure a free and independent Palestine, partnering with Palestinians, Jews, and other concerned citizens in the U.S. and around the world.  In this activism, I found a troubling trend.  One of the first times I experienced it was while marching in a pro-Palestinian march in Chicago.  People were lining the street where we were marching, screaming at us and holding up photos of the atrocities of the Holocaust.  They were screaming, “BIGOT!  ANTI-SEMITE!  IF YOU HAD YOUR WAY, ALL JEWS WOULD BE WIPED OFF THE MAP!!!”

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Let Gay Men Donate Blood

To allow bigotry to contribute to a public health crisis leaves the realm of hurtful and enters the realm of absurdity, but that is exactly what is happening in the United States today.

Around the country, the American Red Cross is calling for donors to step up to donate blood in the face of severe blood reserve shortages in almost every state.  In the context of this reality, blood donation centers are encouraging anyone eligible under federal guidelines to step forward and donate.  But that meas that if you have had a tattoo in the least year or have visited a country where malaria is present in the last year, you’ve gotta wait a little.

Oh, and if you’re a man and have had sexual contact with a man since 1977, you can never donate blood.  Not once.  Never.

Now, I know what some of you are thinking: “WHAT!?  That can’t be right!  That is blatant homophobic discrimination!”  Well, while it may be blatant homophobic discrimination, it is also federal law.

What’s worse is that you don’t need to be actually gay.  Because of the law, screeners have turned away folks like Aaron Pace, a Straight Indiana man who was turned away from a donation center for appearing gay.

Now maybe you’re thinking, “Well, isn’t this just some sort of antiquated crap that just needs to be done away with?”  Well, while it is antiquated poo that needs to be disposed of, it was upheld by the Congressional Health and Human Services Committee last summer.

Those in Congress and around the country who support the ban on Gay men donating blood point to the fact that half of new HIV infections in 2005 were among Gay men, but they ignore the fact that the fastest growing rates of HIV are among young women, African American women, and Hispanic women.  Would the federal government consider banning African American women from donating?  No!  That’s absurd.  Such a policy would not even be considered, and if it were enacted, public outcry against the racism and sexism would be loud.

After all, blood banks are now required to screen all blood with advanced screening processes to ensure that it is safe for transmission to those who need it.  Thus, there is no need for supposed “lifestyle questions” that blatantly discriminate against Gay men.  So what explanation is there for discriminating?

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Power, Voice, and the Race Card

I have a tremendous amount of privilege, and I have done very little to deserve any of the privileges that I have.  I was born into a wealth in a white family in a country that is built for wealthy, white people.  I am a (mostly) heterosexual man in a culture that greatly privileges and benefits straight people and men.  My first (and only) language is English, the language that has, unfortunately, become the language of power in this world.  I was raised Christian in a culture that privileges Christians above all others, and as such, I can speak the language of Christianity.  In the words of Louis CK, “How many advantages could one person have!?”

One of the most incredible privileges that comes with my identities is the ability to have my voice valued and heard regardless of what I say.  That’s something that I talk a lot about in my work.  After all, I am a white, straight, male who earns his living as a diversity consultant.  The irony of that, which I make sure I express whenever I speak professionally, is that the things I am saying are said all the time by other people, but we just don’t listen to those voices.  Every single day, women must live the realities of sexism and sexual violence, and they speak out against them all the time, but we often tell them that they are being “overly sensitive.”  People of color point out all the time the ways in which our racially-stratified society hurts and oppresses them, yet when they do, we tell them that they are playing the “race card.”  LGBTQ folks speak all the time of the ways in which the society which is built for straight people and tells Queer folks that they are somehow dirty and wrong affects their lives and their self esteem, but again, they are accused of simply trying to use their experience to advance the “homosexual agenda.”  However, whenever I, in all my privilege, say these things, people often listen.

Now there are a host of problems with someone using their privilege on behalf of those without privilege to try to advance an agenda (which I try to check in with myself regularly to make sure I am not doing), and that can be discussed at a later time.  However, the point is that my voice is valued.  The people who are originally saying the things I say don’t have that privilege.

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