8 Things White People Really Need to Understand About Race

When I recently read this fantastic article from Jamelle Bouie entitled Why Do Millenials Not Understand Racism?, I couldn’t help but think it didn’t go far enough.

As someone who works with young people all the time, I definitely see the patterns Bouie describes in his analysis of research done by MTV (yeah, MTV does research! Whodathunk?), but it’s just too simple to say that Millenials don’t understand racism.

I think a lot of millenials in general misunderstand the connection between systems of oppression and interpersonal experiences of prejudice, but this is also a race-specific problem.

And by race-specific, I mean that this is a White people problem more than anything.

Now, let me be clear about why this article is directed at White people.

First, I am White, and as such, my role in ending racial oppression must be in engaging other White people to join accountable work for racial justice. Plain and simple.

Second, because privilege conceals itself from those who have it and because White people benefit most from the current systems of racial oppression, we as White people have a particular tendency to bury our head in the sand on issues of race, but we also have a particular role in acting for racial justice.

Are there people of Color who act in ways that reinforce systems of racial oppression? Sure. But it is not my place to address those issues. It is my place to work with White folks.

Thus, inspired in part by 18 Things White People Should Know/Do Before Discussing Racism, I would posit that there are a few things that it’s about time all White people figured out.

These are things we’ve been told collectively by people of Color countless times, but we don’t seem to be hearing them. Perhaps we can hear them differently when called in by a White person to consider how we can actively work to end racial injustice and oppression.

1. Racial prejudice and racism are not the same thing.

I recently posted the following graphic on Facebook:

Originally posted by Afropunk, though I’m not sure the original source.

Originally posted by Afropunk, though I’m not sure the original source.

(If you’re not sure why reverse racism isn’t a thing, that’s a wholly different article. Read this before continuing.)

It led to a frustrating and tense conversation with a White man who called it “the single dumbest thing [he’d] ever read.” I tried to unpack the “Prejudice + Power = Racism” argument, but it wasn’t working.

He kept coming back to something I often hear from White people when this notion of racism is presented.

He was very concerned about how this sentiment is unfair, as it seems to let women or people of Color or other oppressed people off the hook for prejudicial behavior.

Perhaps this speaks to how we as White people need to engage White folks differently in the conversation. Reverse racism is not real because racial prejudice directed at White people doesn’t have the weight of institutional oppression behind it, but that doesn’t meant that White people aren’t sometimes hurt by racial prejudice.

This is not to say that we should cater to White people’s feelings in conversations about racism or that this hurt is in any way comparable to the hurts caused by racism. It is to say, though, that we as White folks need to talk about this concept in a new way when engaging other White people.

If we never acknowledge the ways that White people feel wounded by interpersonal racial bigotry, we can’t push past this defensiveness to make change.

So no, it does not feel good to be called a “cracker.” It’s legitimate to feel hurt by that language. And as White folks, we can validate that hurt in other White people as we call them in to a conversation about racism.

It’s not legitimate, though, to equate that language with racist language that reinforces the oppression of people of Color. Sure, it can be a hurtful reaction, but equating racial prejudice against White folks with that experienced by people of Color erases the often-invisible structures of oppression at play, and doing so ensures that we never actually deal with root causes.

2. Interpersonal racism and systems of racial oppression rely on one another.

Race as we know it was created to ensure that poor Europeans utilize interpersonal expressions of racism to uphold bigger systems of oppression.

Thus, whether we’re talking lynchings or everyday microaggressions, the end result is the same:the actions taken by individuals further marginalize and devastate those already oppressed by racist structures like our educational system, our criminal injustice system, and so on.

Thus, while we absolutely must focus our energy on racist individuals or actions, it’s not simply for the sake of that individual or those they impact.

We must see engagement of interpersonal racism as a tool in the wider dismantling of racist structures.

3. Race isn’t real, but the impacts of race and racism are very real.

One of the more common responses that I hear from White people when confronted with the socially-constructed nature of race for the first time is for them to push a “race-neutral” ideology. This is often characterized by statements like, “But I don’t see race” or, “If race isn’t real, then we really are all one human family!”

Read the Rest at Everyday Feminism.

 

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Holding the Tension: Whiteness vs. European Cultural Identity

I recently attended a fundraiser event for Oyate Nipi Kte, an organization dedicated to the recovery of “Dakota traditional knowledge, including Dakota language, spirituality, ecology, oral tradition and life ways.”  At the event, Waziyatawin, Ph.D, called on White settlers who live on occupied Indigenous land to consider what it means to participate in resistance to White supremacy and continued colonization.

During a small group conversation, my friend Lex said something that has stuck with me, running through my mind daily since: “As White people, it’s important that we do the work to figure out who our people were before we were colonizers.”

It’s notable that Lex said this the day before St. Patrick’s day, during a weekend when countless people of all ethnic backgrounds donned green and drank green beer until they puked a verdant mess.

For me, reclaiming who my people were before we were colonizers means understanding my Irish, German, and Dutch heritage, yet I know next to nothing about my people and the cultures from whence they came.  Why?  Well, because they became White.

Whiteness as a Construct

Despite the way it’s often discussed, race is not a biological concept, and it sure as hell isn’t static.  First, “Whiteness” didn’t exist when Europeans first came to North and South America.  There were simply European landholders who held tight to power.  Over time, though, these European landowners needed a way to stave off slave and proletariat rebellions, so they invented this common “race” for some Europeans.

As laid out in Nell Irvin Painter’s “The History of White People,” at first, only certain Europeans (read wealthy men from north-western Europe) were considered worthy of being in the club.  In the early-to-mid 19th century, though, the wealthy “White” folks realized they needed more allies who could serve in slave patrols and in menial labor positions, so groups like the Irish were slowly allowed to become “White” in order to offer these European immigrants/colonizers a pittance that would keep them from uniting with enslaved African people and Indigenous people.

From there, Whiteness was expanded again in the early-to-mid-20th century to include most Europeans and even to include Jews who, no matter where in Europe they were from, had been traditionally excluded from the “White” label.

The Wages of Whiteness

What this label offered was access: access to land (through things like the Land Grant Acts which was almost totally denied to anyone not considered White), access to education (both through better-funded public schools and the G.I. Bill, which was systematically denied to soldiers of Color), access to jobs (though anti-Irish and anti-Italian job discrimination did exist, it didn’t have the widespread impact that policies like Jim Crow did), and access to countless other little and big legs up in American life.

IrishNeedNotApply

Despite common refrains from modern White people of Irish descent, these signs were rare.

But Whiteness came with a cost.  Becoming White meant leaving behind the cultural heritage of our people so that we could access the economic benefits, sometimes ones desperately needed, of the “American Dream” (aka the “Dream of White Supremacy”).

There’s a reason that I don’t speak a word of Gaelic, Dutch, or German.  There’s a reason that I know next to nothing about the cultures from which my people came.  There’s a reason that I don’t know the true reasons for why my people fled the land they always knew to see opportunities as colonizers in North America.

That reason is Whiteness.

When we look at race through this context, it is easier to understand Whiteness as more than a racial identity: it’s a system of privilege and oppression better known and understood as White Supremacy.

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Shaking Off the “Harlem Shake” Meme: Tools for Resisting Cultural Appropriation

Screen Shot 2013-03-14 at 4.35.47 PM

Last night I had the incredible honor to participate in a panel at Hamline University entitled “The Harlem Shake as Blackface: A Critical Look at Cultural Appropriation.”  Some truly inspiring and powerful voices spoke their truth about the problems with, dangers in, and hurt that stems from cultural appropriation like that of the Harlem Shake meme (shout outs to Dr. Daniel White Hodge, Mia Jackman, DJ Francisco, Chris McQuire, Mariah Kenya Cannon, Dr. Don C. Sawyer III, Ryan Willians-Virden, and Antoine Duke for speaking their powerful testimonies and truths).

Once the video of the event is out, I will make sure I publish it here on the blog.

As others in the panel responded to oft-asked questions like, “What’s the big deal? It’s just dancing!” and “What is this cultural appropriation thing anyway?”, I spoke to a question that I’ve been answering a lot since I published “Racism, Appropriation, and The Harlem Shake: “What am I supposed to do to resist/stop cultural appropriation?”

To be clear, every single time that I’ve been asked this question, it’s come from a White person, and most often it came from a place of defensiveness.  While many folks of Color know exactly what they need to do to hold onto their cultures and preserve them in spite of White appropriation, we as White folks (even the most well-meaning among us) are usually clueless about how we can resist this subtle form of racism.

Because I’ve been getting the question quite often, I figure it would be easier to respond here publicly.  That said, I am by no means an expert, so if you have ideas or suggestions for people to resist racist cultural appropriation, please share them in the comments.

How People of Racial Privilege can Resist Cultural Appropriation

1. Listen to Varied Voices and Perspectives of Color

Cultural appropriation is, at its root, more often a product of ignorance than of malice, but that doesn’t make it any less harmful in its impact.  If people of privilege like myself did a better job of listening to and educating ourselves about the varied perspectives of people of Color, we would be MUCH less likely to act in ways that further appropriate cultural expressions from their roots and locus of control in communities of Color.

HOWEVER, this does not mean we should be going up to people of Color and saying, “Please teach me! I don’t want to be a racist any more!”  Frankly, folks of Color are tired of having to educate us about history, oppression, privilege, and justice.

There are lots of ways for us to listen.  As noted by Mychal Denzel Smith in his brilliant article “White People Need to Give Up Racism,” “White people have to diversify their media consumption.”  We need to read, listen to, watch, and reflect on the voices of a variety of people of Color in our media consumption.  If you want some suggestions of where to start, Smith offers some good ideas in his article.

And when we DO find ourselves in a position to listen to people of Color speak their truths, we need to shut up, listen, and stop thinking of ways that we can simply respond or push back.

In the case of the Harlem Shake meme, if more of the White folks who helped to launch this meme were aware of the life-saving force that hip hop music and dance has been in Harlem and of the history of the dance itself and of the ways that the culture of folks of Color is regularly stolen and repackaged by White folks, I like to think that most of them would have been less likely to participate.

We must remember that listening is the root of justice.

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