Actively using social media during unprecedented times is a bizarre, whiplash-inducing experience that there is little chance of preparing for. You learn a lot about filtering information and drawing conclusions on the world around you responsibly, you learn about the perspectives of others and how certain world events or legislative changes effect them. You see what it’s like to watch others wonder aloud and try to make heads or tails of a world that seems to be increasingly cruel and apathetic toward everyday people, especially people of color. And you see how social media brings to light a number of untold stories, making connections that you’d never imagined could exist. This experience has been front-and-center during our national “awakening” on race following the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery, in addition to the countless black lives lost at the hands of the police and fellow citizens that have gone unpunished. Many are wondering why this happens to their people at a rate over three times higher than it does to their white counterparts. They’re wondering why the police refuse to improve from within and look in the mirror to see how they can sow trust and make their communities feel safer, instead of doing the opposite. Mostly, they’re wondering why, in 2020, people *still* have such a hard time seeing the plight of black folks in a country where they have been enslaved far longer than they have been free, where Jim Crow ran rampant for a century, and where the economic gaps between blacks and whites are large and continue to grow. Many got their wondering out of the way several tragedies ago, and are now resigned to this reality and working on reforming, abolishing, and defunding the systems that have disenfranchised them. But there have been fewer musings about the smaller, more subtle interactions among white folks that continue a culture of racism and white supremacy.
In an taped interview, Toni Morrison says “If the only way you can feel tall is if somebody else is on their knees, then you have a problem. And the way I see it, white people have a very serious problem, and they should start thinking about what they can do about it. Take me out of it.” So often the conversation on race is centered around the efforts of black folks pulling themselves out of the hole that white folks continue to dig, the idea that they need to fight for rights that only white people can parcel out. As whites, we need to re-frame this conversation and begin to use the power structure of this country against it, and that cannot happen until the code that we have been living by is not only ignored, but abolished and called out at every turn, even retroactively.
We often watch old movies about slavery or the fight for Civil Rights and suck our teeth at the blatant racism of white characters (usually Southern, this is important)from “back in the day”, and even though many of them were the peers of our grandparents, we thank the lord that we’ve come so far, and that things are no longer the way they once were. Set aside the fact that white people have had very little to do with that “change” and understand that white attitudes have not made nearly enough progress. In fact, I’d argue we’ve gone backwards in many respects but hidden this regression with our reinvented vocabulary and manipulation of boundaries that we never set in the first place.
An obvious example: a common refrain uttered by those that are sure to say something racist is, “I’m not racist, but…”. Taking away the idiocy of self-labeling, this needs to be dug into a little deeper, because it’s a big reason many get away with transgressions or are even praised for progress they aren’t making. What white folks have done is received and pummeled the boundaries of two words: one I cannot say because I’m white, the other word is “racist”. We have tweaked these words so wholly that, for awhile, the only requirement for not being racist was just proclaiming that you weren’t a racist and avoiding the only word that could lead one to claim you were racist without being treated as a libelous false accuser. While the boundaries around the word “racist” are fairly ubiquitous, white folks know *exactly* when and with whom they can push the limits around the N-word. I can promise that for every white person getting caught using the slur, millions use it comfortably and without fear of even the slightest backlash.
This standard does not solely apply to the backwoods of Mississippi or any other semi-fictional hick town that “enlightened” white folks have assured themselves are the only harbingers of racism still left. It’s crucial to understand how this cop-out is extremely dangerous and downplays the experiences of black folks in liberal cities that endure transgressions that may be a bit subtler but are no less dehumanizing and isolating. It’s been well-reported that NYC has public schools that are segregated at a level that paces the rest of the nation, and the voting preferences or progressive Facebook posts of the PTA members does not change that. The deal is a raw one, and it brings a wonderfully false sense of superiority to the (often liberal) white benefactors: if you can endure any sort of real-life unity with black folks, even if you need to manufacture it, then you can claim allyship without ever having to actually fight for them. We make fun of the “I have black friends” trope, rightfully so, but we need to have the same vitriol for the black-square posters who “support good cops”, those who want justice for an isolated incident but cannot support any form of protest that holds oppressors accountable, and even the protesters whose vision of justice lies in a series of symbolic gestures and minor legislative “victories”(i.e. banning chokeholds in NYC which, as it turns out, was already illegal).
This isn’t to say every white person needs to be some lovechild of Malcolm X and Angela Davis, but it is to say that we need to break this code that whites have been living by since slavery. White slave owners claimed they were doing slaves a favor by enslaving them and giving them the best life they could expect on American soil. The “I’m not racist” play has been around forever, David Duke still routinely claims this for himself, and we still pretend it has any value at all. Most of us have come across the MLK quote about white moderates being a larger hurdle to justice than outright racists, and it’s not difficult to understand why. It’s much easier to read people you know don’t like you versus people you thought were on your side only to prove otherwise when you most needed them. This is where we need to make our largest shift, and where we can make the biggest difference among our peers and loved ones.
Incentives drive human behavior, encouraging popular actions and discouraging unpopular ones no matter the moral integrity of these actions. For the entirety of American history, racism has not only been allowed but encouraged at every level of our society. In high school the white class clowns were considered “funny” because of their musings on race, which of course were virulently racist and much enjoyed by the peers that would otherwise pay the clown no mind. In college, greek culture continues to be a hotbed of racism and exclusion, with your alma mater’s Sigma Chi house encouraging as much diversity as you’d see at a Kid Rock concert. Post-college, when looking for jobs and promotions (which are much easier to come across when you have fellow greek brothers and sisters in positions of power) employers hire lesser qualified white folks at higher rates without ever invoking race, instead using communication skills and “fit” as reasons for going another direction. This is especially evil given how often whites bring up Affirmative Action as an unfair boon for black employment, knowing full well how much easier we have it. CEOs and politicians are encouraged to focus their business and legislative efforts on catering to the rich, white bureaucracy while further expanding the gulf of racial socioeconomic inequalities. This is the chain, plain and simple, and every white person who is progressing through a life like this is happy to take part in it or at the very least turn a blind eye in order to continue benefiting from a narrowed-down pool of candidates and competitors.
So how can we change this? There have been well-documented, genuinely positive steps that we can take(donate, “listen and learn”, support on social media, protest), but none of this will change the sociological reward loop described above. Eradicating the backdoor racism that has advanced mediocre white folks far beyond their caliber starts with our own kitchen tables and barbecues. Make racism something that is condemned and shamed, instead of rewarded with a laugh. Don’t accept “old-fashioned” tendencies and “different time” excuses from racists, and if your peers are willing to hear you out, do your best to lead them in the right direction to better understand these issues. Most will not and there will be people you have to treat differently or cut off entirely, which is by far the hardest part of this process, but trust that they’ll come around eventually, on their own or by force. And understand that your cold shoulder was a form of tough love that was a small but major step toward a disincentive to racism. You can argue til you’re blue in the face about whether you can change someone’s heart, but you can make their bullshit bigotry a crippling relic that they will need to let go of to continue to engage in society, which is ultimately the best carrot to dangle. We’d all love to be rich, be we all need to be accepted, and threatening societal acceptance will make a person change their ways quickly.
Progress and reform are tired ideas that have gotten us nowhere, it’s past time that we draw a line in the sand and leave anyone behind who isn’t willing to see everyone as their equal and make every effort to right societal wrongs. This doesn’t just end with obvious examples of racism either, lend an understanding of how larger systems uphold an oppressive set of norms. Do your research on capitalism and how it incetivizes racism, do your research on the prison industrial complex and how it breaks up black families, do your research on racist policing not just today, but throughout history, and understand the role media plays in reporting on and representing the stories of people of color. When you are armed with knowledge, go and spread it. You don’t need to be perfect, but you have an obligation as a born-in member of the oppressive party to fix things from the inside to the best of your ability. We can’t tolerate it anymore, the lives of our black brothers and sisters depend on our actions, not theirs.