Finding Your Place in the Story of Race Will Not End Systemic Racism
People, especially those who are white, find the personal stories of those who share their awareness of understanding race, racism, and whiteness peculiarly fascinating. Think, for example, of Tim Wise, who has taken his story (White Like Me) about understanding race and turned it into a lucrative writing and speaking career. Books about white people writing about being white abound. On Amazon, there are four different books titled Growing Up White. More recently, Irving’s Waking Up White: Finding Myself in the Story of Race and Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy have expanded the growing list of white folks talking about being white. In September 2017, Daniel Hill wrote the latest memoir, White Awake: An Honest Look at What it Means to be White. The growing list of white memoirs show that white people are fascinated by white people talking about themselves in the context of race. Whiteness putting itself into the center of attention.
I could write the next memoir, I’m White,Too. I was raised to be racially conscious. Racist language, attitudes, interactions, jokes, were non-negotiable in my family. Non-negotiable in the manner that any infraction would end friendships in middle school, rupture family connections, and made political discussions essentially futile. As a white child growing up in the economically depressed western Massachusetts mill town of the 60’s, I had a FreshAir Fund sister from Brooklyn every summer. I knew who Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr., were and I watched the civil rights movement unfold in black and white on tv. I raised as a typical white liberal who was aware and stood on the sidelines hoping things would change.
So what does that mean? Absolutely nothing. My experience, my consciousness, my awareness, means nothing because it has no impact upon institutional and systemic racism. Being aware of racism, seeing its impact with unflinching clarity, does nothing to the system of racial oppression that undergrid American society. Personal journeys of consciousness are just that: personal. To assume that a personal story will translate into a dismantling of institutional and systemic racism is simply egotistical and foolish. On some level, the white people writing these memoirs seem to think that by sharing their story, it will make it easier for other white people to think and talk about race; that they are educating readers; that they are teaching some people who may be moved to act, to put down their white privilige. But for many, reading these memoirs is just an imaginative journey they have no desire to experience for themselves.
Fast forward to today, and we are no longer in a time when the personal memoir on race, educating white folks about the sins of racism, and courageous conversations will stop the current onslaught of racial animus and resentment. To quote Dr. Ibram Kendi:
“The major strategy that racial reformers have used is educational persuasion. As a strategy for racial progress, educational persuasion has failed, because it has been predicated on the false construction of the race problem: the idea that ignorance and hate lead to racist ideas, which lead to racist policies.”
Educational persuasion is not enough. The unflinching analysis of personal stories about being white trivialize the serious of systemic racism. Racism isn’t a personal story — it’s a system of oppression. The idea that we could educate ourselves out of racist systems is not a strategy and will not end racism in this country. We can increase awareness, but that will not end racism. Power, greed, and capitalism lead to racist policies, which lead to racist ideas, which are then used to justify the policies which serve the self interest of capitalism and exploitation.
The fight for justice requires different strategies and different tools. Tools that use the currency of democracy: the power of the vote and civil engagement ; and organized economic practices which impact those in power.
MLK marched, but he also boycotted Montgomery, Alabama busses; and filed a case with the Supreme Court, which ultimately ruled that segregation on busses was unconstitutional. These three things: protest, economic boycott and engaging with the democratic process brought change because it was in the self interest of the bus companies, politicians, and the Supreme Court. Lasting change has only come through legislation and Supreme Court Rulings.
Those of us who are white, are not required to end racism. Doing nothing keeps systematic racism unchallenged and in place. If white folk really want to end systemic racism, they will be forced to leave their comfort zone and look to follow the leadership of people of color. The anti-racism biography will do nothing. This work can not be done in isolation nor will change come through book clubs, lawn signs, buttons of solidarity, or just standing on the side lines. Just “hoping” racism will end is not enought. As DeRay McKesson says: “Hope is work.”