My White Responsibility
I am a 48-year-old, white, heterosexual, American man living in Seattle and watching all of the chaos the world seems to be descending into. I could choose to see the protests to end police violence and white supremacy as a threat. After all, it threatens my whiteness: My way of moving and being in the world. From all directions, I’m hearing how being white is damaging to others, threatening to people of color, and provides a level of privilege and access to those who share my phenotype.
I have been white all my life. I grew up in white communities and played with other white children. I went to schools that were predominantly filled with people who looked like me, who talked like me and whose ancestors came from the same continent as mine.
My people are churchgoers and charity givers. My grandmothers taught me the importance of caring for the poor and standing up for the disadvantaged. My grandfathers taught me the value of honesty and the need for integrity. My parents worked hard to teach me to make decisions that would not harm myself or others. They taught me to use my manners and the value of being polite.
It doesn’t feel wrong. It doesn’t feel harmful. It feels proper and it feels like the world is trying to tear it all down. Like the world is saying that being polite in society is worthless and that anarchy is needed. Is this possibly true? Maybe. It is more probable that the truth of the matter exists somewhere in between? I would say yes.
I was taught all of these things from my parents and grandparents, through direct and indirect lessons. There were certainly moments where my grandmother gave me a direct lesson in keeping my elbows off the dinner table. There are many more moments where she modeled a lesson in the subtle words she used and the attitudes she held. Just as my parents taught me who to be, they also taught me who not to be.
Such as when I was in 6th grade and came home exclaiming I had a girlfriend. I was admonished for not being old enough to date and when I told them that it was the black daughter of our principal who was in my class, a significant conversation was held around the kitchen table. I was told that I couldn’t date that young lady because it would be improper. God didn’t design us to mix with other races.
I was also taught this lesson when my mother told me of how her father wouldn’t let her friend sleepover because she was Black. When my grandfather gave me my first slingshot and called it a “n*****-shooter.” These are the direct moments of modeling racist attitudes and, thankfully, there are very few. Not everyone can say that. For some, there are far more and for others, even less.
For the most part, my parents and grandparents seemed to hold fairly egalitarian values on race. These moments were bracing due to their ability to disrupt what I had come to know as the status quo on race in our family: All people are created equal. That issue was settled in this country in 1964 with the adoption of the Civil Rights Act. The law had spoken; issue resolved.
However, far more destructive were the subtle acts of modeling. The concepts of us/them that were placed between my experience as a white child in America and those of youth in the inner city. How my parents responded to news stories of black violence, drug trafficking, and crime. The lack of exposure to any restaurant, book, television show, radio host, pastor, leader, or house guests that were Black.
My dad had a number of Black and Hispanic employees. He treated them as fairly as any of his white employees. They all respected my father as an employer and many of them stayed on for years. However, when they fell on hard times and needed extra help or failed out of the company altogether, the response to their failure, as opposed to that of his white employees, was different. Both were due to character flaws by his assessment. One seemed to be innate and inevitable while the other was simply unfortunate.
As a young man in college, I further exposed myself to whiteness. My roommates, my friend, the members of my church were all white. My university was predominately white. It was a state liberal arts school, so the opportunity to be exposed to challenging material abounded. I tried to take advantage of this opportunity. One quarter, I was encouraged by a humanities professor to take the African American Literature course.
The professor spent the first class explaining phenotype — the set of observable characteristics of an individual resulting from the interaction of its genotype with the environment. He ended the class by telling us that although he presented as white, his father was black. I found that almost impossible to believe at the time.
I had his class two days a week and only one African American young man was present in the course with us. This fellow student’s next class must have been in a similar direction as mine because we walked out of the building and through the main square together at the end of every class.
Not once did I strike up a conversation with him. Not once did I introduce myself. As I remember it, I generally walked in front with him several paces behind. I remember this event occurring twice a week throughout the quarter and I remember my growing awareness of the discomfort I felt by having a black man walk so close behind me. That feeling has never left me. In fact, I have become ever more aware of my apparent inability to alter it.
In the decades since, I have walked hundreds of miles of sidewalk, and every black man I see approaching gives a rise of cortisol in my system. My gaze slides off to the side and I intentionally don’t make eye contact. Where does this come from? As best I can tell, it is a programmed response.
The code of this physical-emotional response is embedded in every television episode where a black man is portrayed as a dangerous thug. It is in every movie script where black society is fraught with the dangers of drugs, money, and the violence they produce. It’s woven in every news highlight of black violence, black drama, black poverty, black anger, and black militants. It is in the sharp and quick tone of the angry black woman and the cutting look in every black man’s eye that has been provided for my consumption in the media.
It is encoded in the lessons of my youth. I never spent time in black communities, I was never taken to black neighborhoods or cultural events. The only thing I was given about blackness was that it was dangerous, angry, ignorant, and poor. It was demonstrated to be ruthless and savage to itself and outsiders and that I was best served to stay away.
Being a liberal arts student who pursued a degree in creative writing, I did more than most white folk in educating myself on the African American plight. My bookshelves hold volumes by great black authors. If they were white, they would just be called authors. I have several African American artists displayed on my wall; if they were white, they would just be artists. I have several African American friends; if they were white, they would just be friends.
I was never provided modeling on how to engage in real conversations with people of color; Not just conversations that revolve around the weather, how hard the job is, or what was wrong with their paycheck but conversations around what it is to be a person. Likewise, people of color have not been provided the modeling of conversations with white folk that doesn’t go through a lens of supremacy.
How could they not? Is not supremacy the best word to describe everything that I have been taught about the difference between growing up white and growing up black? Have I not been shown how growing up white is far better, far safer, and far superior to what it must be growing up black.
I am not alone in being taught this. Every individual’s experience is different. However, if you look like me, whether male or female, it is likely that you can relate to my experience growing up. Could this not be the explanation for the term white supremacy that we all bristle at when it is mentioned? Folks from the African American community are not the only ones who utilize the term white supremacy to describe the wall they encounter in their American opportunity. Native Americans, Mexican Americans, Polynesian Americans, Asian Americans, Indian Americans all understand this experience.
What is it called when people from incredibly diverse communities and backgrounds all describe the same experience in dealing with systems of government, education, and policing in this country? It is just all in their collective imaginations? It is far more probable that their experience with race in America interacts with the white experience adversely. Perhaps it is time that people who live, work, and play within the white American experience take a very personal inventory into why that is. That is what it means to overcome white fragility and examine our white privilege that is the result of our white supremacy.
These subtle and direct lessons on what it means to be white and what it means to not be white are deeply ingrained in our society. They are woven into the very fabric of our beginning as a nation and as a people who identify themselves as white. They are also not an ancient way of being in the world. The roots of whiteness, and race along with it, are only about 500 years old and were designed to propagate a new world order upon the globe at the hands of expanding European monarchies and colonial doctrine.
In this Medium Publication — Dismantling Whiteness — I will explore the roots of whiteness, demonstrate the fragility of its structure, and provide a way forward from it.
Jeremy Tunnell & Gerry Ebalaroza-Tunnell are authors, presenters and consultants with Co3 Consutling. Jeremy writes and presents on dismantling whiteness, personal and organizational resilience and our reality in the Unified Field. Gerry leads teams and organizations in equity and inclusion work as the Director of Equity for the Mukilteo School District. She is the principle consultant for Co3 Consulting and author of the upcoming book Evolution of Aloha. Together, they host The Plowline Podcast.