How to Overcome the Murderous Fear of White People


Renisha McBride did not die because of the Confederate flag, she was killed in Detroit.

Tamir Rice was not shot to death by a southerner, he was killed in Cleveland.

Ezell Ford was not murdered to protect the “traditions” of Dixie, he was killed in Los Angeles.

The murderous fear of white people is not limited to the South. It’s an American problem. And it’s your problem, white people.

The words that follow are not intended to be soothing. If you want soothing, go elsewhere. This is about how we delimb, dismantle, and tear down the rotten, diseased, moribund tree of racism, upon which America lynches the souls of all black people. This is about ugliness. This will be ugly. But only by confronting, understanding, and transforming the racial ugliness of America will we overcome the murderous fear of white people.

This is not for black people. This is for white people. But I do this for black people.

***

“Be not the slave of your own past — plunge into the sublime seas, dive deep, and swim far, so you shall come back with new self-respect, with new power, and with an advanced experience that shall explain and overlook the old.”

― Ralph Waldo Emerson

By now, most of you know that Dylann Roof murdered nine people for being black. So far, we’ve responded by focusing on the symbols of his hate, like the Confederate flag. Personally, I don’t fully blame the Confederate flag for that young man’s hateful acts. It is a symbol, and while it certainly motivated him and gave him a sense of purpose, it did not pull the trigger. By itself, no gun is dangerous. A truck can be a weapon. The law can be a weapon. Money can be a weapon. It’s not the weapon that matters. It was his fear that black people were gaining power, that’s why he gripped a gun. He killed because of the debilitating feeling that his people were losing power, and that blacks must be stopped. Violently. It’s not the gun, but the fear that kills.

In the wake of the shooting in a black church in Charleston, there’s been a wave of arsons that have set black churches ablaze all across the South. The black church is the backbone of many black communities; to burn down a black church is an attack on the body of the community. Fear is what chatters in the ears of the arsonist who sets those fires — it is fear that speaks in such unholy symbols. Rather than focus energy on the removal of flags, rather than be satisfied to shame someone for their use of ugly symbols, and rather than start another half-ass conversation about how to outlaw guns, it’s time for you, progressive white people, to ask yourselves: How do we overcome white fear?

We all know white people who like to say, “I didn’t create this problem. This isn’t my fault. I didn’t start slavery. I have nothing to do with that, and I don’t feel that I deserve blame. I didn’t make the world like this…” No, you did not. But you do benefit from it. Let’s not pretend that’s not the case — you’re better than that. You’re smarter than that. You know you benefit from being white. And you also know your life would be more dangerous and less privileged if you were black, or Latin, or Arab, or Asian.

Think of America as your racist mother. She made you. But she is sick. And she needs you to save her. You didn’t make her sick. It’s not your fault. But if you love her as much as you love yourself, you will do what you can to heal her. It may not be your fault, but it is your problem.

A lot of black people feel, rightly so, that it is not their job to help white people stop killing them. Many are angry. Many want justice. Many are disconsolate. Personally, I’m angered to tears. When I think of all the lives lost to American racism, I often grow inconsolable. But through my anger, despite my sobs, I cannot ignore the fact that as black as I am, as angry as I am, my mother is white. Half of my immediate family is white. And I see that my extended white family needs fixing. So I will help you as much as I can, white people. I will do what I can to understand your racism, your fears. Together, let’s figure out the work white people must do to overcome the murderous fear in your culture.

Even if you, dear reader, do not feel that you harbor a murderous fear in your heart, your white American culture does. The evidence is abundant. This is your problem, regardless of whether you’ve ever been violent or destructive towards black people. Since it is your culture, it is also yours to remedy. White Fear is about more than guns, gated communities, and murderous police. How you constantly benefit from American racism makes you complicit. Your silence fuels the murderous fear of white police officers, the ones who kill black people to protect you and maintain the social order. But I am willing to help you overcome your fear, because you are my family.

***

“The day the power of love overrules the love of power, the world will know peace.”

― Mahatma Gandhi

Ten years ago it seemed inconceivable that same-sex marriage would be a legal right from sea-to-shining-sea. But as we just saw, social power can be galvanized; it can work to make the world better when we stand together and say, “This is not right!” Look at what radical change can occur when white people in America decide that a problem matters to them. We the People have power that is greater than the police and the institutions designed to govern us.

And let’s be real, white people, you have the greatest social power in America — you can shape public opinion. Not only do you dominate the media, you also educate young minds in the public schools. 82% of schoolteachers are white. But do you use this power to undo your racist past? No, instead you cling to the notion of creating a race-blind society. You want to be post-racial. You want to live in the world imagined by MLK, wherein a person is judged not on the color of their skin but on the content of their character. If that is what you want, great. But we will never get there until you confront the racism problem in your community.

Most of you know by now that race is a social construct. Modern racism was created in America to divide poor whites and poor blacks who lived together, married, and had children in colonial times. But when poor people of all colors struggled together in Bacon’s Rebellion against the rich landowners, those wealthy planters grew scared. They saw that the poor must be divided, in order to reduce their collective power. Otherwise, they were a threat. One group was told they may be servants and poor but that they were also white and free, and the other group was legally classified as black and slaves, equal in value and social esteem to livestock. And this has shaped the legacy of every other ethnic group who has arrived in America. They see the writing on the wall and they adopt and adapt to the racist history of America.

***

“While it has become “cool” for white folks to hang out with black people and express pleasure in black culture, most white people do not feel that this pleasure should be linked to unlearning racism.”

― bell hooks “killing rage: ending racism

Although I was born from the womb of a white woman, white fear is not something I know firsthand. In order to explore white fear, I talked to my brother-in-law, a white man raised in South Carolina.

He told me that when his family learned he planned to marry my sister, they were shocked. But they couldn’t stop him. Later, when he told his grandmother they were expecting, she asked: What will you do if your kids are black? What she meant was: What if they look black? She knew my sister is biracial, and thus, she wanted to know if her blackness would come to the surface and ruin the grandchildren.

When I asked my brother-in-law what it was like being raised white amid the racism of South Carolina, what it was like growing up around black people and being told he was better than them, he corrected me. He pointed out that other than at school, or perhaps, in sports, most black kids and white kids in South Carolina didn’t really hang out like that. He said that because he chose to have black friends early on, he confronted the racism of his classmates, of his family, of his culture, and he examined the lie of white superiority. As a boy, he exploded the racist fiction everyone else lived with and he saw the reality that he was not better than black people. Not just in sports, but in every way. He saw that people are people are people, and that he was no different than black people. When he visited their homes he saw that they did all the same things, they knew all the same things, they liked all the same things, and the only difference he ever found was the black skin his grandmother had been so worried about.

Everyone in the South knows what a nigger-lover is. There’s nothing lower than a white person who chooses to hang out with black people. And God forbid they choose, as my brother-in-law did, to “lay with beasts.” This was the language he heard growing up. He told me that if a white person chooses to be with blacks it’s seen as a sign of mental illness, of weakness; it’s a sign that they’re fucked up… somehow. Who chooses to live with, or love, former livestock? It’s essentially not much different from saying you want to live with pigs, that you want to fuck pigs, that you’ve fallen in love with a pig. And that’s when I stopped him. This was the legacy of colonial America’s legal division of white and black people. But why did it work so well and last so long, long after slavery was abolished? Why did white people still believe this lie that they were different and “naturally superior”?

This is where my brother-in-law understood the benefits of racism that I never tasted as a black man. He told me: people like to feel that they’re better than someone else. This is human nature. Everyone compares their lot in life to their neighbor, and they want to feel like they’re winning. We are social animals, and we like to judge ourselves against others to see how we’re doing. What better way to ensure you’re not a loser than by always keeping someone below you? Poor whites can always tell themselves there is someone beneath them. It soothes a persistent, existential fear.

***

“Whiteness–the whole constellation of practices, beliefs, attitudes, emotions that are mixed up in being white–is the problem. Whiteness is degraded and depraved[…] To the degree that we accept any of the meaning that the dominant society gives to whiteness, we white people are degraded and depraved.”

― Robert Jensen, The Heart of Whiteness: Confronting Race, Racism and White Privilege

By sticking to the slave master’s fiction of race, poor whites had the tool of racism to help them confront their fear of failure. They were better than someone. And over time this has become a belief that’s seemingly no different than faith in God. It provides succor. My brother-in-law asked me, “Do you think you could convince someone to quit being a Christian? Do you think you could convince a Muslim to stop believing in Allah? That’s not happening. And it’s the same with racism.” He seemed to believe the story is too deeply wedded to the white psyche. He told me it satisfies our animal nature, our need for comparison, and our fear of failure.

But then he contradicted himself. My brother-in-law told me that when his racist grandma held his daughter for the first time, she didn’t see a black child. She saw her grandchild. It was her family. It was her kin. And that’s when I saw how you, white people, can overcome your fear. You must see black people as truly no different than you.

Everyone is afraid of the unknown. This is a condition of human nature. It’s why we suffer from xenophobia, the fear of the foreigner. But racism is not a fear of the unknown — it’s a way to deal with fears that derive from a lack of power; it’s a way to tell yourself you’re better than others. It’s a trick to satisfy your ego. But since it is only a trick, it’s difficult to stay racist when you know black people on an individual, intimate level. You see through the trick. You see the person undistorted by the the illusion of race. You humanize them. You identify with them. You can no longer talk about them as an imaginary group or argue abstractions. This is the first step in eradicating white fear, and it’s an important one. White fear denies not only black people’s rights and dignity; it denies their humanity.

We all fear the Boogeyman. But what is it other than your imagination and fear doing a tag-team on your mind? You know your fears, so you imagine what scares you. But it’s not real. You must own your fear. Name your fear. And thus, you reduce your fear.

These days, the media helps white fear along. Sadly, the news knows it sells. It’s become so prevalent that it’s not limited to the old Confederacy. The fear of black people is so widespread that armed cops can claim they feared for their lives simply by being in the presence of a black child. It’s why a homeowner shoots a black woman who comes to his door asking to use his phone after she was in a car accident. White people, you must confront this fear — it is childish, and you’re better than that. I believe you are.

White people, we need you to come out… as an antiracist. We need you to bravely speak to other white people, to demand they set down their fears, insist they no longer accept any irrational paranoia of black people as a reasonable way for anyone to live. We need you to identify with black people, to see their pain and suffering the same as you would your own, or your family, your friends, your neighbors. We don’t need you to become black people. (Thanks, but no thanks, Ms. Dolezal.) We need you to identify with black people. The same way that there’s risen a groundswell of Americans that now support gay rights, we need you to swell to a critical mass of white people who believe that whiteness is a lie, a trick, and it’s no longer how you make sense of your place in the world and define your relationship to others. This is how we transcend the historic program of fear that is whiteness.

You ready for some good news? White people, you don’t need to compare yourself to anyone else. This is very important:

No one is more important than anyone else.

You are not more important than I am.

I am not more important than you.

***

When liberal whites fail to understand how they can and/or do embody white supremacist values and beliefs even though they may not embrace racism as prejudice or domination (especially domination that involves coercive control), they cannot recognize the ways their actions support and affirm the very structure of racist domination and oppression that they wish to see eradicated.”

— bell hooks

This isn’t a matter of the South or the North. This isn’t a matter of conservative or liberal. This is about all of you.

So, white people, how can you overcome your murderous fear of black people? And how do you do it without feeling like you’re losing power?

First, a person has to see and believe that they aren’t that different from black people.

This happens when you’re honest with yourself. Science has already proven that race is a lie. It’s now up to you to live in that truth, to spread that truth, and to demand that others who you love also live with you in truth.

Second, stop believing in the Boogeyman — by that, I mean, whatever it is that scares you. Accept that it isn’t real. Be brave. Don’t just talk about pulling down symbols and flags. Question your fear, especially the unspoken ones.

Third, recognize that racism is a tool we use. It’s a way for people to say, “It could be worse. At least we aren’t black.” So, rather than focus on black people, examine what it means to be white. How do you benefit? How do you cripple others, by holding onto this idea called whiteness? Recognize that the sin of slavery has yet to be washed from the American soul.

Fourth, as Jesus, Mohammed, Buddha, and all the great religious minds have told us: we are one family, and you must see yourself in other people. Stop satisfying your ego by comparing yourself to others. Instead compare yourself to your past and to your imagined future.

My brother-in-law said he didn’t think this would ever work. I told him it all comes down to the idea: black people are dying to protect white social power.

Are you okay with that? Your silence says you are.

White people, you must speak up, you must use your voice to talk to each other about race. Talk to your family members. Talk to your friends. Be bravely outspoken. Don’t talk about diversity, or multiculturalism, but about how you benefit from white power and how you benefit from cops killing a little boy. Tamir Rice died to protect you from your fears and as an exercise of your power. Are you okay with that? We don’t need you to just say #BlackLivesMatter. We need you to say #WhitenessIsALie.

If you don’t confront your murderous fear, if you are unwilling to admit that you are part of the problem, you are giving your silent consent to murder, and you are no better than the Southerners who so many of you like to shame for their defense of their “traditions” like the Confederate flag. Every time you remain silent you are defending the American “tradition” of violent white social power. You are better than that.


Read more from Zaron Burnett III:

How to Be a Fearless Badass

Love, Sex, and Other Things You Might Find At The Airport

How Do I Survive This Shit?!

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