What if…White People Took Responsibility for Our Role in this Moment?

Kathleen Osta
May 31, 2020 · 6 min read

by Kathleen Osta, Managing Director, National Equity Project

[White people] are, in effect, still trapped in a history which they do not understand; and until they understand it, they cannot be released from it. They have had to believe for many years, and for innumerable reasons, that black men are inferior to white men. Many of them, indeed, know better, but, as you will discover, people find it very difficult to act on what they know. To act is to be committed, and to be committed is to be in danger. In this case the danger, in the minds of most white Americans, is the loss of their identity.” - James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time

Like many justice minded white people, my heart and soul ache with the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, MN, Ahmaud Arbery, in Brunswick, Georgia, Breonna Taylor, in Louisville, KY and so many more before them. We agree that these murders are wrong, unjust, and must end. We don’t always agree on, or understand, our direct role in contributing to, reproducing, and benefiting from a world where this kind of racial violence and terror are possible.

It is not our “fault” that we don’t know or understand our role as white people in perpetuating white supremacy — most of our schools don’t teach us about whiteness — whiteness is simply the unspoken norm. But it is our responsibility to urgently and rigorously, educate ourselves and our white children about the history of whiteness — how it is not biologically real, but was created to justify slavery. Created so that “good Christian” people could reconcile and make peace with owning slaves; if black people were not fully human or were of an inferior make-up, then I can be a good Christian and own, enslave, and torture them. And, if I am a poor white person within a capitalist and racist system, I may be poor, but at least I am not black. So the messaging went and goes.

To be clear, this is not about guilt because white guilt helps no one. Being white does not make anyone “bad” — a defensive posture that often derails conversations about race and racism. This is about knowledge and truth, about claiming our full humanity as white people and taking leadership to create a world based on justice and love for everyone.

We all want to think of ourselves as good people — not the kind of white people who would murder innocent black people and surely most of us wouldn’t. We consider ourselves good and ”not racist” white people. But, as Ibram Kendi so brilliantly explains, there is no such thing as a “not-racist” — our actions are either racist or anti-racist. If we are serious about justice, if we are serious about peace, we don’t get to spend our time being “neutral” white people — because there is no neutral.

We can either actively work to dismantle the structures, policies, practices, and belief systems that contribute to a world where an unarmed black man can lay in broad daylight pleading for air and calling out for his mother while he dies at the hands of white police officers. Or, we can go about our lives believing that we are not a part of that awfulness and tacitly accept the rules, benefits, and consequences of white supremacy.

To take that in and sit with the discomfort (the horror) of it, we need to break down our common notions of what white supremacy is. We have been taught to believe that ‘white supremacy’ describes white supremacist hate groups — and we are not that. A common definition of white supremacy is “…the belief that white people are superior to those of all other races, especially the black race, and should therefore dominate society,” but as legal scholar Frances Lee Ansley argues, white supremacy is “a political, economic and cultural system in which whites overwhelmingly control power and material resources, conscious and unconscious ideas of white superiority and entitlement are widespread, and relations of white dominance and non-white subordination are daily reenacted across a broad array of institutions and social settings.” In order to see ourselves in it, we must understand how our actions and inaction serve to uphold the racial violence we consciously abhor.

Take a look at the image below and consider where and when your actions or inaction uphold the systems that make the murder of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and Breonna Taylor possible. We are all implicated in this pyramid and its consequences and we are all responsible to dismantle the foundations of hate and racial terror.

As white people committed to justice, it is our responsibility to move beyond the idea that we are “not-racist” and therefore, not implicated in racism, to an understanding of ourselves as either racist, by virtue of our action or inaction, or anti-racist by virtue of what we are willing to interrupt, demand, and put on the line. We must not be the white moderates that Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. warned about who are “more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice.” Instead, let’s be the rebel leaders that this time calls for and in the words of Civil Right hero Representative John Lewis, “find a way to get in the way…make some noise and get in good trouble to make our country a better place.”

What if we:

  • Do our own work to understand the history of whiteness in the United States and how a system of white supremacy has both benefited and harmed us.
  • Learn about and change laws and policies that maintain racial inequities and cause harm like real estate redlining, funding public schools through property taxes, discriminatory hiring practices, and a criminal “justice” system that disproportionately targets and incarcerates black youth and men.
  • Demand that our schools teach a full and truthful history of the United States including the stealing of Native People’s lands and the genocide of Native people; the history of whiteness, race, and racism and help students make active connections between history, their own experiences and identities, and current events.
  • Vigilantly work to uproot and unlearn our own racism and create spaces with other white people to learn, heal, and organize to take action.
  • Risk our personal and financial comfort to challenge racism whenever and wherever we see it including confronting family members and neighbors — even when it is “just a joke” (because it isn’t) or when we believe they “mean no harm” — because it is harmful.
  • Listen to our friends, colleagues, and students of color — listen to their experiences and believe them — without minimizing, defending, or doubting. Even when what we hear differs from our own experience and even when what we hear triggers defensiveness or shame. We can live through that. We won’t die from these feelings, but people of color will continue to die if we don’t collectively listen, believe, and act.
  • Actively redistribute power within our own spheres of influence. Ensure that young people and people of color are in the room and at the table when decisions are being made and be sure their leadership is prominent.
  • Contribute to organizations and campaigns that are working toward racial justice and elevate the leadership of people of color.
  • Choose one of these 75 Things White People Can Do for Racial Justice and then choose another. Invite your white friends who don’t talk about race or racism to do the same.

We must be willing to walk the fraught line of de-centering whiteness while simultaneously speaking up as a white allies and co-conspirators in the work of justice. Let’s step up my white friends, with courage and humility, and lean into each other for support and guidance. This is about all of us and we’ve got work to do.

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