I am white. In fact, I am so white that my mother used to give me small doses of Antihistamine when I was a child because it drew color into my cheeks. It is a common understanding amongst my friends and family that I have the ability to repel sunlight, a skill that leaves me neither Coppertone tanned or Lobster red. I simply arrive at the beach and then leave having not a single change in pigment or shade. No tan lines. I haven’t always cared about being white. It hasn’t been a focus for me except in the limited moments when I found myself lost in some inner-city neighborhood or when I inadvertently scared African children who had never seen someone with my skin color set foot in their village. Aside from those experiences, I have never had to give much attention to the color of my skin and so I have not had to give much thought to how I have been privileged because of it.
But this is a moment in history that cannot be shrugged off. We cannot simply coast along and disregard our implication and influence in the effect and affect of those whose skin color has kept many forms of freedom and equality at bay.
To be blunt, this is not a conversation I want to have. This is not a topic that I want to address. It is not something I can speak to with much life experience anchoring the points I make. But I have read enough, and listened enough and have kept my eyes open long enough to offer a perspective that may be helpful to some.
I will attempt to keep this as brief as possible, as I know the way you operate. No one likes to read long essays. We live in a culture based in 140 character conversations, emoticons, and Snap-chats. And life is becoming faster and more disposable with every text. Even if McDonald’s earnings are down a significant 5% this fiscal year, we still value brevity over quality.
I’d like to start at the beginning. White western culture has been a fly in the ointment of equality for centuries. History whether revisionist or not has not been able to fully hide the fact that white people have always thought a bit too highly of ourselves. And we have historically established some pretty asinine ideas about bone structures or heights or facial features or skin colors that mean a person is more valuable than another. We should not think for a second that we have ever embraced the concept of equality with any true fervor. The closest we have come is best exemplified in the famous quote from Benjamin Franklin, “All men are created equal… some more than others.”
The genocide that took place between once peaceful and intermixed tribes in Rwanda began decades before when the Belgians enforced their colonial hierarchy of value and separated the tribes based on the length of the nose and structural features of the faces of tribes. They basically came in and started a system of marginalization that grew until 1994 when more than 100,000 people were mutilated and hacked to death in less than 100 days.
That was only one example of how whites have acted on our perceived sense of superiority over other races. I am going to step out on a limb and indict the white man as acting superior when we offered small pox contaminated blankets to the natives in that historic Thanksgiving season. In the name of freedom and the ability to worship God in our own way, we enslaved and dehumanized everyone else.
It was not simply the act of establishing a human hierarchy between other races that was problematic. It was the mindset that we had thinking we even had the right to step in and declare anything of the sort. Who were we to make such judgments?
Who are we to suggest that a person, because of their skin color, is expendable, or useful only to our own ends, or for our own means? We have skated by never having been accountable to those questions.
Let’s continue with historic slavery. We live somewhat enlightened these days, and most white people believe that slavery was cruel and wrong. We have watched The Color Purple, Roots, Glory, Amistad, 12 Years a Slave and Django Unchained. The portrayals we observe on the screen leave us little elbowroom to argue the positive benefits to humanity that slave culture provided. It was evil.
The modern civil rights movement that has ebbed and flowed over the past 50 years has taught many of us that our ideas about color have been grossly out of balance. Our white supremacy reared its face in the form of lynching’s and burning crosses and dignity stripping assigned water fountains, bus seats, schools and restaurants.
And although most of us are quick to see how wrong things like segregation are, we are slow to understand and acknowledge the long lasting structures and systems that are resting faithfully on the inhumane foundation of racial inequality that we, the white people of the world, benefit from every day.
It is a hard pill to swallow. No one wants to look in the mirror and see a racist staring back. But lets face it. We might as well admit that we are recovering racists because when we don’t, we are simply committing another act of racism. There is no way out of this one.
It isn’t that we outright embrace ideas of racism as it has historically played out. …at least the majority of us do not. It is that we fail to acknowledge and break the constructs of racism that have and presently are giving us the upper hand compared to those it oppresses.
To put it crassly, lets say there is a torrential rain that causes the land to flood. We escape the floodwaters because we live in a house that was built on top of other houses inhabited by people who have drowned or are presently drowning. It’s complicated, and also very simple. We have two choices. We can either continue to live in the house enjoying the benefit of our safety without acknowledging the people who drowned and are currently drowning to give us our safety. Or we must choose to undermine the foundation and bring light to the people who are suffering under the weight of our safety. This would mean that we would probably get a little wet.
White people benefit every day from foundations of racial inequality that exist in the form of job opportunities, educational, geographic, and economic opportunities. It also plays out in the fears and prejudices that hold influence over the institutions of criminal justice and trickles down to homeowners associations.
I spoke with an elementary school student recently. I asked him for his perspective on black people in his school. He said that the black people were not as smart as the white people. This seemed like a harsh and probably unfounded statement, but for the sake of conversation, I let it stand. “Do you think, if given the same opportunity and set in a more common environment that the black kids would be just as smart as the white kids?” His response to that question was utter silence. I could tell he was just thinking about all the layers that had to be uncovered to answer that question with more than just a hopeful positive.
White people are so free we have to create cages for ourselves. We set our own boundaries. We make up things to fear. We develop the knee jerk reaction of being offended. But honestly, we get to live where we want to, shop where we want to, apply for jobs with an unbridled trust that we actually have a good shot at landing it. We can trust that our police officers are there for our protection. We can lean on the banks to give us loans without the threat of overwhelming and impossible obstacles. We are not immediately perceived as suspect when we enter a gas station or shopping mall. These are things we take for granted as white people. I know I do.
Being white has its inarguable privileges. It always has. And even though I strongly believe that opportunities are made and not just taken thus there is a bottomless well for the making and seizing, the harsh reality of life is that we function as if opportunities come as a result of taking away opportunities from someone else.
Social constructs being what they are, it will take generations to identify and demolish the racially perverse systems that we live with. And that all begins with the acknowledging that they exist, and that we have benefitted.
I have heard so many of my white friends flippantly ask why black people can’t move on and get over it. ..As if the very same structures that have given them opportunities and security have not and are not balanced on the other end by ambient and present oppression.
As Mel Brooks said, and Tom Petty sang, “It’s good to be king.” But every king knows the weights and balances that keep everything working to their advantage. And it is time that we remove ourselves from the racial throne and look carefully at our foundations, histories, and lifestyle. We have been given an opportunity to choose love for all humanity. We have all been handed a pen to write the next chapter of world history. Do we continue to live out of our ignorance or do we accept that we are implicated in the history of oppression and inequality and find a healthy forum for repentance and reconciliation?
I won’t turn these musings into a pep talk. The issue is too complex and although it began on the surface with a judgment based on skin color, it is a matter of hearts and souls. So at the very least, even as we roll our eyes at looters and violent protestors, take some time making an inventory of what you hold dear. List the ways your life is beautiful and free. Ask yourself the question David Byrne posed in the 80’s… “You may ask yourself… “How did I get here?”