I thought that I knew what racism was, and I also thought that I was a fair and unprejudiced person.
I was wrong.
Why is the heart of racism so difficult to discuss?
How do we approach the problem of prejudice responsibly and with an eye to change?
Conversations about race tend to focus on the negative effects racism has upon minorities, such as unequal opportunity and the hate crimes against humanity fueled by racism. This seems like a rather natural response to the problems we see around us; these negative signs of racism are offensive to our sense of morality (if we are moral people) and compel a deep fear response in those who witness and fall victim to such crimes. Identifying the obvious problems incurred by racist attitudes is an important first step in identifying the issues at hand, including the racial aspects of social identities and practices.
Let’s talk about the elephant in the room: The history of slavery in America.
There was a time in this country when identifying the racism problem was not allowed. In fact, those who benefited from such practices often adopted and spread attitudes which suggested that racism was simply a way of life. The slavery practiced in many countries, including the U.S., is known to be economically stimulating, particularly in colony properties and newly developing areas. Over time, however, the objectification of certain individuals according to class and race proves to be fiscally detrimental as brute force and hard labor are no longer the primary means for development. In these situations, the cost of maintaining a large, uneducated, and entirely dependent workforce is counter-productive, as skilled (educated) labor becomes increasingly necessary. This transition, however, did not compel many slave owners as it should have. The original impetus that slaves served had phased out, but the practice of slavery continued. Why? Because the control exerted in the subjugating had become the social norm, and the African Americans had to be “kept in their place.”
And the other elephant in the room: The long history of racism in America.
Even now, generations later, this truth is made evident by the less subversive acts of racism committed against American blacks just prior to the civil rights movement of the 1960s. From the back of the bus to the separate drinking fountains, the entire process of discrimination and segregation was intended to create a power differential in favor of the whites at the cost of the blacks. Despite the incredible resource that the strength of this unique race had to offer the country as a whole, the white racist preferred the power that segregation and subjugation could provide. This, I believe, is the heart of the problem.
White privilege is the very worst expression of the practice of racism, because it is the by-product of generations of discrimination as the norm. It is inferred, rather than expressed. The power it bestows is implied, rather than granted.
I believe this is the largest reason whiteness is not often addressed in conversations about racism. While the overt (negative) consequences of such a practice cannot be ignored, it requires a much deeper investigation (and introspection) to identify that our current concept of whiteness is responsible for it. Compounding this lack of understanding, those whites which exist in society today were not the perpetrators of slavery. Whites born after 1970 (such as myself) have only a very vague concept of the tragedy and circumstances of racism.
Action Item #1: Acknowledge the residual negative effect of slavery on society today.
The whites who are alive today did not perpetrate this crime against humanity, and yet we are absolutely responsible for amending the damage; blacks in society still suffer the ill-effects of the long-aborted practice of slavery in these insidious, persistent inequalities of power.
The role of whiteness in conversations about racism is imperative; similarly, the business of approaching this social plague, for white people, is a moral imperative.
Action Item #2: Stop feeling guilty about slavery.
It is counter-productive to feel bad about this crime which we’re not directly responsible for. Slavery guilt has resulted in a division between blacks and whites. Good-guy v. bad-guy thinking inhibits those productive and thoughtful ideas which might reverse some of our current social divisions and serve to alleviate racial tensions.
While I do not believe it is beneficial for blacks to demonize whites or for whites to feel guilt about the sins of their ancestors, we must openly acknowledge the lingering remnants of the damage that racism has wrought upon our social structure in its newer, more vague and more subversive forms. Slavery isn’t the issue any more; our current troubles are much more insidious. Feel guilty about the acts of racism you commit today, if anything.
Action Item #3: Include the current whiteness concept in your understanding of racism.
The concept of whiteness – or the white collective identity – must be completely re-invented until this concept has no tones of inferred power or superiority over another human being. The current concept of whiteness is narrow and short-sighted, and has the effect of pigeon-holing whites into some pseudo-class which is apart and alien to other classes. It demeans whites as much as the other ethnicities it intended to suppress. In a fair society, the term “whiteness” should feel on the tongue exactly the same as “blackness” or “brownness.” The next phase of enlightenment among men requires that this next step be taken, and does indeed include conversations about whiteness which begin to revise our presently unacknowledged prejudices and privileges.
Action Item #4: Willfully forgo white privilege.
Now that I am aware of some of my own pre-suppositions, rather than waste energy on white guilt, I can spend it in discourse with others which includes ideas about changing our antiquated ideas of whiteness. This change can also be evidenced in the decisions of my life, from who I choose to work for to who I live next to. You may not place yourself in a position of entitlement, but chances are, if you’re white, society has. I’m constantly on the lookout now for the ways that inferred prejudices impact my circumstances in life, and I choose to stay away from opportunities that seem to offer themselves up to me by virtue of my whiteness. I refuse to be the beneficiary of bigotry.
Action Item #5: Find value in individuals to connect with them.
Here’s the summary of my advice to other white people: Put aside so-called “white guilt”. Such negativity does not induce productivity or positive change. Focus instead on the positive, proactive goals of self-enlightenment and challenging social norms in the name of true equality. Find the common ground and the value for your life in individuals that are not of your own race. Prejudicial concepts and blind tradition do not tell us anything valuable about one another. I hope that you discover, as I have, that the racist ideas which shape and taint the society we live in are as useless as they are common. It’s up to you (and me) to form a new, equitable view of other races and disclose to others the connection we have found. In time, open-minded individuals may become the majority, rather than the minority, in our United States.