I grew up White in a pretty comfortable suburban community of Levittown, PA in the 1970’s and 80’s. I never considered race. I never had to, because all around me, at school, at church, at the store, on the playground, at the pool, in the back yards, the mall, everywhere, there were only other White people like me.
I never thought about how we all shared a collective Whiteness, or that being White in America provided privilege. It was never something that I thought about growing up because my community was pretty effectively segregated. Oh sure, there were some Black families sprinkled here and there in the community, but not many.
Now, in 2020 as a grown man, it’s hard to look back and realize not only was I a privileged White child in a racially segregated America, but the racism that was all around me was largely invisible to me. If you’re White, you can’t see the racism that you breath in and out on a daily basis. You just don’t notice it.
For example, during my childhood, while playing in the neighborhood, we would often pick sides for games using a popular counting song:
Eeny, meeny, miny, mo
Catch a tiger by the toe
If he hollers, let him go
Eeny meeny miny mo
Thinking back, I recall that the word tiger was never actually part of that song as we sang it. It was the N-Word. Sung by privileged White children. While playing. In suburban Philadelphia, PA. In the 1970’s.
Black people and other people of color were somewhere else. One or two might be in school, or at church, but they were largely absent from my childhood. Unseen. Not even considered. I now know that I grew up in a racist society. I now know that American society is still quietly (and often not so quietly) racist. I believe that for many White people, racism may still be largely invisible because White Americans don’t usually live at the pointy end of the racist stick. It’s with some hope that I also believe that, in our hearts, most White people in America will probably agree that only terrible people want to be racist. The ones that don’t are, well, probably terrible people themselves.
So what do you do as a White person wrestling with the idea that you have lived a lifetime of racial privilege? Well, it’s actually simple in theory, you know, on an intellectual level. However, in practice, some may find the follow through hard. I know I have.
Here’s the simple theory as I understand it (many thanks to Ibram X Kendi):
Racism is not the product of bad people. Racism is instead the product of racist ideas and racist policies that increase or maintain racial inequity. Racist ideas are those that lead us to believe that people of different races are different on some fundamental level, and that these differences create a hierarchy of value. Racist policies are based on these racist ideas, and serve to increase racial inequity.
To combat racism, we must actively adopt antiracist ideas and support antiracist policies. Antiracist ideas are those that accept that there are no meaningful differences among different races, and that people of all races have equal value. Antiracist policies are based on antiracist ideas, and serve to increase racial equity.
Putting this theory into practice, however, is not going to be easy for many White people. I tell you this from first hand experience.
First, we must change our thinking and understand that there is no such thing as “not racist”. Racism has a logical opposite, and it isn’t an absence of racism. The opposite of racism is antiracism. Ignoring race, or pretending that there isn’t racism in society is inadequate. That path leads to more racism and racial inequity. No, to properly counter racist ideas and racist policies we must be actively antiracist. We must put ourselves in opposition to racism and support racial equity. Actively. Constantly.
Second, active opposition to racism begins with calling it out when we see it. It makes me uncomfortable to write this, but I think it’s important to note one difficulty White people will have with this. If you’re White, and you encounter racist ideas and policies, it’s most likely that these ideas and policies are being espoused and supported by other White people. Recall when I mentioned that White Americans don’t usually live at the pointy end of the racist stick? That’s because White people are most often the ones pointing that stick at Black people and other people of color. The people that benefit from racial inequity will be the ones holding that stick. They will be people that are close to you. They might be your colleagues at work, or your neighbors. These might be your parents, or your spouse. Your aunts or uncles, siblings, cousins, nieces or nephews, or friends. They’re people that you love and respect, and even though you know they can be racist at times, you tolerate it from them. Or let it slide. Or sit uncomfortably silent while they do their racism. You don’t hold them accountable.
To create an antiracist society, one in which there is no hierarchy of human value based on skin color, one in which we finally put down that pointy stick that White people have carried for so long, we must both adopt antiracist ideas and support antiracist policies. In addition, we must call out racism when we see it, even if we see it in our loved ones (maybe especially if we see it in our loved ones).
So fellow White people, since the only options are to be racist or to be antiracist, what are you going to be?