OPINION: How to be White and stand against White Supremacy

Carolyin Wishnousky, Protester out early on Monday. Credit: Samuel Britt

Over the course of a few days, the United States has gone from pandemic lockdown to pandemonium on the streets. As “essential” businesses were just beginning to restart, now their operations will be cut short by mandatory curfews and riot police brigades. We are witnessing a citizenry be suppressed by the authoritarian structures that be. To my white friends: Why are you so silent?

Around 8:00 p.m. on May 25, Memorial Day, a black man named George Floyd walked into a Minneapolis corner store with the intent to buy some cigarettes. The cashier falsely suspected he had paid with a counterfeit $20 bill and notified the police. Four Minneapolis police officers brutally murdered Floyd following his detainment. Video evidence of the murder went viral online, sparking outrage as mass protests erupted across the country and around the globe. These demonstrations are the largest civil rights movement in contemporary history.

Peaceful protestors are being confronted with wanton police brutality, chemical weapons, rubber bullets, and pepper spray. Many cities have enacted mandatory curfews, activating the National Guard to consolidate a martial ground force. Not only that, but the protests have been equated to riotous looting sprees. These efforts have culminated into thousands of arrests and civil rights abuses, further exposing the rampant militarism of police culture, but also the framework of white supremacy in the United States. We cannot truly understand each other if we do not first understand ourselves.

Dr. Croix Saffin of the BC sociology department was happy to assist my learning. In fact, Bellevue College will be offering a Cultural & Ethnic Studies course on Whiteness. I realized that as a white cis male, liberal preferences alone do not extirpate racism from my lifestyle. Self-identifying as an “anti-racist” does not put me in opposition to racism—actually, these clean-cut lines are, at the very least, a nice distraction from the murky reality of race and privilege in our society. Dr. Saffin provided a six-step method for raising one’s racial consciousness as a white person. His breadth of knowledge and matter-of-factness towards the subject was a revelation. My objective was to figure out how a white man like me, or any white person, can work towards becoming a better ally. Much of his response has been condensed.

“ONE: The first step, in my experience, is recognizing that you are a part of the dominant group and trying to remain open to what that means. Very few people in dominant groups have ever grappled with their own positions as part of that dominant group and what it means to be a part of the dominant group.  So, one of the first things I ask white students is, what does it mean to be white?  Why do you answer the way you do, and what does that signify?  What does it mean to be a part of a white group? Most white people only think of themselves as individuals, not members of a group, and white people must begin to recognize this.

“TWO: Understand your white socialization. How has whiteness shaped your life? What messages have you received about race from family, friends, schools, and neighborhoods about race? Were you taught that race mattered? Did you overtly discuss race?  Were you taught to identify with your race? Were you raised to believe that race has not shaped your life and that everyone is equal? Look at the racial demographic data of your schools and neighborhoods (there is often a major difference between the white perception of racial diversity and actual reality). Think about who your parent’s friends are and who your friends are and who is on your sports teams and who participates in extracurricular activities with you.  Ask your parents why they chose the neighborhood you grew up in. Most white live in racial segregation. That is a fact that is based on data.

“THREE: We need to read and educate ourselves about race. Learn history. Read authors of Color. Listen to what people of Color have been saying for more than 100 years. Learn how the category of whiteness was invented under capitalism to keep poor people from uniting. Learn how your ancestors were able to assimilate and attain whiteness, but how that came with a loss of culture. Learn about the ways whiteness translated into material benefits. Take Cultural and Ethnic Studies classes. Take classes African American Studies and Asian American Studies and Native American Studies and Latinx Studies and Muslims in America. There is so much white people can learn just being in a class where whiteness is not centralized. This builds empathy with people of Color. This expands white people’s understandings and worldviews. It gives whites the language and tools to be better allies to people of Color.

“FOUR: Whites need to learn what is meant by racism and white supremacy and how we are complicit in these systems. Most of us think racism is an intentional, individual act of hatred enacted by “bad” people who intend to harm another person. So, we are really good at saying the KKK is racist – they are bad, bigoted people who hate. And then the logic goes, I am not a bad person (cause who wants to see oneself as bad?), and I don’t intentionally hate (I even have friends or coworkers of Color or date/married to a person of Color), and I am a good person, and I didn’t wake up today thinking I was going to go out and harm a person of Color, so I am not a racist. We have a very narrow, myopic, and incorrect understanding of what racism actually is. When we think of racism as only an intentional act of hate, we are failing to account for systems. We are failing to account for history. We are failing to account for the ways we (meaning you and me) unconsciously participate in racism every day. We are failing to account for how our white socialization is shaped by racism. We are failing to understand how white supremacy is in us… not just the KKK or white nationalism. It is a system of political, economic, and social domination that elevates whites as a group (this is the supremacy part – it is not just a belief that I am superior to or better than another person; it is the positioning of whites as a group as superior to people of Color).

“Think of white supremacy as a continuum—yes, there are overt, blatant, hateful proponents of white supremacy (KKK) and there are folks that say white privilege doesn’t exist, and there are folks that say “I don’t see color,” and there are folks that say, “I’m fine and down with people of Color…see… (insert name) is my friend or partner”—all of this contributes to white supremacy. So, for whites, even liberal “woke” whites, your white socialization and internalized white dominance means you participate in white supremacy. I participate in white supremacy. I have been educating and learning more about race and how it operates for 20 years now and I catch myself daily saying, doing, thinking things that support white supremacy and racism (and I am certain there are tons of things that I do not yet know or identify consciously that I do, say, or think that perpetuate this). Undoing and unlearning white supremacy is a lifelong task. In what ways have you consciously or unconsciously believed or bought into white supremacy?

“FIVE: After we understand what is meant by racism and white supremacy, we need to begin looking at ways racism has morphed post-civil rights into colorblindness.  Most white children are taught ideas of “not seeing color,” or “we are one race – the human race,” or “we all bleed red,” or “I don’t care if you are blue or purple or pink or polka-dotted, we are all humans on the inside.”  We say we do not treat people differently based on racial differences. We think that not seeing color, or being racially colorblind is a good thing.  But it’s not. If we do not see color, we do not see people of Color. If we do not see color, we are not doing anything to combat racism (we think that if we stop seeing race, that racism will go away). If we do not see color, we are not talking about race and racism does not go away because we refuse to see it.

“SIX: With this basic foundation, we can now start to look at and interrogate our emotional reactions and responses to racism. We need to reflect on the function of white guilt, on ways we try to prove ourselves as not being racist, on our defensiveness if we are called out on racism, on the ways we think of racism as operating in other whites but not us, on the ways we minimize and discount race when it is brought up. We need to look at ways we regulate people of Color when we have conversations about race (we insist it must be on our terms, done in a particular way, with a particular tone, and we get to decide what actually counts as racism or not).  We need to look at when we are silent and why we are silent. Start being conscious of how we speak, when we speak, how we take up space, how our voices can be leveraged. We need to be ok with not being perfect. We are going to mess up… of course we are! It is how we respond to these important errors. Do we take in and reflect on our errors and change our behavior, or do we get mad, opt-out, throw our hands up, and check out? We need to look at our relationships with people of Color in our lives and look at the role whiteness plays in these relationships. We need to listen. We need to process with other whites who are willing to push us to identify how racism is reinforced within our interactions, and we need to start owning our own racism and impacts it has.”