My beloved middle-class* white brothers and sisters,
I’ve been having hard conversations with many of you about race and racism. It’s been made harder by the fact that we often have a very different understanding of white people and our history and why we all matter to each other. Explaining what I think I know about race and whiteness in short snippets has hasn’t worked very well so I thought it might be most useful to write a letter.
Before I begin, I want to tell you how important you are to me. You are good and lovable and I am pleased to be in your ranks. I didn’t always feel this way but that’s a separate letter. Suffice it to say that I do now. Because you mean so much to me, I want to talk about why I think we are so important and why what we say and do matters in the world.
Nemo Was a White Kid in the ‘Burbs
A lot of us are very well-meaning white people but our relationship to racism is like a clownfish to an anemone. Anemones are really toxic and dangerous for anyone who isn’t a clownfish but they’re perfectly lovely for clownfish. Clownfish that grow up in anemones and don’t interact with other types of fish have NO idea that what surrounds them could hurt others. Just like clownfish, you and I have such a symbiotic relationship with our environment that we often can’t see /feel/hear the thousands of tiny little toxic barbs embedded in our society that hurt and kill people of color.
Other fish can’t come into the anemone but we can bring our resources out into open water. We may face a little more danger or have to give up a few perks, but if the other fish come into our anemone they will CERTAINLY get hurt. The ecosystem can’t survive with only clownfish and anemones, so telling the other fish to suck it up and keep trying to make it in a deathtrap doesn’t make a lot of sense for any of us.
Trust Fund Babies
You and I have a really special relationship with the major institutions of our country. Over 500 years ago, white people started putting laws in place to make sure we (middle-class white people) got and kept resources like land, money, housing and education. It’s like our ancestors set up a massive trust fund that we’re all still collecting benefits from, whether we know it or not.
Here’s just one example of how the system has worked for my family.
In 1953, my mother’s working class father bought a small parcel of land for $10,000 in an area of North Dallas where cotton fields were turned into suburbs for GIs coming home to start families. Actually, just white families. There were restrictions put in the deeds of the land explicitly prohibiting people of color from buying in the neighborhood.
The schools were excellent and the homes appreciated at a very fast rate. My mother’s family sold the property about ten years later at a profit but if they’d held onto it, today it would be worth 60 times what they paid for it. Now homes in the area are going for over $1 million and the schools are so good that George Bush’s daughters went to my mother’s elementary school. In contrast, median price houses in places people of color could have lived such as South Dallas, West Dallas, East Oak Cliff and South Oak Cliff are currently going for $30,000 to $80,000.
The sale of another parcel of similarly segregated (and appreciated) land paid for my father to go to a top private law school. It also provided a down payment on a fixer-upper my parents bought in a poor neighborhood in Washington, D.C. The bank gave my parents a mortgage even though my father didn’t have an income and my mother was making about $7,000 a year. While they did much of the work on the home themselves, the capital for the down payment and renovations came from the earlier real estate gains (white bonus) of our ancestors. My parents sold the DC house for two and a half times what they bought it for and continued this pattern of buying property in areas that appreciated. My parents and their spouses now own 5 houses, including the one I live in now (and pay WAY below market rate rent for).
That initial advantage from the whites-only law allowed my family to continue to buy into the “best” neighborhoods which consequently appreciated the fastest. Those neighborhoods had the best public schools which set us up to have a better shot at getting into top college and graduate schools. The profits from this pattern paid for our educations at top private institutions (and the social/professional connections that go with them).
Sure, my family members and I have worked hard. But we also got a ton of invisible advantages along the way- advantages that my friends of color and their families didn’t have equal access to. I grew up thinking racial disparities were the result of individual failings of huge masses of people of color instead of institutionalized racism. It wasn’t any one person’s fault that I never knew the truth until adulthood. We teach what we were taught.
I Love a Parade!
About the time we started to walk, well-meaning adults began littering our path with big, stinky, nasty piles of crap. Through their actions, laws, words, and media, adults gave us messages about who to trust, who to fear and how to become a “success. Most of the time it was like walking behind a horse in a parade that’s just clopping along, dropping steaming, stinky piles of crap without even appearing to realize it. We were boxed in with everyone else along the parade route, so we just had to step right in it and keep on moving. What’s more, because all the white folks we know are smeared with this crap/racism, we’ve just gotten used to it. Most of us don’t even notice anymore.
Here’s what the crap I stepped in looked like.
(Disclaimer: descriptions of racist thoughts/actions)
1. Until I was an adult, the only non-white adults I ever had connections with worked for our family as a nanny, gardener, handyman, etc.
Both my parents grew up in middle-class, white families in racially-segregated Texas. They grew up without social connections to people of color and repeated the same pattern with me. As an adult, I often feel awkward and unsure of myself around peers who are people of color, including friends we consider to be family. It’s incredibly frustrating to try to learn these basic interpersonal skills as an adult and say/do dumb things to people I love deeply as I’m learning.
2. When I was in second grade, a bunch of kids started calling a kid with one black and one white parent, “Oreo”.
I thought the other kids were really clever and I started saying it too. Adults heard us call him that name, but they never told us it was hurtful or to stop. I wish a responsible adult had told me to knock it off the first time but this type of teasing was allowed. I’d like to think the adults didn’t know what we meant, but I find that hard to believe. I still find “OREO!” popping into my head occasionally when I learn someone has mixed black/white heritage. It’s really irritating.
3. When I was 15 and learning to drive, a well-meaning relative told me to watch out for Asian drivers and then launched into a very complicated and illogical theory about eye shape and peripheral vision to back up their statement.
Now every time I see someone Asian do something stupid while they’re driving, I have to fight the voice in my brain that says my relative was right.
4. My first boss directly ordered me to monitor African American customers in our store as a way to reduce shoplifting.
I got my first job working at a clothing boutique. The owner left me alone in the store on my second day with very little instruction. After about a week, she came to me VERY angry because clothes were missing and demanded that I stop people from shoplifting. (It’s telling that she never assumed I may have stolen them.) She told me further losses would come out of my $10/hour salary. When I asked her what to do, her only advice was, “Watch out for black people. They’re always stealing things”. Desperate, I ended up watching black customers so aggressively that one day a woman whipped around and cursed me out for being racist. And she was totally right.
I could go on, but you get the point.
I’m really clear on one this point: these adults weren’t bad people. They all thought they were being helpful by giving me the (often misguided and/or incorrect) information and advice THEY got as they grew up (mostly from people who grew up under segregation).
Living Under Lock and Key
About 50 years ago, people of color (and a few white people) put so much pressure on folks in power that a few cogs in the machinery got taken out (Voter Rights Act and the end of legal segregation). White people who saw this change thought racism was over because things looked cleaner, but pulling a few parts did not shut down the well-oiled machine that had been running for over 500 years. The infrastructure set up to benefit us is still alive and well but so deeply embedded in the fabric of this country that it’s nearly impossible for most of us see that we’re still swimming in it. We are like fish that can’t even tell we are wet.
This is probably why the term “white privilege” angers and irritates so many of us. We can’t see how we are getting any privilege when it feels like we are just busting our asses each day to make a good life for ourselves. White privilege is really hard to see and can be hard to own, because we didn’t ask for it. But we have it and it’s real.
This is how I have come to make sense of it:
Our son goes to a preschool with an electronic gate. Each family is given a little key fob which is held up to a magnetic panel to unlock the door. White privilege works a lot like this. Imagine our institutions were designed with special magnetic key pads. White people, particularly white people with money, are born with the little key embedded in our skin. We walk up to doors (apply for a job, try to buy a house, interact with a police officer) and they open without us having to do anything.
Most of us have no idea we have this special key. More importantly, if we are only around other white people, we never even notice that the doors don’t open as easily for some people. Or, we may know a handful of people of color that have done that magic combination of things that earns them their own key so it appears as if there are equal opportunities to get through the door, but there aren’t.
Often we get really, really angry when we learn about this system. Some of us think that anyone who didn’t get in right away must have done something wrong. Some of us don’t want to go through the door if our friends of color can’t enter. Some of us are pissed when we learn that we didn’t have to do anything special for the door to open. Working really hard or being really smart may help us go further once we walk in, but the door opening automatically? That was the magnetic key.
I don’t think white people need to feel guilty but I do want us to feel a sense of stewardship for this unearned gift. Part of that stewardship includes talking about the ways we benefit and identifying places where we can use that privilege to create change.
Which brings me back to the crap…
Clean Up on Aisle “White”
If you’re like me, you’d want someone to tell you that you have spinach in your teeth or toilet paper on your shoe. So here goes. That crap we stepped in as kids? It’s still on us and we’ve been tracking it ALL over the place. We tend to fall into one of the following groups:
We think the crap is not our problem. We are convinced that racism was fixed in the 1960’s and if people of color are still struggling, it’s their own fault. We often say that people who talk about race are racist or complainers who need to grow a pair and MOVE ON.
We want the smell to go away so badly, we imagine the crap magically disappeared. We may say things like, “I’m colorblind” or “I simply don’t see race”. Unfortunately, ignoring the continued impact of racism on people of color won’t make it go away. Sadly, it won’t clean us up either.
We are dumping gallons of perfume on ourselves to disguise the smell. We might be focusing a LOT on helping people of color and still have a really hard time being close with white people (I did for a LONG time). We tend to be overwhelmed by our own sense of guilt and often think we’re better than other white people who show their racism more. We still say and do racist things all the time-our racism is just a little harder for other white people to see.
We are smearing the crap on everyone else. We don’t want to be alone with our funk. We tend to say and do overtly racist things. That, obviously, just sucks for everyone, although I have to say I don’t think this group is better or worse than any of the others. This group just shows the racism more.
We smelled something foul and decided to start the clean up. We know we didn’t intentionally step in crap, but we are committed to stop spreading it around by working to get ourselves and other white people cleaned up. It’s not always pretty but it doesn’t have to be gruesome.
A.F.G.O. Is Not a Four Letter Word
When I realize I have just unknowingly said or done something racist to a person of color, I don’t get paralyzed with guilt. I know the situation is not hopeless just because I had a racist thought. It’s simply another reminder that negative messages about people of color are in my brain without my consent. What I *can* do is identify these thoughts and not act on them.
My experience is that racist thoughts are running through the brains of white people all the time without us even realizing it. One morning as I drove to work, I saw an African American man stop on his bicycle and pour something into an opaque container. My first thought was “he’s pouring alcohol into a different container so he can hide it.” Mind you, it was 7:45 in the morning.
I’ll Tell You What I Want (What I Really, Really Want)
My response wasn’t guilt. It was more like: “Huh. Look at that. There’s another one of those annoying thoughts. AFGO! (Another Freaking Growth Opportunity). I will try to remember this as I’m interacting with people of color today so I can try not to be an accidental jerk.”
I don’t want us to walk around on eggshells, hyper vigilant about saying or doing the wrong thing all the time. I want us try to assess whether our judgments about people of color are true or just the tickertape of crap-filled movies and jokes and “advice” we all have.
I want us to stop going silent about racism and start talking to each other about the crap. I want us to practice seeing racism and use that information to be less jerky. I want us to remember the special key and be mindful about what we do when the doors open. I’m not saying you shouldn’t go through those doors. We just need to pay attention to how we make use of our easy access (like this).
It was scary for me to start noticing how many racist things are said and done to people of color. It was disorienting and uncomfortable to consider most of what I learned about race and my role as a white person is an illusion. It’s awkward to notice the unearned benefits and try to figure out what to do with them. But there is a cost to white people not actively taking on racism as our issue.
Most middle class white folks want strong communities, a strong public education system and a strong economy. We will never get those things while the old system is still running. Study after study shows that crime, poor performing schools, overcrowded prisons, a lack of qualified workers and so many other challenges in our society are driven by the institutional and individual effects of racism. If you think ending racism is just an issue for bleeding-heart pinko liberals, think about what kind of community you want for yourself and your children.
People of color are not inherently more criminal or less intelligent or less healthy than white people. People of color are not the problem. Five hundred years of systematically denying non-whites equal access to resources (education, jobs, loans, good places to live, and healthcare) is the problem. If we want society to be more stable, we need to take things back to the studs. We need to peel away layer after layer of denial and replace laws, policies and attitudes with something new. Until we do that, I think the world we want for our children and their children will not be possible.
I want middle class white people to take on ending racism as OUR issue. By not understanding the history, by not recognizing our privilege, and by not challenging white people and systems to do better, we hold this whole thing in place.
I realize this call to action may fall on a lot of deaf ears. You probably have a laundry list of things that feel more relevant and important. The best thing I can offer in such a case is a request from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.:
“Make a career of humanity. Commit yourself to the noble struggle for human rights. You will make a greater person of yourself, a greater nation of your country and a finer world to live in." -Martin Luther King, Jr.
I want middle class white people to talk about this stuff, with kindness and passion and honesty and love. I want us to commit to making greater persons of each other. Maybe this wasn’t the most romantic love letter you’ve ever read, but I want to make a greater nation with you.
If you’re feeling defensive or angry or overjoyed or like I’m a total moron, I’d love to hear why so we can have a dialogue. If you’re feeling numb or don’t think this issue is relevant to you, I’d love to hear about that too. Comment, email me, or talk to another white person if you don’t feel comfortable doing it with me. Please just start talking about racism with other white people. It’s the only way it is ever going to end.
With all my love,
Where to learn more:
- Great explaination of how disparities develop: http://www.cahealthadvocates.org/_pdf/news/2007/Levels-Of-Racism.pdf (skip to the 2nd page to “Levels of Racism: A Gardners Tale”) or watch this: http://vimeo.com/11939747.)
- White Privilege: http://www.amptoons.com/blog/files/mcintosh.html)
- “Why don’t whites have black friends?” http://www.cnn.com/2013/08/19/opinion/colby-black-friends/index.html
*I’m not ignoring poor and working class white folks. I am intentionally talking to middle-class (and owning class) white folks because I was raised with those particular sets of pattern and can speak out of that experience.