Black History Month, Racism & Privilege – An Unauthorized White Perspective

white-voices

Privilege and Racism; not surprisingly, topics that aren’t very popular among a large segment of white people. I’ve been told a time or two that I wear this topic out. Possibly because I am a white person speaking to white people. What gives me the authority? The truth is, I have none. That’s the point. It is my job to address privilege and racism every single day. Whether you know it or not — if you’re white — it is your job too. I’m not an expert on the subject. Far from it. We do know who the experts are, and we seldom listen to them. By “we” I mean white people. If honest, most of us are just so damned afraid of getting it wrong. Let’s face it, this is difficult work and none of us are experts. We’ll fail on more levels than we will succeed at first. Our discomfort will receive no sympathy, nor should it. It is no one’s job to help us with this, and if anything has ever been disincentivised it’s white people recognizing white privilege. Still, it is our job to come to terms with our obligation to undo racist structures and dissolve the inherent privilege those structures protect and sustain. There is only one way to break down the structures of racial inequality. In America’s dominant white culture — only white Americans can do it. It’s on us to face down the unabated harm of racism in every form we see it. It’s on us to divert it’s unjust favor into a neutrality that no longer extrudes a predetermined white advantage through every social and economic channel.

I’m a white guy. I don’t know any more than you do most likely. My words aren’t derived from expertise or experience. They rise out of a truth that I won’t deny, and a conscience I won’t betray. The only advancement I may have ahead of any white person rejecting concepts of racial inequality or privilege — if I have any at all — are my choices. My decision to set aside white narratives of contradiction — to look without defending as though it were me and those I love affected — as in fact it most certainly is. It’s an easy task really. I start this way; If a person of color is speaking on race, I shut up and listen. If I disagree, I dig deep to find out why. Understanding that we don’t know what it is that we don’t know — is the perfect place to start if you’re white and a person of conscience. Does this mean I buy everything I hear, or that I like being referred to in generalities about my voice, my value, my relevance and who I am as a human being? No. I don’t actually. But I am smart enough to know that the person speaking of me categorically, has been subjected to the dominant, privileged white majority structures that have economically and socially marginalized them for generations. So do I think it’s racist when a person of color says “white people … do… are … don’t…. won’t, etcetera?” No. Racism has two forms. One is systemic, the other is individual. Only by undoing the prior can I claim to not be the latter. So as a matter of decency I defer my presumed right to dismiss, and recognize that a Person of Color’s categorical use of the term “white people” is not racist — it’s fact. It’s my turn to look at that fact. Other’s have had to for generations. I can set aside my paradigm of thought long enough to learn something — and I promise you that I have. Learned something, I mean.

When people of color speak on racial inequality, it isn’t as though we have no evidence to corroborate their claims. We literally have to parse words, disassemble facts that operate as bodies of evidence and reassemble them both materially and syntactically to arrive at a place of plausible deniability. Plausible being the incoherency of deniable conclusions. It’s bullshit if you look at it any other way. You don’t have to look too close to see it.

One thing for sure being white will show you; it’s a tough topic to engage. Probably a whole lot tougher if a person of color is in the room. Yes, a Black person can really throw a wrench in the works if white folks are discussing racism or privilege. These defining pin-drop moments may even be the cause of what some are calling white fragility. We’ll get to that later. Understanding fragility has a prerequisite; seeing and understanding your privilege. It will still piss you off, but explaining what an asshole someone is, first requires there to be an accepted morality they have breached. Don’t worry — no one thinks you’ve been an asshole on purpose. It’s forgivable. Do you know anyone who’s been a prick in a certain department of their life, and then finally saw it — accepted it — changed it? It’s like that. There’s a warm affection that takes place afterward. There’s a trust and an understanding that allows others like him not to fear being wrong. And all of a sudden this momentary insult, once overcome, is a bonding source of community — and yet entirely forgotten. White people are not good at vulnerability. We are stiff and often see it as weakness. For many other communities, vulnerability is strength, confidence and eternally empowering. It’s why we can’t dance. Don’t be afraid to laugh. If it weren’t so awful …

The truth is, most of us are terrified of being labeled racist. Some avoid social intimacy with black people in order not to be. Others are very cautious about interviewing or hiring black people because white people do not want to be in situations where we are said to be racist — believing only a person of color can point that finger. Some stop talking about racism when a Black person enters the room so they won’t end up accused. Most of us white folks avoid topics like Black Lives Matter when a person of color is present or within earshot. Most white folks are quite clear that they are not racist, and as a matter of course do not want to be labeled. “We shouldn’t be branded just because we don’t necessarily share the same views on how to deal with racism. No, we steer clear because Black people play a race card whenever there’s a misunderstanding.” Do you want in on a little secret my white brothers and sisters? That IS racism. ‘Fraid so. At it’s absolute whitest and in it’s most patently identifiable form. Our capacity to speak openly about it is because of our ambivalence or our denial. Denial of something we know we are party to, but our majority lends mass to dishonest and complicit justification. Somwhere within you … it really isn’t you. And I’m here to tell you, it no longer has to be.

One thing for certain my fellow white folks — if being labeled a racist is what keeps you from becoming involved in dismantling its insidious and deleterious structures — I can help you with that. The best way to get past the fear that you may be racist, or your fear of being labeled one — is to simply know the truth. You already are a racist. You always have been. As is so often said on matters such as these; the truth shall set you free. And the truth is, if you are white, chances are very slim that you are not a racist. Don’t get stalled here though. No one will hold it against you. Really — no one. Believe it or not, those you most fear offending already know the truth. Take it from a homosexual. When you finally accept that you actually are one — a racist I mean — the folks of color you confess it to, just like dear ol’ mom, already knew all along. They’re just waiting for you to understand yourself. To set your denial aside and to stop casting the consequence upon them. A consequence that sometimes, in the severity of conflict, means injustice, homicide and life altering outcomes that have in no way ever been deserved. Can you live with that? Not without denying it. Think about it.

Be yourself and make the best of the world you live in. Most if not all people of color are behind you all the way. They want you to know who you are. It is the only way we can all become free. Or at the very least, not be unjustly divided. How can you know for certain that you are a racist? It’s very simple. Racism is a societal structure and the beneficiaries of the dominant racial culture, by position and participation, have to be the racists. There do have to be racists for there to be systemic and institutional racism. Certainly we accept that those exist. It’s just that we’re not responsible …right? There is a cost to racism and there are beneficiaries of racism. This can certainly be agreed upon. Take a moment here and think. You don’t believe YOU are paying the price for racism do you? Or that people of color are somehow the beneficiaries? No, we are the beneficiaries of racism. We, the white people. The systems and structures of racism cannot exist without participation. The fact that those structures do exist — and the fact that we participate as beneficiaries, means that we promote and sustain racism. We can change that. As a matter of fact and of conscience, it is only we that can change it. Some of us have already begun.

If you think about it, this is most likely why you can’t discuss racism or privilege very comfortably. Might this be why is it a difficult topic for you to openly or publicly entertain? Why is it such a burden for white people to talk about race and privilege? Simple. Privilege is not a burden to white people. In fact, it is an advantage. An enormous one. We know that, and we can’t dodge those facts among the experts we’ve refused to acknowledge. The nature of privilege is insidious and paradoxical for white people. Our privilege is inescapable by anyone who is not white, and particularly straight, white and male. Our privilege keeps us from having to look at inconvenient truths — ironically, even the truth of our privilege. We are insulated from our own comprehension of privilege. The privilege that marginalized others while bestowing advantage upon us, also shields us from awareness of the very privilege we deny. Still, we know under the surface and we know at our core. Otherwise we couldn’t elevate ourselves to a position that permits us to dismiss the consequences our privilege imposes on others. Our belief we’re entitled to privilege, is in itself the proof that we haven’t earned it. What did you do to earn it today?

We aren’t the experts and have no authority here. Troublin’ aint it?

It has to be done my friends. You gotta go in. No canary. No safety net. And especially no authority. Why no authority? Why does no foundation for thesis worthy of defending exist for you and for me? For starters, you can’t enter the conversation from a place of experience. You have none. You have to take someone else’s word for what an asshole you’ve been lo these many years. I’m not kidding. All of us have to. Terms like “From my experience” is not a preposition that speaks the truth of white people because we have no experience. “From my perspective” is a baseless entrée into any dialogue of merit. It lacks credential. Your perspective — just like mine — is voiced from atop the very structures that insulate us from seeing what our presumed insights are built upon. And they are built upon the human beings whose voices we’ve refused to listen to — about a reality we haven’t endured. You can’t claim to “understand” because you don’t. You can’t say you know how someone of color feels, because you don’t. You can’t offer assistance in facing the burden that the degradation of racism brings. The person you’re talking to knows more, understands more, has experienced more and has listened to more white-splaining than a person should be willed to tolerate. Coming from you, if you’re white — it is likely downright insulting. How much agreement do you think you’ll cultivate denying the only expertise in the room?

So… you’ve been silenced. Sucks, doesn’t it? It feels terrible to have no say in something that defines who you are in very specific terms — so much so that your input isn’t needed even when determining how to deal with who you are and what your behavior represents by an authority other than yourself. No agency over what your presence is worth, or how your lack of clarity makes you just another drain on those who have to live under the burdens from which you benefit. Step outside yourself for just a moment with me if you will. Look from a distance at your internal response to this idea. It’s interesting to witness the internal rejection this particular reality draws from white people who find themselves standing on this square. Most pivot their direction one-hundred-and-eighty about now, if they haven’t left already. They won’t relinquish their franchise in the way our dominant structures have stripped it from all the others. Don’t do it though. Don’t turn around. The impulse alone for that one-eighty turn spins on the heel of abrogation. This could and should illuminate your privilege just enough for you too see it. Turn back around if you’ve begun to dismiss me here. Don’t let this be the spot for you like it has been for the others. This is the point where many of us — at least once — say fuck it. “If what I have to offer isn’t good enough — count me out” most say. “If I can’t speak my mind and be listened to and respected — I won’t be involved. I won’t be treated as less than an equal.” Bingo ! Less than equal … “we won’t be treated as less than.” Pause here for a moment if these feelings are even modestly awakened in you. As you ponder the possibility that you are not the authority – a fact you likely both reject and resonate with, at least enough to elicit a small flush of resentment. This is in part, what white fragility means. I told you we’d get to it. We’re here. Unable to accept a position less than superior and receive the truth from a paradigm of experience you cannot claim — unwilling to assume such a position? Yes, it’s time to do just that if you’re a person of courage and conscience. It’s time.

Less than an equal. This is the only place we (yes I mean white people), have ever been asked to accept a less than equal position. This is the only place that our privilege does not place us at an advantage. The place of understanding. The place of realization of the cost our privilege has placed upon the backs of those upon which generations of white people have been falsely elevated. Not by inherent superiority. Not by a long shot. Not by broader insight, larger capacity or greater awareness. No. By abduction, brutality, disbandment of families, torture, servitude and oppression. Laws and imprisonment — auction blocks and ownership — genocide and enslavement. These are the foundations on which we leave the conversation because we haven’t an equal authority. We possess no credential by which to speak to anyone. Will we really use our privilege this way? Walk away, because we have no equal comprehension? Because we have no equal footing on which to stand? Will we use our privilege to avoid the truth? It is our turn to listen. It’s our job to find amenable resolution. It’s our turn to face the cruel realities a brutal and immoral culture tried to build for us. We don’t face the brutality or the struggle — only the recognition of its existence. Can you deny this recognition to those who have endured its harshness and suffered its cost?

Undoing racism and relinquishing privilege can’t be achieved with warm acceptance, and it can’t be done by acknowledging the rights to equality of those we’ve disenfranchised. They know it and you should too. It is white people who are finally beginning to open to clarity and the truths which no others but us have been unwilling to see. We are not charged with the task of returning dignity to Black Americans. They have never forfeited theirs. It is they who permit us to restore ours, and we so seldom exhibit the fortitude or humility permitting us to reach those ends. We’ve failed in dealing with our role in systemic racism, privilege and what is and isn’t our responsibility. Starting with our effort to simply hear. To talk about it with dialogue that is first formulated from a place of introspection and compassion. Summoning the capacity to listen and to comprehend a past we half hold onto and half deny while never achieving reconciliation — even to ourselves.

Many white people suggest we are not responsible for acts we did not personally commit. Perhaps true I suppose, in theory. Unless of course we deny the existence of those acts. Unless we deflect the magnitude, consequence or severity of those acts. Or if by denying that history, we continue to profit as the cost continues to draw from the lives and generations of those it deprives of things we take for granted as true for all. We are not guiltless if we knowingly draw from a system built upon the labor and deprivation of monetized human lives. These are men and women who have extended every deference, every opportunity, every measure of patience that white America might rise to our own promise. That we might live up to our constitution. That we might demonstrate the moral authority we unfailingly lay claim to across the entire world. Should we remain absolved of blame for all we’ve attained? Undue enrichment is the responsibility of its beneficiaries.

As a white man in what today is falsely deemed a post-racial America, I accept the importance and the duty belonging to white people to seek to understand our whole history. To collaborate with the authority of Black historians as to the story only they fully know. The existence of Black History Month is not necessitated by a need originating with Black people. Black History Month originated in deceptive exclusion of the greatness of their contributions — the burying of truth for the incomprehensible oppression endured to secure white wealth and white dominance. Each time I use the words we, does a rejection arise within you? Do the words “not me” dispel responsibility in exonerating rebuttal? You receive from it. You benefit from it. What is there to deny? It is a rejection of accountability to perpetuate a history we know to not be true. It is theft to profit from it. If we are not honorable custodians of the truth of our history, we have no right to absolution from our lineage or our past. In so doing, we propel the legacy forward and are as responsible and culpable as any have been before us.

It’s no favor we extend. This is not a generosity deserving of recognition that we correct perversions of historical lies. Nor that we restore the omissions and extract the lies from a history we intentionally distorted — whitewashed. We’ve concealed nothing from anyone except ourselves. We know it. We allow others to suffer still while we toy with our ambivalence of right and wrong, as though a recreational whim or purely academic afternoon musing. It’s offensive. Our truth is inextricable from the American story — no matter how passionately we deny it. Our shame isn’t handed down by blood, or alive by the sins of our fathers. It doesn’t exist in the commission of crimes concluded before we were born. No — our sin and our shame is in this moment now, and likely in every moment ahead. Its our privilege and its denial that collude with our past — making even our future one of lies if our course is held and defended.

We have a choice to live the truth or to die with a lie on our lips. A White lie so large it cannot and will not ever be concealed. Look behind you at all those who did the right thing while masses either contributed to ills unthinkable today, or evaded responsibility in the quiet apathy of negligent complicity. The universal stamp that coined the phrase; To be on the right side of history. We only have one life by which to make our mark. What would you most like to leave behind? Every effort to guide our children in truth and by the light of integrity is overshadowed by a legacy handed down in denied shame. John Bradshaw of “inner child” fame identified and authored a truth that proves itself again and again as time passes. “A family is as sick as its secrets.” We know that to be true as the hidden shame of child abuse, alcohol & drug abuse, violence and abandonment have become elevated out of the dark corners of people’s lives. Our greatest minds and most popular modern-day cultural contributors — conservative and progressive alike — have led the way to open dialogue on subjects once endured, sometimes until death, in isolation and hiding.

I hesitated to make this reference of John Bradshaw’s work in this message. He’s received his share of ridicule as an originator of terms and topics that fall under the heading of psychobabble. We’re already tired of terms like “safe space” and “triggered.” How can we look at “inner child” with less disdain, when all of it began there. But that’s partly the point. What we do with truth is what makes it valuable. No one in their right mind would suggest to a child molested by his uncle that “it’s a private matter” and not to tell anyone about it. If a woman were beaten daily by her drunken husband, or him by her — we wouldn’t close the window and pull the shades and drop off to sleep concluding “it’s private family business.” The fleas come with the dog, and most of what we make fun of — we can make fun of because it worked. It made such a difference that it began to be overly applied and we became saturated. We make jokes where our cuts are the deepest. Not necessarily a bad thing. There are dark corners today that white people don’t have to endure. That doesn’t mean we don’t have hardship. A very young man of color I heard speaking said “being white doesn’t mean you don’t suffer. But you’re not going to suffer because you’re white.” I’m uncertain how anyone can miss the truth of this. Or deny it. We’re all imperfect. John Bradshaw said of himself; “Everything I write about I struggle with myself,” Mr. Bradshaw once told the Observer of London. “Therapists are like the Wizard of Oz. Pull back the curtain and you find we are frightened and scared, too.” I speak from a place of absolute certainty, but do so without the authority. I’m as ill-equipped as anyone but so are you. Bradshaw, whatever one thinks about his work — was not wrong when he said “a family is as sick as its secrets.” And I’m not wrong when I tell you; A nation is too.

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