It’s Not Enough to be a Good White Person
by Ted Miller
(originally published in Tumbleweird October 2019)
I’m a white man. I have benefited my whole life from the systemic racism that began over 500 years ago in Europe, was brought to America through colonialism and displacement of indigenous peoples, expanded with the horrors of slavery, and continues to benefit whites today.
If you are a white person and don’t understand that, you need to reflect on your privilege.
White privilege doesn’t mean that white people don’t have to work for what they achieve in life. It doesn’t mean poverty doesn’t afflict white Americans. It doesn’t mean white people have it easy. It just means that being white is not something that negatively impacts our lives. A white person doesn’t have to think about what it means to be white.
BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) don’t have that luxury. Race is something that affects everything; wealth, income, criminal justice, education, housing, medical care, and every other aspect of life. A few statistics to illustrate this impact (there are hundreds of studies and sources for similar information):
· If you are black in America, your family earns just $57.30 for every $100 a white family earns. For every $100 of wealth a white family holds, a black family only holds $5.04. [i]
· If you are a black student, you are three times as likely to be suspended or expelled from school than your white counterpart.[ii]
· One in three black boys born today will go to prison some time in their life. One in seven Latino boys will go to prison. Only one in seventeen white boys end up in prison.[iii]
· 58 percent of prisoners are black or Hispanic, despite making up one quarter of the U.S. population[iv]
· Neighborhoods in America are still largely segregated. The historic practice of redlining, which kept blacks out of white neighborhoods, and the disproportionate effect of the 2008 mortgage crisis on blacks are two of the factors that have led to black home ownership at 42% compared to 72% for whites.[v]
These are just a few examples of how racist policy produces racist outcomes. The statistics don’t adequately describe the daily injustices black people experience. Like having the police called when you are napping in your dorm, or barbecuing in a park with your family, or sitting in Starbucks waiting for a friend, or for just existing while black. These recent examples in the news happen everywhere, every day. They are so common that they inspired the hashtag #LivingWhileBlack. (see https://www.huffpost.com/interactives/existing-while-black for more examples.) I personally know of several similar recent incidents right here in the Tri-Cities.
And I don’t need to remind you how many unarmed black men are shot by police.
Racism is real in America.
“But I’m not a racist,” you say.
Dr. Ibram X. Kendi, in his newly released book How to Be an Antiracist, explains his concept of racism by reframing the terms “racist” and “antiracist”. A racist is “one who is supporting a racist policy through their actions or inaction or expressing a racist idea.” An antiracist, then, is “one who is supporting an antiracist policy through their actions or expressing an antiracist idea.” Kendi says the opposite of “racist” isn’t “not racist,” but “antiracist.”
Claiming that one is “not racist” has no real meaning. No one likes to be called a racist and most white people truly believe they are not racist. Several years ago I would have assured you that I was not racist. White supremacists say they are not racist. Donald Trump has said he is “the least racist person there is anywhere in the world.”
Saying you are not a racist doesn’t mean you don’t support racist policies and ideas.
Robin DiAngelo in her book White Fragility said, “If, as a white person, I conceptualize racism as a binary and I place myself on the ‘not racist’ side, what further action is required of me? No action is required, because I am not a racist. Therefore, racism is not my problem; it doesn’t concern me and there is nothing further I need to do.”
To claim we aren’t racist is to deny our role in a society designed to benefit white people. To say “I’m not racist” is to say that I don’t have any responsibility for the effects of racism on BIPOC.
After the 2016 election, people who were upset about policies that were negatively impacting travelers from Muslim countries, refugees from Central America, and other marginalized groups often repeated the quote: “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”
Good white people doing nothing about racism allows racism to thrive. White people doing nothing perpetuates a system of racial inequality.
I am by no means an expert on racism. I can never understand what it is like to live as a BIPOC. But, I can listen and learn, and perhaps, in some small way, try to be less racist and more antiracist.
As I work on this, I will continue to make mistakes. I will hurt someone who is BIPOC when I don’t mean to. I will support a policy with racist outcomes without thinking about it. Working on racism is hard, but as white people, it’s on us to own the impact of our racism. I believe it’s important to try to make the world a better place for everyone, so I’ll keep working at it.
To my white readers, I encourage you to take a hard look at yourself and do some self-reflection. How has your whiteness benefited you? How has it impacted BIPOC? Educate yourself by reading BIPOC authors who write about race and following them on social media. Listen. Talk about race with friends and coworkers. Join a discussion group. Don’t just live in your white bubble.
If you want to make a difference, you have to do some work. Being a good white person isn’t enough.
Book recommendations: “So You Want to Talk About Race by Ijeoma Oluo, White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo
Recommended authors: James Baldwin, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Maya Angelou, Audre Lorde, Angela Davis, Isabel Wilkerson, Ijeoma Oluo, Malcolm X, Toni Morrison, Michelle Alexander, Cornel West, Frederick Douglass.
[i]NY Times, 9/18/17, “Whites Have Huge Wealth Edge Over Blacks (but Don’t Know It
[ii]US Department of Education Office for Civil Rights, March 21, 2014, “Data Snapshot: School Discipline.”
[v]Chicago Tribune, July 21, 2017, “Why black homeownership rates lag even as the housing market recovers