News & Updates

May 9, 2023

White People: Don’t let them make you question your convictions

An audio version of this article is available at White People Make Everything About Race; Season 1: Before the Pod.

I’m going to state up front that this in an article by a white guy, primarily directed toward other people who are identified as white. In the coming week you will likely – and rightly – see many articles, posts, videos, and more reflecting on the year that has passed since the white supremacist massacre in Buffalo, NY. If you have time for only one, I suggest you choose one written by an author that is Black or African-American whose community was directly targeted and impacted. If, after hearing from folks whose voices should remain in the foreground, you are someone who is white-identified, like me, and are still wondering how to live into your values in the face of white supremacy, please read on.

The heavy anniversary of May 14, 2022 is coming up in Buffalo, when a white supremacist ambushed and murdered ten innocent and unsuspecting African Americans in their neighborhood grocery store.

In the immediate aftermath of this sickening and senseless tragedy, seemingly the entire community came together to condemn this act and pledged to work toward change, representing a cross section of those most directly impacted and targeted because of their race, as well as many white identified folks who thought this kind of racial terror was a thing of the distant past, or took place only in distant places.

What happened in Buffalo was in many ways a microcosm of what happened nationally following the high profile murders of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd in 2020.

The ensuing societal reckoning was with not just our past but our present racial divisions, how they create daily stressors for all those placed below the top rung of the racial hierarchy, and what they mean for long term opportunity and unity.

But, nationally and locally, this moment of reckoning seems to be fading.

Though the kind of shocking and monstrous acts carried out by a white-supremacist at a supermarket in Buffalo are the extreme outcomes of racial prejudice, it is in many ways a logical one.

If the lived reality of people who are white-identified is disconnected and detached from that of people who are Black and Brown, we can easily replicate inside ourselves a socially created perception of people who are fundamentally different and less than we are. Less than human.

Despite the varied circumstances, these killings are all ultimately made possible by this one thing: the often subtle but persistent dehumanization of Black and Brown people.

And if we believe someone is not fully human, not fully capable of the emotions, experiences, insights, and achievements that we see within ourselves, it becomes easy to justify the lack of access to systems that we all rely on (education, banking, transportation, health care). It becomes easy to justify large scale segregation, disinvestment, and neglect.

That disinvestment then perpetuates disparate conditions, reinforcing disparate outcomes, retroactively justifying the prior disinvestment and continuing the self-reinforcing cycle of prejudice and disparity.

Social Injustice Warriors

There exists today a calculated and concerted effort by certain individuals and organizations to stifle the important but incomplete public conversation about the ways that we are not yet the equal society that we would prefer to believe we are.

Those stoking white-racial resentment today are cynical and self serving, and they consolidate their power and strength through scapegoating and fear. Yet, recent legal depositions and private text messages reveal that some of the loudest voices spilling hatred and resentment don’t even believe the lies and vitriol they spout.

Then why do they do it?

Simply put, these voices are building their own empires by tearing at the fabric of a just and moral society, by convincing good-hearted (and, in most cases, predominantly white-identified) people to act against their own values systems, and against their own self interest.

This is not new.

In fact, the American racial hierarchy was created and codified into law beginning in the early 1700s as a deliberate attempt to divide people and pit them against each other and, yes, against their own self interests (see: Bacon’s Rebellion and the Virginia Slave Codes).

In one particularly revealing present-day text exchange, one high profile television talkshow host who built a comfortable empire on resentment and vitriol revealed the impact of this constant barrage of hateful rhetoric. In a racially laden text exchange, this person admits the terrifying extent of their own bloodlust while rooting for a mob of their supporters to murder someone who does not agree with their shared, bigoted view: “Then somewhere deep in my brain, an alarm went off: this isn’t good for me. I’m becoming something I don’t want to be.”

It is left to speculation whether this television host is aware of the impact that their words also have on their audience, not just surfacing, but crystalizing and heightening latent racial resentment. Are their audience members looking into a mirror and seeing what they’ve become, as this suddenly shocked host did? Or are they seeing around themselves reflections of their new hardened beliefs in the faces of their family, friends, and acquaintances who have been similarly radicalized?

In a startling parallel, decades ago Kurt Vonnegut (who as a young prisoner of war survived the fire bombing of Dresden during World War II, years later inspiring the novel Slaughterhouse Five) wrote Mother Night, a novel about a double agent broadcasting secret messages to the Allies through a popular pro-Nazi radio show. Eerily, his protagonist realizes too late, “We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.”

It makes me wonder whether or not those who have used racial animus and division to their own ends, despite their espoused core values, have now, in fact, become what they have pretended to be.

That’s Not Me

There is a seemingly unending stream of manufactured controversies regarding a more accurate analysis of the structures of American society; leading to anti-woke crusade; anti-Critical Race Theory (CRT) tirades; and a disturbing level of book banning. Whether these achieve their ultimate ends of criminalizing any unvarnished, clear eyed look at American history, they are nevertheless achieving their objectives. These constructed controversies have contorted the bounds of social norms and called into question some of the fundamental beliefs about a pluralistic and diverse American society that I grew up with, even in a small white rural town in the Reagan ‘80s.

Those of us who are outside of this circle of increasing white national extremism may consider ourselves immune from the impacts of this disturbing current of hatred and intolerance. And yet, are we aware of the ways in which these messages may lead to subtle changes in our own behavior or even in our own beliefs?

The fear of stepping on a cultural fault line or the potential for conflict in ‘polite’ society is now contributing to the silence of too many well meaning white-people and predominantly white-organizations.

At an individual level, there is now a real or imagined threat of public reproach, online harassment, or being ‘cancelled’. For organizations there is fear of public controversy, or losing support, funding, or clients. This has made the easier, safer choice to back away from the actions that our morals and values would otherwise compel us to take.

This stepping back from controversy is now happening even for many of those that found a voice for justice in 2020, when the country seemed – albeit briefly – almost united for racial justice.

And that, precisely, is the point.

This is how those stoking racial bigotry intend to benefit and win. Not by making a compelling case to convert you to white nationalism (there is no compelling case to be made), but by compelling you to be silent; to duck conflict and controversy; and to be content locking your values and voice in a tight box of your comfort zone, convinced that you are different and good, and that knowing that is enough.

But it is not enough.

If what we crave is only comfort and safety for ourselves, what do we give up?

The answer is simple, but difficult to hear:

We surrender our own better angels. We tacitly consent to living in a world that fails to match our values, our beliefs, and our higher aspirations.

When we allow others to have their full humanity denied, we deny ourselves the ability to fully realize our own.

Beyond Comfort

The despicable and cowardly acts carried out by a white-person who was radicalized into white supremacy here in Buffalo did not create but, rather, exposed the pain and division within our community.

But let’s be clear: these killings exposed the pain and division within our community only to those of us who are white-identified and have had the luxury of being able to ignore it.

For people in the Black community, those conditions have been impossible to ignore. The resilience shown by these communities prior to and in the wake of this tragedy is undeniable, and their compassion is undeniably human.

It is not for us, as people who are white-identified, to prescribe remedies for how these communities heal or what is to come next for them, but to resource and support the healing and rebuilding process.

So what, then, is the active role of well meaning white people in this moment?

The answer is again simple, but difficult to hear:

To be uncomfortable.

To understand your values and beliefs, and to recognize, speak, and act when things you care about do not align with them.

Think about the organizations and institutions you are a part of, and question whether or not they are committed to fairness and justice in the same way that you are. Call the question if you’re not sure. Ask what concrete actions are being taken to create the better world you believe can and should exist.

Do not let your discomfort keep you silent. Recognize you do not have all the answers, but you do have enough questions and resolve to begin a meaningful and lasting dialogue.

On May 14th, 2022, a terrible and uncomfortable moment was created through which many of us finally saw our whole community in a new light.

Do not let that moment fade, or that discomfort.

Our own humanity depends on it.

(C) 2023