“We are the people we have been waiting for.” (The tag line of an MIT student group working on alternative energy cars - vds.mit.edu)
Imagine that you can end racism today, now, forever. Discrimination ceases to exist, racial epithets are never heard, angry retributions are never made, jokes at the expense of others are not funny, and kids don't have to make choices based on their race or the race of others. Utopia or our future? Here is why white people must become the people we have been waiting for.
I was talking with a teen the other day. He was upset and was lashing out with all kinds of distorted logic and crazy statements as teenagers do. But the most poignant moment was when he detailed to me how he was going to make the claim to people that I take better care of him than his black guardian. The strategy took me aback. This kid, who is black, felt that if he played the race card in reverse, that if he portrayed a black man as mean and a white woman as generous, that he could convince people that they should feel sorry for him. Some of his logic is the classic strategy of playing one adult against the other. But the racial dimension, played so overtly by a child of color, really disturbed me.
The incident made me acutely aware of the devastating influence of racism on the next generation. What this kid did not care about or even realize was that he was maligning himself as he attempted to malign his guardian. I realized at that moment how culpable I am for the problem of racism. Let me walk you through this looking glass, dear readers, and when you come out the other side, I hope you see what I see.
I go through my daily life with an internal appreciation for the racist situations faced by my neighbors, friends, and colleagues who are people of color. However, I can move through the day with my armor of white privilege. By white privilege I mean that I have certain advantages that I can take for granted that are not afforded to people of color. Check out this illuminating read on the subject: http://seamonkey.ed.asu.edu/~mcisaac/emc598ge/Unpacking.html
For instance, I know I can drive down the street too fast and the police will not pull me over in a black neighborhood, whereas many black drivers are meticulous about not speeding for fear of what might happen if they are pulled over. I can walk into any store without fear of being harassed or skepticism from the security guard about my motives for being there. If the store manager comes up to me, I have no reason to fear that he will accuse me of shoplifting. I assume he is coming over to be helpful to me. Black people are not treated this way in stores, especially stores in white neighborhoods. When I deal with a black service person, postal person, clerk, or other provider, I know there is a better than even chance that I will get deferential and preferential treatment that may be different than the way customers who are not white are treated. This is the reality of white privilege. I don't ask for special treatment. I don't do anything to express assumptions to get that care. I don't make demands. But I know it exists. I accept the benefits of that privilege in a way that suggests I am not surprised, that the treatment is not unexpected, and that I like it.
I have an awareness of white privilege that many white people do not have, simply because they have never heard of it. I understand where this response to me comes from and that it exists. It's all very abstract isn't it? When it is abstract, I can be aware, but not be culpable. But to be aware and not disengage from the racism is really disingenuous. So far, I have no better response than to be polite and pretend the better treatment afforded me through my white privilege does not exist or that because I do not want it, I am not responsible for it being there. Hah!
So what is a privileged white woman supposed to do to end racism? I can be sure I don't discriminate. I can treat people of color the same way I treat white people (and if that is before my first cup of coffee, I apologize.) I can eschew my armor of privilege and expect to be treated just like people of color. Somehow, though, I don't think these strategies are going to make any difference in ending racism. It might make me feel better - thus extending the beneficence of white privilege... I could tell the clerk to be nasty to me or for the security guard to be suspicious of me and that the store manager should not be helpful. Would that really address the problem of racism? No. But to do nothing but be aware of the situation is not really much of a response either.
There is a line in the movie Rent that says, the opposite of war is not peace, the opposite of war is reproduction. To me that means that retraction of the bad is not enough. You have to replace it with something pro-active. So the opposite of discrimination may not be nondiscrimination, but the opposite of discrimination is empowerment.
There it is folks. Chew on that for a moment. You must give up not only your position of white privilege, but you must be proactive to empower people of color. This is the moment where white people have to take a stand, but typically cannot. This is the place at which we fail to be the people we have been waiting for. This is the position of vulnerability we cannot afford to take on, because it conflicts with our internal logic of preservation. It gives even me, a died in the wool believer, a pause. What would this look like if my white privilege ended, if I actively disengaged from discrimination, and did so by stepping aside so as to empower people of color?
In this empowering world that is the opposite of discrimination, the kid would have to deal with his black guardian as a person, as a man, not a color. That means that the kid would deal with himself as a person, as a man, and not a color. This would mean that other people in the world would approach this kid as a person, as a man, and not as a color. That would radically change his life.
I would go into a store and be one of the customers, not a special customer. This would mean I would deal with each customer I run into as a person of equal status to mine. My external attitude would change - imperceptibly to me, but probably obvious to others. Releasing my consciousness about my own race would change my demeanor towards others. If every white person did this, it would change the dynamics. Change your energy and the substance of who we are and how we treat and are treated will change.
I would relate to people with a different attitude, not one of solidarity, but as a person. Even though I empathize with people of color, being in solidarity is a false-positive. My empathy does not give them power - even though most white people think it does - by osmosis I suppose. My empathy must be one of consciously turning power away, and thus making it available to people of color. This does not mean I am giving them the power I have. My power is tainted because it comes to me through a racist privilege. I must give up that tainted power. I must make room for others to take their place.
We can be the people we have been waiting for. But it does not mean being celebrated for being liberators. It does not mean taking credit for anything. It means doing the right thing and giving up a long standing advantage that we have no right to have. Can you do this?