In recent years, I’ve thought about race and racial discrimination in our world. I’ve written about racism in the American criminal justice system and how it continues the legacy of slavery; how movies vilify characters of color; the indifference towards refugees of color and growing Islamophobia within Europe and the United States; and hostility of white society towards racial justices movements like the Black Panthers and Black Lives Matter. By reflecting on the consequences of racism, I have been able to turn the corner racism and see how my white identity is central to the problem and solution.
White people need to realize that racism is a White issue. We–white European people–live in a world of racial ignorance. I lived in a world of racial ignorance growing up.
As the political theorist, Barnor Hesse, explains, the idea of race is fundamentally about the creation of a division between Europeans and non-Europeans, both internally, beginning with the Spanish expulsion or forced conversion of Jews and Muslims, and externally within systems of colonial rule, and of course in the transatlantic slave trade across the Americas.
Take the example of the StoryCorps film Traffic Stop. In this short film, Patsy, a white mother, tells Alex, her black adopted son–who is two years younger than me–that “skin color really didn’t matter.” Like Patsy, my family, which lived in a small, almost exclusively white Canadian town, “never talked about race.” The naïvety of white people about race and racism isn’t unusual. It’s built into our society.
White people never see racism. We never feel it. This is one of the many privileges of being white. This is whiteness and it’s a problem.
The differentiation of results seen in Traffic Stop is but one example of how people of color are treated differently in society. It speaks to how schools and workplaces treat people of color differently. How they are talked (down) to, how they are shown (and not shown) in TV and magazines and how they are told to see themselves. All of these daily instances add up to a societal structure of racism that people of color are not allowed to leave and are told to be thankful for.
So, what would happen if this world was reversed? What would happen if white people were forced, even if is was for a few hours, to experience a society that treated them differently because of how they looked? Would you be happy to receive the same treatment as a person of color in society?
This is exactly what educator Jane Elliot has done with her Blue Eyes/Brown Eyes exercise, which substitutes eye color–a non-controversial part of the human body–for skin colour. Skin and eye color are both dictated by melanin, our biological pigment determined at birth. We don’t have any control over either, yet we continue to use one as a means of discrimination.
This ingenious exercise was first implemented inside Jane’s all-white classroom, after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. Although it’s impossible to experience the effect of racism (particularly white supremacy) as a white person in a room full of white people, Jane was able to have her all-white students experience either superiority or inferiority based solely on which eye color group they were placed in.
The cruelty of the “superior” group and the under-performance of the “inferior” group were felt nearly instantaneous. Although the “superior” and “inferior” groups were chosen randomly and shouldn’t change academic results, the internalization of each group led to real-world results. This exercise proved that racism is a learned behavior based on arbitrary characteristics. It also means that it can be unlearned.
Although I never participated in a Blue Eyes/Brown Eyes exercise, watching videos of Jane facilitating these workshops has had a lasting effect on me and changed my perception of society.
I can now admit that I’m a racist. Not a racist by choice, but a racist made by society.
Like her students, I was raised in a country–Canada–that puts white people in positions of power; just look at all those faces of Prime Ministers that are the same as mine. I was raised in a country, whose land was colonized by Europeans from its aboriginal inhabitants. I was told about the seemingly infinite accomplishments of white European and settler societies, while never hearing about the accomplishments of minorities. This racial ignorance about the lives (and worth) of people of color continue today, all around the world.
It exists for white university students; some of whom may feel attacked if labeled a racist and have the freedom to walk out:
It exists in Britain, the home of white Empire:
Whiteness and racial ignorance exists everywhere that white people are made and told that they are superior than other people of color. We–white people–need to first accept the racism that has been ingrained in us and then second work to change the systems around us.
Classrooms need to change so that kids stop seeing
We–white people–need to start in childhood education to overcome the stigma that white as good and black/brown as bad. We need to see the injustice in our criminal justice and immigration systems. We need to see how media perpetuates white supremacy and negative portrayals of people of color. We need to question why businesses and universities cater largely to white people. We need to find the truth in our history and seek reconciliation with those who have been harmed. We–white people–need to do a lot more.
This forces one to ask: Should you feel guilty about being white?
No. As Jane Elliot says, “I didn’t choose it. I can’t lose it.”
I was born white. I didn’t choose it. I can’t change that fact. But I can change how I act.
So: Should you do something about racism and whiteness?
Yes, I think every white person should.
Once you admit to yourself that society is based on a foundation of white supremacy, you need to recognize which group your actions benefit.
On one extreme of whiteness, there is a small group of white people fighting for racial injustice, spreading messages of hate. This include neo-Nazis, the alt-Right, Ku Klux Klan members, people who support travel bans on a certain color of people, and anyone else who vocally identifies as a white supremacist. These are the active, proud racists who are fighting to keep whiteness alive.
Now, if travel to the other end, you have another small group of white people. This group, however, fights for racial justice and against white supremacy. They were white people in the civil rights era, who took the Freedom Ride and protested segregated lunch counters. They are people who stand with BLM and kick the door open to discuss modern racism. These are anti-racists.
Like a magnet, whiteness has two active parts, described above, and a larger neutral part, where all the other white people sit. These are teachers, doctors, politicians, artists, plumbers and business owners who neither join hate groups nor join racial justice protests. These are the people who say things like “I don’t see race” or think they aren’t racist because they “have a black friend.” (Both of which are deeply racist.) What average white people need to recognize (and I hope Jane Elliott’s work points out) is that we–white people–are all racist. You don’t need to feel bad about your white identity, but you also can’t be neutral about your place in society. As Howard Zinn said, “You can’t be neutral on a moving train.”
That moving train is our racist society. We are conditioned from birth, through our actions and behaviors, to be racist and we benefit from it everyday. It’s time you recognize your privilege and work to better this world. If you do nothing, you are unfortunately playing into the hand of the vocal, proud racists who would like to see you move silently through life and not stand in solidarity with people of color.
If you start to admit that racism is a problem, then you can move into other spheres of identity, biology and power. Seeing how how society turns us into racists allow one to recognize other forms of discrimination you may hold, including:
These are just some of the ways that identity and biology are used by people in power, who often are straight white able-bodied men. Ignorance of how discrimination originated and why is lingers is the greatest tool they have to divide and rule. Politicians, media personality, business leaders, and others then use fear as a tool to support their stature and harm to minority groups.
When ignorance combines with fear, the result is hate. An example of this took place last year, when Sikh politician Jagmeet Singh was confronted by a white woman who feared that he was going to implement Sharia law, a Muslim tradition that isn’t part of his faith. Her ignorance of Jagmeet’s beliefs and her fear of Muslims lead to hate speech towards him and other people of color. This incident isn’t unique even if it was broadcasted widely in the news. People across Canada, the United States, Australia, Europe and other white communities hold racist beliefs either consciously or unconsciously. They sometimes express their ignorance about the lives of people or their hatred for the other. It is up to all white people to speak up against racism and to act to stop it.
As a straight white, able-bodied man, I can admit that I was completely ignorant about most inequality that exists in the world. The single greatest cause was a lack of exposure. I grew up in a patriarchy community (small rural town) without discussion of inequality of injustice. I didn’t have conversations with people of color. We didn’t talk about differences.
So, when I later discovered books on the subject, I felt awakened. Knowledge is the cure to ignorance and something all privileged people should excitedly rush towards. White people should learn about race. We should explore differences in sexuality and genders. Europeans should learn about cultures from around the world. We should learn about all religions and believes in the world. We shouldn’t be afraid of what we find or learn.
A recent book I found quite helpful in explain these topics is Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race by Reni Eddo-Lodge. This books documents, in great details, the history and current manifestation of racism in white societies, like the United States and United Kingdom. Reni discuss her childhood story and the unique challenges of being a young girl of color in societies ruled by white men and women. Her own childhood showed her that:
“White children are taught not to ‘see’ race, whereas children of colour are taught–often with no explanation–that we must work twice as hard as our white counterparts if we wish to succeed.”
When we understand the unique intersections of identity, we can also look at the unique challenges some men face. As Reni notes:
“Men inhabit different spaces. Some face racism. Some face homophobia.”
But maybe, the most important thing we can learn is the role of white people and the need for us to no longer be neutral. As Reni summarizes, it’s time for white people to examine whiteness and their contributions to a racist society. It’s time to stop telling people of color to solve this problem and begin listening to them so that we may be part of the solution:
“The perverse thing about our current racial structure is that it has always fallen on the shoulders of those at the bottom to change it. Yet racism is a white problem. It reveals the anxieties, hypocrisies and double standards of whiteness. It is a problem in the psyche of whiteness that white people must take responsibility to solve. You can only do so much from the outside.”
What I hope changes is that the majority of white people come to terms with whiteness and the racism they grew up in and perpetuate everyday. I hope white people will become less reactionary when told about racism or labeled racist for their words and actions.
The fight for racial justice has been long and hard-fought. It’s time that white people take a side: either with those who spout hate, or those who express love.
In June 1963, Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote his famous Letter from Birmingham Jail. In it, he defends the strategy of nonviolent resistance but also criticizes white moderates and all their “goodwill”:
First, I must confess that over the last few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Council-er or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I can’t agree with your methods of direct action;” who paternalistically feels he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by the myth of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait until a “more convenient season.”
Shallow understanding from people of goodwill is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.
If you’ve made it this far, I applaud you for your open mind. If you want to hear more about whiteness, I highly suggest listening to this episode of ABC’s The Minefield: