“How do you know you’re white?”
I’m talking to a hundred law students. The room is racially diverse and full of people who have gotten into top law schools. They’re committed to making racial equity a cornerstone of their work. They tend to think about race in their daily lives. They’ve chosen to attend this evening lecture about the problematic ways race is baked into American law and legal pedagogy. But not a single hand goes up to answer my question—and this matters.
I often start these talks by asking several volunteers to tell me what race they are. I then ask them how they know. Invariably, students of color say things like, “I know I’m black because the world tells me every single day.” Or, “I know I’m Latinx because my family is, it’s my blood, it’s my language.”
But when I ask white students how they know they’re white, the answer is almost always the same: silence. White students often stop short, unable to identify and articulate the cultural, political, economic and historic clues that tell them they are part of whiteness, let alone what being part of whiteness truly means. I let the silence grow. It gets uncomfortable. Then I step in to suggest that this phenomenon—not the individual student—is a significant part of America’s problem with race. It’s a major part of how we arrive at moments like this one, where dozens of cities are convulsing with racial pain, state violence, and the shell-shocked gaze of many white Americans asking themselves how this can be happening again. (It is not a mystery to black people of color.)
Remember Amy Cooper? She’s the white woman who, a few days ago, called police on a bird-watching black man in Central Park and repeatedly emphasized that he was “African-American” to the dispatcher. She may feel like old news now. But her actions are deeply instructive for this new, more convulsive moment: I bet if I asked her the same question—how does she know she’s white—she’d respond with the same blank silence as many of my (progressive, unusually aware) students. How do I know? Her apology, which indicated that she doesn’t truly understand what it means to be a part of whiteness. Critically, she said, “[I] would never have imagined that I would be involved in the type of incident that occured.”
And that’s just it. In this country, we have thousands of white people who consider themselves aware of the pain racism can cause, and who could never imagine themselves inflicting it—but then do. There are countless white people who consider themselves progressive and “good” on race issues, who scoff at and are offended by actions like Ms. Cooper’s—but who, to their surprise, are capable of similar actions. Any person of color who knows “good white people” can tell you this is true. It’s how we get, for example, progressive colleagues who nevertheless call us by the name of the other black woman we work with, repeatedly, or comment on how pretty our hair looks when we wear it straight, saying “It’s usually just so puffy!” On the more extreme end of the spectrum, it is also how we get cops—people who presumably have dedicated themselves to a life of service—literally suffocating black people like George Floyd as they beg for their lives. It is also how we get these moments repeatedly.
One cause of this recurring confusion—and the ensuing harm—is white people’s general lack of fluency around race, especially their own. White people often don’t understand that they are as “raced” as any person of color. They can see that a black person, for example, is deeply embedded in what we call “race,” and lives a life impacted at nearly all levels by race. Indeed, this idea is almost axiomatic. But they often can’t draw the same conclusion about themselves, or white supremacy, which is how they come to be raced in the first place. And they generally don’t know what to do with this new knowledge if and when they have an aha moment, except feel guilty and let that guilt push them deeper into silence. Will Ms. Cooper have a true and deep aha moment now, or no? If she does, what will she do with it? As a person of color, I’m pessimistic on all counts.
There is a grotesqueness and a horror to our racialized world right now. Things have never been great. But the deluge of pain, the torrent of willful blindness amid violence—from the brutally racialized impact of COVID-19 to the fates of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery and others, from the actions of Ms. Cooper to the inaction of so many white people—is both deeply chronic and freshly acute.
Maybe I see signs of hope amid the horror—I see more white people publicly mourning the recent losses of black and brown life, and some progressive white people I know have committed to explore their role in white supremacy through tools like the exercises in this extraordinary book. (Whether they will do it remains to be seen.) I myself feel brave enough to speak, here and now, despite how speaking out has hurt me in the past (losing relationships, hearing racial slurs, etc.). I fear, though, that the outcome is predictable: white silence, and black pain, perhaps forever, often rooted in good white people’s blindness to how they are (unwitting) agents of white supremacy, too. Until a critical mass of white people begin and continue the work of anti-racism with their own lives, then uprisings and protests will function more as expressions of black and brown pain than as inflection points in the culture. After all, black and brown people have been resisting, uprising, and protesting in this country for centuries. If that were enough, it would have worked already. The missing link is white people doing deep, honest, and ongoing inventories (and clean-up) of their own relationship to white supremacy.
Phrased differently, it is white people (especially progressive white people) who are responsible for what happens now. Either they work to understand—and change—how white supremacy moves in and through their lives, hearts, minds, and spaces, or they decide they don’t have time, they’re too scared, they can’t deal with it, or, like Ms. Cooper, they linger in the fallacy that they could never be involved in a racist incident. Either they accept that they have inherited this house of white supremacy, built by their forebears and willed to them, and they are now responsible for paying the taxes on that inheritance, or the status quo continues. I hope they will become radicalized by this moment and begin to fight fiercely for racial justice; but more than that, I hope they start at home, in their own minds and hearts. As I tell my students: a white person rushing to do racial justice work without first understanding the impacts, uses, and deceptions of their own whiteness is like an untrained person rushing into the ER to help the nurses and doctors—therein probably lies more harm than good.
One thing though: don’t ask me how to start. That’s part of your work, too. The answers are all around you if you are willing to look and listen.
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