This post might make you uncomfortable, but I hope you read until the end. This is my attempt to outline the hope of reconciliation, restoration, and redemption by focusing on you.
How we see and experience racism differs based on your experience and skin colour. Can we agree on this assumption?
For example, a visible minority may describe racism from personal experience that includes descriptions of a system that perpetuates violence. That could be police violence, loan qualification, salary or job prospects. A white person may say sarcastically that, “I guess Black people can’t be racist….”, “when is the all lives matter protest?”, or qualify their level of culpability by stating, “I don’t see skin colour, I see everyone equally.”
Have you heard the latter before? Colour blindness is the opposite of anti-racism. It’s erasure of ethnicity or “white washing”. Someone who carelessly says they don’t “see” colour is willfully choosing to ignore the obvious. Unless you’re literally blind, the very first thing you notice about someone is the colour of their skin.
The failure to acknowledge skin colour demonstrates narrow assumptions about the world. It denies individual and collective ethnic identities. It concludes everyone has the same perspective and experience. It falsely presumes there’s no work to be done because we’ve somehow arrive and equal. You reach this understanding when everything in your world matches your gaze. In North America, dominant white culture is designed to be invisible to those it serves. That doesn’t mean bad things won’t happen to white people, but trials aren’t a result of whiteness. (You can be poor and white, but it’s worse off to be poor and Black.)
Our reality means anti-racism work challenges inherited cultural privileges. As the saying goes, equity looks like oppression in the eyes of the privileged. Therefore pointing out systemic division goes against the grain by inhibiting racialized stats quo. I’ll end with ways forward from here.
We’ve already talked about the various “degrees” of racism. No longer can we pin racism unto individual actors, rather it’s the systems of racialized oppression we’re looking to dismantle. We’ve also challenged the notion doing nothing is an option. As others have said before, if you aren’t explicitly anti-racist in your work and beliefs then you’re a racist. There’s no moderate middle ground. What do you think about this statement? (Read Ibram Kendi’s book, “How to be an anti-racist.” for more.)
Here is a helpful image that depicts the journey to white allyship (this work is not reserved for white folks by any means.) Where do you exist on the spectrums?
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The 8 White Identities by Barnor Hesse. “There is a regime of whiteness, and there are action-oriented white identities.” Hesse breaks these down into eight, from White Supremacist to White Abolitionist. We all need to work to become White Abolitionists. Identify where you are and get to work. This is also a helpful guide to identify where those around you truly stand. Hesse is an Associate Professor of African American Studies, Political Science and Sociology at Northwestern University, you can follow him on Twitter @barnor_hesse #blacklivesmatter #whiteidentities #abolitionist #endwhitesupremacy
A quick recap. Recall, racism is understood as Prejudice + Power. It is a form of violence perpetuated by those with the power. In North America, white people have inherited these power systems. By “systems” I mean the foundations in our society ranging from: legislation, law making, laws, policies, economies, policies, policing, courts, bylaws, etc.. That includes those who create and execute these foundations: federal, provincial, state, congress, or local politicians; bureaucrats and policy makers; lawyers, prosecutors, judges; police, prison guards, etc. From past to present, these positions have been filled overwhelmingly by white men. As a result, there is explicit and implicit self-interest to perpetuate the system of power. It also means that without solid reflection, visible minorities in these places of power can either be tokenized, or they can be champions of the very systems that oppress them. It also means one person, let’s take President Obama as an example, cannot single-handedly dismantle the system.
Historical examples of this system in action include stealing land (Doctrine of Discovery), stripping identity (Residential Schools), the RCMP (Canada’s federal police force designed initially to enforce land claims for white settlers), and genocide (Trail of Tears, and more). Current examples include mass incarceration via the “war on drugs”; child detention of asylum seekers; and the RCMP (using them as a monolith for any policing force). Each has a monumental and lasting impact and were carefully designed to shape a country to the benefit of white citizens. Conversely, the same system includes design to oppress those who are not.
It’s worth making a distinction: You don’t have to do overtly racist things in order to benefit from a system predicated on racist policies. Now let’s spend some time going over some common (by no means exhaustive) replies white people make in order to assuage responsibility from racist actions and systems. Dealing with these false truths will help pave a path forward towards justice.
Common Misconceptions About Racism
Time to Get Over it
Many are quick to say the problems of the past are not the problems of today. For example, without an understanding of basic Indigenous history the oft cited reply to any talk of reparations is, “it’s not my problem,” or “can’t they just get over it?” or “why am I paying for something that happened before my time?” These arguments are problematic. Firstly, why is the work towards righting past wrongs controversial? Is it the money that’s the problem? Should we not as a society strive to be just towards one another? Or are only some people afforded justice? And why does justice have a cap when money is involved? Second, the last federally run residential school in Canada closed in 1996! That’s not before your time. Other systemic problems from clean water, sterilization, land grabs, are still normative. Lastly, I don’t think white people are being blamed for creating the current systemic problem. The question is: will you work for or against the solutions?
In Part 3, I told a story about a young pastor who tried to legitimize the often used argument by white people to justify racism: “reverse racism“. He believed he was targeted due to the colour of his skin. He’s right. However, he’s wrong when it comes to reverse racism.
In our definition racism must include power. Without power you can’t implement racist policies. Systemic racism therefore cannot be enacted by minorities. The only way it works is if we change history and it was Black people or Indigenous people who rolled into Europe, colonize them for their labour, captured millions to be slaves in the New World, generated massive generational wealth, and created laws and systems to perpetuate the system of power. Only then could someone say reverse racism is a thing.
This thinking aligns to the common deflection to, “black on black violence”, or “Black tribes enslaved Blacks too,” which completley misses the point. We’re not into revisionist history, stay focussed. Our problem is anti-Blackness today. We don’t need to entertain gigantic “what ifs” to absolve white action to right systemic wrongs today.
To be fair, we should say people of colour can’t fully be absolved from racist acts. Kendi’s book makes that simple distinction: racist or anti-racist. Those Indians beating up the white kid were committing a racist act. I wouldn’t say they had any form of power, nor did they think themselves as superior, but they certainly were not anti-racists. In this sense, people of color can still be “racists”, albeit in a different manner because they lack institutional power behind their acts.
The #blacklivesmatter movement following the aftermath of Charlottesville (2017), and of George Floyd (2020), quickly found itself pitted against a competing campaign #alllivesmatter (a veiled attempt to say white lives matter). In 2020, Trump also conflated #blm with left-wing radicals “ANTIFA”. Thankfully, the 2020 version of #blacklivesmatter protests garnered considerable momentum, and “competing” protests paled in comparison.
It’s now obvious for the majority of people that the two are decidedly not the same. Black Lives exists to protest systemic violence of anti-Blackness woven into the fabric of the nations. White people are not oppressed because of their skin colour. Some may feel that loss of the “white way of life” as marginalization, but being pushed to the margins isn’t systemic marginalization. There is no equivalent experience.
Challenging narratives that seek to right systemic privileges to suit white supremacy is not innocent endeavour. There are no “both sides” in this race because there is no anti-thesis to anti-Blackness. In this matter it is black and white–for or against racism.
The power of cultural individualism means that your identity is the highest value, and if that’s challenged you’re going to put up a fight. For white men, even broaching the idea of inherited privileges garners immediate defensiveness. Before a conversation starts it stops. White people often can’t handle the discomfort of being complicit with systemic racism. When the light shines to expose privilege, white people deflect. When honest critique emerges from white church leaders, guilt ridden parishioners don’t even want to hear it, replying with a desperate, “please stop”, “enough of this”, which is to say, “we get it, but don’t want to do anything about it.” Forgive me for letting some emotion speak here, but it’s tiresome to hear how ‘tired’ white people are about hearing about racism. If you’re so tired, do something, because the message won’t stop, it’s only getting bigger.
Challenges to Privilege
Power permits something minorities cannot do–it enables the option to change narratives to suit your own. The #takeaknee is a benign (comparatively) example. When more NFL players started taking a knee to uniformly protest anti-Black violence, white people re-wrote the narrative to make the protest about disrespecting the flag. Alarmed white people assumed Black Lives Matter really meant, “black lives matter more than white lives”, so they created #alllivesmatter. When a broken system is challenged, the story quickly changes to suit the power structures and the individuals within. Are you seeing how this works?
Privilege and power removes you from systemic oppression. Often you can’t see it because it was never your story (i.e. those who “don’t see skin colour”). What you notice instead is the here and now. We see the crime blacks commit here and now, and not the system that perpetuates black poverty. We see the drunk Indian on the street, not the stripping of her cultural identity. And then we see challenges to white privilege, and assume it’s an attack on white people rather than privilege.
We face again the evils of white supremacy, neo-Nazis, and every form of systemic racism in our networks, city, country. But it is changing.
“The traditional power and privilege reserved for white men is gradually eroding, and being replaced by more genuine participation and inclusion of historically marginalized peoples.” – Brenda McDougall, for the Globe & Mail.
This is good. However, I’ve often seen white people stymied from action because of shame. “Look at all the bad things white people have done!”
For white people, learning about their systemic benefits, and frankly pieces of our racist history, can be traumatizing. There’s a word for it called “white trauma”. You’re supposed to feel something in your body when you first encounter complicity in racism. That’s part of the journey and one you have to deal with in healthy ways. You can’t apologize for generational trauma, but you can do something about its lingering effects today. White people are responsible charge of addressing, leading, and ending systemic racism and violence; and are complicit with systemic racism by benefiting from its power. To add, people of color, however, are also shaping policy and are benefactors of the same systems, albeit to a lesser degree. Not being at the top doesn’t absolve us from the work of being anti-racist. There’s no more model minority to benefit from if we’re serious about defeating anti-Blackness and racism.
How you respond to the systems of racism will be your measure and legacy to the world in your world. Part 5 of this series will look into what appropriate actions we can do moving forward to fix the wrong of racism.