And for me.
Too often Nice White People are far more interested in being perceived as non-racist than they are in actually working to do something that might address the structural inequities racist beliefs and assumptions are built from and reinforce.
I know because I’ve been that Nice White Person. I still have my moments of it.
The only way to stop being that Nice White Person — if you’re interested in actually stopping — is to start with acknowledging two things:
You harbour racist beliefs and assumptions. This, by itself, is not actually your fault and says nothing one way or another about you as a person except you live in a society filled with racist images and texts. It would be remarkable if you didn’t absorb at least some of what your environment has to teach you. (Distressingly, non-white people have to live in the same society and are exposed to the same racist images and texts and harbour many of those whiteness-imposed racist beliefs and assumptions.)
I’m not a big fan of cognitive theories of psychotherapy, dependent as they are upon reinforcing the idea that the patient is largely powerless to effect change in ou environment. Therefore the patient must change ouself such that ou environment is somehow no longer harmful or distressing. But there are some concepts useful in other contexts and a cognitive-dialectic model can help a person harbouring implicit assumptions and beliefs to counter them when they arise. It takes work and a willingness to do a lot of not-very-comfortable self-examination, but by keeping watch over yourself and asking ‘Is my reaction to this person / image / story racist? Is this based in fact or is it based in prejudice and racist myth’? It does work, though not quickly.
You, as a white person, benefit from white privilege and the denial of opportunity to non-white people. Again, this is not anything about you personally — yet. This is an artefact of a racist society and is unavoidable. If you want to work against racism you need to be aware of how privilege works: It does not mean you personally do bad things to non-white people and get stacks of cash for it. It means that (to get into sport metaphors) you had an enormous head start and a relatively smooth path to run. Non-white people start from farther back and face more obstacles and are denied opportunities you don’t even notice because to you they’re just how things are. (And not all white people have all these benefits — but nearly all lack a lot of the disadvantages nearly all non-white people face.)
For example, let’s say you’re a white person trying to get into university in the US. You may have played a sport in high school. You might have played a musical instrument. There are two years of art classes and three years of French classes on your high school transcript. You may have done volunteer work. In short, you’re a well-rounded student. Also, your mother attended one of the schools you’re applying to, making you a legacy application which gets you bonus points just about everywhere. Your parents aren’t wealthy but they own a home and have a big chunk of the mortgage paid off which gives them access to a home equity line of credit should they need it. But you may have been able to get access to some of the increasingly large pool of non-need-based financial aid many schools offer. Your parents probably know enough about how the school loans system works to get loans directly from the government that have lower interest rates and less onerous terms of payment.
If you were a non-white person you may not have been able to play a sport officially. You might have had to work after school at something that pays money or something that doesn’t like looking after younger siblings. With the rapidly increasing re-segregation of public schools and the eternal budget crises in school districts with large non-white and poor populations programmes like art and music and foreign language get cut. Classes are dedicated to teaching children to improving standardised test scores and little else. Buildings are eroding, books are in short supply, good teachers are rare. (I cannot tell you how many people we’ve run into who have told my wife she was the best teacher they ever had and how fucking heartbreaking that is: She taught first grade.) Your parents have rented their whole lives and have no equity to borrow against. You qualify for federal financial aid but the forms are deliberately confusing and difficult. Aid is weighted heavily towards loans and financial aid officers at the state school you can sort-of-but-not-really afford to go to have an agreement with Citibank to steer loan applicants their way.
Even if you get into college it will be harder for you. White students (and many white teachers) will assume you’re there because of affirmative action even though affirmative action has been dead for fifteen years. Many will feel no compunction telling you have everything so much easier because you are non-white. White students who went to nearly all-white schools will want to get to know you, will want to touch your skin your hair ask if you tan ask what it’s like to be non-white. They will write opinion pieces in the school paper about how hurt they were that one time they tried to go sit at The Black Table in one of the cafeterias and no one would talk with them. Credit card companies will lean on you hard to get and use their products assuring you you’ll be able to pay everything off no problem when you get out of school and get that great job. It’ll be hard to find a mentor amongst the faculty. You’ll have an advisor, but they’ll probably be white and they probably will not even notice the barriers created by institutional racism — especially not the ones in their own institution.
The white students you go to school with will have parties themed around the worst stereotypes of your culture. If you complain be prepared for race-based hate threats and violence. Spend every day knowing you will be expected to do twice the work to be though half as good as a white person. Go into every film, every TV show wondering if the person who looks like you is going to get killed first. If the person who looks like you is going to get any lines.
There’s more. There’s lots more. But you don’t need me to tell you. Non-white people have been writing about their experiences for a long time and their writings are widely available. Find them. Read them. And always, always understand that a person who is sharing their lived experience with you is giving you a gift. It’s their life. Sharing it with you puts them in an incredibly vulnerable position. It’s not a philosophical point about which reasonable people can reasonably disagree and it’s not a debate topic.
Try to not fuck up. When you do apologise. Understand what it is you are apologising for (and it’s not ‘I’m sorry if you were offended by my completely harmless words’). Work on becoming a person who can be trusted by people who have had their trust shattered every day of their lives.
Do it because you want to be that person. If you’re looking for external validation you’re going to be disappointed and probably flounce off eventually having not changed a damn thing.
Elsewhere: Rabbit Lord of the Undead