Columnist Chelsea Kline: White people, we have bad breath

Published: 5/3/2021 10:32:06 AM

Every time I visit the dentist, I come away with a renewed commitment to doing better. After the dentist reminds me of the importance of maintaining proper daily oral hygiene, I vow to brush three times a day and swear to floss regularly.

But after a month or two, my dedication wanes, and I’m not as fastidious as I had promised to be. Simply promising to floss every day doesn’t always end up being the truth, however.

From what I can see, white people in America are in a similar place with our pledges to dismantle racism. It’s been more than a few months since there was finally a mainstream awareness and acknowledgment of festering, painful cavities all around us. Those who identify as Black, Indigenous, or people of color (BIPOC) have been enduring and pointing out these cavities since, well, forever, and are many times ignored, shut down, or receive angry responses.

So while there’s no parallels between the systemic racism that plagues our nation and something as mundane as oral hygiene, I use the analogies to highlight the very urgent fact that white people need to do more than make insignificant vows to work for equality.

Lifestyle changes, even ones as simple as flossing, can be burdensome, uncomfortable, even painful. Similarly, many pledges were made to fight racism, but since the work required is often tedious or upsetting, many well-meaning white people aren’t displaying the stamina that’s required to make meaningful change.

In 2020 we began to see some hopeful shifts toward growing awareness and empathy. Yet, the positive momentum we witnessed is threatening to slide backward, with pledges of solidarity largely going unfulfilled.

We as white people are still predominantly unwilling to admit that there so many entrenched problems within and around us. The painful irony is that when we are rightfully reminded or corrected, many of us respond with defensiveness, anger, shock, or hurt feelings. Those types of responses have been aptly named “white fragility” by author Robin DiAngelo, and while those who exhibit such behaviors aren’t always racist, their actions serve to uphold racist values.

Being unwilling to experience discomfort or embarrassment, or to put in the time and unflagging long-term effort that’s required to undo white supremacy ultimately aides in its continuation.

White defensiveness functions to keep the racial hierarchy firmly in place by preventing dialogue, introspection, or lasting behavior changes. When a white person responds with big emotions when corrected or asked to apologize for insensitive or accidentally biased speech or actions, discourse is effectively shut down.

When uncomfortable topics are broached and met with backlash, such interactions are prevented from happening again because they are exhausting, draining and upsetting for those who are trying to engage on a deeper level. Fragility and defensiveness disrupt important conversations or new perspectives, and ultimately maintains or protects a limited or narrow world view, which always strengthens white supremacy and upholds racism.

Racism proliferates when we don’t speak about it, yet it’s difficult to bring up when we fear reactions that are angry, overly emotional, or lacking compassion. Racism flourishes when white people pretend it doesn’t exist, or believe that attending one rally has made them “woke,” or that one guilty verdict has solved the rampant racially motivated police brutality problem.

The work of building an anti-racist society is ongoing, arduous, complex, and requires a lifelong commitment from all of us.

I recognize that many of us feel tremendous fatigue from the turbulence of the past four years, and 2020 in particular, but truly there’s no comparison to the bone-deep exhaustion that many BIPOC are experiencing, especially after the many recent horrific displays of racially-motivated violence.

I also recognize that this work is tricky, and can bring up all sorts of complex feelings, ones I navigate myself even as I’m writing this. We can and will make mistakes, and we can and will apologize from time to time, which can’t prevent us from trying in the first place. This is all uncharted, messy work, but we cannot turn away from it.

White people, please keep all that in mind as you consider your own capacity and ways that you can show up and do more. Moreover, getting to work now could prevent further rot. No more empty or vague promises of doing better without any action. Just like a follow-up dentist visit, a lack of action will suddenly be very apparent, and the stink of our hollow promises will hang in the air like bad breath.

White people, maybe we can’t smell it, but we have bad breath. It’s not fair to put the burden on our BIPOC friends and neighbors to keep reminding us to do the daily work that’s essential for preventing further harm. When it comes to working for equality and striving for an anti-racist world, there’s always more work to do, so let’s make authentic and lasting commitments to brush, floss and fight racism daily.

Chelsea Kline is a social justice advocate in western Massachusetts and a mother of three. She writes a monthly column for the Gazette.
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