Columnist J.M. Sorrell: We must take responsibility for white complicity

  • Demonstrators gather at a rally for solidarity with anti-racists in Charlottesville in front of the Minneapolis Republican Party office on Franklin Avenue Monday, Aug. 14, 2017 in Minneapolis, Minn. MINNEAPOLIS STAR-TRIBUNE/TNS/Carlos Gonzalez

Published: 12/5/2018 10:00:04 AM

Racism is my problem. If you are white and reading this, it is your problem, too. To be clear, we are all racist. Does that make you feel uncomfortable? Are you shaking your head and feeling that you are one of the good guys so you are not racist? Are you tired of hearing about white privilege? Do you think that white supremacy is restricted to fringe groups? My greatest hope is that you will reconsider white complicity and that you will join me as anti-racist activists in our personal and public lives.

Well-meaning white people are not immune to the consequences of racism. We contribute to racism — intentionally or not — merely by white existence. It is not a matter of “bad and good.” 

Consider the following statement by author Ijeoma Oluo (“So You Want to Talk About Race”): “White People: I don’t want you to understand me better; I want you to understand yourselves. Your survival has never depended on your knowledge of white culture. In fact, it’s required your ignorance.” 

When I read Robin DiAngelo’s “White Fragility” recently, I understood the author’s difficulty with white progressives when she leads workshops on racism. These participants are often defensive, some defiantly walk out, and some cry as victims as they engage in a “failure to understand that we bring our group’s history with us, that history matters.”

Race is a social construct. White fragility is a state where the depths of racism are not seriously addressed by well-meaning white people. In fact, some white people might say it’s unfair to us because “we did not own slaves,” and we “have black friends.” 

Professor Ibram X. Kendi recently spoke at UMass where he reminded the audience that our identities are not fixed. His book, “How to Be an Antiracist,” is due to be published next year. Kendi and other anti-racist scholars cut through the mythology that ignorance and hate are at the root of racism. Greed-based self-interest and power are the sources of racist policies. 

In contemporary society and throughout other eras in American history, white people in power have sought to stoke racist fears as a tool to distract poor or uneducated white people from the reality of the source of their oppression — those very white people in power. 

Racism relies on white solidarity. The white racist joke teller may make white people feel uncomfortable, but it is rare that a white peer will take on the person for fear of offending him/her or for fear of being cast out of the group. White fragility depends on silence and complicity. It relies on whites seeing the racist as basically a good person.    

How do we begin or continue to be anti-racist? How do we understand the concept of white culture? Let’s consider that the collective state of white innocence is anything but innocent. Let’s be curious and inspired to be anti-racist. Let’s make mistakes and learn. Let’s own our racism. Only then can we dismantle it. As with any new competence, a heightened consciousness and continual practice will lead to skillfulness. DiAngelo advises us to read works about racism by people of color and white people and to “break with the apathy of whiteness.” She states that “when our fundamental understanding of racism is transformed, so are our assumptions and resultant behaviors,” and she offers notions to consider.

Among those notions: “Being good or bad is not relevant,” “All of us are socialized into the system of racism,” and “Racism hurts (even kills) people of color 24-7. Interrupting it is more important than my feelings, ego or self-image.”

Profit from privilege must be weighed against reduced humanity as we commit to an anti-racist life. Such self-concern about character and integrity may be a starting place. This is not white guilt. No, guilt is a destructive emotion that usually turns into resentment. This is white awareness.

Engage in empathy when a person of color talks about the hurt and effects of institutional racism. There is nothing to defend, and there is much to understand. Listen with your heart. Grieve. Then take action. Anti-racism can start in small and meaningful ways.

J.M. Sorrell is the spokesperson for Noho Pride. She is a social justice trainer, an anti-racist activist and an optimist who believes in the human capacity for growth and goodness.
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