What white people talk about when they talk about racism…
… We have left undone those things which we ought to have done; And we have done those things which we ought not to have done; And there is no health in us …
—from the order for Morning Prayer, Book of Common Prayer, 1662 (Anglican Communion)
I’m atheist, by the way. I needed you to know that.
“I’m Not Racist!”
EVERYWHERE I WANDER, I HEAR THE white person’s anxious mantra:
“I’m not racist, I’m always nice to blacks!”
And my eyes roll back in my head like the fruit on a one-armed bandit after you’ve plugged in your food allowance for the month and are just getting the rent cheque changed into tokens.
I’m not especially Boomer-woke-guy, but years make up, somewhat, for innate wokelessness, that sense common to all Boomers that back in my day, and pry the CDs out of my cold, dead hands, and get a university education so you can get a well-paying job. Age has given me perspective, just not around those things.
But when you say “I’m always nice to the blacks,” I cringe, because I know what that looks like. Awkward culture signaling; you extolling Spike Lee or explaining how sympathetic you are to Black Lives Matter if only they weren’t so angry all the time; when you just gotta play some hip hop and be someone’s bad-ass bro. Trust me, appropriation isn’t approval, and no one’s interested in your approval, anyway.
So I want to talk to you white guys, specifically white straight guys, because I’m a white gay guy, so I have a bit of an advantage. Or perhaps I mean a bit of a disadvantage, which is an advantage.
I so wanted that to work out better.
Here’s the deal: I have all the privileges of being male, and all the privileges of being white, and at the same time I’ve had a taste of what you we call oppression, because I’m gay. So: less than, invisible, not a real man, all that kind of thing.
And please: I’m not comparing my experience with that of black people. It is not a competition of misery and injustice. My experience is entirely different, except for that one aspect of oppression, which, going out on a limb, here, is something straight white males have zero experience of. You have not been denied housing, been denied the right to marry, been bullied, shunned by your family, called a pedophile, beaten up or killed, because you are white and heterosexual. There are no hate crimes against white straight men.
So I’m hoping that the white male part will give me a way to talk to you, some credibility, and the fact of my experience of oppression will at least allow me not to be just another white straight male trying to figure out what oppression must feel like.
Kind of like a double agent, but without the trench coat and all of the standing under street lamps looking like Humphrey Bogart.
When white people say I’m always nice to blacks I see you – by which I mean us – being kind out of noblesse oblige. You’re slumming it, being nice when you could easily be not-nice, and you’ll be watching to make sure the recipient is suitably grateful.
When you explain how nice you are and how the problem must be coming from somewhere else, you display your racist, blinkered perspective that barely makes it to the end of your nose, because this discussion is, you may be astonished to hear, not about you.
When we talk about racism we cannot factor in our individual actions of niceness (whose purpose is less about being inclusive and more about assuaging our anxiety). We run onto a bloody battlefield with a single bandaid. It won’t do. Our niceness, designed to touch only the surface, is only potent enough for white folks, white dilemmas.
Our gentility is not helpful because it cements in us our idea that racism has nothing to do with us, that the problem is with extremists: avowed white supremacists, neo-nazis, the far, far right.
They are a huge symptom of the problem, obviously, but so are we, because even doing our absolute bleeding-heart-white-liberal-SJW best, we can’t escape the benefits we enjoy. White supremacy is the air we breathe and the water we drink and the After Eight mint with our cup of coffee.
Our life path is smoothed with white privilege like the path that royalty walks on, swept constantly by invisible hands, so that not even a grain of sand remains to irritate our privileged toes.
We’re talking about systems, laws, institutions that perpetuate injustice, even if we’re “nice to the help.”
NOTICE THAT EACH DAY, EVERY BOUNDARY of the unbelievable and the never-before-seen gets pushed and massaged and stretched further. The reality of unidentified soldiers of mysterious armies assaulting citizens of a democracy—making explicit the idea the pundits and the influencers have been building towards, that protest is inherently criminal—starting now, this new reality made explicit either fills you with outrage or, as your minds become anesthetized with disbelief, becomes an idea you are resigned to and passively accept; the new normal.
But the outrage requires doubling down on protests; it requires rejecting the alternative truth, believing what you see; and what’s terrifying is that you might not manage to get there; not after you’ve demonstrated a thousand times that you’ll believe anything, facilitate everything, no matter how blatantly false or inhumane.
When did it all begin? The world looked at the inauguration and saw empty space; Trump told us it was the greatest attended ever. You laughed, but the softening up had begun. It wasn’t long until you had “shithole countries” and “infestations;” the press as “enemies of the people” and “a perfect conversation” with the Ukrainian president.
Americans witnessed twenty-two (it might be more, I lost count) women accusing the President of sexual assault, and nothing happened. There was the ridiculous cant of “the President cannot be indicted,” despite legal expert upon expert explaining that that is not law, but simply convention.
You had Trump declaring that “he can do anything he wants,” a declaration of autocracy in a country supposedly guided by the rule of law, a statement which elevates the President to a class by himself, above the law, above the people. Next thing you know, the Department of Justice is doing the President’s bidding, punishing “enemies” and rewarding sycophants; most recently firing Geoff Berman, a DA in the process of investigating Trump’s campaign financing irregularities. Surely nothing suspicious there!
But I understand. Pushing back at everything is exhausting.
Drained and resigned, cynical and passive: exactly where they want you.
“A Great Day!”
OF ALL THE EVIL THINGS TRUMP HAS SAID, the most evil is: “This is a great day for George Floyd.”
“This is a great day for George Floyd.” Donald Trump, this white man, in theory the most powerful leader of the most powerful country in the world, doesn’t consider with what pain and shock the grieving family must hear this statement, or how wildly inappropriate is his tone of parental condescension, as though Daddy’s explaining, in words of one syllable so you’ll understand, his brilliant solution for saving the family picnic from the rain.
One hears nothing remotely like empathy, not that any was expected at this point. There’s no gravitas, which anyway for Trump means pretension and pomposity; no sense of the significance of this moment, on either a personal or national level.
He is utterly vacant, a blank slate, empty of memory and intent, past and future, without regard for anything except the world’s attention on him, in this place, in this moment.
He appropriates the family’s, and the nation’s, grief; he fondles it with his dirty hands and decides it plays well as a banal greeting card: “To a wonderful dad! Congratulations on your great day!”
This is the sermon in the misfortune trope, that Hollywood moment when we’re taught that the wretched man who died randomly at the hands of a cop didn’t die in vain. He helped bring about—change! It’s a great day!
We would find it repugnant to even form the thought, but Trump, well-wadded with stupidity, makes the assertion with a village idiot’s gusto.
Well, why stop at one great day? Try this thought experiment:
Let’s someone kneel on Trump’s neck, until he begs for mercy, begs in an agony of physical pain and the spiraling panic of breathlessness. Let Trump beg until he’s at his last breath, then, in extremis, squanders his last breath. Let him beg for mercy, and then refuse him mercy.
Think, in this experiment: “You are less than human. I refuse to hear you. You are nothing.” Then finish the experiment.
A great day for Donald Trump.
White Supremacy, White Guilt, White Privilege
White people bristle with indignation because all lives matter; what they mean is white lives matter more, though they bristle with even more indignation when we offer that translation. How can anyone now doubt that black lives are considered expendable, that they do not matter?
Why should I feel guilty? I hear white people saying. And I say to you, white guys: Show me.
Show me one sentence, one speech, anywhere at any time, when white people have been given “Feel guilty!” as the prescription for this sickness. Go ahead, try and find one.
I state unequivocally: No one, not one person, not a single news anchor, minister, politician, academic, Member of Parliament, Representative, Mayor or City Councillor, not even the family of George Floyd, has asked white people to feel guilty.
That’s our white people’s fragility, our distaste at feeling any negative emotion. We don’t like to “feel bad,” we don’t like being “shocked.” That’s another effect of privilege: Having the dirty work, the field work, the emotional work done by others. We’re that white piece of paper that, in a Japanese proverb, more easily shows the dirt.
Oh, you might feel guilty. But that’s your shit. In fact, unless you start to take action about the injustice you’ve witnessed, it’s just a manipulative ploy. That way the attention is back on you, frail (but secretly enraged) white person, because you’ve been made to feel bad. And feeling bad is something we’ve traditionally outsourced.
You’re the victim! Brilliant!
No black person is asking white people to feel guilty. What they are asking is for white people to become aware of and admit their privilege, because nothing will happen if we don’t. The following list, quite a famous one by Peggy McIntosh dating from 1988, may help.
Nothing Good from Murder
A nice white lady from the American south is on Twitter, and upset that there is rioting. “It’s a terrible thing they did, those policemen, and I hope they get hauled on the carpet. But this rioting is not the way to get your opinions across.”
She’s trying her best, the nice white lady. She’s genteel. And she is so far removed from any experience that would make her understand why there are riots or demonstrations that she could be from a distant star.
Because angry protesters are not trying to sell us their opinions. They are overflowing with the rage that up until now has been tamped down, the righteous anger that was withheld because black people thought if they played the game, they’d beat the game.
Being dignified. Well-mannered. Whiter than their white oppressors. Surely that would win people over. Prove your equality, earn your rightful place. Play by the rules, be so white that even white people can’t be that white.
But the day comes when you witness one more murder by one more indifferent cop, and something breaks. You realize your folly: that there is nothing you can do to justify your existence or to make yourself human in the eyes of those for whom you are always the slave class. There is nothing to correct because the hatred comes not from anything you have or haven’t done, it comes from the fact that you exist at all as black. You realize that no one with the power to help will even pay attention until you burn the fucking house down. You boil over.
All right, you say. So we’ll burn the fucking house down. Have it your way.
There is nothing good that can come out of the murder of another black man by cops. Nothing. Refuse the attempt to pin a narrative of triumph to a sordid tragedy. That is just more white niceness. I doubt that George Floyd sought to be a martyr. I think he wanted something more difficult: just to live an ordinary life in the United States of America. Nothing can give his murder meaning, redeem it, wipe away the tears, no outcome was worth his life. There’s no sermon in the bullets or tenderness in the bloodied hands.
That’s how this civil war has been waged, one murder at a time. What’s changed is the evidence: clips on cell phones, eye-witnesses. Black people have lived with this every day for entire lifetimes, for generations, and we refused to see it, but now there is irrefutable evidence.
White guys: Feel guilty or don’t feel guilty, no one gives a damn. Don’t make this about how bad white guys feel. Stop feeling guilty and start taking responsibility.
Listen to the leaders in the black community, to your black friends and coworkers, to find out what to do. Stop trying to figure this out, because you can’t. Stop proclaiming your innocence, because no one cares.
Stop the pose of being angry; behind the facade of anger lies our grief in our complicity. Listen. Listen with humility, with open mind and heart, to someone else’s experience.
Then we will learn what those in need say they need, and why.