“If you stick a knife nine inches into my back and pull it out three inches, that is not progress. Even if you pull it all the way out, that is not progress. Progress is healing the wound, and America hasn’t even begun to pull out the knife.”
— El Hajj Malik El Shabazz (Malcolm X)
This article is going to address things that I have been thinking about for quite some time, but, as a white student, have not always felt comfortable, or allowed into the space of racial discussion.
I would like to start by explicating that in no way am I positing that this article is a totalizing solution.The problem is way too complex for that. In no way am I positing that this article is the unified truth, narrative, or experience of white privilege. And in no way am I positing that this article will conclude our conversation. This article is simply a step into the shallow end of the pool of deeply rooted racialized issues recently brought up in an article by Jalen Baker regarding his thesis on the BLM movement and general racism that penetrates the Bates campus.
Racialism is rooted in a complex set of ideologies that I am going to intensely oversimplify for the sake of this article’s brevity. Racialism, a pervading ideology in the Western world, was termed by Edward Said in the late seventies that articulated the belief that the race of an individual determines that individual’s traits and capacities, or more bluntly, that the genetic makeup of race determines distinct differences, or inferiorities, inherently linked to race. Since then, theorists argue that racialism in our culture has specifically evolved in the form of a binary, in that whiteness becomes the norm, and POC become the antithesis of whiteness, excluding and other-izing POC from the falsely construed “purity” of whiteness. This binary works to successfully oppress POC by normalizing and glorifying whiteness in the media, excluding POC from visibility.
Growing up, I have never once been told that I am inferior intellectually because of my racial identity. I have never been told that I am less attractive, less lovable, or less worthy of success because of my racial identity. I have never been accused by authority figures of violence, crime, or abuse, because of my whiteness. I have never had to worry about being rejected after a job interview because of my racial identity. I have never felt objectified, exoticized, or fetishized because of my racial identity. I have always had multiple white Barbie dolls and Disney princesses that looked just like me to choose from. I have always had multiple white pop stars, actresses, and other beauty icons to relate to. This is just a small beam of the systematized blinding light that creates my privilege, inherently connected to my whiteness.
For obvious reasons, I do not feel oppressed within society, or more cloesly, Bates College, because of my racial identity. Entering a dialogue about pervading racism on this campus and in the United States culture can be awkward, tricky, and difficult to participate in. But this is no reason to passively allow micro-aggression after micro-aggression, after stereotype, after the media’s constant silencing of minority voices, after shootings of black teenagers by police officers, after Islamophobic Yik Yak posts, after daily systematized oppression, after daily systematized oppression, to pass. We, as a community, need to continue the conversation that Jalen Baker started in his article regarding the role of white co-conspirators in POC-empowering movements.
Whether we admit it or not, dismantling systematic racial oppression is not solely the responsibility of POC. White people are the ones who created racism and allowed it to permeate almost every aspect of our culture. It is our civic duty to help dismantle it. To be blunt, white people in this country set up slavery, one of the most radical forms of systematized oppression to ever surface the globe, in order to intensely increase the economy. The South’s main reason for fighting against slavery was to maintain the monetary value of their plantations. Today, systematized forms of oppression against POC work in the same way to increase the likelihood of the accumulation of wealth for white people. 80% of Congress is currently white, over 95% of Fortune 500 companies are headed by white CEOs. In 2011, 84% of full-time professors at American colleges and universities were white (Rose Hackman, The Guardian). I believe that until we, as a culture, acknowledge that accumulation of wealth is valued higher than the lives of POC in this country, we cannot completely dismantle these forms of oppression. And until we can completely dismantle these forms of oppression, we cannot have progress.
I know that was just an emotionally and epistemologically loaded argument. While digesting that, please take a look at the simple and practical ways that white people can help to disarm oppressors and empower POC. You will find that a lot of these things come together, and by doing one of them, another might also get done.
Listen. Listen to POC. Listen to the needs of POC. White people are constantly given the privilege to share their opinions, to talk about their needs, their complaints. POC aren’t. Advocate for them.
Ask. Directly ask a POC how to get involved, what to do in order to support their empowerment.
Learn. Educating oneself on different cultures can be justified as a mutually benefitting experience; but more importantly, POC in this country know almost everything about white culture. It surrounds our education system, the media, and many other platforms for the exchange of knowledge. One way to dismantle silencing of different POC cultures, stories, and voices, is to learn about them. This can be done by taking a Bates course celebrating a non-white culture. This can be done by reading a novel written by a POC author. This can be done reading news sources that tend to feature stories regarding all nationalities and backgrounds. This can be done by consuming popular culture such as Netflix that features a protagonist of a non-white background. It isn’t hard.
Be active. Another way that a white person can get involved in these movements is to get involved in activism. Supporting from the outskirts is not wholly effective. Protest.
Recognize the social anxiety that comes with trying to navigate the white person’s place among the process of empowering POC. Recognize this social anxiety as something that POC have to deal with constantly among the vast myth of whiteness as the norm in our culture. Recognize that this battle to navigate the white person’s social place among POC space is much smaller than the battle towards empowerment that POC are fighting.
Talk with other white people. The more white allies you can reach out to and learn from and with, the better.
White people can also use their privilege to confront racial injustices in whatever social settings they come.
Pay attention to language. Daisy Hernández, author of A Cup of Water Under My Bed: A Memoir, writes: “What are you noticing about headlines when the police kill another black teenager? Is the teen described as a kid on his way to college or as a ‘black male’…we’re trafficking in racial ideology 24-7 online—and that we can change the direction of these conversations every time we hit ‘comment.’”
Think about the ways in which you may personally appropriate someone else’s culture. This can be very tricky as appropriation has been normalized, especially in western fashion, but also commonly in music, dance, and language/slang, etc. If something feels like an appropriation of another culture, it probably is.