In many lectures about racism, I often feel the speaker is condemning me, a Caucasian, as being responsible for his or her agonies. I leave these lectures feeling disheartened. I feel that these speakers attempt to make me treat a specific cultural group different than I treat everybody else.
Is it not the speakers’ goal to achieve equality? Equality does not mean integration into main stream society, it means that people do not discriminate against anybody. Are these speakers further alienating themselves and the cultural group that they represent by proclaiming that people should treat them differently and by condemning Caucasians for their problems? Would it not be more effective to focus on specific issues that should be considered regarding the group than crossing the boundary into reverse-racism?
For all the progress that has been made against overt racism, the sad fact is that genuine social justice and racial harmony still lie ahead. At least part of the problem, as your experience demonstrates, is that people understand racism in vastly different ways, making it extremely difficult to communicate with one another openly and meaningfully. Attempts to do so can provoke feelings of outrage, exasperation, frustration, injury, bewilderment, indignation, defensiveness, guilt, shame, fear, anxiety, awkwardness, and despair all around. No wonder we tend to avoid these experiences.
The fact that most white people have come to regard the idea of being racist as shameful and odious is a sign of a healthy moral conscience. What’s not healthy, however, is to work more assiduously to avoid that epithet than we do to eliminate racism from the world, by walking on eggshells, for instance, around the topic. Not only does such polite superficiality stymie political progress, but it cuts off opportunities for authentic, enriching relationships of friendship and solidarity that we all deeply need. What this means is that racism hurts everyone – not all in the same ways or to the same degree of course, but we are all hurt, we all do lose. Ironically, that’s a cause for hope, because it means that whites also have a real stake in ending racism, a potential motivation beyond abstract appeals to justice or compassion for those “less fortunate.” It means we could have a common cause, if not yet a shared understanding.
So first let me commend you for submitting this question. It takes courage to admit your confusion, sadness, and discomfort – to risk opening wounds and inflaming angry responses – and it shows that you care enough to try to work through an uncomfortable, even painful experience. Stick with it.
Your question raises a number of interconnected issues – from personal and collective responsibility, to the meaning of social justice, to identity politics and the ethics of communication. Taking these issues in reverse order, consider first a few straightforward facts pertaining to ethical discourse. First, hard as it is for each of us to believe, even our own perceptions are not always accurate. Be open to the possibility that your interpretation is mistaken, that feeling personally blamed may be more a reflection of anxiety or defensiveness than of the intentions of the speaker. Importantly, these emotions are not themselves irrational or immoral. Indeed, it would be more disturbing for someone not to be upset at the prospect of being implicated in a grave moral evil. Recognizing the fallibility of your perceptions in the wake of such feelings, however, shows maturity and strength of character. Second, we should be mindful of the fact that white people have far less experience with racism than people of color, which means that there are realities about the world that we may utterly fail to notice or be poorly attuned to. For that reason, we (I am also white) ought to have the humility to admit that when it comes to racism, people of color are experts, and whites are novices; we have much to learn. Finally, ethical communication around racism requires trust – trust that the speaker wants to reach a shared understanding rather than to abuse you, trust that if contrary views are expressed with respect and a genuine desire to listen, they will be met with respect in return. Trusting others also tends to be self-confirming, and confirms others’ trust in you.
What about identity? Should we primarily think of ourselves in terms of our individual uniqueness or in terms of the racial and ethnic groups to which we belong? Whites often think of ourselves first as individuals and don’t regard whiteness as a defining feature of our identity. Indeed, placing significance on the fact that your whiteness and someone else’s race or ethnicity may seem the essence of racism and white supremacy. From this point of view, opposing racism seems to require understanding everyone in terms of their shared human and/or unique individual characteristics, rather than in terms of their race or ethnicity, and so it’s hard to understand why people of color might want whites to see them as Blacks, Native Americans, Latino/as and so on. Don’t those group identities just divide us from one another?
Pat Parker’s poem “For the White Person Who Wants to Know How to Be My Friend” opens with these lines: “The first thing you do is to forget that i’m Black / Second, you must never forget that i’m Black.” The fact is that all people’s lives are shaped profoundly by race, including yours and mine. For white people to pretend that this isn’t so, in hopes that it will become not-so, can be hurtful in a variety of ways. First, it suggests we are oblivious both to continuing racism and to the fact of our own race – as if to say, “Really, racism’s still around? Oh well, that’s your problem, not mine. Let’s just ignore it.” Second, it tells people of color that we don’t want to know who they really are, what they’ve really experienced, how they’ve really felt, but would prefer to think of them as other than the people who they are. That’s a good way of saying, “Keep your distance” – renouncing any desire to be genuinely close. The pretense of race-blindness also implies that nonwhite racial or ethnic identity is a defect, that the normal default human individual is white. “I don’t think of you as black” was once thought by whites to be a complement; now it’s hard to miss the implication that thinking of someone as Black means thinking poorly of them. Similarly, to say that I want to treat everyone the same is not taken to mean that I want to treat everyone, and everyone to treat me, as if we’re all Black or Native or Latino, but rather as if we’re all white. The implication, however unintentional, is that treating people equally requires treating them as if they were all the same as someone (normal) like me.
Perhaps what justice requires then is not that everybody give and receive identical treatment, but that everybody give and receive equal respect, enjoy equal status, possess equal rights. If treating everyone equally presupposes treating everyone as white, this hardly treats everyone with equal respect. Instead, justice may require celebrating our differences rather than regretting them, and ensuring that no single group be permitted to command center stage, the position of the default, or the norm against which all others are compared – in law, education, cultural production, or civil society.
What about responsibility? Is it fair to blame a particular white person for causing the woes of racial injustice or the present generation of whites for the sins of their fathers? No. But as noted above, we should be cautious of assuming that this is what’s being said – in part because our own defensiveness may mislead us, but also because there is a lot to moral responsibility besides being praised or blamed for what we deliberately cause. Because racism not only disadvantages people of color, but advantages whites (whether we want it to or not), we have unearned advantages and privileges that we wouldn’t have if not for our race. About these Peggy McIntosh observes, “[S]ome privileges make me feel at home in the world. Others allow me to escape penalties or dangers that others suffer. Through some, I escape fear, anxiety, insult, injury, or a sense of not being welcome, not being real. Some keep me from having to hide, to be in disguise, to feel sick or crazy, to negotiate each transaction from the position of being an outsider…. Most keep me from having to be angry…. My skin color [is] an asset for any move I was educated to want to make.” Whether such privilege exists is not up to us, but how we respond to it is, and we’re surely morally evaluable for that response. Finally, in addition to the responsibility we have for what we deliberately do and that which we bear for the unjust privileges we accept, there is also the responsibility of inaction – of standing by while evil persists. Arguably, not actively perpetuating racism isn’t morally neutral if we are also doing nothing to resist it.