Author’s Note: There are a lot of links in this article, many of which are to articles from black voices. Particularly if you are white, I encourage you to read those articles and strive to understand their perspectives. The links are set up to open in a new window.
In my previous article, I wrote about a handful of incidents where I’ve observed racist police behavior. I expressed disgust, disappointment, and frustration. What I didn’t express was shock.
Fellow white people, we need to stop expressing so much shock. We need to move beyond shock. Shock is what you experience when you’re first waking up: You thought you were living in a beautiful dream where everyone lived in beautiful harmony (“side by side on my piano keyboard”), and now you’re facing the reality that Brown v Board, Virginia v Loving, and the Civil Rights Act of 1968 did not, in fact, create the post-racial world we wanted.
It is disgusting when three black teens are killed by cops in separate incidents in a single month. It is infuriating, and it is maddening that the system that supports the police circles the wagons and resists giving consequences to the officers.
“A few bad apples spoil the bunch,” goes the adage: But this doesn’t mean that we should leave the apples in the bunch. It means we should remove the bad apples before all the apples are compromised.
I understand wanting to hold on to our shock. It feels like moving past shock leads to normalization and acceptance. Expressing shock is a way of expressing our anger and sadness that this reality exists.
There is a difference, though, between accepting how the country currently is, and accepting that that’s how it should be. It shouldn’t be this way. It is this way. And, as well-intentioned as our shock that racism is still persistent in the system may be, it reinforces the idea that we haven’t yet fully accepted that that’s the way things are. Until we do that, it’s more difficult for us to work towards change.
Don’t take this as an attack. If you’re still expressing shock, you are where you are. We’re all at different places, and judgments are counterproductive. If you’re trying to make yourself more sensitive, more aware, more woke, keep working on it. It is a process, not a destination.
And there is plenty to be shocked about. Alex Yarde, for instance, pointed on Facebook to an article about white people going on graffiti safaris to a poor neighborhood in New York. As a Metro Detroiter, this reminds me of the ruin porn that cherry-picks the worst parts of the city. The looky-loo nature of these trends might be understandable, and some of it may even be well-intentioned, but as Detroit continues its path of breaking into “gentrified and white” and “same old decay, and black” (along with New York and many other major cities), graffiti tours and ruin porn have the first effect of reinforcing those distinctions and further dehumanizing the poor, who are very disproportionately people of color. The pain of the black community should not be a matter for white consumption.
Meanwhile, Friday night, libertarian talk show host and white male liberal darling Bill Maher called himself a “house n****” and deflected the audience’s shocked reaction with the standard tone deaf dismissal, “It’s a joke.” That someone who has spent so long in the public eye, who has spent so long ostensibly defending liberal causes (notwithstanding his grotesque and persistent Ismalophobia, should not just use that word, but use it as a joking self-reference, and to furthermore use it to reference “house slaves”, lest we be confused about the depth of his tone deafness…. Well, shock is a natural reaction to such a disgusting misstep.
But if we dwell on our shock, if we advertise our shock, we miss the opportunity to heal ourselves and others, including other whites. “A crucial next step,” writes Stephanie Jo Kent on the issue of white fog and fragility, “is to treat this new knowledge like one would the reality of a health condition: it just is.”
These issues run deep. All white people raised in the United States have been raised in a complex, deep-rooted system of privilege. Part of that privilege is that, for many of us, we can grow up or even live entire, long lives without realizing how much reinforcement we get from our skin tone, and conversely, what it’s like to not have that reinforcement.
I’ve gone through my period of white fragility, and sometimes I still struggle. I make mistakes, and I sometimes fall back into the deeply programmed comfort zones.
I’ve gone through my period of woke shock. And while I still find things like “graffiti tours” shocking, and while I still refuse to allow the shooting of unarmed black teenagers by armed police to be normalized, I’m working to change my reaction from shock to resolve. These things must end. They are not right.
Shock may be a natural reaction, but in advertising it, we white people run the risk of turning into pearl-clutchers whose shock is superficial and late to the game. Is your goal cookies, or is your goal true change?
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