“If only there was a word that was less offensive than racist,” said a friend the week after Trump’s 2016 election victory. No matter what the conservation topic was that week it inevitably turned into a “how did this happen” Trump election debate. We were talking about the two white reactionary waves that occurred on social media immediately after the election.
The first wave was instant, calling out the racism and white supremacy needed for 60 million white people to vote for an explicitly racist candidate with specific campaign promises to hurt millions of people of color. The second wave, a slightly slower but much more reliable wave in this country, was a rush to the defense of white comfort and segregated ignorance, as millions of white people from all political isles rushed to defend Trump supporters being accurately called out for the racism they had just unleashed.
“This was more about the economy. Not everything is about race” was one comment being tossed around the second wave.
“Are you trying to tell me 60 million voters are racist?” was another.
“There’s so much hate happening right now,” another a popular statement surfing the second wave, referring not to the hate behind Trump’s horrific policies like banning and demonizing—but the hate “apparently” needed to call out the racism behind a Trump voter. This is an old straw man argument that mislabels people’s emotional reactions to hate as the “real” problem, causing people to go on the defense instead of continuing to call out the real hate occurring.
My friend was one of many moderate-to-liberal white people who believed in equality and opposed racism in general but was clueless as to what racism really was beyond explicit and intentional hatred. He knew voting for Trump was bad for people of color and at least somewhat loosely related to racism, but he also believed many people voted for Trump because there were misunderstandings around many issues in this country, like immigration, police brutality, economy, Obama, etc., and if the country wasn’t so divisive right now, everyone could rationally talk it out. This is a common belief with people who think racism is confined to conscious hate and not systems of white supremacy, privileges, and oppressions that we all live in and subconsciously internalize, regardless if we agree with such a system or are even conscious of it.
Scott Woods wrote the following about this dilemma:
“The problem is that white people see racism as conscious hate, when racism is bigger than that. Racism is a complex system of social and political levers and pulleys set up generations ago to continue working on the behalf of whites at other people’s expense, whether whites know/like it or not. Racism is an insidious cultural disease. It is so insidious that it doesn’t care if you are a white person who likes Black people; it’s still going to find a way to infect how you deal with people who don’t look like you.
Yes, racism looks like hate, but hate is just one manifestation. Privilege is another. Access is another. Ignorance is another. Apathy is another, and so on. So while I agree with people who say no one is born racist, it remains a powerful system that we’re immediately born into. It’s like being born into air: you take it in as soon as you breathe.
It’s not a cold that you can get over. There is no anti-racist certification class. It’s a set of socioeconomic traps and cultural values that are fired up every time we interact with the world. It is a thing you have to keep scooping out of the boat of your life to keep from drowning in it. I know it’s hard work, but it’s the price you pay for owning everything.”
He, like many millions of segregated white people living in majority white communities, were experiencing for the first time what it was like to point out racism condoned by people who didn’t think they were racist. The horrific whitelash that ensued immediately after they typed their first social media “r” word and clicked that blue “share” button, shook their racially segregated foundation.
The white discomfort was too much for many, and they began looking for “race neutral” scapegoats to blame for the 2016 election—like divisiveness, identity politics, lack of civility, economic reductionism, and even Hillary. All less offensive and easier-to-handle reasons that allow for white racially segregated circles to find their harmony based on ignorance once again.
It was at that moment I started to realize the real weight of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s feelings toward white moderates. In his Letter from a Birmingham Jail, he wrote:
I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says ‘I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I can’t agree with your methods of direct action.
I couldn’t believe that just a few days after we elected someone who promised to start a Muslim registry and use the military to forcibly deport 11 million Latino immigrants, white people were already able to re-center the narrative on themselves and how divisive their racially segregated world had become. It felt like white people had once again successfully dodged any realization of white supremacy and what this country is about outside their white segregated worlds.
It was at that moment that I realized where I wanted to focus my “resist” efforts. I wanted to counter this white need to water down or avoid racism—by focusing on educating racially segregated white people on all the ways racism manifests in this country beyond the explicit.
I spent the last two years researching all the different types of racism and white privilege in this country from the explicit, implicit, internalized, and systemic. The only good thing I’ve found about the tragedy of Trump’s election is the proliferation of anti-racist activist, writers, and leaders creating content for generations of anti-racism efforts. People such as Michelle Alexander, Layla Saad, Nikole Hannah-Jones, Rachael Cargle, Robin DiAngelo, Sandra Kim, Ta-Nehisi Coates, and journalistic/educational outlets like Equal Justice Initiative, Everyday Feminism, Teaching Tolerance, have created an endless amount of content for anyone willing to educate themselves on anti-racism. I tried my best to capture as much of this modern content, along with past anti-racist rhetoric from Angela Davis to James Baldwin, to create a multi-media anti-racist experience. I was originally hoping to create four two-hour classes to teach. Two years later I created 15 two-hour classes into a course called Intro to Racism and White Privilege, ready to go this June.
The journey creating this course was a journey of understanding my own history and how I fit in with the greater history of this country and its white supremacy while being raised in a Midwestern steel town.
I grew up in an all-white world. My friends, family, neighbors, church, history lessons, local politicians, TV, and movies were all white. I was never taught that people of color were bad, but I was handed a world that encouraged me to come to this conclusion on my own. My only experiences with people of color were the local news (which seemed to only cover black criminals), driving by the local housing projects, and observing a small handful of students I neither interacted with nor thought twice about why they didn’t mingle much with the majority-white student body.
I was taught that the world was fair, based on a meritocracy, and that Dr. King’s dream came true, ending racism back in the 1960s. When you’re taught these false narratives, your view of the negative realities of this world comes with a victim-blaming lens. Through this racist lens, homeless people are lazy, civil rights protesters are ungrateful, victims of police brutality are deserving of it, and white people have more wealth and power because they work harder.
It took several decades of anti-racist work and diverse cultural experiences in several different states outside the Midwest before I could drop those false narratives and see racism as systems of white supremacy that I not only live and benefit from—but have subconsciously internalized. Even with this background, I wasn’t prepared to learn through my recent research just how expansive and traumatic white supremacy is in this country. Every aspect of our life—politically, socially, culturally, economically, personally—has been deeply affected by white supremacy. And the majority of white people benefiting from the suppression of people of color aren’t even aware that a system of white supremacy exists.
Robin DiAngelo, author of White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk about Racism, writes about the invisibility of white supremacy:
While white supremacy has shaped Western political thought for hundreds of years, it is rarely named. In this way, white supremacy is rendered invisible while other political systems—socialism, capitalism, fascism—are identified and studied. In fact, much of its power is drawn from its invisibility—the taken-for-granted aspects of white superiority that underwrite all other political and social contracts. White resistance to the term white supremacy prevents us from examining this system. If we can’t identify it, we can’t interrupt it.
But even with this new knowledge of white supremacy and systemic racism, my own story still felt disconnected from the story of this country. It wasn’t until the last few months of my anti-racist research that I discovered a defining reality of my own story. While researching James W. Loewen’s extensive efforts to bring their lost history to light, I discovered that my hometown was one of thousands of Sundown towns that ethnically cleansed people of color after the Civil War. These towns used strategies like racist zoning ordinances, intimidation (the name comes from signs saying “N*****, Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on You”), and violence to actively keep their towns as white as possible up until the 1960s. With this new knowledge, my entire childhood, from the whiteness of the people around me to my beliefs that justified my country’s white supremacy, stopped being a first-person story and suddenly became a third-person narrative of this country. This was the form of white supremacy that shaped my entire childhood that I’ll probably have to confront the rest of my life.
For the first time, I saw how I fit into the timeline of almost 600 hundred years—since Portugal first looked toward Africa for slaves—of dehumanizing Africans and later African Americans, to justify the slavery that fueled the rise of capitalism, the industrial revolution, and the United States. I saw how my story fit in with the injustice of over two hundred years of American slavery so brutal the trauma is still felt in the survivors ancestors’ epigenetics, while the history textbooks I read and the white history teachers I took notes from romanticized the Confederacy and whitewashed any lasting effects of slavery. It wasn’t just coincidence that the only non-white people I saw in my town were on the news, in the public housing block, or self-segregating for survival in my school. This was the result of a century of housing discrimination, terrorism, disenfranchisement, segregation, mass incarceration, dehumanization, disinvestment, and civil rights bills lacking reparations toward communities of color. This century of realities was hidden from me at a time in my adolescence when I was developing my views and justifications for the world I lived in.
James Baldwin once wrote, “White people are trapped in a history which they do not understand and until they understand it, they cannot be released from it.” It took me almost 40 years to find the real history that created my history.
For the first time in my life, I feel like I’ve been released enough from the self-perpetuating systems of white supremacy to a place where I can begin to dismantle them.
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