by Paul C. Gorski
An old friend of mine--somebody I like and respect a lot--posted something on Facebook yesterday about feeling targeted as a white person by hateful posts about white people, particularly related to the racism in Ferguson. Here is my response to him:
I've been posting thoughts about my "white friends on Facebook" who are responding to Ferguson. My life is embedded in these issues completely--my entire life, every ounce of energy is spent fighting for the rights of people who are less privileged than me. So let me explain a bit about my view and my interpretation of some of the dynamics of the larger conversation.
First of all, obviously I'm white, as are my mother, sister, father, and closest friend. My grandmother--the biggest inspiration in my life--is white and Appalachian. So I distinguish between talking about whiteness and structural racism and talking about individual white people.
Nobody I know who commits her or his life to racial justice work or other kinds of justice work sees the world the way you describe: as everything being the fault of individual white oppressors. Nobody. Hell--if it was as simple as all these working class and middle class white people being bigoted, I'm fairly certain we could solve racism fairly quickly. It's much more complex than that. Much scarier and much more insidious.
What we see--what I see--is a society in which white people on average gain substantial benefits from their whiteness. Actually, this is not just what I see. This is very well documented and based on that documentation (rather than on ignoring entire systems of oppression when trying to understand what's happening in our society) it is irrefutable. Every system and structure in the US--law enforcement, criminal justice, education, every single one--protects and benefits white people at the expense of people of color. Irrefutable.
African Americans are 15% of drug users overall in the US, but 60% of people in prison for drug offenses. Irrefutable. The War on Drugs was developed strategically in part to target communities of color, and especially low-income urban communities of color, even though white people are more likely to use illicit drugs than people of color. Irrefutable. The education system in the US is increasingly re-segregating and disproportionately people of color are sent to the most dilapidated, most under-funded schools. Irrefutable.
Justifications for this--maybe that parents of color don't care as much about their children's education or that African Americans commit more crime than white people are factually false. Factually false. That's right--white people commit proportionately just as many crimes as African Americans, but are less likely to be arrested, less likely to be convicted, and less likely to be sentenced to prison, even if you look across the same types of crimes and people with the same records. These are systems that were designed by wealthy white people and continue to be controlled by wealthy white people to the benefit of white people and wealthy people.
That is not the same thing as saying that every white person working in those systems is purposefully being a racist or even that interpersonally they're bigoted. But the frustration in my work (as a white person doing racial and economic justice stuff) is that because they benefit from these systems to more or less of an extent--depending on other factors such as their economic situation, their sexual orientation, and the like--most white people don't see these conditions, or at least not their sum implications. And those who do see them can easily ignore or justify them, and in fact pretty much have to do so to fit into mainstream ideologies.
We're socialized often implicitly to think that a level playing field exists already, and it doesn't. Not by a long shot. That's not your fault or the fault of any individual white person, at least initially, in the sense that we're all socialized to see everything as equal because that allows us to blame marginalized communities for not "achieving" to the same extent as white people in school or for being in prison at greater rates than white people. I've probably seen a hundred posts on Facebook this week about how African Americans are in prison more than white people and experience disproportionate police brutality because they commit more crimes. A lie has become common sense.
That's a product of the socialization, and it's not an accident. It allows us or trains us to always point our scorn down the power continuum and denigrate the most marginalized people in society rather than looking up the power continuum and asking ourselves whether the world we think we see is real and who benefits from the actual reality.
Complicating matters even further, low-income, working class, and even middle class white people also are largely screwed by these systems and structures, but they're screwed to a lesser degree than people of color--particularly people of color in their own economic bracket or in lower economic brackets. (And again, all this is additionally complicated when you bring in issues like gender, sexual orientation, disability, and other factors.) Working class and poor white people also aren't safe from police brutality or from systems that also have been set up to protect wealthier people at the expense of lower-income people, like the criminal justice and legal systems. But that they are protected to a greater extent than people of color is like a carrot leading them to support the systems that don't even give them a fair shake.
My experience with how a lot of white people are responding to Ferguson is that they're falling back on their socializations, on the easy analysis that protects us as white people from any sort of reflection on how we're complicit in sustaining an undeniably racist society--not just interpersonally, but structurally. Many of the kindest souls among us are complying with that process of always looking down rather than up the power continuum when we're attempting to understand what's happening around us.
So, returning to my statement that the existing structures of racism are not your fault or my fault "initially," at some point we do have access to the information that would allow us to see things with more complexity and we make a choice about whether we will engage in this conversation in ways that include us within the circle of oppression or that allow us to hide outside the circle of oppression. We decide what we do or don't want to acknowledge. (Same thing about rape--as men we eventually decide whether we want to keep blaming raped women in an implicit effort to dodge our own complicity in a society where, even if we don't as individuals rape women, we might not be doing a whole lot to address the sexism underlying rape culture, which means we're complicit.)
Here's the eternal challenge: when things get hot, what do we decide, knowing that "hot" for us might mean feeling temporarily targeted with scorn or rebuked and that "hot" for us will never mean experiencing a lifetime of racial oppression and racial violence while we're being sold "equal opportunity"? What does it mean when we invest more of our emotional energies in protesting the anger than on the conditions that have made the anger?
About the scorn and rebukes: As somebody who is deeply embedded in racially diverse communities of people doing racial justice work, I can say that in those communities, it's never, ever, ever about hate. It's not about hating white people--that would mean I'd have to hate myself when the truth is that I love myself enough to extend my arms as far as I can in order to try to fully embrace the truth, or something closer to it than I've been provided by formal schooling and other socializing processes. It's not about hate.
It is a luxury for us as white people to experience justified angriness and honest analysis among people of color, some of whom have, in fact, been targets of racism their entire lives, as "the problem" while pretending the racism doesn't exist. Or to minimize less peaceful protest as purely about anger rather than an orchestrated statement. Or to ignore media reports about how, exactly, small bits of peaceful protests have become violent. Or to not be astounded by how a vast majority of people of color and other oppressed people remain peaceful even in the face of the most violent forms of oppression.
This, to me, is related to a willingness among many white people to embrace an illusion of racial harmony even as we have been unwilling to fight for racial justice, which is the only real path to racial harmony. It harkens to Martin Luther King, Jr.'s, notion that the biggest stumbling block when it comes to eliminating racism is not the KKKer, but the white moderate who, in the end, is more invested in the existing social order than in justice. As long as we as white people can have a conversation about race that is framed in ways to protect the feelings of white people, a lot more white people tend to engage, which helps explain the viral nature of that recent photograph of the African American child hugging the police officer. This may be why, in my experience, the hardest places to do racial justice work are those places most heavily populated by white liberals whose identities often seem to be invested in their contributions to racial harmony, who often seem to believe in the delusion that racial harmony leads to racial justice. It doesn't. There's no way around dealing forthrightly with racism when the goal is racial justice.
For these and other reasons, the conversation about Ferguson is not and cannot become about the protection of white people's feelings. No conversation about justice can become that, and the fact that many white people have made it about their feelings, their sense of being targeted individually, is a reflection of the bigger issues that underlie Ferguson and that ensure the conversation goes nowhere. That's part of the way that kind, gentle, caring white people get sucked into the complicity with racism, even when we don't want to be complicit.
As a white person, it's my responsibility to find a way to stay engaged in the conversation, to sustain my sense of responsibility, even when--especially when--it gets uncomfortable and I feel targeted. Because in the end it's not about me, except to the extent that I'm willing to be in a difficult conversation I have no right to control and the extent to which I'm willing to make myself actively vulnerable to a cause that threatens my own privilege or, more rightly, that replaces my material privilege with the much more gratifying privilege of living in a world that I helped make more just.
Paul C. Gorski is the Founder of EdChange and an Associate Professor of Integrative Studies at George Mason University where he teaches in the Social Justice and Human Rights programs. For more of his writing visit the EdChange.org. For free resources on educational equity visit EdChange.org/multicultural. To contact Paul directly email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Conversation White People Aren't Having About Ferguson and Racism
I am an activist and author devoting most of my time to social justice causes such as poverty and economic justice, racism and racial justice, educational justice, and animal rights. In my spare time I am an Associate Professor, teaching classes on these same topics in George Mason University's New Century College.