White Supremacy in America and me.

White Supremacy in America and me.

Why do you have a Con­fed­er­ate flag in your lock­er?!”

Sur­prised, I dropped my books from the pre­vi­ous peri­od into my open lock­er and turned to look at my friend. His face had gone from very pale to sud­den­ly very red. It almost seemed like his entire body was shak­ing.

My fam­i­ly fought in the Con­fed­er­a­cy,” I explained. “It’s my her­itage.”

It was his turn to stare at me, aghast. I seem to remem­ber his hands balling into fists at his sides, but of course that could be inferred mem­o­ry from the years that have passed. I do remem­ber him sput­ter­ing in aston­ished rage, “Are you kid­ding me? You think this is okay?! It’s racist!

Grab­bing my books for my next class, I slammed my lock­er shut and replied cool­ly, “You’re over­re­act­ing. It’s not a big deal.”

He stood stock still for a moment, brows fur­rowed, mouth open­ing and clos­ing sound­less­ly. Final­ly, with much effort, he heaved a sigh and dropped the sub­ject.

I grew up as a con­ser­v­a­tive Chris­t­ian in the Col­or­blind Gen­er­a­tion.

At first, this looked like lis­ten­ing to child­ish songs about how Jesus loves all lit­tle chil­dren, “red and yel­low, black and white.” That line always con­fused me, as I’d nev­er seen any­one with red, yel­low, black or white skin. (I was…quite a lit­er­al child.) In fact, the first time I noticed race at all was as a 5-year-old on my first day of kinder­garten. My mom tells me that I came home that night, pos­i­tive­ly swoon­ing, exclaim­ing with rap­ture, “There are two of the pret­ti­est brown boys in my class!”

That’s a sto­ry I and oth­ers have used often to demon­strate that see, I’ve nev­er real­ly been racist. Look at 5-year-old me, cel­e­brat­ing diver­si­ty!

As I got old­er, the Chris­t­ian mes­sage about race was encap­su­lat­ed in a song by mul­ti-cul­tur­al con­tem­po­rary Chris­t­ian music phe­nom­e­non dc Talk, telling us all that “we’re col­ored peo­ple and they call us the human race.” After all, a black man was singing that. So it had to be true, right? There was no dis­cus­sion in my white con­ser­v­a­tive spaces about tokenism, so I had no words for such a thing. In our minds, if one black guy preached the Col­or­blind Gospel, then all should accept it as fact. To dis­agree was to be bit­ter and stuck in the past.

After all, the past is exact­ly where sys­temic racism end­ed, of course. His­to­ry books said so. We learned that Abra­ham Lin­coln was the sav­ior of the slaves and Lyn­don B. John­son was the real shin­ing light of the civ­il rights move­ment. (I mean, don’t you know Mar­tin Luther King was unfaith­ful to his wife? That right there dis­qual­i­fies any of his good work!) Racism in Amer­i­ca died in the 60’s, and we’ve been liv­ing in equal­i­ty ever since.

If there was racism today, it was just our cranky great uncle, and real­ly, he’s just a prod­uct of “his time.” Or maybe racism was our red­neck cousin who dropped the n-word and thought seg­re­ga­tion was the shit. We’d thought­ful­ly con­sid­er whether inter­ra­cial mar­riage was “a good idea” — not because of skin col­or, oh no! — but because there might be a cul­tur­al dif­fer­ence. We learned and inferred and spoke in code, because in our world, to explic­it­ly notice race was the prob­lem. To infer there was any dif­fer­ence at all in how non-white com­mu­ni­ties expe­ri­enced the world from how white com­mu­ni­ties expe­ri­enced the world was racist. The very con­cept that there were still white and black com­mu­ni­ties was racist. The idea that racism func­tions as a sys­tem today was racist. After all, racism was rel­e­gat­ed to ran­dom indi­vid­u­als in our lives. And it cer­tain­ly wasn’t us.

In the words of Mychal Den­zel Smith in his PBS New­shour piece, “As chil­dren of the mul­ti-cul­tur­al 1980s and 90s, Mil­len­ni­als are flu­ent in col­or­blind­ness and diver­si­ty, while remain­ing illit­er­ate in the lan­guage of anti-racism. This may not be the end of the world, if weren’t for the fact that Mil­len­ni­als don’t know the dif­fer­ence between the two.”

When you’re a white mid­dle-class con­ser­v­a­tive Chris­t­ian girl in the Midat­lantic, race isn’t a thing you real­ly think about. You’re young. You’re impres­sion­able. Every­where you look, at church and school and out shop­ping and on TV, there are thou­sands of peo­ple who look just like you and live white mid­dle-class lives just like you.

Your only expe­ri­ence with non-white peo­ple is through the sto­ries you’re told.

You read sto­ries about lit­tle blonde girls who gal­li­vant about New Eng­land solv­ing Chero­kee mys­ter­ies or how God didn’t turn a brown-eyed girl’s eyes blue because He want­ed her brown eyes and cof­fee-dyed skin help her reach the Indi­ans for Jesus. You hear all about how God uses mis­sion­ar­ies to save poor brown peo­ple across the world, and some­times those poor brown peo­ple kill the good mis­sion­ar­ies, but Chris­tians are so kind and lov­ing and for­giv­ing and brave that they go back again any­way and save the whole tribe.

Chris­t­ian mes­sages aren’t the only mes­sages you hear, either. You watch sto­ries on TV where lit­tle black boys are dis­re­spect­ful scamps and lit­tle black girls are sassy imps; young black men are vio­lent thugs and young black women are preg­nant or dead; old­er black men and women alike are sages and grand­par­ent fig­ures who want noth­ing more than to guide their younger white charges into enlight­en­ment. The news talks about black drug deal­ers and addicts, the “bad” parts of town, and angry black peo­ple who play the “race” card.

And when you’re a white mid­dle-class con­ser­v­a­tive Chris­t­ian girl in the Midat­lantic, you don’t know any bet­ter.

2 panel comic by Matt Davies from 2015. Top panel is the Confederate flag, with a label reading "south." The bottom panel is labeled "north," and is divided by 2 fences that form the same "x" as the Confederate flag. One fence is wooden and divides the area from top left to bottom right. The area above that fence is divided by a white picket fence. The top is labeled "white neighborhood" and "white schools." The bottom is divided by a chain-link fence and labeled "minority neighborhood" and "minority schools."You absorb these sto­ries and have no rea­son to ques­tion them. You might know that every­thing on TV isn’t real, of course — it’s not like they get things right about your kind of life all the time — but you have no expe­ri­ence with any­one that looks like those black scamps and thugs and sages. And so you imag­ine their depic­tion is only wrong in the same way depic­tions of white mid­dle-class girls on TV is wrong.

You’ve not been giv­en any rea­son to sus­pect oth­er­wise.

In my high school his­to­ry books, I was taught that the Civ­il War was real­ly about state’s rights and had almost noth­ing to do with slav­ery. That par­tic­u­lar year, my his­to­ry teacher also taught us that slav­ery was bib­li­cal any­way*, and most slaves were treat­ed fair­ly by their own­ers. What we heard in the lib­er­al media was just anti-Chris­t­ian pro­pa­gan­da. “The War of North­ern Aggres­sion” was spo­ken of more than once in all sin­cer­i­ty.

By the way, for those who want to dis­miss such things as “fringe Chris­tian­i­ty” or “back­wards deep south” teach­ings, this wasn’t tak­ing place in Mis­sis­sip­pi or South Car­oli­na or any oth­er state well known for its appalling his­to­ry cur­ricu­lum. This wasn’t even tak­ing place in a fun­da­men­tal­ist Chris­t­ian school. This was in north­west­ern Mary­land, two miles from the Mason-Dixon line, at a small inter­de­nom­i­na­tion­al Chris­t­ian school using Bob Jones Uni­ver­si­ty Press school­books because the only oth­er choice was A Beka Book.

Those very same school­books*, when we got to the Civ­il Rights Move­ment, assured us that while yes, the KKK wasn’t the best orga­ni­za­tion, it real­ly wasn’t all that bad. Just polit­i­cal­ly incor­rect. Their hearts were in the right place, you see. They were fight­ing moral decline. And don’t for­get that God used the Trail of Tears to bring lots of Native Amer­i­cans to Christ, so that’s okay, too.

I can’t help but think back to learn­ing that one of my great-great-etc. grand­fa­thers fought in the Con­fed­er­a­cy, then also learn­ing that I had fam­i­ly mem­bers in the KKK. Due to the edu­ca­tion out­lined above, it nev­er occurred to me that there was any con­nec­tion between my Con­fed­er­ate ances­tors and my white suprema­cist ones.

Giv­en my reli­gion, edu­ca­tion, and mid­dle-class upbring­ing, it’s no won­der it took me until the age of 21 to begin to notice that racism is indeed alive and well in our coun­try — and not just on an indi­vid­ual basis. In fact, it’s yet anoth­er les­son I learned at the Fortress of Faith dur­ing my short 5 month stint as a stu­dent there in 2008–2009.

When I announced my accep­tance to Bob Jones Uni­ver­si­ty as a 20-year-old, most of the response from my large­ly white cir­cle of con­ser­v­a­tive Chris­t­ian friends was amused sur­prise. But they all sup­port­ed me since I was “fol­low­ing God’s lead­ing in my life.” It wasn’t until I broke the news to my col­lege teach­ers that I got any neg­a­tive push-back at all. One of them went so far as to tell me that he couldn’t believe places like BJU exist­ed in the world today, cit­ing their sex­ism and racism as evi­dence of their anti-intel­lec­tu­al bias. (I attrib­uted this to his hea­thenism, poor delu­sion­al athe­ist that he was.)

But then I was vis­it­ing a small church with my fam­i­ly (my dad is a preach­er in the Ply­mouth Brethren tra­di­tion), and an Indi­an woman pulled me aside and begged me to recon­sid­er. A fam­i­ly mem­ber of hers had gone to BJU and learned that black­ness was the curse of Ham, and left the school hideous­ly racist. I was tak­en aback, (sure­ly no one read­ing the Bible could come away think­ing such a thing!) but I assured her that wasn’t some­thing taught there any­more. (From what I under­stand, they did stop teach­ing that…in 2003.)

The week before I left for school, a friend sent me resource after resource about the racist his­to­ry of the school in an effort to con­vince me not to go. I learned that inter­ra­cial dat­ing had been for­bid­den until the year 2000. I learned that they had gone all the way to the Supreme Court to defend their right to seg­re­gate the school. And still, I dis­missed it all as mere­ly a sin that BJU had repent­ed of and for­sak­en.

Dur­ing my first month as a stu­dent at BJU, as I looked around at my fel­low class­mates, it slow­ly dawned on me how white we all were. Out of 5,000 stu­dents, only a hand­ful were black. And for the first time in my life, it occurred to me that it wasn’t an acci­dent. It appar­ent­ly took repeat­ed warn­ings from most­ly white peo­ple across all spec­trums of belief to help me actu­al­ly take notice of racial divides — or even con­sid­er that racism could exist in a struc­ture, not just an indi­vid­ual.

It took me 21 years to begin to notice the dis­crep­an­cy in how white peo­ple expe­ri­ence life in our coun­try and how peo­ple of col­or expe­ri­ence it.

That is priv­i­lege.

My white skin affords me con­ve­niences and assump­tions of my good inten­tion and char­ac­ter that peo­ple of col­or sim­ply don’t have the lux­u­ry to expe­ri­ence. When I walk into a store, I won’t be fol­lowed by staff or secu­ri­ty assum­ing I’m going to steal some­thing. When I’m cat­called on the street, it’s almost always by white men — because our coun­try has a his­to­ry of lynch­ing black men who so much as glance at a white woman. When I apply for a job, it nev­er cross­es my mind to con­sid­er that I will be dis­crim­i­nat­ed against because of my race.

But even more than spe­cif­ic instances of my white skin pro­vid­ing pro­tec­tion, the white skin of those sur­round­ing me pro­vides pro­tec­tion, as well. I grew up in an all-white neigh­bor­hood. An all-white church (until very recent­ly, at least). An almost all-white school. (Which, by the way, were you aware of the explic­it­ly racist foun­da­tions of pri­vate Chris­t­ian schools?) Until 2008, every Pres­i­dent of my coun­try was white. In fact, across the board, gov­ern­ing offi­cials from police offi­cers to sen­a­tors and house rep­re­sen­ta­tives are over­whelm­ing­ly white. News media, TV shows, and movies almost exclu­sive­ly focus on sto­ries of white peo­ple. In fact, one of the only places where white peo­ple aren’t the major­i­ty is in our pris­ons*.

The mes­sage of the over­whelm­ing rep­re­sen­ta­tion of white­ness in Amer­i­ca can’t be mis­un­der­stood: White is default. White is desir­able. White is pow­er­ful.

White is the only accept­ed per­spec­tive for all sit­u­a­tions, in all cul­tures.

White Amer­i­ca has a long his­to­ry of steal­ing and con­sum­ing every­thing she can from her black inhab­i­tants. Our coun­try was phys­i­cal­ly built on the lands of Native Amer­i­cans and the backs of slaves, using the blood and tears of both to sus­tain our own com­fort and con­ve­nience. 

We stole black bod­ies from their coun­tries, from their fam­i­lies, from their homes so that we could con­sume them for plea­sure, for toil, for sport. It’s been so since the begin­ning, and con­tin­ues today — only the method and lan­guage of con­sump­tion have changed.

We con­stant­ly steal and appro­pri­ate black cul­ture, from rock and jazz and rap music to hair styles and food, while pun­ish­ing black peo­ple for their cul­ture. What’s trendy or edgy or fun­ny for white peo­ple to do is con­sid­ered trashy if black peo­ple par­tic­i­pate.

We steal the voic­es of black com­mu­ni­ties, min­i­mize the impact or even exis­tence of racism as inte­gral to our gov­ern­ment and cul­ture. On an indi­vid­ual and sys­temic lev­el, we make sure we nev­er have to con­sid­er black per­spec­tives, because we’re so insu­lat­ed and edu­cat­ed by the white­ness of those who came before us and those who car­ry on the lega­cy of white suprema­cy.

We silence black activists and give white lead­ers cred­it for their work. White peo­ple are giv­en more cred­i­bil­i­ty for their anti-racism work than black peo­ple.

And it doesn’t escape me that this entire arti­cle is me, a white woman, try­ing to work on anti-racism in my still large­ly white spheres.

Some­times, we grant peo­ple of col­or White­ness. It’s always based on respectabil­i­ty pol­i­tics, based on how well the indi­vid­ual per­forms and serves White­ness. We love when Mor­gan Free­man tells us that to even talk about racism is to per­pet­u­ate it. We love Mar­tin Luther King, Jr. telling black peo­ple not to riot. We love black preach­ers say­ing there’s no black church or white church, only the church cov­ered in the blood of Christ.

But what about when Free­man address­es police bru­tal­i­ty? Or Mar­tin Luther King, Jr. talks about how the great­est road­block to racial jus­tice is the white mod­er­ate? Or when black church lead­ers point out why black church­es have to exist in the first place*, or when black church­es are delib­er­ate­ly tar­get­ed not for their faith but for the col­or of the skin of their con­gre­gants?

It’s easy for us, the white chil­dren of the Col­or­blind Gen­er­a­tion, to con­tin­ue to focus on indi­vid­ual prej­u­dice while deny­ing sys­temic oppres­sion. It’s how we were raised. It’s how we were taught. Sure­ly, we are inno­cent. Sure­ly, we don’t ben­e­fit from white suprema­cy. Sure­ly, we don’t per­pet­u­ate it.

And yet, white suprema­cy is alive and thriv­ing in Amer­i­ca today. It exists as a sys­tem, per­haps even more than as a skin col­or. It rewards not only those who work to sup­port the sys­tem, but also those who do noth­ing to impede it. Those who sit silent­ly in the face of oppres­sion. Those who step up and affirm the sys­tem that oppress­es them. Those who don’t even think to ques­tion the sto­ries we’re told about white­ness, black­ness, and our place in the world.

White suprema­cy cre­ates an envi­ron­ment where gen­er­a­tion after gen­er­a­tion are unin­formed about the vio­lence it takes to main­tain their safe­ty, then rewards them for nev­er ques­tion­ing what they’re told.

White suprema­cy cre­at­ed the envi­ron­ment that allowed me to reach the age of 21 with­out ever ques­tion­ing it, with­out ever inter­ven­ing.

I ben­e­fit from white suprema­cy.

And if you’re a white Amer­i­can — so do you.

To be clear, this isn’t a ques­tion of whether you’re a good or bad per­son. Good peo­ple can do bad things, can ben­e­fit from bad things. But at the same time, good peo­ple work to make sure they aren’t caus­ing harm or allow­ing harm to hap­pen to their fel­low humans, regard­less of the col­or of their skin.

How can we work to dis­man­tle white suprema­cy when our entire way of life is based upon it? How can we work to undo a sys­tem that ben­e­fits us at the expense of mil­lions of human lives? How can we work to dis­man­tle white suprema­cy when it’s in our his­to­ry, in our fam­i­ly, in our friends, in our­selves?

We can start by qui­et­ly lis­ten­ing to what black peo­ple tell us about their lives, about our lives, about Amer­i­ca. No inter­rup­tions. No white tears. No pres­sur­ing them to soothe our guilty white con­sciences. No plead­ing for for­give­ness or acknowl­edg­ment that not all white peo­ple are evil. No talk­ing over black voic­es and no self-appoint­ed white sav­ior­ism*. Just sim­ple lis­ten­ing.

While we lis­ten, we need to re-edu­cate our­selves with­out going into black spaces to demand a per­son­al­ized edu­ca­tion.  Google is our friend. We need to learn on our own time, on our own dime. Find black activists and schol­ars online, and read their work. Cred­it them for their work. Pay them for their work rather than pirat­ing it.

We need to revoke our implic­it per­mis­sion for racism to exist in our spaces. When our cranky great uncle Tim makes a racist com­ment, call him out. When our best friend defends police bru­tal­i­ty against black peo­ple, call her out. When we start to tense in fear and reach for our wal­let because we’re walk­ing through the black neigh­bor­hood, we need to call our­selves out on our shit. Rec­og­nize the human­i­ty of our black peers. Rec­og­nize how we’ve been social­ized to fear and hate black­ness, and train our­selves to love black­ness instead.

On that note, stop treat­ing black peo­ple as if their cul­ture or their expe­ri­ences or their per­son­hood is for our con­sump­tion. We are not enti­tled to edu­ca­tion or atten­tion from any group of peo­ple the sys­tem from which we ben­e­fit oppress­es.

Sig­nal boost black voic­es. Share black expe­ri­ences. Remove plau­si­ble deni­a­bil­i­ty and igno­rance as an option from the prej­u­diced white peo­ple in our cir­cles. Refuse to talk over black expe­ri­ences, but endeav­or to end the suprema­cy of the white sto­ry and expe­ri­ence in our social cir­cles. Rec­og­nize the voice they have and ampli­fy it and spread it.

As you’re able, work with black com­mu­ni­ties to change racist leg­is­la­tion. Fol­low their lead. Protest. Sign peti­tions. Lob­by for leg­isla­tive change. Give mon­ey to black activists, asso­ci­a­tions, schol­ars. Give mon­ey to sup­port pro­test­ers jailed for their activism. Give mon­ey to help the fam­i­lies of the fall­en vic­tims of police bru­tal­i­ty. Put your mon­ey where your mouth is.

It’s dai­ly work, y’all. We have to con­stant­ly unlearn every­thing about the world that we’ve tak­en for grant­ed for so long. We have to con­stant­ly dis­place our­selves as the cen­ter of the uni­verse. We have to con­stant­ly cul­ti­vate empa­thy and com­pas­sion and a will­ing­ness to change and edu­cate oth­ers. We have to con­stant­ly ded­i­cate our­selves to resis­tance of the sys­tem of white suprema­cy and the insis­tence that until #black­lives­mat­ter, we can­not say that #all­lives­mat­ter.

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