“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.
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.
Participation in a community means you get shaped and defined by it. Appropriation means you pick and choose for showing off to others.
— It’s Lu Bu Bu Kitty! (@yeloson) August 26, 2013
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.
- Good People Do Terrible Things
- The Distress of the Privileged
- On privilege and taking the stairs
- Straight White Male: The Lowest Difficulty Setting There Is
- Why There’s No Such Thing As Reverse Racism
- A Chat with Mikki Kendall and Flavia Dzodan About #SolidarityIsForWhiteWomen
- What does (generic non brand person) Flavia want?
- I Don’t Care if You Call Yourself A Feminist: Part 1 and Part 2
- Things I Need From Allies
- Ally-ship for beginners, or: how not to be a dick
- Of privilege in progressive circles
- White Privilege, Explained
- Everyday Feminism’s Race & Ethnicity tag
- White Fragility and the Rules of Engagement
- White Fragility
- Bree Newsome talks about white supremacy as a global & national problem, and why she took down the Confederate flag