Susan Anglada Bartley, M.Ed & Samuel Burnett
Three days after the murder of Alton Sterling, two days after the murder of Philando Castile, one day after the sniper attacks on police in Dallas, four hundred plus years after the start of the trans-continental slave trade, we come together, in the highest state of white privilege–a white male college student and his white female former teacher–at a coffee shop in Portland, Oregon, computer screens ablaze, to discuss how we might respond to the current political moment in a unified response that will help other whites to own, understand, and relinquish our white power in favor of a revolutionized society. Perhaps due to privilege, perhaps due to never being pulled over and harassed for a busted tail-light, never being followed in a store (even when I, the teacher, really was stealing at the age of 12), never being questioned and certainly never being beaten or detained for crimes we did not commit–perhaps due to these factors, or perhaps due to the tendency of our European ancestors to dream of utopian visions that we never fulfill, we have the audacity or the pretense to believe that this other society is still possible.
But we see a paradox. The path to the real “America” requires us to fully relinquish our privilege. For many white individuals, myself included (the student) discussions of race and privilege bring with them a slight discomfort, partly due to the knowledge of my ancestors brutality and savagery, but even more so because these discussions cause me to address a grim truth: I am, at some level, despite years of education from liberal mentors, despite deep analysis of how racism and racist practices are perpetuated at a state and international level, and despite an overpowering desire for equity, racist. This racism is not conscious–I don’t actively mentally discriminate based on the color of a human’s skin. But simply through growing up in a predominately white neighborhood, watching and engaging in mainstream media (which perpetuates negative stereotypes and tropes of black and brown individuals), and refusing to speak out against racist comments made in institutional settings, I developed a latent racism. The truth is this: for white America, modern racism isn’t your “antiquated” aunt who comes to ruin Thanksgiving dinner; it isn’t your grandfather who grew up during legalized segregation and viewed Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. as a “radical.” It is you. The status quo in white America is racism, and while it is not pleasant to admit, while it brings me no pride to say, and while it forces me to confront my innermost demons and my external family and friends at the same time, it is a truth I cannot remain silent about. Until we admit that we, as privileged white individuals, have been indoctrinated into a racist system since the moment we were born, we cannot achieve the real American Dream. We cannot achieve equity–in fact, we promote the racist violence that continues to plague us.
On Facebook, Twitter, any social media site, I see many brave individuals speaking out and protesting against police brutality and targeting of minority communities (a practice that has been going on since the slave trade, but has only recently caught widespread attention). When it comes to being on the front lines, when it comes to speaking out in a board meeting, or in a political discussion with other whites, these individuals remain where they were–behind the computer screen. The historical moment requires us to consider the meaning of brave. Posting and sharing informative and supportive pieces on social media sites certainly requires some elementary level of guts, but true bravery in these situation is to, as a white individual, challenge yourself to combat your latent (or manifest) racism. Recognize you have been set up to operate with racist undertones, and refuse to be spellbinded by them. Scan your memories for times you let this racism influence you, and be resolved to eliminate it from your mental channels entirely. Bravery is using your whiteness to shield people of color at protests from unruly officers. Bravery is speaking up to your acquaintances, friends, and yes, even family, knowing that some bridges may be burned along the way. But if someone refuses to consider your sentiments when you question a racist comment they made, do they deserve your friendship? More importantly, do you really want theirs?
Along with the whites who create anti-racist posts, I also see an alarming number attempting in futility to justify the murders of minorities. Why is it that so many white individuals relate more to white police than to black or brown civilians? I (the teacher) remember looking up to my older brother as he refused to wear anything other than his policeman suit for several years of our childhood. While he also became a radical activist, and was raised by leftist parents who participated in anti-racist work during the 1980s, even he–and even I–developed the concept that police were there to protect me. The concept of white policemen as a key representation of the pinnacle of white masculinity engenders an extremely strong bond of trust in police for many whites in society. I can only imagine how deeply ingrained the (very paternalistic) concept that police protect the community is inside the homes of officers and their families. Many of these families must revere the men and women who leave their homes every day, risking death, to work among the 80% of us who will never own much more than our names and our legacies. Still, and this is the reality that is toughest to swallow, making a sacrifice for society does not mean that you are not a racist. Often, the very same paternalistic concept that motivates an officer to do police work leaks into an us-against-them mentality–a cops vs. thugs philosophy if you will, that is code for just-above-poor whites against stereotyped people of color.
How is it impossible to believe that police operate in a racist institutional framework, and that some of them are aware and actively perpetuate this racist framework? Police officers are as vulnerable to this latent racism as the rest of us, and for them too, racism is the status quo. Officer Nakia Jones of Warrensville Heights spoke out against police malpractice, and this is something we need more of–police within the racist justice system speaking out and actively trying to revolutionize it, as opposed to perpetuating racist practices. Yet, it is indeed fascinating that we have not yet seen a viral video from a white police officer who is willing to confess to the massive racism that Jones documents. Racism is a white problem, a problem whose consequences unfairly manifest themselves in minority communities. But it is a problem that abhors the entire human condition, and undermines all but those who benefit the very most from it. We are once again fortunate to live among such heroic black activists who refuse to allow us, as white people, to continue to profit from what Jesse Jackson termed the mental disease of racism. Instead of accepting the polarization of black Americans against the police, we must admit the omnipresence of racism in society, in ourselves, and even in the coffee cups we sip as we stare at our screens.
Privileged, white male scientist Stephen Jay Gould wrote, “I am somehow less interested in the weight and convolutions of Einstein’s brain than in the near certainty that people of equal talent have lived and died in cotton fields and sweatshops.” It was a wonderful remark; now it is time to refuse to accept this reality, to admit our responsibility to end the Apartheid state, to extract it from ourselves, and to refuse to propose a utopian vision for a new society without the presence of people of color who possess as much or more genius and insight than we ever will. Our vision, then, is not a portrait of shiny, happy people holding hands; but of fellow whites admitting, admonishing, and eliminating the latent racism in which we have been bred, and buttered.