Here in the Pacific Northwest, we’re pretty white. While we do have a pretty large Native American, Hispanic, and Russian population in my county, there was only one black guy in my graduating class. I grew up pretty oblivious to the racial overtones that the rest of the country regularly deals with. (That’s not to say that the other ethnic groups in my area don’t experience it every day.)
I used the N-word once in my life. I was in third grade and heard someone say it on television and thought maybe I should add it to my lexicon. On the playground the next day, I tried it out on a Mexican kid who stared at me incredulously before using a carefully aimed fist to exorcise it from my vocabulary. But the shame I felt while the school nurse lectured me hurt worse than my swollen lip.
I went to Texas in the late 90s to meet and visit some family. I remember sitting in the family room of an older couple who’d lived in the same house for their 50+ year marriage. When I asked about that, the woman responded “Yes, it used to be wonderful before the darkies moved in.” Despite trying to hide my shocked expression, she must have caught it. Her response was, “You wouldn’t understand it. You have educated darkies where you are. We have them right off the plantation.” If you were to call me a racist ten years ago, I probably would have considered my shock at hearing this as proof that I wasn’t.
Growing up on a diet of racist jokes
I grew up in the 80s, and I heard progressive liberals telling racist jokes all the time. In fact, many of the jokes that are now repackaged as jokes about lawyers or blondes I remember being told about blacks. For instance, “a good start,” wasn’t the punchline to a joke that started, “What do you call 500 dead lawyers at the bottom of the ocean?”
Racist jokes were part of the culture I grew up in. I remember buying a mass-market paperback book of “Polock” jokes from the impulse aisle of a major-chain grocery store. I was a twelve-year-old who thought the jokes were funny, and as far as I knew “Polocks” weren’t even a real thing. Imagine my surprise when I actually met a real Polish guy—and he wasn’t a complete idiot. I know that last sentence sounds like a joke, but I assure you, it isn’t. A 200-page book of jokes about “Polocks” had convinced me that Polish people must be stupid. Those jokes weren’t benign, they were their own form of covert instruction that wormed its way into my psyche. In fact, I think that laughter is often a Trojan horse that subtly reinforces the most horrible ideas. Our minds are a lot less vigilant against the lies that make us laugh.
My friends and I were comfortable telling racist jokes and doing impressions of accents and exaggerated idiosyncrasies of other cultures. We didn’t see it as racist—because we could always compare ourselves to the extreme versions of racism. No matter how many insensitive Chinese accents I did, when I compared myself to a skinhead punk, I felt okay with myself.
What’s the harm in friendly taunting?
There was often a weird hypocrisy about race growing up in the Pacific Northwest. We’d shout you down for making conspicuously racist comments, but we still covertly reinforced racial stereotypes. In retrospect, I feel terrible for all of my non-white friends growing up. I don’t know how much overt racism they experienced, but I do know what they went through to hang out with us.
If you were close to us but not “white,” we reminded you all the time. It came out in regular little racially insensitive comments that weren’t intended to be aggressive or mean, but were a constant reminder that they were outsiders. Looking back on it, I can’t imagine being the only Mexican in my circle of friends. It seems like everything was used as an opportunity to make little “funny” comments—it was almost as if having an ethnic friend was like owning a license giving you a free pass for bigotry.
A couple of years ago, I remember making one of those micro-aggressive jokes to my friend Fred who was born in South Korea but adopted and raised in the United States. To his credit, he politely but firmly let me know that he wouldn’t be putting up with that bullshit. The conversation wasn’t long, but as he told me what it was like growing up being regularly reminded that he was “different,” it had a profound effect.
White supremacy is a cultural reality
As I said earlier, because I was raised comparing myself to extreme racist stereotypes, I never had to really question whether I had racist ideas or opinions. If you had asked me—even a couple of years ago—to define “white supremacy,” I would have told you that it was a belief that white people are superior to other races. I would have equated it to groups like the KKK or the White Aryan Resistance—and I would have disavowed it. Today I’d give you an entirely different answer. Now I see that white supremacy is woven into the foundation of the American experience:
- Native Americans: Europeans arrived in North America with the intention of conquering this land. With that came the mass murder, stolen land, and broken treaties—and virtual genocide—of this people.
- African Americans: Most of the Africans in America during the 17th century came in chains. They were stripped of their identity and forced to Christianize because Christianity helped enforce a docility. Socially, the U.S. began to construct an elemental belief that dark-skinned people were inferior and savage. After slavery was outlawed, Jim Crow laws kept blacks segregated as lower-class citizens. Even after the Civil Rights Movement, mass incarceration has been used as a tool to subdue and marginalize them.
- Chinese immigrants: During the gold rush, we began to important large numbers of Chinese laborers. These laborers were used as for much larger jobs like the building of the Transcontinental Railroad. These laborers worked in terrible conditions, and as their cheap labor brought down wages for poorer whites, they were used as scapegoats. In 1882, Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act barring any Chinese immigrants from entering the U.S. The anti-Chinese sentiment reached a fevered pitch as many cities and towns kicked out Chinese citizens forcing them into cultural enclaves.
- Japanese Americans: When Japan bombed Pearl Harbor in 1941, U.S. citizens turned against Japanese Americans specifically—but against anyone with an Asian heritage in general. Anyone that could be confused with having a Japanese heritage lost friends, jobs, and homes. Eventually “for their own protection,” Japanese Americans were rounded up and put into internment camps. Of the more than 120,000 people put into these camps, over half of them had never even been to Japan.
- Middle Eastern Americans, Muslims, and Sikhs: After September 11, 2001, the number of hate crimes against Middle Eastern Americans, Muslims, and Sikhs escalated dramatically. Five percent of all hate crimes in the United States were aimed at these groups—a 1,700 percent increase over 2000. Similar to the response Americans had toward all Asian Americans in the in the wake of the Pearl Harbor attack, Middle Eastern and South Asian Americans (and even Latinos), Muslims, and Sikhs have had to fear being mistreated, threatened, or attacked in retribution for terrorist activities that they had nothing to do with.
I’m fully aware that these brief paragraphs do great injustice to what these groups have suffered, and there are others that I could have included here as well. My point here is simply to point out a few of the obvious institutional and systematic ways that white America has revealed who sits at the top of the cultural food chain. But when you really begin to look at some of the most important U.S. systems (health and social services, political and state politics, education, legal, economic, and religious), you begin to see a pattern of exclusion and exploitation—which all culminates in an institutionalized perpetuation of white culture.
Waking up with a start
If you’re like I used to be, you probably bounced out of this post during that last section. Not only did the Jayson of the 90s wear the ugliest relaxed-fit jeans, he believed that racism had been largely eradicated. He thought the 1991 videotaped beating of Rodney King was an unfortunate anomaly but didn’t represent any real, long-term oppression.
If I read the last section, I would have demonstrated the same dismissive hyper-sensitivity that you usually see when a white person is challenged to think about the reality of white privilege and systemic white supremacy. Things began to change for me after Trayvon Martin was killed—and the questions began to surface in earnest as I was exposed to more and more tragedy:
- Eric Garner—July 17, 2014
- Michael Brown—August 19, 2014
- Akai Gurley—November 20, 2014
- Tamir Rice—November 22, 2014
- Freddie Gray—November 12, 2015
- Sandra Bland—July 13, 2015
- Tanisha Anderson—November 13, 2015
- Alton Sterling—July 5, 2016
- Philando Castile—July 16, 2016
- Terence Crutcher—September 16, 2016
- And so many more . . .
As ridiculous as it sounds, my moment of clarity came when I was watching Lethal Weapon one night. There’s a brief discussion that Sgt. Murtaugh has with a young black kid named Alfred that goes like this:
“Is that a real gun?” “Yeah . . . yeah . . . it’s a real gun.” “Do you kill people?” “No. If some guy’s hurting someone, I try and shoot him in the leg or something—just to stop him.” “Mama says policemen shoot black people.” *record scratch*
Here’s a movie from 1987 that slips this egregious concern of black America into a casual conversation with a child—a concern that they’ve felt since emancipation but haven’t been able to back up with the kind of evidence we’ve all recently seen. Now that everyone carries a video recorder in their pocket, they can finally say, “SEE?! WE TOLD YOU!”
I spent the better part of the day reading stories, starting discussions, and watching disturbing videos. As stupid as it sounds, it was a moment when I just kind of woke up. As I began to talk to people around me, I was shocked by the leaps of logic used by many white friends who found reasons or loopholes in every story to justify or excuse the excessive, fatal violence in these encounters. Each one of these discussions was a bolt of lightening. “HOW CAN YOU JUSTIFY THIS?” But that’s reality in a culture of supremacy.
A culture steeped in white supremacy
It’s important to remember that when I say “white supremacy,” I’m not talking about idiots in hoods or morons with “88” tattooed on their forearm. I’m talking about the systemic institutionalization of racial prejudice perpetuated through oppression, white privilege, capitalist exploitation, and institutionalized violence all bent on perpetuating and centralizing white culture.
On some level, good white people are also victims of systemic oppression because we’re steeped in it, blind to it, and oblivious to its effect on our thinking. We’re raised to offer unblinking trust and loyalty to the system and its authority . . . and because we benefit from it, we don’t question it. The elevation of white culture over others is so subtle and natural that we don’t recognize it, but it’s apparent every time:
- We’re surprised at an articulate black person
- We say, “Well . . . stereotypes exist for a reason.”
- We excuse racist behavior by pointing to our ethnic friends
- We believe that our having to work for what we have means that the opportunities for advancement are the all same
- We say “I don’t see color.”
- We point at ethnic celebrities as proof that everyone can get ahead if they work hard
- We believe we can relate to the experiences shared by people of color
- We accuse people of color of being racist against whites
- We refuse to succumb to “white guilt” when someone tries to talk to us about race issues
You’d think that Christianity—with all it’s talk of ‘tearing down walls of hostility’ and our oneness in Christ—would create people who were serious about reconciliation and empathetic listening. You think that we’d take seriously an enemy who’d want to divide and diminish us and would use systematic, institutionalized sin to do so, but that’s just not the case.
In the white American church, we’re all about authority, and we want to make sure that authority is recognized and submitted to. We’re caught up in championing the authority of the Bible, pastor, husband, and parents. In a culture that makes authority the central issue of every discussion, it only makes sense that government authority figures like police officers, are immediately believed.
When I talk to other white people about police violence against black citizens, the discussion seems treasonous to them. Authority exists for a reason, and if you do what they say, no one gets hurt. The irony is that many of these same people believe they need weapons to protect themselves from a potentially tyrannical government, but when systemic oppression has authority figures behaving like tyrants, they blame the victims. They’re willing to believe in a potential dystopian future where the government will eventually targeted them, but they can’t imagine any scenario where the others might be experiencing oppression.
What gives systemic white supremacy such deep roots is exactly what makes it so invisible to whites. Whether I want to recognize it or not, I benefit from the way that the system’s set up. Because I benefit from the way the system’s stacked in my favor, I’m blind to its existence. Since I had to work to get to the place where I am, I assume that anyone else’s position is because they’re not working hard enough.
This system enables me while disenfranchising others—while I remain (un)intentionally blind to it—and that’s exactly what white privilege is about. And if you ask me about it, I will completely lose it because I haven’t done anything overtly “racist.” In the mind of the average white person, racism is all about intentional acts of hatred, and if they don’t feel hatred, they’re not racist.
There’s no healing until I come clean
Most of my life, I didn’t think much about race. I didn’t hate any particular people group, so how could I be a racist? Occasionally I’d hear someone say something prejudiced and I’d scrunch up my face and judge them, feeling proud of myself for not being a bigot. I’ve come to realize that I am a racist—I’ve just never realized it.
I grew up in a socially engineered system that helped to inform my worldview and occupy my attention away from how my choices affected the experience of others. I may not have hated anyone, but the system ensured that I didn’t care enough to align myself to people who were different than me either. Every day I become more and more aware of the little ways that I excuse my own prejudicial thoughts and behaviors—while protecting my privilege. And I’m haunted by the times that I didn’t speak up. I didn’t “used to be” a racist. I am a racist—hopefully a recovering one—who is convinced that until I become honest with myself, I’ll never evolve into the kind of person Christ intends for me to be. Until we can honestly admit that this system is engineered for the supremacy of whites, it will never change.
It’s more important than ever
I started writing this post weeks ago, and I’m finishing it up on the eve of Trump’s win as a president-elect. I’m heartbroken, not just over the outright racial hatred, but over the silence of “not racists.” This divide won’t be healed because people of other ethnicities have “calmed down,” it will be healed when those of us who claim to be beyond prejudice realize our true condition, recognize our culpability, repent of it, and begin to elevate the voices of those who need to be heard. I don’t write this because I want “atta boys” or attention.
I don’t think of myself as an “ally” (a term I’ve come to despise). I’m just a middle-aged white guy who’s trying desperately to get his shit together and become a better citizen and human. If you’re interested in growing yourself, I’d encourage you to check out the following individuals. Listening to their conversations have been challenging, painful, irritating, and ultimately healing, and I’d encourage you to tune into these voices and their experiences.
- Caran Ware Joseph
- Wil Gafney
- Tariq Touré
- Henderson Hill
- Broderick Greer
- Kenji Kuramitsu
- Courtney Hall Lee
- Jerusha T. Lamptey
- Karen González
- Linda Sarsour
- Wesley J. Roy Jr
- Grace Sandra Ward
And check out these two podcasts: