NOTE: If you’re reading this post, it’s because you want to communicate (and think) more effectively about race. I hope these observations help.
For most of my life—since I started working as a white vocalist in a Black music tradition, jazz—I’ve been thinking off and on about race.
And yeah, did you catch where I said “off and on”? That’s a marker of what’s called privilege.
Privilege is “a special right, advantage, or immunity granted or available only to a particular person or group.”
As a white person, you may not feel privileged. You may not feel that you’ve been granted any special immunity or advantages. But privilege is not a feeling, it’s a status; and you have privileges that Black people can’t even dream about.
For example, as a white woman, I don’t have to think about race…
- Every time I go outside (or when I’m in bed, like Breonna Taylor was)…
- Every time someone looks at me strangely…
- Every time I walk by a police officer…
- Every time I get followed around a store, or asked what I’m doing in my own neighborhood (which doesn’t happen to me, because I’m white).
I can think about race when I feel like it.
That’s my privilege. And lately I’ve been reminded of how profoundly privilege can blind us to the reality of other people’s lives.
Virtue signaling is a way of making it known that you’re not one of those white folks. Individuals do it, and lots of companies have been doing it lately, in response to a major change in public opinion:
Corporation X stands with Black Lives Matter. We value diversity and equality, and support the fight for a more just America.
So many companies want you to know they value diversity and equality! It’s like Roger Goodell (Commissioner of the NFL, for non-sports nerds like me) wanting you to know that he’s always valued Colin Kaepernick.
The problem with virtue signaling is that,
- With rare exceptions, what you’re signaling isn’t true,
- It doesn’t accomplish anything (except self-congratulation), and
- It totally misses the point, which is that systemic racism can’t be dismantled by statements of good intentions.
Offering good intentions to people who are being hurt by racism is like offering “thoughts and prayers” to the victims of gun violence.
This is the big one—the concept that white people constantly get wrong, and that I still find hard to fully grasp.
Having been raised (and indoctrinated) in the all-white suburbs of Boston in the 1950s, I didn’t grow up knowing what Black people know, which is that racism is not a glitch in the system.
Racism is the system.
How was this system built?
Starting in 1619, kidnapped Africans were brought to these shores —more than two million of them died en route—and, for generations, subjugated through the constant use of violence and terror.
Their stolen labor produced untold wealth, none of which has been returned to them. The rape of their bodies produced children who were forcibly torn from them, and enslaved. Their dehumanization was written into law; white people could literally do anything they wanted to them.
After hundreds of years, slavery ended. But new systems rose up to perpetuate its impact: Reconstruction, Jim Crow, segregation, “separate but equal.”
In recent memory…
- Black World War II veterans received none of the G.I. Bill benefits that lifted millions of white families into the middle class.
- Banks “redlined” Black neighborhoods (literally drawing red lines on maps) so that people within those boundaries would not be given mortgages or loans to buy homes and build wealth.
- White institutions—colleges, universities, foundations, corporations, companies, police forces, fire departments, orchestras—excluded Black people, or let in just a few to “prove” they weren’t prejudiced.
- And today, Black people still have worse prospects and outcomes in every area of life than whites, from income to imprisonment, from home ownership to health.
As Jelani Cobb put it, “Race…is shorthand for a specific set of life probabilities.” And white people have been complicit with that, in part because we don’t need to see it.
Speaking to White People and Listening to Black People On Race
White folks need to talk to each other, not just about racism, but about how racism also hurt us—how it limits and contorts our own lives socially, economically, intellectually, creatively, civically, and spiritually.
- If we have guilt, fear, anxiety, anger, shame, embarrassment, or other emotions about race—and we do—let’s tell another white person. (The excellent paper I’ve linked here is by Williams Garner of the Unitarian Universalist Association.)
- If we have questions about race, let’s ask them of a white person.
- And when we see or hear white people demeaning, marginalizing, micro-aggressing or “othering” Black people, let’s speak up and put a stop to it.
Let’s stop dumping our curiosity, questions, discomfort, pontificating, and desperate need to be reassured or forgiven on Black people who already spend way too much of their lives dealing with what white folks think and feel.
We need to talk to each other in private. And when it’s time for public speaking about race, a person of color should have the floor. (And pay them for sharing their thoughts, because they’ve explained this to white people hundreds of times already, for free.)
Let’s let them do the speaking in public.
And for once, let’s us sit back and listen, because we have a lot to learn.
Some Things to Read and Talk About
- “My White Friend Asked Me to Describe White Privilege, So I Decided To Be Honest,” by Lori Lakin Hutcherson
- “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack,” by Peggy McIntosh (this 1989 essay is still an eye opener)
- “To the White People Who Keep Asking How to ‘Help‘,” by Elie Mystal
- “Performative Allyship is Deadly,” by Holiday Phillips
- White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk about Racism, by Robin DeAngelo
- The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, by Michelle Alexander
- 13th, the film by Ava DuVernay
- “The American Nightmare,” by Ibram X. Kendi
- “Slavery gave America a fear of Black people and a taste for violent punishment. Both still define our criminal-justice system,” by Bryan Stephenson
Other Actions to Take (Besides Demonstrating and Donating)
Courtesy of Judith Kaye Training and Consulting
- Desegregate our personal and professional circles
- Go and study/learn
- Take an honest look at our business, organization, workplace
- Target our consumer dollars
- Focus our political activity
- Engage with family and friends