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.

racismYou 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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