This was published in the Winter 2021 (vol16 no1) issue of Plumb Line, the Elizabethtown College Peace Fellowship Newsletter (p 2-3) under the title “Being ‘Good’ Doesn’t Fix Racism: Why Confronting Racism is Especially Hard for White People.”
Recently I had the good fortune to come upon a wonderful blog post that addressed some interesting (and pressing) questions about being a white ally. The post, a written adaptation of a talk by Bethany Stewart, eventually cut to the heart of the issue: “How can folks claiming an anti-racist and peace filled identity be so adverse to a very present opportunity to be anti-racist? What I concluded is that a lot of white people aren’t really prepared to be anti-racist but rather, they are invested in the performance of what is considered to be the ‘right side’ of anti-racism.”i Stewart then goes on to call out the specific behaviors she’s identifying: “And you usually see the adverse response show up in a two-fold way.. The first is shame. […] And secondly and most importantly, it shows up in a rejection […]” The entire article is excellent, and I highly encourage you to read it. However, upon review, I found myself reflecting on my own experiences – what I’ve experienced of white people around me – and I think I’ve found some insight into why this behavior occurs.
Although it was never explicitly stated as such, when I learned as a child about Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s there was a strong impression that the ‘race problem’ had been solved – that ‘good’ had conquered ‘bad,’ and that racism was dead. I know I was not the only one who had this impression, either; many of my friends (both white and black) lauded the importance of ‘character’ over race, and applauded all attempts to be ‘color-blind.’ As Ta-Nehisi Coates’ expresses, “But my experience in this world has been that the people who believe themselves to be white are obsessed with the politics of personal exoneration. And the word racist, to them, conjures, if not a tobacco-spitting oaf, then something just as fantastic – an orc, troll, or gorgon. […] There are no racists in America, or at least none that the people who need to be white know personally.”ii No one in my circles wanted to appear racist, either; racists were ‘bad people’, and ‘bad people’ are rejected by society. Everyone wanted very much to be considered ‘good people’.
Recognizing yourself as white, then, requires seeing color, which implies in turn that you should be seen as a ‘bad person.’ This challenge to one’s sense of self is quite painful, and the apparent failure of one’s ability to ‘be good’ leads to a deep sense of personal shame – a pair of reactions, I think, that forms the bulk of what’s been often called ‘white fragility.’ Furthermore, being seen as ‘bad’ brings with it the potential of societal rejection, which is interpreted as a threat to one’s very survival. Based on all of this, even the most innocuous exploration of what it means to be white tends to provoke cognitive dissonance; the most direct method of resolving it requires rejecting both the racial awareness and whatever – or whoever – provoked it.
In addition to this (or perhaps as a consequence), discussions on racism and slavery almost exclusively focus on the harm done to black people; rarely does the moral injury inflicted upon white people enter the conversation. In fact, the basis of that moral injury has already been mentioned: everyone wants to be seen as ‘good’; being racist is seen as ‘not good.’ White self-identity is a house built on a foundation of sand. And, unfortunately, the past half-decade has brought torrential rains of evidence highlighting the degree to which many injustices are obviously and undeniably perpetrated based on race. Recognizing these injustices as evil, however, arouses an even stronger cognitive dissonance – one that pits the desire to resist evil (and thus ‘be good’) against the desire to avoid delving too deeply into issues of race.
Avoiding this dissonance, I believe, leads to what Stewart identified as being “invested in the performance of what is considered to be the ‘right side’ of anti-racism.” This form of white allyship is not about confronting and correcting injustice; instead, it is about clinging to a sense of self being perceived as ‘good’ by the broader society, so as to continue benefiting from the power and privilege it provides. It’s about signaling virtue, without doing the actual hard work of being virtuous.
True allyship requires a fundamental realignment of one’s priorities, right down to the level of one’s very sense of self and how one defines ‘good’. Stewart describes it thus: “In its true form, it is some of the hardest work and the toughest journey that a white person can ever take on because it does in fact require that you both question and relinquish everything that you consider to be normal and reality.” I am reminded of Matthew 16:24–26: “Then Jesus said to his disciples, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it. What good will it be for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul?” Racism and white supremacy depends on white individuals, in the face of racial inequity, continuing to choose self-preservation – the preservation of societal standing, the preservation of self-image, the preservation of privilege – over the restoration of justice and shalom. The fight against white supremacy – the fight for justice – must first begin with acknowledging the necessity of sacrificing one’s heart, one’s soul, one’s mind, and one’s strength, so that one may then choose to fully commit to seeking justice for one’s neighbor.
iBethany Stewart, “Everybody Wants to Be Anti-Racist ‘til My Black Ass Tells You How,” posted 09/28/20, accessed 11/3/20, https://circlemobilizing.wordpress.com/2020/09/28/everyone-wants-to-be-anti-racist-til-my-black-ass-tells-you-how/.
iiTa-Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me (New York: Spiegel & Grau, 2015), 97.