By nature of being a white person, there was a point in my life where I was unaware of race. I don’t mean this in a youthful and naive sense but in the way that white people move through the world constantly being affirmed. As a teenager, I probably would have agreed that we live in a post-racial world. This is a testament to the white-washed curriculum and media that I grew up consuming both consciously and unconsciously. Truly, America is calibrated for our comfort.
Lately, I’ve been reflecting on my own journey toward anti-racism and the conversations that I’ve had with other white people about race. I’ve spent significant time picking apart what it is that makes it so hard for white people to acknowledge white privilege.
I posit the three main reasons that I believe white people struggle to admit that they benefit from white privilege: empathy, economics, and ego.
In order to navigate the morality of employing slave labor, white people had to create a narrative of racial superiority, buy into it, and pass it down to their kin. Since this time, white Americans have been economically incentivized to at reject the notion first racial equality and now denounce white privilege.
The economic equivalent of slavery today would be a multi-billion industry. The white confederate who once argued that slave labor is righteous and religiously pious is connected both genetically and logically to the white conservative who today is vigilant against, “reverse racism.” White people have always been in control of resources and economics tells us that rational, self-centered beings will not willingly relinquish resources. This doesn’t make the behavior acceptable but it ads nuance and helps us understand the choices made by Trump’s America.
I am not saying that white people are genetically predisposed to being less empathetic, although a thorough examination of the world’s history may affirm that sentiment. Empathy is not a binary attribute; it’s a muscle that can be strengthened (or systemically desensitized) and it’s a capacity we possess in degrees. It only works when coupled with effort. Our internal monologues are primarily selfish and diverting thoughts and emotional energy away from ourselves requires a purposeful strain.
Often, white people are not willing to listen to people of color long enough to internalize their stories. The pathos style of argumentation you learned about in high school is only effective when the audience approaches the conversation with an initial spark of caring and openness. Once you wrap your mind around a justification for the murder of Trayvon, it becomes a bit easier to do the same for Sandra, Freddie, Philando, and so many others.
The ego of the American white person is a fragile structure. In order to describe the nature of the white ego, I am called to remember myths that are purported about the millennial generation: entitled, narcissistic, and lazy. This fragility is created through daily subliminal reminders and affirmations about their position as the “default race.”
Consider the experience of walking into a convenience store to buy band aids. You purchase the product (made to blend with white skin) with cash (an assortment of white male faces) in front of the register (covered in magazines with white female faces). The fact that people still deny white privilege is further evidence of the ubiquitous nature of white affirmation.
The problem is that our society is poised to generate white fragility but we need white humility. White supremacy socializes white people in such a way as to nurse its own health. The act of admitting that you benefit from advantages that you did not earn is an inherently humble experience.
Many white people begin to examine their own privilege but stop in the wrong places. A physical manifestation of this might be a large hill. Some white people begin walking up the hill, settling their ego for a moment and attempting to turn the idea of their own privilege over in their minds. When people like this attempt to engage in race conversations, they often experience blunders and say something problematic. Egos bruised, they roll back down to the bottom of the hill. Others make it a bit farther but find themselves submerged in white guilt. Once again, their egos are deeply damaged and they roll back down to the bottom of the hill. They are paralyzed by guilty feelings and convince themselves that the guilt was the destination anyway. Still others make it a bit farther and set up camp near the top of the hill. This time, their egos are affirmed and they marvel at their progress, sanctimoniously pointing at the others further down the hill. Eventually, they are too busy pointing to notice that they too slide down. It is a cycle of guilt and affirmation that centers around the white ego.
My call to action is not for anyone to change their expectations, lower their standards, or enable white fragility. Instead, I want other white allies to be mindful of these motivations and problems while we speak to our families and colleagues. The problem of the ego adds nuance to an argument that is too often simplified to the absence of intelligence. It is true that institutional racism is a complex being that requires a rich knowledge of the geopolitical history of the United States. However, we have to understand that the objective of these conversations are more than content knowledge, we need to change people’s willingness to learn.