The helplessness of white people

Recently I attended a workshop about race and racism primarily attended by white people. And I was really struck by the expressions of helplessness with regard to dealing with racism: “We can’t do it by ourselves,” “We need people of color to help us,” “How can we make friends with people of color who can help us?” “We have no way of understanding race and racism.”

It was stunning to hear a bunch of well-educated people make so many statements about their inability to deal with the subject on their own. And it occurred to me that racism is still portrayed as the problem of people of color, to be solved by people of color. If white people are to work on anti-racism, we must carry them on our backs. Then we are expected to be grateful that they did any work at all. Yet this replicates long-held patterns of privileged behavior and denies primary responsibility.

This is often a problem with white parents with children of color who look to communities of color. Hey, if you weren’t involved in my community before, why do you think I should suddenly throw the door open wide and embrace you? The idea that you are welcome everywhere is one steeped in privilege.

Fallout Central has a podcast interview with a representative from Families with Children from China who states as follows:

To white people, white privilege is invisible. We need to be educated about it. White people aren’t going to find out about white privilege on their own and we’re not going to start thinking about anti-racism work on our own. And one of the reasons that’s really important in terms of transracial adoption is I feel that transracial adoptees often feel rejected by their own communities because of their connection to their white parents. And I can understand why Asian American people can be really upset by what’s happening because there’s a really commodified feeling about transracial adoption. But those adoptees need the Asian American community. They need to not be rejected by it but embraced by the Asian American community so that when they come out like Jared said, as adults, they don’t feel like they’re trapped between two worlds with nowhere to go. And I also think the Asian American community can do a lot to educate white parents. Don’t let them hide behind their privilege and say “I don’t have to think about racism.” Tell them that they do.

Why are white people incapable of finding out about privilege on their own? Why can’t they think about anti-racism work on their own? Frankly, these types of expressions are cop-outs. It reminds me of how white people talk about racism as a function of the times, “Oh, that’s just the way it was back then.” Forgetting that there have always been white people involved in the struggle.

Throughout our history there have been white people who stood up and said This is wrong. For example, you often hear white people say, “In the time of slavery, people thought of African Americans as property and not as humans.” But did African Americans think of themselves as property, or is it just white people being referenced under the generic “people”? And what about John Brown and other abolitionists? Why weren’t they simply products of their time? Why did they choose their fight?

How can you think about justice or think of yourself as a justice-loving individual if you do not address racial justice?

There are many issues that concern me about transracial adoption. Commodification is one of them, as evidenced by this series of posts. But I think one of the most troublesome aspects of transracial adoption is the way it illustrates for me how white people are able to confer or deny visibility to people of color. In many situations, I’m aware of my invisibility. I know white adoptive parents who can’t pick me out of a room of same-race people even though they’ve “known” me for four or five years. And even in my community, they speak only to each other. What a way to teach your kid.

So just because you’ve recently decided you need me for the good of your child of color, don’t think I forget that invisibility. And don’t tell me I have the obligation to educate. You have the obligation to educate yourselves. You may have adopted a child of color, but I didn’t adopt you. The belief that I must educate you is founded in privilege.

Frankly, attempting to educate even well-meaning white people really doesn’t carry any type of benefit for me at all. I bear the risk of being excluded and isolated. I bear the risk of being tagged as being “overly politically correct” or having a “chip on my shoulder” or “hating whitey.” And I don’t really care to be involved in your growth process if I cannot speak freely–because you expect me to make my words “palatable” to you, otherwise you say “nobody is going to hear you if you can’t rein in your anger.” Why can’t I say what I really wanna say? Is it a measure of our inequality?

Why don’t white people have the responsibility to educate other white people about racism? White people are also able to confer visibility on problems of racism in a way that people of color often can’t. Nothing says “objective, rational opinion” like the voice of a white person. If you have privilege, use your privilege to your advantage. Yeah, this is going to be painful and uncomfortable. What do you think being the recipient of racism feels like? And you’re afraid to speak against it? It would be better if people of color simply suffered it quietly?

Later in the interview, the FCC rep states the following:

“… when you grow up in this country as a white person, you have no reason to question the logic of the melting pot theory–this idea that, you know, color doesn’t matter, race isn’t important, if we all just love each other enough these things are going to go away … you can’t understand why people are pointing out race. Because you don’t understand what it is to live in a world where you’re affected by racism. Because you’re not.”

Why don’t white people have reason to question the logic? I started questioning the majority view when I observed racism directed towards other groups of color. Once that door opened, white supremacist ideology came quickly tumbling down. Certainly there are enough examples of egregious racism available even in the mainstream media. What more does it take to open the eyes of white people?

Do white people see racism as being harmful to themselves? Do white adoptive parents see anti-racism work as being something they do for their children? Because until white people realize that they are affected by racism, nothing will change.

14 thoughts on “The helplessness of white people

  1. Resistance asked:

    “What more does it take to open the eyes of white people?”

    May be a major economic crisis when EVERYONE will be on the street.
    But than again, how do I know that white people would not feed my
    dead body to their dogs :-))

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  3. this article was right on the mark. i especially loved the line when you mentioned what fell within the boundaries of the word “people.” i will never forget the times around christmas, when as a little girl, i would go through catalogs to circle what i wanted from santa, and i was always disturbed by the fact that the white doll simply said “doll” and had a price next to her listing, but the black doll said “black” doll, as if whiteness were the default and needed no additional description to identify her. the same thing happens today when people are described. whites are often described by their hair color, eye color, personality, etc, in general conversation. people of color, however, almost always have a racial/ethnic/national marker associated with them. white description (by white person): “what does she look like?” “she’s blonde, wears lots of makeup, black pants, smiles a lot. . . ” POC description (by white person) “what does she look like?” “um, she’s…asian… she works on the fifth floor.” it’s as if all other characteristics are ignored in reference to people of color with the exception of their race. it’s a privileged statement that signifies that there is no need to pay attention to anything but that person’s race, as opposed to with whites, when descriptions go beyond the color of their skin because “person” is assumed to always mean “white person” and therefore, no descriptive color marker is needed.

  4. A lot of truth in this article. Sometimes you can get used to being priviliged and sort of be oblivious to what it’s like not to be. It’s different but I remember one day seeing this guy in a wheelchair at the grocery store and I thought , what if I had to do everything like that? I remember going to NY looking for a hotel room. Every one of them said they were full. However my White friend and I noticed the parking lots were nearly empty , I told her next hotel she should go in and ask and voila ! She got a room and I came in afterwards,she was stunned, I was not.

  5. Wordy McWord, Wendi. That concept of “white” being the default and ethnic people being the “other” is something I come across in most books and almost every screenplay I have ever read. As if “black” can fully describe a character, considering the ever-persistent one-drop rule.

    I used to be apologetic when I tried to explain my frustration with this my associates, as if I was the one with the problem. Well, no more! It is insulting to think that white people are the default and that non-white people must be described primarily by their race, color or ethnicity, especially when it has nothing to with the context.

    That is all.

  6. Resistance,
    Great Post. See I learned that being white in America is transparent. You don’t recognize yourself as the majority, when you are the majority.

    Similar to the post up above, we have a similar ordeal on campus. When ever a crimes occurs all white people are descrbed as an ABC student, only non whites are decribed, even is a non white was the victim.

  7. I have found that when a white person does understand issues of race and racism, it is because of the environments they grew up in, not because any racial minority has taught them anything or even because they tried to learn about and deal with racial issues themselves. The whites I know who really do care about and observe race at all are the ones who grew up seeing race and racism in action. And, in a sense, most whites see racism in action as they grow up, but it’s in more subtle ways, i.e. the blacks live across town and go to the bad schools whereas the whites live in the “good” part and go to the “good” school. The white people I’m talking about *grew up* and went to school with the blacks and/or the Latinos.

    I understand the white people you write about and their “predicament.” I think race is a very complex issue and one that the average white person is just not going to get. Even the ones who “get it” make mistakes. An interesting white person who gets race and is willing to write about his mistakes is Tim Wise–his book “White Like Me” is incredible and also has a section on how racism negatively affects whites. But that’s the thing–if the whites you’re talking about *really* wanted to learn more about race and racism, the easiest thing in the world for them to do if they can’t just look at obvious events in the world as more than minorities overreacting and/or can’t look at racist incidents as the rule rather than the exception is to read some of the many, many books and articles out there about race and racism.

    But I think the majority of white people view race as something they really don’t want to deal with, and I have come to realize that racism is a very painful issue to white people that results in their being in denial and *preferring* to be in denial. In other words, they don’t know how deal with racism because they don’t really want to know how. Dealing with it would take seeing fault in themselves, admitting their failures/biases and then making a rather uncomfortable effort with “people of color” and to learn about how much better off they really are…which means facing they don’t earn/deserve everything they have in the world.

    But, no, they’re not going to leave their comfort zone. I think the problem is that they *do* know deep down how much they benefit from racism, that they do see how they are affected by racism…

  8. This post was very well written and I found it inspirational, in a cognitive way.

    It’s true–until White people see racism as a problem, there will be no “bridge” to fix this thing, which is a pity because the roads are really messed up.

    Thanks for writing this; it’s brilliant.

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  10. As a white man, I too have felt that education about white privilege is somehow inauthentic unless black people are teaching it. I know I have biases, but I also know that I don’t believe them. I believe than on the average everyone thinks the same way. And yet there seems to be a trend toward assuming that white people are not just habitually unwilling but intrinsically incapable of working against racism.

    I feel uncomfortable discussing race because it’s hard to tell which side someone’s on. I often feel that an article apparently combating racism is resonating in me with what I know is a false and unwanted internal racial bias.

    I feel paranoid about which blogger or commenter might be a spin-doctor trying to demoralize me. And I find myself looking at these people’s avatar photos to see if they’re black and therefore okay to read — and that just reinforces the bias I’m looking for help suppressing.

    I know that white privilege exists, and I see it all the time in media and politics. But I don’t see it around me in real life. And there doesn’t seem to be any information about how to recognize it and counteract it. Everyone seems to be saying it’s an invisible part of capitalism and that the only way to fight it is to participate in whatever their own favorite political sedition project is.

    There has to be a consensus on what white privilege is in terms of the real world of people in everyday activities, and how white people can work against it within this world.

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