By Frank Blechman
I used to think that white fear was the root problem of racism in America. As a white guy, I had some reason to believe that nonwhite people might not feel kindly toward us. White people could easily project that if the nonwhite people were in charge, they might treat us the way we treated them, and that would be bad.
So, we saw a great wall of them versus us. We might claim to be progressive and enlightened but still, we feared them. We didn’t blink when publications such as The Washington Post used the term “majority-minority” to describe places (some here in Northern Virginia) where there was no majority; where diversity resulted in “whites” making up less than 50% of the population, with African-Americans, Hispanic-Americans, Asian-Americans, and others together making up more than 50%, but no group dominant, no cohesions within any of those broad geographic clusters, and no unified nonwhite coalition. We accepted and feared that they might make up a majority. That would be bad.
Further, we didn’t ask too many questions about the dirty deal we made with the police: “Keep them away from us and we won’t ask how. Try not to do things that look terrible. We’ll back you up.” We didn’t ask too many questions about residual discrimination in education, jobs, housing, or health care.
Underneath all the posturing was unspoken, sometimes unacknowledged, white fear.
We didn’t want to see ourselves as fearful. We wanted to be heroic, so we constructed all kinds of stories about how terrible “they” were and how we were really doing a good thing (doing them a favor) to keep them under control. But underneath all the posturing was unspoken, sometimes unacknowledged, white fear.
I still think that white fear is a big problem.
However, the last few weeks have illuminated another, perhaps equally dangerous syndrome. In the face of numerous atrocities in which mistreatment, even murder, of nonwhite people has been well documented, most white leaders have been paralyzed. At best, we have expressed shock and dismay that these incidents happened. At worst, we have expressed concern that these have come to light. Mostly, we have been silent.
At best, we have expressed shock and dismay that these incidents happened. At worst, we have expressed concern that these have come to light. Mostly, we have been silent.
Now, a few celebrities have begun wallowing in white guilt. The Tonight Show host Jimmy Fallon devoted an entire show last week to expressing his guilt that he didn’t know what to do; asking black people to help him out. He is not unique in confessing:
- “Oh my gosh. This has been going on for a long time.”
- “I should have known. Did I know?”
- “I should have done something about this in the past. What can I do now?”
- “White people cannot fix this. We made this mess.
Shouldn’t people of color define the solutions?”
- “I feel so bad. Isn’t that enough?”
To be fair, nobody believes that there is a simple answer to hundreds of years of racism; certainly not a solution that can be presented in a soundbite, or implemented by declaration. Further, no one approach is going to be appropriate or effective everywhere.
White guilt, on top of white fear, is preventing most intelligent responses. It is not admirable. It is pathetic. We have to get over this.
Nonetheless, white guilt, on top of white fear, is preventing most intelligent responses. It is not admirable. It is pathetic. We have to get over this.
We, white people, have to accept responsibility as part of the problem. We white people (even those of us whose ancestors came to the USA after 1865; who never owned slaves; who supported the civil rights movement; who have diverse friends) benefited from a system that discriminated against others and favored us. We could luxuriate in the myth that our way of doing things was the right way, the best way. We could do our thing and declare it normal. No defense needed, ever. We could tell ourselves that we, or at least our ancestors, had it tough, too. If we made it, anybody could make it. If others didn’t make it, that was their problem, not ours.
We, white people, have to accept responsibility to be part of the solutions. We have to pay our share of the cost of better policing, affordable housing, healthcare, education, and equitable economic opportunities. We have to connect with nonwhite communities to understand their realities before we proscribe remedies.
Hardest of all: We have to listen. We have to hear. We have to change.
Hardest of all: We have to listen. We have to hear. We have to change. We cannot hide behind our fear or our guilt. Just as we have to accept that not everything we white people have done was good and right, we also have to know that not everything we have done or will do was or will be wrong and bad. We have something to contribute. So does everybody else. We have to do this together.
And, we have to commit to the long term. I think creating a more just and equitable society will take at least two generations of very intentional work. As a child of the South from the ‘50s, I know how much hard work was done, albeit mostly involuntarily, to create the progress we have made since.
Our leaders need to lead. Our institutions need to change. We all need to be part of it.