Racism 101 for White People

Racism 101 for White People June 20, 2015

This past week’s terrorist act at Mother Emanuel AME in Charleston, South Carolina, has shaken many of us.  There have been calls for unity.  My dream is unity, too.  But, of course, racial unity isn’t achieved by thinking nice thoughts or saying nice things.  That’s because racism isn’t a matter of thinking bad thoughts or saying bad things.  Racism is not even a matter of doing horrific acts.

Racism is when a society predictably produces unequal outcomes, irrespective of effort.  This inequality is held in place by violence–whether intimidation or actual violence against people of color–in a long line of slavery, lynching, and mass incarceration (different punishment for the same behavior).

Since last summer, there has been a series of new stories about white people–sometimes in uniform–either terrorizing or killing black people.  From this has emerged the “Black Lives Matter” movement.  Black Lives Matter takes different forms in different communities, but, generally, is trying to help bring about a nation in which there truly is “liberty and justice for all.”  For white people to be effective in helping this effort, we need to be oriented to the nature of racism.

For white people, it can be hard to see racism. White people often see a world where individual effort earns individual outcomes.  Where the rules are fair: you reap what you sow.  White people don’t see how black children are disciplined differently than white children in school, which affects their performance.  White people don’t see how black people’s credit is questioned at the bank, or their credibility is questioned in everyday circumstances, because of the color of their skin.

Some white people want to say, “I don’t see color.”  Or, spiritually, “in Christ, there is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male or female, for you are one in Christ Jesus.”  Which is true.  And, at the same time, it is not yet on earth as it is in heaven.  So, our political realities do not yet match our deepest prayers.  In America, in 2015, black people are suffering because of the color of their skin.  White people enjoy advantages because of the color of their skin.  So, it isn’t fair for white people to wish it away.

If you are white, you might not like to hear me talk about racism in this way.  It might seem that I am undermining how hard you have worked, the ways in which you and your family have struggled.  You might believe very deeply in personal responsibility, and believe that talking about racism like this is a cop-out, giving black people an excuse for not working as hard as you know you have worked.  Or a cop-out for white people like the terrorist who came into the Mother Emanuel AME church this past week–that it wasn’t his evil, for which he’s accountable, but instead the product of systemic racism.

Maybe our experience is both individual and systemic.  Maybe each of us is called to personal responsibility and accountability for our choices.  And, at the same time, maybe we take part in patterns of inequality that go back a long time–and that, for a white person, can be hard to see.

For instance, housing.  Many white families worked hard in the last decades to purchase a house, and to pay the mortgage–that’s the result of individual effort.  Sadly, the Federal Housing Administration created policies in the 1930s that meant white families would have one experience with home ownership, and black families would have another.  You may have heard the phrase “red-lining.”  It’s about the value of a house, according to its neighborhood.  So, while a white family, paying a mortgage with good interest, can build wealth through home ownership over time, as the value of their house increases, a black family–often paying mortgage with higher interest–won’t see the value of their home rise nearly so much.  Same effort, different outcome.

If you’re a white person who’s committed to believing that, when it comes to race, you are not a sinner, ok. I can’t change your mind.

But, if you’re a white person who’s begun to wonder about your connection to systemic racism, here’s a resource. It’s part of a list, written by Peggy McIntosh, of unearned advantages white people enjoy.  If you are white, do the following items match your experience?


  • I can go shopping alone most of the time, pretty well assured that I will not be followed or harassed.


  • When I am told about our national heritage or about “civilization,” I am shown that people of my color made it what it is.


  • Whether I use checks, credit cards or cash, I can count on my skin color not to work against the appearance of financial reliability.


  • I can arrange to protect my children most of the time from people who might not like them.


  • I can avoid spending time with people whom I was trained to mistrust and who have learned to mistrust my kind or me.


  • I can be pretty sure that my neighbors in such a location will be neutral or pleasant to me.


  • I do not have to educate my children to be aware of systemic racism for their own daily physical protection.


  • I can be pretty sure that my children’s teachers and employers will tolerate them if they fit school and workplace norms; my chief worries about them do not concern others’ attitudes toward their race.


  • I can talk with my mouth full and not have people put this down to my color.


  • I can swear, or dress in second hand clothes, or not answer letters, without having people attribute these choices to the bad morals, the poverty or the illiteracy of my race.


  • I can do well in a challenging situation without being called a credit to my race.


  • I am never asked to speak for all the people of my racial group.


  • I can be pretty sure that if I ask to talk to the “person in charge”, I will be facing a person of my race.


  • If a traffic cop pulls me over or if the IRS audits my tax return, I can be sure I haven’t been singled out because of my race.


  • If I declare there is a racial issue at hand, or there isn’t a racial issue at hand, my race will lend me more credibility for either position than a person of color will have.


  • I am not made acutely aware that my shape, bearing or body odor will be taken as a reflection on my race.


  • If my day, week or year is going badly, I need not ask of each negative episode or situation whether it had racial overtones.


  • I can be late to a meeting without having the lateness reflect on my race.


  • I can be sure that if I need legal or medical help, my race will not work against me.


  • If I have low credibility as a leader I can be sure that my race is not the problem.


  • I have no difficulty finding neighborhoods where people approve of our household.


  • I will feel welcomed and “normal” in the usual walks of public life, institutional and social.


I am not an expert in racism.  There are some white people, like Tim Wise and Chris Crass, who are more eloquent and deeper into the work than I am.  I also am far from perfect in my understanding or application.  I am learning.

You may want to know what to do.  First of all, I would ask that you reflect on this.  Soak it in.  Think about how your life is different because of your white skin.  Take a week to notice some of the things in this list.

Secondly, here’s an article by Chris Crass, published in early May, that is a guide to action for white people wanting to work against racism: http://goodmenproject.com/featured-content/to-the-white-anti-racists-holding-back-from-stepping-up-against-racism-hesaid/

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