Occasionally The Root will interrupt our coverage of black news, opinions, politics, and culture to openly address our white readership. In 2020, we’d like to finally have that oft-discussed “conversation about race” we hear you guys mention so often. To be clear, white people need to have a conversation about race. Black people in America have been actively engaged in an ongoing discussion about race since 1619, when twenty & odd negroes stepped onto the shores of Virginia, looked around and asked furtively in their native tongue:
“Umm...Can we talk about this?”
Whenever anyone raises the prospect of this ballyhooed “conversation,” the best and brightest of the white people (Rachel Maddow, Alex Trebek, a white guy named Tyrone I met once and...umm...I’m sure there are others I can’t quite recall at the moment) will sometimes ask how they can improve race relations.
Of course, Melania Trump has already cornered the market on how to “be best” (I still don’t know what that means). But for the new year, we thought we’d outline a few suggestions on how you can be a better white person in six easy steps.
1. Realize You’re White
I know this sounds like a stupid suggestion, but hear me out.
Unlike many other races and ethnicities, white people are often offended when anyone brings up their whiteness—even if it’s not in a derogatory context. Scientists say NotAllWhitePeopleitis is caused by exposure to an all-American element I call “the privilege of individuality.” White people aren’t accustomed to being lumped together in one homogenous group so they loudly oppose anyone calling out Donald Trump’s supporters as “white voters” or referring to Taylor Swift’s banjo-heavy compositions as “white people music.” Yet, they don’t bat an eye when they speak about Latin music or the “Black vote.”
That’s because this country has accepted whiteness as its default. They don’t see themselves as living in “white neighborhoods” or attending “white colleges.” The privilege of individuality subconsciously colors the way they interact with the world—even when they don’t realize it.
When they tout their beloved country as a “melting pot” and insist that they “don’t see color,” what they are really saying is that the only way they can envision equality is through an exercise of imagination that separates non-white people’s ethnicity, color and cultural history from their humanity and reduces them to a hypothetical American that is just like them.
But I like being black. It is part of who I am. And, even though you don’t want to accept it, being white is part of who you are. So, in 2020, you should make more of an effort to “see color” and still treat everyone with the same dignity and respect.
2. Recognize Your Privilege
The concept of “white privilege” can be a distasteful concept to some white people because it implies that you have received something extra. For some, this negates their hard work, talent or ability. This is why I define white privilege in easy-to-understand terms.
White Privilege is the absence of racism.
Everyone should be able to live in any neighborhood they can afford; shop in stores without being scrutinized or interact with law enforcement without fearing for their life. Employers should hire people according to their abilities. Schools should punish children according to their individual infractions.
But in America, only white people get to do this.
Once white people can grasp this fact, they can understand why black people have to affirm that their lives matter. They’d see why Colin Kaepernick can’t stand on sports’ biggest stage and pretend—if only for two minutes—that “The Star-Spangled Banner” waves over the land of the free. They’d know why we’re uncomfortable with MAGA hats and Confederate flags—because they represent an ideology that threatens our existence.
Whiteness offers respite. The greatest privilege that whiteness affords is the ability to overlook racism, hate, and inequality. Whiteness is a fireproof suit in a world that is on fire and no one—not even me—is even asking you to help us extinguish the blaze. But please stop acting like the heat is all in our head or that you figured out how to make yourself inflammable.
You were just born with a fireproof suit.
3. Know Things
This is very important. One of the reasons that white people dismiss or ignore white supremacy is because they either won’t admit or don’t know how pervasive it truly is. It’s easy to believe that black kids could get ahead if they had more role models and studied harder. If they knew black school districts were underfunded by $23 billion or understood that white schools have more books in their libraries and more computers in their classrooms, they might reconsider the “bootstrap” myth.
If they knew the socioeconomic link to crime and violence, instead of asking about black on black crime, they’d ask why the wage and wealth gap persists. If they knew the data on immigration and crime, they wouldn’t want to spend billions on a Mexican wall.
Or, maybe they still wouldn’t care.
Perhaps its easier to believe that black people are genetically predisposed to violence, ignorance, and laziness than to accept the fact that a country that has fulfilled all of your white dreams can be so cruel to others just because of the color of their skin.
But willful ignorance is still malevolent if you choose to ignore the facts.
4. Talk to Your People
If you are truly interested in being a better person, you don’t have to inform a single black person of your intentions.
Black people cannot fix white supremacy or racism. If it were up to us, we would have quashed systematic inequality a long time ago. But white people built this system. White people control this system. It is white people who have tacitly agreed to perpetuate white supremacy throughout America’s history. It is you who must confront your racist friends, coworkers, and relatives. You have to cure your country of this disease. The sickness is not ours. We’re not asking you to stab your bosses, grandfathers, and girlfriends with a broadsword when they display signs of prejudice. Just say something.
You’ll rage about a YouTube video when someone mistreats a kitten but sit silently when you see bodycam footage of cops killing a black boy. You’re willing to reform and update taxes, health care, social security, medicine, the Country Music Awards and every other societal ill that presents the slightest problem to your people. Yet, white supremacy remains.
I think it was Martin Luther King Jr. who said: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”
But if a white person is involved, the universe’s moral arc can turn on a dime.
5. Talk to Black People
If you have to ask: “Is this racist?” It probably is.
You can’t just ask questions. You have to listen... You should also understand that black people are not a monolith—another black person might have an entirely different answer to your question. That’s why we don’t care if you have a “black friend” or if your great-grand-cousin is in an interracial relationship. Candace Owens doesn’t speak for me and I don’t presume to know what Ben Carson thinks.
That’s why “people” is plural.
When you see black guys loitering at Starbucks, ask if they are waiting for someone before you call the cops. When you wonder why a student is acting up in class, ask them if everything is ok at home. If you see a black woman with a 3-C curl afro or locs, ask her if you can touch her hair.
On second thought, scratch that last one.
I know I make this sound easy but I understand that there are shades of gray when it comes to doing the right thing. Even after you implement these suggestions, you may find yourself at a crossroads, wondering which path to take. So, here is a rule of thumb to use whenever you have to make a difficult decision:
Think about the men who owned no slaves but built slave ships to bring black people to America. Channel the ethics of the people who lived next door to people who enslaved human beings. Conjure up the thoughts of the people standing in the town square who silently watched lynchings. Pretend you were one of the people who stood quietly while segregationist mobs spit on little black children who were integrating schools. Imagine you were mute on that Montgomery bus when Rosa Parks refused to move.
For a brief second, assume you were one of the billions of idle, ambivalent or apathetic white people who objected to slavery, Jim Crow, inequality and injustice but didn’t do a goddamn thing. In your moment of deliberation, think long and hard about what those white people would do.
Then, just do the opposite.