Polite White People Are (Still) Useless

Illustration for article titled Polite White People Are (Still) Useless
Screenshot: New York Times

Earlier today, the New York Times published a piece where Margaret Renkl, a very nice white lady, instructed other very nice white ladies and gentlemen on how to be nicer to their racist brethren. If you’ve ever thought to yourself, Self, how can I be more magnanimous to racists?, “How to Talk to a Racist” is your huckleberry.


Admittedly, for this new subgenre of discourse that rose to prominence after the election—where liberal whites either twisted themselves into logical origami trying to explain the feelings of Trump voters without using the words “race” or “racism” or where they took deep and empathetic dives into the hearts of said racists—Renkl’s piece isn’t the worst. She correctly acknowledges that white people can harbor racist beliefs without believing themselves to be racist. She makes clear that there aren’t many degrees of separation from the self-righteous white liberal and the Trump voter sharing anti-Obama memes on Facebook. And, most importantly, she implied that it’s on “good” white people to change the hearts and minds of racists.

We (black people) just don’t have the same accesses they do and we don’t have the same ability to elicit any sort of sympathy in racists. Study after study has proven that, when confronted on their racism by black people, white people actually get more racist. This is a problem white people built, and it’s a problem they need to fix.

Where Renkl’s piece falters—and where many similar pieces in this subgenre have also faltered—is when she attempts to distinguish between white people who harbor some prejudices and “vicious white supremacists.”

Vicious white supremacists live among us, no doubt, and if they get their way they will be marching again on Aug. 12.—the anniversary of their deadly rally in Charlottesville, Va., last year—this time in Washington D.C. Such unrepentant racists will probably never come to understand the harm they have done and are doing to this country, much less the harm they are doing to their own souls. Every minute of public outrage feeds their hunger for validation. Ignore those people. When this episode of “The Ugly American” is finally canceled, they’ll crawl back into their hidy-holes again.

You’d think that, by now, the white people who seem committed (or, at the very least, want to seem committed) to battling and extinguishing racism would have realized that these “vicious white supremacists” like the ones who marched in Charlottesville aren’t just conspicuous Nazis and nitwits with neckbeards. They’re grad students and accountants. They’re pharmacists and school principals. They’re police officers and baristas. They’re tattoo artists and radiologists in the Bronx. You carpool with them, you live next to them, and you’ve matched with them on Tinder. They are everywhere. And because they are everywhere, you can’t just, as Renkl suggests, “ignore those people.”

The impulse to ignore this reality is understandable, though, because acknowledging it makes this problem far deeper, far more pervasive, far more labyrinthic, and far more essential to America than something that can be solved with a few polite conversations with your Fox & Friends-frequenting neighbor. There is no foreseeable cancellation of “The Ugly American” because it’s our highest-rated and longest-running show.


But man, if it ain’t fucking annoying reading and watching and listening to these white people who claim to want to get to the bottom of America’s sludgy morass of racism without listening to us tell them exactly how deep this shit is. And also without realizing that to get to the bottom, they need to get their whole entire asses in there too. You can’t do that and also get to be polite. It just doesn’t work that way. But I guess that’s the point.

Damon Young is the editor-in-chief of VSB, a contributing opinion writer for The New York Times, and the author of What Doesn't Kill You Makes You Blacker (Ecco/HarperCollins)



My mother is a racist. I am grateful that I figured out pretty early on that she was, and that I would have to do some pretty serious mental detox to make sure I wouldn’t absorb it. If she were less of a mean person, I might well have absorbed it too - hers isn’t the white-robe/torch variety of racism, it’s the whispered-comments-in-church (in CHURCH! in front of JESUS!!)/microaggression variety. I’m sure there were many ways in which I was racist when I was younger, and I’m sure there are still bits and pieces to be rooted out and demolished - it’s truly unbelievable how insidious racism is.

We white people have had NO consequences for being racist. That’s why this shit hasn’t been (can’t be?) rooted out - as a bloc, we have everything to lose and nothing to gain by acknowledging and rectifying our oppression. Who willingly gives up such an immense security blanket as we have, especially in this age of economic instability? (hint - capitalism is obviously at least PART of the problem, let’s tear it all down.)