I am a white male. I have never considered myself racist. But I was. Maybe I still am.
I recently read an article in Vice titled “White People Explain Why They Feel Oppressed.” Some of it seemed accurate to my experience, and some of it didn’t. So I thought that I would add to it here. To be clear, I don’t feel oppressed at all, but I know white people who do.
Specifically, what resonated for me in the Vice article was the “what is racism” section. This part of the article asserts that some white people see racism solely as an interpersonal thing, and do not consider institutional racism. They do not behave in racist ways, and therefore believe that they have no responsibility for racism that ocurs in America. I went for many years with that perspective.
In college, the first woman I ever truly fell in love with was African American. She ultimately was not interested in me (not because of race at all – she dated plenty of white guys). She and I stayed friends, and years later, she and her Dominican boyfriend (now husband) came to visit me. I had never met her boyfriend before, and he quickly seemed to be challenging me and looking hard for something that he could seize upon as a provocation from me – particularly something that would show me to be racist. One could chalk this up to simple jealousy of a potential romantic rival, but there seemed to be more to it than that.
I was so taken aback by the experience that afterward I started really thinking about race and what role I might play in it. By then, I had taken part in numerous protests against racist incidents and against institutional racism, and I considered myself about as un-racist as one could be. My conclusion (which proved that statement wrong): some people of color wrongly blame all white people, myself included, for the actions of our white ancestors.
It wasn’t until years later that I came to understand why that perception was off base. For Caucasian readers, I’ll offer an analogy. Imagine a contest between two equally gifted runners. One is tied to the starting line. The starting gun goes off, the other runner naturally wins, and feels proud of his accomplishment, not noticing the rope around the other runner’s ankle.
It is true that today’s African Americans are not slaves, and today’s white Americans have never directly engaged in slavery. But whites are the clear and undeniable beneficiaries of slavery, and to ignore the pervasiveness of that reality distorts one’s view of America. The wealth of white America was built free of charge by hundreds of years of black slave labor. When slaves were finally freed, they were not handed their proportionately equal share of the wealth that they and their parents and grandparents and great grandparents had created. They were simply told that they were now free to participate in the marathon, and that the rope tying their ankle to the starting line was irrelevant. Freedom.
And even with this economic disadvantage at the starting point, their new freedom did not mean instant equal opportunity to succeed. Decades of widespread and legally enforced segregation compounded with physical violence, intimidation and emotional abuse followed.
After advances by the civil rights movement, such outright racism from whites receded into the kind of things that continue today – redlining (banks denying home loans to blacks who are just as qualified as whites who do get the loans), “driving while black” traffic stops, unequal treatment by the criminal justice system, fewer successful job interviews due to the candidate “not seeming like the right cultural fit for the company,” unease among whites at seeing groups of African American males but not at seeing groups of Caucasian males.
So did the fact that I did not personally engage in slavery or discriminate against people of other races mean that I did not have an entire life in which I enjoyed advantages that people of color did not experience equally – advantages whose absence is so foreign to my reality that those advantages can easily seem completely invisible to me? And are those advantages no longer a factor today, now that our “post racial” country has had eight years of an African American President? Of course not. I enjoy things as simple as being able to get behind the wheel of a car without having to consider that that act alone can result in a lethal confrontation with law enforcement.
And that leads me to the main point that I think the Vice article misses.
Everyone, of all races, has a different cultural definition of what racism is, and therefore racism needs to be viewed on a continuum. Some believe that once slavery ended, so did racism. Some disagree with that, but believe that as long as they don’t attend KKK rallies or burn crosses on people’s lawns, the racial slurs that they drop occasionally are not really racism. Some believe that if they don’t use the “n” word, they can hold silent perceptions of racial superiority and not be considered racist. Some believe that as long as institutional racism exists – discriminatory hiring practices, differences in treatment by the justice system, differences in access to education, etc. – that the fight is not over. And some believe that as long as any individual anywhere thinks a racist thought, the fight must continue.
So this is where “white oppression” comes in.
Depending on where a white person falls on the above continuum, they may sincerely believe that racism is a thing of the past, or at the very least, that they do not participate in it. And if they believe that, it is very easy for them to see things like affirmative action as “reverse discrimination” creating a systemically unfair disadvantage for them based on race. Such a white person can hear left-leaning people saying that part of America’s problem is that the country is run by “powerful white men,” and that white person can feel discriminated against when those same left-leaning people jump down their throat for making a generality about “young black men.” They can hear some African Americans drop the “n” word freely in conversation, and can feel oppressed that they are considered racist for using the same word. They can hear “Black Lives Matter” to mean “only black lives matter” rather than “black lives matter too.” Repeated life experiences viewed through the lens of “racism is over” can lead some white people to have a sense that they are being oppressed. They can cite a litany of instances in which they believe that they – and all white people – are discriminated against.
Race is complicated even further by geography, class and economics. Some rural whites live in far worse poverty than some suburban African Americans, and have far less access to educational and economic opportunity. For those whites to be told that they are experiencing “white privilege” is like grinding salt into the long-festering wounds of an existence that has seemed endlessly devoid of hope. For those rural whites to believe – in some cases accurately – that their meager, hard-earned pay is being disproportionately redistributed through the tax system to the benefit of the (more diverse) suburbs and cities further reinforces a sense of systemic victimization that seems the exact inverse of “institutional racism.” Backlash against all of these sentiments and experiences created part of the tide against “political correctness” on which Donald Trump rode into office.
I have no solutions to offer, other than the obvious platitudes like “treat people with respect” and “don’t judge someone until you’ve walked a mile in their shoes.” But I hope that this piece at least offers a little more understanding of the phenomenon of “white oppression” from both sides of the table.
– rob rünt