White People Need to Call Themselves Racist
By Kyrai Antares, Ph.D.
I recently attended a film screening at our local high school that was hosted by the diversity and inclusion office of the school district. The film was titled, “I’m Not Racist…Am I?” The film followed a group of racially and economically diverse teenagers through a series of race and racism education initiatives, and tracked the progress of their racial identity development.
Prior to the film, the director, Catherine Wigginton Greene, introduced herself and invited audience members to consider what they were feeling while watching the film and come up with one word that could encapsulate that feeling. The film was followed by a discussion facilitated by the director. She asked us to share what our word was and then share something about why we chose that word.
I had been in these types of discussions many times over the years, and I was bracing myself for what I have come to know as typical responses for White people who attempt to engage in conversations about race but are stuck on what I will call a wrong focus. At the same time, we are part of a movement that will not be complete in our lifetimes, and we have to keep showing up and make space for learning. This isn’t always easy, but it is necessary. I appreciate when the learning needs of unaware White people don’t overshadow the presence and voices of Black and Brown people present. I wasn’t sure what to expect from this group. We were in Eugene, Oregon, which is a very White place, and feels a lot like Kentucky in that when you step one foot outside the liberal cities, it is as conservative as you can imagine. Segregation is alive and well here in the Pacific Northwest.
Someone started with, “uncomfortable.” After that several White adults spoke about their shock and discomfort with the portion of the film that discussed the teaching that racism is discrimination added to societal power, and therefore, all White people are racist. They also discussed the distinction between bigotry and racism, explaining that people of color can be bigoted but not racist based on their definition (which is the definition most widely acknowledged in research and literature related to race).
I found myself feeling two things simultaneously: unsurprised and frustrated.
Unsurprised because this is the most typical focus for White people in conversations about race and racism – to struggle with the idea that they might be racist.
Frustrated because it would be SO nice to be in a conversation about race and racism in which most White people could just say, “Yes, I was absolutely conditioned to be racist, just like every other White person in our country. Racism is our default setting – and the only solution is active anti-racism.”
I thought to myself, White people need to start calling themselves racist.
We have to get comfortable with that. We have to own it, and be the ones to keep owning it. We have to be the ones connecting the lines between our current privileged lives and the history of race and racism in our country. There is so much energy spent on getting White people to see this and admit it let alone own it and name it in ourselves. Instead of waiting for others to call us racist or instead of defending ourselves – why not just be the ones to say it?! I ask this question, but I already know the answer. To be the ones to say it would mean White people would be the ones responsible for their anti-racism journey. White people would mostly prefer for all of that work to be done by BIPOC folks.
In order to take responsibility for our own racist ways of moving in the world due to our conditioning, we have to see it. And in order to do that we have to struggle with our conditioning. And in order to do that we have to wake up from the sleep of privilege…and in order to do that we have to stop being afraid that being racist by default as a White person makes you a “bad person.” And in order to do that, we have to see how much our fragility keeps us from joining in the work of dismantling white supremacy. And in order to do that we have to care about it enough to be uncomfortable. WE HAVE TO CARE ABOUT IT. This reminds me of a professor I had in my doctoral program, Dr. James Croteau. He always emphasized that in order for White people to do anti-racist work they have to have their own personal investment that comes from seeing the ways that white supremacy costs them. As long as racism is about other people, White people will perpetuate white supremacy by keeping themselves out of the equation.
Let’s talk about values for a moment. Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) holds as a main tenet that our quality of life improves when we live in alignment with our values. Values can be thought of as markers of being on the right track. Sounds simple enough. Know what feels fulfilling and important and live by that. If only it were that simple. How many people know their values, really? How many people have stopped to think about what is most important and assessed their lives to see if they really live in alignment with that?
Positionality: Our perspectives (what we see or don’t see; what we know or don’t know) are based on our positions within the social hierarchy (DiAngelo, 2016).
What about when values become confused with signals of positional safety? For example – if a person says they value equality and yet they deny their own racialized privilege…they are valuing their own personal safety constructed by positionality above their actual stated values. In the moment, feeling comfortable outweighs living in alignment with the value of equality. And typically, people will travel very far down the road of denial to stay comfortable – even if it means living out of alignment with their values. This can be seen in a plethora of ways among White people. For example, dismissing BIPOC expressions of experiences with racism by criticizing the delivery and keeping the focus off the message. So, instead of hearing the pain and frustration behind being mistreated and responding in a humanizing, humble way, many White people instead focus on whether the person delivering the message was “angry” or how they said what they said. They can hide behind the idea that they are aligned with values of kindness or “the golden rule,” but really it is a hiding place that protects the comfort of the White person’s position by deflecting attention away from their racist behavior. This reinforces a conditioned idea of superiority for the White person and prevents any kind of connection between them and the person expressing their experience with racism. Choosing to focus on and defend the surface layer of such interactions, reducing them to a positionality rule book, prevents the authentic meeting of people. The words and feelings that humanize us are stopped at the door, so to speak, and comfort zones are mislabeled as values.
This is the pathology of privilege. Without realizing it, the White person is living in alignment with positioned privilege above all – and in so doing, supporting the system that dehumanizes themselves and everyone else. It’s quite a trick, really. The system perpetuates itself by keeping everyone addicted to the matrix of white supremacy and its inherent caste system, all the while causing them to think they are upholding their own values.
Anti-racism provides White people with the daily practices that align behavior with values.
At different developmental stages on the path of anti-racism, values change. This can be observed in shifts that happen as a White person proceeds in their anti-racist identity development. For example, when a White person no longer laughs along with other White people at racist jokes in order to maintain the comfort of the status quo. And further on in development, a White person says something about the joke being racist, regardless of the reactions of others. It becomes more comfortable to say something than to remain silent. It becomes clear that when people are speaking racism, saying something that causes them discomfort is called for.
When a White person begins to align daily practices with a value system of anti-racism, equity, humanization, and freedom from systems of oppression, an internal mass grows that becomes a place from which new choices can be made. Choices aligned with inherent values become the compass guiding a person away from the comfort of positionality and into a different quality of comfort. While anti-racist development begins as discomfort, gradually it becomes far more uncomfortable to bite one’s tongue for the status quo than to speak the truth that humanizes us all.
If the idea of naming, examining, talking about, and owning the racism that is undoubtedly conditioned into us as White people feels uncomfortable – that’s okay! Anti-racist values guide us toward entering the problem of racism humbly and honestly rather than allowing our position in the caste system to keep us hidden. The kind of pain felt when facing those parts of us brings is the pain of transformation from living on the surface of yourself, just a reflection of the status quo, to being real.
In the book, The Velveteen Rabbit by Margery Williams Bianco, the stuffed rabbit asks the old skin horse if it hurts to become real. The elder speaks the truth and says “Sometimes.” But he adds, “When you are Real you don't mind being hurt.” When we make the decision to enter the problem, to face the racism we were born into, and to do the work to dismantle it, we are choosing to become real. Hypocritical positionality values can’t guide us to anything meaningful. Practicing anti-racism within ourselves, in our families, and in our communities helps us understand deeply what we are saying when we admit our racism. We are saying, “I am real. I don’t need to hide behind my caste position. I can own this so that we can see it and begin the work to dismantle it.” Being real like this means we are seeking connection with others. We are ready to move forward.
If You Are In a White Body, Consider This Invitation
By Kyrai Antares, Ph.D.
September 29, 2020
If you are in a white body, you don’t have the right to argue whether or not a situation involving Black people was just or racist. If you are in a white body, and you have not studied whiteness, racism, systemic oppression, and dominator thinking – instead of arguing that things are just and not racist – take some time to expand your perspective beyond your racial privilege. And if you are in a white body and think you don’t have racial privilege, that is all the more reason to take the time to expand your perspective on race, racism and white supremacy, as well as history and generational gains for folks in dominant categories. If you come to a place of understanding this systemic situation, how it was designed, and what it does and has always done – you won’t have to ask the interrogating questions about whether or not a just legal process was enacted – you will already know it was not. Just acts do not come from a system built and founded on injustice.
I was conditioned to think I wasn’t racist, all the while enacting and gathering racial privilege. I am steeped in white supremacy; to the extent that it has taken years of work and study since a big wakeup call at the age of 18 to gradually build awareness of racism, of my privilege, and its many, many layers. And this dismantling in myself will never end in this lifetime. It is something I must be vigilant about addressing every single day.
I invite you, if you are in a white body and are struggling with these ideas, to take a break from social media, stop arguing, and do some self-development work. Here are some books to read and some movies to watch, which I hope will be helpful. They were helpful to me. It is definitely not an exhaustive list, but useful nonetheless.
Try to learn something about an experience you have never and won’t ever have – and something about the history of this country. Try to understand that no one is trying to take anything from you by pointing out privilege, by standing for justice for Black people, and by working to dismantle a heinous system of oppression that is literally woven into the fabric of our country. This movement, this call, is trying to GIVE something to you. This fight against white supremacy is working to restore us all to our humanity; for fully awake humans with functioning hearts could never continue this perpetuation of default injustice and treachery.
Between the World and Me, by Ta-Nehisi Coates
The White Racial Frame, by Joe Feagin
Writing Beyond Race, by bell hooks
The New Jim Crow, by Michelle Alexander
What it Means to Be White, by Robin Di Angelo
White Like Me, by Tim Wise
Films, Documentaries, and Shows:
Mama Flora’s Family
The Long Walk Home
The Color of Fear
BREONNA TAYLOR - SAY HER NAME!
Being Anti-Racist as a White Person
By Kyrai Antares, Ph.D.
Originally Published on the University of Oregon Counseling Center website, Be Well Blog
Since the recent murders of Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd (following countless murders of people of color over centuries after the colonization of the Indigenous-occupied land now known as the United States of America), I have heard my white peers asking questions about ending racism, learning about how to be a better ally, posting on social media, and choosing the “right way” to react. A convergence of conditions has created new possibilities for raising awareness of racism in white people from which we hopefully will never turn back. We have a real opportunity for change.
Let us remember, however, this chance has come and gone before in our history. People have been fighting for centuries to correct the wrongs on which this country was founded. People of color have had to fight to survive the conditions of systemic racism and white supremacy. Unfortunately, white supremacy has concurrently been defending, ignoring, obfuscating, and continuing those wrongs. Thus far in the history of the United States, the majority of white people have not joined the fight against these racist atrocities produced by white supremacy and have seen white supremacy as something that is a “people of color problem” and maybe an optional special interest area for some select liberal white folks, authors, or researchers. We are just beginning to experience a wider awareness of how white people have been conditioned to maintain and grow white supremacy. Because of social media, cell phone recordings, and a generation raised with internet access, the revolution is now visible. Can we help make it turn out differently this time? What will it take?
As white people, most of us are privileged in our ability to solve our problems. We have the mobility, the respect, and the lack of danger in our daily lives that makes us think that as long as we gather the right information and take correct actions, we can fix problems like racism. We can make social medial posts, show up to protests, read books, listen to podcasts, donate money, and vote. More importantly, we can follow the leadership of people of color, allow ourselves to be organized by the leaders who have been in this fight for decades, and we can keep showing up. Still, this is only half of the work.
Being an ally is not enough. Actions based in doing are useful but can also become a place where we hide from making a deeper, more personal investment in anti-racism. To catalyze the growing awareness of racism among white people into an experience of lasting change, we need the energy of being. How can we be anti-racist as white people? What do we mean when we say we are anti-racist? Being anti-racist goes beyond allyship to stand and be against white supremacy in all of its forms, and to work actively to dismantle systems of oppression from which we benefit. Anti-racism involves owning white racism and white supremacy as problems started and perpetuated by white people – problems that hurt all of us in insidious, dehumanizing ways.
Like all identities, white anti-racism takes time and effort to form into a functioning part of self. It is an emotional and intellectual awareness. Anti-racism must be intentionally formed and nurtured in white people, or the default status quo of collective white sleep will reign. It is important to remember that just as systems, institutional policies, and behaviors in the outer world must be examined and dismantled to deconstruct white supremacy; ideas, beliefs, automatic unconscious responses, thoughts, feelings, and conditioning related to race must be examined and dismantled in each individual’s inner world.
I offer this blog entry as a prompt for conversations, journal entries, and deep contemplation in which white people could engage in order to begin or continue developing some sense of white anti-racist identity. Take some time to be with the following questions and ideas, see where resistance shows up, take note of your reactions – especially the ones you don’t want to admit. Take time to know your own narrative related to race, your conditioning, mistakes, moments of learning, next steps. Consider the following:
Think about how you were socialized about race—this should include experiences, incidents, and influences that shaped how you perceived your racial identity. Thinking of your childhood and teen years:
Who were you around while you were growing up?
Looking back, what do you remember hearing people say about race or racism? About people who were different from you racially?
What do you remember seeing regarding race?
What thoughts, feelings, and beliefs formed in you about race based on what you saw, heard, and experienced growing up?
When did you realize you were white?
What experiences, people, environments, and other things influenced the development of your current understanding of your racial identity?
What behaviors related to race – your own race and regarding racial difference - do you see in yourself as you reflect on your life so far?
What is your understanding of how your racial identity interacts with systems of oppression and privilege?
In what spaces, if any, are you aware of your privileged or oppressed racial status? What experiences show you the US racial hierarchy and where you are positioned by society?
In what situations have you enacted white silence? Why?
When have you reacted to situations from a place of white fragility?
Ask yourself, what will it take for me, as a white person, to take this problem on, not for others as an ally, but for myself as a human being who realizes what racism does to me, to other white folks, to all humans? Can I see how it steals our humanity, segregates us, closes us off from connection, deludes us, weakens us, causes us to be wimpy and defensive, costs us closeness, robs us of humility, shrinks our circles, makes us afraid, justifies abuse and murder and theft and domination, etc.
What will it take for me to face the fact that I have been lied to about people of color and about whiteness, and taught wrong history by people I trusted (parents, teachers, community leaders)?
What will it take for me to hold the reality that I have been taught to believe I am better than other human beings because I am white, and that I have to work diligently to catch that conditioning in myself because it is always there?
What will it take for me to talk to other white people when they would rather not talk about race and racism?
What are some of your thoughts and questions about being anti-racist as a white person?
Moving forward into the developmental process of building a white anti-racist identity means accepting that new questions will arise continuously, and our humility, openness, and honesty with ourselves and others will help us engage those questions productively rather than defensively. While I do not doubt that intentions are pure, sometimes sudden performative activism may not be rooted in a thorough understanding of how we got here and how we can move forward in a new direction. These most recent murders have seemed to open up more white people’s minds to the idea that racism actually does exist, has existed, and is treacherous and costs lives. This is long overdue and welcomed. It is important to remember that to build fully functional white anti-racist identities take time and effort. It will take hearts wide open and eyes wide open and minds wide open – to feel, to see, to understand our situation in its wholeness and be a part of evolution out of brutality and dominator-thinking, in ourselves, our families, our communities, our country, and the world.