Why Is It So Hard for White People to Talk about Racism?
“We hold these Truths to be Self Evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator, with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”
The United States was founded on the principle that everyone is created equal. But this is not true.
The nation began with the attempted genocide of Native Americans and the theft of their land. The wealth of this nation, both in the North and the South, was built on the backs of the 4.5 million enslaved Africans, kidnapped and transported to this country, for the sheer purpose of labor and selective breeding. Women were denied the right to vote until 1920, and black women were denied this same right until 1964.
Lincoln famously wrote to his friend Joshua Speed in the 1850’s that he feared that if certain men gained power, the Constitution would read: “All men are created equal except Negroes, Catholics, and Foreigners.” This country was founded with identity in mind by brilliant but humanly flawed men, and identity politics have been at the forefront of the socio-political conversations of this nation ever since.
Identity politics, according to University of Washington Sociology professor Robin Diangelo, refers to the “focus on the barriers specific groups face in their struggle for equality”. We certainly have not yet achieved the lofty goals set forth by our flawed fathers, and we may never, but identity politics have brought us thus far.
“It’s so hard being a white male these days. Equal opportunity makes it impossible for white guys to get jobs now.”
I remember hearing this at lunch with a group of friends on the 23rd floor of a Manhattan financial center. I laughed it off, not thinking much about the comment; it was typical for this particular man to make statements like that. But as I looked around the massive skyscraper that housed our office, all I saw was white male faces. And it made me think, in this self proclaimed melting pot of a country, one in which Lady Liberty epically begs for the tired, sick, and misfortunate of the world to take comfort in her embrace, where was the representation of these others? Why was it all white male faces?
The identity of those in power, the CEOs and politicians, the movers of our economies, the inventors and shapers of our future, have remained remarkably white even as the demographic of this nation changes abruptly. Sociologists estimate that by 2045, whites will make up only 43 percent of the nation — a minority for the first time.
Power, however, is still in the hands of white, middle and upper class, able-bodied men. Acknowledging this fact is brushed off by many as political correctness, and that may be, but it doesn’t change the facts. The decisions of these men affect the entire country, people of every race and gender. Exclusion from the table may not be willful but we do not have to intend to exclude someone for our actions to exclude them.
All humans are biased. Many of us face barriers every day that no one is aware of, but this certainly does not make those barriers non-existent. What’s more — if no one is aware of them, then where is the motivation to help remove them? If someone is at an advantage because they are not aware of a barrier you face, imagine the difficulty for them to give up what they feel they have earned and therefore are entitled to. In order for the problem to be addressed, one party needs to make the other aware of the barrier so that action can be taken to remove it. But that party will have to rely on the magnanimity of the other.
Any progress we have made in the world of civil rights has been accomplished through identity politics: the Americans with Disabilities Act which gives those suffering from physical and mental ailments protection and the ability to work, Title IX which allows superb female athletes the ability to have scholarships awarded to them like their male counterparts, and women’s suffrage which allowed those who bear our future, the right to a say in how the future is governed. But all this was accomplished because one side let their grievances be known while the other side saw that change was not only inevitable but necessary, and therefore put out their hand to help.
Let’s talk women’s suffrage. If being a women denies you the very right to vote, then, ipso facto, you can not grant yourself the right to vote, and obviously enough you can’t go to the voting polls and vote for your right to vote. If men controlled the entire political realm, then you would have to rely on men to grant you that right, and therefore you must clamor for justice to men. This is identity politics at play. This is what happened in 1920. But don’t forget: only white women were granted this right, and black women would have to wait until 1964 until they too could have those self-evident rights.
Racism is a scary word, and the idea of racism is deeply complex and nuanced. An example of this complexity is the idea of “White” and “People of Color.” This idea of whiteness and color was not something established until census reports in the late 1600’s and early 1700’s. At this time, for the most part, the world was binary. There were white people and people of color. In 2019, we live in a multicultural melting pot; the fabric of this nation is made up of so many different peoples. It is in essence what has made this country extraordinary. But for those who are a product of multiracial marriages, these binary categories have left them frustratingly in the middle. Because they challenge, by their own ambiguous ethnicity, our social construct of white and color, they face their own unique challenges in a society in which categories have profound meaning. And therefore they are most often categorized by what their skin color most closely resembles. The closer it is to white, the better chance they will have at “sitting at the table” one day. But what happens to the black child raised by a white parent? How will he identify? How will the world identify him? Will people jokingly call him the blackest white guy they know? And how do statements like the one made by the guy at my lunch table affect him, as he looks into a sea of white faces?
The last few years have been divisive, to say the least. With Donald Trump’s rise to power, we have seen the worst of humanity come out as in the Charlottesville attacks and many instances of police abuse of power. And throughout it all, many blacks have raised their voices and have clamored for justice just as the suffragettes of the 1920’s.
The response from white America has been overwhelmingly negative. We refuse to acknowledge that there might be a problem, because in this problem, we must acknowledge that either we are unaware or we simply don’t care. But look closely at the history of this country — how have we managed to stay unaware when the information is all around us, when people of color have been telling us for decades? If our answer is that we are unaware and not educated about the issues, then we must become educated. If the answer is that we don’t know people of color in our environment, I assure you, they exist. Seek out and build those relationships. No problem is changed without some effort.
There is an issue in this country. There must be, for millions upon millions of people are clamoring. This country will not heal; the line that is currently dividing us is as polarizing as the Mason Dixon line of the 1850’s...and a house divided will not stand. To heal, we must put out our hands to those who are begging for justice and simply ask: how can we help?
Every single one of us faces a daily battle, whether it is internal or external; some of us fight battles no one is aware of. But we are communal creatures and it is only through the sharing of our barriers to happiness and through the magnanimity of someone else that we can achieve peace in our homes, in our communities, and in our nation.
In 1865, in the wake of the single most devastating war in American history, fought over the very same principles we argue today, Abraham Lincoln simply and eloquently stated that the nation would only heal and the house could only stand if, “with malice towards none, and charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, we strive to finish the work we are in and to bind up the nation’s wounds and care for those around us to establish a lasting peace among ourselves and all nations”.