Working with White People is Both Harmful and Necessary
I live in a very white-centered world and I’m used to it. I’m used to being ignored, undermined, and disrespected despite exceptional achievements. I’m used to being hyper visible when there’s an opportunity for white people to chastise or control me. This is my normal. This shit is so normal to me that I married a white man. I didn’t anticipate my reaction to inviting whiteness into my intimate spaces – the strong and insistent pushback that I now engage in that continues to teach me how to be a better me.
All day, every day I’m surrounded and informed by white supremacy. I experience it at work, in my neighborhood, shopping, in my media. And while my significant other (SO) is working on being less of the monster he was raised to be, there are times when I’m fighting white supremacy in my home. Home is the one place where I see positive results. Outside, I am punished for daring to be equal. Again, normal.
What’s not normal is the way the conversations around racism have changed. It is much more at the forefront, and there are Black people leading the discussions. At least, online. In academia, white people continue to center whiteness in their academic discussions and publications about racism. In the age of Black Lives Matter, you are more likely to see Tim Wise talking about racism than Brittany Cooper or Feminista Jones. That said, there are actual discussions on television about racism. There are people not only acknowledging it exists but talking about ways to address it. Again, the only people who seem to be earning a living doing it is white & white-adjacent people, but being able to see Black people push back on white supremacy is unusual.
As a child, I remember being told that white people are racist but never to tell them that. I was not supposed to talk about racism in public. It was something that could only be discussed among other Black people. But as a child, while my school was predominantly white, I didn’t understand the racist waters I was navigating. My parents shielded me from it and what they couldn’t protect me from, I internalized. I believed that I was the problem until I understood that it was my Blackness that was a problem for white people.
On some level, I knew racism was an issue, but as it was The Great Unspoken, it made no sense to talk about it. Anytime a Black person brought up racism, they were dismissed with extreme prejudice. Everything around me told me to never bring it up. I grew up learning to cater to white supremacy in ways that were harmful to me because that’s what it meant to survive. It’s not an accident that I’ve had high blood pressure since my mid-20s. This society is rough.
As the discussion about racism shifted in recent years, I moved from a space where I could never talk about it to a space where I can say “fuck y’all and your white supremacist bullshit.” I feel freer than I ever have. I’ve gone from trying to avoid mentioning the possibility of racism to saying “you know all y’all racist, right? Like no question? What are you doing to fight it?”
Some of the white people I know step up to the plate. I talk about the things that matter to me and I watch them, waiting for the other shoe to drop and when it starts falling, I check them on it. If they are amenable to talking, I engage and catch the shoe. If they give me pushback, I let that shit fall and exit their lives. Needless to say, there are a lot less white people in my personal life now than there were five years ago. Like, down to one hand less. And I’m better for it.
It’s beautiful and horrible. Beautiful because I no longer need to keep the white people in my life comfortable in their racism. Horrible because this is necessary to get white people to acknowledge their historic and casually violent inhumanity towards Black people and NBPOCs.
Despite these confrontations and conversations, both personal and public, I continue to encounter white people intent on hiding the truth. They find new ways to sanitize the savagery of their ancestors and the pile of bones upon which their success rests. They relentlessly engage in the passive avoidance of uncomfortable truths and fully embrace the pride of being an amerikkkan, fully ignoring the rampant genocide, patriarchy, ableism, and white supremacy that has devastated entire societies and cultures for their illusion of superiority. You gotta admit, that’s some fucking superior self-delusion and denial at work. We live in a country that openly violates the human rights of others but people still tell themselves it’s the greatest country on the planet. The skill it takes to lie to themselves so completely and willfully. I won’t call it a skill – it’s a lie that leaves millions of people devastated in its wake.
All I can do is wonder how white people see their shittiness and actively pretend it’s good.
This is something I will not tolerate from the white people in my life. If you are a self-deluded liar, fuck you. If you are passively pretending there isn’t a problem? Fuck you, too. That bullshit is why we’re still fighting for Black people to have rights and equity and equal treatment. It’s how I grew up knowing that if too many Black people were too non-compliant, the city will drop a bomb on you and then say it’s your fault.
The emotional and psychological brutality is constant.
And white people are clearly against changing it. Just look at the election if you doubt it.
So, I find myself conflicted. I have met white people who are less resistant. Who are open to being wrong. Who seem to want to change the world. They push back on their white identity and work to de-center themselves in the narrative, but is that possible when you are white in a white supremacist society? Is that possible? I struggle and fail to do it constantly, and I’m Black. And while it somewhat benefits me to center whiteness in white spaces, it’s like taking shots of sweetened rat poison. Eventually, it’s gonna kill me but white supremacy can and will kill me faster if I openly fight it. Be it through poverty or violence, white people will find a way to punish any refusal to cater to their whiteness. Just ask Sandra Bland.
And when I meet these white people, part of me wants to protect them. Keep them learning. But then I’m centering their whiteness in my struggle. I don’t want to center them. I want to center me and my Blackness. It’s a dance, trying to figure out how to manage my emotional and physical well-being in the face of white supremacist culture and harm. It’s a struggle to decide whether I should keep white people in my life, cuz they are going to fuck up and it’s going to hurt and I’m going to be the one having to manage the fallout while they bask in their white feelings of presumed superiority (see Bill Maher) or perpetual white victimhood (see Katy Perry).
These people swear that they are genuine and have learned but they still struggle to have basic as shit conversations about racism. They have proven themselves unworthy of the benefit of the doubt and they are fucking it up for all of you.
Yet, I persist in maintaining these relationships because I need white people to change. I keep handing out rope to see what they will do with it. And I fight decades of conditioning that tells me these people are harmless and mean well, despite hundreds of years of evidence to the contrary. Because for them to be an ally, they would have to purposely weaken themselves. They’d have to dismantle their advantages instead of using them to “help” those they oppressed gain access. They’d have to be uncomfortable and de-powered and I doubt they have the fortitude to see that to the end. Experience has shown that the best we can expect is for them to be mouthpieces and occasional amplifiers of Black messaging because anything more risks their power base and that is never the goal.
For white people, power will always trump equality. It’s the amerikkkan way. Unless white people break that conditioning, divest that definition of power, and destroy the very system that gives them their advantage and comfort, we’ll continue this downward spiral to national self-destruction.