You Are Not My White Savior
Imagine what it’s like to sit in a room being told that your existence is a burden on society. Imagine being the only one who looks like you while being told that. You, in your brown skin, hearing that specific characteristic be pathologized and dissected as though it is the problem - not the systems designed to oppress those with the characteristic, but you, specifically are the problem. You, who sits there surrounded by white peers who habitually congratulate themselves for sacrificing their potential earnings by dedicating themselves to public service as they work to eliminate the burden that you, Black person, place on society.
Imagine your pale skinned professors as they talk about how to solve the problem of Black people because it is their dream to save us from ourselves, since we have proven ourselves incapable of the task. Listen as they coordinate tours through urban neighborhoods to discuss the shitty conditions Black people live in. As they discuss everything from your body, homes, and retail options, they blame you. They blame you for the circumstances that created your health conditions. They blame you for living in a neighborhood without a supermarket. They blame you for using the bus. They blame you for having a low wage job. You see their pity, their disdain, their feelings of superiority. You feel their certainty in their actions and their pride that they are working so hard to make the world better by judging people who look like you. And you feel their expectations of approval for taking the time to care, because someone has to care about Black people who don’t seem to care about themselves. They are our saviors and we better fucking appreciate it.
And not once does racism ever enter the conversation.
This was my experience in graduate school as I earned my degree in public health. It was white judgement, pity, and sacrifice wrapped in white fragility. It was constantly talking around the problem without ever acknowledging the actual problem. I remember having full class discussions about disparities in infant mortality – how Black people still experience higher rates, even when income is less of a factor. We never talked about how white doctors see Black patients as inferior, unintelligent, or less susceptible to pain. We didn’t talk about how racial biases affect patient treatment. We didn’t talk about how funding and zoning impacts the distribution of services and that areas designated as “minority” were of lower priority. We didn’t talk about how living immersed in constant negative imagery and rhetoric psychologically affects Black people. Instead we sat there and wondered why Black women struggled with pregnancy and tried to think of ways to give Black women access to pre-natal care. We didn’t talk about the assumption they weren’t receiving pre-natal care was also racist.
I listened to white professors blame people for their problems. I listened as they talked about the economic, societal, and social burden of Black people. I listened as they talked about people like me absorbing resources with no visible improvement in outcomes. I listened as they rationalized reducing those resources because the impact wasn’t worthwhile.
I listened as public health educators taught the future public health workforce that they were justified in their superiority complex and how to rationalize continuing to marginalize people of color, and it was sold as societal morality.
I didn’t confront it – at least, not often. I know how the system works. I get to stay if I don’t rattle the cage. Once, I engaged in a spirited classroom debate which resulted in some people telling the professor they were afraid to express themselves in class. I got the message; it wasn’t new. My entire life has been using my silence to keep white people comfortable with their oppression.
Should you speak to discuss the obvious, you are met with two forms of resistance. There is the white male denial – these are the white men who try to invalidate your experience. They tell you that you are exaggerating; that racism is over. Look at how we are all in class together. They deny, deny, deny until you are exhausted. The white women…they sympathized. They listened to your story then told you how bad it made them feel. They asked you to find ways to help them assuage their guilt while you still live under the boot of their privilege and in the shadow of their disregard. You don’t seek their approval, but these are the disciples of the gatekeepers. You can see the future and hope that one day, when you are less frustrated into silence, you can plant a seed and one day change a mind. There are never enough people who look like you to mount a resistance. You are one of very few, surrounded on all sides by people who either work to discredit you or overshadow you with their feelings. And so you pay your silence, shore the defenses, and over time lose hope that anything will ever change.
It’s an interesting thing, navigating white spaces. You learn to look away, to ignore, to silence your thoughts. You learn to be very still until you leave and cleanse yourself of the muck that is the big white lie. I’d forgotten what it was like to be taught that Black lives didn’t matter. I’d forgotten what it was like to for all Blackness to be ignored until it was a problem. Working in public health constantly reminds me of that.
In grad school, I navigated this space. I didn’t do it well. I cried a lot, internalized a lot, and really disliked a lot of my classmates. I struggled with the idea of removing race from surveys because of the bias it both generated and perpetuated. I finally understood that while race isn’t real, racism is very real because white people created it, legalized it, socialized it, enforced it, and now pretend that it does not shape our society. I had to start erasing the decades of racist programming and see the world how it truly is. I still fuck up. I’ve made some decisions whose consequences I struggle with now, but more than anything, I keep finding my center and shoring it up to withstand the waves of marginalization that continue sweeping towards me.
It’s funny. I’ve had white people try to silence me by saying that I was too invested in dismantling racisms for my opinion to be trusted. What they fail to acknowledge is that white people have too much invested in maintaining white supremacy for them to be trusted about dismantling racism. Are you going to work to dismantle something that has benefitted you? Does it matter that your benefits came at the expense of other people’s human rights? It should. This is a question of conscience and after 400+ years of racially driven inhumanity, I have to ask - do white people have consciences? The quickness with which people dismiss the oppression of others makes me think they don’t.
I never thought that embracing and acknowledging my humanity would be a form of protest. I never imagined that merely existing would bother groups of people so much that they would kill to silence me. I would never have anticipated that having the strength to stand in all my hubris and complexity and say, “I am here and I am staying” is revolutionary. That acknowledging my joy, my pleasure, my contradictions, my humanity is my resistance. I am enough.
I thrived in grad school, despite the bullshit. I came out with a stronger sense of self as I rejected the racist ideas they taught. I accepted my place on the outside, and while I’m still figuring out what that means, I refuse to be silent about it. I’ve found my voice and regardless of what any supposed “authority” says, it matters.
I matter. And I don’t need to be saved by you.