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White People Have to Give Up Racism | The Nation

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Mychal Denzel Smith

Mychal Denzel Smith

All the blackness that’s fit to print. And some that isn’t. 

White People Have to Give Up Racism


Protesters march in memory of Trayvon Martin. (Frank Reynolds.)

Last week, I argued that a repeal of so-called “Stand Your Ground” laws and the outlawing of racial profiling are necessary but insufficient to prevent murders like that of Trayvon Martin. On Twitter, someone asked me, “What’s your solution?” My short answer: white people have to give up racism.

As complicated an issue as race has become in the United States, that might sound like an overly simplistic answer, but it’s the root of it all. While we’ve all come up internalizing racism, since it’s all around us, only one group of people actually benefits from its existence. Not every white person is a racist, but the genius of racism is that you don’t have to participate to enjoy the spoils. If you’re white, you can be completely oblivious, passively accepting the status quo, and reap the rewards.

Over time, those living on the other side, whether black, Latino, Asian, or Native American, have fought back and shamed white people into sharing the power and the spoils of capitalism. A few people of color have managed to achieve levels of success, as we typically define it, that rival their white counterparts. So, a popular narrative has become, “These few tokens beat the odds, why can’t all of you?” In fact, no one defeats racism; they just succeed in spite of it. But most don’t.

No, it’s not the job of people of color to win over racism, it’s the responsibility of white people to abandon it altogether. We’ve reached a point here in America, though, where we believe the worst of racism is over and the remaining animus is either not worth mentioning or dying off. Neither is true. Racism is the foundation; it literally built this country. It’s going to keep showing up. Denying that doesn’t solve the problem, it exacerbates it, making it so we can’t ever achieve real solutions.

Then Trayvon dies, or Rodrigo Diaz dies, or we debate protecting Native American women from sexual assault, and the promise of America doesn’t match up to the reality. But we've accepted the falsehood of equal opportunity. We’re a nation constantly lying to ourselves instead bettering ourselves.

So my solution? White people have to let go of racism. From the avowed racist, to the anti-racist activists, to the “I’m not a racist, I have two black friends” folks, to the “I don’t see color” people and everyone else between or on the margins. It has to be a concerted effort on the part of white people to actively reject racist beliefs, thoughts and actions.

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Your next question is probably, "How?” Listening to people of color, earnestly, is a start. We’ve been at this a long time, shouting about where injustice lives, but white people’s response has often been reminiscent of a popular Jay-Z lyric: "We don’t believe you, you need more people." And then, when a white person has a “Black Like Me” moment—experiencing the type of discrimination typically reserved for people of color—white people are suddenly outraged. It would be laughable if it weren’t so insulting. Our stories are real. We have lived them and then recorded them, not because it’s fun to do so, but to draw attention to where change is needed. All white people have to do is listen.

Which brings me to another point and general pet peeve of mine: white people have to diversify their media consumption. Even the most liberal and noble anti-racists can be guilty on this one. A few prominent, usually very bright, but generally non-threatening folks of color become the cherry-picked spokespeople for the entire media world, knowing they could never adequately represent the complexity of the group to which they’re assigned. Yet, white people turn to them as the Yoda of all things race-related at the expense of deepening their understanding. People of color have been locked out of mainstream media outlets for so long, we started making our own out of necessity (Ebony, Latino, PODER, Essence magazines, as well as many online spaces). Vital conversations often take place there about the ways in which we experience the world. White people should check them out.

Before that, though, the chief job should be admitting there is a problem. White people have to name it, and it can’t be a cutesy euphemism that dodges the issue. We don’t have a “race problem,” we aren’t struggling with “race relations,” no one has been a victim of “reverse racism.” Let’s try this: “The United States is a racist country and because of that, I, as a white person, am the beneficiary of power and privileges that have an adverse effect on citizens of color.” There’s no shame in admitting such. It’s just a necessary starting point.

From there, I don’t know what happens. We’ve never tried to develop public policy alongside good faith actors who were actually invested in eliminating racism. No one knows what that looks like. Some of us would like to give a shot.

The US government should answer for the violence it has unleashed, from Chicago to Yemen, Mychal Denzel Smith writes.

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