I’ve recently started noticing an unnerving trend on my social media accounts: articles and videos about white people being the victims of racism. It reflects an incorrect understanding of anti-racism that places racial bias outside of the historical forces that shape today’s racial constructs. The people who post these links are not particularly political, but their online actions are. They imply that instances of individual racial hostility are somehow equal to the systematic and institutionalized effects of white supremacy. It is a reminder that addressing racism without confronting white privilege is a perilous path.
The first video I saw go viral was a seemingly innocent clip from the long running show “What Would You Do?” WWYD is a reality show that tests real people’s reactions to a staged situation. When I saw a video pop up on my news feed with the title “White Male Haircutter Faces Racism at Black Barbershop” I was concerned.
Judging from the number of hits and discussions on blogs, this was an effective attempt to portray white people as the victims of “reverse racism.” The takeaway is that anyone can be a victim of racism, and that we should be on the lookout for individual acts of racial prejudice. This is the standard discourse in white America about racism. It is a convenient narrative for whites to adopt, because it denies our responsibility to challenge the unearned wages of whiteness, but it is oppressively incomplete. While it may seem like a good idea to share examples of racial bias, it is in fact damaging unless whiteness itself is the enemy.
There is an element of fear in white people’s psyches about being called racist that keeps us from having real discussions about racism and our own complicity in it. White people are expected to be against “discrimination.” Like Germans who grew up after World War II, we are told about historical injustices, and encouraged to oppose racism, but without an accurate definition of it.
Andrea Smith, renowned author and educator, recently posted an article called “Sympathy, Outrage, and White Humanity” that helps to illuminate this problem of watered down racial language and politics. In it, she questions who is allotted humanity in conversations about justice. She explains that white people are shielded from outrage, and any deviation from this requires immediate recourse from civil society. In contrast, the everyday dehumanization of people of color is normalized.
This is why the social test in the Black barbershop is so appealing to white people: it provides an easy and accessible way to discuss racism without having to deal with white privilege. It is one example of a common phenomenon. White people often enter discussions about racism from the wrong place, by ignoring whiteness and treating racism as simple “hatred” regardless of larger power dynamics. But the tensions that erupted in the Black barbershop didn’t just materialize magically; they were set in motion hundreds of years before, in the early British colonies of America. Racism is a historically rooted social, economic, and political system that benefits white people.
Whiteness itself was invented to cement the color line between those who could be enslaved in America, and those who could not. As Theodore Allen writes in The Invention of the White Race:
“When the first Africans arrived in Virginia in 1619, there were no ‘white’ people there; nor, according to the colonial records, would there be for another sixty years.”
Thus, it is not enough to be against good old-fashioned bigotry – that’s easy. To be for racial justice, we must work proactively and powerfully to understand and correct the historical and systematic oppression of people of color. The way forward is to fully acknowledge the true racial nature of U.S. history, so we can finally begin to reconcile our communities around an ethic of trust and justice. The only way for white people to be a part of this equation is if we acknowledge the benefits we experience everyday because of our whiteness. This means admitting some uncomfortable things, but it is a critical step towards reclaiming our humanity. And then, it is our job to articulate and explore what solidarity looks like, and to side with people of color in their campaigns for justice.
I hope I see more of us out there in the confusing void of social media (alongside the cute videos of cats), holding the line against racism and white privilege. A few of my favorite sources of racial justice news and analysis include ColorLines, RaceFiles (you’re reading it now!), and Black Girl Dangerous. In closing, here is a hopeful and hilarious video that also went viral about the same time as the barbershop one.