It took me over a year to feel ready to see 12 Years a Slave. Two weeks ago I finally saw the Oscar winner. It was as brutal and stunning as I expected, and I sobbed through most of the last 15 minutes. On a roll, I watched The Butler a couple days later, and then on the Sunday of MLK Day weekend I saw Selma. That’s quite a lot of African American history to take in all at once. And here’s my main takeaway:
Nothing in White people’s experience comes close to the suffering of Black people. Nothing. And we inflicted this suffering. We White people owe Black people a tremendous debt – still unpaid.
Let me be clear. Yes, White people suffer, and some at the hands of Black people. My brother and I suffered harassment by Black boys in our elementary school. I personally know White people who have been assaulted and violated by Black people. I’ve also known some Black people who have enjoyed relative ease and economic privilege – many more so than me, and more than some White people I’ve known.
I’m not talking about the real and pervasive individual pains we all experience. I’m not talking about the fair number of outliers and exceptions to the majority’s reality. I’m talking about our overall collective experience as real and distinct racial groups. I’m talking about our overall, collective experience as White and Black peoples.
The experience of Black people in what is today the United States, spans hundreds – hundreds – of years of being bought and stolen from their homelands, ripped from their cultures, parted from their families and their language, being sold and treated as inanimate objects. It’s an experience of systematic, frequent, and legal rape, beating, murder, torture, kidnapping, cruel working conditions and constant verbal dehumanization. For hundreds of years. Even after slavery ended officially in 1865, much of this continued for another 100 years, well into our lifetimes. Since slavery ended, the Black experience has included beatings, murder, burning crosses, vandalism, and intimidation and humiliation at lunch counters, drinking fountains, public streets, private homes, work places and the voting booth. It has included de jure and de facto exclusion from decent neighborhoods, home loans, schools, adequate jobs, political representation, legal justice in courtrooms, and even marriage to White people (until 1967). While increasingly less legal, much of this continues today, as does the fallout and trauma of coming from 12 or more generations of abuse.
And all this because they are Black. White Americans as a group have experienced nothing even close.
Let me be clear again. I have no slaveowners in my lineage as far as I know. I come from various strains of farmers and working class folks arriving from Europe at various points in history. My lineage is full of suffering: crops failed, plagues came, women had more children than they could handle and no socially acceptable channel for their genius, money was short, wars broke out. And still the life I enjoy today is in large part due to what people of African descent contributed to this country.
Black people’s bodies – literally and figuratively – tilled the soil, built the foundation, and grew the backbone of this country. They planted and harvested crops that fed us and grew White wealth. They built the roads and railroads. They nursed and cared for White children so wealthy White women could spend time doing other things like studying and developing their artistic talents. And on and on. Blacks weren’t alone; poor Whites and other people of color were part of this too. And we have yet to truly acknowledge that White people are rich – that White America is rich – because Black people did so much to build this nation, and built it for cheap or less than nothing.
The life I enjoy today is also made easier by the fact that I was born with White skin in a country where having White skin has brought meaningful, unearned advantages for hundreds of years. And yet so many White people think racism is gone, over, a moot point, or a tiresome topic. Especially Good White People. They point to all the progress we’ve made and how much better things are. Yes, we’ve made progress and things are better – but this was just as much (or more) due to Black peoples’ efforts as ours. Yes, we’ve paid down the debt, but we still owe a tremendous balance.
White people! We are the problem. We stand in the way of progress, of ending racism.
I think it’s almost funny when White people say race or slavery are sensitive issues. Really? Talking about slavery or race makes us feel uncomfortable? How about all the ways we’ve made Black people “feel uncomfortable” just for being Black? And for hundreds of years, in a way they could never escape? We have the luxury of not listening whenever we want – Blacks don’t have the luxury of not being Black. Can we agree that to say slavery or racism has made Black people “feel uncomfortable” would be insulting to an outrageous degree? And yet we’re the ones that feel uncomfortable with the topic of race or slavery. How dare we. I think our guilt is showing.
I think it’s almost funny when White people say they’re sick and tired of hearing about race and racism. Guess what? So are Black people. The difference is that most people of color think or talk about race almost every day…because they have to. They have to in order to survive, whether in city streets or the corporate workplace. African American parents start talking to their kids about race and racism in elementary school, and teach their young sons exactly how to behave with White people and police – to help them survive interactions with us. And you’re sick and tired of hearing about race or racism a few times a year in the media? How dare we.
No, not “everything is about race”. If you’re White and feeling that way, it’s probably because Black people and other groups of color are feeling more and more safe enough to speak up, and you’re getting a glimpse – a tiny glimpse – of what it’s been like to be them for hundreds of years in a way they can’t ever escape.
I think it’s almost funny when White people say police killing unarmed Black males like Trayvon Martin, Mike Brown and Eric Garner who were doing little to nothing wrong is “sad”. Sad? Sadness is grief, an emotion we have when experiencing loss. Sadness is appropriate when a beloved pet dies, our favorite TV show is cancelled or our favorite restaurant goes out of business. What did you lose? Do you really mean it’s “unfortunate”? As in, “that event that happened over which I have no control is a bummer. Too bad, it’s just a matter of Fortune throwing the dice”. No, the appropriate emotion isn’t sadness, it’s righteous anger. How can it be that, in a country where we say we’re about equality and fairness and justice, that not only did this happen, it happens frequently, and those responsible usually get off scott free? The appropriate reaction is outrage and action, not “too bad!” How dare we!
I think it’s almost funny when White people say Black people need to “get over” racism already. How about we tell Jews to “get over” the Holocaust? How about we tell Americans to “get over” 9/11? Can you imagine the uproar? Keep in mind that 9/11 only occurred once, and while it justifiably traumatized millions of people, it only really happened to a few thousand. What if you – and every American — experienced 9/11 every month for 246 years? How easy would that be to just “get over”? How cruel to say such a thing. How dare we.
Here’s the real question – what are we White people afraid of? Are we afraid of Black people taking over? Afraid they’re coming to collect their debt of centuries of oppression? How dare we think that Black people wanting – demanding – to be treated with the same fairness and dignity as White people is taking anything away from us. Even if it were, it’s high time we started paying our debt.
Or maybe we’re afraid that Black people are telling the truth – that their experience is real. Then maybe we aren’t who we say we are. Maybe we aren’t who we think we are.
It’s insulting when White people don’t believe what Black people are saying. Really? You think there is any justification for George Zimmerman shooting Trayvon Martin dead? Or police choking Eric Garner to death? I don’t care if technically Zimmerman was found not guilty because of the way the law is written and the jury instructed. Then the laws are wrong and there is something fundamentally problematic with our system! Laws reflect our values. They can, do and must change. Remember that slavery was legal and aiding a slave’s escape was a federal offense? Or that Blacks occupying “Whites only” public areas could be arrested for doing so? Or that it was legal to keep Black people from buying property in certain neighborhoods or marrying White people – during our lifetimes?
Why isn’t Black people’s experience enough evidence in itself that we – we all – have a problem? Do we not believe African Americans because their experience isn’t ours? Because we think they’re making it up? Because it’s unflattering? Inconvenient? Wow, that’s awful – almost as bad as slavery! Maybe we’re not hearing them because they’re Black?
How terrified we must be. This fear is further evidence that we know we owe a debt. When I ask corporate employees in workshops who they think got called back most often for interviews among Black and White people when the resumes were the same except for the names – they always know it’s Black people. When people test their unconscious biases, they (including me!) usually carry negative unconscious biases against Black people. We know that Black people aren’t given a fair shake or treated equally. And yet we’re unwilling to give anything to balance it out, crying unfairness. How dare we.
White people! Our voices are the voices of history. Either we speak and act consistent with the historical forces of oppress or the forces of progress. When you say Black people are “entitled” you’re really saying Black people are “uppity n—rs.” When you say “Police Lives Matter” you’re really saying “Police Lives Matter More Than Black Lives.” When you cluck your tongue and say “it’s sad” about Trayvon and Mike you are the same voices who shrugged when Solomon Northrup’s abductors, Emmett Till’s murderers, and so many other perpetrators like them not only got off scott free for their crimes, you allowed their names to be forgotten, naming only their victims.
Good White People! It’s time for action. History has been steadily moving in a clear direction – towards more freedom, justice and equality. Change is coming – with us, without us, or in spite of us. Which side of history will you be on? Will you act from fear, or from love – powerful love that insists on justice? How will the future judge your goodness and morality? Will you be the movie characters that inspire shame and horror in White viewers 50 – 150 years from now? Or will you be the ones that inspire cheers and pride?
Again, let’s be clear. Black people as a group aren’t any more saintly than White people. Yes, there are Blacks who “play the race card”, maybe even “race bait”. They are a minority. Their actions and voices tarnish, but do not diminish the truth that nothing in White people’s experience comes close to the suffering of Black people, and we White people owe Black people a tremendous debt – still unpaid. Their actions are in response to racism, not the cause. They are tiny ways individuals are making tiny moves to right the wrongs we have inflicted.
And since when does someone need to be blameless to receive justice? If that were true, none of us ever would. Why do we insist on African Americans being twice a good as us to receive half our rights? Like that county clerk in Georgia denying Annie Lee Cooper’s voting registration because she can’t name all 67 county judges. Like new American citizens having to pass a civics test few US-born college grads ever would.
Yes, there is division within the African American community – this is not one monolithic community with the same opinions and experiences any more than White people are. This does not change the fact that nothing in White people’s experience comes close to the suffering of Black people, and we White people owe Black people a tremendous debt – still unpaid.
Yes, there are wealthy and powerful Black people. And for every Oprah, Obama, Tyler Perry and Kobe Bryant you can name, how many wealthy and influential White people can you name? Look at the boardrooms, banks, movie production companies and political offices of this country. There are a whole lot more Trumps, Bushes, Weinsteins and Mannings. And it’s not because African Americans are a numerical minority – they don’t even come close to representing their 12% of the population in circles of power, however defined – even in entertainment.
Yes, there is bigotry and prejudice on all sides. Yes, many Black people hold stereotypes and prejudice against White people (I wonder why?). Yes, Black people have murdered, raped, beaten, assaulted, abused, and insulted White people. Individual Blacks’ prejudices do not change the truth that nothing in White people’s experience comes close to the suffering of Black people, and we White people owe Black people a tremendous debt – still unpaid.
No, being the beneficiaries of racism doesn’t make things all hunky-dory. Having “privilege” doesn’t make us feel privileged. I have yet to meet a White person who felt their life was all peachy keen and easy street. This is why so many of us resist the notion that we have race privilege. But imagine just how much less peachy and easy our lives would feel if we didn’t have White skin. Imagine your presence, competence, and intelligence being constantly questioned – before you even open your mouth to speak, or even before you show up in person. Imagine being constantly watched by store owners and stopped by police and security guards. Imagine carrying the visible mark of your slave heritage everywhere you go. Only Blacks (and other people of color) experience racism: the systematic distribution of resources, power and opportunity in our society to the benefit of people who are white and the exclusion of people of color (Solid Ground).
The chickens have come home to roost, my fellow Good White People. Now is the reckoning. We’ve been paying the debt down, but we still owe. Now is the time that we pay in full. The fact we didn’t incur this debt and we aren’t personally guilty for slavery and Jim Crow is irrelevant. Our system isn’t built on that principal. If my grandfather dies and leaves behind an outstanding debt, it doesn’t just go away, my father gets it. If he doesn’t pay it off, I inherit the debt. Someone always pays for debts, and us being beneficiaries of slavery and racism makes us co-signers. Bummer.
Nothing in White people’s experience comes close to the suffering of Black people, and we White people owe Black people a tremendous debt – still unpaid. We’ve inherited this debt. Here’s how we pay it down:
We must apologize. It’s a travesty that the US has yet to formally apologize for slavery. It’s a travesty that we’ve made no economic reparations to people of African descent from all our wealth. If that means higher taxes for me, I say bring it on. It’s a travesty we’ve had no Truth and Reconciliation process. Other nations – nations we deem inferior to us – have done this, and seen truly amazing results.
We must ensure legislation designed to even the playing field stays in place and is improved. It’s a travesty that the 1965 Voting Rights Act is being challenged. It’s a travesty that murder of our African American youth in our streets by those entrusted with our safety goes unpunished. And it’s way too soon to dismantle Affirmative Action. We can talk about everyone being treated fairly regardless of color once we’ve made that a reality by correcting the tilt in the playing field.
We must educate ourselves. Read the links in this piece. Read works on racism by White people like Waking Up White and White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack and The Hidden Wound. Talk to other Good White People. Attend events and gatherings and rallies attended by African Americans. Listen. Develop your tolerance for discomfort and healthy guilt.
We must hold our own accountable. It’s not really my job as a White person to call out a Black person’s self-hatred, internalized oppression, “playing the race card”, or “race baiting”. I trust Black people can self regulate and help their own come correct – just like I gently check other women for putting themselves down, putting up with men’s chauvinism and abuse, or crying “sexual harassment” or “rape” with no truth behind it. To not hold my own accountable damages our integrity and our cause. And so it’s my job to hold White people, especially elected officials and public servants accountable for what they say and don’t say, what they do and don’t do, and what policies and programs they get behind.
We must look slavery and racism squarely in the eye. Use your unearned privilege, built on the bedrock of millions of slaves we have yet to acknowledge, much less thank, to insist on true and complete equity for those who need it most, and the descendants of those our ancestors abused. We don’t need a Police Lives Matter campaign – we already know police lives matter, and police sign up for duty voluntarily knowing the many risks. We don’t need to dismantle programs or policies that give African Americans a leg up – we got a 396-year head start on them!
We must address the triple threat that King identified – racism, poverty and militarization. We glorify King for aspects of his message and actions, and conveniently forget how anti-war he was, how he fought to dismantle poverty, and how he was ostracized for these beliefs by Whites and Blacks, conservatives and liberals. Are you a Good White Person who donates to the food bank every Christmas but shops at WalMart every weekend? Do you vote with your dollars only at big box stores and megagrocery stores? Are you against early childhood education, equitably funded public education and health care for everyone? Are you OK with dark money in elections and ongoing war? Then you are part of the problem.
So that’s our debt, our bill due and payable. Sound difficult? Scary? Unfair? How dare we! Nothing in White people’s experience comes close to the suffering of Black people. Nothing. And we inflicted this suffering. These actions are the very least we can do.
Tired of hearing about race and racism? Then make it stop.