White Innocents and Accomplices


Can I talk about race without talking about politics and religion? I’m not sure, because I think that Michael Eric Dyson‘s is a prophetic voice and in reading the passage you shared–

“Even when individual black people confront individual white people, even when we love one another, white innocence still clouds our relationships. We are two historical forces meeting, and the velocity of that history is so strong that it can break the bonds of individual love.”

–I’m a sinner convicted, as I (a white person who too often fails in the fight against white supremacy) ought to be.

Above, the cover of Tears We Cannot Stop: A Sermon to White America by Michael Eric Dyson, professor of sociology at Georgetown University. 

I recall watching the incident (“fuck up,” as you honestly called it) you describe, and I felt for you then–mostly empathy and a little anxiety, because I know how hard it is, when you’re white, to question white supremacy all the time, and you actually have to do it all the time to avoid a failure. Everything white people encounter is set up to support white supremacy and to make sure that we, as white people, feel uncomfortable questioning it. I felt empathy because it’s an easy mistake to make (White supremacy makes sure it’s easy.), and I felt anxiety because I have made it too.

But, of course, it’s easier to fight when supremacy when you’re white than when you’re not–and you can give up when you’re tired and still get credit for your efforts. So, as you say, sympathy should only extend so far.

White supremacy is a marvel of social construction. We rarely see its architecture, but we occupy its space all the time. What you describe as a “fuck up” is exactly what this system is designed to produce; it’s not a mistake but the purpose.

As white people, we can design against this (and here I mean design in both the sense of mindfully creating and in the sense of plotting). For example, I use a lot of visual illustrations with my students. I’m deliberate about it–about 25% of my students are racial minorities, mostly African Americans, and I overrepresent people of color in my positive examples. It takes a very small extra effort. If I’m searching for images, say, of older married heterosexual couples, Google Images shows me mostly pictures of white people. Same if I’m searching for “librarians” or “scientists” or “happy families.” I have to add “African American” or “Hispanic” or “Asian” to my search terms if I don’t want a bunch of white people to show up. The search terms that yield black faces? “Criminal.” “Mugshot.” “Single mother.”

My inclusion of faces of people of color in lectures doesn’t dismantle white supremacy, but it matters–just as the inclusion of children of color in photos in newspapers matters. At our mid-term check-in, I ask students in an anonymous survey if they see people like them represented in our course content, from the readings to the images and examples used in lectures. In the open-ended response section of the survey, many students of color self-identify and share that they hadn’t noticed that I’d been including positive representations of racial minorities but that, with this question, they now did–and that they appreciated it. A colleague does a similar experiment in class, teaching a string of all white authors, then asking students if they’ve noticed anything about the course up to that point–a course that focuses on racial minorities in the US. Few students recognize that their classroom knowledge about racial minorities has, so far, been informed only by white perspectives, which then prompts a discussion about why we think about white men as the norm and everyone else as deviant–even to the extent of treating them as experts on non-white people. What often surprises white students about these exercises is that their peers of color often don’t notice either that we’re being deliberate about including faces and voices of color or that we’re teaching only white men (or, if they notice, they don’t mention it in class). That doesn’t mean that our students of color are “color blind”; it means that they, too, have been trained by white supremacy not to expect anything else and not to complain about it.

So, we can design to push against white supremacy. But sometimes we fail to design well enough. And if we are well-intentioned, historically-informed, empathetic, sociologically-aware white people committed to not just equality but to justice, we feel bad about it (because we should) and often defensive (because sometimes our failures are complicated and we might have reasons for them that aren’t obvious to our critics–though the only thing that ultimately matters is the harm we do or the good we advance). We can try to correct it, clean it up, and help the people we’ve wounded. We try to do better. We can individually repent–apologize and change.

But we also have to recognize that our failures don’t, as you say, happen in isolation. White supremacy is full of tricks, and one of its tricks is to convince “good” white people (you know, not the kind that wear hoods) that our mistakes are individual–“not all white people”–and ahistorical.  But my racist errors aren’t errors–they are weapons crafted and refined by hundred of years of culture that devalues black and brown bodies, lives, and experiences, and when you are white, you are armed with them all the time. They are embedded in our language, our laws, and our social structures. As a white person, you might use that weapon only occasionally and by accident, but when you are a person of color, you face assault all the time. And the wounding is physical as well as spiritual, emotional, and mental. It changes the DNA of its victims, which means it changes families across generations. 

Just as “for many minorities in America, the past isn’t dead. It isn’t even past,” it isn’t past for whites, either. We are armed with white supremacy unless we decide–in every interaction–to put it down.  We can’t be innocent while we are holding a weapon.

But innocence shouldn’t be our goal. Repentance means knowing you’re guilty and then seeking to restore (which keeps the focus on the other person), not to be forgiven (which is about our own feelings). We should seek to be accomplices, guilty of actively tearing down white supremacy, actively lifting up people of color, actively opposing individual and structural racism, actively stepping back so that people of color can step forward, actively defending black-and-brown-only spaces, actively funding efforts initiated and led by people of color, and doing what we’re told by people of color gracious enough to tell us how to do better.


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