Three weeks ago I had my obligatory meltdown. My employer began encouraging “open discussions about racism” to be held in all our staff meetings. Those discussions were oddly upsetting to me. All my core beliefs, about how I have always been such a nice guy to everyone of every race were challenged just by the fact that we were even being forced to have the conversations.
I assume you all know what happens to any human when any of our core values are challenged, right? Our first reaction is to become defensive and offended. It happens to all human beings any time a core value (religion, race, politics, health, relationship) are challenged and called out. We become defensive. We close off. We stop listening. Three weeks ago, by forcing me to participate in open discussions about racism, my values were challenged, and I became defensive, offended that I was being called racist.
I’m not racist…am I? I am a White Progressive. A White Progressive is someone who believes that since we’ve never done anything to offend a person of color that we are an awesome white person. We have black friends, so we think we’re awesome. We march once in a while, so we think we’re awesome. We honor Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, so we think we’re awesome. And we proudly tout these facts to anyone who will listen just to prove how “woke” we are.
But for us White Progressives in America, I have a challenge to present. We need to ask ourselves if we’re truly as awesome as we want to think we are. We need to open up and examine our position. We need to go ahead and experience our little defensive, offended childish meltdowns, but then clean ourselves up, stand up like adults, and ask ourselves, exactly how are we fixing this problem in America? The difficult pill to swallow is that just by being nice to everyone doesn’t make us a part of the cure for Racism in America. American culture is still a racist culture and we are each members of the whole American culture. So the difficult pill to swallow is that if we’re not part of the American cultural cure, then we’re still part of the problem. No matter how nice we are to our friends of color, we’re not actively fixing anything with them if we’re just sitting back “being nice.”
Being a White Progressive is good, but it’s not enough
I’ve been a White Progressive my whole life. The abuse I took early on in life as a badly bullied Catholic school boy proved to me how horrible it feels to be unfairly bullied by almost everyone because of an unfair socially accepted opinion. So I grew up always being more empathetically drawn into friendships with people who are vulnerable to bullies. I’ve enjoyed friendships with some of the most amazing people in the world because of my openness to befriend anyone based on who they are, rather than what they look like. My difficult childhood really did make me into a better man, always making friends with whomever was willing to be friends with me in return, regardless of color, race, height, weight, age, gender, sex, or sexual orientation.
So I’ve always figured I was part of the cure in American racism. So gee whiz, aren’t I a great guy? Should I ask for an award of some kind for being such a great white guy?
But guess what. That’s not enough. I see it now. My blind spot is becoming illuminated. All White Progressives need to search their souls for a bit. It’s good that we aren’t bigots. Bigots say degrading things to people of another race. Bigots follow people of color around the store hoping to catch them steeling. Bigots call the cops every time they see a person of another color in their neighborhood. Bigots hurt people of other races. White Progressives aren’t bigots, so in that respect we’re ahead of the game and I do thank God that at least I was born with a good heart and an IQ higher than dirt so that at the very least I did not grow up to be a bigot.
Racism is different than being a bigot.
Racism is word that simply describes the social inequities that, because of race, some of us enjoy the high side of the inequities while others suffer beneath them. So it seems to be true that I absolutely am a part of a racist-challenged community. So now it’s time to ask; as a member of this imbalanced community, what am I willing to do to improve on it?
Not being a bigot doesn’t take me off the hook. Being a White Progressive still doesn’t mean I’m part of the cure. I’m still part of the problem. I’m still living in a predominantly white country that allows people who look like me to own a nicer home than the average person of color can own in America. I have a better chance at better jobs, better education and better health care than most people of color in America. I don’t have to teach my children how to avoid getting shot by a bigot just for jogging down the street or sitting in a coffee shop. So as I enjoy these little perks, tell me now; How am I part of the cure for the socially rampant inequities against my fellow American Citizens—many of whom are my friends?
So here it is, it’s today, and I’ve had my three weeks of core-value-defensiveness, complaining about how I’m not the problem here. I’ve belched out dozens of stories from my own life that proved I’m an awesome friend to people of color and sexual orientation. Blah, blah, blah, etc, etc, etc. Waah waah waah. I’ve made an ass out of myself in some cases with my rants about how I’m not part of the problem.
But as mentioned above, I’m also a person with a big heart who has survived an abusive past to learn a lot about the value of introspection and of climbing up out of ruin to find the strength of survival within myself. So, true to form, this week I’ve pushed my way through my defensive tantrum to turn my eyes inward and start asking myself if it was true. Am I part of the problem in America? The answer, once I got over my entitled sense of defensiveness is, well I’m certainly not doing anything to cure it, am I? Just being nice to people is more like I’m being neutral. I’m not fighting for equality for anyone, I’m just telling the people closest to me that I believe we should all be equal. Not hurting…but also not helping.
Here are some first steps in how we White Progressives can start to help:
Take a side: In this battle, as with so many battles on earth today, there has come a time for all of us to actively take a side. We are either pro-equality or just-fine-with-the-current-level-of-inequality. Period. It’s a binary choice. And if we’re neutral, we’re sitting back letting it happen, so that means we’re not on the pro-equality side. We’re spectators. We’re sitting back letting the world happen however it’s happening. I now see that to be the wrong side to be on.
Get past our own shock: It’s time for all of us who think we’re all “woke” about racism to have out little temper tantrums about being offended that we’re being called racist. So have the tantrum, get over it, and get on the right side of this fight. Because while we’re just sitting back being nice to our black friends, they’re still being followed around the stores by security guards. We aren’t helping them fight off the daily humiliation of insulting microaggressions like these.
Read up on the subect: Here’s a good place to start: Every White Progressive who thinks they’re not part of the problem in America needs to pick up a book called White Fragility by Robin Diangelo and give it a read. It’s not a terribly long book, and it might make you feel defensive when you first pick it up, but if it’s true that you truly believe Americans need to become equal and that all Americans deserve the right to pursue happiness, and that you agree with the Constitution of the US which specifically states that we believe all Americans are created equal, then at least google Robin Diangelo and listen to a few minutes of her words. Buy the book and read it. It’s not expensive. She’s not gouging us, she’s trying to get her message out. There are ways we can be more than neutral in this fight for equality. We White Progressives need to find ways to support our friends of color with more effectiveness than just telling people how great we are for not being bigots.
Be Accountable: As for me, going public with this admission of my lifelong blind spot is my first baby-step to trying to help change the world for the better. I don’t know where to go from here, but opportunities always present themselves to those of us who are watching for them, so something will present itself as long as I keep my eyes open for opportunities to help. My first step is to apologize to my friends of color for having lived behind this blind spot for so many years. Just living my white life not being followed around stores by security guards hasn’t been enough. By politely letting others live their lives of color in America wasn’t helping anyone, and for that I am truly sorry.
Be proud you’re not a bigot, but consider that you still need to do more: To all my fellow White Progressives, thank you for being kind and not being a bigot. It’s certainly better than being one of those dimwits who still thinks one race is better than another, or who burns crosses or who videos black people shopping. Also though, thank you for considering this challenge to become willing to examine your core values, and considering the reality that there is still more we need to do than just be nice.
Being white gives us a unique chance to help make changes: White people still have more political power than people of color in America, so White Progressives have more power toward fixing this than anyone else does. If White Progressives don’t take a stand, all the fighting for rights in the world won’t get the traction it needs to make any lasting changes for our fellow Americans. Our friends and coworkers and neighbors of color need us to stand with them and actively insist on equality for everyone.
Learn more–do more: At first I felt bad for being a White Progressive who wasn’t doing anything to be a part of the cure. I was also very, very afraid of saying anything “offensive” in our open discussions at work. But then I found out that these same fears are happening to most of us White Progressives who are in this same boat, so instead of feeling shame and guilt, I’m now feeling a pull toward making a change.
Let’s stop hiding in neutral and let’s fix this. I’m being shaken out of my slumber to see that a lot of work still needs to be done.
Rather than just be ashamed of myself–which accomplishes nothing, I’ve found strength in the words of the immortal Maya Angelou, “Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.”
To all of us White Progressives; let’s do better.