Saturday, July 04, 2015

How does racism hurt white people?

Ta-Nehisi Coates is a journalist and writer for The Atlantic. In this three-minute and 20-second video from PBS NewsHour's Brief But Spectacular series, what strikes me is his use of the word "luxury." He says, "You really can't be an African American in this country and see, say, a Walter Scott video and be completely amazed. You just don't have the luxury of living that way. You know, you've had interactions with the police. You know people who bad things have happened to just for being who they are."

That's the blind spot for many of us: we don't recognize that we live with the luxury of not having to think about racism. It's part of white privilege, which all white people have as well as many people of color if we look or act certain ways. I have white privilege because of my class, education, coffee-with-cream-colored skin, and because I sound exactly like a white woman when I talk. I live a life of luxury because my white privilege means I don't get stopped by police, followed in stores, or asked to move on if I linger on the sidewalk. 

Of course, white privilege only goes so far for people of color. When it comes down to it, our physical features override how we talk or dress and our luxury ends. But many white Americans can live their whole lives without ever having to think about things like Black churches being burned down or unarmed Black men being gunned down by police or the lack of access that many women of color have to health care or how many people live in American jail-like conditions because they came to the U.S. from Mexico or Guatemala out of economic desperation. Most white people don't feel the effects of these conditions on their own lives so they ignore them, and they ignore them because they can. Rather than see themselves as living as a state of luxury, these white people see their lives as "normal." To them, the lives of people who live under the weight of racial oppression seem abnormal, foreign and a million miles away. Those are the "other" people, and once you see someone as "other," it's easy to dehumanize and emotionally distance yourself from them.

The way to change people's view of others is to bring those others close, humanize them, and show the connections between the groups. Someone used the concept of otherness to explain how same-sex marriage gained acceptance among Americans. He said the critical shift happened when more gay and lesbian family members, co-workers and neighbors began coming out to the people who knew them. When people realized that "those people" were their own family and friends, they couldn't keep dehumanizing them. Once that happened, the path to accepting same-sex marriage became much clearer. 

Unfortunately, this dynamic hasn't been possible between white people and people of color because it's too easy to identify the physical characteristics of race and culture. We wear our otherness on our faces and there's usually no hiding it. So how do you manage a sea change regarding racism?

Maybe the model is animal rights. Yes, I realize that comparison is offensive, but I think it works. I have a hard time caring about animal rights unless I see how the issue directly affects me. Maybe that makes me a selfish, uncaring person, but I think such a stance is common. The only way to make some people change entrenched views about others is to show them how they are directly affected by the way those others are treated. I have the luxury of never thinking about the living conditions of the cattle, chicken and pigs I eat, but if you tell me those conditions cause risks to my own health, you'll get my attention. If you can convince me that eating certain animals is bad for me, you might even get me to stop eating them altogether. A friend of mine says many people are actually convinced to support animal rights simply by hearing of the suffering of animals (those are better people than I). But this friend acknowleges that hearing about suffering doesn't do it for everyone, and some people need to hear how animal rights affects their own health directly.

On the topic of racism, at a certain point we will have reached all the people we're going to influence by talking about justice and human rights. Maybe we're already at that point. What's left are the people who will only be swayed by feeling the negative impact of racism on their own lives, which leads to the question (and doesn't beg it): what are the negative effects of racism on white Americans? 


My best response right now is that racism negatively affects white people by shutting down the vast resources that people of color offer. There are dying white communities throughout the country that need an influx of immigrants to revive their economies, provide labor and get government money flowing into their schools and public services again. Also, considering that in the next 25 years the population of the U.S. will have more people of color than whites, to keep locking up and killing large numbers of people of color will hurt our national productivity and ability to function in a global economy. As people of color gain the majority, it will become a greater national liability to deny us decent housing, health care, schools, etc. A government can't keep its own people in economic distress and thrive without turning into some kind of dictatorship or failed state. 

Of course, maintaining prejudice against Blacks, Mexicans, etc. also means white people deny themselves rich experiences of friendship and community. That's a harder loss to argue, but maybe we can say that seeing all people as potential friends helps mood and increases levels of happiness and feelings of safety. Those things have positive effects on a country's economy, too.

While there are many people who live in the luxury of not having to think about racism, their time of enjoying that privilege will end. The United States is heading towards a demographic makeup that will require the dismantling of its systemic, institutionalized racism or we'll become a country that marginalizes its majority. On this American Independence Day, can you leave a comment on a way that you see that racism in the U.S. hurts white people?

Oh, yeah and happy Fourth of July, America.

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