Anti-Racism Isn’t About Making White People Feel Better



Racism is pretty strong stuff.


It’s a debilitating disease that every white American (even me) suffers from to some degree.


There is no cure.


But it can be treated.


That treatment? Anti-racism.


You don’t want to be racist? Do something to fight the system of oppression. Do something to dismantle white supremacy.


Yet too many white people – well-meaning white people – seem to think that fighting racism is really just about making themselves feel good.


Don’t get me wrong – anti-racism can exhilarate you.


Anytime you do the right thing, your body can reward you with a burst of positive feelings.


And there’s nothing wrong with that.


In fact, it’s nature’s way of positively reinforcing being true to yourself.


However, don’t for one minute conflate this good feeling into an end in itself.


Fighting racism isn’t about you or your feelings.


It’s about ending the systematic oppression of people of color.


It’s about ensuring equal rights and protections under the law.


It’s about fostering understanding and harmony between all peoples.


If that makes you feel good? Great! But that’s not why you should do it.


Some may suggest motivations don’t matter. But they do.


Our reasons for acting in certain ways have subtle effects on what we do and how we do them.


For example, a well-meaning white person might want to engage in a multi-racial discussion group on the issues of racism and prejudice.


Good idea.


But that same well-meaning white person might think a proper topic of conversation in such a group might be how difficult it is for white people to find an acceptable descriptor for black people.


Should I call them black? African American? People of color? What’s correct? No matter what I do I might get called racist. Yet black people can call each other the N-word and no one says anything.


Um. Okay. I can see how this causes confusion. Sometimes I’m uncertain if a certain descriptor will cause offense, too. But my struggle with finding the right word isn’t equivalent to black people calling each other the N-word. Nor is it an occasion to denigrate black folks for coopting a term historically used as a put down and turning it into something altogether positive and new.


The point of communication between racial groups isn’t to throw shade on their cultural norms or even to find an acceptable term with which to label each other. It’s to find ways to work together to equalize everyone’s rights.


Unarmed black folks are killed by the police at a higher rate than white folks. Black people get more severe sentences from the criminal justice system than white people for the same crimes. Children of color are more likely to go to an underfunded school than white kids.


THESE are topics worthy of discussion. These are topics around which you can organize and take action.


What would black folks like us to call them? Jeez. Just ask if you’re uncomfortable, and, white folks, don’t use the N-word. Ever.


In my experience, when you’re in the trenches together fighting racial oppression, few people question your descriptors.


And another thing. When engaged in anti-racism, don’t elevate yourself to a privileged position.


Want to have a multi-racial discussion on racism? Great. But don’t set yourself up as the moderator.


As a white person, you will never know what it’s like to be black. You may have black friends or even relatives. You may – like me – have students who you care about who suffer the effects of racial oppression right before your eyes.


But that doesn’t mean you know from the inside what it’s like.


Even if you’ve been the object of hate because of your religion, nationality, sexuality, social class or any other reason, you don’t quite know what it’s like in this context.


You can and should sympathize. You can and should feel empathy. But you are not the expert here, and you shouldn’t set yourself up as one.


Which brings me to a criticism I sometimes hear about myself: what business do white people have being engaged in this fight at all?


I’m white, after all. What gives me the right to talk about racism?


Well, first of all, it depends on who I’m talking to – who’s my audience.


I never deign to speak down to people of color about the system they live under. I’m not trying to explain oppression to the oppressed.


I’m trying to explain oppression to the oppressor.


I’m talking to white people.


And, for better or for worse, white people tend to have more of an open mind to behavioral criticism coming from another white person than if it comes from a black person.


White supremacy needs to go. White privilege needs to go. But before we can dismantle them, we can use them to aide in their own destruction.


As white allies, we can use the same system that keeps our black and brown brothers and sisters down to help raise them up.


So it’s not only acceptable for white people to address and confront other whites about racism, it is our duty to do so.


That is where we belong in this fight.


It’s not black people’s job to explain racism to white folks. It’s our job.


We must open other white people’s eyes. We must force them to confront a system in which we’re comfortable and privileged.


We must show how our comfort and privilege is unfairly hurting those who are just like us but with an abundance of melanin.


To do so requires recognition of the problem and an honest desire to help.


It requires us to be unselfish.


It requires us to be selfless.


Fighting racism may make us feel like better people, but that is not the reason we do it.


We do it because it’s the right thing to do.


We do it because we want our society to change.


We do it because we honestly care about people of color.


3 thoughts on “Anti-Racism Isn’t About Making White People Feel Better

  1. Racist feelings exist as part of human nature. It cannot be outlawed, set into policy, or penalized. Action, on the other hand, can. Your article is trying to convince white people they are racist, no matter how they feel about themselves. You are wrong. Biases have been around since humans could interact w/ each other. Only by changing yourself, and yourself alone, can humans evolve beyond racist feelings. I live in a working-class, mixed ethnic neighborhood most of my life. I am white. My neighbors get up in the morning like I do, go to work like I do, play with their kids like I do, shovel the same snow, pay the same taxes, etc. I do not have the energy to consider for a moment what they think or say about me behind closed doors, and I’ve never given them a reason to think ill of me. I focus on my family and our traditions, as my neighbors w/ theirs; considering what religion they practice is a “luxury” I choose not to afford. I see kids on the corner, my kids play w/ them, I talk to their parents. We walk our dogs. We are people. We are all people. Taking time to decipher differences, and speculating on them based on what I saw on the news last night, is a waste of time. I simply do not consider it. Sorry to disappoint you. That should not suggest that I am unaware or do not acknowledge the discrimination policies very relevant and executed in our society. When I see something, I say something. If it happens to me, I say something. But I do not presume. As far as what to call “people of color”, my advice is : call them by their name. Everybody prefers that.


    • Frank, it’s not that simple. There is a whole big world outside your door. If you’re white, you benefit from a system of white supremacy that you didn’t set up or even ask for. If you do nothing to dismantle that system, you’re culpable. That bothers me. I am surprised it doesn’t seem to bother you or that you can’t take the time to do something about it. Don’t just shrug it off or get pissed off at me. Take action to build a better world.


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