Sometimes white people vex me. Maybe they confuse you, too. Maybe you’re a white person who is sometimes confused by white people. A lot of white people have told me they’re befuddled by the actions and perspectives of other white people. I hear you. What confuses me? I think it’s the utter lack of awareness of how race in America truly functions. In the midst of a national policing crisis, the Black Lives Matter movement is trying to will into existence a sense of value for black bodies and some white people respond, “Why are they so anti-white?” That’s dumbfounding to me. I wonder, how could they be so clueless? When white people question why blacks get to say certain words or make certain jokes that whites can’t or when white people ask where is White History Month or when white people question why they have to pay for the racism of their ancestors, it’s offensive and infuriating and it’s also confounding.
In Ta-Nehisi Coates’s astounding new book, Between the World and Me, he refers to white people as “dreamers” to evoke the sense of them being not fully awake, like sleepwalkers. I’m not sure if white people are like sleepwalkers, or more like ostriches, consciously burying their heads in the sand, hiding from reality. And that’s exactly what vexes me the most about white people: their reluctance, or unwillingness, to recognize the vast impact their race has on their lives and on the lives of all those around them.
Modern white Americans are one of the most powerful groups of people to ever exist on this planet and yet those very people—or, if you’re white, you people—staunchly believe that the primary victims of modern racism are whites. We see this in poll after poll. A recent one by the Public Religion Research Institutefound 52 percent of whites agreed, “Today discrimination against whites has become as big a problem as discrimination against blacks and other minorities.” A 2011 study led by a Harvard Business School professor went deeper to find that “whites see race as a zero sum game they are losing.” That was even the name of the study.It showed that over the last five decades both blacks and whites think racism against Blacks has been slowly declining, but white people think racism against whites is growing at a fast rate. White people are increasingly certain that they’re being persecuted. The study also notes, “by any metric—employment, police treatment, loan rates, education—stats indicate drastically poorer outcomes for black than white Americans.” White perception and the reality are completely at odds.
Why is it that some white people feel like they are the primary victims of racism? And why do they feel like giving any bit of liberty to black Americans means they are losing something? And why should I be an unpaid armchair psychiatrist interpreting the feelings of white people when I could just ask them? I mean, they’re all over the place and available for study in their natural habitat. So I did my own unscientific poll, asking several white people to help me understand white people. Based off the responses, I found three primary explanations for why so many white folks feel like they are the true victims in America today.
Isn’t Whiteness Less Valuable Now?
For some white people, whiteness seems less economically valuable than it was decades ago. It’s as if white privilege doesn’t take you as far these days in the same way that a dollar doesn’t go as far as it did in your grandpa’s time. Back in the Mad Men-era, if a white man showed up, he got a good job that let him take care of his family. No more, they say. But understanding the reasons behind that are hard. A woman who asked not to be named said, “Being a reasonably hard working white male no longer entitles you to respect or a middle class lifestyle. This has mostly to do with structural economic dynamics including increased competition globally and the decline of unions, but it’s a lot simpler to blame it on the black person or Hispanic person who got the job that you think was supposed to be yours.”
Jon Dariyanani, co-founder of a software start-up called Cognotion, echoed that sentiment. “It’s much easier to believe that the reason the middle class life is slipping away from you is because some lazy group of people are soaking up resources and blocking the way, than to believe that it is caused by globalization and bad macroeconomic policy beyond any individual’s control. ‘Anti-white’ racism relies on an economic anxiety that is almost entirely a fantasy.”
It’s definitely easier to blame a person of color than it is to try to understand how faceless global economic forces have screwed you over. You can’t see global economic forces working, many people don’t understand them, and who specifically are you supposed to blame? Besides, blaming black people is as American as Apple computers.
Is Whiteness Ending?
Throughout American history, white has been the dominant race. That is ending. Demographers say that by 2043 there will be fewer white people than people of color in America. We will become a minority-majority nation. Among children under six, it has already happened—there are more kids of color than white kids. I imagine this impending end could seem frightening.
Tim Wise, anti-racist educator says, “When you’ve had the luxury of presuming yourself to be the norm, the prototype of an American, any change in the demographic and cultural realities in your society will strike you as outsized attacks on your status. You’ve been the king of the hill and never had to share shit with anyone, what is really just an adjustment to a more representative, pluralistic, shared society seems like discrimination. When you’re used to 90 percent or more of the pie, having to settle for only 75 or 70 percent? Oh my God, it’s like the end of the world.” But as white people lose their dominant status, the meaning of whiteness in America will have to change significantly.
What Is Racism?
Some of the white people I talked with feel like many white people lack of a deep understanding of race and racism. Tim Wise said, “Whites are used to thinking of racism as an interpersonal thing, rather than institutional. So we can recall that time we got shitty customer service by a black person, or had some black person make fun of us for something, and we think, ‘we’re the victims of racism now,’ paying no attention to the ongoing systemic imbalance in our favor.” This is in part because the nature of privilege is that you don’t have to think deeply about your privilege if you don’t want to.
Erikka Knuti, a political strategist, said, “Part of white privilege has been the ability to not know that your privilege exists. If you benefit from racism, do you really want to know that?” I can see where it would be uncomfortable for people to admit that their lives are shaped by unearned advantages, especially in an environment where those advantages may be beginning to slip away, but the blindness itself is a part of the problem. White people have duties as part of the American community. They must be honest with themselves and their co-citizens and admit that white privilege shapes a lot of life in this country. They must understand that the truly pernicious, life-defining sort of racism is not interpersonal, it’s institutional. The systems that shape who lives where, who gets educated, who gets jobs, who gets arrested, and so on, these things shape lives, and they are all heavily weighted in white people’s favor. To ignore all of that is to misunderstand America. If white people admit those things, it will be plain that they are not, in any way, victims.
Calling yourself color-blind is not progress—it’s insulting.
I am not urging white people to feel guilty, I’m saying be more honest. As we move toward a nation where white people are less dominant, it will be critical that white people stop being racial ostriches, or sleepwalkers, and deal forthrightly with what it means to be white. Many white people say they have a strong desire to not discuss race because there’s a chance they could make a mistake and end up somehow looking racist. But a lack of discussion about race leads to a lack of sophistication about race.
Sociologists speak of race-averse (homes where race is not discussed) and race-aware households (homes where race is openly discussed). Children who grow up in race-averse homes tend to have a more difficult time dealing with race when they get older because they have less experience wrestling with it in their youth. White people are, by and large, living in race-averse communities that support their desire to not discuss race and thus often ending up struggling with how to deal with this complex, nuanced, emotional subject. This is not progress. Calling yourself color-blind is not progress—it’s insulting. Engaging with race, making serious efforts to understand race, understanding how systems shape our world and how white people consistently benefit from those systems to the detriment of others, and rejecting the backwards notion of white victimhood—that is the path to progress.