In the days since a 21-year-old white man killed 9 black people in their church in Charleston, South Carolina, my social media have been filled with reactions (when they weren’t filled with (mostly) celebrations of the Supreme Court’s gay marriage decision). The kid who did it has been captured, and it’s become even clearer that he killed those people because they were black – he’s even come out and said that he wanted to start a race war, and that he hated black people and thought they were taking over the country. This tragedy, of course, comes on the heels of several high-profile incidents (and many more low-profile ones) in which unarmed black people have been threatened and killed by police.
And yet, many white Americans are still afraid to admit that we have a problem with race. I’ve been seeing it ever since the shooting happened, on the news media and in my Facebook feed: white people trying to make this terrorist act about mental health, or Christianity, or even gun control. And now that there’s momentum to banish the Confederate flag to the historical archives where it belongs, many white people are reacting by saying it’s not a racist symbol. It’s a different version of the same thing that happened after Michael Brown died and was branded a “thug,” or the protesters in Baltimore dismissed as “looters” after Freddie Gray died. It’s a counter-narrative proposed by American whites in positions of privilege who are uncomfortable with, or threatened by, the idea that that privilege is part of the problem. And so they search for other reasons, any reasons, why these things “aren’t about race,” and then shoot them off into the world to reassert their control and promulgate their non-race explanations. In other words, they’re whitesplaining.
Now, I should say that I am white, and on top of that, a straight male, so I’ve got more inherent privilege in America than any other racial, ethnic, gender, or sexuality group. And as I’ve started to become aware of these privileges, I’ve also become aware of the tendency of many of my fellow WhiteStraightMen to talk down to less-privileged people in a condescending “I-know-best” manner, and/or dismissing the perspectives of the less-privileged. The most common form of this I’ve seen has been of men talking down to women, and it’s become popular (and popularly derided) as “mansplaining” (check this out for a primer). And it’s happening a lot with the issues of race as well.
Here’s what it looks like: a Wall Street Journal columnist hijacking the astounding grace with which the Charleston massacre victims’ families are treating the killer to say that we need to back off and not talk about the issues around it. White Confederate flag supporters claiming that the flag is “not a black white issue. It’s a heritage issue.” An NRA board member blaming the assassinated pastor of the church for his own death. These are the obvious, more egregious examples. But there’s a subtler, harder-to-see variation on whitesplaining too, one that comes not from an overt racism or hatred, but simply a failure to recognize white privilege in America.
Here is a fact: we live in a country where white people have an easier time of things than people of color. The capture of the Charleston shooter highlighted this in a grotesque way: the officers who arrested him after he killed nine black people in their church gave him a Burger King meal while in custody (Compare this to Freddie Gray, who after being arrested for having a knife in his pocket which was legal for him to have got a fatal spinal cord injury while in custody). I think white people feel uncomfortable with this fact because they interpret it as a personal attack. I know I had that reaction when first confronted by my privilege. But I realized that the fact that whites are privileged in America doesn’t make me a racist individual simply by being a white American. I did not choose to be born white, nor did I choose to construct a racist system. I also do not feel guilty for being white, which I think a lot of whitesplainers feel is what’s expected of white people.
But that’s not what’s expected of us. In my experience, what is expected of us is to drop our defensiveness and our fear, and realize that people of color who are protesting in the wake of police injustice, or calling for the Confederate flag to come down, or who are quietly living their day-to-day lives, are human beings inherently equal to the rest of us, and whose viewpoints and voices are equally deserving to be heard. And then, to listen to those voices in a spirit of openness, not combativeness. No non-white person I’ve ever talked to about race has blamed me or wanted me to feel guilty for who I am.
However, and this is a big however: even though I don’t have any personal responsibility for what happened in the past to build and reinforce the structures of racism in America, now that I know about them, I do have a responsibility to do something to change them. Listening is the first step, action is the next. Because we do have a position of privilege in this country as white people (just as I do as a straight person, and as a male), we have work to do in changing things so that all of us have equal privileges. So let’s not explain away the problem. Let’s listen, and ask questions, and try to learn what we can do about injustices from those who experience them more than we do.
[I want to invite anyone, but especially people of color, who are reading this to use the comment space below to offer suggestions for solutions, actions that white people can take, ways we can be allies. Contribute in the spirit of community please.]