My Complicity: A White Woman’s Thoughts on “When They See Us”

I’m sorry I thought you were guilty. That’s what echoed through my mind when I finished watching When They See Us. I wasn’t much older than they were. In April 1989, I was a junior in high school, a predominantly white, middle class, suburban high school in NJ. As a white girl, the world recognized my humanity and the humanity of the jogger. She was “good” and “innocent” – that’s what I remember. The teenagers who became known as the “Central Park Five” were “bad,” and I remember thinking that. I don’t remember wondering if they were guilty; I took their guilt for granted because I thought the criminal justice system was fair. I remember thinking I had something in common with the white woman and nothing in common with the boys.

Ava DuVernay’s brilliant four-episode series reveals to me that my mindset was the same one held by the police, by the media, by all of the systems in power that allowed five innocent kids to be incarcerated for years. Her title is so powerful because white people are taught not to see black people as human beings. We are taught to see black people as criminals, as animals, as inferior. As white people, we need to recognize how we are all Linda Fairstein, how–even when presented with irrefutable evidence–we hang onto the false narrative of white supremacy with desperation.

As the 4th of July approaches, I implore my fellow white Americans to confront our ongoing complicity in a system of white supremacy that persists in the US, despite our attempts to deny it. The criminalization of black and brown people is the norm, not the exception. The exception is that these five men were exonerated, and that only occurred because the person who actually committed the crime confessed on his own volition, more than a decade later. We criminalize black and brown people because we see them as inferior, as other, as sub-human, as animal. We are locking up black and brown people, including children, at the border and at detention facilities around the country. My own state of New Jersey has the worst racial disparity in the country when it comes to youth incarceration, as the NJ Institute for Social Justice reports.

As a white girl, I was taught to trust the system, and I did. I thought that if the boys were called a “wolf pack,” that if the boys were “wilding,” then they were “wild,” that they were animals, that they should be locked up. If the police and the jury said they did it, then they did, and that was it. Justice was fair, and my privileged life was safe.

Now, decades later, as a white anti-racist educator, I recognize that they only way to resist systemic racism is to be actively anti-racist. Being passive just reaffirms the systems that perpetuate white supremacy. We must constantly question the systems that surround us and confront the ways in which they uphold unearned advantages for white people, even without the awareness of those involved. I had the mindset I did as a high school junior in 1989 because I was not taught about the history of race and racism in this country. I firmly believed the myths that I now work with white people to debunk, the myth that race is biological, the myth that race has always existed, and the myth that the Civil Rights Movement ended racism. I wrote my book, Dismantling the Racism Machine: A Manual and Toolbox (Routledge, 2018), to provide an accessible introduction to these concepts, with steps for action.

Systemic racism persists because it teaches white people that we are the only people who are fully human. When They See Us resists that in powerful ways by humanizing the five boys and the men they became. As white people, we need to ask ourselves, what will it take for us to share that vision and see black and brown people as fully human? Just because we have been taught otherwise doesn’t mean we need to continue to be complicit in a centuries-long system of oppression. White children would never get treated the way that black and brown children are treated in the US, whether it’s 1989 or 2019. They would not get shot by the police for playing with a toy gun. They would not be seen as a threat. They would not be vilified by the media. They would not be locked in cages at the border. They would not experience the tragic abuse revealed in When They See Us. If white people have been taught that we’re the only people who are fully human, we need to ask ourselves: where is the humanity in continuing to believe a false racial narrative about white superiority?

by Karen Gaffney

Advertisements

Why White People Should Read “White Fragility,” Especially Those Who Say “Don’t Generalize about White People”

As a white anti-racism educator, I have encountered “white fragility” for years in students, colleagues, community members, and, of course, in myself. I just didn’t have a framework for naming it and understanding it. Robin DiAngelo’s new book White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk about Racism (Beacon, 2018) provides just that, with clarity and insight.

At the beginning of her book, DiAngelo explains how the US “is deeply separate and unequal by race, and white people are the beneficiaries of that separation and inequality” (1). In other words, white supremacy and systemic racism exist, and they are fueled by different forms of segregation. She goes on to say, “Given how seldom we [white people] experience racial discomfort in a society we dominate, we haven’t had to build our racial stamina. Socialized into a deeply internalized sense of superiority that we either are unaware of or can never admit to ourselves, we become highly fragile in conversations about race. We consider a challenge to our racial world-views as a challenge to our very identities as good, moral people” (1-2). Hence: white fragility. We know racism is bad. We don’t want to be bad. Therefore, we deny or otherwise cannot effectively acknowledge our complicity in racism and cannot engage in even a conversation about racism, unless it focuses on a far away racist.

One of the core challenges that white readers may potentially face with this book is the very concept of naming “white people” as a group of people when white people have been taught we are individuals. “It’s not fair to generalize about white people,” is a response this book is likely to prompt. But that is exactly the point DiAngelo is making: the fact that white people have been taught we are individuals is actually a function of white supremacy because we are the only ones who have been taught that. We take for granted the normalization of whiteness, and we tend not to identify other white people as white but simply as people, while black people are not identified as people, but as “black.” Everyone else is racialized while we are just “people.”

That way of thinking is something that was invented, and it was only invented a few hundred years ago. My own work, Dismantling the Racism Machine: A Manual and Toolbox, elaborates on this concept of the invention of race (or the social construction of race).

As DiAngelo makes clear, white people have been taught multiple intersecting ideologies that uphold white supremacy while simultaneously obscuring it:

  • White people are individuals
  • Just work hard and you’ll be successful (the American dream of meritocracy)
  • Everyone is the same – be colorblind
  • It’s not polite to talk about race
  • Racism occurs from intentional acts of malice

While the above ideologies may be taught explicitly, several other beliefs are also taught, though perhaps in less explicit ways, but they still work to uphold white supremacy:

  • White people don’t have a race
  • White people are superior
  • White people belong

Interestingly, at the same time as white people are taught that we don’t have a race, we’re also taught white people are superior and that we belong. Yes, whiteness is a series of contradictions, and I would say one reason for these contradictions emerges because whiteness is not real. It’s a made-up idea to equate light color skin with value. It’s not an inherently natural human quality to have that belief. It’s a belief that was taught, and so it’s not surprising that contradictions emerge when something that isn’t real, whose borders are constantly negotiated, is being desperately protected.

This complex web of intersecting ideologies is so dense that even just trying to sort out one thread at a time is a challenge. However, White Fragility gives us a place to begin by focusing on the psychology of whiteness. What is it white people have been taught about race so that we react to conversations about it in ways that we do? And, why does this occur? One reason DiAngelo gives is that “the majority of white people live in racial isolation from people of color (and black people in particular) and have very few authentic cross-racial relationships” (31-32). I can see this so well in my own state of New Jersey which, despite being in the North and being so diverse, is actually one of the most racially segregated states in the country. DiAngelo goes on to explain that because so many white people experience “racial isolation” then they are especially vulnerable to stereotypical messages in the media about people of color.

White Fragility is filled with valuable resources, including data, as well as lists of strategies for recognizing how white fragility is a form of bullying. Her interpersonal techniques, questions for reflection, and concrete examples of white fragility in the workplace all help ensure that this book does not only present a valuable theory but also a practical set of tools.

I had the pleasure of being interviewed this summer with Robin DiAngelo on WBAI’s Equal Time for Freethought (available here https://archive.org/details/equaltimeforfreethought2018/ETFF2018-07-07.mp3). I believe her work is an important and much-needed contribution to anti-racism.

White Americans, this 4th of July, let’s confront the myths we’ve been taught about America

As a child, I remember carrying the American flag for my Girl Scout troupe in a 4th of July parade, loving fireworks, and wanting to celebrate this country. After all, why wouldn’t I? I had all of the unearned advantages that came with my white, middle-class, suburban existence. And just like other white people, I was taught that “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” were available to everyone in the US.

Now, as an adult who identifies as a white anti-racist educator, it’s clear to me that there is a significant gap between what scholars who study race take for granted and what the public, especially white people, know about race and racism.

We approach this 4th of July with daily reports of family separation, immigrant detention, pervasive racism, mass shootings, diminishing union power, cuts to reproductive rights, a travel ban, voter suppression, a racial wealth gap, lessening workers’ rights, and the specter of a far right wing Supreme Court. Many white people who are disturbed or even horrified by these problems may be wondering: What exactly does the 4th of July mean? Should I celebrate it?

These are likely questions that people of color and other marginalized people are not suddenly asking themselves for the first time. After all, Frederick Douglass asked in 1852, “What to the slave is the Fourth of July?”

Most white people in the US have been taught that the principles of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” apply to everyone, at least in the years since the civil rights movement. They have been taught a narrative that depicts their European ancestors as immigrants who became successful because of their hard work. They are not taught that their success in the land of opportunity depended on their whiteness. So, it should not be a surprise that following this narrative, many white people, when confronted with examples of people of color not being economically successful, attribute it to laziness. “Just work hard,” like they did, and they’d be successful. Undocumented immigrants should just “get in line” like their ancestors did, and they’d be successful.

The narrative of the 4th of July is that we should be patriotic, that America is a place of freedom and opportunity. Believing all of that is reassuring. It feels good. It doesn’t disrupt. However, believing that continues to maintain the false narrative that “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” were and are meant for everyone when in fact these principles only apply to those seen as fully human. Through the invention of race, whiteness was created as a racial category and as the only one that was fully human. This racial ideology established a racial hierarchy that positioned white people at the top as superior, black people at the bottom as inferior and less than human, and indigenous peoples, Latinx people, and Asian Americans in various intermediary spots depending on the historical moment.

Many white people who were upset about Trump’s election and who have resisted his rhetoric and policies ever since support a narrative that our current administration is an aberration and that we just need to get back to the way things are supposed to be, believing that prior to Trump’s administration, “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” were generally available to everyone. We hear the phrase “This is not normal,” as if what came before was “normal.” In other words, what came before was ok. I would urge people to reconsider this mindset and think about how “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” were never meant for everyone: injustice is the norm.

Our nation was founded on European imperial conquest for land, wealth, and resources, and that was made possible through land theft, genocide, and slavery. These are not a stain that can be washed away, leaving behind something pure and just. These oppressive actions and ideologies are built into our institutions, built into our very nationhood. (Please see my blog page “Resources on Race and Racism” for numerous examples.)

White people have a hard enough time reconciling the state of America today with what they imagine it to be in their mind. But to reconcile that America has never been what they imagine it to be is the real challenge. The Trump administration might seem different than what came before, and of course there are differences, but it is just an extreme example of an oppressive status quo we’ve always had.

Like many of you, I recently attended a Families Belong Together rally and march on June 30. That day and on many other days in recent weeks, I’ve heard white people say something like, “This is not the America that I know.” This is not the America that most white people know, but it is the America that people of color and other marginalized people have always known. That disconnect demands our attention. When we say, “This is not the America that I know,” it erases a history of African slavery, indigenous genocide, Chinese Exclusion, Jim Crow segregation, lynching, deportation of American citizens of Mexican descent, internment of Japanese Americans, and so much more.

So on the 4th of July, when we are asked to celebrate America, what if we finally start recognizing that the only way “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” are available to everyone is if they are actually available to everyone? We will never get there if we remain indoctrinated to the myths we are so often taught, myths that might provide us with some privileges but are ultimately meant to control us by keeping us at the mercy of a system of white supremacy, capitalism, and patriarchy. (My book Dismantling the Racism Machine: A Manual and Toolbox explains these false ideologies that perpetuate racism through a divide-and-conquer strategy.)

To unquestionably celebrate the 4th of July means to perpetuate the lie, the myth that maintains the status quo of white supremacy. Confronting what America has always been does not mean I recommend leaving the US. My bags are not packed for Canada. I want to stay here and work for justice. To me, that means confronting the false ideologies we’ve been indoctrinated into, educating others, including white children, having difficult conversations with other white people, and taking action to support leadership from marginalized communities. I strongly believe that it is only when the most marginalized are free that we are all free.

Karen Gaffney, PhD is an English Professor at Raritan Valley Community College in NJ. Her recent book, Dismantling the Racism Machine: A Manual and Toolbox (Routledge, 2018), is an accessible introduction to race and racism with tools for action. Follow her blog with resources “Divided No Longer” (available at https://dividednolonger.com).

Inspiration from the Working-Class Studies Association

I just returned from the Working-Class Studies Association conference held at Stony Brook University filled with inspiration. This conference is such an important opportunity to do what we don’t do enough, both inside and outside of academia: critique and resist the destructive forces of capitalism, listen to people in poverty, support working-class academics, and appreciate the work being done in the field of working-class studies. Unlike many other academic conferences, this conference, co-hosted this year by the Center for the Study of Inequalities, Social Justice, and Policy, provides a supportive and encouraging environment for graduate students and senior faculty alike to exchange ideas about teaching, scholarship, and the world around us. I’d like to identify a few ideas and questions that I’m still thinking about and then recognize the work that caught my attention:

  • Children in wealthy families, which are predominantly white, receive access to various resources that have a significant impact on their financial security, yet this dynamic is often invisible and obscured by the rhetoric of “just work hard and you’ll be successful.” Furthermore, the concentration of wealth at the top has been increasing, not decreasing, while the narrative of the American dream persists.
  • Have we become more materialistic and consumer-driven during the past few decades?
  • How does the narrative and ideology of individualism affect us and intersect with class, race, gender, and more?
  • As more women become graduate students and faculty members, academia is becoming increasingly precarious.
  • What are all of the ways that neo-liberalism is affecting us?
  • What responsibility do fulltime, tenured faculty have to change the culture of higher education in order to improve the working conditions for adjunct faculty, change the publish or perish culture, and help graduate students complete rather than make it harder?
  • How can we center the activism and inspiring work of new generations of activists through the movements of the Dreamers, Black Lives Matter, #MeToo, and the March for Our Lives?
  • What do college students in poverty want their faculty to know and do?
  • How can poverty be at the center of discussions (and conferences) about class?
  • Why are the middle class white men and women who voted for Trump ignored when talking about Trump voters, as if the only people who voted for him were working class whites and as if all working class whites voted for him?

While there were many impressive presentations, roundtables, and other discussions, I was especially inspired by the following:

  • Rhonda Y. Williams’ brilliant presentation/performance about division
  • Tamara Draut of Demos described their work on addressing racial and economic justice together
  • Journalists from the Nation (Michelle Chen, Bryce Covert, and John Washington) described their powerful and much-needed investigative reporting
  • Jack Metzgar’s analysis of voter trends
  • A moving poem about Eric Garner by Ross Gay was shared by a participant – “A Small Needful Fact”
  • A reflection on the 25th anniversary of Working-Class Women in the Academy: Laborers in the Knowledge Factory (Thanks to Michelle Tokarczyk, one of the original editors, for sharing her thoughts.)
  • Strategizing about activism through public writing and public engagement with John Russo, Scott Henkel, Dwight Lang, Sherry Linkon and more (Check out the blogs Working-Class Perspectives and Classism Exposed at Class Action)
  • Jessi Straub’s analysis of luck and Jeremy Posadas’s analysis of disposability and intersectionality

It was exciting to participate in discussions about the forthcoming book The Routledge International Handbook of Working-Class Studies, edited by Michele Fazio, Christie Launius, and Tim Strangleman. I’m working on an essay for the chapter on activism, and this discussion and the conference overall helped me think through my ideas and pushed me to work on making a greater contribution, with the idea of the endless possibilities that can arise when we center the experiences of the community college when we talk about higher education. How can we teach activism in the classroom, and why should we? How can we, as faculty, take our work outside of the classroom into the public as a form of activism, and why should we?

Finally, I was honored to present a workshop on “‘Dismantling the Racism Machine’: What White People Are Not Taught about White Supremacy.” I always learn from the discussion, and I appreciated the engagement. There is a Facebook livestream video of the first portion of my workshop here. The Powerpoint is available here: Powerpoint Gaffney WCSA June 7 2018

Check out the tab on my blog for “My Book,” Dismantling the Racism Machine: A Manual and Toolbox, which is available from Amazon here.

Additional videos from the conference are available here, from the Center’s Facebook page.

Thanks again to the Working-Class Studies Association, especially organizers Michele Fazio, Terry Easton, Colby King, Cherie Rankin, Ken Estey, Christopher Sellers, and many more.