“White America is arrayed …to protect its exclusive power to control and dominate…The power of domination and exclusion is central to the belief of being ‘white,’ and without it ‘white people’ would cease to exist for want of reasons (Ta-Nehisi Coates in Between the World and Me). I found myself wondering what he meant- until I realized that being white and having the power to control or define the meaning of events seem to be synonymous in this culture. What does whiteness control? Typically, whiteness determines the “correct” interpretation of any event. Whether George Zimmerman had the “right” to shoot Treyvon Martin. Whether a child who is disruptive in school belongs in the counselor’s office, special education or prison. What kinds of hairstyles make a person look responsible and respectable in a job interview. It is reasonable to assert that the ‘white’ belief system about these kinds of circumstances shapes the means by which these issues are addressed.
“We take our shape within that cage of reality bequeathed to us at birth,” observed James Baldwin, half a century ago. The white reality cage and the Black reality cage lead to very different views of the world. Coates adds, “The people who believe themselves to be white are obsessed with the politics of personal exoneration.” Very few white people consider themselves racists because we believe that racism involves intentionally hurting Black people. It is quite possible to hurt a Black person unintentionally simply by believing a typical ‘white’ interpretation of an event, such as not questioning why police force is so much more evident when disruptions occur in Black neighborhoods than on a nature preserve where white people with guns occupy a building in Oregon. Hurt occurs when a Black youth with dreadlocks is assumed to be dangerous, but a white youth who sexually assaults another person is just being misunderstood. It is painful to face the fact that even if we have not personally inflicted any pain, we are still in a position to benefit from the system of ‘whiteness’ that shapes our thinking. It seems imperative that we explore the Baldwin and Coates observations carefully. Even if a particular white person has not helped to create the system that presumes that “white is right,” responsible white people can assume the responsibility for naming the system, the cage of our world view, and dismantling the damage it creates for people of color. People of African descent are the main targets of this kind of assault, but members of all other non-dominant ethnic groups also get more than their share.
“White fragility” is another way of describing Coates’ politics of personal exoneration. What would ‘white’ people lose if we systematically explored the matrix of economic and policy practices that shape life in the United States and understood how the entire system is geared to advantage white people and disadvantage Black people? This phenomenon includes redlining mortgages, closing voting sites in Black neighborhoods, underfunding inner city schools and incarcerating Black men at a rate that far exceeds that of whites. White people who read this blog have probably not participated in the creation of our political/economic matrix, but we benefit from it. We typically have less trouble borrowing money and tend to receive lower interest rates. We are not followed around in department stores on the presumption that we intend to steal. We are not stopped by police officers, as Sandra Bland was, for changing lanes without signaling. And we are not generally stopped for driving around white neighborhoods and asked if we live there. Black people are used to being treated this way and teach their children how to avoid endangering themselves in these kinds of situations. White people barely realize that these problems exist.
Racism does not actually describe individual behavior. White people who offend, ignore, assault or deny access to Black people in particular situations may be ignorant. They may be bullies, unaware of the impact of their behavior or simply rude. We are all products of Baldwin’s cage of reality, including its belief systems, unexamined prejudices and tendencies to treat each other as objects (The Man, Those People, Rappers, Honkies) rather than human subjects. Racism is a system that people who think of themselves as white benefit from. People who are labeled Black are always at the short end of the stick in this system. If you are a white reader, I suggest that you think about these issues and read Between the World and Me– or find one of the numerous interviews with Ta-Nehisi Coates on YouTube. You will get an education that you never received in school. Let me know what you think. I’d love to print some responses.