Racism and White People

One of the easiest traps for us to fall into when examining how racism operates, is the trap that racism = white people.

It’s an easy trap to fall into, because if you understand white supremacy as the dominant form of racism around the planet (by virtue of the European imperialism of the past few centuries) then it can sometimes lead to the mistaken belief that all white people are racist, by virtue of being white. The assumption in that belief is that racism is a character trait – and in falling for that, we miss the point that racism is a social force, a system that surrounds all of us.

The idea that personal characteristics are genetically determined alongside skin colour is the basis of racist hierarchies, and taking the position that all white people are racist because they’re white only reinforces the idea of racial hierarchies, rather than dismantling it.

So rather than seeing all white people as racist because they are white, we need to understand that the racist system operates through people with white skin in very specific ways. When the way you look, speak, act and perceive the world around you is normalised and validated by the society you live in, you are more likely to have blindspots towards your own racist ideas and actions. Your journey to becoming anti-racist will be very specific.

If you look, speak, act, and perceive the world around you in a way that is NOT European, then your anti-racist journey is different again, and that is not to say that you do not have one to take, but it will be different.

Racism is a social force that surrounds us, and that nobody (myself included) escapes. The worst thing you can do is try to give yourself a pass, or ignore its presence and impact on your world – it thrives in the dark, and if you are not white, but only ever focus on white people as vessels of racism, then you will miss the very important point that racist ideologies operate through non-white people every day.

Importantly, if you believe that white people can only ever be racist, because they are white, this logic also suggests that there is NO POINT to white people undertaking anti-racist education because they can never be anti-racist while being white. You are, in effect, condemning us all to permanent racism and ruling out the hopes of an anti-racist future.

Similarly, for white people reading this, it’s important to not perceive the caution non-white people may have towards you as being about your genetic composition. It shouldn’t be, and it might be, but that is not the important point.

The important point is that white supremacy, as a social force, generally guides white people away from critical self-reflection, and consequently white people are less likely to have done the hard work on themselves to understand, and counter, how white supremacy flows through them. White supremacist programming surrounds us from the moment we are born, and in this country – that is not countered by equal access to anti-racist education, or anti-racist media – in fact quite the opposite, attempts to make anti-racist education and media available are generally attacked and strictly regulated- so why would anyone automatically assume that you have, as a white person, undertaken anti-racist de-programming? It is in fact a much more rational, logical conclusion that the average white person in front of me has not done that work than to assume that they have.

Furthermore, if you have done inner work on becoming anti-racist – then you will not respond to rational non-white caution by hotly declaring “not all white people”. The irony is, that while it may not be every single white person, it is most certainly the white person that feels compelled to declare that.

So how would I know that you have done that work? Here are a few of the indicators, for me:

  • You will know how to decenter yourself
  • You won’t feel the need to present yourself as the white-hat protagonist
  • You will comfortably perceive the situation as a consequence of the system we live in rather than the fault of the people in front of you
  • You will be aware that this same system creates far worse consequences than white discomfort, and its these consequences which you are more committed to addressing
  • You are ok with antiracist language (including terms like whiteness, colonialism, racism)
  • You don’t feel entitled to immediate trust
  • You will be comfortable in letting your anti-racist actions, your humility, and your demonstrated willingness to learn better and do better, be the basis of trust-making rather than simply asserting yourself.

So no, white people are not automatically racist by virtue of being white – but rather, all people live in a racist system, and that operates through white people in specific ways, and through non-white people in specific ways, and the sooner we move away from focusing on racism as a character flaw rather than a social force, the closer we will all be to an anti-racist future.

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