The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

What white people need to know, and do, after Ferguson

Benefiting from white privilege is automatic. Defending white privilege is a choice.

A protester in Ferguson this week. (AFP PHOTO/Jewel Samad)

In the days before the grand jury’s decision in Ferguson, when Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon decided to impose a pre-emptive state of emergency, a white relative posted on my Facebook page, “Better to be prepared for the worse, than to have racially charged riot. [sic] At that point, no one cares what your political view points are, who you married or what God you pray too, only that you are White and you are Wrong.” This essay is for my cousin and every other white person who is well meaning but somehow feels hopelessly polarized in a racially polarized debate. It doesn’t have to be that way.

When black people are protesting in Ferguson and across America, they’re not protesting against white people. Maybe this seems obvious, but it’s worth stating. In fact, in the case of Ferguson, the protests weren’t (primarily) about one white cop. Black communities are ultimately protesting systems of injustice and inequality that structurally help white people while systematically harming black people. Just because you’re white and therefore generally benefit from those systems doesn’t mean you inherently support those systems — or need to defend them. Benefiting from white privilege is automatic. Defending white privilege is a choice.

Privilege is like oxygen: You don’t realize it’s there until it’s gone. As white folks, we can’t know what it’s like to go through life without racial privilege because we literally haven’t. You may have heard stories about black friends being monitored in department stores or seen the research that black names on resumes get half as many job interviews as white names on the same resumes. Maybe you know that a black man or boy is killed every 28 hours in America by police or vigilantes. Maybe you’ve read the studies on implicit “shooter bias” — how we’re all more likely to pull a simulated trigger on unarmed black men than unarmed white men — and maybe you know that even the most egalitarian Americans harbor unconscious negative attitudes about black people. The studies and the stories are overwhelming. Just this week, police shot and killed a black 12-year-old for holding a BB gun.

But still, in some part of your brain, if you imagine that wouldn’t happen to you even if you were black, it means you believe something other than race is to blame for all those statistics and studies — which can only boil down to some rationalization of inherent superiority on your part. And then you’ve just shown exactly what privilege is and why black folks feel the need to assert their basic humanity. See how easy it is to reinforce white privilege, even unintentionally?

Being a constructive part of America’s necessary discussion on race and racial bias means acknowledging how bias and privilege may shape your own life even if you don’t want it to. Responsibility isn’t the same as culpability. It is not your personal fault that Michael Brown was shot and killed or that we have deep and structural racial bias in America. But that bias is nonetheless a reality, and so you do have a responsibility as to whether you are part of the problem or part of the solution. Just like you’re mistaken if you don’t think white is a race, you’re mistaken if you think you can remain neutral.

When a black boy is shot by police or when a black community is neglected (as in the response to Hurricane Katrina), pundits and politicians often call for a national “conversation” on race. That conversation never seems to continue. It happens episodically, often in moments of desperation when black frustration seems ready to boil over. If white people were also demanding that conversation happen, not just reactively but proactively, the discussion might really happen. But that would mean we’d have to want the conversation, and with it the critique of our racial group and dynamics, rather than a defensive dismissal that we had nothing, personally, to do with the most recent tragedy.

Responsibility isn’t the same as culpability.

The puzzle in all this is that, according to a recent study by Stanford, when white people hear about how black people (12 percent of the country) are overrepresented in America’s criminal justice system (where they are 40 percent), they actually become more supportive of policies that would increase that inequality — stop-and-frisk, three-strikes sentencing laws, etc.

Does this all sound like whitesplaining. Fine, then it is. Too many white people refuse to own up to — let alone confront — racial bias in America. We check out of conversations on race that communities of color are desperately trying to include us in. The truth is that some white people can hear this only from another white person.

On Twitter, some white people have responded to the Ferguson-inspired rallying cry “Black Lives Matter” with the hashtag #AllLivesMatter — as if the Ferguson protesters have been somehow arguing otherwise. No, they were arguing that black lives also should matter, equally, in a country that often reveals otherwise. The irony is that while many white folks criticize black activists for being “race hustlers,” supposedly injecting race (“playing the race card”) into the conversation where it doesn’t belong, white people are the ones who often construe these conversations in unnecessarily dichotomous racialized terms.

Standing up for the rights and opportunities of black people doesn’t in any way harm the opportunities of white people — unless you think of justice and fairness as zero-sum contests in which only one race can win. Thankfully, fewer and fewer people see feminism as anti-male. And not many straight folks see gay rights as a threat to them. But somehow when black people stand up for their rights, sensible white people have a knee jerk defensiveness that “their own group” is under attack. Gay marriage laws are gaining steam with a rapidly quickening pace at the same time affirmative action policies and voting rights protections are being rolled back. Is our consciousness on race and racial justice going backward, too?

It’s not wrong to be white. Maybe a few people in America think so, but that’s it. What racial justice activists and those protesting in Ferguson do think is that it’s wrong to not scrutinize what race means in our society today — how implicit bias shapes everything from our neighborhoods to our economy to who gets to live and who gets to die when they’re doing nothing else but holding a toy. That’s what’s wrong. We don’t have a choice about which side of that equation we’re born on, but we do have a choice about whether we acknowledge the reality of bias and talk honestly — together — about solutions.