One of the sturdiest myths of whiteness is that it’s only toxic when it’s tangibly destructive to bodies of color. In the experience of this white writer, as soon as the topics of race or Black Lives Matter come up in white spaces, tones of defensiveness bloom in the room. There’s a ubiquity of declarations beginning “But—” and we all scurry to enumerate for one another all the examples that might prove how we ourselves are not actually racist.
I’m tired of it. Some of us have been working on behalf of the Movement for Black Life every day for 23 months and still can locate vestiges of our racism. I need to stop and check my language and reactions so often that I feel like my life has been made with crude stop motion technology.
Just because you assure yourself and your friends that you’ve never insulted or aggressed a person of color, doesn’t mean your whiteness isn’t still toxic. It’s not “good” that you’ve never harmed a person of color; it’s an entry-level prerequisite of human life.
Our focus now must be on what we are explicitly doing to detoxify our whiteness. Voting Democrat means nothing. Holding open a door for a person of color means nothing. Listening to Billie Holiday or Chance the Rapper: you should stop feeling permission to do so until you’ve committed yourself to a form of living that is overtly pro-Black. The list goes on.
And the list has been going on for a few hundred years now.
What follows is an appeal to my white peers, as well as to myself.
You read a couple years ago in the news that a distraught Black woman in Ann Arbor was shot in the chest a couple seconds after two white cops kicked her door down; the reason given was that she was holding a kitchen knife, and looked “crazed.” In your head or on a sheet of scratch paper: list the ways you’ve sought to defertilize the grounds for this sort of “justifiable” assault on Black Life.
You read a couple months ago online that, contrary to popular opinion, David Ware was actually unarmed, and running away—terrified—, when he was executed by a white cop in Ypsilanti in 2007. In fact, in recent years you’ve had access to many such stories (there are a couple hundred of them in 2016 alone). To your partner, or your friend at the gym, or in Notes on your iPhone, list the steps you’ve taken to redress in your white community any one of these killings.
You know local law enforcement agencies racially profile as a matter of course—and if you’re an elected leader, you probably expend much breath attempting to sweep this profiling under the rug, or explain it away by claiming the numbers don’t add up. But you also know that you’ve never once seen a cop in Kerrytown or Normal Park pull over a white motorist for failing to use a turn signal. Go over, in your own head, all the ways you’ve been working to fight this daily and persistent form of racist disparity.
You know that when a Black athlete raises a fist or takes a knee rather than put his hand over his heart during the performance of the most infamous piece of jingoist doggerel in the world, he’s going to receive death threats and much scorn for the rest of his life. Jot down a tally of the minutes you’ve spent not just in defending a Black athlete’s right to refuse the anthem, but, more critically, in explaining to your white peers why it’s necessary for all of us to reject that anthem.
You know some of your neighbors grab a phone or jump on Facebook when a Black man travels down the sidewalk in your majority-white neighborhood. Count on your fingers how many times you’ve reached out to that neighbor to ask them to check this reaction. Count the times you’ve admitted to yourself you sometimes have this gut reaction to Black life (because you’re a white person who grew up in America).
Investigate your checkbook register. Tally how much of your surplus cash you’ve shared with a person of color who’s struggling financially. If it’s less than $100 dollars for fiscal year 2016, you’ve got a long road ahead of you. If it’s $0, what the fuck is your problem?
But what about the multitude of less-obvious ways we remain carriers of toxic whiteness? What about continuing to patronize local establishments like the Tap Room, after we learn that some Black friends, after speaking up because one of their credit cards had been lost by staff at that bar, get the cops called on them by the white owner because she didn’t like their tone of voice?
What about continuing to passively tolerate, as university professors, the fact that our departments have zero Black or Brown faculty? And what about the rationales we quickly haul out when confronted with this fact?
What about the fact that we send our white kids to schools in “better” districts?
What about the fact that this Mac is brand-new and this white male body will probably never be violated, but my Black friend has no personal computer at the moment, and every single time she walks down the sidewalk, she’s aware that at any moment someone in a truck may say something disgusting to her? What defenses do we need to muster to not be obsessed with this disparity?
What about the fact that almost every vehicle we see that has been pulled over by cops on Washtenaw is occupied by a motorist of color, and we manage to continue on our way?
What about the domestic effects of this schizoid daily existence wherein we have a moral obligation to despise this construct called whiteness, yet go on trying to love our “white” selves? How are we raising our children to understand that in America, white skin is a weapon they will need to spend the rest of their lives unloading?
Are you continuing to feed your kids the fiction that the profession of policing is a respectable one? And if you are, do you understand the conflict produced inside your child’s developing psyche when tomorrow afternoon she learns that, yet again, another Black unarmed woman or man has been killed by a cop?
Is pulling a trigger once, lethally, any worse than pulling it subtly a bunch of times every day? If I haven’t yet offered my love and labor to the movement for Black Lives, can I prove I’m any better than Darren Wilson?
Why is it some of us encounter the phrase “Keep Ypsi Black” and feel offended?
Why do we think, even for a moment, we should offer any sort of opinion about Black Life to our Black friends?
In spite of any ameliorative steps we feel we’ve already taken, and in opposition to any notion of our having already been immunized, there are only two treatments for toxic whiteness:
1) We shut the fuck up and move back to Europe, the U.K., or Scandinavia.
2) We step up.
There is no move between these two, yet most of us go on believing we’ve discovered one.