I hail from Lake Forest, Illinois, a pastel fantasyland inhabited by white girls in Lilly Pulitzer dresses and white boys with nautical shit embroidered on their seersucker shorts. Throw a stone in Lake Forest and you’ll hit an –ism, any variety of –ism you can imagine. Lake Forest is a bastion of lacrosse-playing white conservatives about forty-five minutes north of the north side of Chicago, a bastion of white liberals walking cute dogs and drinking craft beers. The Atlantic’s Ta-Nehisi Coates has written extensively about red-lining, the Federal Housing Administration’s policy of denying loans to black people or people who lived near black people. Chicago’s segregation and the affluence concentrated on the north side are a feat of social engineering as effective as South African apartheid, just sneakier. Growing up, I knew very few black people, but I heard about the South side of Chicago on the news and from parents talking in hushed tones.
My freshman year at Princeton I told a racist joke about affirmative action in front of a friend of a friend. When confronted, I told the other student she was being too sensitive, I had only been joking, and besides I thought affirmative action did a disservice to “black people like her” who could get into elite schools based on their own merit. Recounting this makes me want to tear out my eyes, but probably not as much as listening to that kind of uninformed, breathtaking arrogance made her want to tear out hers. Several years later I sent her an apology but she didn’t grant me the absolution (“Thank you, I see that you have now become a very nice and enlightened white person”) that I craved.
Instead she asked me to reflect on the origins of my thoughts about blackness and worthiness. Where did these thoughts come from, in someone who appeared open-minded? I deflected. When she lost interest in corresponding with me I continued sending her messages, requests that she educate me coded as apologies, because, again, entitlement breeds a stunning lack of empathy. Feeling owed an explanation was easier than confronting the extent to which I’d bought into racist narratives without even realizing it, than doing the work of figuring out my transgressions myself.
A few weeks ago my mother’s roommate admitted at dinner that groups of black men frighten her. Dylan Storm-Roof cited the desire to protect white women from black rapists as his motive for the terrorist attack in Charleston. The demonization of black men has a long lineage in American thought, from the “Negro cocaine fiend” of the 1920’s to Reagan-era rhetoric about “black predators” to the slur de jour, “thug,” which allows for easy abdication of responsibility because it isn’t explicitly racial. The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander chronicles the Hydra-like longevity of such stereotypes. The black criminality trope is like psychological wallpaper: we don’t realize it’s there, inside our minds, unless we stop to look at it. Cleveland cops Loehmann and Garmback never stopped to look; they murdered Tamir Rice, a twelve year old boy playing with a toy gun, believing he was a fully grown man waving a real one.
White privilege and white supremacy are America’s original sin. They are simultaneously individual and collective, particular and diffuse. I once struggled to grasp this paradox, taking the suggestion that I belonged to an oppressive group as a personal affront. “But we’re not all bad people!” I protested to my black roommates in South Africa, an inanely obvious statement. My intention here isn’t to flagellate myself or vilify my mother’s roommate; she’s unguarded enough to speak aloud a prejudice that unfortunately lives in my lizard brain too. We’re a lot like a lot of white people. Chances are, if you’re being honest with yourself, white reader, we’re a lot like you. White people aren’t monsters, except that we are. We aren’t murderers, except that we murder black people out of irrational fears we struggle to own up to, let alone actively dispel. Hundreds of years of social conditioning have done their job.
New York Times contributor and novelist Brit Bennett pointed out in her piece “I Don’t Know What To Do With Good White People” what a privilege it is “to concern yourself with seeming good when the rest of us want to seem worthy of life.” Her piece specifically addresses our tendency toward self-congratulation, toward expecting “to be thanked for our decency,” toward focusing on proving that we’re not all like that rather than on preventing the state-sanctioned slaughter of our fellow human beings. But her critique is equally applicable to our silence. We should be enraged, as enraged as we would be if our family and friends were routinely forced to argue their humanity, and yet we often leave the onus on people of color to do just that.
A lot of us contain our rage and even our compassion because we’re afraid of being bad white people, of saying or doing the wrong thing, of fucking up and being shitty, which is human and inevitable. We’re afraid of pissing off or alienating friends and relatives and colleagues, white and black, afraid of taking up too much space in the conversation, of being like the white anti-racist educator Tim Wise who suggested that less famous black anti-racist educators weren’t working hard enough to get their voices heard. Because privilege is a microphone, we need to listen more than we speak. We need to educate ourselves. But we also need to educate other white people, urgently, because we are killing our countrymen.