How Racism Harms White People

It was the beginning of the school year, and I was in first grade.  I lived in an almost entirely white rural town in Connecticut, and it was three months before I would move close to a city.  Even though I was in a large classroom, my only memory is of the bubble of space around my desk.  “Don’t talk to her.  She’s dirty,” a white boy said to me.  I turned to my right and saw a girl sitting at the desk adjacent to mine.  She was looking straight ahead at the front of the room, and her skin was slightly darker than mine.  Was she dirty? I wondered.  Was he right?  Should I heed his warning and stay away from her?  I was confused and afraid.

This is my only memory of that classroom.  As I think back on this brief interaction, I am incensed.  My insides wrench, and I feel hot tears in my eyes.  My heart breaks for that girl as I imagine the ways in which her sense of self-worth, confidence, and belonging were undoubtedly and unrelentingly assaulted at that school.  Yet my heart also breaks for my child self.  I remember that scene the way one often remembers trauma: in vivid detail.

In that brief interaction, a piece of my humanity was stolen from me.  I was robbed of positive human interaction and of what might have been a beautiful friendship.  Maybe she, too, loved to draw, sing, and build elaborate structures.  Maybe we could have loved and supported each other through the reality of being girls – to both celebrate our girlhood and navigate the overwhelming forces that worked against us because we were not boys.  While the boy’s words explicitly taught me to fear darker skin, they also taught me that I could be next.  If I were too different, if I stood out, people wouldn’t want to be my friend.  They would say mean things about me.  I would be a target.

I can draw a direct line from this early memory to a decision I made during my junior year of high school.  It is a decision that haunts me.  I chose not to sit with my best friend, Amy, during lunch for an entire year and, instead, to sit with the “cool kids.”  Deep down, I knew I really wasn’t one of them.  But when I was with them, I had more protection from being teased. I was certain, however, that sitting with Amy would make me more of a target because she sat with her friend who was large and whose face was covered in acne.  I had the audacity to ask Amy to shun this other girl so we could sit together.  But she had a strong moral compass and, perhaps, she had fewer insecurities than I.  And so I traded a piece of Amy’s heart and of mine for social safety.

I can also draw a direct line from my first grade memory to last month when my chest tightened reflexively as I walked home and found a man in my driveway.  He was exiting his car, which was parked in my neighbor’s space.  I had never seen him before.  He was black.  I smiled, greeted him, and asked if he was here to see my neighbor.  He explained he was there to pick something up from her apartment.  I softened and my guard retreated.  While I feel confident that I would have been skeptical of any strange man in my driveway, I am equally confident that my skepticism was heightened by his darkness.  I imagine he saw it in my eyes before I mustered a greeting.  I imagine he is accustomed to seeing this in white people’s eyes. 

I have been actively interrogating my own whiteness for 20 years.  I have been a social justice educator for almost 15 years. I have facilitated small groups and groups of 600+ white people, guiding them in unpacking their own whiteness and internalized white superiority.  And, yet, when confronted with a strange black man in my driveway, I felt a hint of fear.  I am a woman, so with good reason, I am automatically on guard with men.  But I also have to be honest about the fact that my fears are unintentionally heightened around black and brown men.  This does not make me a bad person.  But it does mean that, unconsciously and unwillingly, I bought into the myth of white superiority because my first grade memory was merely a snowflake in the avalanche of racist messages I received growing up. I have a responsibility to own the ways in which this myth lives within me and to challenge it incessantly.

And just as the lesson of white superiority took something precious from me when I was only six-years-old, racism continues to hurt me and other white people.  It robs us of meaningful human relationships.  It divides us from people of color whom we fear or with whom we do not know how to fully interact.  It separates us from other white people, including family members, whom we resent or by whom we feel embarrassed because of their racism.  For many white people in the U.S., it erases rich, distinct European cultures.  It makes us question our innate goodness by making us feel guilty or like bad (white) people.  And racism lies to us.  It makes us believe our achievements are solely a result of our determination and hard work rather than result of both individual effort and a system that puts our starting point at least a pace ahead. (Able-bodied, white, Christian, heterosexual, middle/upper-class, U.S.-born, cisgender men get the biggest head start.)

Thus, one of the critical ways in which white people must challenge systemic racism is by working to restore our wholeness as human beings.  The fight to eliminate racism isn’t just about creating equity for people of color.  It is about our collective, human healing.  It is about figuring out how we, too, can benefit from ending racism and what our personal stake is in the process.  Doing so can help propel us forward when we meet resistance or face obstacles.

In the big picture, anti-racism work is too big for any one of us to do alone, and working in isolation merely reinforces the divisions that spur racism on.  Thus, white people have an inherent responsibility to support one another and pick each other up when we falter.  People of color already endure the burden of racism, so it should not be their job to hold our hands in the journey. And when white people show up for one another, we are able to show up in more authentic ways to work in coalition with people of color.

For white people interested in exploring this topic further, I recommend starting by recalling your earliest memories of receiving explicitly or implicitly racist lessons about people of color and/or white superiority.  Consider how you and others were harmed, and think about how those lessons showed up or continue to show up in your life.  I also recommend checking out the following readings and tools:

1.     “White People: I Don’t Want You to Understand Me Better, I Want You to Understand Yourselves,” by Ijeoma Oluo

2.     The chapter in Paul Kivel’s book, Uprooting Racism: How White People Can Work for Racial Justice, entitled, “The costs of racism to white people.” The chapter includes an extensive checklist that I have found particularly useful.  An excerpt from an earlier version of this chapter is available digitally:

3.     Everyday Feminism’s online course, Healing from Toxic Whiteness, which is an online training program for white people committed to racial justice.

4.      Project Implicit: Free assessments that help unearth people's implicit biases.  If you want honest results, make sure to move through the tests as quickly as possible - answer questions on impulse rather than thinking things through and intentionally slowing down to get the results you want to get.  Remember: you didn't ask for your implicit biases, but knowing about them is the first step in transforming them.