Thistlethwaite: How to be white
I’ve been white all my life, so you would think I would know a lot about it.
I don’t. I am constantly learning how to be a decent white person.
It is a lifelong project to learn to not only reject whiteness as an ideology that privileges those with light skin of European origins over all others, but also to act to change the systemic racism of this society. And if you just say you reject whiteness and don’t follow through on advocating for the changes to the system identified by people of color as the problem, you are just performing your racial privilege in a more subtle way than those who wave Confederate flags and shout racist epithets.
“Whiteness” is the problem that is being confronted today in demonstrations and advocacy, but you find many white people pontificating about #BlackLivesMatter and the current demonstrations as though they knew anything about this. Trust me, they don’t. They want to talk about everything but the main problem and that is their white privilege.
The main problem this country needs to face is the tyranny of whiteness that has dominated for hundreds of years.
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I used to think I knew what it meant to be against racism.
I participated in marches in the Civil Rights movement many years ago when I was in college. This persuaded me that I was anti-racist and I coasted along in graduate school, quoting Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Then one day, as a junior professor, I was lecturing on “Women in Theology.” An African American woman student stood up and confronted me. “You don’t mean me, white girl,” she said firmly. I stood there and realized she was right.
It took me six years of research and a book (that I dedicated to that student and others) to figure out just how wrong I had been about the whole category of women, and how much I was invested in my own experience as a white woman to the exclusion of others. And I am still learning.
Here are some things I have learned over the years that may be helpful to you if you are a white person in this society:
First, educate yourself. Do not ask your racial/ethnic minority friends to explain racism to you. There are many good reading lists, but you also need to be specific. If you didn’t know what Juneteenth is, read about it. If you didn’t know about the Tulsa Race Massacre, read about that. Read about the history of slavery, and be sure to be specific about the history of slavery in your own state. No, I’m not saying becoming anti-racist is a research project, but the profound ignorance of the racist history of this country is part of white privilege.
Second, realize that racism is a pattern that is larger than you, no matter how many racial/ethnic minority friends you have. It doesn’t matter if you are white and march in these current demonstrations. Racism is a pattern of power and how it is distributed in society. It’s not solved by friendship or by marching if you don’t follow through on confronting the racist system every day, especially through political advocacy and helping elect those who can change the laws.
My friend Mary Potter Engel once said, “the most liberating question you can ask is ‘who set things up this way?’” Don’t personalize anti-racism. Don’t keep saying you need to “atone.” Get on with the work.
Take your cues on what anti-racism work needs to be done from the leaders in the #BlackLivesMatter movement, as well as other racial/ethnic minority leaders.
Ending the killing of unarmed African Americans is a big priority for the movement, so make it your priority. So many white people I know are upset about the term “Defund the Police.” Black Lives Matter co-founder Alicia Garza has said that defunding the police means reorganizing society’s priorities. “When we talk about defunding the police, what we’re saying is ‘invest in the resources that our communities need.’”
Changing the nature of policing in this country has got to involve drastically changing what we fund in our communities. Public safety has to come to mean the health of the whole community.
Starting in the 1980s, the national focus was shifted to “crime” and policing became the stock answer to this definition of our national ills. This is like the old saying, “if all you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail.”
Instead, advocate with your members of Congress for substantive change.
Amnesty International is a good source on this. Their website lists eight principles we should be working to advance.
- Limiting the use of force. Put in place a federal standard that the use of deadly force be reserved for only when necessary to protect life, as a last resort after exhausting reasonable alternatives, and call on states to implement this standard or risk losing federal funding; require the use of de-escalation techniques and that officers warn subjects before resorting to force, like in the PEACE Act (HR 4359), as included in the Justice in Policing Act
- Prohibiting neck and chokeholds. Prohibit all maneuvers that restrict the flow of blood or oxygen to the brain, including neck holds, chokeholds, and similar excessive force, deeming the use of such force a federal civil rights violation.
- Ending racial and religious profiling. Prohibit racial profiling with robust data collection on police-community encounters and law enforcement activities. Data should capture all demographic categories and be disaggregated.
- Demilitarizing the police. Eliminate the federal 1033 program that facilitates the transfer of military equipment to law enforcement.
- Prohibiting the use of no-knock warrants, especially for drug searches.
- Stopping reckless behavior by police. Change the 18 U.S.C. Sec. 242 mens rea requirement from willfulness to recklessness, permitting prosecutors to successfully hold law enforcement accountable for the deprivation of civil rights and civil liberties;
- Weeding out police officers with a record of abuse. Develop a national public database of police actions that is accessible to all and would cover all police agencies in the United States and its territories.
- Creating real accountability. End the qualified immunity doctrine that prevents police from being held legally accountable when they violate people’s Constitutional rights, and enact a similar mechanism for holding federal law enforcement officers accountable, too.
If you are white and you want to confront your white privilege, educate yourself and act for real, systemic change.
And realize, every day, it’s not enough.
Rev. Dr. Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite is President Emerita and Professor Emerita of Chicago Theological Seminary. She and her husband now make their home in the Vail Valley.
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