Illustration by Emma Drake
"What every white person needs to understand though, is that whiteness is not personal. It isn’t about you as an individual being white. It’s about the carefully constructed systems in place in every aspect of our lives that allow white people to thrive at the expense of those who are not white."
The last few months have opened the eyes of many white people, myself included. I’ve been horrified by the injustices being faced every day by Black people across the world, whilst simultaneously trying to reflect on my own personal complicity in facilitating the oppressive system of whiteness. I’ve wanted to share my own feelings, but didn’t wish to put yet another white voice at the centre of an issue where we are the problem rather than the victim, which so many white people are desperate to be perceived as. But most of all, I feel complete shame in the realisation that I had never experienced these internal conflicts before, despite having a pretty good awareness of how racism presents itself throughout the world.
I used to be blindly content in my deluded, self-serving belief that I was a “good white person”; I would have been the first to say I was totally against racism, and tried to keep myself educated on the crimes against Black people and other minorities that were constantly being committed by the malevolent system of white supremacy. But the more I’ve learned about the deep-rooted racist structures of our world, the more I’ve realised how dangerous this passive “I’m not racist” mentality truly is, and I openly acknowledge my own inadequacies when it comes to actively striving to be anti-racist. Most white people would agree that the murders of innocent Black lives at the hands of police brutality are despicable, but too many of us are content to join in this collective outrage when it hits the headlines, before nestling back into the soft safety of our white privilege once the prospect of actually changing the status quo becomes a little too real. It’s easy to condemn blatant acts of abhorrent racism, but the hard work- the work that will have the biggest impact in the long run- lies in challenging the beliefs and behaviours that quietly uphold the system of white supremacy, a system which all white people benefit from whether they acknowledge it or not.
One of the biggest problems that seems to emerge when white people are attempting to engage in conversations about racism is the fear of making a mistake and being called out for it. I’ve seen countless people on social media trying to justify their silence on the Black Lives Matter movement by claiming that they “didn’t know enough” to express their thoughts or opinions publicly, and would rather take the time to fully educate themselves before speaking up. This is a prime example of how white privilege has infiltrated the mindsets of every person who is lucky enough to possess it, as we are so used to the systemic acceptance and approval of whiteness that we are terrified of actually being viewed as ‘the bad guy’. What every white person needs to understand though, is that whiteness is not personal. It isn’t about you as an individual being white. It’s about the carefully constructed systems in place in every aspect of our lives that allow white people to thrive at the expense of those who are not white. But what if you speak out against racism and get criticised for it? Take the time to actually listen. Make the effort to understand why your words or actions were damaging, rather than getting defensive. If you feel attacked because you tried to express yourself and got criticised, consider how lucky you are to possess this privilege that has led you to feeling comfortable enough to make your voice heard.
There are countless lists of amazing literature, podcasts and documentaries by Black creators that provide a good starting point for educating yourself about racism, so it’s certainly not down to me as a white person to talk extensively about racial issues, when it is not my voice that needs to be amplified. What white people need to be doing, however, is taking it upon ourselves to seek out new information and learn about the insidious nature of racism, without relying on Black people to guide us through it. It is not the job of Black people to teach white people how to be anti-racist, and to treat a Black person as nothing but a resource to draw information from is dehumanising and emotionally laborious. We need to appreciate that there is no ‘end goal’ when it comes to practising anti-racism as a white person. In her book Me and White Supremacy- an eye-opening and intensely thought-provoking book that I highly recommend if you truly want to begin to challenge your own whiteness- Layla F. Saad emphasises that anti-racism work has no final destination:
“There is no feel-good reward at the end other than the knowledge that you are doing this because it is the right thing to do. You will not be congratulated for it. You won’t get any ally cookies for it.You won’t be celebrated for it. You will have to learn to wean yourself off the addiction to instant gratification and instead develop a consciousness for doing what is right even if nobody ever thanks you for it.”
Becoming actively anti-racist as a white person isn’t simple, and there are no shortcuts or quick-fixes to excavating our own internally entrenched racism. It is incredibly difficult to confront the realities of how deep the system of white supremacy runs, and it is even more difficult to confront our own personal contributions to a system that we know is perpetually harmful, and all-too-often fatal. But we have allowed whiteness to dominate for too long, and we have witnessed how detrimental this system is to anybody who doesn’t possess white privilege, so to complain about these disruptions to our personal worldviews is the height of ignorance, and history shows that ignorance destroys lives.
Written by Olivia Cox