Enough with “good white people”

First, I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Council-er or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season.” Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.

—MLK, “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”

I have written a good deal about the construct of whiteness (click here, here, here, and here) and how in and of itself, this pernicious ideology is oppressive. To be sure, its oppression is disproportionately felt by non-whites, which should always remain the primary reason why we seek to dismantle whiteness in all its guises. But it is also extremely damaging to so-called whites as well. This is not a new insight nor is it one original to me.

As a beloved community scholar rooted in the work of Rev. Dr. Howard Thurman and Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., I wrestle with the bifurcated nature of whiteness. On one hand, I reject the foundational racial claims and cultural assumptions of whiteness. I do not identify with whiteness in terms of my own self-regard because whiteness holds nothing with which I resonate. On the other hand, I am a direct beneficiary of cultural whiteness and I have inherited both the perfidious history and the present horrific existence that is white supremacy culture.

For many years, I wanted to be a “good white person.” To me, this meant being involved with racial justice work, showing myself to be someone who was consistent in word and deed. While this isn’t bad on its face, I see now that I sometimes had the wrong motivations. I was still so entrenched in my own internalized whiteness, I sought praise from non-whites to assure myself that I wasn’t racist (which is problematic on so many levels). I have been blessed to walk with a wide variety of people on the racial justice journey, each of whom has offered wisdom and frankness that’ve shaped me.

The continued irony of my own existence is that in order for me to be able to morally and ethically reject whiteness, I have to work toward its complete destruction. I do not get to declare myself emancipated from whiteness until its primary victims no longer have to look over their shoulders. For me, there is no “good white person.” Please understand the context, though; this is not a call for people to engage in racial hatred. White is not a race. It is a lie. A good lie is still a lie.

The real “white man’s burden” is coming to terms with the horror that has been perpetrated in the name of a nonexistent race, and how the very institutions of our government are covered in the blood of untold millions because of specious racial theories. It is understanding that we cannot turn aside, cannot continue to put the onus on the oppressed, and cannot seek praise for being a “good example for our race.” At least, that’s where it is for me right now.

I don’t have to describe the uncertainty with which we are living right now; each day feels like we’re running a marathon on stilts in a hurricane. We are continually pummeled, falling, getting back up, and lurching on toward Bethlehem. The storm is no abating. It is not getting easier. And that can feel completely overwhelming.

Yet.

We stand at a critical point in history. It is clear that monumental change is happening. We don’t know which direction it will go, but we are not helpless. In order to root out these structures, to affect longitudinal change that will allow for an authentic national repentance and be based upon restorative justice, it takes individuals and communities across the country to be the driving force. It will take a whole lot of good people to finally erase whiteness.