How Racism Harms White People

Reading Time: 4 minutes
PC: Chicago Health Magazine

A few weeks ago, I wrote a Facebook post – perhaps as a bit of conjecture, perhaps merely pontification – about learning how to speak critically about the costs of racism for white people outside of traditional transactional (and economic) frameworks. A professor of mine once told me that if you cannot explain a concept in which you claim to know in 5th grade terminology, then you cannot claim to understand the concept.

So, curious in part by the lack of response and by the lack of white, contemporary, scholarly work on the subject, I began to research the costs of racism in regard to white people.

After all, the critic would suggest that in western American culture racism creates a systemic structure which inherently benefits people identified as white. Particularly, those whom identify as cisgender, heterosexual, white, and male. So, what are the costs? Are there any? Here is my attempt to provide a 5thgrade response.

In the past seven years, I have started intentionally paying attention to the racist patterns that show up in my own everyday life which reinforce a history and system of patterns that harm Black and brown folx, but that also harm white people. Some patterns that I have noticed include asking additional questions about truth and lies, power and privilege, and trauma and behavior. For example, here are a few ways that I think racism hurts white people:

Truth and lies. What do you know about truth? When did you first learn about lies and truth? How do you know what the truth is? Can anyone know the full truth? Who is usually seen as a truth teller? Who gets to tell the truth? Who gets the benefit of the doubt?

Sometimes, we can find clues about people that are often seen as truth tellers by paying close attention to our surroundings. Look at your bookshelf and your movie library. What kinds of people do you usually listen to? Are a lot of your books written by persons that identify with a specific gender identity? Are a lot of your books written by persons that identify as white? Are a lot of your books written by persons from a specific social class? Are a lot of your books written by persons with specific abilities? What about by persons that only speak one language?

So often, listening to one set of viewpoints limits our ability to think critically about our surroundings and what is true. Can you remember a time when you believed something only to learn new information that changed what you previously believed?

Racism tells us in explicit and implicit ways that hurting and harming others based on their race is not only necessary but that is inevitable because people will always be at the bottom. Racism also tells lies about what we see. When we see wealthy people with manicured lawns and expensive clothing and purses, it is easy to forget that much of today’s wealth was created from systems that hurt and harmed Black and brown people. Sometimes images of what we see as a goal, or even the American Dream, – wealth, fame, status, power – were created on the very systems and ideals that harm many Black and brown people.

Anger and Power/Privilege: When was the last time you got mad? Do you remember what it was about? I get mad a lot about racism and when people engage in racist behavior. Maybe you do too. One of the things I love about anger is that is a gift and a tool because it helps to clue us into other emotions like sadness and fear. Weird to say I love it, huh? I love that it helps me stay in touch with things that I feel are unjust. Think again about something that has recently made you mad. Is it possible that you were also feeling sad or afraid too? Racism often makes people angry. Sometimes, people are angry because people said racist things or engaged in racist actions. Sometimes, people are angry because they don’t understand racism. Sometimes, people are sad and afraid underneath all of that anger. People are afraid of dying. People are afraid of being misunderstood. People are sad that things are not changing very quickly. I think it is helpful to think about racism in terms of power and privilege. Here is an example to help you understand regular power dynamics. Imagine you are in seventh grade and you are fighting with your teacher. Maybe you call your teacher a nasty name. Perhaps your teacher responds by calling you a nasty name and then suspending you from school. As a student, you didn’t have the same power as your teacher so you couldn’t also suspend her. Maybe no one believes you when you tell your story. Maybe you go home, and you are upset about how unfair it is.

Now, it is irresponsible to suggest that that scenario is even close to how racism works. But there are some important lessons we can glean. Let’s think about this scenario and apply our critical analyses lenses and think about racism. Systemic racism is a system of intentional patterns that rely on dynamics like power and privilege to create unfair systems and rules.

So, let’s try this scenario again but imagine that you are the teacher. If you are the teacher and you know that you probably won’t get fired you might imagine that you feel a certain amount of freedom to say or do things that a student might not say or do. Can you identify why you might feel that ability? Can you identify why the student may choose to suppress anger instead of name it? Can you think about how the teacher could make rules or systems that would hurt or harm the student? Consider how things often change when people in power get angry and how much harder it is for systems to change when people are not in power. When white anger shows up in racism what policies and systems stay the same? Who is being dominated?

While this completes today’s exercise in discussing the harms of racism in 5th grade terminology (although this list is FAR from complete), I think it is deeply important to consider other ways in which racism has harmed white people. Afterall, racism is a white people problem. Allies, I would encourage you that learning how to take ownership and identify the harm is an important and critical step of the process. Journal or talk with a trusted friend about ways in which racism has harmed you. If you need some ideas, Debby Irving, author of Waking Up White, offers this important blog post titled ‘How Racism Damages Us As White People.’

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: