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.’

Don’t Gaslight My Humanity

Reading Time: 2 minutes

Over-explaining can be a trauma response to being gaslit in childhood. When I figured that out, I worked to stop doing so. If I already told the truth and was clear, there is nothing else to say and over-explaining leads to distortion. Off of that nonsense.

– Tweet by @viriyaakarunaa

I love this quote. And, I’d add this addition: over-explaining can also be a trauma response to being gaslit about racism (although this is also true when thinking intersectionally as well. Consider being gaslit about ableism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, colonialism, nationalism, etc.).

A few years ago a meme went viral saying something (and this is not a direct quote) basically like y’all believe Trump about XYZ but Black people need the blood of a dove, the voice of 3 angels and the piety of a Pope before you believe us about racism.

I think we have to talk about how – in particular – liberals and Christians both weaponize academia in order to refute racism despite the fact that many reknown historical scholars are/were racists, and refuse to investigate how the very educational institutions and Christian organizations they ascribe to systematically upheld (and many still uphold) segregation, discrimination, and racism. 

BIPOC people have been telling the truth about racism, colonization, genocide, and apartheid for centuries. 

People in the LGBTQ+ Community have been telling the truth about the deadly violence of homophobia and transphobia for centuries. 

Refugees and immigrants have been telling the truth about global inequities, sexism, racism, religious persecution, and violence for centuries. 

Who is listening? Who is weaponizing? Who and what systems hold power?

An itchy question I have been thinking about stemmed from a tweet I saw from a decolonizing therapy group I follow. The tweet asked something like – if we know Black people carry generational trauma from slavery than what can we infer that people carry who are the offspring of generations that were the overseers and masters of enslaved persons (or as I like to call them – people that were intentionally, actively, and willfully upholding the evil and racist torture, rape, and genocide of other people). 

What systems are upheld when we gaslight those speaking up about racism? 

What norms are perpetuated? 

Upward & Onward Together

10 Books about Anti-Black Racism that Every Church Library Should Have

Reading Time: 5 minutes

This is not a comprehensive or exhaustive list.

Primary Reading:

The Color of Compromise: The Truth about the American Church’s Complicity in Racism by Jemar Tisby

For me, this is one of the most important books on race and the church that I have ever read. Tisby provides a searing and critical historical survey of how the (Evangelical) church has perpetuated racism. I appreciated his strong prophetic voice and the clear actionable steps.

Far More Terrible for Women: Personal Accounts of Women in Slavery (Real Voices, Real History) by Patrick Minges

Far More Terrible for Women presents 27 firsthand accounts of female ex-slaves. Patrick Minges “combed the WPA interviews of the 1930s for those of women, selecting a range of stories that give a taste of the unique challenges, complexities, and cruelties that were the lot of females under the “peculiar institution.””

Slavery’s Long Shadow: Race and Reconciliation in American Christianity by James L. Gorman

This book is important, powerful, critical, and devastating. “In Slavery’s Long Shadow fourteen historians and other scholars examine how the sobering historical realities of race relations and Christianity have created both unity and division within American churches from the 1790s into the twenty-first century. The book’s three sections offer readers three different entry points into the conversation: major historical periods, case studies, and ways forward. Historians as well as Christians interested in racial reconciliation will find in this book both help for understanding the problem and hope for building a better future.”

Sister’s in the Wilderness: The Challenge of Womanist God Talks by Delores S. Williams

An iconic book which led to womanist theology, Sister’s in the Wilderness is moving, powerful, and also felt (in my limited theological textual knowledge) very academic. I appreciated the thorough and critical theological analysis and the insistence on examining hermeneutics. I also deeply appreciate the insightful analysis of Hagar and the consistent centering of Black women.

The Cross and the Lynching Tree by James H. Cone.

“The cross and the lynching tree are the two most emotionally charged symbols in the history of the African American community. In this powerful new work, theologian James H. Cone explores these symbols and their interconnection in the history and souls of black folk. Both the cross and the lynching tree represent the worst in human beings and at the same time a thirst for life that refuses to let the worst determine our final meaning. While the lynching tree symbolized white power and black death, the cross symbolizes divine power and black life, God overcoming the power of sin and death. For African Americans, the image of Jesus, hung on a tree to die, powerfully grounded their faith that God was with them, even in the suffering of the lynching era.

In a work that spans social history, theology, and cultural studies, Cone explores the message of the spirituals and the power of the blues; the passion and the engaged vision of Martin Luther King, Jr.; he invokes the spirits of Billie Holiday and Langston Hughes, Fannie Lou Hamer and Ida B. Wells, and the witness of black artists, writers, preachers, and fighters for justice. And he remembers the victims, especially the 5,000 who perished during the lynching period. Through their witness he contemplates the greatest challenge of any Christian theology to explain how life can be made meaningful in the face of death and injustice.”


Me & White Supremacy by Layla Saad

 “This eye-opening book challenges you to do the essential work of unpacking your biases, and helps white people take action and dismantle the privilege within themselves so that you can stop (often unconsciously) inflicting damage on people of color, and in turn, help other white people do better, too.”

White Rage by Carol Anderson

“As Ferguson, Missouri, erupted in August 2014, and media commentators across the ideological spectrum referred to the angry response of African Americans as ‘black rage’, historian Carol Anderson wrote a remarkable op-ed in the Washington Post showing that this was, instead, ‘white rage at work. With so much attention on the flames,’ she wrote, ‘everyone had ignored the kindling.’…Compelling and dramatic in the unimpeachable history it relates, White Rage will add an important new dimension to the national conversation about race in America.”

Young adult fiction

All American Boys by Brendan Kiely and Jason Reynolds

“Rashad Butler and Quinn Collins are two young men, one black and one white, whose lives are forever changed by an act of extreme police brutality. Rashad wakes up in a hospital. Quinn saw how he got there. And so did the video camera that taped the cop beating Rashad senseless into the pavement. Thus begins ALL AMERICAN BOYS, written in tandem by two of our great literary talents, Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely. The story is told in Rashad and Quinn’s alternating perspectives, as they grapple with the complications that spin out of this violent moment and reverberate in their families, school, and town. Over the course of one week, Rashad tries to find the strength to accept his role as the symbolic figure of the community’s response to police brutality, and Quinn tries to decide where he belongs in a town bitterly divided by racial tension.  Ultimately, the two narratives weave back together, in the moment in which the two boys, now changed, can actually see each other—the first step for healing and understanding in a country still deeply sick with racial injustice. Reynolds pens the voice of Rashad, and Kiely has taken the voice of Quinn.”

The 57 Bus by Dashka Slater

Note – while this book isn’t necessarily about anti-Black racism, the hate crime committed speaks to how hate causes harm.

“One teenager in a skirt. One teenager with a lighter. One moment that changes both of their lives forever. If it weren’t for the 57 bus, Sasha and Richard never would have met. Both were high school students from Oakland, California, one of the most diverse cities in the country, but they inhabited different worlds. Sasha, a white teen, lived in the middle-class foothills and attended a small private school. Richard, a black teen, lived in the crime-plagued flatlands and attended a large public one. Each day, their paths overlapped for a mere eight minutes. But one afternoon on the bus ride home from school, a single reckless act left Sasha severely burned, and Richard charged with two hate crimes and facing life imprisonment. The case garnered international attention, thrusting both teenagers into the spotlight.”

The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas

“Sixteen-year-old Starr Carter moves between two worlds: the poor neighborhood where she lives and the fancy suburban prep school she attends. The uneasy balance between these worlds is shattered when Starr witnesses the fatal shooting of her childhood best friend Khalil at the hands of a police officer. Khalil was unarmed.

Soon afterward, his death is a national headline. Some are calling him a thug, maybe even a drug dealer and a gangbanger. Protesters are taking to the streets in Khalil’s name. Some cops and the local drug lord try to intimidate Starr and her family. What everyone wants to know is: what really went down that night? And the only person alive who can answer that is Starr.

But what Starr does—or does not—say could upend her community. It could also endanger her life.”