Written by Erica Gehringer
I am over the fake liberal facades that people try to put on in order to make themselves feel better. If you’re a person claiming to be “progressive,” “accepting,” and “anti-racist,” I want to ask what that means to you. Is it progressive to not support people of color, especially when they ask you for help? Do you truly accept the people of color around you, or do you accept the white supremacist systems that you are a part of? For example, I work in a 90.1% white department at a thought-to-be “liberal” public university, and in the year that I’ve been there, I’ve received a lot of pushback for suggesting we make the office a more racially inclusive space. In talking to my (white) managers, (white) human resource liaison, and (white) coworkers, I have heard the following statements:
“I know it sucks for you here, but I can’t help you out because you have to realize that I eventually want to get promoted.”
“By bringing up race in the office, you run the risk of offending people and burning bridges for yourself as well as the people in your department.”
“You may not want to make a career here, but there are people whose whole working lives will be spent here. And they can’t help you out because they want to survive in this office too.”
“By telling other departments about your dissatisfaction with your experiences here, you are making us, your friends, look bad and like we failed you.”
“You have to realize that overall as a career, this is a very white field to go into.”
“We know we are not nearly as diverse as we should be, but we are not ready to take this on just yet.”
“No, I think it’s actually very racially diverse and accepting here.”
White privilege is being able to ignore or shut down a coworker of color’s literal cry for help in order to gain your own economic privilege. It is when you expect people of color to educate you about the racism that exists while at the same time being able to discount and minimize their lived oppression due to your own lack of personal experiences. It is “surviving” somewhere by thriving off of a system of white supremacy. And it even exists laced within the structures of seemingly innocuous white-collar office jobs. Furthermore, these are not individual callouts of my coworkers and friends because my personal situation is unfortunately not an isolated or uncommon event: Many people of color who work in predominantly white workplaces would probably receive similar victim-blaming and defensive reactions as well. This is because white supremacy ingrains in our minds that white people are entitled to such privileges of not having to question the system that has already been built to benefit them.
The Ku Klux Klan is one of the most explicit examples of white supremacy, but it’s not the only form of it. White supremacy is the belief or action—whether intentional or not—of upholding a system of white dominance, power, or thought. In the United States, we live in a country built (and still building) upon imperialism and white supremacy, and because such racism is so historically rooted and systematically maintained, many of its effects and influences are frequently overlooked and thought to be “natural” occurrences. White supremacy can range from, but is not limited to, exploiting countries of color to gentrifying cities to whitewashing media to working for an organization disproportionately managed by white leaders to white folks shutting down or controlling conversations about race. It can change forms depending on space and time, and it can also be perpetuated and experienced on an individual or community level or both at the same time. And similar to how it does not include all white people, it does not exclude all people of color either; white supremacy does not discriminate. Additionally, racism does not always come in the form of unadulterated hatred. You can have love for someone while simultaneously subscribing to white supremacy. The two are not mutually exclusive, but since we’ve been taught that racism only comes in the form of wanting to eradicate communities of color, we often have a difficult time admitting that we do indeed perpetuate certain racist scripts (even toward the people we care about!).
White supremacy also hides behind the notion of colorblindness, or the false idea that racism no longer exists. A part of this ideology believes that bringing up the topic of race is racist. However, denying that racism exists is inherently racist because it sets whiteness as the status quo (that most people of color will literally never be able to achieve) and consequently erases the very real racism that many people of color continue to encounter today. It is also a cop-out to say statements like, “It could be worse!” or “That’s just how I was raised” or “I come from a different background than you” because they completely minimize and invalidate the direct alienation and isolation that many people of color face. It subsequently re-centers the conversation around the privileged person or group’s feelings, which once again takes the power away from the already marginalized person or community. Particularly, when white individuals take over and make themselves the center of conversations about race, it drowns the experiences of people of color, which only further perpetuates white supremacy.
I understand that not everyone has the capacity or courage or disposition to speak out, but I want to bring up the fact that if you are claiming a “progressive” or “liberal” identity and aren’t willing to actively challenge oppressive systems, you probably aren’t as “progressive” as you think. A part of reaching equality is redistributing your power to give voice and authority to people with marginalized identities who lack that same power. In particular, by being white and allowing clear racial hierarchies to remain as they are, you are directly contributing to white supremacy. And you have no right to claim that you’re not racist or that you don’t hold any racist views if you refuse to recognize and actively challenge the system of racism that you are a part of and benefiting from. Remember that white supremacy is not only the KKK; it is when whiteness infiltrates and dominates space.
Additionally, not all activism comes in the form of protesting in the street. Protesting is an extremely important form of activism, but it is understandably not for everyone. Challenging white supremacy in some instances could be as simple as checking yourself in a group dynamic by asking, “How many people of color are in the room? How much space am I taking? Am I talking over the people of color [or people of any other marginalized identities]? Am I truly listening to other people speak?” We must also begin questioning where we might have learned a certain “fact” about specific groups of people. And if someone calls us out for any sort of oppressive behavior, instead of automatically shutting down or getting defensive, we need to genuinely question why they may have told us that. Rather, if you don’t want to be told that you’re being oppressive in some way, find different ways not to be!
Unlearning oppression is supposed to make us uncomfortable, but using this discomfort can be one of our best opportunities to grow. And if you truly love and care for someone, a part of that that love is finding ways to support them. For some people of color, that may entail searching for ways to unpack and dismantle systems of racial hierarchies, especially if you’re in any sort of position of power. No one should ever have to feel unsafe because of their identities, so it is our responsibility as “progressive” people to help create new and inclusive spaces and attitudes for everyone to feel safe. Further, we need to honor the folks who are courageous enough to speak up despite the years upon years of oppression and daily microaggressions they’ve faced. Otherwise, we will all continue to lose trust in each other and will never truly be the “liberal” and “accepting” people that we claim to be.