Dear White People: Why I Am Racist And So Are You

Dear White People,

For the last 10 years I have led a church mission trip to Edisto Island, South Carolina. For me, it’s one of the best weeks of the year. I take a bunch of kids from a Chicago suburb to run an educational day camp for children on the island.

One of my favorite things about Edisto Island is Allen African Methodist Episcopal Church. We attend worship at Allen during the beginning of the week. Before we even enter the doors of the church, we are greeted with warm and welcoming smiles and hugs by black members of the church. When we walk through the doors, the pastor stops whatever he’s doing and greets us with open arms. After worship, the church invites us to lunch in their dining room.

Rarely do I experience a greater presence of the Kingdom of God than when I’m at Allen AME.

The warm greeting and abundant hospitality shows a spiritually healthy and loving environment. It is exactly what church should be. And it’s exactly how Emanuel AME embraced a 22 year old white man who came to their Bible study on Wednesday evening. They greeted him, accepted him, and loved him during the hour he spent with them. After receiving such hospitality, he murdered them.

In the face of such terror, it is tempting for white people to claim the terrorist is an aberration. That he’s not one of us. He’s the racist one, not us.

But that would be false. White America is racist. I’m racist. And so are you.

I can already hear my white brothers and sisters objecting, “Don’t generalize white people! Stop scapegoating us! I’m not a racist. I even have black friends!”

I don’t want to scapegoat white people. I want white people to take responsibility for the racism that infects us and our culture so that we can break the cycle. The fact is that white Americans live in a society that benefits from the racism that has permeated the United States for nearly 400 years. Because we benefit from racist structures, we are blind to them.

My good friend David Henson challenged white people to be honest in the wake of the Charleston terrorist attacks. Here’s my honesty.

I’ve been blind to racism because I live in a white world. I live in a white neighborhood. I go to a church that’s 95 percent white. I watch television where 90 percent of the faces are white. I shop at stores where white people shop. This is the white world in which I and the majority of white people live. And when a black person enters into my white world, I don’t greet them with arms wide open like the churches in South Carolina. Rather, I wonder to myself, “What are you doing here?”

It’s racist. And as my most prophetic Facebook friend, Dr. Stephen Ray, claims, it’s not normal. It’s sinful.

And it’s white America. Mimetic theory, which guides our work here at Teaching Nonviolent Atonement, claims that humans are not isolated individuals. Rather, we are interdividuals. We are formed by our environment. We learn how to be and act in the world through others. And so the terrorist attack on Wednesday wasn’t the result of a lone gunman who was mentally ill. It was the result of 400 years of white supremacy that teaches us that black lives don’t matter. It teaches that black lives are less valuable than white lives. It tells us that white people should live in white middle class neighborhoods while black people should live in the ghetto.

The terrorist attack on Wednesday was the result of white man who was formed by white American racism – a particularly pernicious form of hatred that infects all white people and continues to murder a countless number of black people. South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley was wrong when she told the Today Show, “There is one person to blame here. A person filled with hate. A person that does not define South Carolina and we are going to focus on that one person.”

I love South Carolina. The people of Charleston are some of the nicest I’ve ever met. But, as John Stewart pointed out last night, that “one person” who shot nine people in a church was formed by a state where “the roads that black people drive on are named for Confederate Generals, who fought to keep black people from being able to drive freely on that road.” That’s how white racism works to devalue black lives in the United States.

And white people can no longer afford to deny the violent racism that infects our lives. Rather, we must take responsibility for it. The first thing we need to do is to name it. Yes, name it in people like the terrorist who killed the nine people at Emmanuel last Wednesday. Name it in our political, economic, and entertainment systems that propagate and benefit from racist structures. For example, did you know thatcurrently “the U.S. has a greater wealth gap between whites and blacks than South Africa did during apartheid”? Name it for the sinful, demonic structure that it is.

But just as important, name the racism that infects you. It’s not helpful to just name racism in others if we don’t also take responsibility for the racism within each of us. Name it in yourself so that you can repent from it. And once you repent from it, name it again and again. Racism is so embedded in our culture that its evil will surely return to our lives.

As you name it, let the scales of white supremacy and privilege that blind you from America’s structures of racism fall from your eyes. Work to change the oppressive racist political, economic, and educational systems that permeate our country.  ReadThe New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander. Read up on Tim Wise. And as you do the personal work of repenting from the racism that infects you, seek friendships with African Americans. Listen to what they have to say about their experience of living in the U.S.

We can no longer afford to deny the racism that infects white America. It’s time that we dismantle the racism that permeates our cultural systems and our personal lives. Otherwise we will doom our black brothers and sisters to more white terrorist attacks.

Yours truly,

Adam Ericksen

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17 replies
  1. Marie De Carlo
    Marie De Carlo says:

    Read your article on racism. Made me realize how we still have a long road ahead of us for race equality. Thank you Adam.

    Reply
  2. Roch
    Roch says:

    Understand what you say. A few times it was understood as a racial solidarity that i would agree of laugh with a racist joke. My retort was ‘if god made you short or black or whatever, so what? Because that is all i could think of. A few other times, just quietly withdrew and decided to not interact with that person. Much of racism is knee-jerk cultural, we also find it hidden behind the nationalities labels. Yes, we must make the effort to counter and end it. Truly if the best thing you have to do is continually criticize, then it says much about you.

    Reply
    • Adam Ericksen
      Adam Ericksen says:

      I think that’s a perfect retort, Roch. And withdrawing is also a great response. That racism is a knee jerk cultural response makes a lot of sense to me. The more we can bring it to light, the better we will be able to manage it. I like where you are going in your comment. thank you for it!

      Peace,
      Adam

      Reply
    • Adam Ericksen
      Adam Ericksen says:

      Thanks for the comment, Kevin. Unfortunately, while my experience is particular and limited there is undeniable evidence that it is generally true. The more we deny it the more we support racist structures that permeate the US.

      Best wishes,
      Adam

      Reply
      • Kevin Schmidt
        Kevin Schmidt says:

        There is no evidence to prove all white people are racist. That is what you implied. Where is your proof that it is “generally true”?
        Your confessed biased opinion does not qualify for evidence.

        Reply
        • Adam Ericksen
          Adam Ericksen says:

          There’s the prison industrial complex, there’s racist policies built into the US that ghettoized America. I’ve lived in many different cities in the US and it’s undeniable that there are white worlds where black people are overtly or covertly unwelcome. My confessed biased opinion does qualify for *evidence.* I’ll admit that it does not qualify for *proof.*

          Again, for more I’d suggest The New Jim Crow and the work of Tim Wise. Also, here’s a good article that provides proof that racist laws and discrimination built ghettos in America. It’s in our DNA. http://www.patheos.com/blogs/daylightatheism/2015/05/how-we-built-the-ghettos-why-we-built-the-ghettos/

          Peace,
          Adam

          Reply
        • Tim Seitz-Brown
          Tim Seitz-Brown says:

          My experience is particular and limited. Just as I see that everyone is embedded in a human culture of sin, and, as I see it, all people are sinners…

          In a similar way, racism is a systemic, powerful force in our nation, creating white privilege. Where it gets complicated is that not all white people benefit equally from this system. Depending upon circumstance, some white folks live more privileged lives than others.

          I recommend “The Dark End of the Street” by Danielle McQuire for the history of rape against black women committed by white epterrrorism. There is also “the Warmth of Other Suns” about the great migration.

          I think focusing simply on the individual white person (whether he or she is racist or not) misses that we are all part of a racist system. This is a conversation about how we work to dismantle it

          Reply
  3. rdw
    rdw says:

    Otherwise, we will doom are black brothers and sisters to more white terrorist attacks.”

    Or for that matter yourselves. The last time I checked, the majority of mass shooters (terrorist) were white and so were the victims. But I get your point on the racism though.

    Reply
  4. Tonya
    Tonya says:

    Thank you for your honesty. I wish to hear from more people with this mentality. We can accomplish so much more if we all can just get along and rid not only this country, but the world of racism.

    Reply
  5. Robert Roninsgrand
    Robert Roninsgrand says:

    Good article but it contains inherent racism. White and black are not the only races. Remember to think of the agressions directed at Asian and Native American people. Thanks

    Reply
  6. Andrew McKenna
    Andrew McKenna says:

    “I’ve been blind to racism because I live in a white world.” This statement frames the case about racism in America, a specialty of the house. When we speak of racism among us, we should always accompany the word with its twin: denial. Racism is structural, systemic in our culture, and our denial of it among ourselves, in ourselves, ensures its perpetuation. Here is a NYT link, among the paper’s “Most Emailed,” which explains the tie between white privilege and denial: http://www.nytimes.com/2015/06/19/magazine/white-terrorism-is-as-old-as-america.html
    The essay includes the following critique of our efforts to isolate the SC terrorist within his crime, rather than see its broader and deeper implications:
    “A Seattle Times tweet (now deleted)asked if the gunman was “concentrated evil or a sweet kid,
    ” TheWall Street Journal termed him a “loner” and Charleston’s mayor called him a “scoundrel,
    ” yet the seemingly obvious designations— murderer, thug, terrorist, killer, racist — are nowhere to be found.
    This is the privilege of whiteness: While a terrorist may be
    white, his violence is never based in his whiteness. A white
    terrorist has unique, complicated motives that we will never
    comprehend. He can be a disturbed loner or a monster. He is
    either mentally ill or pure evil. The white terrorist exists solely as
    a dyad of extremes: Either he is humanized to the point of
    sympathy or he is so monstrous that he almost becomes
    mythological. Either way, he is never indicative of anything
    larger about whiteness, nor is he ever a garden­ variety racist. He
    represents nothing but himself. A white terrorist is anything that
    frames him as an anomaly and separates him from the long,
    storied history of white terrorism.”

    Reply
  7. Mary
    Mary says:

    I’m not blind to the racism. I’ve actually called white people out on theirs, and boy is it like sending off a firecracker rocket right into the conversation. And then I get socially shunned, very politely, the way white people tend to do (at least to other white people). I think the first thing that should happen is that socially, it should become acceptable for white people to call out other white people on their racism, in just the same way that it’s now acceptable to call white people out on their anti-semitism, which wasn’t the case before WWII. Let’s hope we don’t need a WWIII in order to get to the point where we can call each other out on racist actions, speech, quips, etc. I for one would LOVE to see racists get their own in everyday conversation. And get laughed at to boot. And I too am tired of sitting quietly keeping my mouth shut for fear of becoming verbally bullied by racists and then having something worse happen. Please, other white people, when a white person speaks up in a conversation to show up someone else’s racism, show solidarity with the white person speaking. Don’t let the bully racists win…..anymore.

    Reply

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