Dismantling Racism, Part 1: On White Privilege, Fear, And Denial

Editor’s Note: With all the work there is to be done to dismantle racism, one post is never enough. Therefore, this is the beginning of a series. Please note, while “racism” is multifaceted, these article speak primarily to the relationship between African Americans and whites. We recognize that other forms of racial prejudice exist.

The altar of white supremacy — a lie upon which millions of black lives have been sacrificed throughout history, continually stained with new blood — is a blight on the soul of our nation. The pillars on which it stands – fear, denial, mythology and pathetic narcissism — must be knocked out from under it. It must come tumbling down.

The terrorizing effects of white supremacist ideology were on horrific display for all to see last Wednesday night, when Dylann Roof stood in front of an African American congregation after spending an hour with them in prayer, declared “You’re raping our women, and you’re taking over our country. And you have to go.” He opened fire and brutally murdered nine congregants, sending a message that echoed and amplified the violent racism we have seen taking the lives of African Americans every month in this country since its founding. “You are not safe anywhere,” the message says. The media is showing all of us what African Americans have already known – that even places of refuge may not be safe in a country founded upon the lie of racial difference.

Yet there are many who want to isolate this tragedy and deny that it is representative of a much deeper, much broader, much more insidious culture of racism. In an interview with the Today show the day after the shooting, South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley, was quick to suggest that Dylann Roof was a single, hate-filled individual, an aberration in “the holy city,” “the friendliest state in the country.” While the Confederate flag still flies in front of the capital building, while cars with Confederate plates still drive on streets named for Confederate generals, Governor Haley spoke for millions still under the spell of white denial (the fact that she is Indian-American only speaks to the pervasiveness of white mythology infecting every race). “This doesn’t happen here,” she said.

It happens here far too often. “Here” could be Anywhere, USA. The demon of racism sleeps comfortably in the institutions and policies that underlie the foundation of our country. Its permanent footprints are all over neighborhoods designed to contain black mobility and keep African Americans in poverty. It laughs maliciously as African Americans are disproportionately arrested and given far higher sentences for petty, nonviolent offences committed in equal or greater number by their white counterparts. It steals into the hearts of white police officers and vigilantes and guides their fingers upon the trigger of guns. And it rears its ugly head in countless micro and macro aggressions.

If it didn’t happen here, Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, John Crawford III, Freddie Gray, and 12-year-old Tamir Rice would all be alive.

Tamir Rice’s appalling murder is particularly revealing in the ways it highlights irrational white fear, fear that was made explicitly clear in the racist screed of Dylann Roof. Officer Timothy Loehmann, who shot Rice less than two seconds after getting out of his squad car, while the vehicle was still running, mistook this 12-year-old boy with a toy for an adult and believed “He gave me no choice.” Tamir was reaching for his own toy gun when shot, possibly to show that it was a toy. Reaching implies that he was not holding it, certainly not pointing it, at the time he died. The officer, filled with a culturally-conditioned fear (among other possible fears), couldn’t even take the time to notice the face of his victim and realize that it was a child.

Trayvon Martin was deemed threatening for wearing a hoodie and walking while black. Michael Brown, according to Darren Wilson, “hulked up like a demon” and charged after being hit with a bullet. The dehumanizing fear that refuses to see people, refuses to see children, is something that, like white privilege, must be called out. But like white privilege, it will be denied.

White denial is bewildering. Do we really imagine that after centuries of brutal, humiliating dehumanization, after laws that kept races separate and unequal in treatment lasting through more than half of the twentieth century, after the pernicious lie of white superiority that has been passed through generations, the sins of our past will just fall away with no devastating consequences?

My racial ancestors brought Africans in chains – packed into ships like animals and treated less humanely – to be property. My race is one that demonized fellow human beings for profit. Darker-skinned people were dehumanized, humiliated, flogged, tortured, and killed, and their labor built this nation. Brutality and discrimination followed emancipation, with Jim Crow segregation and lynchings that lasted late into the twentieth century. Black people were sectioned off like lepers, whites refusing to share neighborhoods, schools, bathrooms, or even drinking fountains with them. Sunday after-church picnics that included the hanging, burning and dismemberment of black men regularly drew crowds from in and out of town.

All of this is universal knowledge. And yet far too many white people refuse to acknowledge the vast racial disparities and injustices that continually spring from this brutal, not-too-distant history.

Less is known about the ways in which racism is built into the very structure and economy of modern American life. Less is known about strategic decisions that are made that keep black lives devalued. Black lives matter “as a source of economic exploitation,” as Paul Street writes for Counterpunch.org. Citing the vast disparities in arrests and sentences for African Americans versus whites, despite similar rates of “crime” (mostly nonviolent drug use), Paul goes on to explain how African Americans, by and large, are the “raw materials” of an over $200 billion prison industry. This is how black lives matter to an impersonal economic system built by real attitudes of white fear and prejudice. Little is also known about the ways in which black lives are purposefully pushed aside for “development.” As Glen Ford of Black Agenda Report declares:

The dynamics of racism in a capitalist society demand that people of color – and especially black people – be largely removed from an area as a condition for investment in that area. … White does not just convey privilege; it also conveys value in US society. The added value of whiteness is embedded in things that are bought and sold in US society. … Racism is so embedded in American society… it’s like a part of the furniture. It’s just there, like it’s hot or it’s humid… no, it’s racist.

By virtue of white skin passed along to me through many generations, I have experienced comforts deliberately cut off from many African Americans. The net monetary value of my household has been larger than that of the average black household not because my ancestors have worked harder, but because they were allowed education, jobs, wages, housing opportunities, etc., denied to black people for generations. All of these advantages are still out of reach for many African Americans despite change in the letter of the law, because change in laws does not constitute proper reparations and “white value” remains a determining factor in investment.

And I haven’t even begun to talk about the lack of fear I experience in general when I interact with police officers. I may worry for my children, but I don’t worry that the very people whose job it is to protect them will arrest, humiliate, or kill them. As I strive to find the right ways to tell my daughters about the evils of racism in this country, I haven’t been forced into a conversation before they, or I, am ready, as far too many African American families are.

White privilege is real. I have benefited from it, while some of my friends have suffered because of it. As my colleague Adam Ericksen says to all of his white readers, “I am racist and so are you,” not because we are bigots – not because we have individual animosity – but because we have been born into privilege in a nation built on racial inequality. We are as vulnerable to racism as we are to original sin; it is an inexorable fact. I acknowledge racism and white privilege not to wallow in guilt but to move forward along a path of reparation and reconciliation. Yet to give up white privilege is impossible for an individual; it must necessarily be a communal process of people of all shades working together to dismantle our current societal structure and rebuild on a foundation of equity our nation has not yet seen.

How do we go about this process together? As a white person, I know my job is to listen more than it is to speak, to form more relationships across racial divides and become ever more aware, through the stories of my African American brothers and sisters, of the terrible evils racism continues to foster. Yet I also have ideas to share in my next few articles, both theological and political. I want to explore the harmful Christian theological ideas that have contributed to the infamous legacy of slavery and white ideology in order to expose any toxic remnants and replace them with a healthier, more healing hermeneutic. I want to shed light on the lie of “heritage not hate,” and explore how our national narratives undermine the suffering of African Americans. I want to look at practical methods of social and economic healing. But first, I want to more deeply examine the phenomenon of white fear, which I think is seriously undermining any progress. Your ideas, dear readers, may well contribute to some articles in this series. Please join the dialogue; these conversations are long overdue.

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4 replies
  1. Andrew McKenna
    Andrew McKenna says:

    I don’t think white denial is bewildering. It is automatic, autonomic, mechanical, being a denial of complicity in evil, especially in such a flagrant, scandalous one that lay the foundations of our country’s prosperity. (Just read up on “steamboat capitalism”) We have to learn that when we speak of racism, the word denial should always be present to mind.

    • Lindsey Paris-Lopez
      Lindsey Paris-Lopez says:

      Hi Andrew. I agree with you that white denial is “automatic, autonomic, mechanical…” and yet, paradoxically, I still find it somewhat bewildering. It is bewildering when you consider what has been done to African Americans, when you consider the history between the races, when you contemplate the sheer horror of what those with white skin inflicted upon those with black and brown skin… it is bewildering to think that there are some who think such evils can be wiped away with no lingering effects. It is bewildering when you see how deeply we cling to desire for vengeance and yet expect forgiveness (or deny even the need for forgiveness) from others.

      But we are desperate to believe that we are “good” people, desperate to disassociate ourselves from evil, so in that sense it is easy to understand denial.

      It is also very easy to see that we have erased our complicity with evil from our modern and contemporary narratives. I sited many things white Americans are typically completely unaware of. The prison industrial complex is something that is finally getting some degree of attention, but has gone (and continues to go) ignored by far too many people who don’t have to worry about spending time behind bars. (Not having to worry about that is a white phenomenon. African Americans have to consider the possibility of being unjustly arrested regardless of innocence. Some have to worry more than others depending on location and other factors). You know about this much more than I do. I was, until recently, also unaware of how “urban renewal = black removal.” (I’m quoting you from Theology and Peace, and I have heard the phrase elsewhere too). I just recently became aware of how the US highway system deliberately leveled black neighborhoods and contributed to ghettoization. These are things that just aren’t taught at all, and so they are very easy to be ignorant of. And overall, an attitude of individualism — which I think is particularly (not necessarily uniquely, but particularly) — American, contributes to denial. It makes it very easy to disconnect from our history and our society and say that we have nothing to do with the sins of the past or even the sins of the present culture. It also contributes to the misunderstanding of “racism” as “individual animosity” and makes it easy to be oblivious to the power structures that keep some ahead of others. But when we understand our interconnection (and I think mimetic theorists understand this on a particularly deep level), we also understand how we cannot isolate ourselves from our surrounding culture or from our history. And then once we learn what that culture and history are, once we become aware of all these evils that the white majority has inflicted upon brown and black minorities, and how lingering evils are deliberately woven into the policies and institutions that run the nation — then it becomes impossible to deny such evil.

      At this point, knowing what I know, it boggles my mind to realize that the lie of white supremacy is hidden in plain sight, veiled by lies and mythology, and what is literally right in front of our faces remains unseen. And I know that, as disgusted as I am by it, my vision is still blurred and I still don’t see as clearly as my African American sisters and brothers.

  2. Betty Palme
    Betty Palme says:

    Great start for the conversation. I am white and I, too, am trying to figure out how to influence white people to see racism and white privilege. The fear and defensiveness are strong, gut reactions and prevent any real discussion.

    You’ve got me thinking about how I used to be unaware of my racism, how I felt then, and what made me wake up.

    • Lindsey Paris-Lopez
      Lindsey Paris-Lopez says:

      Hi Betty! Thank you so much for joining the conversations. You’re absolutely right: fear and defensiveness build a wall around the heart and mind. They are strong, natural reactions and they do preclude real dialogue.

      I think it would be a wonderful thing to talk about how we were once unaware of our own racism. Your final comment makes me think that perhaps sharing our personal stories might help change the narrative. I think the way we present our personal revelations of how we came to understand racism would be a good approach. Beginning with empathy is always better than beginning with what could be perceived as accusation.

      While racism is a cultural and societal, rather than individual, phenomenon, we do have personal stories of how we came to understand the society around us and what has opened our eyes to this racism. Sharing those stories can certainly help, just as hearing the stories of our African American sisters and brothers experiences of racism can be eye-opening in ways that abstract, impersonal history and statistics are not.

      Thank you again, Betty!


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