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Why my “good intentions” aren’t enough to dismantle white superiority

Author: 
Francesca Moroney
August 16, 2018

White hallwayIn the middle of a cold, Midwestern winter, I was standing in a sunshine-filled atrium of a St. Louis charter school with a roomful of (mostly) strangers. We were participants in a multi-day training session called, “Understanding and Analyzing Systemic Racism.” Our trainers asked us to arrange ourselves along the wall in order to identify where we learned about race. Was it through individual acts and words (one end of the spectrum) or through institutional experiences (on the other end of the spectrum)?

I promptly marched myself over to the institutional end of the line. When asked why I positioned myself there, I had several examples to cite: growing up in Chicago, I had witnessed segregated housing, segregated neighborhoods, and disparate employment opportunities. I had attended a primarily white church, a majority-white grade school, and I had few teachers of color as a young child. Although I was prepared to accept the ways in which my internalized racial superiority was passed onto me, in part, through individuals, I was mostly quick to blame my environment as the “real” problem with my whiteness.

I have thought of that exercise many times in the years since. While I still believe that Chicago, like most (all?) big cities, has significant problems with racial equity that manifests itself as internalized racial superiority for white people, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was letting myself off the hook – myself, my family members, my friends and colleagues.

It suddenly seemed too easy to simply point my fingers outward at the myriad of systems that had taught me about whiteness. It was time to understand how that messaging had impacted my worldview, my actions, and my blind spots.

Recognizing my own internalized racial superiority

The definition of internalized racial superiority that has proved most helpful to me in this exploration comes from the People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond: “the acceptance of and acting out of a superior definition is rooted in the historical designation of one’s race. Over many generations, this process of empowerment and access expresses itself as unearned privileges, access to institutional power and invisible advantages based on race.”

What I was learning was that even though I didn’t consciously consider white skin to be a marker of superiority, I nonetheless had been socialized to believe that was true AND I had spent much of my life acting in good-intentioned ways that nonetheless perpetuated that damaging myth.

It is easy to spot and understand in outright bigots, neo-Nazis, or the resurgence of the Klan. But it is also present, if slightly trickier to understand, in those of us who play out the role of white savior – those of us who teach in marginalized or “inner city” schools, those of us who travel to war-stricken or impoverished countries to be a source of joy and hope to darker-skinned children, those of us who believe that a token student or two of color in our child’s classroom will be sufficient to show our children the diversity of this world. (Spoiler alert: it won’t.)

I decided, after stints on Chicago’s west side teaching writing and reading to women who didn’t look like me, and after living in Puerto Rico (in effect, a colony of my own country), teaching English to children who didn’t look like me, that perhaps I was missing something. That perhaps my desire to “do good” in the world revealed more about my internalized racial superiority than it revealed about my capacity for true compassion and desire for revolution.

Setting aside, for now, the question of whether my past work “did any good” or not (a circular argument at best), my experience in that sunshine-filled atrium ushered in a new chapter of my growing racial awareness. I was no longer content to think of myself as “a good white person.” Quite to the contrary, I began to see, with much clarity and exuberance, how all white people, regardless of our good intentions, have been baptized in the water of white supremacy. That much in the same way we absorb messages about the right way to be a woman, to be a man, to be an “American,” to be healthy, to be successful, “America” keeps itself pretty busy telling us how to be good white people.

Being a "good" white person

For progressives, being a good white person means being sure that the schools we send our children to are “diverse,” but we would never dream of moving to a community of color which might not have the “good schools” or material comforts to which we are accustomed. We want our movies and culture to be inclusive, but we still default to watching movies made, overwhelmingly, by white directors with mostly white actors. We write checks to philanthropies that seek to promote social justice, or housing equity, or employment opportunities, but when we show up at those fancy fundraisers, there are few people of color in attendance, but plenty of white people lamenting the plight of people we have never met.

Such experiences only serve to reinforce our basic ideas of internalized racial superiority – that, through some combination of fate and hard work, white people are simply more successful, more creative, and more resourceful than people of color. In a blink of an eye, we conveniently forget that the majority of black people alive in the U.S. today can trace their lineage to ancestors who were forcibly removed from their homelands, born into captivity, systemically abused and denied the same basic rights and privileges that white people have taken for granted since the moment they were capable of rational thought. We forget that Indigenous communities were slaughtered, raped, corralled. We forget that most of what we now call, somewhat romantically, the “American Southwest” wasn’t the United States at all in the first place: we stole land from Mexico and then continued to kill, abuse, discriminate against, and legislate against native-born Spanish speakers. We forget that we relocated and imprisoned Japanese-Americans during World War II, two-thirds of whom were U.S. citizens (source: The U.S. National Archives and Records Administration, archives.gov).

How my own family played a role in systemic racism

It would be easy for me to dismiss all of those truths as ancient history. I can lament that they happened, but they are in the past, after all, and, besides, my ancestors had nothing to do with those actions, those policies. As a child of first generation immigrants, myself, my own ancestors were oceans away during the aforementioned periods of U.S. atrocities. Except….

My Irish great-grandparents settled on Chicago’s west side in the early 1900s, drawn to other Irish communities who immigrated both ahead of and with them. By the end of the 1960s, the Great Migration had brought more than 500,000 Southern blacks to Chicago. My own grandparents, like so many of their neighbors, were unwilling to live in community with these newcomers, and they fled to the suburbs.

White flight brings a host of problems – plummeting property values; fewer resources for schools, parks, and health care services; and less business investment in those neighborhoods, including limited or predatory banks. Not only did my grandparents’ actions directly contribute to the poverty that continues to plague their former neighborhood today, no one I knew was willing to acknowledge the problem with those choices, if they even saw the problems at all.

My parents, and their ancestors, lived a hard (now often mythologized or romanticized) immigrant life. Collectively, many experienced difficult journeys across an ocean, ostracism/prejudice/limited opportunities, and long hours of physical labor for not a great deal of financial reward. However, their eventual successes in America – long-term employment, children who attended college, home ownership – taught them to believe in the bootstrap myth, otherwise known as the American dream. The problem with this belief is that it obscures the reality of the policies and systems that have been put in place to keep communities of color oppressed. They were and are denied access to the same opportunities that we white people take for granted. The problem with internalized racial superiority is not that white people are prevented from ever having hardships; rather, the problem is that we don’t see the ways in which our hardships are disproportionately easier because of our skin color.

Now that I have begun to reckon with my internalized racial superiority, with the role my ancestors played in perpetuating stereotypes and engaging in damaging, racially motivated behaviors, I have two choices. I can shrug it off as not my problem, or I can commit to the long and ugly process of deprogramming myself, of educating myself, of making reparations, of educating others. To be sure, my recognition of the problems with white supremacy is not the same thing as dismantling that same supremacy. That is something I can do only through my actions. And although my actions are neither far-reaching nor even remotely innovative, it is nonetheless critical that I engage in tangible, consistent activities.

Recently, my actions have looked a little like this:

1.    Reading.

Reading is one of the most easily-accessible tools available to white people in our struggle to relearn our histories, understand new perspectives, and come to terms with the damage white people have inflicted.

As an avid reader, I had already read (and, often, reread) much of the canon of African-American literature. But once I understood that my own whiteness was part of what these authors and activists were railing against, I had to reread all of it.

Additionally, I seek out voices of contemporary artists and activists of color. What are their goals for our current dilemmas? How is my whiteness hindering their work, their progress? How might I support and spread the critical messages of Mat Johnson, Roxane Gay, Ta-Nahesi Coates, Jesmyn Ward, in addition to countless other people of color?

 

2.    Passing on what I’ve learned to my children.

As a white person raised in the United States today, if I am not painfully and constantly aware of the messages I send my own children, I will likely make the same mistakes my well-intentioned parents made.

It is hard to be honest with children about pain and trauma. But it would be harder still to watch those children grow to become adults who are callous, uninformed, or misinformed.

 

3.    Reparations.

I have come (slowly, painfully) to understand how even the modest wealth that my working-class white ancestors were able to amass was done at least partially at the expense of their black neighbors who saw their property values plummet as all the white people moved out, and the city ceased to care about those sections of the city.

I believe that I owe something, quite literally, to the descendants of my grandparents’ one-time neighbors. I prioritize my philanthropy to organizations helmed by Austin residents, whose work is directly impacting their families and neighbors. I do this without wanting to set an agenda for their organizations or needing recognition for my gifts.

Reparations, for me, also take the form of prioritizing businesses helmed by people of color, whether online or in brick and mortar stores, buying art by people of color, and inquiring as to the prevalence of people of color in leadership positions before supporting a corporation or a foundation.

 

4.    (Self) Reflection.

As a child, I was raised to believe in the service model of Catholicism. I had countless examples in my family and in my schooling of people who were dedicated to improving the lives of others - tutoring in “disadvantaged” elementary schools, building homes in Appalachia, painting school buildings in rural communities in Peru, teaching English in Puerto Rico, and working with women who were English-language learners in Chicago.

While there is nothing inherently wrong with the idea of helping others (in fact, I believe that being of service to others is a foundational requirement for individual happiness), I have been doing a lot of thinking about HOW these programs were conceived, operated, and measured. Sadly, in most nonprofits today, the leadership is predominantly white. And even when there are people of color in leadership positions, these organizations still operate out of a predominantly white, Eurocentric framework.

The programs I worked for did nothing to address the root causes of inequity and inequality that plague Chicago. Dreamed up by white legislators in Springfield, Illinois, they were nothing more than ineffective bandagesBand-Aids that made no real attempts to break the cycles of poverty, unemployment, and, most critically, racism that plagued the women I met.

So I’ve had to contend with my own participation. Now that I understand more about how whiteness operates, I have to accept that my presence in those communities might not have been a good thing. I might have, in fact, caused harm.

At a minimum, I know my experiences limited my own self-growth, because I found not a single white mentor who could challenge me to consider our whiteness in working with clients of color.

There was no one who said, at state planning meetings, “Why are all of us white? How is our whiteness impacting our programs?” There was no one at any of the agencies I worked for who reminded me, “Your very ability to be here, in this teacher role, with your college degree and your pricey rent in another part of town, is actually part of the problem we face.”

With age, I have come to understand that regrets for the sake of having regrets do nothing – for me, or for anyone else. Guilt is not my friend: I believed that I was helping; I believed I was doing good. Also, this is not to say that no white person should ever attempt to work in a service capacity in a community of color: this is messy territory, and there are no easy answers.

But knowing what I know now helps me to see just how insidious racism is: it permeates every single corner of our worlds – corporate and nonprofit, professional and personal, young and old. I owe it to myself to make up for lost time; to acknowledge how my livelihood, for many years, was possibly at the expense of the people I claimed to help, and not the other way around.

 

5.    Building relationships and holding loved ones to higher standards.

It is a sad fact of whiteness that most white people are uncomfortable being implicated in our country’s racism. Many folks believe that there are “good” white people and “bad” white people. But just as I don’t believe that is true of humans in general (we are not either all good or all bad, but painfully flawed at different, and changing, points along the spectrum), it is most certainly not true of white people when it comes to racism.

I have found that my commitment to examining whiteness and biases (my own and others), my commitment to talking about issues of race and bigotry even when it makes others uncomfortable, and my commitment to holding my loved ones to higher standards when it comes to what we will and will not tolerate, has done two opposing things: On the one hand, I have lost friendships that were important to me. I have alienated people for seeming too judgmental, too demanding, too obsessed with issues of race and racism. On the other hand, I am lucky to have friends and family members who are exploring their own biases and blind spots.

I have learned from these men and women, and, in their struggles, I have been inspired to commit myself even more to a greater understanding of our country’s hard racial truths. Having this shared goal within my trusted relationships, including my friendships with men and women of color, has allowed us to achieve greater levels of intimacy, as we no longer have to pretend that “race isn’t an issue,” and we can now have honest conversations about all the ways race is, in fact, most certainly “an issue” for all of us. As a result, these relationships are infinitely more rewarding, authentic, and supportive than I had hoped to find as a middle-aged person.

 

6.    Recentering.

It is not enough to think that making some tweaks to the current status quo will be enough to topple centuries of white supremacy. Instead, what is needed is a drastic and dramatic change in the leadership of our country, on every level. To this end, we must support candidates of color up and down the ballot. With our dollars as well as with our votes. We must, when talking to white candidates, progressive or not, ask them about their plans for long term racial equity, ask them if they have already addressed their own whiteness. We can no longer assume that good-intentioned white people will be enough to dismantle white supremacy. We must all set aside our fears, our egos, and our myths, and face the future together.

As my therapist likes to remind me, as a white person, I will be lucky if I can one day know 1/1,000th of what I need to know to be a better anti-racism advocate.

I know I don’t have all the answers.

And I know that my journey is only one of countless journeys taking place at this very moment.

On the other hand, all change is incremental, and I am coming, more and more, to believe in the power of suggestion, the power of example – the power of the wings of a single butterfly.

The internet, for all of its pitfalls and assorted ills, is nevertheless a wealth of information for white people who are starting to become aware of their own internalized racial superiority and who want to rebel against it. There are groups to join, books to read, businesses and causes to support, and action steps to take.

Beyond that, though, what I hope for most is that we are reaching a tipping point in our society where we truly make space for other ways of thinking and acting beyond the status quo (top-down, Eurocentric, white male-dominated). If enough of us can start to see how our lives are limited by those old paradigms, then we might, together, build something new. 

 

Click here for more resources on racial equity.

 

Francesca MoroneyFrancesca Moroney is a writer, anti-bias activist, and health advocate living and working in Edwardsville, Illinois, with her husband, five children, and one large dog.

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