Dear White People (Like Me): It’s Our Turn to be Profiled — PART 1
This is a two-part opinion series discussing race relations as reflected in two different songs from the same musician. I am not endorsing nor dismissing the musician discussed in this article.
A friend recently sent me a link to the video for Tom MacDonald’s Whiteboy, published in 2018. My friend related to the sentiment in the video. From what I saw in the comments, many others did as well.
The basic argument MacDonald makes with the song can be summed up in the line “Bein’ white and bein’ racist aren’t the same man, I promise.” I appreciate the underlying message of his song — that you can’t fight generalizations with generalizations. Still I worry it sounds too much like the circulating rhetoric among the white community: “I didn’t do it. Why are you mad at me?” Or “I’m tired of talking about race.”
This sentiment has been expressed frequently by people who are white. When faced with uncomfortable truths about the current treatment of people of color, we have a list of predictable defenses — many of which MacDonald uses in his song. MacDonald complains about being associated with racist acts of the past — slavery and burning crosses — which dismisses the racial disparity happening today. Like MacDonald, some say they “see everyone as equal,” which can feel dismissive for those who know they are not being seen or treated equally. Some are quick to suggest white people can also be victims of racism. For instance, MacDonald complains about being attacked for wearing braids. Meanwhile people of color all over America are reprimanded systemically — at school or work — for some of the same hairstyles a white person might adapt without the same systemic repercussions.
While oppressed voices have demanded more access to the soapbox, we white members of society are being asked to confront some incriminating actions or lack thereof. Robin DiAngelo[i] says white people are defensive because being called a racist is synonymous with being called a bad person. After years of leading discussions on race, DiAngelo identifies predictable patterns of denial, like some of those listed above. In fact, some have publicly given up on talking to white people[ii] about race because we cannot handle hearing about people who feel oppressed without dominating the conversation[iii] or reframing ourselves as the victim[iv].
DiAngelo suggests that we focus less on the perceived attack on our personal character and more on the structural ways in which we are set up to benefit from racism. As Heather M. Edwards[v] points out, we have no problem with the term “underprivileged,” but we somehow want to avoid the implication that to have underprivileged people, there also have to be some that are privileged. Our denial of the existence of such systemic inequalities will surely only maintain our label as racists. The conversations we are not hearing are often not about us taking accountability for the atrocities of the past. We are being asked to acknowledge and care about the atrocities of the present.
Maybe it’s time for white folks to “get over it” and learn to take what we dish out. A black male is often first presumed to be a thug[vi] and has to prove himself otherwise. Many American citizens are presumed to be foreign-born upon first sight based on their physical features and have to insist on their citizenship. In the same way, some assume the entire white community is racist, and many white people are scrambling to prove they are not. Just because people of color now have more of a platform to speak does not mean the white race just started to be pre-conceived as racist. Maybe we are defensive about it because we just started to hear it. Perhaps that is the biggest proof of white privilege there is.
Maybe it is our turn to work hard to prove that the actions of some people are not representative of every member of the race. It is our turn to walk into a room and have people wonder if we can be trusted based only on our physical features. It is our turn to be guilty (of racism) until proven innocent.
[i] Dwyer, Dustin. “Why all white people are racist, but can’t handle being called racist: the theory of white fragility” State of Opportunity, 25 Mar 2015. https://stateofopportunity.michiganradio.org/post/why-all-white-people-are-racist-cant-handle-being-called-racist-theory-white-fragility?fbclid=IwAR0rdwQAPfGjDbfZM0SHwFJCkDOTP4xffeo6QaxBI63BrILMlmaesO9TMls. Accessed 8 Feb, 2020.
[ii] Eddo-Lodge, Reni. “Why I’m no longer talking to white people about race.” The Guardian. 30 May 2017. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/may/30/why-im-no-longer-talking-to-white-people-about-race. Accessed 8 Feb, 2020.
[iii] Oluo, Ijeoma. “Confronting racism is not about the needs and feelings of white people.” The Guardian. 28 Mar 2019. https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2019/mar/28/confronting-racism-is-not-about-the-needs-and-feelings-of-white-people?fbclid=IwAR2RP8egO8JqgvSRpOtOxJLkx718-XqmVVJQtmUEnP07liyoljBPhtIb-lQ. Accessed 8 Feb 2020.
[iv] Accapadi, Mamta Motwani. “When White Women Cry: How White Women’s Tears Oppress Women of Color.” The College Student Affairs Journal, Vol. 26 №2, 2007. pp. 208–215.
[v] Edwards, Heather M. “7 White Privileges I Didn’t Realize I Was Enjoying.” Medium.com. 5 Oct 2018. https://medium.com/@heathermedwards/7-white-privileges-i-didnt-realize-i-was-enjoying-79bad1691a7e. Accessed 8 Feb 2020.
[vi] Smiley, Calvin John and Fakunle, David. “From “brute” to “thug:” the demonization and criminalization of unarmed Black male victims in America.” Journal of Human Behavior and Social Environment, Vol. 26. №3–4. 2016. pp. 350–366. doi: 10.1080/10911359.2015.1129256.