I Am White. I Am Not Superior

I look at my skin and it offers no opinion.

It has no wisdom or insight that allows me arrogance; it’s not notable in any exclusionary way; it’s not even remarkable in its whiteness: beige in warmer months, too pale to be interesting the rest of the time.

It’s just… skin. It makes me white. It does not make me superior.

I didn’t choose this skin. There was no either/or option, no “sorting hat,” no selection process by which I had a say, at least none I was consciously aware of. It was granted by virtue of my parents’ DNA and whatever spiritual, mystical, biological logistics go into the process of life-conjoining-body. It wasn’t an award, a “you are now deemed superior” assignation. It’s just flesh holding bones, blood, nerves and organs; it has that specific job, no other.

What is exceptional about me has nothing to do with my skin. Which is true of all people. Certainly all white people. No one is superior because they’re white. Whatever stellar qualities they embody emanate from those places within: innate talent, natural gifts; productive nurturing; hard work. And, of course, available opportunities…

Which is where whiteness does offer a superior hand-up. It’s called “privilege.” White privilege. More on that later.

Given the daily bombardment of images, videos, and news stories depicting white people “whyting,” as it’s described on social media, it seems clear that, despite any pretense of being post-racial, America remains populated by a good many convinced of their white superiority; entitlement to dehumanize, discriminate, and destroy with impunity:

White cops shoot black men in the back…in the front… in their cars… in their backyards. A white pool guard humiliates a black mother and child who just want a swim on a hot day. A seething white attorney excoriates strangers for daring to speak Spanish, screeching about how he “pays their welfare.” White teachers embarrass students for their “black hair.” A white nurse caustically abuses a black patient as he lies in an ER bed. A white supremacist murderously plows his car into a civil rights march. A white man knives two black sisters at the BART station, killing one. A white business owner in his “Uriah’s Heating and Refrigeration” truck chases down a black man yelling the “n-word” repeatedly, apparently miffed about traffic issues. A white man shoots a retreating black father outside a store, claiming “stand your ground”; he is not charged. White women call cops on Asian grandmas selling do-dads, black kids selling water, black families barbecuing in the park, black boys mowing lawns, black men moving into apartments; black people being…  black.

And a president pushes legislation build on his foundational belief that darker-skinned humans are most readily categorized as “terrorists,” “animals,” “rapists and murderers”; “bad hombres.” Even, apparently, the dark-skinned toddlers he’s ripped from their parents and locked in cages.

What he and the others have in common is their absolute conviction of superiority, presumed status they believe grants them power over people of color. Accords them immunity from acts of aggression and discrimination. Bestows permission to denigrate, hurt, humiliate; even kill.

The truth is less forgiving. They are not only not superior, in many cases they are profoundly inferior. In all cases they are misguided and misinformed.

Some would argue that religious dogma makes the case for white superiority, but they’d be negating the hand of biased men in writing said doctrine over the millennia. Some say history shows evolutionary preference for whites by illuminating their successes in forging countries and kingdoms via Viking plunders, Roman empires; British colonization, and Manifest Destiny. But that calculation ignores the concurrent history of the two largest continents—Asia and Africa—who, along with Central and South America, had their own successes in establishing countries, civilizations, and kingdoms… all without the help of white people.

What is undeniable is that history itself has been whitewashed by the very people claiming superiority, leading it to become its own false testimony.

Truth, however, cannot be so easily dismissed. Pulling away from religious dogma, historical spin, ancestral bias, and a current zeitgeist roiled in racial conflict, it becomes clear, in the light of unclouded examination, that white superiority is a lie, a perversion; a fantasy.

 White superiority is a myth.

And the problem with myth is its mythiness; its embrace of fiction, invention, and hyperbole intended to convince the more gullible of its validity. White superiority is, in fact, most astutely described by this specific definition of myth:

“An unproved or false collective belief used to justify a social institution.”

Exactly.

That white people (predominantly men) have coalesced wealth and power long enough, pervasively enough, and enduringly enough to perpetrate the illusion of superiority has been effective in preserving the myth. But it remains a myth, and for many reasons. Largely because the most prevalent attribute of that entitled demographic is the inherited, ordained, bequeathed factor of white privilege, anointed status afforded whites by other whites; sociopolitical assignation that pervades every aspect of white life to create ease, opportunity, and power so endemic that many who benefit from it (as all whites do in one way or another) would argue its existence.

It exists. But, like breathing, its presence and function is so unconscious and automatic we might pretend not to notice… but still we breathe. As, still, whites benefit from white privilege.

White privilege is the blood, the nerves, and—since we’re discussing the power of “skin”—the skin of white superiority; feeding it, animating it, holding it in place; protecting it from the “infection” and invasion of reality, the dispelling power of facts and biology with their unremitting sting of truth.

But despite its endurance, it’s a myth that is slowly but inevitably crumbling in the face of changing culture. Because, even in the face of ratcheting hysteria from myth-believing whites resistant to a changing world, diversity remains an unstoppable force; a churning, expanding, inexorable evolution. As more people of color fill the vibrant corners of our country, the illusion of white superiority will meet its reckoning. And whether wrapped in the American (or confederate) flag, driven by irrational race hate, or just “Barbecue Beckies” with phones, the confused amongst us will face those changing demographics with a choice: cling to the myth or join the coalition.

What isn’t a myth is the science that says we’re all made from the same stuff. When we can truly and honestly embrace that fact, allow it to imbue our every step with equanimity and compassion, we will have reached a state of communal superiority. It may take us generations to get there—we may never get there—but if we do, it will be something to celebrate en masse.

No matter shade of skin we’re in.


“Faceless” photo by Alexa Mazzarello on Unsplash
“Fragile” photo by Morgan Basham on Unsplash

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Visit www.lorrainedevonwilke.com for details and links to LDW’s books, music, photography, and articles.

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White Fear Does Not Excuse Racism, But Empathy Might Dispel It

White people are afraid of black people.

Or maybe, more accurately, too many white people are afraid of black people.

They don’t “get them,” (as one fellow confessed to me); they find them mysterious, unknowable, different; less than, fear inducing. They blame their cultural ignorance on, “what I see in the news every day,” or “this black guy who was weird to me once,” or “they are known to be more violent” or “but they hate most white people too” (all things said to me out loud). And with that litany of presumption and stupidity, empathy is lost and the “privilege” of white fear is allowed to call the shoots, turning, say, Starbucks into a cultural flashpoint.

Why are we so afraid of each other?

For blacks, it’s not a difficult question to answer: deep historical precedent, and contemporary bias, prejudice, and lack of equal treatment. In the justice system. The economic system. The medical system. The education system. Probably every system existing in America today. Strides have been made since overtly racist pre-civil rights days, but when, on an almost daily basis, there continue to be indefensible police shootings of unarmed black men, overzealous prosecutions and disproportionate imprisonment; endless forms and manifestations of every kind of bigotry and intolerance, it’s not hard to fathom why a black person might fear a white person, particularly one with a gun, a badge, or a judge’s robe; particularly when white people still hold the keys to most (all?) centers of power in this country.

What’s the excuse for white people? What are they so afraid of? Beyond generalized prejudices like being anti-affirmative action, or holding erroneous presumptions that blacks are government-sucking “welfare queens” (when the greatest number of welfare recipients are white), what are they so fearful of? Why the lock-your-car-when-one-gets-too-close, cross-to-the-other-side-of-the-street-if-one-approaches, shoot-before-taking-other-tactical-deescalation-steps, call-the-cops-without-considering-ramifications kind of racial fear?

Given the ubiquity of facts and studies on race, given the statistics on both white and black perpetrators of crime and violence; given the benign interactions most whites have experienced with black people; given the incalculable contributions the black community has made to American life, it’s hard to put that fear down to anything other than “the fog of white privilege mixed with lack of empathy.”

White privilege – empathy = fear = racism.

That’s an unhappy equation. Particularly when science assures us that “race is not a thing,” [National Geographic, 10.14.17].

“What the study of complete genomes from different parts of the world has shown is that even between Africa and Europe, for example, there is not a single absolute genetic difference, meaning no single variant where all Africans have one variant and all Europeans another one, even when recent migration is disregarded.” ~ Svante Pääbo, a biologist and director of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Germany [emphasis added]

In other words: we’re all made of the same stuff; the color of our skin, location of our family’s ancestry; ethnicity of our DNA notwithstanding.

But some refuse that information, that reality. They’d rather conjure a world categorized by castes, orders of ethnic importance; pyramids of racial superiority, chains of command built on the possession of wealth… fomenting a human history rife with wars, genocide, conflict, fear, and ignorance, basedirrationally, on race, that thing that doesn’t actually exist. Illogical, but persistent.

Here in contemporary America, for example, the last person to “win” (yes, in quotes) the title of POTUS did so by appealing to the fears of white Americans who reject shifting demographics; resent the impending loss of majority status, the influx of diversity, and the widening influence of people of color and diverse religions and ethnicities. “Make America Great Again” was the rallying dog whistle for a message of, “let’s keep things nice and white,” and that message resonated with a dispiriting number of fearful white folks.

And fear is the foundation of modern racism. I say “modern” because back when plantation owners tormented slaves, post-Civil War America treated freed blacks like sub-humans, or Jim Crow laws saw sociopathic bigots inflict white-sheeted terror with impunity, it wasn’t fear driving the train; it was power. White patriarchy. Ignorance, ingrained hate, embrace of false narratives, and the pervasive certainty of superiority. The only fear that existed was that of blacks whose very lives could be snuffed out with the flick of a rope-wielding wrist, the trembling accusations of a mendacious white woman, or the bilious hate of white men immune to basic decency.

Still, in these modern times, when we now have laws protecting blacks from such abuses, racism remains, still ingrained, still wreaking havoc, but driven and perpetuated by—yes, all the above—but also, most overarchingly, by fear.

Fear of other. Fear of who or what isn’t known. Fear of presumed danger. Fear of what one has heard or read about the feared group. Fear of losing perceived power or status. Fear of change, of diversity, evolution and progress. Fear, unexplained. Fear that leads to race-based overreaction.

Like when a white Starbucks manager gets so rattled by two black men waiting for a friend before ordering that she’d call the police and get them arrested rather than behave like a savvy service professional who knows how to treat customers of every race, creed, color, or orientation.

Like Jeffrey Zeigler, a white man who—when young, black Brennan Walker knocks on his door after getting lost—picks up his shotgun and, rather than helping the child find his way, attempts to kill him.

Like the two white Sacramento cops who, rather than using their training to accurately assess a situation and manage their fear before responding with deadly force, follow Stephon Clark, a black man, into his grandmother’s backyard and shoot him 20 times before ascertaining it’s a cellphone in his hand.

The list goes on. We know it well. It’s daily news fodder. Why?

Remember the equation above? Fear metastasizes with the lack of empathy. We can’t care about what we don’t know or refuse to learn. We can’t comprehend what we haven’t taken time to understand. We can’t respect what we’ve deemed less than. We can’t treat with care and concern what we’ve chosen to believe is dangerous. We can’t empathize when we don’t have the first clue of what life is like for a person of color. And so white people continue to believe black people are a threat, a danger to them, and from there, fear reigns and racist acts persist.

Of course I am speaking in generalities. Not all white people. Not all cops, not all people answering doors; not all coffee baristas.

But when there is enough evidence, both anecdotal and scientific, to educate and convince us of our commonalities as members of the human race, any white person continuing to blame “fear” for their reactive behavior is abdicating responsibility for their part in perpetuating racism. Fear offered as an excuse is exactly that: an excuse. It is not a solution. Empathy is. Empathy is the solution to fear.

It’s likely every person has had the experience of having their perceptions, opinions, and feelings about something or someone change after they’ve had more interaction or spent more time with that person or thing. Empathy is engendered when we make those connections, get past ingrained beliefs and knee-jerk responses, to learn something new and create points of commonality and kinship with those we’ve feared.

If you asked any white person who (consciously or unconsciously) fears blacks how much time—with depth, regularity, and emotional intimacy—they’ve spent with black people, odds are good you’d find a deficit. In communities with little diversity, which is much of rural and suburban America, those deficits run deep. So how do you induce greater empathy when the opportunity to connect isn’t easily there? Or in more diverse communities where it’s too easily avoided?

It has to become a priority. Schools, churches, town and city leaders have to make it so. There has to be intention and respondent actions that welcome black families into schools. Hire black teachers and bank tellers. Attract and encourage black-run businesses. Organize diversity seminars, bring in sensitivity trainers, engage speakers and mentors who work in the field, people of the very races and ethnicities most feared. Where it isn’t endemic or immediate, circumstances have to be created in which racial empathy can be explored and engaged, where hate and fear can be disassembled, and new ideas formed.

With connection, empathy grows. We learn more about the lives and rich cultural heritage of people we feared. We listen and gain greater understanding of how life hits them, what they have to deal with; what particular obstacles are in their paths that are not in ours. We expand our thinking to realize the world seen through our prism of white privilege is vastly different and less fraught than the world seen through theirs, and with that greater understanding, we are more capable of putting ourselves in their shoes, that most basic definition of empathy.

Once in their shoes, we should be better able to respond and react with consideration, respect, and basic human decency. Which makes sense, since science tells us—and I believe in science—that we’re all made of the same stuff.

Top photo by Carolina Heza on Unsplash
Middle photo by Oscar Keys on Unsplash
Third photo by Aarón Blanco Tejedor on Unsplash

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Visit www.lorrainedevonwilke.com for details and links to LDW’s books, music, photography, and articles.