It’s working its way across social media, college campuses, and online forums. A movement of people holding up signs and proclaiming the message, “It’s ok to be White.” So where does this come from? Why are they doing it? And for the conversation around bridge building in the context of race, are they wrong and how do we respond?
Let’s start with where this comes from.
The current climate of heightened racial tension and conversations about race abounding has led many White people to a new place: seeing themselves as part of a racial group. This often comes as a shock to people of color who have never been given the option to not see themselves in the story of race in our country, but the reality is that many White people reach adulthood having never truly thought in depth about their own Whiteness.
This leads to a high level of racial illiteracy. You can’t speak from a knowledgeable place on something you have just begun to even consider. Add to this the highly individualized nature of White culture, and we have a mess on our hands. How often do we see a conversation about race go awry when a person of color wants to talk about the systemic and institutionalized nature of racism and a White person wants to talk about how they never owned slaves?
As conversations abound about White privilege, police brutality, unjust judicial sentencing, and affirmative action, it’s easy to see where a White person who still sees themselves as solely an individual and not part of a racial group would want to push back and defend this unexamined part of their own identity. No one wants pegged in the role of victimizer, especially when they are only choosing to examine their own personal actions. Because of this many have fallen for this scheme that was actually started on a White supremacist website as an attempt to trap people into either buying into their ideology, or having to say it’s not OK to be White.
How do we move this conversation forward?
This conversation goes nowhere until White people are willing to examine and process their own racial identity and what it means. As a White person, even if you wish to only see yourself as an individual, that doesn’t change the reality of what Whiteness means in our culture.
Whiteness means you are more likely to:
- Be called back for an interview when applying for a job
- Receive pain medication in the ER
- Be released from prison while awaiting trial
- Be accepted to university than equally qualified people of color
- Attend an adequately funded elementary and high school
- Graduate high school on time
- Make more money than your equally qualified and same level peers of color at work
Whiteness means you are less likely to:
- Be pulled over by police.
- Be stopped and frisked.
- Have your car searched when pulled over even though you are more likely to have contraband in your vehicle.
- To be arrested for drug possession.
- Be suspended from school.
- Face housing discrimination.
The list goes on and on of the ways our society privileges Whiteness. Does this mean that none of these bad things will ever happen to you because you’re White? No. It means even if they do, it was less likely to happen because you are White. Whiteness doesn’t erase hardship, it makes hardship less likely. Whiteness doesn’t mean you get all those good things, it means they are more likely to come your way than they are for people of color.
Once White people are at a place of understanding the privileges that comes along with their Whiteness, we can begin to truly have a conversation about what it means to be White.
Sounds Like It’s Not Ok To Be White
When the conversation stops at White privilege, it’s easy to see why some people feel the need to hold up signs declaring it ok to be White. Who wouldn’t want to defend themselves in the face of the awful statistics we see? There is a strong desire to remove oneself from the communal identity of “White person” and return to individualistic thinking. When we stop the conversation at this place of feeling guilt over Whiteness, we have White people who will push back hard instead of embracing their Whiteness in a healthy way.
The problem with those holding up “Its ok to be White” signs is they are not choosing to see Whiteness in a healthy way. They are choosing to push back on the reality of injustice, claim it as not their problem, and instead think that White people are the ones being disadvantaged.
White people, on a systemic level, are not being discriminated against. There is no proof to back up such a claim. Rather, what is happening is that as justice is pursued and in small ways in some sectors achieved, White people are losing their place of superiority in our culture. That feels like being brought down a notch. Being brought to an equal playing field with people of color is not oppression, it simply feels that way because we are used to the superior role. Have no doubt though, we are a long, long way from being anywhere near equality. In some ways, we are even moving away from it.
It IS Ok To Be White
I wish I could sit down with those holding up these signs and affirm to them that it is indeed ok to be White. What they need though, is an understanding of Whiteness that is rooted in reality, not assumed superiority or denial of group membership. I want them to see the ways their Whiteness has societal power and significance. I want them to take that power and harness it for good; to use it to create a more just society. I want to give them the names of White people that have gone before them and been abolitionists, civil rights workers, and justice seekers so they can frame their Whiteness not on the false dichotomy of either victimizer or supremacist, but as one who stands in solidarity with people of color; using their Whiteness for the good of others and challenging other White people to do the same.
For more on how to develop a healthy White identity check out
- Why Are All The Black Kids Sitting Together In the Cafeteria? By Beverly Daniel Tatum, PhD
- White Awake: An Honest Look at What It Means to Be White by Daniel Hill
Statistics can on White privilege can be found here: https://www.thenewprogressive.net/ultimate-white-privilege-statistics/
More on where and how this campaign started can be found here: https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/post-nation/wp/2017/11/03/its-okay-to-be-white-signs-and-stickers-appear-on-campuses-and-streets-across-the-country/?utm_term=.f4689ad0a609
[author] [author_image timthumb=’on’]https://2.bp.blogspot.com/-CSf_k15FCaM/WiWhOmUsz2I/AAAAAAAAneY/dBeueZCcjmoysSGW2Gfes1Nz_mVo0h-BACLcBGAs/s1600/Behrens-19.jpg[/author_image] [author_info]Elizabeth Behrens is an ambassador for Be the Bridge. She lives in Kansas City with her husband and 4 children where she writes, speaks, and teaches on race and adoption. [/author_info] [/author]