Tom Aiello: White people, racism is our fight too

Wednesday, October 4, 2017 - 2:55pm

“That’s incredible. I wish I could be there alongside him right now,” I thought as I clicked the like button on the article detailing University of Michigan student Dana Greene’s protest against racism on the Diag. I closed Facebook and continued typing away at the paper due in class the next day, sitting comfortably on my bed. My paper had a long way to go; protests would have to wait. 

Looking back at this moment, my excuse didn’t hold up. I could have stopped by the Diag multiple times that day, but I didn’t. And besides, was a grade really more important than demonstrating against the racism students of color face all too frequently on this campus? I consider myself an ally in the fight against racism, but what is allyship without action?

I’m far from the first white ally who’s given into complacency. White people have been telling Black people to wait for a more convenient time for their rights as long as the movement for Black rights has existed. In 1963, Martin Luther King Jr. lamented not about the “Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice.”

The white moderate is Thomas Jefferson “paternalistically (believing) he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom,” as King wrote referring to when Jefferson called slavery a “moral depravity” but continued to profit from forced labor. The white moderate is President Eisenhower publicly condemning racism, but showing hesitation to enforce Brown v. Board of Education because “you cannot change people’s hearts merely by laws.” The white moderate is 96 percent of white Americans disapproving of the Ku Klux Klan but only 35 percent expressing support for Black Lives Matter, a group known for large and disruptive protests against police brutality. A number of staunch conservatives have condemned the group as violent and hateful.

National divisions over Black activists’ protests of police brutality exemplify how white moderates can impede racial progress. In 2014, Black activists organized large street demonstrations in Ferguson, Mo., to protest the police shooting of Michael Brown. A New York Times poll indicated 67 percent of whites believed the protesters’ actions went too far.

I’m going to assume most of these white respondents believe police brutality is harmful and Black people have a right to demonstrate against it. So is it the perceived violence of Black Lives Matter that taints white public opinion of protests? The fact that up to 43 percent of white people believe NFL players should be fired for taking a knee — an inarguably peaceful protest — during the national anthem suggests not. No matter the form, some white people will always express disapproval when Black people publicly demand just treatment.

If white people are to effectively combat racism, we must shift our understanding of white supremacy from long white hoods to the day-to-day behaviors of ourselves and those close to us. White supremacy is not an abstract concept, far removed from daily action. It is nurtured in the everyday actions and inactions of white people. When a hiring manager skips past a resume with a “funny name,” when a jury indicts a Black youth for a crime a white teenager would never have been charged with, when a family stays silent during an uncle’s rant against “those people,” racism flourishes.

These subtle yet insidious behaviors act as tacit endorsements of systematic racism, whether intentional or not. Even the most well-meaning allies can fall into the trap of staying silent in the face of racism because they want to avoid conflict or discomfort. Racism is uncomfortable; white privilege is the ability to ignore that discomfort because it doesn’t affect you.

Dismantling racism requires embracing discomfort. It requires calling out racist comments from friends and family. It requires joining protests and listening to the grievances of people of color. It requires being active and being present.

To defeat racism, white people must raise their voices against racism as often as people of color do. White people built and benefit from systematic racism. Therefore, the system cannot be dismantled without us. We can’t stand silently on the sidelines in situations of injustice while people of color protest discrimination. We must show up and support Black voices when they bring attention to police brutality, mass incarceration, voter suppression or any of the other symptoms of racism. As the NFL police brutality protests and Dr. King’s writings show, people will attempt to delegitimize Black activists no matter how peaceful or small their protests. These voices must be counteracted with cries of affirmation and support from white allies.

I’m not saying a white person has to attend every single Black Lives Matter protest to effectively combat racism. Activism is often a day-to-day, small-scale effort. One small step allies can take is speaking up when we hear racist language. It’s easiest to be racist in white-only spaces where no faces of color exist to remind someone of the consequences of their hate. Considering that according to a 2013 survey, 75 percent of whites in the United States don’t have a single friend of color, these spaces are all too common. Therefore, white allies must hold our friends and families accountable. 

We must call out those around us who abuse the “N-word” or slip on the cloak of casual racism when they feel safe in their whiteness. It’s on us to dismantle racism’s safe spaces. As Desmond Tutu once said, “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.”

Tom Aiello can be reached at thomaiel@umich.edu.