Wake up: Recognize white privilege and systemic racism in the US

Wednesday, June 17, 2020 - 3:51pm

I grew up in a suburban New Jersey town that consists of 6.24k white residents and 81 Black residents. As a child, the stark absence of diversity in my community wasn’t startling— it was a fact of life that I was never taught to second guess or even consider. Reality was whitewashed and white was all I saw: in well funded, top notch classrooms, in sports teams and in neighborhoods. My childhood experience was the plush comfort of being the majority, surrounded by the majority. As a child, I knew nothing but this privilege. White denial permeated every pore of our existence and our spaces where I grew up. My community was composed of many covertly racist individuals who have denied their racism, uncomfortable in the conversation of race or the idea that they could be upholding the institution of white supremacy in America. 

Our lives in our New Jersey suburbia existed in a white sphere of “normal,” but our hometown didn’t hold up a mirror to the rest of the world’s normalcy. We were shielded from actuality comfortably in our privilege until the self awareness of adulthood introduced to us a truth we were spoonfed: we grew up in a bubble of whiteness and startling advantage. This was a place of moral, good individuals, where we qualified aversive racist tendencies by claiming we were not racists, so as to uphold our favorable sense of self. A place so comfortable and pleasant that our trajectory through elementary, middle and high school was entirely unperturbed when it came to our identity as white children and teenagers. We had no idea how destructive it could truly be to claim that because we did not think we were racist, we weren’t racist. We never thought about race as our problem, and our privilege afforded us the ability to decide it wasn’t. 

We teased that our hometown was a “bubble” and though we laughed about the bubble as though it was a joke, as many of my peers liked being surrounded by only those who look like them. Our whiteness infiltrated every facet of our upbringing and we were never taught to acknowledge it, so instead, we ignored it. There is privilege in doing this. In promoting lackadaisical attitudes, we’ve been complicit. We believed racism existed in a binary: racists were bad people who inflicted “bad” acts on people of color, and we weren’t bad people — we were nice. White people in suburban neighborhoods like mine spend their lives comfortable and cozy with the idea that because they are “nice”, they hold no racial prejudice. They can decide racism “doesn’t exist” despite being subconsciously racist. 

The adults around us and those in positions of power took up space and governed with pseudo-white denial — their embedded racist tendencies were written so concretely in their psyche that it prevented them from recognizing their tendencies as racist. They passed on and taught these tactics to their students, their subordinates, their children and their constituents, continuing the cycle. They raised children with racist tendencies who would join the majority in society, in positions of power, where people make the decisions that affect everyone. It is with our great privilege that we dismiss the mere concept that we could actually be racist. The idea exists in the rhetoric, “I’m not committing racist acts, therefore, I am not racist.” But the truth is more complex: racism is not acts committed by individuals, it’s an institutionalized, often subconscious, gridlocked system which is spread throughout every aspect of American life. 

I left for college having little to no clue about the true implications of American white supremacy and racism, or even my subconscious place in the destructive cycle. I left for college having attended a high school with 93% white students. 0.4% of our student body, which is made up of 980 people, is made up of Black students. Many members of my community would have a knee-jerk reaction to justify these statistics and find a reason to make okay the lack of diversity, yet their justifications are not only ill-informed, but they are implicitly racist. The high school 2.5 miles away from mine — located on the same street — has a student body of  60% white students, 31% hispanic students and 6% Black students. My high school did not have any Black teachers, except for one substitute. 0% of the students are marked as economically disadvantaged. 

The culture at my high school is one of entitlement. Students stood in the stands at football games against the close rival high school and chanted things like, “we go to college” — a destructive, hurtful and racist sentiment — without repercussion. This is just one example of my high school’s racist tendencies, which as a community, we scarcely second guessed. It is taken as fact that the majority of graduates (98% graduation rate) will head to out of state collegiate education, accepting this as an inevitable certainty rather than an immense privilege. The highest level American history class at my high school boasted a curriculum that taught us of the Civil War, abolition of slavery and the Civil Right’s movement but at a quick and glossy pace. We learned our lessons on the wrongdoings of White Americans in a white washed, comfortable manner—alongside our teachers and classmates, we collectively freed ourselves of the guilt that exists in upholding these racist institutions in America. The way I was taught in classrooms simply put a bandaid on the wound of white supremacy, slavery and racial injustice as if the American institution of racism is a scratch on the surface and not a deep, penetrable cut. The curriculum offered by my highschool was so sugar coated when it comes to race and racial injustice that it is a blatant inaccurate representation of the true injustices faced by enslaved people in America — and by Black Americans today. Police brutality, racial profiling of Black Americans and white supremacy is our history and our present, but we don’t teach it to our children. We skip those chapters. We exclude these lessons in our history books and curriculum because the white privilege embedded in our system enables us to do so we don’t have to live it.

Reflecting on my high school experience, whiteness was the norm. Students were catered to in a way that prohibited us from being challenged to recognize racial injustice in America. My high school is a marriage between two towns, one of which — Fair Haven, New Jersey — was settled predominately by freed slaves who were working on large estates in Rumson. Yet today, despite the town’s histories, the Black population has dwindled tremendously to a startling minority. One clear cause is the lack of affordable housing, which in neighboring towns is inhabited by people of color. There is then, and unfortunately, an obvious correlation between the intentional lack of affordable housing and a desire to exclude people of color from settling in Rumson. Affordable housing in my hometown is abysmal, which effectively prevents fostering a more diverse community. This is a very real case of redlining, in which the town’s government is covertly denying the government’s agencies’ services, oftentimes on a discriminatory racial basis. In 2015, the New Jersey Supreme Court divested the Council on Affordable Housing, allowing New Jersey county judges and governments to adjudicate on affordable housing issues. Despite the fact that the housing obligation in Rumson was 603 affordable units as mandated by the government, the borough decided the “realistic development potential” or amount of affordable housing units for Rumson would be a mere 51. 

 In January 2020, the town became involved in covert negotiations with a local developer to create both affordable housing units and luxury townhomes (which will be priced at over $1M) simultaneously as though to “balance out” the affordable housing units with the luxury homes. The plans are still in process and the community has just become aware of the negotiations. Only nine affordable housing units exist in Rumson now, with plans for a potential 14 more in development — still a far cry from the 51 minimum. Until January 2020, there was not much attention shed on the lack of affordable housing, and now, community members are pushing back against the plans. This redzone negotiation was done at the benefit of the town’s government and the developers, and will most probable not provide any new affordable housing to Rumson — a genuine example of a desire to remain an elite, “white” town with little to no diversity. 

I was raised to be racist by my community — and had no way of knowing. I was taught not to say the N word, not to discriminate or dislike people for their race, to accept everyone and foster a positive, welcoming community. But where we failed is that I was never taught to recognize the privilege my whiteness assumes. I was never taught to understand what it means to exist as white in this America. I was never taught to be anti-racist. Although my community was generally not overtly racist, my community was and is discriminatory, dismissive and apathetic toward race. These ambivalent racist tendencies lead to the creation and endorsement of white supremacist institutions in which white Americans benefit, and people of color do not. 

As the white majority, my community has failed to see ourselves in racial terms. Though I only have a white experience and identity, I was taught to operate as though my experience is the universal—the status quo, the “normal.” Race matters prominently to our society—one that operates with a hierarchical structure which sorts individuals as superior due to their race—yet as white people, we aren’t raised to see ourselves as racial individuals or to acknowledge our race as integral to the system. Instead, we’re taught to only recognize and see other races. We’re taught that being white is the “base”, and everyone who isn’t white is outside of the norm, instead on the periphery. We are led to believe that race only matters in a sense of otherness because when you’re white, you don’t have to confront your racial identity. We’re comfortable thinking race will always be theirs, and never ours. We’re not racist, we say, so it isn’t our problem. It isn’t our fault. 

This is where we’re wrong. This is where I’ve been wrong. It has both been my fault, even if subconsciously, and is also my duty to combat it, being that I am of the most racially privileged position in America. It is unfortunate that it has taken white America so long to merely hear or choose to hear the cry of oppressed Black Americans—and if it has taken this long to hear these voices, I wonder, when will white Americans begin to listen? When will white Americans begin to take ownership? It is inexcusable that it has taken the killings of countless innocent Black individuals at the hands of the police for white America to recognize a problem in white supremacy and systemic racism. The murder of Black Americans is not a new occurrence—the absolving of blame and responsibility by white Americans isn’t either. The regularity with which Black Americans are murdered by the police is a disturbing, evil and direct byproduct of white supremacy and systemic racism in the United States. The killing of George Floyd on May 25th, 2020 is a calamity that horrifyingly feels familiar and unsurprising. 

Racial prejudice against Black Americans is a common and rudimentary element of American history fostering a society that exploits and belittles minorities. Floyd joins the hundreds of other Black lives taken by the police, including Eric Garner, who was murdered in 2014 and uttered the last words  “I can’t breathe” as NYPD officers pinned him to the ground and held him in a chokehold— words that are identical to those uttered by George Floyd nearly six years later. Black lives have been unjustly taken by the police in large numbers and statistics show that Black Americans are 2.5 times more likely to be killed by the police than white Americans. The frequency at which police are taking Black lives continues to grow, while ultimately nothing is done to reform this institution. 

Black individuals have been consistently profiled by the police, so much so that the phrase “DWB” or “Driving While Black” was coined to describe the commonplace racial profiling of  Black motorists. George Floyd’s interaction with the police was initially prompted when he was alleged to have used a counterfeit $20 bill, and the interaction escalated extremely unnecessarily, ending with Derek Chauvin kneeling on his neck for around 9 minutes — killing him. It is abhorrent that an institution which supposedly vows to protect American citizens could unjustly kill Black Americans consistently and at an incomparable rate to which white Americans are killed by the police. 

Countless Black Americans who have lost their lives by way of racial profiling by the police — including Sandra Bland, who was imprisoned for not utilizing her turn signal and died in prison — have also been initially approached by the police for a minor offense. A study at Stanford known as  the Stanford Open Policing Project sought out to collect information from state patrol agencies and municipal police departments to analyze racial disparities in policing. The data found that officers stop Black drivers at higher rates than white drivers, search Black drivers at higher rates than white drivers and require less suspicion to search Black drivers. In my own experience, I have little to no concern or fear when being pulled over — the times I have been — because my privilege as a young, white American woman allows me to operate without concern for police brutality against me for my race. 

On Tuesday, May 26, 2020, one day after the murder of George Floyd, I was driving through hometown. I had my phone in my hand, music on and windows down, going four mph over the speed limit of 35. I was pulled over by a white male police officer, who asked me for my license, vehicle registration and insurance. I’d left the house without my license and didn’t have it on me.  I additionally could not find the vehicle registration, and the insurance card I could find had expired. In a three minute conversation with the officer he asked my name, age and home address and if I’d ever been pulled over before. I told him I had, and apologized for not having my license on me, for having my phone in my hand, and for lacking the required documentation. With little to no issue, the officer let me go.

I was not given a ticket or even reprimanded. He believed every word I said to him with ease, going so far as to tell me to have a good day before walking back to his car.

It is pretty much assured that had I not been a white person, he would have given me a ticket, a court appearance (as the New Jersey law illustrates for using a cell phone while driving) and/or given me a much more difficult, maybe even life-threatening time. Yet because I am white, I failed to receive a single repercussion. And because I am white, when the police officer turned on his lights behind me, I was not afraid for my safety. Instead of a feeling of terror, I felt inconvenienced — I would be five minutes late to my destination, a destination I was sure I’d make it to. I felt annoyed that I had been caught breaking a rule. It is my privilege as a white person driving in a well-off area that afforded me the ability to feel this way. I have never had to fear for my life when I am pulled over for speeding, for forgetting a turn signal or holding my phone in my hand while driving. I will never feel this way. I don’t even address the privilege that exists in knowing I can easily afford to pay a fine or a ticket if the officer even chooses to give me one. In the past, I would’ve been relieved to drive away from being pulled over without issue. I would’ve celebrated being let go. I would’ve joked about getting out of a ticket. 

Now, I feel differently. I felt guilty driving away without repercussion for breaking the law in three ways — driving without my license, holding my phone in my hand, speeding (even if marginally). A day before, a Black man named Geroge Floyd was killed by the police for allegedly using a counterfeit bill. When he was approached by the police, he had potentially broken the law. When I was approached by the police, I had broken the law in three ways. I drove away without so much as a warning and Geroge Floyd brutally lost his life. 

Confronting our privilege as white Americans should not be something some of us do. It should be something all of us have to do. I grew up in a place which fostered implicit racial biases and tendencies, though I would never have called myself racist. I was taught by my parents to love and respect — act with morals and integrity — but the blinders were on. We were comfortable in ignoring our race, in harboring racial bias without awareness, and it is inexcusable. But ignorance or naivete is not an excuse. If anything, ignorance and naivete is worse.  It still feeds the beast. Arguing that you are not racist, because you are a “good” or “nice” white person is not serving any community, or helping any movement. Arguing against affirmative action or saying “all lives matter'' is racist. It is learned behavior from aversive racist communities. That is why accepting responsibility is important. Once far enough removed from the institutions that enabled my white privilege and my community’s racist tendencies, I was able to see these wrongdoings, understand their implications and make the conscious decision to do better. 

Growing up, I always sought to be welcoming and kind, never to judge or discriminate against anyone. I would never have called my hometown or high school racist. But racism lives in the words “I don’t see color,” and “I’m not racist, I treat everyone the same.” It is more than violent acts of white supremacy. It is in the ambivalent attitudes toward race. Because racist is not pigeonholed to mean “bad people who choose to dislike others for their race” as our Civil War era ancestors may have once figured. It is embedded in the fabric of this nation—a nation perceived by white people to be white. It goes beyond conscious effort at discrimination. It is subconscious, covert and unintentional. This does not discredit its existence. This does not excuse it. This does not relieve us from having to confront our privilege and understand how we can use it productively to help the Black Lives Matter Movement. It isn’t going to be comfortable because it isn’t supposed to be. If you feel threatened or upset by two weeks of public protests, social discomfort and confrontation of privilege, I urge you to merely attempt to understand how you would feel about 400 years of blatant and systemic oppression. 

There’s no way out unless we go through. As white Americans we need to take ownership. This can be the beginning of a change that could be the impetus to dismantle white supremacist institutions presiding over this America. But it cannot be done unless we consciously choose to be anti-racist ally. We need to talk about it. We need to teach it in classrooms and confront the uncomfortable reality of racism in this country. We need to lift up Black voices, Black teachers, Black artists and business owners and Black lives. We need to teach white children the truth of our history—not avoid it. We need to be utilizing our privileges in all the ways we can, be it signing petitions, going to protests, supporting Black owned businesses and art, educating ourselves, voting, calling our senators and/or having difficult conversations. It is time we wake up and take ownership for the implicit racism and racial bias we, as white Americans, have been carrying with us. I existed for 17 years of my life with no real knowledge or awareness of my privilege as a white woman in America, and the racial biases I carried through my life. It was and is nobody’s job but my own to recognize this mistake, unlearn these behaviors and productively join the fight for Black voices, futures and lives — to educate myself about what I’ve done and what I can do. This country and its economy was built on the exploitation and sale of Black human beings as property. It was built on land we stole. It was built on the backs of Black Americans. 

White Americans have a duty to stand with and fight for them. It has been far too long. 

It’s time we all begin.