While much has improved since the days of segregation laws and public lynchings, the struggle of racism has by no means gone away. It feels like there’s a racial battle nearly every week in the news; and I watch the stories unfold with a sense of shock and sorrow. Conservative pundits’ accusations of ‘race baiting’ and ‘playing the race card’ capture headlines, but a less publicized, more complex story I hear from white people around me is a sad confusion over how racism is still causing these kinds of problems. Truth be told, I’ve found myself overwhelmed by this confusion to the point of checking out completely. While self-care is sometimes necessary for those deeply involved in difficult conversations, I’m keenly aware that it’s far too easy for white people to disengage because we don’t have to care; our skin gives us that option.
In her article, White People Facing Race: Uncovering Myths that Keep Racism in Place, Peggy McIntosh (2009) explores five myths that keep white people from understanding the experience of other races. Understanding these assumptions has helped me shift my mindset when I find myself wanting to run away from the on-going racial conflict in our country.
The Myth of Meritocracy
In a majority world, individuals are viewed as the sole component of society. There are no “groups”, only people. As a result, people get what they want and deserve based on their individual choices. The American mantra of ‘pulling yourself up by your bootstraps’ reinforces this sentiment: all you have to do is try and you’ll succeed because “nothing stands in your way”. There is little acknowledgment of the impact that systems have on individuals.
This myth stands most potent when looking at the stories of African-American families talking to their sons about the realities of race today. In his book, Between the World and I, Ta-Nehisi Coates, a national correspondent for The Atlantic, shares this from a letter to his son:
You stayed up till 11 p.m. that night, waiting for the announcement of an indictment, and when instead it was announced that there was none you said, “I’ve got to go,” and you went into your room, and I heard you crying. I came in five minutes after, and I didn’t hug you, and I didn’t comfort you, because I thought it would be wrong to comfort you. I did not tell you that it would be okay, because I have never believed it would be okay. What I told you is what your grandparents tried to tell me: that this is your country, that this is your world, that this is your body, and you must find some way to live within the all of it.
Having known many young black men who have done nothing to deserve the burden of this reality, I mourn the disconnect in society that makes it possible.
The Myth of Manifest Destiny
Because racism is embedded so deeply in the foundations of our country, it remains difficult for those who have traditionally held the power to recognize. Our childhood history lesson of Manifest Destiny teaches that God gave this land to America, and that we are, as a result, his chosen people. Seeing the US as “a nation found by God” keeps us from acknowledging the long-term impact of the blatantly evil and sinful stories like Native American genocide, African slavery, Japanese internment, and segregation laws.
While we don’t see campaign signs like this anymore (though I wouldn’t put it past Donald Trump), this sentiment still rings true in the hearts of many as issues like racial segregation, urban gentrification & property values, and white-boy-club politics play out.
The Myth of White Racelessness
When discussing race, many white people struggle to identify cultural characteristics they share with other whites. YouTube points out some of these characteristics in some not-so-gentle and painfully accurate ways. Growing up as a member of the majority can foster a “I don’t have a culture. I’m just normal.” perspective that assumes only other people have race.
Additionally, white people’s participation in racial oppression isn’t seen as racial activity, but simply as “history.” We see it time and again through the merchandising of products like nude pantyhose and flesh colored crayons. We see it in advertisements that only include only white faces and public response to shootings-by-white-people versus shootings-by-brown people. When brown people do something bad, it’s immediately attributed to their race. When white people do something bad, they have no race.
For white people to grasp the racial dynamics, it’s crucial that they first understand the role that our own race plays in society and history. Failing to these face these realities creates a short-sighted and ignorant perspective that will only serve to repeat history, not redeem it.
The Myth of Monoculture
Viewing values through a single lens leads many to operate on the assumption that there is one “American” culture that everyone experiences in similar ways. This is still the myth I catch myself practicing most frequently when I slip up and make comments like, “Christians think…” or “Americans say…” when what I really mean is “White evangelical Christians in the US think…” or “White middle-class Americans say…” Lumping everyone into one group creates an unspoken expectation that people of color adapt to the “white way”.
Considering others better than ourselves (Phil 2:3) means that it’s essential that we don’t unintentionally demand that others follow cultural norms that we don’t even realize we have. Such differences present themselves through how we view diverse perspectives on theology, worship style, or individual spirituality.
The Myth of White Moral Elevation
Years ago, I chaperoned a very diverse group of high school students on a field trip to the nation’s capital building. I grew quickly ashamed when I saw painting after painting like this:
Where were the role models that reflected the background of non-anglo students? What possibilities would they imagine for themselves if these were the only people credited with America’s greatness?
The myth of white moral elevation creates a societal bias that fosters a subconscious superiority complex . While it’s never directly stated, this bias strings through the media, education, and society that communicates that it’s natural for white people to be in the limelight but exceptional for people of color. This attitude comes through in statements like, “He’s so articulate” or “She doesn’t act black.” We see it time and again in our church leadership structures, elected political officers, and community leaders. Even in the most diverse regions of the country, the majority of people who pull the power-making strings are white. To truly grapple with how privilege impacts ourselves and society, we need to be regularly asking why this is still our reality in one of the most diverse countries in the world.
While this is only the beginning of the conversation, it’s a great place to begin. Understanding race is not a one-time-thing to wipe our hands clean from. It is a never-ending process of listening and learning in order to become a safe place to hold the stories of those around us with gentler hands.
Want to learn more?
- Read Peggy McIntosh’s entire article, White People Facing Race: Uncovering the Myths that Keep Racism in Place.
- Follow racial events and headlines and Colorlines Facebook page.
- Check out my newly released book Pondering Privilege: Toward a Deeper Understanding of Whiteness, Race, and Faith
- Re-examine your assumptions and attitudes using the 30 Days Race Challenge.
- Attend a conference on race. Check out a few: