Karen Gaffney conducted a training at Netroots Nation and has given me permission to quote extensively from her presentation titled “Never Woke Enough: Talking to White People about White Supremacy.” After first explaining how false ideologies have permeated our culture and been absorbed by white people, she outlined some of them for us with the reality that lies behind them.
1.) Racism occurred in the past, but that problem has been resolved.
This ideology leads to comments such as
“Slavery is over.”
“The civil rights movement ended racism.”
The reality is that racism is still a serious problem in the U.S. You don’t have to go to Charlottesville to see the results: just turn on the news and watch as we threaten to deport Dreamers whose skin is not white.
Mass incarceration, police violence, pollution, inadequate school resources, poverty, over-surveillance, under-representation, etc. disproportionately impact people of color today
No, the civil rights movement did not end racism. Racism is still determining who gets shot for playing with a toy gun, who fills the private for-profit prisons, and whose neighborhood gets to host the chemical plant.
2.) Any lingering racism today is the fault of a few racist individuals. Reverse racism and political correctness are bigger problems today.
You may have heard it expressed this way:
“KKK are the real racists.”
“White Lives Matter”
The truth behind this false ideology is that ...
… racism today continues to be perpetuated by systems against people of color, not white people. Individual prejudice is not the same as systemic oppression.
However, white people are quick to claim that they are the victims of affirmative action, instead of the perpetuators of a system that guarantees their supremacy.
3.) Races are inherently (even biologically) different.
Yeah, really. For hundreds of years this has been taught to Americans. Josiah Nott, in his 1854 work Types of Mankind, placed blacks between chimpanzees and Greeks. Even today, there are those who believe that there is some biological difference. The truth, according to Gaffney, is that race is a social construct and that:
•Human DNA is 99.5% – 99.9% identical; tiny difference does not correlate with race
•Light skin color is very recent adaptation
•No scientific way to separate humans by “race”
4.) White people are the norm, and anyone else is other, exotic, ethnic, and/or inferior.
And sure enough, when I googled the word “man,” as Ms Gaffney suggested, this montage showed up:
Such a fine variety of white faces. Even Google appears to think that “man” means “white man.” The truth behind this false ideology is, according to Gaffney, that:
Race was invented to protect the elite, divide and conquer the masses, and steal indigenous land. A racial hierarchy was invented that positions whites as superior and blacks as inferior, with indigenous peoples, Asian Americans, and Latinx people occupying various intermediary positions.
5.) The U.S. is a meritocracy where anyone who works hard can achieve the American Dream.
This is perhaps the cruelest of them all. There never has been a level playing field. It has always been a rigged game, with extra points given to those who are born with the palest skin.
Capitalist systems provide easier access to opportunities for white people (especially middle/upper class, cisgendered, straight men) while simultaneously blocking access for people of color.
These false ideologies have shaped our thinking about race for years, even if not on a conscious level. Some of you may remember the promotion of Asian-Americans in the 1990s as the “good minority.”
They were the “Whiz Kids” that reinforced all of the false narratives about race. And whenever you have a “good” minority, you have a “bad” one as well.
In 2016, Donald Trump capitalized on the fear that white men have of becoming a minority. Since the minority population has increased as a share of the U.S. population, that is a powerful fear that has proven useful in dividing us from each other. White people, especially white men who enjoy the most power under our current norms, fear that their positions might be reversed, and perhaps they might become the despised and feared minority.
What can you do?
As an individual it is important to remember that silence implies consent. When you hear racism you should call it out, without being unnecessarily confrontational:
- Silence is complicity
- Speak up when you hear white people support false racial ideologies
- “I’m concerned about what you just said.”
- “What makes you say that?”
- “I recently learned that...”
On a systemic level, which is where most of the damage is done, we have to ask ourselves as we go about our daily lives:
Karen Gaffney believes that white supremacy is a problem that white people have to resolve. It is not up to black people to show us the error of our ways. It is up to us to identify these false ideologies and become aware of how they have been incorporated into our everyday lives. Her website Divided No Longer provides a wealth of material and resources for those who wish to join her efforts in calling out white supremacy, understanding it, and dismantling it. Her book Dismantling the Racism Machine: A Manual and Toolbox, is being published by Routledge and will be available in November of this year:
While scholars have been developing valuable research on race and racism for decades, this work does not often reach the beginning college student or the general public, who rarely learn a basic history of race and racism. If we are to dismantle systemic racism and create a more just society, people need a place to begin. This accessible, introductory, and interdisciplinary guide can be one such place. Grounded in Critical Race Theory, this book uses the metaphor of the Racism Machine to highlight that race is a social construct and that racism is a system of oppression based on invented racial categories. It debunks the false ideology that race is biological. As a manual, this book presents clear instructions for understanding the history of race, including whiteness, starting in colonial America where the elite created a hierarchy of racial categories to maintain their power through a divide and conquer strategy. As a toolbox, this book provides a variety of specific action steps that readers can take once they have developed a foundational understanding of the history of white supremacy, a history that includes how the Racism Machine has been recalibrated to perpetuate racism in a supposedly “post-racial” era.
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