White Supremacy Hurts White People Too
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Here’s the problem with the concept of “white privilege”: It only tells half the story.
Yes, being socially categorized as “white” — particularly in the U.S. but also across much of the world — comes with benefits and advantages not shared by many people of color.
I generally don’t have to fear the police (though many poor white people do). The odds were in my favor that I was born into a family with more wealth than the average family of color. When I see people who look like me in movies and the news, they’re often represented in positive ways. And on and on and on.
And white supremacy, the very thing that creates and sustains these privileges, also hurts me.
It hurts me in real, tangible, material, economic ways. Heather McGee, author of The Sum of Us, says:
“Racism [gets] in the way of all of us having nice things … things like truly universal affordable health care, or world-class, or even just reliable, modern infrastructure. A public health system to tackle pandemics with efficiency and scale. A well-funded school in every neighborhood.”
In other words, because those of us who work for a living (rather than have people work for us) are divided against each other due to racism (and sexism, etc.), we struggle to build political movements powerful enough to demand our government provide those nice things.
White supremacy also hurts me in ways that can’t be measured — emotional and spiritual ways.
Before my ancestors were “white,” they were English, Irish, French, German, and who knows what else? Some likely were among the rich and powerful few who led the colonization of the Americas. Others owned enslaved people.
But the odds are that most labored in fields owned by European feudal lords. They languished in jails simply because they were poor. They exhausted their bodies in factories during capitalism’s early days. Two-thirds of all who came from England, Scotland, and Ireland to American shores during the 17th century came as indentured servants.
As political educator David Dean writes:
“Some European immigrants [came] to the British colonies, and later, the United States, fleeing religious persecution and violence, but most were running directly from … economic deprivation.”
Once in the Americas, they were forced into a process of becoming “white.” Starting in the late 17th century, the rich and powerful passed laws and enacted policies that, as Resmaa Menakem writes in My Grandmother’s Hands, “legislated whiteness into existence.”
Plantation owners and other powerful elites had become increasingly afraid of European indentured servants seeing their common interests with enslaved Africans and indigenous people. Thus, they created the notion of “white” people, giving them relative privileges.
White servants were increasingly allowed to join militias, carry guns, own land, and do other things enslaved Africans were not. “Thus,” writes Chicana community organizer Elizabeth “Betita” Martinez, “whiteness was born as a racist notion to prevent lower-class whites from joining people of color against their common class enemies.”
These lower-class Europeans were given what historian W.E.B. DuBois called:
“a sort of public and psychological wage … which drove such a wedge between the white and black workers that there probably are not … in the world two groups of workers with practically identical interests who hate and fear each other so deeply and persistently and who are kept so far apart that neither sees anything of common interest.”
These lower-class Europeans “were no longer … Polish-Americans, Hungarian-Americans, or Italian-Americans, but simply ‘white’ Americans,” writes Dean.
What they lost along the way were the traditions, rituals, ways of connecting with nature, forms of community, and so much more that their people had practiced for millennia.
What they lost were the roots of their shared humanity.
Menakem, echoing McGee’s point, writes that this “undermined poor white folks’ sense of identity and convinced them to fight against their own interests.” But he also adds, “[This] created a false sense of settling in the bodies of many poor, white Americans.”
A “false sense of settling.” I don’t know about you, but when I think of the state of white Americans right now — with life expectancy dropping, suicide rates skyrocketing, the Republican party leaning further into white nationalism — I can’t imagine a better way to put it.
To be crystal clear: This isn’t to say that white people have it as bad as people of color. Playing the oppression Olympics is beside my point.
My point is, if you’re white, it will actually benefit you to take a hard look at how white supremacy is hurting you.
It’s not about forcing yourself to feel guilt or shame. It’s not about being a “good” person.
It’s about waking up to how white supremacy shapes the ways you think and joining with your friends, neighbors, and coworkers to eliminate it from your community and our economic and political systems.
Hi, I’m Jeremy, a therapist and writer. Subscribe to my weekly email to get posts like this straight to your inbox here.
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