Updated: Sep 18, 2021
As I continue to try to see my whiteness more holistically, I'm learning more about concepts I've never paid much attention and never really understood; 'White exceptionalism' is one of them.
White exceptionalism is the belief that white people, who hold white privilege –– exempt from the effects, benefits, and conditioning of white supremacy around us –– are therefore also exempt from the much needed work of anti-racism because it doesn't really 'apply' to them.
Quite simple, and painfully complex at the same time.
White exceptionalism is the "I'm not a racist, I voted for Obama, I have Black friends or partners, my kids hang with friends who are BIPOC, I don't even see color when I look at someone, I'm one of the good white people, racism doesn't affect me really, because I'm white" never-ending resistant mantra. In my world of white progressives, that's likely most everyone I know. And for the better part of my life, that included me.
It was my 'get out of being-a-racist jail free' card. And it's what gave me permission to stay in my white bubble and not take any real steps toward understanding racism any further. Because if I believe that racism doesn't really impact my life (because I'm white), and that I'm clearly not racist (because of the litany of the 'i am not a racist because...mantra), it isn't really my problem. Emboldened by white privilege, this exceptionalism has become the great eraser of racism for the white community (white community -- now that's a phrase you don't hear very often). It allows the problems of racism to go away because it gives us permission not to see them. And so we don't. Unless we actively choose to.
White exceptionalism is the "I'm not a racist, I voted for Obama, I have Black friends or partners, my kids hang with friends who are BIPOC, I don't even see color when I look at someone, I'm one of the good white people, racism doesn't affect me really, because I'm white" mantra.
It is through this belief that I am 'exceptional' –– exempt from the role I play within a racist society –– that I have intentionally and freely looked away from the realities of racism around me; it's like I've been living in an alternate universe. I never felt a need to better understand the history of oppression or colonization in this country that still lingers within Black and marginalized communities in our world today. Never felt a need to expose myself to an expansive library of literature, research, or studies that continue to shed light on the impact of racism in our society. I'd selectively read the news, and rarely clicked on race-related articles or ways in which amends for historical or current day harms could be made. I didn't feel a need to put any energy into fighting for systemic or institutional change, even in the systems within which I am an active participant. Nor did I feel any sense of urgency to try to correct the imbalances of power I see everywhere in the world around me.
It is through this belief that I am 'exceptional' –– exempt from the idea that I perpetuate racism –– that has allowed me to ignore white supremacy as the lynchpin of racism and I continue to throw the weight of racism back to the BIPOC communities, expecting them to carry its burden, with the belief that it's a Black and Brown problem, not mine –– not a white problem. When really, that exactly what it is.
So, when Dr. MLK, Jr. writes,"I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro's great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen's Council-er or 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; who constantly says: 'I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action'; shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will."...he was writing about me and my innate sense to stay true to my white exceptionalism.
It's not the right-wing nationalists or overtly proud white supremacists that carry this sense of white exceptionalism. They're pretty transparent about where they stand and who they are threatened by. These people do not feel 'exceptional' in this way. No, white exceptionalism is reserved for white moderates or liberals like me who believe that their progressive way of thinking about the world separates them completely from the extreme ideologies of the far right. But it doesn't. Because 'in a racist society, it is not enough to be non-racist, we must be anti-racist.' (Angela Davis). If I'm not part of the solution, I'm part of the problem. And the problem is that my complicity perpetuates racism. So, if that's not the part I want to play in my own history, or the model I want to set for my children, I need to keep working toward change. Turning the lens toward myself and my whiteness, examining my privilege is not only a good place to start, but one that I find myself coming back to, over and over again.
In the end, I was born white. And with no real racial world view, I have willfully traded off my humanity for a greater inhumanity. White exceptionalism has been the door to my protection, my entitlements, my privileges, my shield against the role I play in –– inadvertently or otherwise –– causing harm to others, in bolstering white supremacy, and in perpetuating racism.
I no longer want to be exceptional.