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Seeing White

Updated: Apr 19, 2021


It's hard to miss what's going on with white people in America these days. As the world cross-examines white supremacy through the lens of Derek Chauvin's trial, I feel a shift is happening around me. Racism and our racial social order is under the microscope more than it has ever has been in my lifetime. The trauma white people cause Black men, women, and children in this country are being captured and shared daily on social media. Courageous conversations in the national dialogue seem to be gaining traction. Corporate America is beginning to stand more firmly on anti-racist leanings. Our global partners are speaking out on the cruelty of American whiteness. It is a reckoning –– and white people can choose to take the low road through any number of 'anti-woke' or 'cancel culture' escape hatches, or we can get on the right side of the struggle.


But what exactly is the right side of the struggle? For me, it's what our founders put on paper centuries ago, ideals that they didn't and we have yet to live up to: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness" –– equality and justice for all. Sounds pretty intuitive for a so-called 'democracy.'


And though I can't speak for other white progressives like myself, I would imagine that most of the other-"I'm a good person, so I can't be racist; my kids and I have friends of color, so I can't be racist; racism doesn't affect me because I'm white"-white progressives that I know would place themselves squarely on the right side of the struggle. Because inherently, white progressives who believe they believe in democracy –– in equality and justice for all –– are good people, and of course, would never be racist, right?


White progressives that I know would place themselves squarely on the right side of the struggle. Because inherently, white progressives who believe they believe in democracy –– in equality and justice for all –– are good people, and of course, would never be racist, right?

So where is the uprising of white progressives showing up against the racism we clearly all see? What does it take to move us? If our hearts are breaking as we watch the videos of unarmed Black men and women being murdered in our communities, why are we not mobilizing for change? If we understand our history, our real history, and can visibly see the lingering and devastating impact of centuries of oppression and racial discrimination on Black communities today, where is our grief and moral outrage? How can we remain ignorant and not question our role or responsibility within the system we perpetuate? What will it take for us to stop pretending that everything that is going on doesn't affect us? When will we stand behind the truth that Black Lives Matter is the cornerstone of our ability to live up to the ideals we say we believe in –– that until Black lives matter, no life matters. And when will we recognize that we are what stands between our failed state, our sham of a democracy, and the promise of a better world for our children.


If our hearts are breaking as we watch the videos of unarmed Black men and women being murdered in our communities, why are we not mobilizing for change?

So yeah, there's all that. And if you're a white person and you're reading this, stay with me. I know it's hard to even think about, but there are no harder feelings more important to work through. So let's power through this together and get back to the root cause of why we, white progressives, don't even ask ourselves some of those questions and are not showing up and turning the tides on racism. Let's start with white fragility because it's a real barrier and it's our first step in paving the way for us to begin to dismantle racism.


I know I've talked about white fragility before, but I feel like I need to continue to unpack it from several angles because it's a tricky resistance. Robin DiAngelo defines white fragility as "a state in which even a minimum amount of racial stress becomes intolerable, triggering a range of defensive moves." Essentially, it's a white person's need to build a solid defense against having any meaningful racial conversations, while at the same time (consciously or unconsciously) perpetuating racism in our world. Now, that might feel disconnected from you, but I can assure you that as a white person, to some degree, you have it, and when you feel it, you know it. It almost feels like fight or flight, and it's based on assumptions you might not even know you have about race, that engender feelings you may not even be conscious of. What? Let's help bridge those words to real feelings you can relate to.


So, let's take a quick quiz. With each question, think about all answers that apply and be honest, it's a safe space.


Which of these feelings have you had when someone suggests that you've said or done something that might be racist?

  • Singled out

  • Guilty

  • Judged

  • Attacked

  • Shamed

  • Accused

  • Embarrassed

  • Silenced

  • Insulted

  • Angry

  • Scared

  • Outraged

  • Defensive

  • I've never found myself in this situation

Which statements have you made (aloud or to yourself) when someone suggests that you've said or done something that might be racist:

  • I know people of color

  • You misunderstood me

  • That was not my intention

  • You hurt my feelings

  • The real oppression is class (or gender, or religion, anything but race)

  • You're making me feel guilty

  • I disagree

  • You just don't know me

  • I just said one innocent thing, why are you attacking me?

  • Some people take offense when others wouldn't

  • I have suffered too

  • I can't say anything right

  • I've never found myself in this situation

How have you responded when someone has suggested that you've done or said something that might be racist?

  • Cried

  • Focus on my intentions and not impact

  • Emotionally withdrew

  • Argued

  • Denied

  • Avoided

  • Physically left

  • Sought absolution

  • I've never found myself in this situation

Unless you've 'never found yourself' in any of those situations, chances are we all can check off several boxes with each question. Don't worry, we all do. The important take-away is that when we have these feelings, and we defend ourselves against them, we reinstate the white racial status quo and prevent any meaningful cross-racial conversations. Which means we are not working to better understand or dismantle racism, we are avoiding it altogether and in our neglect, in our silence, we perpetuate it. Sometimes, as a woman, I draw parallels to sexism. So, if I'm sitting in a conference room at work, with mostly white men, and one of the senior executive level men says something blatantly sexist (even though he doesn't see it as sexist) and all of the other men notice, they might even feel badly, but stay silent, those other men are complicit in the sexism that has been brought into the room, and in remaining silent, give permission for it to continue throughout the culture of the workplace. In their silence, they perpetuate sexism. In my racial silence, I perpetuate racism.

And so I find that the more knowledge I gain, and actively more outspoken I become, the more mistakes I make, the more confronted I am with terrible feelings, triggered by both my own white fragility and the white fragility of others. Feeling many of the feelings outlined in the quiz above, I wanted to disappear and for years, I have. And if not for mentors, I'd likely still be running. If not for mentors. Yes, I have been one of the lucky ones. Over the past few years, through likely dozens upon dozens of unintentional micro-aggressions, I have been called in, not called out, by my BIPOC peers at work. Called in with love, empathy and a desire not to attack, not to shame, but to bring about an awareness from which I could and should move forward. I credit these gentle mentors with the road I am on now, particularly grateful because I know that it is my responsibility, and that it adds additional emotional labor they don't need to carry. They gave me permission to sit with feelings of inadequacy, guilt, shame and ignorance, and never left my side.


If not for mentors. Yes, I have been one of the lucky ones. Over the past few years, through likely dozens upon dozens of unintentional micro-aggressions, I have been called in, not called out, by my BIPOC peers at work.

But imagine this. What if every white liberal-leaning human in this country saw themselves as good and racist (in that they could not have escaped being raised within a 'racialized' society)? Gave themselves permission to stop defending the status quo of white supremacy through their white silence? Would allow themselves to lift the veil of their ignorance and stand up against racism in their homes, their communities, and world? If we all began to truly understand the system within which we've been socialized, how we personally have been shaped by it, perpetuate it, and what we can do to change it, what would that take?


Remember in the Matrix, when Neo is offered a choice to remain in his life and not see the truth about the Matrix or to learn what the Matrix really is? He chooses to take the red pill and upon his 'birthing' into the real world, having gone through an almost near death experience, he becomes aware that the real world he thought he lived in doesn't exist, it is a simulated world controlled by others and perpetuated by those like Cypher, aware but prefer to live in denial. He's also made aware of the One, a human with the power to manipulate the Matrix and end the war between humans and machines. And after a strong desire to reject the reality of the real world, Neo chooses the truth.

The Matrix is America. The truth is racism. In the age of information, taking the red pill is a choice we all make. Surviving the near death experience is a combination of us working through our white fragility and accepting all trade offs to white privilege that we'll need to make in order to see a more just world. The 'real world' we think we live in –– where white privilege and denial negate the pervasive realities of systemic racism –– does not exist. Many of us, like Cypher, know that, but prefer to keep the blinders on, but I believe in my heart that so many of us, collectively are the One. Given the choice, we would choose to live in the real world, even if we had to give up the comfort of our disillusionment. Together, we can end the war.


Onwards, together.



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