The sadness of white people

In today's Intro to Women's and Gender Studies class I was reminded once again that white people sure do hate it when you say that white people are racist.

We've talked about this here before, at length, so I won't make all the same old points again. The shorthand, for those of you who don't want to reread old posts, is that I claim that--to greater or lesser extents--all white people in this country benefit from their whiteness, and if they benefit from white privilege and don't start taking steps to change it, they're perpetuating a racist system. Even if they personally hold no feelings of anger in their hearts.

But, boy oh boy, do white people hate it when you make this point. They want to wriggle away from it any way they can. They bring up their friend who didn't get into Notre Dame because she was white, while a Less Qualified Person of Color (tm) did get in. They complain that they didn't ask to be white, it's not their fault that they're white, so why are they responsible for anything? They tell you about every incident in their life when they were slighted, offended, or hurt by a person of color.

And while all of this irritates the crap out of me, I have to say that what struck me today, once I got over the irritation, was the fact that many of them seemed legitimately pained. Hurt. Almost tearful in some cases.

I guess it's been so long since I had this insight that I can't really remember all the feelings that went along with it for me. What I remember mostly was clarity, and outrage. A realization that I was part of the problem fueled my desire to be part of the solution. I can't remember if I was sad.

Their sadness doesn't seem to be remorse--a feeling I would understand--and it seems to underlie the defensive anecdotes they surround themselves with. If I knew where the sadness was coming from, maybe I could talk with them more effectively. Clearly a lot is at stake for them. And yet I feel conflicted--although I recognize the importance of going to my students where they are, I'm also reluctant to cater to their sadness, to comfort them, when perhaps this is a pain they need to feel.


Heather Bailey said...

in the classes that i was teaching over the summer and in the spring, i ran into the opinion from several white students that they didn't think that racism existed anymore.

i've also run into the opinion (again from white kids) that if racism exists, then it's only a black thing.

this widespread social blinders process really stuns me...and kind of creeps me out. it creates such a huge barrier between people. it makes it difficult for white people to see racism even when it is right in front of their faces and it forces people apart...which then furthers segregation.

and maybe that's the whole point of the process. it keeps white folks from making friends with anyone else and binds them together in their seclusion.

but it's still weird to me.

femme fortis said...

Okay, I don't know if I'm gonna offend anybody here, but it isn't my intention to. My intention is provide my take on the whole topic and maybe shed some light on what others may, or may not, be dealing with. That way maybe you can help me and your students out.

I think a lot of it has to do with the experiences of those students which you seem to dismiss so quickly. I think what they might be trying to say (because I would try to say this myself) is that they have experienced racism, too (and I fear I sound like a whiny rich white person saying that, which is part of the problem). Yes, I know and understand that in the larger scheme of things people of color are more oppressed than white people in general. But, experience for the students might point to something different. Economically, sure. We see the problem (especially in Charleston) and we need to do something about it. On the other hand, when it comes to some face to face interactions between white and black people, there are daggers thrown on both sides and both are very hurtful. And today, our culture seems to say it‘s okay for black people to be racist and make racial slurs because they‘re oppressed. We see it on television and in music all the time. It would be like saying it‘s okay for women to be sexist. Maybe the sadness is actually frustration with a conflict the students are having between their private and public spheres.

Anonymous said...

Lest we forget those that still milk the perceived racism for everything its worth. Often, those that accuse of racism are just as, if not more, racist than the accused.

claire said...

I think they are sad because their worldview only works if racism is a two way street -- and part of what you are pointing out by discussing white privilege is that racism is not a two way street. So their notions of what is "fair" are being shattered -- twice. First because they thought it was unfair when a person of color said something mean to them and second because now you are saying that does not count as racism. So maybe call them on their sadness and get them to think (yet again) that really the "poor little white girl/guy" thing is in itself white privilege in action. And then have them watch "The Color of Fear."

Anonymous said...

The issue itself aside, one thing I'd think about in my response is the depth of their emotional reaction. In deciding whether or not to meet them (if only halfway) by understanding the reasons for their sadness, whether or not you agree with it, you might consider whether this reaction helps them understand or prevents them from understanding. Some emotional stress prepares us to learn, too much leads to cognitive and affective overload.

I have other thoughts but have to go pick up the girls now.


Alison said...

bell hooks uses the term "white supremacy" because she finds "racism" to be too slippery, too liable to be misused. I think I'll give that a try.

What I'm interested in is white supremacy, and the fact that white people benefit from it and perpetuate it.

I emphasized in my class yesterday that I'm not condoning individual acts of meanness between any individuals. Those are hurtful, they suck, and no one likes them. I get that. But I'm less interested in those individual acts than I am in the symbolic and institutional architecture that undergird white supremacy. When a person of color is mean to a white person, that sucks. But that act of meanness does not promote white supremacy. It's not undergirded by a whole societal model that gives it additional power.

Besides which, I think we all understand--at least intellectually--that being mean is no good. That's why my white students can't understand why I'm calling them out. "But I'm not mean!" No, you're probably not, and that's a good first step, but if you're still perpetuating white supremacy, then you're still part of the problem.

Anonymous said...

To continue my thought, I guess part of what I'm saying is...I understand what you want them to get, but if you don't know why they are sad (i.e., what exactly is causing them to respond to the message that they are "part of the problem" and can't be complacent with hurt), then how do you know that they hear you? Or, how do you know that (or, more precisely, what) they are learning from the experience?

My next question would be: Are there ways to help them through the sadness so that their focus doesn't become the emotion itself (which could become misplaced, dwindle into fatalism, or mutate into anger not at the system but at the messenger) but what to do with it or how to act on it? I'd imagine that suddenly having your understanding of the social universe and your inherent goodness /innocence within it shattered and the inadvertent badness ("sin"?) that you've been perpetuating unknowingly drawn to your attention might be overwhelming for well-intentioned young adults who want to believe they are doing good, if only by passively not "being mean".

Knowing you, I'm assuming that your course includes next steps that help them move on and do something about this. Acknowledging what they are feeling and that this can be a painful process doesn't seem to me to compromise the message and the process of beginning to address the larger societal problem that includes much deeper pools of pain and daily felt injustices.

Mike said...

As a sociologist who studies race and ethnicity, I've found a great deal of literature on racism as described above. I would suggest reading Eduardo Bonilla-Sivla's book "White Supremacy and Racism in the Post-Civil Rights Era". It picks up on the paradigm of thought by bell hooks and uses ethnographic methods from interviews to illustrate points.

There is also a very good book by David Roediger called Working Towards Whiteness. Roediger is a historian that looks at blacks and immigrants as historically competing for jobs. Immigrants differ in that they agree to work hard and be assimilated into 'white' [reference] category while African Americans remain segregated.

I am assuming that the feminists have read Patricia Hill Collins Black Sexual Politics. She does a nice job of tracing historical black racism in American culture.

Those are some pieces I've used to generate theory for quantitative analysis in my dissertation. I use Gunner Myrdal's An American Dilemma as a frame for discussing how racism violates concepts of equality and democracy.


Sarah said...

I would guess that their sadness is the result of two things. Like anonymous said, the realization that they are part of a system that perpetuates racial disparity can be very jarring to young people who grew up in the 80's. They were watching Sesame Street, where all people and furry monsters were treated the same. Or consider the Cosby Show, where racism was frequently treated as a province of the past, reminisced over by their grandparents. To a lot of kids just beginning their higher education, it's heartbreaking to realize that their world isn't really as fair and happy as they've been lead to believe. Some may be genuinely saddened by it.

On the other hand, I have to assume that some or most of their reactions are defensive, not just because they weren't aware of their participation and will accept no blame for it, but because now that they know they have an obligation to change their lives in some way. If they don't, then they truly are complicit in perpetuating the problem. Anger and grief are pretty standard responses to unwanted change, they might be hurt by the prospect. Are you planning on asking your class why they reacted the way they did? I'd be curious to know what they said.

Anonymous said...

Why, oh why, do you have this compulsion to inflict "white guilt?" That is what sucks. White supremacy? Give us a breat. That is what is nonsense and another way of promoting multiculturalism which is NOT the cure-all for all that is wrong in this or any society. Wrong-headed nonsense entitlement "New Deal" programs of the last five decades in this country have nearly destroyed the black family and a significant percentage of the rest of America. Look to Europe to see what such socialist left leaning government programs lead toward. Why not address in your classes why Asian (specifically South Asian) families are so successful in this country and use them as your model and stop spewing liberal nonsense?

Taylor said...

I think maybe "white supremacy" or "whitenormativity" or another term maybe be less troublesome. Since racism equals power and prejudice, it becomes, as bell hooks says, "slippery" because it depends on how one defines power and on that particular situation, as power tends to shift depending on the circumstances.
I think they have that reaction of being angry and not understanding because it shatters their world of believing that life is fair and lets them know that they are part of the problem. Using the term "racist" immediately puts people's guards' up, "what, I am not racist!?"
Also, when you are at the front of the line and all you see is opportunity, you can't see the people behind you unless you consciously turn around.