“While most of us see ourselves as ‘not racist’, we continue to reproduce racist outcomes and live segregated lives.”
I am white. As an academic, consultant and writer on white racial identity and race relations, I speak daily with other white people about the meaning of race in our lives. These conversations are critical because, by virtually every measure, racial inequality persists, and institutions continue to be overwhelmingly controlled by white people. While most of us see ourselves as “not racist”, we continue to reproduce racist outcomes and live segregated lives.
In the racial equity workshops I lead for American companies, I give participants one minute, uninterrupted, to answer the question: “How has your life been shaped by your race?” This is rarely a difficult question for people of color, but most white participants are unable to answer. I watch as they flail, some giving up altogether and waiting out the time, unable to sustain 60 seconds of this kind of reflection. This inability is not benign, and it certainly is not innocent. Suggesting that whiteness has no meaning creates an alienating – even hostile – climate for people of color working and living in predominantly white environments, and it does so in several ways.
If I cannot tell you what it means to be white, I cannot understand what it means not to be white. I will be unable to bear witness to, much less affirm, an alternate racial experience. I will lack the critical thinking and skills to navigate racial tensions in constructive ways. This creates a culture in which white people assume that niceness is the answer to racial inequality and people of color are required to maintain white comfort in order to survive.