Lopez: Dear White People
Acknowledging privilege and cultivating awareness are imperative to creating change.
Dear white people,
I, too, am white, and I am writing this letter because it’s something we need to hear from one another. I am writing this because white spaces are not seen as racialized, but instead as neutral or absent of race; therefore, any discussions regarding race are nonexistent amongst ourselves. This leaves the burden of educating white people on People of Color. Yet when conversations about race do arise, we almost always go into a state of denial or defensiveness, or view the conversation through the lens of having equally existent struggles.
Ah, the American Dream, colorblindness and the prosperity of capitalism. The Declaration of Independence claims “all men are created equal” with the right to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” This is so deeply rooted in American society that we strive to live verbatim by these claims — the ceaseless pursuit of unattainable material goals that have become our definition of happiness. We must acknowledge this truth, and within it, the set of privileges for white people that are unwaveringly existent. To white Canadians reading this: we are not exempt from this structure simply because we appear to do better than our southern counterparts by comparison. We hold most of the same ideals as the “American Dreamer” and reap the same benefits. White people are in constant denial that systemic racism exists because the system benefits us. We believe that what we get is due to our own hard work and personal merit rather than the reality of all that has been passed down from generations of genocide, enslavement and exploitation.
Accept that in this new conversation we will probably become uncomfortable. Again, one of the most common reactions when discussing race among white people is defensiveness. This goes hand in hand with denial. Mainstream definitions of racism have confined the term to overt incidents of racial prejudice, making us unable to recognize racism as a more covert, well-oiled institution. Because we view racism as unidimensional and race as a social construct, we don’t realize how we are benefitting from it as a system, nor the real-life consequences that result for People of Color. We create an impossibly far distance between those who we see as “racist” and how we see ourselves. The reality is, if we aren’t anti-racist, then we are racist; it’s that simple. Even though we may not actively partake in white supremacist rallies or have a confederate flag bumper sticker, we are benefitting from the system that allows us to thrive while others struggle to survive.
If a Person of Color is speaking to the experiences or struggles they regularly encounter because of their race or ethnicity, we as white people must not introduce our own struggles into the conversation — no matter how important we think they might be. By doing this, we invalidate their experiences and therefore fail to acknowledge the fact that they will undeniably go through things we will never have to deal with. From the moment white people are born, we are taught everything belongs to us: land, jobs, university placement, words, spaces, beauty, etc. We must learn to take a step back and recognize that not all spaces are for us. The world is not in constant need of our validation, whether it be in the form of cultural appropriation or simply vocalized.
Consider this letter a self-call to action — by no way am I trying to discredit that which has already been said time and time again by People of Color. We have to educate ourselves, not wait for others to educate us. I am guilty of benefitting from my ignorance. I am guilty of not always putting in the effort I know I should, but we must take responsibility for our actions or lack thereof. We have nearly unlimited access to all kinds of amazing resources, which means every day we make a conscious choice whether or not we’re going to make the effort to read books, watch documentaries, listen to podcasts and, most importantly, listen to people. We must make a collective effort to recognize our own implicit biases, and then challenge them — an effort to be aware of who we are and how we benefit from society. Once we have a better grasp of our place in this world, we’ll be better able to understand that of others.
And once more, we must listen.
— Another white person
Lopez is a member of the Class of 2020.
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Correction appended (April 24, 2018): This column has been updated for clarity.