ON APRIL 21st, a sizeable group of Brentwood residents gathered for a public hearing concerning the future of our town newsletter. Tension about the newsletter has been simmering for a few years, but the controversy came to a head last month when the newsletter published an editorial entitled “Racism from a White Man’s Perspective,” which criticized Black Lives Matter, claimed that systemic racism does not exist, and argued that false accusations of racism have become a “cudgel” used against White people who do not embrace “socialist ideology”.
During the public hearing, the majority of speakers expressed frustration about the editorial and requested increased town oversight of the newsletter. A smaller group of speakers expressed support for the newsletter and voiced either partial or full agreement with the controversial editorial. Multiple speakers argued that “New Hampshire is not racist.” Plenty of emotion was expressed, and one town resident even shed a few frustrated tears as she argued that she doesn’t know anyone in our town who is racist.
I left the hearing with a heavy heart, wondering how some of my neighbors could so forcefully deny the stark reality of racism in this country. As I thought more deeply about the words spoken at the public hearing, I began to understand. I believe my neighbors in town are fundamentally decent people who are feeling defensive, hurt, and offended at being labeled “racist,” and being told that they have “White privilege.” I sympathize with their hurt, and I’m genuinely sorry that they are feeling it. Unfortunately, they are feeling offended because they have an overly simplistic and inaccurate view of racism. They truly are seeing racism “from a White person’s perspective.”
As explained quite simply by ice cream gurus Ben & Jerry on one of their online anti-racism blogs, racism today is “less about violence or burning crosses than it is about everyday decisions made my people who may not even think of themselves as racist.” I think what some White people struggle to understand is that racism is all around us, and it can be hard to recognize. Racism can be subtle, it can be polite, it can be accidental, and it can be frankly invisible if it is not directed at you. I understand that the term “White supremacy” may feel uncomfortable to White people; the term can definitely inspire some automatic defensiveness. Professor Robin Diangelo, the author of the book “White Fragility” acknowledges that it is a heavy term, but explains her use of the word as follows: “White resistance to the term White supremacy prevents us from examining this system. If we can’t identify it, we can’t interrupt it.”
It’s important to note that acknowledging that systemic racism exists in your town, your state, or your country does not imply that your white friends and neighbors are bad people. Stating that White privilege exists does not imply that all White people are guilty of bad behavior, and does not imply that White people intentionally use their privilege as a weapon to harm minorities. I would argue that White privilege is not a weapon, it is a shield, and I acknowledge that it can be really hard for white people to see past that shield.
The fact that this country had a Black president and currently has a Black vice president does not mean that systemic racism doesn’t exist in this country. These kinds of beliefs are false oversimplifications of an extremely complex national problem. The same kind of false oversimplification can be seen in the wording of NH HB544, the language of which was recently inserted into the state budget by state Republicans. HB544 would make it a crime for state contractors, including teachers, to discuss the idea that this country is “fundamentally racist.” The bill would also make it a crime to suggest that “an individual…bears responsibility for actions committed in the past by other members of the same race.” This is a fundamentally silly and fear-mongering statement. White people are clearly not to blame for what has happened in the past, but they are responsible for their behavior today.
When a White person claims that systemic racism is a myth, or says “I don’t see color,” they are being fundamentally (although perhaps unintentionally) racist. They are claiming that their own opinions are more valuable than the lived experiences of millions of minorities in this country. What more painful message could White people possibly deliver to Black and brown members of our society than to say that their experiences are simply imagined, and therefore unworthy of being addressed? I would argue that this is the most dangerous type of racism — the idea that racism does not exist because white people say so. White people need to do better.