Today I woke up thinking about white supremacy and the bitter pill that white people are struggling to swallow in America today. We are being asked to face the reality of our negligence, complacency, and disregard for the horror and injustice people of color have experienced at our hands throughout our nation’s history. Like never before, white people in America are being held accountable for their destructive acts. No more excuses, no more sweeping things under the rug, not even for the people we like and agree with. It’s time to talk about it all, to say difficult things because the mantra of the #IfYouCouldSeeMe movement rings true here as in most other circumstances when there is an imbalance of power, “It’s not my job to stay silent, so you can stay comfortable.” The time has long past for a reckoning.
As I made lunches for my kids this morning, I was thinking about W.E.B DuBois and his concept of Double Consciousness and specifically how what is occurring right now in our collective consciousness could be a positive shift in white people no longer taking for granted that they can say and do whatever they want without consequences. DuBois says, “It is a peculiar sensation, this double consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eye’s of others…One ever feels his twoness, - an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.” If we are to look at the concept in and of itself as it pertains to the black experience, this is a clear underlining of the imbalance and inequity of America at every level. A black person is born “other” and perpetually considers him or herself through multiple lenses. A white person never questions his or her “Americanness” – we are born “of the people, by the people, and for the people” – but not really “all” the people.
However, if we were to look at the concept of double consciousness as an expectation for all humans on earth then it may be the key to a more compassionate world. What if everyone had to think about themselves through the eyes of others – meaning that all living people had to imagine they were a reflection of their value – that just being alive wasn’t good enough? That you don’t get a pass just because you didn’t know better? What if everyone was held to the same standard as minorities in America? Look at what is happening when white folks are asked to be mindful of their language and not wear black-face. Imagine being expected to consider every action, every word, every breath and how others are perceiving them. Imagine being a black man confronted by a white police officer.
The truth of white privilege exists completely in the context of the aforementioned DuBois quote. If you have never been forced to understand your identity through the eyes of an unwelcoming power structure that is designed to see you as lesser, incompetent, and to never offer you the benefit of the doubt on sight then you possess white privilege. In America white people begin life with an A+ in the classroom of life; and they are simply called to maintain that perfect average while having access to every resource necessary to do so. They receive extensions, are graded on the curve, the teacher fundamentally believes in their potential the second they walk into the classroom of life. The teacher wants the white student to succeed. The black person shows up to the classroom of life with a zero and they are rarely given the benefit of the doubt. Black people in America must prove they deserve the teacher’s faith, they must constantly prove their competence, their worthiness to even be welcomed into the classroom in the first place.
The observation of DuBois’ in creating a name for what African Americans have experienced since the moment the first enslaved human was torn from his world and the seeds of our social constructs were planted (though obviously these seeds were already being sewn in the genocide and forced assimilation of Indigenous people in North America), is one that no white person can ever fully understand – because white people hold the power in our country. Black Americans have always lived this reality. The weight of their experience is unimaginable to me. The pain that has been caused generation after generation by systems and people holding the social, economic, and cultural power is incomprehensible to me. The environmental and inter-generational trauma that has been inflicted and then reinforced by the white majority is criminal. And yet here we are embroiled once again in the perpetual argument over the existence and magnitude of racism, systemic, conscious, and unconscious bias, white privilege, and the function of “political correctness” – which is a ridiculous term because asking people to consider how their actions and words may impact other people isn’t political it’s basic human decency.
What impact must double consciousness have on the mental health, self-concept, and sense of hope of a black person living in America? I can never know. I can, however, acknowledge that there is no way for me to know; and then to commit myself to show up, listen, and learn. I can also recognize that each individual person has a different experience and that no one individual can, nor should they, be expected to speak for an entire race of individual people. I can accept that these issues are complex, confusing, and they require those in the positions of power to sit with discomfort, self-criticism, and BIG questions. We can no longer expect people of color to “get over it.” It’s time for us to grow-up and look in the mirror.
I am a white, Jewish woman who lives in the Virginia suburbs. In my youth, I was, like most middle-class white Americans, oblivious to the reality of people who didn’t look like me. I grew-up in a pretty conservative environment, no one listened to NPR, no one took me to marches, taught me about movements, or forced me to volunteer. My family was kind, generous, and helpful but no one felt the need to carry that out of their immediate circles. Back then, each of them would have taken issue with being called racist or being called upon to acknowledge their white privilege. We never wore blackface, used racist language, or consciously discriminated against anyone – we just didn’t think about racism otherwise. We didn’t question when someone told you to lock your doors in a black neighborhood, we took for granted that black men were more dangerous than white men, we knew that black women were angry and loud, we just accepted that these things were true without questioning why we thought this way. Without asking if there were structures in place that were creating these stereotypes. We were ignorant.
My father was raised by first-generation Jewish Americans, his father lived with schizophrenia, his mother shouldered the weight of caring for her very compromised husband, their home, and their four children. They were poor. The idea that he possessed anything resembling privilege would have been laughable to him – as it is to so many white Americans. Our safety, success, and human value was not contingent upon an existential awareness of ourselves in the context of a larger structure. We had the benefit of blind ignorance as it pertained to double consciousness. For awareness of ourselves would never be required. We were entitled to believe that everything we wanted for ourselves was within our grasp if we just showed up and worked hard.
Yesterday dad said to me “When the Northam thing came out my first inclination was to feel angry and tell everyone to get over it. It was 40 years ago and he’s not the same person. But then I remembered myself 40 years ago, when I was his age and I would never have done that. I know how infuriated I would have felt if someone had walked into a costume party wearing a Nazi uniform or a Hitler costume and tried to laugh it off as a joke. We have to be aware of the pain and damage that white people have caused to black people and other minorities in this country. Through all of the things that have been coming out over the past few years I realize that black people don’t get the benefit of the doubt in America and that’s wrong.” He said he still believes America is the greatest country on earth. My response was that we can be the best while acknowledging that we aren’t perfect – there is always room to grow. He agreed. We have been having these conversations a lot lately. It’s pretty incredible. It’s the beginning of a great shift in our collective consciousness and I believe that this can, an will be a moment we look back on in history when things changed. Not permanently, not completely, because that never happens but a moment of great historical consequence. We have to keep talking to each other and facing down our demons.