Drinking the Kool-Aid

Closing the Teach For America Blogging Gap
Sep 13 2012

The Cost of Racism

I’ve been a little blog-blocked lately, in part because I’m afraid of producing the exact same kind of entry I’m tired of reading.

I’m tired of reading blather from bloggers who pretend to be rational and neutral but refuse to look at the whole story. Why didn’t I see any feminist posts praising Mitt Romney for distancing himself from Todd Akin? Why does every single story about Ann Romney talk about how rich she is, and mention in one half-a-sentence her battle with MS and breast cancer? Don’t get me wrong, I love my feminist leftist antiracist slacktivist blogs (and am no fan of the Romneys), but I’m tired of wondering whether what I’m reading is leaving out important information just because it’s inconvenient.

Since our last encounter, I’ve read Beverly Tatum’s “Why are all the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?”, the autobiography of Malcolm X, and Tim Wise’s “White Like Me.” Yet the only thing I feel like blogging about right now is job interviews. Probably because I’ve had four in the last three days.

I notice my whiteness most at times like right now, as I’m walking away from a really good interview. I notice how convenient it is for me to have a face that looks like our society’s image of a trustworthy person. I notice how I’m given the benefit of the doubt on the little things—like not really having much experience managing adults, for example, or not having a car. I don’t know necessarily that I wouldn’t receive these same benefits if I weren’t white, but I can be sure it wouldn’t be as likely.

In her book, Dr. Tatum remarked that whites suffer adverse effects of racism, too. We miss out on the benefits of working in a diverse economy, she says, and we often don’t learn to conduct ourselves competently in conversations about race. “When I ask White men and women how racism hurts them, they frequently talk about their fears of people of color, the social incompetence they feel in racially mixed situations, the alienation they have experienced between parents and children when a child marries into a family of color, and the interracial friendships they had as children that were lost in adolescence or young adulthood without their ever understanding why” (14). She then goes on to say that the price whites pay is smaller than the price people of color pay, but it is a price nonetheless.

But I wondered, as I was reading, if evoking that interest convergence type of argument is really a valid addition to the discourse or whether it’s just a lip service to make whites feel better about antiracist work. I really don’t think she makes a case for a significant “cost” for whites. The benefits of working in a diverse economy are probably far outweighed by the benefits of white privilege. The penalties for white people who don’t know how to conduct themselves in a conversation about race, or who self-consciously avoid the topic, are not penalties at all—those are culturally sanctioned reactions to a topic that is taboo. That’s not a “cost.” Inequality in general, while it hurts outcomes for the whole, relatively benefits those who are lucky enough to be at the top of the system. Guilt and shame are very low costs. And anyway, it’s my experience that whites encounter more guilt and shame when they speak out against racism than when they go with the racist flow.

Whites benefit from racist structures. Period. I just felt like adding in this “cost” argument muddies the understanding of white privilege. Yes, we’re all racist and yes, getting rid of racism would be a wonderful thing for everyone, but no, racism does not hurt whites on the whole. Arguing that it does balances something that is unbalanced, makes fair and even something that is unfair and uneven.

But then I read “White Like Me.” Tim Wise makes a really beautiful argument in his “Loss” chapter about how adopting whiteness involves losing a bit of your humanity, not only in terms of whiting out ones’ cultural history and traditions, but in the psychological weight of racism itself: “Racism, even if it is not your own, changes you, allows you to think things and feel things that make you less than you were meant to be. It steals that part of your humanity that is the most precious because it is that part that allows us to see the image of God, the goodness of creation, in all humankind” (126). He also makes an argument about the “Columbine syndrome” in white suburbs, but it is the first argument that made me change my mind about the “cost” of racism.

And there’s also something to be said, I think, about the psychological cost of being on the “wrong side of history,” so to speak. And for “confronting the inevitable choice one must make in this life between collaborating with or resisting injustice, and choosing the latter.”

2 Responses

  1. Great thoughts here. If you are unaware of what you are missing out on, did you truly lose it?

    Furthermore, does one “adopt whiteness” or is that the default state and people actually have to un-adopt whiteness, or perhaps adopt “un-whiteness / otherness” ?

    • I think there are a number of fair-complected groups who were once “others” but have since adopted whiteness – or maybe more accurate to say been adopted by whiteness? Irish diaspora in America, say.

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