My hometown is a perfect microcosm of white America: rural enough for my neighbors to fly Confederate flags and wealthy enough for there to be a constant chorus of “Blue Lives Matter.” The condition of white moderatism—the type of mindset that makes you weep more over the charred remains of a Target than the systemic murder of black people, that makes you take the brave stance of “can’t everyone just get along?”—is endemic to my hometown. It was this mindset I sought to counter when, like many young people, I took to social media during the days after George Floyd’s murder. Along with other forms of direct action, I saw an opportunity to make a difference by educating members of my community on why obsessing over the preservation of order instead of the achievement of justice contributes to the perpetuation of racial inequality. I shared several excerpts from King’s “A Letter From a Birmingham Jail” and “Other America” speech, explaining how they remain relevant; over the next few days, I engaged in conversation with several people.
Whether due to me failing to persuasively explain King’s criticism of the white moderate or their unwillingness to come to grips with the reality of America, the people who came into the conversation believing that just “treating everybody with respect” is enough left believing the same. But I wasn’t disheartened. The conversations were civil and long, and hopefully opened these people to future education and understanding. I took solace in knowing I’d at least made them believe you can have conversations about race.
But in the hours after these conversations, I started feeling angry—but not at the people to whom I’d talked. I looked back at what I’d written and saw statistical analysis and historical interpretation, but I saw no humanity. I saw a political thought experiment and nothing more. I was repulsed at my civility, at my ability to calmly speak with people who openly denounced King’s writing and committed themselves to the inaction that I know contributes to racial injustice. I was disgusted by my lack of anger at what they said and my apparent disregard for human life.
I didn’t write this as a form of literary self-flagellation, but as a critique of the upper-class white ally. The denouncement of performativity—which is one of the continuous failings of the upper-class white ally—isn’t unique, and neither is the demand for continuous, thoughtful direct action. What I want to point out is the failure of many upper-class white people who are seeking to be allies—myself included—to truly appreciate the depth to which our entire beings are influenced and driven by privilege.
We’re all reflections of the society in which we’re brought up. To be brought up in a society of privilege is to be inherently a being entirely composed of privilege. Just as America has no parts of it left untouched by institutionalized racism, neither do we. This reality manifests within the most basic ways we understand the world and express opinions about it. My ability to dissociate racial injustice from the humanity of the very people it harms is a demonstration of my privilege. It enables me to view the issues of society not as urgent issues but as thought experiments I have the luxury of ruminating over instead of experiencing.
The deep intertwining between our beings and privilege manifests externally through the continuation of performativity, half-assed trendy support, and microaggressions. Internally, it’s inherent bias, the subconscious connections developed over a lifetime of only seeing black people as criminals (either on the news or in entertainment media), service workers, athletes, and musicians. It’s the feeling of otherness that isn’t constructive in the “I understand I don’t understand” sense but in the way that makes us feel that someday, somebody else will solve the problem, affording us the ability to take limited action. The internal manifestations of privilege prevent us from truly appreciating how connected our world is, from understanding that we aren’t viewers of history but contributors to its creation.
As we amplify black voices, voice our support, donate, sign petitions, make calls, have conversations, and march, we must ensure that our work is as much internal as external. We must come to open and honest terms with how privilege doesn’t just affect us externally through economic security and not being murdered by white supremacists hiding behind badges. Privilege touches every aspect of our being, and until we begin striving to rid the racism that lurks within our inherent biases, we can never truly rid society of that racism. Just as we are a reflection of society, so is society a reflection of us. And as a result, our inherent biases—when we fail to recognize and cleanse ourselves of them—create an insidious underbelly to even the most noble of direct action, perpetuating the racism that festers within the social fabric of white America. Understanding privilege is more than just understanding economic and social history; it’s an understanding of self that can only be accomplished through radical honesty and humility. To ethically exist in an unethical society, we must actively work to dismantle that society, inside of ourselves and out, and that requires us to fully analyze not only what drives us to knee-jerk reactions and long-held beliefs but also how we internally and externally express our opinions.