By Ryan Stewart 7-07-2015

“If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of [their] own heart?”

—Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

For white people who care about racism, it’s time we stop pointing the finger at others and start confessing our own sin.

Every white person I know denounces the blatant, tragic racism of Dylann Roof. They abhor this sort of thing, and reject that it could possibly happen in 2015. They can’t believe that people still exist who are that racist, who would fly the Confederate flag, who could possibly say (x and y and z). They shudder and shake at such insanity.

Many white moderates and conservatives I know would express such a view.

And some white people are also quick to point out “structural racism.” Chastising the “lone wolf” fallacies of those who think Roof acted outside of a racist context, these folks stress the importance of systems. For them, racism isn’t simply perpetrated by extremist Southerners or a few power-hungry police officers. Rather, it’s sustained primarily in local and national policies. With their cultivated, educated, birds-eye view, these white people expose “white privilege.” They, ahem, get it.

This is the enlightened white liberal par excellence.

But both views enable an understanding of racism that exists outside our own selves. The well-meaning white person who so easily points the finger at “crazy conservatives” or nebulous “structures” would be shocked — shocked — to themselves be called racist, or to imagine racism in their own clearly progressive workplace.

But racism doesn’t exist outside our own selves, white folks. It doesn’t simply exist in that guy. It’s not just a vague political force in policy. It exists in you. It exists in me. I am racist. I am a white supremacist. And if you're white and reading this, you probably are too.

We white people can’t just talk about privilege. We need to confess our white supremacy.

White supremacy is not the backwards intellectual ideology of a minority. It is the unconscious, bodily disposition of the majority. It is not located primarily in talking heads or lone shooters or even laws. It is located in our habits. It is in our friendships, our sexual desires, our dreams, our loves.

How do I know this? Because I see it in myself.

I feel myself get scared when I walk by a black man at night. Or, when I saw that white biker gang in Waco, Texas (the one that murdered nine people), I actually did think they looked more benign than the black kids running around Baltimore. Can anyone else see that’s wrong but also still confess that feeling?

I feel “naturally” attracted to lighter skinned people. When I am attracted to a person of color, she’s too often a woman who’s straightened her hair, or who has a skinny nose. How many other white guys out there resonate with this? (I personally know several.) You can blame the movies, but at some point you have to confront white supremacy in your own soul. You think this is a coincidence, that you just “happen” to be more attracted to white people?

I feel the knee-jerk of surprise when a darker-skinned person, perhaps dressed a certain way, speaks “articulately” or “intelligently.” I’m intrigued when I see old black men playing chess, or a young black woman reading a novel. Despite my best intentions, my general sense of black identity is implicitly restricted to all-star athlete or radical activist.

Do you see? I don’t actually think white people are safer, are sexier, are smarter. But I behave as if those things are true, as much as I might try to deny it. I act as if white people are safer, sexier, smarter, and God knows how many other supremacist things.

This is the force that enables our public servants to be racist without thinking they are. This is the cultural fabric that maintains the oppression of people of color.

What if more white people dug down deep to unravel their own white supremacy instead of pointing the finger at others? What if we were more honest about our own lingering white supremacy?

After all, if Christians can contribute anything to national conversations on race, isn’t it confession? Isn’t it an emphasis on the personal transformation that must always accompany advocacy? Isn’t it a humble conviction that none of us are fully free of the insidiousness of sin?

To be sure, it is right, always and everywhere, to denounce blatant, violent, white supremacist acts like that of Dylann Roof. And it is good to advocate for policies that prevent such atrocities. And it’s even better to point out how media shapes and fuels our white supremacy.

But that is not enough. If we are to aid in the elimination of such violent acts of explicit bias, we must unravel the implicit bias within ourselves.

We must unravel our unconscious disposition toward acting as if what is white is what is sexy, as if what is white is what is intelligent, as if what is white is what is beautiful, as if what is white is supreme.

This takes work. It takes humility. It takes listening. It takes prayer. It takes community. It takes God. Heck, it’s taken me a long time to say these things to myself at all, let alone out loud.

The softening of my heart began with simply listening to the stories of people of color. I urge you to do the same. Listen to their stories and compare them to your own.

And, above all, never think you’ve “arrived.”

If only it were all so simple.

Ryan Stewart

Ryan Stewart is a Masters of Divinity student at Yale Divinity School, where he studies race, religion, and literature. You can find him on Twitter @RyanMcStew.

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