Recently, photos resurfaced of Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam in black face posing with someone in a KKK robe, causing many to denounce his actions and call for his resignation. I agree with the fervor with which people are dealing with this harmful and disturbing issue because it cannot be taken lightly. These images are deeper than a badly-positioned joke or costume. His actions diminish trust that he will lead in the best interest of people of color. Northam must take responsibility for his actions — something that has not yet happened.
But this racism does not end with Northam’s situation, and there are larger issues at play here. I see people agonizing so extensively over the correct response to him, confused that a democratic candidate could do such racist things, that they are missing the larger picture: white liberals are not exempt from exhibiting racist behavior.
We cannot deny that western white supremacy was forcefully implemented in concert with this country’s founding. Colonization and slavery are critical components of this nation’s history, and they were justified and upheld by the notion that white people were superior. This country is still systemically set up to favor whiteness and to center whiteness. Structurally, culturally, and individually, we see white supremacy rearing its head as a systemic energy, both blatantly and subtly.
White supremacy is woven and embedded into society as a system so intricately that it can be invisible, mistaken for normalcy because, in fact, that’s what it is. Instead of seeing white supremacy as blatant acts of intentional harm, I challenge us to consider how this country was built to center whiteness. It’s a virus and an energy. It is a virus because it is a sickness at the core of so much harm, and it’s an energy because in its natural state — this country is conditioned to operate in accordance with whiteness: white culture, white thriving, white favoritism, and white comfort.
Getting white people to understand and acknowledge their favored positioning in a country made for whiteness is difficult. Getting white liberals to acknowledge that by effect, they could be contributing to the harm by upholding the system is painful.
My daily harm from white supremacy has nothing to do with political affiliation. The harm may not always be racial profiling, or being called the n-word, but I worry that the relativity of supposed “severity” has excused well-meaning white people from taking responsibility for their own actions. I am often in white liberal spaces training people to be allies (as my profession), and a common belief from many is that they are “woke” enough is often my biggest pain-point. Such self-proclaimed wokeness insinuates that they have no more work to do on themselves, and that they have nothing else to learn.
I have even noted plenty of people, upon recognizing that much work is required of them, who have admitted that they aren’t able or willing to commit to that. They have noted being “in” up to a certain point, but then acknowledged that they can’t go so far as to risk something, or even veer too far into discomfort. I understand that everyone is not called to the front line, but it is disheartening to see white people who won’t commit to the work necessary in their own spaces to dismantle this beast.
But the biggest barrier that I face when trying to address white supremacy in its everyday form is white fragility. Fragility when I call out the harm. Fragility when I state the need for the mirror to be turned on the same people who will call out racism in everyone around them except themselves. From what I have learned, many white people have been raised to believe that racism is associated with bad people who see people of color as less-than. So the suggestion that they could be exhibiting racist behaviors is a shock to the system and interpreted as an attack on their character. Their fragility comes out in tears, in yelling, in denial, and in abandonment. I have known so many people to leave the work altogether because they were held accountable.
When addressing harm with white people, they’ll often tell me that I have hurt their feelings because they’re already on my side. To them, because they are philosophically against racism, they should not be addressed when they do something racist. Worse, many believe that they can’t do something racist because they are against racism. Someone who truly understands the depths and complexities of white supremacy should understand that it is an energy against which we will have to work tirelessly. White people in particular will have to assume the humble posture of knowing that they very well could make mistakes despite intentions. Treading lightly for the sake of others’ fragile reactions to my acknowledgement of wrongdoing isn’t just backwards, it contributes to the upholding of centering whiteness over Black harm.
Northam is not an anomaly, clearly, as we received Attorney General Mark Herring’s admission to wearing blackface just days afterwards. In some ways, I hope that these circumstances are unique because most people, even “back then,” should have known that such costume participation is unacceptable. But I hope that we don’t miss the other important lesson, a lesson that requires societal examination about where we really are with racism. Until we are willing to address the full virus, symptoms like this will keep coming up. And if we are so willing to hold our leaders accountable for their racism, then why shouldn’t we hold well-meaning regular individuals to the same standards? There is much work to do and Northam’s picture brought that to light as yet another reminder. Are people, especially white people, ready to fully commit to that work?