I often hear concerned whites ask, “What can I do?” after they are exposed to writings on structural racism, like Nikole Hannah-Jones’ It Is Time for Reparations. They are shocked to learn the extent to which intentional acts create and maintain a second and third-rate level of life for BIPOC people in the US. Reeling from learning of this profound level of unfairness, they want to know what they can do to lessen this full spectrum of structural racism.
Actually, there are many things whites can do. The first step, however, is to understand the current situation. In order to dismantle a system, we first to have see it clearly, and understand how it operates at all levels of society: within institutions, in neighborhoods, in schools, in social clubs, in elected government, on boards of directors, etc. Fortunately, we do not lack for information once we are willing to look. We can track how it plays out within our life-space simply by paying attention to what we and other whites do and don’t do.
Structural racism ensures that people labeled white enjoy privileges and advantages that are denied BIPOC people. This privilege is kept in place by daily acts of whites throughout society. The vast majority of these behaviors are not glaringly obvious acts of discrimination such as, say, using hate speech. Nevertheless, they perpetuate the ongoing imbalance of access to resources and inclusion in the daily life of the community. I call this pattern of behavior “inhabiting whiteness.” I use that term to refer to the entire range of actions that whites take to fill their space with the privileges they currently enjoy and work to maintain. I will now sketch out a number of these patterns.
Whites usually express no discomfort about being in all-white settings. When all your friends are white, this is the only reality that you know. Aside from BIPOC co-workers in their workplace, many whites do not socialize with BIPOC people. It is probably this background that explains why I have yet to see a white person notice the absence of BIPOC members in groups beyond their own social groups, such as when they sit on committees charged with making decisions on behalf of a larger community.
When whites are the only racial group represented on various social or local government committees (for example, planning boards, library trustees, school committees, or boards of directors), they almost never express discomfort with the fact the committee lacks BIPOC members, at least in numbers that are in proportion to the BIPOC population of the geographic area. I don’t see whites on those commitees express misgivings that they might be missing important perspectives by having no BIPOC people on the committee. No one speaks up to say the committee needs to make sure that the interests and priorities of BIPOC people in the community are being represented and honored to the same extent that white interests and priorities are honored.
This is significant. It reflects an assumption that having that perspective is not important. It also suggests s a sense of ease with the non-inclusion of BIPOC people. One way I have seen this play out is among the white-populated boards of non-profit organizations that serve clients who are BIPOC. Previous to the George Floyd murder, racial justice is a topic that seldom came up among white leaders of non-profit human service organizations. When making important decisions, they would not think to seek input from BIPOC people, whether they were the organization’s clients or its employees.
Some whites on these committees may further assume that their perspectives are no different than what a BIPOC person would say. If they consciously or unconsciously subscribe to the notion that we are all just individuals, and they lack experience in settings that are not culturally white, they will not be aware there may be perspectives that are different than their own, reflecting different cultural, racial, or ethnic experiences.
Others may feel more comfortable having no BIPOC people on the committee. They feel relieved, knowing that the committee will not be challenged to deal with any issue of race as they do their work. Rather than seeing this as integral discussion, they’re glad for the absence of what they’d see as a distraction.
Another pattern of whiteness is to adopt plans when they are only supported by a majority of whites. Instead of ensuring that their work include the perspectives of BIPOC residents, they discuss and respond only to the perspectives of the whites on the committee. You only have to observe a library trustee committee, zoning board, municipal finance committee, or town council to see this take place. Once a potential solution has been identified, members of the committee may then promote it by explaining how they believe it serves the needs of BIPOC residents. To them it does not seem essential to contact BIPOC residents and obtain their finput; the committee members will typically have assumed they know what the BIPOC community needs.
Whites also inhabit whiteness when they tokenize BIPOC people. They do this by appointing them to boards and committees whose decisions have little or no impact on the power dynamics of the community. Advisory boards, like human rights committees, have no power to impose decisions on the community at large. My town has a pattern of including blacks by inviting them to perform in choral events at town-wide celebrations, but not appointing them to the finance committee or the zoning board of appeals.
Where I live, we have several patterns of whiteness that stand out when BIPOC people do get elected to more important bodies, such as the local school committee. Time and again, white members of the school committee marginalize the BIPOC members by simply outvoting them consistently, rather than finding some way to incorporate their priorities in any decision. In numerous cases, white school committee members verbally attacked BIPOC members, accusing them of acting inappropriately. This occurs regularly when the BIPOC raises issues that have racial implications. Significantly, in both these examples, other whites on the committee typically did not support or join with the BIPOC member.
The larger behavioral pattern visible in these examples is the way whites respond to hearing views that do not correspond to theirs. Rather than explore those views, they respond by discounting or rebutting them. They do not seek ways to incorporate a range of perspectives to reach a solution that meets the needs of all parties. Instead, they redouble their efforts to impose their preferred solution. We can observe this pattern in the widespread support for larger police budgets by white decision-makers. At the same time, black and brown communities are asking for expanded social services (health, mental health, education, clean water, etc.) in response to drastic cuts in such services by municipal government.
I offer these examples as opportunities for whites to observe how fellow whites are inhabiting the local life-space in ways that perpetuate the marginalization of BIPOC residents. The actions of the whites in these examples display a distinct mindset, one that whites who are committed to racial justice need to fully understand. That particular mindset is the product of racial segregation. The whites who display it lack the perspective and skills needed to operate in a multi-racial and multi-cultural setting.
The whites who clearly see this skill deficit will benefit by investing time in first educating themselves. For example, they can regularly spend time in settings that are not culturally white and are populated by people who are BIPOC. Whether those are social justice organizations or community service organizations, these setting offer opportunities for whites to observe their own reactions as they participate, not as leaders, but as followers in organizations led by BIPOC people.
Whites can also take note of the pattern of inhabiting whiteness and share what they see with fellow whites. In some cases, they will get positive responses from other whites who express surprise at not noticing this pattern or its impact. In other cases, they will be met with meet irritation, defensiveness and attempts to disprove what is shared. This too is fine in one sense. By sharing what they observed, these whites have interrupted the pattern of whiteness by calling attention to something that heretofore has remained invisible. They have taken from their fellow whites the privilege of dominating social space without being named as doing so. While they may continue the pattern, they now know that there are whites who very clearly know what is being attempted and do not agree with that behavior.
Following BIPOC leaders is an essential experience for us whites. Growing up in white social space, we know how to approach issues in ways that are familiar to us. However, we lack experience following BIPOC leaders, who may not approach issues in the same way. We need to have enough experience supporting BIPOC leaders to become confident that these different approaches or styles work as well, or better, than the white ways we know so well.
Of equal importance, we need to gain experience in exploring viewpoints and perspectives that do not conform to our experience. As we do, we will develop the understanding that there is not just one reality. We gain respect for the necessity to hear from people whose experience or perspective on an issue is radically different than ours. We become comfortable with the fact that the way we see certain situations will, in many cases, not be the way BIPOC people experience those same situations. Once we have accepted this, we can then work to develop skills in working collaboratively to find solutions that meet the needs of all parties who will be impacted by those decisions.
In summary, we can supplant whiteness by adopting a set of skills that enables us to fully collaborate with our BIPOC neighbors to jointly manage our multi-racial community. As we adopt new skills of collaboration, we can then participate with BIPOC people in jointly deciding how best to find solutions to the challenges that arise in our community. As more whites learn to do this, we also build cross-race networks. These networks can be mobilized to inhabit the life-space with the spectacle of whites publicly supporting the rights of BIPOC people. It did not go unnoticed that the BLM demonstrations in the streets of Minneapolis included many whites. They were not the leaders; they were following the lead of black leaders. In doing so they were testifying to the ability of whites to abandon whiteness and embrace racial collaboration.