Ahmaud Arbery was shot and killed by racists while jogging. Breonna Taylor was shot and killed in her own home by police looking for a suspect that had already been found and drugs that weren’t there. Christian Cooper videoed a woman calling the police on him to falsely claim ‘an African American man’ was threatening her and she pitched her voice higher and faked panic because she knew what a threat that was to his safety. George Floyd said, “Please, I can’t breathe,” over and over and cried out for his mother, twice, before dying while one police officer pinned Floyd’s neck to the ground with his knee and two other officers knelt on his back and legs.
Protests are sweeping across dozens of cities as I write this on Saturday, May 30, and as I watch the news coverage and read the articles and see what people are saying on social media I just keep thinking, ‘Are we ready to admit it yet?’ Are we white people ready to acknowledge America still has a problem? That white privilege is a thing, that the notion of white supremacy isn’t as fringe as we’d hoped it was, and that racism doesn’t always look like what we think it does.
I wonder how many people will stop reading this article when they see the words ‘white privilege?’ I don’t think ‘racism’ or even ‘white supremacy’ would scare off as many people as ‘white privilege.’ Down here in the Deep South, we know what racists and white supremacists look like. They burn crosses and wear white hoods and use racial slurs.
In 2020 Mississippi, we read about them in history books about our state. Reading the words ‘racist’ and ‘white supremacist’ doesn’t scare a Mississippian off because we know what they look like and we know we aren’t those people; there may be a few left hiding deep in the woods around the state but they don’t come out much, well—except to vote to keep the current state flag, they probably ventured out for that. But the words ‘white privilege’ can send white people scattering faster than a Klan member with his hood ripped off.
I think part of why people lose their minds when you start throwing that term around is because they think it means the same thing as spoiled. Nobody wants to feel like they are being told their life is easy or that they didn’t have to work hard for what they have achieved. The thing is—that’s not what white privilege means either.
White privilege doesn’t mean things in your life aren’t or haven’t ever been hard; it just means that the color of your skin is not something making it harder. There have been scores of resources written about what white privilege is by people who can explain it better than I could ever hope to (like Peggy McIntosh’s article titled ‘Unpacking the Invisible Backpack’) but I can tell you what white privilege looks like in my life.
My white privilege carries me safely through every run I take in my neighborhood; I’ve never worried I would be gunned down because my skin color makes me look suspicious while jogging. As a kid, my friends and I used to dress in dark clothes to go roll other friends’ yards with toilet paper and our white privilege meant nobody called the cops on us or shot at us when they saw us walking in the dark.
When I went door to door to sell things for school fundraisers, my white privilege meant the neighbors didn’t call each other to warn of someone suspicious on the street. When I buy books for my kids, our white privilege means I have no problem finding books with characters that look like them. My white privilege means I’ve never been followed around a store and products like band-aids and underwear that are called ‘flesh’ or ‘nude’ colored are designed to match my skin tone, first.
Because of white privilege, I’ve never worried that my kids might not be exposed to authors, artists, musicians, scientists, or heroic figures that look like them in their school curriculums. When someone describes me or tells another person about me—it would never occur to them to say, “She has four kids and she’s white—but really nice.” If for some reason the fact that I am white came up, white privilege means that nobody would lower the volume of their voice or mouth the word ‘white,’ like it’s dirty. I have never had to tell my kids that some people will dislike or fear them because of their skin color.
White privilege means that I had never heard of The Talk that all black parents give their kids about how to handle interactions with the police until I read Angie Thomas’ book, “The Hate U Give.”
Being white and having white privilege doesn’t make you a bad person or a racist person; but denying your privilege exists instead of using it to fight racism and call out injustices would be such a waste. We can choose to weaponize our privilege against others or against racism.
We want to tell ourselves that because we aren’t racists, that’s enough—but it’s not. As author and activist, Angela Davis, said, “It is not enough to be not racist, you must actively be anti-racist.” It’s not enough to tell ourselves that as long as we aren’t telling the racist joke, it’s okay. Desmond Tutu said, “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.” Just ‘not being a racist’ is choosing the side of the oppressor. Being an anti-racist means caring enough to seek out more information about how we got here and looking deep inside our own hearts and minds to root out the biases that we don’t want to admit we have—and we all have them, all of us.
We may think we know what racism and white supremacy look like down here in Mississippi; but they can be harder to see, these days, without their robes and cross-burning and segregation. They can look like lowering your voice to say ‘black people’ or realizing that you get nervous and look away when a black man walks towards you in a parking lot.
It could be looking at the world through the lens of whiteness and when, of course, the choices and actions of black people don’t follow the same norms and expectations of whiteness—we deem them wrong. Like someone being more bothered by protests resulting in property damage and people looting than they were about the murders and violence being protested. Racial bias might look like watching Minneapolis burn and saying, ‘I can only support non-violent protest,’ but also boycotting Nike and calling Colin Kaepernick unpatriotic and disrespectful for protesting non-violently.
While white supremacy can be as overt and loud as a racial slur; covert white supremacy may be as quiet as saying we should all be ‘colorblind’ or unconsciously looking for a reason to blame the victim of a police shooting—or as silent as saying nothing when others around us do or say these things. It can look like white savior complex where well-meaning white people swoop in with their own ideas about how to save a marginalized group without asking them what they need.
It’s hard to see and even harder to admit when it’s white women saying, ‘Those poor babies,’ about the black children they want to help with their time and money because they have big hearts but little understanding about the systemic and structural racism that contributed to the poverty they want to allay.
Or it could be not realizing that saying ‘All Lives Matter’ is missing the point. Nobody is saying ‘Only Black Lives Matter’ or ‘Black Lives Matter More;’ they are saying that ‘Black Lives Matter, Too,’ and since there’s not much evidence in our country’s history to show that we believe that—it’s past time we all showed up and proved it.
Fighting racism may look like marching and protesting or it may look like calling out the racist joke your friend tells. Author and activist, Rachel Cargle (whose Instagram page is a great place to start learning more about anti-racism) said, “It’s high time we all committed to creating environments where racists are the ones who are uncomfortable,” which is so true and makes me feel ridiculous for all the times I let the possibility of awkwardness keep me from calling out racist comments, both the blatant and the veiled. Being an anti-racist instead of just ‘not a racist’ means risking some awkwardness for change. Maybe it’s donating to Black Lives Matter or supporting black-owned businesses.
I am not an expert on how to be an anti-racist, I’m new here, too. I’m guilty of most of what I’ve listed in this article. But as writer Ijeoma Oluo said, “The beauty of anti-racism is that you don’t have to pretend to be free of racism to be an anti-racist. Anti-racism is the commitment to fight racism wherever you find it, including in yourself. And that’s the only way forward.” We don’t have to be perfect at this to show up. We don’t even have to already be proficient. We can show up all awkward and fumbling and messing up and getting it wrong, as long as we show up curious enough to learn, humble enough to admit when we get it wrong, and committed enough to keep showing up after the hashtags stop trending.
Wouldn’t it be less scary and overwhelming to start the work of pulling all of this up into the light so we can rid ourselves and our country of it if we did it together? I don’t know how to do all of this, but I do know that there’s no shortage of resources available that spell it out for us all—if we bother to look. I mean, there’s even a book titled “How to Be an Antiracist” by Ibram X. Kendi and an article circulating titled “75 Things White People Can Do for Racial Justice” by Corinne Shutack.
Whenever I see photos from the civil rights protests of the 1960s, I always wonder about the people in the background. Not the ones shaking ketchup bottles over the heads of black students or screaming in their faces—their hatred doesn’t interest me as much as the ones hanging back, just watching. Maybe they supported civil rights; maybe they hated what their friends were doing, but their silence didn’t stop anyone and their neutrality didn’t help anybody.
One day, our children and grandchildren will learn about Ahmaud and Breonna and Christian and George and the protests and the violence and the unrest in the year 2020. We can tell them we used our voices and our privilege to stand up against injustice, or that we stood back and stayed quiet, but didn’t pour condiments on anybody, either—we were ‘neutral’.
“In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.” Martin Luther King Jr.
Elizabeth Quinn makes her home in Northeast Jackson with her husband Percy and four children.
‘Why You Need to Stop Saying "All Lives Matter"’ by Rachel Cargle for Harper’s Bazaar
@rachelcargle on Instagram
So you want to talk about race? By Ijeoma Oluo
@ijeomaoluo on Instagram
I’m still here: Black Dignity in a World Made for Whiteness by Austin Channing Brown
@Austinchanningbrown on Instagram
How to be an Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi
White Fragility: Why It's So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism by Robin DiAngelo
‘75 Things White People Can Do for Racial Justice’ by Corinne Shutack
@theconsciouskid on Instagram