It’s a familiar bleeding-heart refrain sung in support of liberal initiatives, or to push back on conservatives: “Millions will suffer/are suffering! We can’t let this happen!” Lately we’re singing it a lot in response to hot topics like police shootings, poverty, the GOP’s proposed healthcare bill, and DeVos’s education budget. I was particularly struck by Rep. Rosa DeLauro’s impassioned pushback on the latter in a hearing when she said “none of us in here are gonna be hurt [by this]. We’re gonna be fine. Our kids and grandkids are gonna be OK. But millions of kids around this country are gonna suffer…”
Wrong. If “they” aren’t fine, we won’t be either. We live in a world that, despite our technological sophistication and growing personal isolation, is inextricably interdependent. We rely on a vast network of strangers every day, just to keep us alive. These strangers grow our food, bring that food and clean water to us, build our dwellings, enable us to cool and heat those dwellings, and transport us from place to place. These strangers provide us with essential products and services, enable our access to healthcare and valuable information (AKA education), facilitate ways for us to earn and spend money and do almost anything in modern life. If millions of those strangers are illiterate, unhealthy, or yoked by poverty or racism, we won’t be fine. The notion that “we” won’t suffer even if “they” do is a dangerous illusion that not only jeopardizes everyone’s basic well-being, it dampers the brilliance, innovation, creativity and delight that makes life worth living beyond mere survival.
A “they’re suffering!” refrain is also ineffective when it comes to catalyzing true social change like ending racism. While noble, morally good and altruistic, this refrain is incomplete. Not only does it reinforce the false “we-them” dichotomy that belies our deep interconnectedness, it fails to inspire those who, understandably, are more concerned with their own suffering, and that of their perceived kin. We must shift all talk of progressive vision and values to be more inclusive and “both-and”, instead of “either-or.” We must communicate clearly not only of how social ills are more commonly the fault of systems, history and circumstance than individual character and choice, but also how eliminating those ills benefit everyone.
I’ve spent over four decades navigating and studying the ills of racism, classism and bigotry, and over 25 years being paid to help others do so. To be more effective in addressing these ills, White people must move beyond an “old school” approach to diversity, inclusion and antiracism work – beyond the charity feel of efforts aimed to help a “them” outside of ourselves. We must illuminate what White people’s personal stake is in ending racism, inequities and exclusion. We will likely never be free of bigotry – individual, interpersonal acts of meanness based on another’s perceived racial identity – but a world without racism – the systematic distribution of resources, power and opportunity to the benefit of White people and the exclusion of people of color – is entirely possible.
The following 12 reasons ending racism is good for White people are based on my own reflections, as well the responses of nearly 70 antiracism activists and diversity professionals who responded to an online poll.
As a White person…
1. I want to be psychologically and spiritually healthier, with greater peace of mind, optimism and freedom to be my true self. Racism damages my humanity by burdening me with narrow options for how to be a White person, and silently holds me up as the standard of excellence, which is stressful and unfair. Racism makes me feel anger, fear, guilt, shame, grief and dread. It causes frustrating conversations with others, and leads me to constantly question my own behavior, understanding and words, and those of other people. It takes time and energy I could use for other pursuits.
2. I crave connection with other people, and rich, authentic relationships. Racism creates fear, mistrust, defensiveness, tension and barriers between people, and makes everyone a two-dimensional cartoon of who they really are. Racism inhibits my ability to speak freely and be fully understood by others. It causes me to walk on eggshells around people of color or feel like I have to constantly prove or monitor myself. Racism lies to me about the true history of my country and who people of color are, preventing me from truly knowing them. It keeps me from connecting in healthy, authentic ways with other White people.
3. I want my family – whether by blood or by choice – to be safe, fulfilled and supported to be all they can be. I know and love individuals who are people of color or mixed, and racism poses an ongoing threat to their ability to survive and thrive. Facing stigma and invasive questions about interracial relationships is stressful and dehumanizing, as is constantly worrying about the safety and well-being of my loved ones.
4. I want a true meritocracy where people are valued for who they are, and can achieve and advance based on their abilities and hard work – not privilege or unfair advantages. Racism keeps the best from rising to the top, meaning my doctors, teachers, lawyers, bosses and politicians aren’t the best they could be, nor the best there are. It keeps me from being fully recognized for my character, talents and effort, since racism calls into question whether my achievements were bolstered by unfair advantages.
5. I want to live in a more economically prosperous society. Racism drives up costs and debt, and drives down wages, spending, and broad economic participation which hinder economic vitality. Racism is expensive – we can save money spent on overpolicing, prisons, bombs, and inefficient health care and invest them in extraordinary schools, scientific research, early childhood education and health care.
6. I appreciate creativity, art and innovation. Racism keeps large numbers of people from contributing beauty and creativity – creativity makes me and my family more joyful, appreciative and inspired.
7. I want to solve the most pressing problems facing our world. Racism blocks large numbers of people from contributing new ideas and solutions to big problems like cancer or our energy shortage. Solving problems that first affected communities of color may yield solutions we can apply to our own community when we face a similar crisis. Also, the latest research shows diverse groups make better decisions and are more innovative than non-diverse ones.
8. I want to be as strong, smart and creative as I can. Racism coddles me and makes me less resilient and intelligent because it doesn’t require me to develop the same communication, self- management and awareness skills as people of color. It allows me to be lazy and leverage privilege (consciously or unconsciously) instead of having to work hard and grow.
9. I want to live in a world that aligns with my values. I value justice, equality, unity and human dignity. Racism violates those values.
10. I value democracy and want to live in a true, more stable democracy. Racism creates inequities that exclude the voices of my fellow Americans and destabilize our democracy because leaders are elected that neither represent, nor act in the interest of, the majority.
11. I want to be safe in my community. Racism creates inequities that harm the economic, educational, physical and mental health of my neighbors which leads to crime and militarized overpolicing, making me and my family less safe.
12. I, too, have experienced oppression (as a woman, immigrant, Jew, etc.) and I know the toll it’s taken on me and others like me. I don’t want others to experience or face what I have. Racism causes false divisions that make us all vulnerable to exploitation by the powerful. Oppression of one group often grows into oppression of other groups – and I belong to many identity groups, some of which are vulnerable.
In short, creating a world that works for everyone… works for everyone. In the words of one respondent, “the end of racism would make me a citizen of a great country one giant step closer to actualizing the ideals on which it was founded. That would make me very, very happy.”