How to Be a Good White Person in America: A Step-by-Step Guide

First step: This isn’t about YOU. It’s about our heritage. You are no more your heritage than every German is a Nazi. But your heritage shapes your culture and thus you, to some extent.

Now take a breath and re-fucking-lax.

Find your calm. This isn’t personal. It’s HISTORICAL and ANTHROPOLOGICAL.

Let’s get started: Look around for the black faces around you – in your life, in your neighborhood, in your family, in your city, in your workplace, in your school. Now just really SEE those people as people, not “black people.”

Breathe. Keep relaxing.

No one is blaming you for anything that happened over a hundred years ago. You can only be responsible for the time period that you were a conscious, thinking, mature human being.

Now imagine those black faces – those black people you see, talk to, interact with, know, love even – are people just like you. In essence, in biology, in sociological terms and all that stuff.

If you start to feel tension at this thought, ask yourself why. But RE-FUCKING-LAX as you do it. No one is trying to make you feel bad or blaming you for a centuries’ long system of human bondage. That isn’t YOUR fault. How could it be?

Now think of your grandparents, their parents and their grandparents. You didn’t know all of them, but if asked you’d probably say you loved them for helping bring you into the world. Grab that ball of warmth you feel. Rub it. Take the chill off your soul with it.

Now think about your parents. Do you love them? Respect them? Are they good people? (If not, skip this step. If so, think about why you imagine they were/are good people.)

Now think about those black faces – the black human beings you interact with, see, know, work with, study with, learn from, maybe even love. Try hard to realize that they feel the same way about their parents, grandparents, great grandparents, etc. that you do about yours. And they warm themselves with memories and shared stories of those living today and those long passed. Like you, they want to think that their parents, grandparents, great grandparents, etc., had happy, fulfilled lives full of loving friends and family members.

Now breathe. Calm yourself. It’s time to face some dark facts. But relax. No one is blaming you for anything that happened over a hundred years ago. You can only be responsible for the time period that you were a conscious, thinking, mature human being. So chill.

Now think what it would mean if your ancestors had, by law and common belief, been assumed to be little more than subhuman beasts of burden. Think about it carefully and take your time.

Those black faces do not have quite so happy a family ancestry. Their grandparents, great grandparents and all of their ancestors here in the United States struggled through the horrors of being touched, bent, and – in some cases – crushed body and soul under the horrors of slavery. This means that by law and common belief among white Americans, they were assumed to be less than human and good only for being sold as free laborers to the wealthy.

Breathe in. Now slowly breathe out. It ISN’T about YOU.

You good? Or are you feeling some inner rage about to explode because you think I’m suggesting you’re a racist? Relax. I’m not.

Seriously. Breathe.

Now think what it would mean if your ancestors had, by law and common belief, been assumed to be little more than subhuman beasts of burden. Think about it carefully and take your time. Now imagine if this situation, this dehumanizing belief, had persisted for HUNDREDS OF YEARS for your ancestors. Seriously consider what that would mean about how you remember them.

Keep breathing. NOT…YOUR…FAULT. But ya gotta think about it if you truly want to understand the history of our country. Your country.

Now it’s important to understand that even after black slaves were freed in the 19th century, a lot of white people did not suddenly have their belief system wiped from their minds. That meant that even if black people in America were “free” (minus voting rights and desperately poor because they owned nothing, of course), a huge component of white Americans still believed the “less than human” ideology that had helped perpetuate and justify slavery of black people for centuries.

Still with me? Again, not your responsibility. I am not blaming you. No one is.

Ask yourself this question: “How long did it take for all white people in the United States to stop believing that African-Americans were less evolved, less intelligent, less civilized, less peaceful than white Americans?”

Think about it. Consider an example: It wasn’t until 1987 that homosexuality was completely removed from the DSM-III (the American classification of mental disorders). Today, how many Americans still think that homosexuality is a mental disorder or moral perversion? (I can answer that: A LOT.)

Changing beliefs that are so hard-wired into a culture is not something that happens overnight. It can take years, decades, generations or even centuries.

If you’re feeling attacked, don’t. These are simply historically accurate facts about American history and black people’s experience in America.

Now, as regards African-Americans being freed from slavery, also consider that white people in the South used slaves extensively on plantations as free farm labor. The freeing of slaves took away a substantial component of their economic system and required that slave-holders would now have to pay farm workers to do the job that they once had done for free.

Imagine that. Rich white plantation owners running large farms providing cotton and other crops to the country and the world – suddenly found themselves facing a new and substantial cost of doing business. Think about it.

How do you think they felt about those black faces around them now? Did they gather together, sing kumbaya and start handing out paychecks? Did they wave goodbye as the former slaves packed their meager belongings to leave their hellish former masters? Discuss amongst yourselves.

Let’s put it this way: You can be pretty sure they weren’t happy.

In fact, upon the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment, white politicians began undermining the new freedom of African-Americans via Jim Crow, “a collection of state and local statutes that legalized racial segregation.” These statutes and laws persisted for about 100 years, from the post-Civil War era until 1968 and they were expressly intended “to return Southern states to an antebellum class structure by marginalizing black Americans.” Resistance was often met with violence and murder.

So 400 years of slavery followed by 100 years of segregation, marginalization, violence and murder, often by lynching. In fact, white Americans lynched some 3,446 African-Americans during that time. They also lynched another 1,297 white people, of course, but largely for helping black people or opposing lynching itself.

Now imagine that happening to your ancestors. Imagine that happening to your grandparents. For many African-Americans, it did. The memories are that fresh.

But still not your fault! So, if you’re feeling attacked, don’t. These are simply historically accurate facts about American history and black people’s experience in America.

Breathe. We’re almost done.

Like all the political change before it, ending Jim Crow took generations. It was taken apart piecemeal beginning in the mid-twentieth century:

    1. First, President Dwight Eisenhower integrated the U.S. military in 1948.
    2. Next, the Supreme Court ruled that segregated schools were unconstitutional in 1954.
    3. A decade later, President Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act into law in 1964, legally ending the discrimination and segregation of Jim Crow.
    4. Not long after, Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act into law in 1965, ending a century-long slew of efforts to prevent minorities from voting.
    5. Finally, in 1968, Johnson signed the Fair Housing Act into law, legally ending discrimination against minorities in renting and selling homes.

See how slow things change, even for the better? Now imagine this happening to white Americans, your ancestors. After centuries of discrimination, enslavement, segregation, and violence based solely on the color of your skin, would you be able to turn the page and forget all that came before? Would you find it easy to?

Now ask yourself again, after all of these laws were passed to end discrimination against African-Americans, how quickly do you think the white people who believed in the rationale for Jim Crow laws began to un-believe them?

Do you feel attacked? Do you feel like someone is asking you to feel bad? Ashamed of yourself? None of those things is what is happening as you read this. None.

Do you feel like it is needless to learn these things? Do you think it just serves to divide us, white and black Americans? Do you think we should pretend it never happened?

Now ask yourself again, after all of these laws were passed to end discrimination against African-Americans, how quickly do you think the white people who believed in the rationale for Jim Crow laws began to un-believe them? How quickly do you think public sentiment changed 100% to the belief that it is wrong and cruel to keep African-Americans in separate schools, separate restaurants, separate hotels, separate neighborhoods, etc.? How soon did all white Americans stop thinking that it was unnatural for white people and black people to fall in love with each other, get married and have children together? Again, discuss amongst yourselves.

At this point, do you feel resistant to this discussion at all? Anger? As if you’re wasting your time on something inconsequential?

If not, great. If you feel like this conversation is enlightening, worthwhile, and enriches your understanding of how racial politics have shaped our country, our belief systems, our institutions and our citizens, then you are now well on your way to being a good, thoughtful white citizen of the United States of America. 

However, if you DO feel resentment, anger and as if you’re wasting your time on something inconsequential, well, THAT IS YOUR RESPONSIBILITY. Furthermore, your resultant behavior is 100% on you. So if you act with cruelty, prejudice, antagonism or violence toward anyone based on that anger – an anger which you believe simply reviewing history has caused – we will definitely blame you for perpetuating racism.

What’s your choice?

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