As humans, our brains are attuned to expect the worst. This adaptation has helped us thrive in the world as it is. We look for the negative effect, the deficit, the problem that needs addressing so that we can survive. We also have developed a tremendous intellect, an ability to manipulate abstract information, to extrapolate future actions from past observations. When you cross these two human qualities — the bias for negativity and the capacity for analysis, you get many outcomes. One is human civilization, the ability to create massive structures — architectural, cultural, and spiritual. Another, when these qualities are taken to an extreme, is the tendency to hoard, to take for oneself, to deprive others. This fear that we will not have enough for ourselves and our families brings out the worst parts of human nature.
White culture has fully embraced these fears and white supremacy is the manifestation of this negative effect. White supremacy is all about the grabbing and keeping of resources for yourself, for your family, for those who look like you. This fear is a powerful motivator. It can inspire acts of extreme racial hatred. It can inspire white fragility. It can also inspire white inaction. When I am so afraid of what I am going to lose when I confront racist systems, I am disinclined to initiate that confrontation.
One of our challenges as white people is to expand our capacity for ambiguity, to truly believe that your gain is not my loss. To understand at a deep level that the social exclusion by other white people that we fear cannot actually injure us. That true fear comes from the bodily racial harm that Black people endure from police. That true fear comes from the systemic exclusion of Black and Brown people from jobs and health insurance that they need to care for their families. That true fear comes from the lack of educational options offered to Black and Brown children.
Some white people may face some of those fears, but we don’t face them because we are white. And many of us white people, because of white supremacy, have been allowed to grow up without those fears, in places of privilege. Instead, what we fear is the loss of solidarity with other white people that comes from speaking out against racism. Although social exclusion can feel difficult, it is not dangerous to white people, to our bodies.
So let’s recognize our fear of racial conflict for what it is — an anxiety not based on real, physical threat. That doesn’t mean it feels easy or that we should ignore it. Instead, let’s examine this anxiety in community as white people. Let’s talk about it. Let’s excavate it. What makes us uncomfortable about calling an action racist? What makes us uncomfortable about questioning another white person’s values or beliefs? We can turn away from isolation and certainty, move towards community and ambiguity. These new places may feel uncomfortable, but they are true, and we need that truth today more than ever.
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