unpacking with bill



If you’ve spent any time on the internet over the last 36 hours you’ve likely read some version of this exchange:

All white people, we have to reject the horrifying racism in Charlottesville and support people of color!

EVERYONE should reject racism, not just white people! Not every white person is a racist. Making that kind of claim just serves to divide us, when we should be uniting! This is not MY America!

This dynamic is everywhere - Allisons are calling for white people to step up and stop permitting racist violence; Bills are waving Allison off as if she’s just offered him a squirt of Freesia hand lotion in the mall, “No, no, no, not me. I don’t support racist violence, don’t put this on me.”

For many people, it’s hard to nail down the differences between what Allison said and what Bill said.

Both agree that racist violence is bad. Both agree that people should unite against said violence. But they’re disagreeing somewhere, and at first glance it might seem like Allison is being petty, and Bill has some good points.

But Bill is out of line.

And it takes some time to figure out why.

So let’s unpack it.

  1. Everyone should reject racism, not just white people.

Well, okay, yes. Everyone should reject racism.

And in the Kentucky Derby of rejecting racism, white people are so far behind the rest of the pack, most of us haven’t even saddled up yet. Most of us are hanging out, grazing, in the field behind the track, thinking good thoughts about the rest of the pack, and believing that’s the same as running with them.

People of color reject racism by breathing; White people uphold racism by breathing. If we don’t choose to steer into anti-racism, if we don’t actively work to recognize and fight it, our white bodies simply slide into a system where people smile at us and assume our bad credit is a blip and we’re not sure why those people feel so persecuted all the time because we worked hard and succeeded, and we weren’t born with silver spoons in our mouths so if we can do it why not them?

White people’s lives, without their permission and without their conscious effort, solidify the supremacy of whiteness. Every time we accept preferential treatment, or ignore abuse because it’s scary or uncomfortable, we agree to the terms of white supremacy. Our silence is our approval.

The lives of people of color, without their permission and without their conscious effort, challenge the supremacy of whiteness. Because this world defaults to whiteness, when people of color merely exist here, they are pushing back racism. And make no mistake, challenging white people is a scary fucking job.

When a white man goes for a promotion, he is pursuing his dream.

When a black woman goes for a promotion, she is fighting racism. Not because she wants to, but because that’s how she moves through the world, pushing with all her might every day to make a little space to breathe.

When a white girl applies to college, she is fulfilling her promise. When she shows up at college, she’s ready to achieve.

When a Latina girl applies to college, she is fighting racism. Not because she wants to, but because she already understands that her race is both an intimate and beloved part of her identity, and a threat or a punchline, for some reason, to so many strangers. When she shows up at college, she’s ready to defend her right to be there.

So yes, Bill. Everyone needs to reject racism. And so far, white people are the only ones who haven’t. Quit hanging out in the pasture and get in the race, buddy. You’re pretty late to the party.

  1. Not every white person is racist.

White people, I’mma get to our racism in a second. But first things first.

If you are ever part of a general conversation about race, and you start to feel like you need to declare that you’re not a racist, or that not all white people are racist, please put a KFC biscuit in your mouth and wait for the urge to pass. No, you may not have any water. You need some time to work on both the biscuit and the thoughts in your head.

You do not have the right to change the subject so everyone has to talk about YOUR goodness.
Regardless of who you are, other people experience racism.
Do not make this about you.
Listen to other people talk.
Believe they know what they’re talking about.
You are not the center of everything.

Unless someone specifically said, “Bill, you are racist,” then Bill’s out-of-nowhere screed is pretty weird. Methinks the Bill doth protest too much, no?

Think of it this way - if you watch someone get punched in the face, and your first knee-jerk response is to yell, “I AM A NONVIOLENT PERSON AND HAVE NEVER PUNCHED ANYONE IN THE FACE,” then you need to take a step back and ask yourself why reaffirming your nonviolent character is more important, in that moment, than getting an ice pack.

OK, now onto the racism of white people:

We are all racist.

Now, listen very carefully: I’m not saying we are all violent bigots. But all white Americans have racism.

No matter where you grew up, who you married, who your Best Man was, or what music you like, if you are a white American, you are racist.

… and most of us are also nice people who don’t want to be racist.

Stop thinking of racism as an humanity deal-breaker that’s sending you straight to hell, and start thinking about it as an human trait, like your fondness for donuts by the half-dozen or your inexplicable loathing of Eddie Redmayne.

It’s just there. It always has been. You don’t need to hide from your racism; in fact, you need to talk about it. You need to be aware of it. You need to learn about it, how it uses your life, choices, words, and actions (or inactions) to keep everything chugging along smoothly as it has been for hundreds of years.

If you don’t think you have racism, you haven’t looked for it yet.

  1. Making that kind of claim just serves to divide us…

Actually, calling for white people to speak out against racism doesn’t divide us.

Racist violence divides us. The casual murder of human beings divides us.

It divides us cleanly: the people who do not consent to hateful violence, and the people who do, whether explicitly with torches, or implicitly with silence, or changing the subject.

In short, we are divided, Bill. Have been for centuries.

Time for you to pick a side.

If that statement makes you nervous, start by reaching out to a friend who has publicly spoken out against racist violence to have a conversation.

  1. ...When we should be uniting.

If a condition of our unity is the silence of people of color, then it’s not unity so much as it is another iteration of white supremacy.

Let me put it another way:

If a mugger had a gun to your head and said, “Tell me I can have your wallet,” and you said yes, then technically you and your mugger would be united in your belief that he should have your wallet.

But do you feel good about how that went down?

That’s how people of color feel when their valid concerns and justified fear and anger are rejected by white people who want them to stop being so “divisive.”

People of color don’t create division when they say “I am in pain.” White people create division when we refuse to acknowledge the pain.

Every time someone says, “we should be united,” what I hear is, “I don’t care as much about your oppression as I do about the illusion of solidarity. I don’t need it to be real, I just want it to look real.”

I know you don’t feel like you’re mugging anyone. I know you don’t think you have a gun. But your white maleness is a weapon that you may not even know you carry. Believe me. Believe other people. By luck of genes and chromosomes, your position at the top of the demographic food chain makes you an apex predator, whether you wanted to be or not. So yes, even though you didn’t choose to be the mugger with the gun, you are.

And bottom line, if the mugger with the gun is setting the terms of “unity,” then somebody is getting robbed.

  1. This is not MY America!

Dude. Bill. Stop. Seriously.

America is literally yours. All of it.

Seriously, let’s play a game called “Name something in America that doesn’t belong to white men.”

Lingerie? Cosmetics? Tampons? NOPE! The vast majority of these companies are owned, regulated, and managed by white men. The bras are designed by white men, and the products are tested, marketed, and developed by white men. The advertising campaigns serve white men. The dollars we spend go into the flat-front Dockers pockets of dudes named Frederick and Campbell.

America is yours Bill. Don’t pretend it isn’t because I will literally pull something laughing and holding myself back.

Quick story:

I used to work at Nordstrom. When I became a department manager, one of my mentors told me something that I’ll never forget.

She said, “When you first arrive in the department, your job is to watch and listen for a couple of weeks. Wherever you go, there’s going to be a lot going right, and it’s going to be important for you to notice what’s working so you can keep it. But after that first couple of weeks, you’re going to have the department you deserve.”

What did she mean by that?

She meant that after I’d had the time to understand my environment, I would no longer be able to blame anyone else for things I didn’t like about it. She meant it would be my job to change it. The responsibility was mine.

She meant that if I had a dud on the team, it was my responsibility to coach them up, or coach them out. These people were mine.

She meant that I occupied a place of authority there, and that I was ultimately responsible for the success or failure of the team. The team was mine.

She meant that the department was mine.

Just like America is ours. We have the America we deserve, and there’s a lot we don’t like about it, either because either we haven’t taken the time to try to understand it, or because we have refused to do the hard work to improve it.

Now Bill, I know you don’t own a lingerie company yourself and it’s easy for you to check yourself out of this conversation by saying, “I teach Physics at a high school in Des Moines. I have a mortgage and a kid with orthodontia. Why do you think I have so much power to affect change?”

Because you fucking do, Bill.

Because when you walk into your State Capitol having made an appointment to meet your Congressman, security is not going to assume you’re a “thug” or a troublemaker.

Receptionists will look at you and assume you have something to say that is worth hearing. They will not feel the need to double-confirm your appointment because you just don’t seem like you’re in the right place.

Nobody will mistake you for a gardener or a delivery guy.

That’s your power. Because this is your country.

If you want to say that this isn’t your America, then you better get started on your Canadian citizenship paperwork.

But if you’re staying, Bill, you live here. So do I. And America belongs to us. And these are our people.

So let’s get to work.

_ _ _

If you remember nothing else, remember this:

- All white people are racist; all people of color have to navigate racism.

- Having racism isn't a blight on your character, but refusing to acknowledge or work to change your racism once you become aware of it is.

- Divisiveness doesn't exist because people of color talk about race; divisiveness exists because white people don't listen about race. If you don't want divisiveness, the solution is more white listening, not less PoC talking.

- White people, you have more power than you think you do. You have the power to silence people of color, but you also have the power to amplify their voices. You get to choose what you're going to do with your power.

- Pick a side. Get to work. Speak up, and keep speaking.


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