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Markkula Center for Applied Ethics

We Need to Talk About Whiteness

Sarah Tarter

Sarah Tarter

Sarah Tarter

The lives we live are, to a great extent, composed of the stories we tell ourselves. Stories of creation and destruction, of victory and defeat, of who we are and where we come from and why we are here—these are the architects of our reality, the things that shape our encounters with the world.

Here’s the thing, though: these stories aren’t always true.

In this country, the story of white supremacy runs deep through the veins of our collective history. It is entrenched in our social structures, rooted in our political system, woven into the fabric of our flag. It is a driving force in the systems of power that shape our communities.

And it is also a lie.  

The concept of assigning value to human beings based on their phenotype is both sickening and irrational; and yet, the myth of racial hierarchy still governs our reality. White Americans, or at least Americans who are considered White by our bizarre and ever-changing standards, are so accustomed to this reality that we often fail to recognize the extent to which we exist as active participants and beneficiaries of this system.

The truth is not that “white supremacy,” or perhaps more palatably “white privilege,” is simply a fact of life—the truth is, as James Baldwin writes, that “white being” is a “moral choice.” And if that is the truth, and I think it is, then our decision to either refute or ignore the role our whiteness plays in perpetuating systemic inequality is an immoral one. Conversely, to reckon with our whiteness, to actively resist its lies, to use its power not for our own gain but for the purpose of elevating the marginalized among us, is to choose justice and morality over greed and oppression.

Whiteness is not really a race, or a culture, or a neutral identifier—it is an ideology, a posture of being, a stacked deck of cards. What those of us who possess whiteness seem to so often forget is that we invented this system, and we have a responsibility to talk about it. It’s on us to advocate for change, to tear down the structures of oppression we have built, to dismantle this system that, in advantaging us, simultaneously disadvantages so many of our neighbors.

Although we cannot choose the color of our skin, we can choose the extent to which we participate in and embody structures of power. We can choose to rebuke this system that confers power and privilege on our bodies while subjugating those without a subscription to whiteness— and we can choose to participate in a civil discourse that respects, elevates and emboldens communities of color.

Conversations about white privilege, though, are fraught with a tension so palpable that we may feel tempted to turn back into our cocoon of safety and simply carry on with our daily lives. And yet, it is precisely in these moments of discomfort and fear that we must engage, for those fleeting sensations of ours are an everyday constant in the lives of those whom our privilege actively and repeatedly harms. When we do take it upon ourselves to engage in such weighty and necessary conversations, we must be mindful of our language and conscious of the stories we’re perpetuating.

Inevitably, we may stumble through this process and occasionally misstep; but that doesn’t mean we ought to hide away in shame, sulking behind a cloak of guilt that protects us from blame. It means we listen, we learn, we change. We own our mistakes and we do better next time. Whatever the case may be, we acknowledge that we have the power to choose racial justice, to change the system, to tell the true stories of human dignity and equality.

Apr 23, 2018

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