Laurie Essig Ph.D.

Social Studies

White Like Me, Nice Like Me

Even as an anti-racist white person I'm still struggling with my racism

Posted Jul 12, 2016

This post is for the "nice" white people like me. We know we're "nice" because we support Black Lives Matter. We voted for Obama, twice. We are done with mass incarceration, police brutality and the messed up way in which our culture portrays Black people and white people. I've come to believe that it might be people who are white like me, nice like me, who are central to white supremacy staying in place. 

This is not a white idea. Black friends and allies are calling on us to come out with our own racism. I don't want to. I have worked for most of my adult life on being an anti-racist white person. I have shown up at the protests against police brutality since the days of Amadou Diallo. I have been teaching courses in critical race theory for a long time, including one on "White People" where I work through how our culture is not just accidentally white supremacist, but fundamentally so. The last thing I want to do is look deep at the racism within which I was raised and in which I still live. But as Rev. Denise Anderson put it in a recent blog: 

White people, you have heard it said that you must talk to other white people about racism, and you must. But don’t talk to them about their racism. Talk to them about YOUR racism. Talk to them about how you were socialized to view, talk to, and engage with people of color... Don’t make it “their” problem. Understand it as your own problem, because it is. To not do this would put you in danger of being yet another well-intentioned racist, convinced of their own goodness and living a life wholly unexamined and unaccountable to anyone. We don’t need anymore of those. It’s confession time.

Confession time it is. I grew up in the 1970s and '80s and things were said aloud back then by "nice white people" that are now just said by crazy ass bigots like these church-going white people who yelled things at a Black family like "my ancestors owned your mother-#@$ing ass."  

Yet just 40 years ago I was sitting around with the children of "nice, educated" white families when I had my first Brazil nut. The white children sniggered as they called them "nigga toes." Later I learned the history of lynching in this country and how often the body parts of the tortured and murdered black man were cut off and displayed in public spaces, a reminder to all who entered that white supremacy was alive and well long after the end of slavery. This gruesome bit of terror then morphed into white children referring to nuts as pieces of Black bodies, a macabre reminder that white supremacy was far from dead in 1975 America.

Fast forward to today. The white people I spend time with, the "nice" white folks, would never say things like this and yet they continue—no, WE continue—to uphold the lie that black bodies are disposable. Thanks to social media, I am "friends" with white people who insist that "blue lives matter" or "all lives matter." I am "friends" with a couple of white people who apparently support Donald Trump. I hide their posts, ashamed to know them, but I don't actually engage them because it is my privilege as a white person to respond with "what an idiot" or "isn't that sad" rather than "hell no" or even better "can we talk?"

Recently I was chastising a young friend of mine, a white boy. He was saying the things white people are wont to say like "not all white people are racist." I answered "yes, all white people. Me, you, your mom, all white people. All white people live in a system of white supremacy, benefit from that system and keep that system in place." He was frustrated, annoyed, defensive about not being racist. 

I get it. Me too. I don't want to deal with my own racism. I would far rather project racism onto those white people—the ones who aren't "nice" like me. But to be white like me is to have lived in a system that marks me as innocent and safe because other bodies are marked as guilty and dangerous. To be white like me is to walk through the world unafraid of the police yet somehow very afraid to talk to other white people about their support for racist policing policies or racist presidential candidates. To be white like me, to be "nice" like me, is to really not want to confess up to my own racism and the racism in which I live anymore than my young friend did.

That's the paradox of being white like me and nice like me: my "niceness" is embedded in the lie that whiteness is capable of cleansing itself of white supremacy, past and present. It's far easier to pretend that my whiteness is "nice" than admit the ugly truth that to be white like me is just as sullied with the lies of white supremacy as those other white people, the ones yelling racist things in diners or cheering on a racist candidate.