At the beginning of March, a sign with the following statement appeared on the wall of a post office in Flemington, New Jersey: “March is national Stop Blaming White People Month! Accept responsibility for your own bad choices. Hug a white person!” It was reminiscent of a sign that appeared in the window of a Flemington deli three years earlier, also in March, advocating for “White History Month.”
As a white person, I of course believe that it is important for well-meaning white people to denounce this sign and whoever posted it. However, we also need to go much further than calling out individual acts of racism and confront the belief system buried in this sign and our own complicity in that narrative. Even if this sign had never been posted, interrogating and dismantling systemic racism and the ways in which white people benefit from unearned advantage are critically important. Confronting this belief system can begin with acknowledging the following:
- This sign focuses on the month of March, which follows Black History Month in February, and so even though black people are not explicitly named here, they are clearly the individuals supposedly making “bad choices.” In other words, the sign is sending the message that white people make good choices, which lead to their success, and black people make bad choices, which prevent them from being successful. What a convenient explanation for racial inequality! This defense of personal responsibility absolves all systems from perpetuating inequality and focuses on the narrative that racism is a thing of the past, that the American dream of hard work leading to success is alive and well. If only that were true, but unfortunately this is a very damaging and powerful myth that white people are taught to believe. The more white people believe this myth, the more they perpetuate it, which protects the status quo and the power of the small, wealthy white elite.
In New Jersey, white people have been indoctrinated to believe since we’re in the North, we’re the “good guys.” Moreover, since we’re such a racially diverse state, we are also indoctrinated to ignore the racial segregation that makes our state one of the most racially segregated in the entire country.
- For those white people who consider themselves successful, many believe that they are successful because of their own individual hard work. It is very hard for white people to acknowledge the unearned advantages that they benefit from. These unearned advantages include financial benefits our parents and grandparents accessed, like low interest mortgages and housing, that often got passed to us through intergenerational wealth. Today, these unearned advantages include being much less likely to get funneled into a school-to-prison pipeline, to be pulled over, to be arrested, and to be followed in a store, and much more likely to be presumed innocent, to have a resume reviewed, and to see people who look like us in positive and affirming roles in TV, film, and the news media.
- For those white people who are unemployed, in minimum wage jobs, and/or unable to access the resources they need, many believe that individual people of color and immigrants have stood in their way, gotten their job, or taken their spot, as if it is all a zero-sum game. This belief, like the belief of white people who attribute their success to their hard work, both deny systemic racism.
- Systemic racism did not always exist. It was invented. Whiteness was invented. Most white people don’t know this history because we are not usually taught this history. Whiteness, and race in general, is an invention. It is not natural or biological. “White” is a category that was created for the purposes of power and control, of divide and conquer. “White” was invented to bestow humanity upon one group of people and to divide them from other groups of people, people of color, especially black people and indigenous people, who were identified as sub-human. This ideology then rationalized slavery, genocide, and many different types of discriminatory laws, policies, and actions. We can see this invention at work if we go back to the 1600s. During the earliest years of colonial Virginia, the line between servant and slave was ambiguous, and people were not identified by skin color but rather by nationality, language, or religion. During Bacon’s Rebellion and similar rebellions, a coalition of Africans and Europeans threatened the wealth and status of elite wealthy landowners. Lawmakers created and codified a racial hierarchy in which Africans became chattel slaves for life and Europeans became compensated white indentured servants, thereby protecting the elite through a divide and conquer strategy. The creation of whiteness drew a line in the sand about who was allowed to be human and who wasn’t. And when the European laborers accepted whiteness as their new identity, they gave up, generation after generation, their specific ethnic, religious, cultural, and linguistic European identity. That was a sacrifice they made in exchange for limited power. Anyone who was not white was seen as not even having a history or culture.
The fairly recent creation of Black History Month is an attempt to speak back against a system of oppression that has not allowed blacks their history or humanity for centuries. Today, when whites want to claim a “month” or a “hug,” they are likely unaware of this history because it’s not generally taught. However, we can work on that. While we need to continue to call out individual acts of racism, we also need to educate ourselves and other white people about this history so we can take action to address systemic racism; we can start with a narrative that directly confronts it. If you would like to know more about the ideas shared here, including tools for action, please check out my new book, "Dismantling the Racism Machine: A Manual and Toolbox," published by Routledge. Also, please consider joining the Hunterdon County Anti-Racism Coalition, as we meet monthly in Flemington (2nd Friday of each month at 6:30pm, 20 Fulper Road) to discuss and plan action against racism. The Coalition is available at [email protected] and has a Facebook group.
Karen Gaffney, PhD is Professor of English at Raritan Valley Community College ([email protected]), and the author of Dismantling the Racism Machine: A Manual and Toolbox. Her blog, Divided No Longer (available at https://dividednolonger.com/), has many resources about race and racism.
Help us fight the tide of racism that is sweeping through our district and country.