Today’s “White Person’s Burden”: To Counter Racism

By Maha Elgenaidi, Executive Director.

This opinion appeared at the ING blog.

After decades of leading a national nonprofit that counters bigotry through education, I am now firmly convinced that we need new partners to overcome racism, Islamophobia, and exclusivist thinking in our nation. So far, we have been treating the disease of ignorance through education and inter-cultural engagement. This is right, and we need to do more of it, but it’s not enough.

We must also address the dangerous disease of indifference, specifically the indifference of many, though thankfully not all, Americans of European origins, commonly referred to as “white,” who, while finding no common cause with the Ku Klux Klan, are simply not directly addressing the harms of racism in our country perpetrated by deep-seated unconscious bias, exclusivist churches, and, in the worst case, outright white supremacy, as we witnessed in Charlottesville, the recent Waffle House shooter, Dylann Roof, and anti-government militias.

In the face of racist policies such as the Muslim ban and the epidemic of police killings of black men in this country, it is incumbent upon white Americans to avoid becoming what Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., referred to as the “white moderate, who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice.”

As noted columnist Leonard Pitts, Jr., points out, racism is a white problem. White Americans, biased or not, must take up responsibility for fighting unconscious bias, racism, and white supremacy among their number, just as Christians and Jews need to take responsibility for combating Islamophobia in their communities and Muslims for combatting anti-Semitism or extremism in theirs.

It’s not up to blacks, Muslims, or immigrants to prove their inherent value to white Americans or that they belong to America. Rather, the impetus for change needs to come from white Americans working to dispel bigotry among their peers. And white Americans need to do this not out of altruism, which will almost inevitably bear the taint of paternalism, but out of solidarity: we’re all in this enterprise called America together.

Working together, we might start by deconstructing “whiteness.” Whiteness is a socially constructed category, not something given by nature. People classified as “white” have neither a common ethnicity nor a common culture; they come from a great variety of ethnicities, religions and cultures, most of which have long been in conflict with one another. The concept of “whiteness” was born of colonialism, which sought a convenient way to define who the masters and who the subordinates were in the European colonies; “white people” structurally stood over against the indigenous “non-white” peoples of colonized territories.

Reinforcing this master-slave relationship were constructed narratives about colonized peoples, sometimes rooted in extremist Christian interpretations that for centuries supported racism.

For example, in the case of Muslims and people of the Middle East, the narrative was that they were sunk in backwardness and enslaved by an oppressive and false religion. In the case of Africans, the narrative portrayed them as primitive beings, not quite human, fit only for hard labor under the lash of whites. In case of the Native Americans, the story ran that they were savages needing to be civilized, Christianized, and turned into white farmers.

These narratives together bred the notion of the “white man’s burden,” the supposed duty of Euro-Americans to uplift (or, in the case of Africans, to enslave) the “poor, benighted savages.” Today, we rightly recognize this notion not only as demeaning but as a threadbare cover for policies and actions that were utterly self-serving on the part of a white elite.

It’s time to recognize that today’s “white burden” is to undo the systemic oppression of yesterday’s “white man’s burden,” starting with uprooting the attitudes of white superiority still present, at least unconsciously, in the minds of many white Americans, even those consciously committed to anti-racism.

For these narratives remain with us today and form the basis of many white Americans’ fears and anxieties towards “the other,” towards anyone who is not of white European origins. They drive the racist policies and discrimination non-whites are facing:

  • Muslims confront hate crimes (including an average of nine mosques vandalized every month), bullying of our children, talk of Muslim surveillance and Muslim registry, and policies such as the Muslim ban.
  • For Blacks, over fifty years after civil rights laws promised equality of opportunity, the median income of African-American households lags almost 40% behind that of whites, and the median net worth of white households is 13 times that of African-American households. African-Americans, who are 12% of the US population, constitute 33% of the prisoners.
  • The situation of Latinos is only slightly less dire. Their median household income is the same as that of Blacks; the median net worth of Latino households is one-tenth that of white households. Sixteen percent of the population, Latinos are 23% of the prisoners.

The concept of “whiteness,” including its implication of white superiority and supremacy or its assumption that only white people “really belong” in America, is the ideological cement that holds these structures of injustice in place. That cement can be broken down only by the concerted and consistent struggles of white people against the deep-seated bigotry in their own ranks.

One roadblock to the success of these efforts is the widespread conviction among white Americans that they are free from any taint of racist attitudes. They forget, or ignore, the fact that, as recent studies of “unconscious bias” have confirmed, such attitudes may reside deep in our unconscious and influence our behavior without our consciously realizing it. Only such unconscious bias can explain the continued racist disparities noted above in a culture that publicly condemns racism.

This is the reality that should put the struggle against racism on the front burner for white Americans. It’s not that people of color and other minorities are not fighting back against bigotry. Minority populations in the United States have regularly formed voluntary and professional associations to resist oppression while simultaneously reaching out across lines of difference to teach about themselves. My organization, the Islamic Networks Group (ING), joins other minority community groups that have taught diverse audiences, built intercultural bridges, and promoted peaceful intercultural relations on the local, national, and international levels. But organizations such as ours can’t go it alone; white Americans must take responsibility and exert initiative for combating racism and bigotry in their communities.

To accomplish that, white Americans must do at least the following:

  • Recognize the reality of unconscious bias, the sort of bias that, for instance, drove a white Starbucks manager to call the police on two African-American men waiting for a business colleague or that leads security staff to follow an African-American or other “non-white” customer around a store. Only when we recognize our biases can we combat them.
  • Build a mainstream movement among white Americans to organize, stand up, and speak out, to teach in their churches, schools, and civic organizations on respect for diversity, starting with deconstructing whiteness, its history and narratives about non-whites, and the damage and harm it continues to cause minorities in the U.S.—and to all Americans by fomenting divisiveness and tension. Such a movement is not only a moral imperative; it is crucial to the well-being of the overwhelming majority of Americans. The recent multi-faith (but, appropriately, mostly Christian) rally against racism in Washington, D.C. on the anniversary of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s death is an example of what’s needed.
  • Team up with minority-led education and advocacy organizations working in this space. Here at ING, we have on our staff five Muslims (Sunni and Shia) who identify along a broad spectrum of liberal and conservative Islam, but also three white Christians. They chose to join this organization because they believe rightly that it is not the job of Muslims alone to counter Islamophobia. Many of the members of our Interfaith Speakers Bureau are white, non-Muslim Americans who clearly see the value in pushing back against bigotry in their communities.

The United States and the world require a positive peace rooted in justice, and we won’t get it unless we work together to overcome the twin diseases of ignorance and indifference that threaten to harm all of us.