First, let’s get something straight: The current bar for being a “good, non-racist White person” is set way too low. Here’s what it looks like today:
- Go to an anti-racism training? You’re a good non-racist White person.
- Acknowledge that you have White privilege and say it to other people? You’re a good, non-racist White person.
- Go to a #BlackLivesMatter protest or put up a poster? Good, non-racist White person.
- Have more than two Black friends? You got it, you’re a good, non-racist White person.
- Buy your children a book or doll that isn’t White? Success! You’re a good, non-racist White person.
Sure, all those things are good. But those actions alone don’t make you non-racist or a good anti-racist ally. Being a true ally requires action, accountability and choosing to give up your White privilege and be treated like people of color (POC) are currently. That’s where good intentions often stall out.
Many good White people are willing to say things, but they are not willing to give up anything.
Most White families aren’t willing to send their children to schools where Black kids go.
Most good White folks aren’t willing to give up their leadership roles in organizations whose sole purpose is to help POC.
Most White Folks Won’t Admit Their Own Racism
Most good White folks aren’t willing to admit their own racism or take responsibility when they engage in racist actions—even when they do explicitly racist things. Instead, good, non-racist White people go to a training, probably cry and talk about how their racist actions impacted them personally and even how they will take the lesson to develop into more racially sensitive allies.
These realities make the story I’m going to share truly remarkable. This is a story of a young White male who did something racist. Bucking the tide, he and his White family fully accepted the consequences of that action, which include serious harm to the young man’s reputation.
Young Man X was an average, non-racist White kid, living in a utopian suburban community for other non-racist White people (Oak Park, Illinois), when he did something racist. He put on Blackface, went on the internet and targeted Black student leaders at his high school.
Now, we can all agree that what Young Man X did was wrong. When a young White man does something wrong, the usual way this is handled is the young man offers an apology, and there are no further consequences. In other words, no real accountability and no push to change behavior.
In my entire life, I’ve never actually seen a good, non-racist White person do something racist and truly accept responsibility for it.
Until this young man at Oak Park River Forest High School. And his family.
After posing in a racist Blackface picture, this young man did a number of things almost unheard of:
- He didn’t deny it.
- He called it racist.
- He and his family reached out to a Black teacher active in anti-racist work to figure out how to handle a situation where the White kid is not the focus.
- When his school hands out consequences—suspension, loss of prom and other school event privileges, including the walk across the stage at graduation—he and his family accepted them. Their response? “OK, I deserve that and I accept this punishment.”
I know, crazy, right?
This is what being a non-racist White person really looks like.
Setting An Example
I was literally stunned silent when I heard the response from the boy and his parents.
Upon finding the picture of their son in Blackface, his parents immediately wanted to figure out the best way to make reparations. Unfortunately, the school, an American institution, created to uphold White supremacy, was unprepared to handle White people who want to take responsibility, accept punishment and do restorative justice.
But this family decided that they weren’t going to hide behind their White privilege, no matter how many other White people came out in droves to protect this “innocent” boy who “made a mistake” and could have his entire life “ruined”!
While being outwardly outraged by the racism of the action, many non-racist White folks were trying to minimize real consequences to the boy! Non-racist White folk can be very dramatic and completely unaware of the reality that White privilege is shielding them from real consequences.
To many non-racist White folks, being called a racist is the worst thing in the whole world! And, yes, while being called out as racist may hurt their feelings and is embarrassing, it is not the worst thing in the world. Furthermore, being called “racist” is not “just like” racial oppression. At all.
But with all the love in my heart, I must say to these good, non-racist White folks, “You (the White person who believes they are not racist) are racist. It’s virtually impossible not to be racist in America. Whether you want it or not, you have privilege that makes your racist actions not affect your life in any way except your feelings.”
So, being truly non-racist is hard, hard work that requires action, acknowledgement and some (this is the kicker) suffering for doing racist things.
The irony is the kid who took the racist Blackface picture is showing the world—and especially good, non-racist White folk—a powerful example of what it means to truly be anti-racist by fully accepting responsibility for his actions.
I hope that other non-racist White folks follow this brave young man’s example.
And to those who call liberals “snowflakes,” this is an example of how strong we are. This kid is not a snowflake, rather, he is hail. In the midst of the storm, he stays strong and doesn’t fall apart.
He even wrote a whole apology letter reflecting on the incident and how his actions have impacted the community:
My worst fear is leaving this as the White kid who got away. Every day we are faced with more and more news stories and court cases where instead of talking about the crime committed, excuses are immediately made for the defendant. I want to make it abundantly clear that I take responsibility for my actions.
I do not want to run away from the issue, instead I would like to attempt to make amends by being an example. I would like to use this opportunity to help focus the community, not on myself, but on the the people I impacted, and on how to heal, and move forward to bring issues in our education system and local community to the foreground.
And that, non-racist White folks, is how you handle it after you have done something racist.