Like many people, I watched the news coming out of Charlottesville this weekend in horror. Future generations will ask about this moment, wondering: How did this happen? What did you do to resist?
I asked myself: As a white educator, how do I respond? What will I say to future generations? What is my responsibility?
Siva Vaidhyanathan wrote in the New York Times about the choice, as a professor at the University of Virginia, between denying extremists the attention “that feeds their flaming torches” and the call to direct confrontation. I read this piece and wondered, what would I do? What have I done?
In the 2016 documentary I am Not Your Negro, James Baldwin said: “History is not the past. It is the present. We carry our history with us. We are our history. If we pretend otherwise, we are literally criminals.”
So I need to act. White educators need to act. Every day.
Acting against white supremacy and systemic racism is not about white people demanding to be absolved because we are good people, have been discriminated against ourselves or are self-declared allies. It isn’t about insisting on being called Caucasian—a racist term—instead of white. This is white fragility that distracts from talking about white supremacy and instead centers again on white people’s needs and desires.
I find myself, as I write this, thinking I should tone it down. I want to minimize and not offend. As a white person I can tell myself that, overall, society is equal and fair. But this is a dangerous lie and it requires ignoring overwhelming evidence about global inequity.
White supremacy is defined as thinking that white people are superior to all others. Acting against white supremacy and racism is about learning what white supremacy, systemic racism and white privilege really mean.
It is about learning how the stress of racism affects learning. It is about learning how to understand and dismantle racism. It is about selecting children’s books carefully. It is about teaching children and teens to undo racism and white supremacy.
White supremacy and white privilege normalize winning through violence—imperialism, killing, hurting, stealing knowledge, wasting and convincing everyone that white people are No. 1. White supremacy and white privilege involve doggedly refusing to acknowledge the contributions, and the vast knowledge, of the majority of people in the world who are not white.
This logic infects how we educate, who and what we see as leadership, and how we come to see each other and the planet that we are rapidly destroying.
When I was growing up, the main characters in books were usually white and male. There were some women characters—including Nancy Drew, Wonder Woman, the Bionic Woman and Samantha from Bewitched. But all were white, and their characters often racist. My mother and grandmothers read books with different heroes but what they all had in common is that they were white, and in school we all learned about famous white people. In other words, our education ignored the vast majority of the world’s artists, thinkers, inventors, conservationists and humanitarians.
Today, students are often encouraged to participate in an event to help Africa such as a 24-hour fast that is supposed to enhance their understanding of starvation, or to go build a school or work in an orphanage over spring break. The assumption is that Africa—often represented as one big country rather than a continent with 54 countries—needs the help of us white people to develop.
Their education on Africa doesn’t include facts about African leaders or colonization and the continued violence towards people, water and lands by predominantly white, multinational corporations.
The canon I read in high school was white and predominantly male. The ideas were focused on meritocracy—work hard and you will succeed. Sometimes there were books on totalitarianism, such as 1984 by George Orwell, but race wasn’t discussed. Some of us might have read To Kill a Mockingbird (about a white saviour type). The secondary school students I speak with today have a reading list remarkably similar to what I had back in the 1980s.
So it’s not surprising that scholars, particularly scholars of color, might anger students and colleagues who presume they’re pushing their special interest if they suggest readings from scholars who are not white. For white students and educators raised on white supremacy and with white privilege, knowledge from people outside of what has been represented as “normal” (code: white) since early childhood seems fringe, it seems special interest, and it seems irrelevant to their education.
It’s not surprising that there is a combination of anger, sadness and confusion when the white savior industrial complex is challenged.
Bell hooks reminds us that “we have to constantly critique imperialist white supremacist patriarchal culture because it is normalized by mass media and rendered unproblematic.”
Most educators want to do the best for their students. We spend hours in hopes of developing inspiring classes and piquing the curiosity to learn. But we will do harm if we don’t truly act to change the white supremacist power structures we live within. White supremacy isn’t about ignorance, it is about power.
Talking about the crimes committed in the name of white supremacy is painful, but imagine how it is for the mother worried her child might get shot just for having the audacity to walk down the street as a racialized youth. Imagine what it is like for mothers of missing and murdered Indigenous women. Imagine what it is like for students who year after year read stories about white benefactors and superheroes.
We need to refuse to minimize the oppression despite the temptation to do so. White supremacy is real and does immeasurable harm. What do we teach our children? Do they learn about white supremacy and racism and ways to fight against it? Do they learn about people like Rosemary Brown, Mary Two-Axe Earley, James Baldwin, Viola Desmond, Mary Shadd Cary and Nina Simone who give us new ways to think and act for a better world?
Yes, those of us who are white and want to learn new ways of being will get challenged for racism that we are trying to unlearn. We will be embarrassed and we will often be confused and angry. But we do have a responsibility to keep learning a new way of being, despite the discomfort.
Unlearning white supremacy is a lifelong process. The consequence of not doing so is to continue to create a planet that is uninhabitable for all.
The good news is that there are plenty of resources to educate ourselves, and plenty of opportunities to engage in collective action for a better world.
Listen to Minelle Mahtani’s Sense of Place radio show. She is a leading voice and brings on other scholars to talk about critical race studies, Indigenous studies and white supremacy. Start with these episodes:
- “Black scholars interrogate white nationalism after the U.S. elections,” an interview with Annette Henry, Handel Wright and David Chariandy.
- “The adultification of Black girls,” an interview with Collier Meyerson.
- “Negroland,” an interview with author Margo Jefferson.
Read Özlem Sensoy and Robin DiAngelo’s book Is Everyone Really Equal?.