Disclaimer: I’m a white, middle-class suburbanite, and as such I do not claim to be the voice of a movement, nor do I believe I have the authority to step into anyone else’s grief, whether individual or corporate, and use that grief as moment to position myself as an “ally.” Those that wish to disregard my content because of my context, feel free. My words, though, are not so much about my shared suffering as they are about challenging the position of privilege, and the language of tolerance.
This week has been another unfolding footnote in America’s memoir of racial unrest and violence. So many of us are sick of this narrative, and the positively nauseating commentary that flows from it.
No one with a rational worldview is going to argue that being a police officer is a simple job, or that the vast, far-reaching majority of police officers do their job, and more, every day with integrity, honesty and justice. The voices that shout, “All cops are bad” are just as misguided as those that respond, “All cops are good.” In a nation-wide body of officers in a country as large as ours, there is no “all.” This is not a “war on cops,” or, at least, it shouldn’t be.
There is a war, though, or should be, on the kind of white-privileged response to the questionable, nearly always unjust, killing of minorities by white police officers, that unspools from the mouths and mouthpieces of the subtly arrogant, self-congratulatory majority. A war on the kind of response that says, “Compliance is the issue,” or, “Treat police officers with respect, and they’ll treat you with respect,” or, “He did have 31 moving violations,” or, “Blacks commit far more violent crime than whites,” or some other racially-charged, morally-blind, and fantastically-hurtful nonsense.
The “compliance and respect” response demands that the audience listen to an anecdote about a minority who “followed the rules” when being pulled over by a police officer. Why is it, again, that black children need to be taught the being-pulled-over-by-the-police rules? White children are introduced to the police at 4th of July parades and community picnics, given balloons and stickers. Many black children are educated on compliance and hoodies. Additionally, this reasoning allows that if one does not comply or treat an officer with respect, it’s that officer’s prerogative, choice, or job to shoot you. This is not true, and no police department teaches it. Why do privileged white people post it on social media?
The “moving violation” and “crime statistic” response is a smokescreen designed to allow privileged whites to assuage some of the racial discomfort associated with these moments. “Clearly,” they think, “I’m not a racist, but I simply cannot work up the indignant response that others have around me, and so therefore I must not be bothered by this. Why not? Oh, he was a bad person anyway.” This is malarky. Why did he have so many moving violations, or whatever current data the white media publishes? What about statistics concerning where minorities live, what police presence looks like there, job insecurity, food insecurity, housing insecurity, racial profiling, prison demographics, and so many other data-points that reveal the depth and breadth of the racial problems America.? He didn’t have 31 moving violations because he was an awful person. And, anyway, since when did moving violations become an excuse to shoot someone?
The final stronghold in the privileged response is to identify a minority in that person’s life who is a successful, law-abiding citizen. “There’s no more racism,” these people say. “See, this black friend of mine is a successful doctor whose kids are in school with mine.” What this person hopes to believe is that we are truly a post-racial society, and that violence against blacks and other minorities is not a testament to the condition of our country, but a just and appropriate response to what was surely a “bad apple.”
We don’t live in a post racial society, though; we live in a society that sometimes allows class to trump race. Once the socio-economic status of a minority individual reaches a certain tipping point, that individual is “allowed” to check their race at the door, to a certain extent. However, for poor and under-privileged people of color, the very notion of a post-racial society must be, at best, a joke, and, at worst, a cruel label that identifies them personally as failures, rather than, by and large, as the victims of two and a half centuries of systematic and systemic racism.
Anecdotes simply don’t work anymore. We have a problem. Clearly, violence against minorities is a big part of it, but the privileged response to these tragedies might actually be the bigger problem. These responses are the moments in which tens of millions of privileged whites are allowed to escape back into whatever rationale relieves the tension of the moment, and excuses them from further participation in the conversation.
This is where tolerance comes in. I hate this word. The very idea that we must tolerate something indicates that we think it is morally wrong, ethically unsavory, or personally distasteful. To tolerate something or someone is to put myself in a position of authority over that thing or person. I won’t tolerate too much salt in my food, but I feel ok about putting myself in a position of moral authority over salt. Why must we be asked to tolerate each other?
By the way, the conversation around tolerance is always one-sided. Minorities are not asked to tolerate whites. Privileged whites, whose neighborhoods, schools, leisure spaces and ideological/religious positions of comfort are “threatened” are asked to tolerate those who “threaten” those spaces. We don’t use that vocabulary, but that is precisely what is being invoked when we use the word. And, those privileged whites who “claim the black friend” only raise the tolerance argument in a slightly different manner.
Tariq Ramadan, an Islamic scholar, has a particular poignant and damning explanation of tolerance. He says it is “gratuitous generosity from those who dominate and hold political, religious and/or symbolic authority, the authority of number and/or of money.” He goes on to call it the “intellectual charity of the powerful” (Ramadan). I could not agree more. I sense, even as a white person of privilege, the deepness and rawness of this statement. No one who believes himself to be of equal value feels the need to be tolerated. No one who believes others to be of equal value feels the need to tolerate them. The very word demands an ethnocentric worldview.
I’m certainly not claiming that most privileged whites think they are invoking the language of domination. No, America’s racism among the privileged is far more subtle than that. Perhaps Frank Furedi, is in his book, On Tolerance, says it best when he calls tolerance a form of “polite etiquette” (Bunting). We think we’re doing “them” a favor when we tolerate them and write off their “bad apples,” but instead we’re creating a space in which we get to feel civilized, and a space in which we get to gaze at and shake our heads toward those savages. It’s the new colonialism. Welcome back to last century.
Shelby Steele, in an op-ed around Barack Obama’s candidacy, wrote that escaping the “stigma of racism” is America’s “deep longing.” I don't deny this. One of the very last things I want associated with my life is racism. However, the facts of the matter are that I, my family, and those like me, have benefited from centuries of racial injustice and systematic oppression. The very fact that my family owned a home when I was born, or that both my parents went to college, or that I got to open a bank account as a young person, speaks to the arc of white privilege that has extended across our nation’s history. I am lucky to benefit from it. It is a privilege. But it’s there.
Privilege isn’t wrong, but it is a matter of luck.
I didn’t choose my ethnic heritage in my country of birth; it was dictated for me. I didn’t have to rise above anything, because there was nothing to rise above.
I can’t erase my white privilege, and I don’t think anyone is asking me to. I don’t feel threatened by it; I didn’t create it. I can, however, freely acknowledge that I’ve benefitted from it, and seek to create structures and systems in our society that allow others to benefit, personally and generationally, as I have.
Being an “ally” doesn’t mean revoking your whiteness, or scoffing at your privilege. It means using it as a framework to build out from, to create more, new spaces of privilege and opportunity, to invite others to come into the protection of that structure.
That’s what I want to do.
I’m sorry to the families of all of those who were killed this week, and I’m sorry for the acidic, hurtful commentary that has flowed into the wake of your grief.
I welcome comments of constructive criticism, thoughtful debate, and authentic questioning. I am only one voice.
Bunting, Madeleine. “The Problem with Tolerance." The Guardian 5 Sep. 2011: n. pag. Web. 8 July 2016.
Ramadan, Tariq. “Respect, Beyond Tolerance.” Gulf News 17 Sep. 2013: n. pag. Web. 7 July 2016.
Steele, Shelby. "Obama's Post-racial Promise." Los Angeles Times 5 Nov. 2008: n. pag. Web. 7 July 2016.