There’s another kind of WMD and, although this kind of WMD doesn’t involve bombs, it can nevertheless result in explosive anger. This WMD is white male defensiveness, which is the experience that often arises when people attempt to have conversations about structures, systems, institutions, and cultures of racism, xenophobia, misogyny, homophobia, Islamophobia, and other forms of discrimination. What I’m attempting to name here is an ostensibly instinctual (think flight or flight) reaction of self-defense when white-identified males are confronted with the reality of pervasive societal or even ecclesiastical injustice. And while this is also a common reaction for many women, as a white man I feel it most appropriate to address this issue on these terms and according to my experience.
Part of the problem is a conflation of terms and ideas. Though the topic of discussion may be structural racism—or to borrow a term from Fr. Bryan Massingale, “cultural racism”—a white male might hear accusations that he is a racist. While a distinction already exists in terminology, that difference is not readily understood by most people. When many people hear “racism” they think “racist” and those discrete, individual acts of violence or meanness directed at persons of color. Even those who espouse personal beliefs that can be readily identified as “racist” might understand that this is a morally bad descriptor (which is why so many white nationalist groups adopt seemingly innocuous names, see SPLC listings for examples). Similar reactions frequently unfold in topics of heteronormativity or male privilege, etc.
The defensiveness is an understandable impulse, but it’s not a morally justifiable one because it is rooted in misapprehensions about the subject matter (e.g., structural racism vs. avowed racists or racist acts). Furthermore, it is conditioned by a sense of self-righteousness that is grounded in both unacknowledged white privilege/supremacy and male normativity/patriarchy, at least in in the case of WMD. What I mean by these privileges is the unearned benefits that white men receive simply by virtue of their skin color or gender (notwithstanding transgender discrimination).
Admittedly, it may not seem that white men (and women) have all these “privileges,” especially when one factors class distinctions or sexual orientation or immigration status into consideration. However, in the United States there is a persistent and pervasive structural injustice that benefits whites. As Professor Robin DiAngelo wrote in an insightful article about this last year, “Because whites built and dominate all significant institutions, (often at the expense of and on the uncompensated labor of other groups), their interests are embedded in the foundation of U.S. society. While individual whites may be against racism, they still benefit from the distribution of resources controlled by their group.”
She goes on to explain that, “Yes, an individual person of color can sit at the tables of power, but the overwhelming majority of decision-makers will be white. Yes, white people can have problems and face barriers, but systematic racism won’t be one of them. This distinction — between individual prejudice and a system of unequal institutionalized racial power — is fundamental. One cannot understand how racism functions in the U.S. today if one ignores group power relations.”
Society is organized and institutions are built in such a way that privileges white normatively and distributes power, resources, and opportunities disproportionately toward those who are white. DiAngelo adds, “Further, we [white women and men] are centered in all matters deemed normal, universal, benign, neutral and good. Thus, we move through a wholly racialized world with an unracialized identity (e.g. white people can represent all of humanity, people of color can only represent their racial selves).”
The result is that shedding light on this unjust ordering of society and the institutions that compose our society, triggers a defensiveness because awareness of this reality threatens the longstanding presumption of “things merely as they are,” when in fact the game of life has been rigged for white people and against people of color. DiAngelo offers a helpful list of examples that could trigger “racial stress” for white people in such conversations:
- Suggesting that a white person’s viewpoint comes from a racialized frame of reference (challenge to objectivity);
- People of color talking directly about their own racial perspectives (challenge to white taboos on talking openly about race);
- People of color choosing not to protect the racial feelings of white people in regards to race (challenge to white racial expectations and need/entitlement to racial comfort);
- People of color not being willing to tell their stories or answer questions about their racial experiences (challenge to the expectation that people of color will serve us);
- A fellow white not providing agreement with one’s racial perspective (challenge to white solidarity);
- Receiving feedback that one’s behavior had a racist impact (challenge to white racial innocence);
- Suggesting that group membership is significant (challenge to individualism);
- An acknowledgment that access is unequal between racial groups (challenge to meritocracy);
- Being presented with a person of color in a position of leadership (challenge to white authority);
- Being presented with information about other racial groups through, for example, movies in which people of color drive the action but are not in stereotypical roles, or multicultural education (challenge to white centrality).
What is important about this is that white people, particularly white men, come to realize what is going on in themselves—mentally, emotionally, spiritually, and physically—when such triggers set off WMD.
Indeed, all those who benefit from unjust structures, including white men like me, are complicit in the injustice experienced by people of color, or sexual minorities, or others affected by these systems. However, this is not necessarily an individual indictment or accusation of personal racism or homophobia or misogyny, even if it might inexplicably “feel that way” at first.
It is not the fault of those with vincible ignorance that they benefit from structural racism even as it disadvantages others. White women and men have been socialized to perceive whiteness and maleness and heterosexuality as normative and therefore superior to those that do not fit these and other privileged categories. And yet, when confronted with the reality of structural racism, white privilege, male privilege, and the like, it is the responsibility to educate oneself, to open one’s eyes, to see and hear and be open to the experiences of others; experience that you may not understand at first or ever relate to.
In the wake of a horrendously divisive and destructive election cycle, it is the responsibility of all of us—especially white men like me—not simply to work toward some kind of superficial “unity” that forgets or ignores the very real discrimination, threat, and violence that has been deployed by the president-elect’s campaign.
Those calling for “forgetting the past” or “just moving on now” are typically those who do not have anything to lose in ignoring the racism, xenophobia, misogyny and other evils that are at work here. That, in itself, is the definition of privilege. You have the privilege of ignoring the fear, suffering, and threat to others, particularly people of color.
Instead of WMD, we need openness and patience, a willingness not to “tell” those marginalized by structural injustice how to feel or what to do, but a commitment to shutting up and truly listening to what our sisters and brothers have to say, what they’ve experienced, and what we need to do to actually move forward. Again, I quote DiAngelo who offers some starting points in working toward this:
- Being willing to tolerate the discomfort associated with an honest appraisal and discussion of our internalized superiority and racial privilege.
- Challenging our own racial reality by acknowledging ourselves as racial beings with a particular and limited perspective on race.
- Attempting to understand the racial realities of people of color through authentic interaction rather than through the media or unequal relationships.
- Taking action to address our own racism, the racism of other whites, and the racism embedded in our institutions — e.g., get educated and act.
As Pope Paul VI said in 1972, paraphrasing the Prophet Isaiah, “If you want peace, work for justice.” Racial justice, gender justice, LGBTQ justice, immigrant justice, among others are what is needed to work toward true reconciliation. And it begins with those in positions of power and privilege—even if they aren’t aware of it—to become aware of the way the world really works and to avoid a defensiveness that shuts down productive conversations and re-inscribes the structures of injustice already disenfranchising so many.