I shook my head as I read a social media post from a well-meaning white friend thanking various “people of color” for not doing him harm because of historical and current injustices.
Many of his friends liked the post—a vast majority of the affirmation, despite his diverse mix of friends, came from his white friends. On the surface his post is contrite or considerate and praise-worthy. What could be wrong about a man owning up to the sins of his own kind?
But under the surface of his post lurks something insidious. It uncovers a secret expectation that “people of color” should be irrationally violent and thus are deserving of his praise when they are not. It is a demeaning and belittling message cloaked in empathy. It actually reinforces an awful stereotype.
Think about it: Would it be praise to thank a white man for being civilized or would it be patronization and a backhanded insult?
What is more disturbing is this persistent idea that a whole race should be held accountable for the sins of one of their own. Apparently I should be judged by the depraved acts of Dylann Roof (and every white man in history) because I share his skin color and gender. But isn’t that exactly the logic of every racist in history and the way of thinking we are trying to escape?
I believe ‘white guilt’ is a symptom of racist thinking rather than a solution. When we thank “people of color” for not harming us as white people we are perpetuating the idea that people should be judged as a race rather than as unique individuals. It is a tribalist suggestion that violence against a whole race is justified therefore we need forgiven as individual members of a racial tribe.
But this thinking is racist to the core. It keeps “people of color” as something separate from us. It treats them as something to be pandered to in a way that we would never do to another white man. (My thanking a white man for not killing me today would be taken as foolishness or sarcasm.) It is also saying that we expect irrationality and violence from them—which is exactly the same reasoning of a racist killer.
We cannot help but see people as white or black. We should not be ignorant of historical injustice or continuing racism either. But we can stop believing that people are fundamentally different because of their skin color. Part of that is not apologizing in a grandstanding fashion for our own skin color. Part of that is not treating “people of color” as inferior by thanking them for things we would not even thank a small child for.
We recognize calling a black man “boy” may be insulting. We also see the battle flag of the Confederacy (the “rebel flag”) as symbolic of racism. However, do we see subtle racism of those who’s words betray an expectation that black people should be irrational and violent?
I myself prefer those who display their true colors openly, because then we know what we are dealing with and don’t need to dig through the layers of carefully hidden prejudices to find the truth.