I was 20 when I applied to go on Sankofa—to be one of the 40+ students who would get on a bus for three days and travel to the South for a deeper dive into the racial history of our country, focusing on the black experience. When asked in my interview why I wanted to go, I remember saying, “I want to do more than smile at black people when I see them on the street.” 

They let me come on the trip despite my answer. Or maybe because of it.

Looking back, I cringe at that answer. But I also remember genuinely feeling this need for black strangers on the sidewalk to know that I wasn’t a white person they had to worry about being a racist. Want proof? I’m smiling at you! So nice. Definitely not creepy. Or condescending. “Sorry that African Americans are incarcerated at 5 times the rate of whites. I’ve decided the best course of action against this injustice is to SMILE. Have a great day!”

For lots of white people I know, this is the beginning and the end of their thoughts and actions regarding race: “What should I do to let people know I’m not a racist?” Because we know being racist is bad. And mean. So to be anti-racist probably means to be good. And nice. “Smiling is nice! Let’s do that!” we (whites) think. 

I think that's a totally understandable place for white people to start (clearly, it’s where I began). The problem is that that’s where most of us end as well. If your entire objective in entering into activism or conversations about race is to prove you're not a racist, you are going to lose. 

Because you know what? If you're white, you are benefitting from racism, so I don’t think it’s too far of a stretch to say you are a racist. But before you call me out for reverse racism*, so am I. I’ve never said the N word; some of my best friends are black;** I’ve gone on racial reconciliation trips and led classes and workshops on anti-racism; I’ve spoken to literally thousands of people on this topic; and yet I am still a racist. Because as a white woman living in this country, I benefit from systems like the schools, churches, courts, and communities I'm part of based only on the color of my skin.

*Not a thing, by the way.
**Not a defense, by the way.

“Every single person with white skin experiences societal privilege over black people. This country was structured from the beginning to benefit white people and to oppress people of color. And today, though you weren’t part of the creation of this racist society, you are indeed benefitting from it. That means that unless you’re actively working to dismantle it, you are part of the problem no matter how passively you do so.” Rachel Cargle

At one of the stops on our trip, we toured a plantation and heard from the guides (unironically) about "nice" slave owners. You know, the really nice people who owned other men, women, and children, but let them—I'm not sure what, exactly. Be paid for their work? Be free? No. Be seen as human? Nope. Hmm...

What I learned on that bus opened me up to seeing just how ridiculous it was to think smiling or being nice could help to actively dismantle our racist systems. But I believe that sentiment is loaded with so many of the obstacles for whites that keep white supremacy in place. Obstacles such as:

  1. Individual Over Systemic: a way of thinking focusing solely on the interpersonal. “How am I and I alone treating this other individual?” is all it asks. 
  2. Appearance Over Action: “How do I look?” becomes the focus instead of working to transform anything with lasting impact.
  3. Me Over People of Color: When I hear about what most POC actually want, I hear things like:
    •      better representation, not tokenism;
    •      equal pay;
    •      a drastic change in our incarceration rates and school-to-prison pipeline;
    •      to not be shot at when they have no weapons, or when their kid is playing with a toy gun, or for playing their music "too loudly"; 
    •      for their cultures to be celebrated;
    •      lots and lots of other things I would want too if I didn't have them.

I don’t get the sense that smiling or being nicer are going to make their way to the top of that list. When I decide that that’s the action I'm going to take, I'm choosing what I want to do over what a person of color is actually saying they want.

So, YES. Go ahead and smile at every person you see walking down the street. Say hi. Open the door. AND figure out things to do that will impact the structural and systemic issues that benefit white people and oppress people of color.

Because Justice > Niceness : )

jenny potter1 Comment