ALLAN G. JOHNSON'S BLOG
Clueless in Columbia: The Unbearable Weight of White Inertia
As I follow the news about racism at the University of Missouri and the resignation of its president, I can’t help but notice how little attention is paid to the fact that yet another white man in a position of authority has shown himself to be clueless on the subject of race.
Instead, the story is of a seemingly well-intentioned man caught in the open with nowhere to hide, confronted by angry students aggressively challenging his understanding of race, and knowing before he opened his mouth that he was in over his head.
“I will give you an answer and I’m sure it will be a wrong answer.”
Pretty much a white person’s nightmare come true. And I’ll bet plenty of white people, including college presidents, breathed a sigh of relief that it was him and not them.
However we feel about him and his predicament, the speed with which he has disappeared from the news underscores the view that he is not the real problem. Hapless, perhaps, or incompetent, or just unlucky, but nothing like whites who would call out ‘nigger’ or use human feces to draw a swastika on a wall. Those people are the problem, we are told, racists who still block the way to justice and equity 150 years after the Civil War.
But they are not. There are not enough of them. They are not powerful enough to account for the stunning and persistent racial disparities in income, wealth, political power, jobs, healthcare, schools, housing, not to mention mass incarceration, police violence, and segregation.
No, the reason for our continuing national failure is the great multitude of white people, who are, on the subject of race, not only clueless, but invisible, silent, and inert.
Many pride themselves on good intentions, sincerity, a desire to be good and do no harm. They are aware of no prejudice in themselves, some claiming to see no color at all, as if that were a virtue. When something terrible happens—the murder of black people at prayer, for example—they may feel anguish, even outrage. But it doesn’t last, as the media lose interest and white people resume their lives, like drivers going on down the road after rubbernecking the scene of a crash.
This is what white inertia looks and sounds like, white people moving through time and space with what Martin Luther King described as the “sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity,” that he believed to be the most dangerous thing in the world.
I often hear from colleges and universities wanting to ‘start’ a conversation about race, and I wonder how it is in 2015 that places of higher learning are still just starting out, not to mention hiring presidents who are clueless about race. Until I realize they’ve been here before, many times, perhaps, but cannot sustain what they begin, cannot turn it into more than a conversation or a campus event or yet another plan to do something about it, somehow, someday.
And the reason is not a reluctance to engage by people of color—most of whom cannot escape the subject of race—but white people, men in particular, most of whom do not show up in the first place, and those who do, don’t stick around very long.
There are times when white people openly commit themselves to racial justice in ways that might be noticed. There were the abolitionists, for example, and, more than a hundred years later, the freedom riders.* Otherwise, it’s hard to see where most ‘good’ white people—the ones not consciously engaged in oppressing people of color—have done more than watch, anchoring the status quo with the weight of their consent.
White inertia is a complicated thing, a mass of many layers, its outer edge wrapped in ignorance, unable to act on what isn’t known.
Just below is the refuge of heaping blame on bad individuals who act in overtly racist ways, providing the reassuring comfort of not being one of those, and therefore not the problem.
Deeper down, propping up ignorance and blame, is the investment in being seen as the kind of people for whom race does not figure in the treatment of human beings. It comes with the assumption that people actually know what they believe and feel, what we are predisposed to do in the blink of an eye that it takes to form an impression. But the study of implicit bias and the science of the brain make it clear that we do not, that we have no idea, because our awareness is but a tiny window on the unconscious brain that controls most of our lives, shaped by a lifetime of experience in a society that is anything but neutral or kind or just on the subject of race.
But I didn’t mean it, I hear again and again. It wasn’t my intention. Good for you, I want to say, but it doesn’t change the consequence.
And then, going deeper toward the core of white inertia, is the dull, leaden feeling of being overwhelmed—it is too much, too big.
I have watched them sink in the direction of despair, nibbling around the edges of guilt and shame.
And the fear of what stands to be lost—innocence, the wages of privilege, who we think we are, identity, goodness, worth, America, American.
And then comes the last line of defense, when all else fails, digging in, dropping all pretense, to let loose the anger at how awful, how unfair it is to be made to feel this way, the white man in Oklahoma accosting me mid-way in the workshop, “You’re just trying to make us feel bad,” as if I would travel more than a thousand miles for that.
And, besides, where is it written that white people should not feel bad about this country’s continuing legacy of race? Are people of color to be the only ones, to carry it alone? And just what did they do to deserve that?
But such questions are buried beneath the full weight of white inertia—nothing to offer, nothing to give that might actually disturb or make a difference, resentful, fending off guilt, sick and tired, leave us alone.
It isn’t pretty, and of course white people are not all the same. But that isn’t the point. It is the pattern that is all too familiar to anyone who pays attention. A pattern that comes as no surprise, so predictable, for why would we imagine that hundreds of years of race privilege and oppression would bring out the best?
Having worked on these issues for most of my life, I believe we have two choices: We will stay stuck in this until forced to move by events or circumstance, lurching from one crisis to the next. Or we will find a way to do what our ancestors did not—to take responsibility now, as we are called to do as citizens and human beings, as if our lives and much more depend upon it.
Of course that’s easier said than done, and I have been around enough white people struggling with this to have some idea of what comes up and what is needed.
What can I do? Start where you are. Make it your business to find out what you do not know. Read, listen. Learn what racism does to people of color, has done for hundreds of years. About whiteness, where it came from and why, and what it has to do with you. Of course we’re involved. Of course we’re biased. Of course our silence is consent. Of course we’ve benefitted one way or another from generations of racism. We are all human beings born and raised in a world we did not create or choose, that shapes our lives inside and out.
Of course this is hard.
Now I feel guilty. To which I will say there are few things more useless than white people preoccupied with feeling bad about themselves. This is not about you.
And helpless. Because you are, if you think you’re supposed to change the world. But you are not. You are here to make a difference, which you may never get to see.
But I’m just one person. Who isn’t? Each of us is a leaf on a tree, and the tree may not need any one of us in particular, but it doesn’t live without us. As Gandhi said, what we do as individuals doesn’t matter, but it matters that we do it.
I matter and I don’t. Exactly. It’s a paradox. Best get used to those.
I still feel overwhelmed. Then imagine you’re a parent and your child’s life is in danger and you don’t know what to do and it scares the hell out of you. What do you do now? Sit there and be overwhelmed while your kid dies? I don’t think so. Breathe. Open your eyes.
But I’m afraid. With good reason. But pretending that you’re not, and not preparing for it, is one of the biggest reasons good intentions come to nothing. Make a list of all the ways you can get hurt doing this, and then a list of what you need to take care of yourself. “Don’t do this alone” goes at the top. There’s a reason social movements depend on numbers of people, including that loneliness and isolation are invitations to powerlessness and despair. Join a group. Start a group. Make a friend into an ally. Find a we you can believe in and be part of it.
All right. I educate myself, join a group. What then? Just look around. You’ll know. It will be obvious, if not painfully so.
That’s the simple answer, the one I always hope will be enough.
But I notice you asked this question before, which makes me wonder where it’s coming from, if this isn’t a bit of sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity. I suspect you already know the answer to your question. You just don’t like it very much. You’re holding out for a quick fix, a way to make this go away so you can stop feeling so bad, so you can avoid having to nail yourself to the present.** A way to think you’ve done your bit and now it’s up to someone else.
You already know what people do to make change happen. You’ve seen it in history books and the movies and on the news. They come together and commit themselves to one another and what needs to be done. They study the situation, identify the goal, analyze and strategize, assess the risks, and then organize to agitate for change. And they keep on doing that until the day when power yields. Just as those brave students in Missouri must now prepare for the long haul as white inertia reasserts its weight.
That’s what it takes, and always has.
And, in case you’re wondering, you don’t have to make this your life. But it does have to be part of your life.
Which means the real question, the one that counts, the only question, really, is not what can you do, but what are you prepared to do?
What do you have the knowledge to do, the courage, the allies, the resources, the will? How far are you willing to go, in the world and inside yourself?
And, if you don’t know that, do you care enough to find out?
*I omit the Civil War because Northern whites were not fighting to free black people from slavery.
**The idea of nailing yourself to the present has been attributed to Pema Chodron, author of, among others, When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times (Shambala, 2000).