If you’re white, you’re complicit. Period. And you have a moral obligation to fix it.

“Welcome to the knowledge,” said my friend John, after I learned that the man who endowed my university was a slaver – that is, when I learned that I personally and directly benefitted from slavery

From The Legacy Museum and “The National Memorial for Peace and Justice, which opened to the public on April 26, 2018, is the nation’s first memorial dedicated to the legacy of enslaved Black people, people terrorized by lynching, African Americans humiliated by racial segregation and Jim Crow, and people of color burdened with contemporary presumptions of guilt and police violence.”

What I used to think

  • My family is from northern Wisconsin, where they didn’t have slaves, so I had not benefitted from slavery so therefore it had nothing to do with me. (I was wrong.)
  • White privilege didn’t apply to me because I have never gotten a job or gotten into a school because of connections. (I was wrong.)
  • Our country is a country of opportunity for everyone. All you have to do is study and work hard. (I was wrong.)
  • Just don’t sass the police and you’ll be fine. (I was wrong.)
  • There is no such thing as systemic racism. Our country is just. (I was wrong.)

A Little League baseball team in Youngstown, Ohio, won the city championship. The coaches, unthinkingly, decided to celebrate with a team picnic at a municipal pool. When the team arrived at the gate, a lifeguard stopped one of the Little League players from entering. It was Al Bright, the only black player on the team. His parents had not been able to attend the picnic, and the coaches and some of the other parents tried to persuade the pool officials to let the little boy in, to no avail. The only thing the lifeguards were willing to do was to let them set a blanket for him outside the fence and let people bring him food. He was given little choice and had to watch his teammates splash in the water and chase each other on the pool deck while he sat alone on the outside.

“From time to time, one or another of the players or adults came out and sat with him….”

It took an hour or so for a team official to finally convince the lifeguards “that they should at least allow the child into the pool for a few minutes.” The supervisor agreed to let the Little Leaguer in, but only if everyone else got out of the water, and only if Al followed the rules they set for him.

First, everyone–meaning his teammates, the parents, all the white people–had to get out of the water. Once everyone cleared out, “Al was led to the pool and placed in a small rubber raft,” Watkins wrote. A lifeguard got into the water and pushed the raft with Al in it for a single turn around the pool, as a hundred or so teammates, coaches, parents and onlookers watched from the sidelines.

After the “agonizing few minutes” that it took to complete the circle, Al was then “escorted to his assigned spot” on the other side of the fence. During his short time in the raft, as it glided on the surface, the lifeguard warned him over and over again of one important thing. “Just don’t touch the water,” the lifeguard said as he pushed the rubber float. “Whatever you do, don’t touch the water.”

Caste, by Isabel Wilkerson

What I have learned

  • George Floyd. Jay Anderson. Elijah McClain. Alvin Cole. Philando Castile. Ahmaud Arbery. Dontre Hamilton. Tamir Rice. Rayshard Brooks. Sandra Bland. Freddie Gray. Eric Garner. And the list goes on and on and on.
  • Redlining
  • Sundown towns
  • Black vets couldn’t get the GI Bill
  • Unions would not admit Black people
  • My own city – my own house – had restrictive covenants. That is, it used to be illegal for me to sell my house to a Black person. (Or a Jewish one.)
  • The FHA would not lend to Black people: “He notes that the Federal Housing Administration, which was established in 1934, furthered the segregation efforts by refusing to insure mortgages in and near African-American neighborhoods — a policy known as “redlining.” At the same time, the FHA was subsidizing builders who were mass-producing entire subdivisions for whites — with the requirement that none of the homes be sold to African-Americans.”
  • Black women have a higher rate of maternal mortality than white women, even when you hold all other factors, like education, income, and general health, constant.
  • “Black suspects are more than twice as likely to be killed by police than are persons of other racial or ethnic groups; even when there are no other obvious circumstances during the encounter that would make the use of deadly force reasonable.” (Columbia Law School)
  • “Police in the United States kill far more people than do police in other advanced industrial democracies….Black women and men and American Indian and Alaska Native women and men are significantly more likely than white women and men to be killed by police. Latino men are also more likely to be killed by police than are white men.” (National Academy of Science)
  • Mass murder and destruction of Black properties and neighborhoods.
  • Lynching was not just an isolated event in our history that happened to handful of people. (Even that would be bad.) Thousands – THOUSANDS – of Black people were tortured and murdered by crowds of people who took picnics to watch.

My great-great grandfather Anthony P. Crawford was born in January, 1865 and owned by Ben and Rebecca Crawford in Abbeville, South Carolina.

My great-great grandfather Anthony P. Crawford was born in January, 1865 and owned by Ben and Rebecca Crawford in Abbeville, South Carolina.

He walked 14 miles roundtrip to and from school each day and proved to be quite a scholar. When Anthony finished school he was a laborer for Ben Crawford until Thomas Crawford, Anthony’s father, died in 1893 and deeded some land to Anthony, who was the only one of nine siblings able to sign his own name.

Anthony Crawford was lynched in 1916 in Abbeville, SC by a crowd estimated to be between 200 and 400 blood-thirsty white people. His crime you might ask? Cursing a white man for offering him a low price for the cotton seed he was trying to sell and being too rich for a Negro.

His ordeal lasted all day. His body was beaten and dragged through town to show other Negroes what would happen to them if they got “insolent.” Finally, he was taken to the county fair grounds and strung up to a tree and riddled with bullets. Although we have heard his body was thrown on someone’s lawn, we have yet to locate his grave.

The family was ordered to vacate their land, wind up business and get out of town. They did just that.

My great-great grandfather stated early in life, “The day a white man hits me is the day I die.” And he did. But he left an example of hard work and determination.

He still lives in all of us. Many of us still attend AME Churches and we have been told that we have “that arrogant Crawford way.” But we know that those murderers were NOT successful in breaking up the Crawfords. We still stand today proud and close and live our lives as he would’ve wanted us to. We will not stop looking for each other until the last Crawford is accounted for, and we can stand on his land and look toward heaven and pray that he knows we are together again.

American Black Holocaust Museum

What I want

I want our country to live up to its promise.

I want justice and fairness for everyone.

What I will do

Even though it scares me, I will march in protests.

It scares me because WE BLOCK TRAFFIC.

AND WE SHOUT.

But – what do I, a middle-class white woman, really have to fear? That the police tell me to get out of the street? That I might be tear gassed? That I might be arrested?

I’m white.

They’re not going to kill me.

I need to use my power to help others.

Even though it scares me, I will speak up when I see injustice.

What’s the worst that can happen to me? That a white guy I don’t even know gets mad at me? What’s he going to do? Hit me?

Not going to happen.

And this doesn’t scare me at all – I will vote vote vote for candidates who support racial justice and equity and are against the death penalty and want to end police brutality and who want to invest in schools and who believe in voting rights.

What will you do?

10 thoughts on “If you’re white, you’re complicit. Period. And you have a moral obligation to fix it.

  1. What I currently do:

    I try to foster a diverse employee base at my very Southern tech company. This is frequently difficult – not because of our policies but because of the lack of applications from diverse populations. Not because the local colleges don’t turn out quality students from diverse populations – but because there are so few of them. No doubt evidence of white privilege right there.

    I vote for candidates whose ethical stands match my own. Also exceedingly hard in my area due to the lack of local politicians who fall in that category – but I do what I can.

    I donate money to groups seeking to recruit local candidates whose ethical stands match my own. Some progress being made there, but not enough.

    I donate money to the campaigns of candidates whose ethical stands match my own – both in my own area and elsewhere in the country.

    I donate money to causes that are actively working in areas that I feel will make a difference.

    What I’m still too scared to do:

    Join physical protests. Partly out of fear for my physical safety at the protest itself (I’m in the South – the fear is real) and partly out of fear of Covid. My goal for the future is to get over the first fear. But the second will stop me until the environment is safer. My home lives with pre-existing conditions – and there is not way for me to fight that one yet.

    So I feel like a coward, I feel guilty, I keep up with what I can – and I hope to do better soon.

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    1. It’s hard! It’s scary and it’s hard and yes, physical protests, especially now, are maybe not a good idea, especially if you or someone you live with is vulnerable.

      But in the meantime, yes, we do what we can and plan for the future.

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    2. Thank you, Patricia! One other thing I’ve been told we can do, which is really hard in my experience, is to keep pushing to change the opinions of the right-women White women we know who voted for Trump, and refuse to understand that although they may feel no personal animosity to any single Black person they are supporting racism.

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      1. That’s the hard part. People have unfriended me on facebook because I post a pretty steady stream of anti-racism stuff. I have been trying to show that exact point – that you don’t have to be racist in your heart to be part of a racist system. But there is a lot of resistance to that idea.

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  2. So well said.

    I donate monthly to three organizations dedicated to racial justice. I will support the organizations on the ground to flip Georgia. And I just initiated and facilitated a web sessions put on by my Black classmates of 1978 to speak to our other classmates on racial justice. There are so many ways to act. I am so happy to read your well-said post.

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  3. Dear Texan, can I ask what made you come around to understanding that white privilege is real, systemic racism is in fact a big deal, etc? I want to talk to relatives who are still very much of the “I was born in Wisconsin in the 20th century and we didn’t own slaves and that’s history and it’s time for everybody to just work hard and…” you know the schtick. And I don’t know how to get through to them. As far as what I am going to do: first and foremost, I’m going to make sure my kids don’t grow up as sheltered and clueless and unintentionally racist as I did. They have books with non-white kids in them, and not just for sad, heavy, race-related topics. We also have books on sad, heavy, race-related topics, and while I’m sure I’m not getting it 100% right, I am trying my best to talk to them honestly about the reality of our country’s history as well as the promise of our country’s best ideals. We alsop donate money to organizations that work for racial justice–police reform, immigration reform (I’m an immigration lawyer and lemme know if you’d ever like a quick tutorial on systemic racism and immigration in America, HOO BOY). We have not attended any of this year’s racial justice protests for safety reasons (kids are 2 and 5 and it seemed too early for us, though I know some parents did and I admire them) but I do want them to eventually know, through our action, that protest is one of the tools we use to push for justice. I’m the supervising attorney at a nonprofit and I am working on making my hiring and management decisions more explicitly anti-racist.

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    1. Hi Joy,

      I have been thinking about your question all day since I read it this morning. I used to be that person – “My family is from WI and we didn’t own slaves and I have never had any privilege.”

      It didn’t help that I grew up on military bases, which are the most integrated aspect of US society. I was not seeing segregation. I didn’t hear the N word. My neighbors and classmates were white, Hispanic, and Black.

      But I started to get a glimpse of white privilege – although I didn’t know that was the term for it – when I lived in Austin and would see Mexican kids from the east side of I35 treated completely differently from white fraternity kids. I started to see that if you have money and are white, you can get away with stuff.

      And then I realized that I, a blue eyed blonde white person, am not challenged when I walk into a hotel to use the bathroom. I could do that anywhere in Latin America when I was traveling there in cases where an indigenous person could not.

      So that’s when I started to get an idea of white privilege. I had thought it meant connections for jobs and power – which my parents and hence I – never had, but it’s only about how the color of my skin gave me access that other people do not have.

      I did not begin to really understand the systemic racism until this year. I just didn’t know. I didn’t know about the laws and the practices – redlining and sundown towns and Black people not being able to get FHA loans and Black people not being able to get the GI Bill.

      I didn’t know about all the lynchings and the horrors that our Black citizens had suffered.

      When I lived in Memphis, I learned some about segregation and racism and its impacts, but I didn’t learn about the legal underpinnings – that WE DID THIS ON PURPOSE – until recently.

      I started to learn because I have a Black friend who posts about these things on facebook. And I learned more when my husband and I went to the Black Holocaust Museum in Milwaukee, both to see the exhibits and to see Candacy Taylor read from her book, “The Green Book.”

      After reading “The Green Book,” I started looking for more information.

      I am shocked and disgusted at how we are not taught these things in school. My high school history classes did not cover these issues.

      My Texas history class taught the myth of the Alamo – that the Texans wanted independence from the evil Mexicans.

      But my teacher left out the part that Mexico had outlawed slavery and the Texans were fighting to keep slaves.

      I am appalled and disgusted at my ignorance and am trying to learn. I am also trying to educate my WI relatives as well. They live in N WI, where everyone is white, and they have the same attitude I used to have and the same attitude your relatives have.

      I don’t know if I can teach them. I don’t know if they are open to learning. I hope so.

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    2. Also – the police killings, especially George Floyd (but we have also had several in Milwaukee in the past few years), shocked and horrified me. George Floyd was just beyond – it was beyond appalling. So cruel. So heartless. When I read that he called for his dead mother in his last minutes – I thought yeah, burn it all down.

      Liked by 1 person

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