This won’t come as a shock to any of you: in our country, we believe that your progress in life, e.g. your success in making a comfortable living for yourself and your family, is based on your ability and talent and hard work, not on your class, privilege, race, or wealth.
This is the American Myth which we have given the misnomer “American Dream.” Its proper name is actually Meritocracy. Like the word “democracy,” it has a suffix which means “rule,” as in the “the people rule through their representatives.” Meritocracy, however, is a belief system within a society that suggests that the ruling class DESERVES to be the ruling class (a.k.a. dominant culture) because they earned it. They have worked hard in a system created equally for all. (Sound anything like the religious system Jesus was born into that he questioned in his own day?)
The dominant culture in the U.S. is white, Anglo-Saxon, heterosexual, binary, quasi-Christian culture. This means that if you identify mostly along these lines, even if you never go to church, you can go just about anywhere you like and be assumed to be a decent human being because you make other people in the dominant culture comfortable with themselves. You help them feel like they have an easy connection to you, and because “white” is the assumed normal, default position in the country at this time in history, you feel safe and unthreatened if you are another white person.
But did the dominant culture become dominant because of people working hard in a system created equally for all? I would suggest no. Our country was developed and organized around a couple other myths to which we can no longer give oxygen: that the indigenous people in this country are only good to the extent that they conform to the dominant culture (otherwise we exterminate them) AND that the darker your skin color the less fully human you are; therefore, we have the arbitrarily awarded power as lighter skinned people in the dominant culture to basically exterminate you, too.
We continue to create systems, step-by-step, that oppress people who are not like us in the dominant culture, practices most of us are truly oblivious to because of the way these practices have been explained to us in history books as “keeping us well and safe”: from the biggies of genocide and slavery as the foundation to these systems, to today’s housing and lending practices that keep wealth mostly white, with educational funding built on the city’s property taxes (and if you are a landlord, you don’t have to pay as much in taxes for your units, meaning that white people with houses have more money to school their children).
And as the crime rates in the 1970s were actually going down, Nixon and others began to develop criminal justice policies that treat people of color like the 3/5 of a person that they were originally needed to be, according to our constitution in article 1, section 2, clause 3. Meritocracy leads us to believe that the 14th amendment eliminated the 3/5 compromise (counting slaves as only 3/5 of a person when it came to determining state populations), but I would argue that even in our society today (which proudly claims itself to be “colorblind” in the post-Civil Rights era), this is sadly still the way most white people view people of color, even if they have followed all the rules that we in the ruling class have outlined for them, including being grateful for white people’s help.
I know. I know. We don’t want to admit this kind of horribleness, do we? To be called prejudiced or racist in today’s world is akin to being told we are morally bad people. To be clear, I do not believe white people are necessarily immoral simply because we are sometimes ignorant and unconscious. (“Forgive them, Father, for they know not what they do” —Jesus). However, this information (which may understandably feel new and uncomfortable) may also feel threatening and bad because it suggests that we don’t fully deserve credit as having earned for ourselves all the good things we’ve amassed over the years for our kids (safety, security, status, education, sophistication, etc.) It threatens the myth/dream that we have been breathing in and believing in our entire lives.
This is hard stuff, I know. It’s not so different from the painful cognitive dissonance those first Europeans had who were given proof that the world was no longer flat. Personally, I’m so glad that some of those people were willing to challenge the status quo and try exploring travel anew after they were presented with updated, though uncomfortable, information.
So let’s break this down into small, swallowable pieces one at a time. It’s the only way we can undo the damage that racism is doing to us and our kids (despite the material comforts it brings to some), to say nothing of what it continues to do to the people we like to think of as “just like us white folk” except for their brown and black skin color.
Oh, and except for their poor choices,
and their dysfunctional family lives,
and the poor role models they offer their children,
and the laziness or criminality of their young men,
and the emotionality or promiscuity of their young women.
These last 5 statements are part of the “stock stories” we’ve been given as part of the dominant culture in the U.S. today. And when this vilified version of people is the lens you’ve been given as a white person from the media and history books since you were preverbal, it’s what shapes all your encounters with people of color. Period. Whether you’re conscious of it or not. I still remember sitting on my grandmother’s lap while she read Little Black Sambo to me and knowing even as a small child that something in the pickaninny illustrations were demeaning to the family in the story, but because she clearly enjoyed the book, I never questioned it as a funny story, too. These racial microaggressions harm white children, too.
Peggy McIntosh has written an essay called “Unpacking the Invisible Backpack” ( https://nationalseedproject.org/Key-SEED-Texts/white-privilege-unpacking-the-invisible-knapsack). As a white woman, she has suggested that we were “taught to see racism only in individual acts of meanness, not in invisible systems conferring dominance on my group.” This faulty understanding of racism is the first topic we will begin to unpack from the invisible backpack that we, as white people, are oblivious to carrying around each day. She describes her reality as a white woman this way:
“White privilege is an invisible package of unearned assets that I can count on cashing in each day, but about which I was ‘meant’ to remain oblivious…and this obliviousness about white advantage is kept strongly inculturated in the U.S. so as to maintain the myth of meritocracy.”
I know. I know. Cracking open this egg is messy. It is embarrassing, maybe even shaming for some. But together we can do this. We can learn to see the unearned assets we take for granted each day, completely oblivious most of the time that these things are not afforded to everyone, regardless of race. We don’t want there to be a race problem in this country and so we tell ourselves that everything was fixed back in the 60s and 70s. Heck, we’ve got Affirmative Action now, right?
Make no mistake, though: Cracking eggs like this is the only way we’re gonna get to whatever kind of fabulous societal quiche our children in the future will be able to create together out of these eggs filled with truth that will set them free. Eggs of hopefulness. Thanks for reading this and helping me to crack this first one.