Racism and the supremacy of whiteness, like any disease, adapts and evolves to survive. It is a strategic parasite. It debilitates its host but does not kill it outright. We, in Idaho, provide an excellent, naïve host for systemic racism and white supremacy.
The very premise that there are different races is faulty. There is no genetic basis for subdividing humans into “races” based on superficial adaptations such as skin color, eye shape, etc. However, the concept of “races” is so deeply ingrained, it might as well be true.
I do not dismiss the discrimination and social violence visited upon other non-majority members of our communities. I have been contemplating race due to the vehement outraged reactions to Boise State’s diversity activities from some of our white legislators and others of limited outlook.
Being the daughter of a Polish-American father who experienced undisguised ethnic discrimination and persecution growing up, I have some insight into the plight of the victims of such social violence. However, being white, he had the possibility of blending in by speaking impeccable English even though he grew up speaking Polish, by changing his name, and by moving away from his ethnic neighborhood. He did not carry the indelible brand of non-white skin. He had to deny a part of himself, but at least he had a choice.
He was a beneficiary of the supremacy of whiteness in America — as am I. He was a straight, white, English-speaking, all-American male once he changed his name, extinguished his Polish accent, and undertook his new identity. Those of color do not have his option even if they are willing to pay the price.
For many Whites, racism and/or white supremacy equate to foul race-based language, and acts of race-based physical violence similar to those during the Jim Crow and Civil Rights eras. However, there is danger in embracing this narrow definition of racism. It prevents us from examining how deeply systemic American racism is. It prevents us from exploring how uncomfortable our “nicest” communities can be for those who do not fit majority constraints.
We Whites control virtually every aspect of our society and enjoy its inherently white privileges. We also bear primary responsibility for re-shaping our communities into more cross-racial, inclusive environments. Those in control are those who have the power and ethical responsibility to act.
An analogy may help. Women could not give themselves the right to vote because they did not possess decision-making power. White men had to “give” it them. Similarly, those of color do not control the levers of power, government, and wealth. Therefore, they cannot create widespread systemic change. They must rely on the white power structure’s self-awareness, willingness to learn, and ultimately, benevolent good conscience. Not so very different from the circumstances of slaves, pre-suffrage white women, and Chinese laborers.
If we think whites do not control the power levers of society consider the following statistics from Robin Diangelo’s book, White Fragility:
* US Congress — 90 percent white;
* US governors — 90 percent white;
* Top military advisors — 100 percent white;
* Teachers — 82 percent white;
* Full-time college professors — 84 percent white;
* People who decide which TV shows are aired — 90 percent white;
* Music producers — 95 percent white;
* People who determine what news receives TV coverage — 85 percent white.
Some try to co-opt history labeling diversity support activities such as Black or Rainbow graduation parties “neo-segregation.” Have those who object ever considered — or experienced — what it feels like to be one of handful of non-white faces among hundreds or thousands of whites? Have they ever walked into a room and experienced the natural reaction to being an unmistakable outsider based on skin color?
It is not an experience one easily forgets. I had the privilege of teaching in two high schools where I was in the racial minority and often the only white person in the room. To talk of being color blind and not noticing race is to defy reality. I mentioned my experiences to a Black friend. She laughed and said, “And you better believe they all saw your white face right away.”
I was the outsider and everyone, including me, knew it. Something similar is what minority Idahoans encounter every day — at school, at church, at the grocery store, everywhere! The difference is, being in the racial minority was new for me. For those of color in Idaho it is not.
White is Idaho-normal. According to the most recent United States Census Bureau statistics, there are less than 10,000 Black Americans living in Idaho out of a total population of about 1,754,208. White people are a super majority. A typical Idaho graduation is essentially a gathering of white people. It feels fine to those of us who are white. Our color matches nearly everyone else’s. We can blend in or stand out as we choose. We have freedom.
Perhaps Black or Rainbow students also want to celebrate together where they are the norm and can blend in or stand out as they choose. Perhaps they want the same freedom and sense of belonging for a brief period straight whites take for granted every day.
Rather than try to camouflage natural racial affinities so they covertly control us, we need to admit “race” is real and we are not color blind. Americans need to admit this white country enslaved and lynched Black people, conquered and vanquished Native Americans, exploited Chinese and other immigrants, and wrongfully imprisoned Japanese Americans. Our forebears committed atrocities based on “Might is Right” and White Entitlement.
We are not responsible for their actions, but we are responsible for ours. If contemporary White America does not repair its past — to the degree repair is even possible — it is our sin.
Denial prevents recovery. Ignoring a serious illness does not cure it. We are a society built on intrinsic white supremacy. What we erroneously label “races” are diverse and real. It is up to all white Americans to understand their inherent racial privileges, look unflinchingly through unfamiliar lenses, and help cure this long-festering national disease.
Chris Stevens of Pocatello is a former not-for-profit corporation founder and director, school administrator, and rock and roll radio promotion director. Her current passions are landscaping, grassroots political organizing, and volunteering for socially and environmentally conscious organizations. She is a co-founder of the Gateway Coalition for Change and is proud to have settled in Idaho.