Dear white people,
Hello, I’m Dillon, and if you’re a white American, I am writing specifically to you. Like you, I am a white person in America. In fact, according to the two DNA tests I took a few years ago via Family Tree DNA, I am super-duper white. My test results showed that my DNA is ALL from Northwestern Europe, with 89% from the British Isles and the remaining 11% from Scandinavia and Eastern Germany. While this information is merely interesting to me, there are some people who subscribe to the spurious notion that there is something superior to be found in whiteness who would look giddily at those results. There are those who truly believe that my genetic makeup, with my white skin and blue eyes, makes me special in a way that people of color are not. But here’s the thing, there is literally nothing about my DNA and resultant skin and eye colors that makes me special. It’s all just an accident of birth and my family history which was influenced by the events of human history. Likewise, your whiteness doesn’t make you or any other white person, special either. Anyone who thinks so is having delusions of grandeur of a truly satanic origin.
Part of this problem stems from the fact that in America, notions of white supremacy are foundational to our national mythology and are the primary drivers of the nation’s history. Evidence of this abounds, from the white washing of history in classrooms and in well known documentaries –I’m looking at you Ken Burns* — to the blatantly racist policies put in place on this continent, first by European invaders, and then later by the group of all white, elite landowners reverentially known as “the Founding Fathers.” Lest we forget, many of them chose to enslave Africans in order to enrich themselves on the backs of slave labor. (1) Far from being a thing of the past, white supremacy and systemic racism are still a cancer on American society and the world where ever they are present. In theological terms, these satanic notions are part of what the Apostle Paul called “the wisdom of the world” which is “foolishness to God.”
How are white Americans to disabuse themselves of the world’s foolishness when it comes to racism and the false notions of white superiority that underlie it? First and foremost, as white people we have to confront it within ourselves and within our society and that starts with truthfully acknowledging that the problem still exists, rather than going on the defensive and insisting things like: white privilege isn’t real, slavery ended a long time ago and isn’t my fault, I can’t be racist because I have friends who are people of color, or I like hip-hop, and we had a black president. The truth is, white privilege is very real, and every single white person in America is tainted with the stain of systemic racism. One cannot swim in a cesspool without coming out covered in and smelling like the putrid excrement therein. With that in mind lets explore some ways to dismantle the racist foolishness of our world.
As someone who has been in the process of dismantling sinful notions of white supremacy and racism in my life for a number of years, (2) I’ve learned some valuable truths along the way. That said, my New Testament professor Dr. Greg Carey opined in class one day that this isn’t a process most of us will ever completely finish. Still, it is incumbent upon white people to do the heavy lifting – intellectual, spiritual, and emotional, when it comes to educating ourselves and people in our communities about whiteness. I am not called to tell people of color that I am not racist or that other white people shouldn’t be racist. Rather, God’s commandment that we love our neighbors as ourselves, compels me to help educate fellow white people and lead them away from racism (and so it should for every other white person) because we cannot love our neighbors by believing in and carrying out racist ideologies.
Let’s begin with a brief look at white privilege. Some white people dismiss the notion of white privilege out of hand with statements like, “I worked for everything I have,” or ” I grew up poor, not privileged.” Both of those statements of denial miss the point entirely. As writer and activist James Baldwin said, “Being white means never having to think about it.” In other words, white people don’t have to worry that their whiteness is dangerous to their well being in the way people of color in general and black people particularly do. White privilege is knowing that your problems don’t stem from your whiteness. White privilege is seeing white actors, singers, movies, and TV shows as normative, while everything else is for a specific or niche audience. White privilege is my own mother using the expression, “I’m free, white and twenty-one, I can do whatever I want.” White privilege is a man telling my fiance’, who is black and foreign, to “get out of his country” in public while feeling totally justified in doing so. White privilege is being able to walk down the street, go for a jog, drive one’s car, wear a hooded sweatshirt, go into a bank, or any number of other businesses, without automatically being looked at with suspicion, or worse. White privilege is showing up in public spaces armed to the teeth and equipped with military style accoutrements without a SWAT team or the National Guard showing up and knowing that no one will do a thing about it.
Now contrast that with the black experience in America. To begin with, there is generational trauma that black people experience from the history of enslaving Africans and their descendants in this country and the ongoing perpetuation of systemic racism in America. As Dr. King pointed out, black people, fought and died on foreign soil in America’s wars, but were denied the freedoms white people enjoyed back in America. Black people literally cannot do anything in public in America, regardless of how quotidian and mundane, regardless of their social standing, career, or intentions, without being held in suspicion by white people. Along with many other perhaps questionable activities in public spaces, I have literally walked down the street in Manhattan in broad daylight while smoking marijuana, without any repercussions from law enforcement or anyone else for that matter. Meanwhile a black person merely going for a jog has to really think about the very real risk they are taking, because to be black and running is often interpreted as seeing a criminal fleeing the scene of a crime rather than a person getting some exercise or running late to a meeting. Ahmaud Arbery is dead simply because he chose to go for a run and was shot by racists.
Recently, large numbers of gun wielding white people have been showing up at state capitols to protest the stay at home orders. They have comically proclaimed that they are being oppressed by being made to wear masks and stay at home to prevent spreading a global pandemic. Some can be seen in photos of the events screaming in the faces of law enforcement officials, thereby risking the health of those cops, without any action by said law enforcement personnel. So much for all those people proclaiming that “Blue Lives Matter” in favor of law enforcement. At other times, there have been white people intent on committing a crime or who had already committed a crime with a gun involved, and the police have taken them without harm. Contrast that with the Dylan Roof case or the response of then California Governor Ronald Reagan and the NRA when the Black Panthers started showing up in public places with shotguns. All of the sudden, gun rights didn’t matter so much. (3) What really mattered was WHITE GUN RIGHTS and the right of white people to use those guns to intimidate others, just as it did when the Second Amendment was written if legal historian Carl T. Bogus’ interpretation of the Second Amendment’s writing and ratification is correct (and I think it is). Just as it does now. Scratch many a gun rights organization, and white supremacy is often not far from the surface.
Economic injustice is part of the black experience as well. Too often, white people believe that their problems stem from circumstances beyond their control, while believing that black people are entirely to blame for their plight. The racist tropes underlying this lie are that black people are both lazy and stupid. They cannot learn and refuse to work hard. If they wanted to get out of the ghetto they would get an education and get a better job. Wrong. 100% wrong. The principalities and powers create an unfair economic system and in our current age, it is skewed towards helping white people more than any other group. Data on comparing white wealth versus black wealth bears this out. Our dysfunctional and inequitable education system perpetuates it. Just how is the average black kid who lives in poverty, that is no fault of their own, and is educated in an inner city school that has next to no resources, supposed to get a suitable education and thus a better job? The infrastructure where they live is worse, the opportunities fewer, the resources harder to come by, and the dead ends more plentiful. I doubt I would have done well in such circumstances despite not having to deal with the reality of systemic oppression also holding me back on top of the notorious evils of capitalism.
Black people are NOT any more prone to criminal behavior than other people. That’s just another racist myth. Criminality is influenced by a wide variety of factors, and not one of them is related to skin color or false notions of Anglo-European superiority. Trauma, poverty, economic manipulation, lack of opportunities, systemic oppression, and the ensuing desperation that these things can engender are often the cause of people turning to crime. If my circumstances were different, would I do any better than any petty thief who steals food or deals drugs to make a living, who happens to be black? Unlikely. If I were caught though, I’d most likely get a lighter sentence than a black person who did the exact same thing. This is not an opinion, but a sad, shameful fact. Black people receive harsher sentences in America than white people do because systemic racism is rampant in the American criminal justice system. (4)
Much more could be said on the contrasting realities for white people and black people in America. The above paragraphs are just a useful primer in white privilege and systemic racism, and I’ll leave you to do some research for your own benefit. I now want to shift from the macro-level of systemic racism to personal racism. What follows will be helpful to anyone wanting to begin the process of dismantling their own personal racism.
- White people should NEVER, for any reason, use the ‘N’ word. Not with an ‘a’ at the end and not with an ‘-er’ at the end. Period.
- Every word someone utters after the words, ” I don’t want to sound racist, but…” is racist. Period.
- White skin is not superior to or more attractive than black skin, brown skin, or any other shade of human skin. It’s just another skin tone.
- White culture is not superior to other cultures and white popular culture is not normative. Amazing works of art and literature abound from all over the world, including the many varied cultures found among peoples on the African continent. Anglo-Europeans do not have a monopoly on culture. Similarly, social and scientific advancements have come from peoples and places all over the world. Too often, white people claim or are by default given the credit for these things, and believe that they have nothing to learn from other cultures.
- White history (especially white male history) is not more important than other histories. White people need, and I mean truly NEED, to decolonize their sense of history and increase their historical knowledge by engaging the histories of people of color and women, especially by engaging the work of historians whose perspective is not the white perspective. We don’t have a “White History Month” because the history we have been teaching is white history, all the year round.
- God doesn’t favor white people and whiteness. Jesus was NOT white. He was a Jewish peasant from Palestine who spoke Aramaic and not English, which of course didn’t even exist then. Unfortunately, much of American Christianity is deeply entrenched in white supremacy and that is a sin that must be repented of.
- Reverse racism isn’t a thing. Racism involves a power imbalance and as shown, the notion of white supremacy is the power in America.
- White people should practice “intentional diversity” to borrow a phrase from bell hooks. Engage with people, ideas, art, culture, music, history, and food that are not strictly white. Learn to see things from different perspectives. I still have “AHA!” or “Holy shit!”(5) moments all the time when I do this and it helps me further dismantle the concept of whiteness.
- Having white skin isn’t wrong or bad. It just is. Subscribing to the concept of “whiteness” as normative, superior, chosen, or entitled to privileges not conferred upon others, is.
- Black Lives Matter. This statement isn’t controversial and doesn’t mean that my life as a white person doesn’t. It’s simply a necessary affirmation in a racist society that sees black people as expendable and “less than” white people.
- Racism is contrary to the kindom of God. Staying racist puts a barrier between you and other children of God that God never wanted. We cannot bring about the kindom that both Jesus and Paul envisioned by remaining racist.
Ignoring the problems of systemic racism and white supremacy or pretending that they don’t exist only perpetuates the problems. It’s not enough for us as white people to disagree with proponents of white supremacy. We MUST actively, nonviolently denounce and repudiate racism and white supremacy whenever we encounter it whether from family members or the President of the United States. Doing so in our cultural milieu is the essence of taking up the cross of Jesus because it puts us at odds with the principalities and powers in a way similar to what Jesus did in his lifetime against Roman imperial domination. In so doing we show the world its utter foolishness and contrast it with Christ’s wisdom. It’s not my fault that I was born into a racist society and learned racism and developed a sense of white superiority from racist family members and others. It is however, my responsibility to change that within myself because those ideas are sinful. Repenting of the times I perpetuated racism and remaining committed to do better in the future is also my responsibility as an imperfect follower of Jesus. Likewise, where you were born and what culture taught you it is not your fault, but it is your responsibility to repent and do better in the future.
Dillon Naber Cruz
* Burns’ Civil War documentary promotes the ahistorical notion of the “Lost Cause,” by giving far too much air time to novelist, and Lost Cause proponent, Shelby Foote. The Lost Cause narrative is steeped in white supremacy.
(1) See chapter five of my book Go Golden for a fuller treatment of this subject.
(5) The Apostle Paul used so-called vulgarities in his writing at times for emphasis, so I’m in good theological company with my word choice here.
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