For the first time in U.S. history, an actual majority of white people — including the president — are vocally addressing systemic racism.
Change is in the air. As countless institutions across America explicitly denounce racism, proclaim that Black lives matter, and finally begin the process of interrogating their racist legacies, a predictable “whitelash’ has ensued in the media.
The term was coined by CNN commentator Van Jones to describe the white backlash that results whenever racism is challenged in America. Lately, I have seen many opinions denouncing efforts to confront the legacy of racism in elite private schools, but the focus on battling racism is nationwide — in public and private schools, institutions of higher education, and museums.
Even corporations are issuing “Black lives matter” declarations and challenging voter suppression, itself inextricably linked to racism. The whitelash appears to be a coordinated, right-wing attack of mostly nonsense. U.S. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell recently complained that some corporations are “behaving like a woke parallel government.” But it includes some fair-sounding criticisms while appropriating — and shamelessly subverting — the language of the civil rights struggle, making it confounding and dangerous.
One notion that must be discredited is that educational institutions, through the use of affinity groups, make students fixate on race. That distinction belongs to American history, where racial classification was used — explicitly and brutally — to maintain the racist hierarchy.
Today, the expressed motivation behind affinity groups is the undoing of racism and white hegemony.
It is very telling — and suspect — that people who never had anything to say about the long history of our racist caste system suddenly object to an institution’s focus on racism. Accusations of reverse racism seem especially muddled, coming from confused people who cling to unexamined notions of meritocracy, and wish to preserve the status quo.
Their current circumstances are perceived as trouble-free, until someone points out a problem, whereupon the pointer is perceived as the problem. The dismay over the discontinuation of Dr. Seuss books due to racist imagery is an example of this dynamic. I say good riddance to those images, where I recommend his book “The Sneetches and Other Stories” as the best children’s book I know of on prejudice.
The whitelash worldview fails to recognize the huge and interrelated problems of white hegemony, misogyny, homophobia, and greed-driven capitalism in the United States. Some people think everything was fine until institutions attempted to address any of these omnipresent issues to spread equity and redefine a good education.
Today, the concept of “normal” is rightfully undergoing revision. But the whitelash mocks compassion for marginalized groups including, for example, the LGBTQ community. When schools encourage teachers to use “your family” instead of “your mom and dad,” it is a logical extension of the earlier tweak of “parent or guardian” — probably controversial in its day.
But educators should recognize the diversity of families and the pain endured by students who must repeatedly rectify false assumptions, or worse, allow them to stand. Because not everything is part of a hallowed tradition, and when traditions are revealed to be unjust, they should evolve, or be discarded.
To be sure, justice work must be open to constructive criticism, but I object to the destructive attacks I have seen in the media. While it is true that skin color should not be important, it is absurd to suggest that it is educators making it important.
It is true that efforts to challenge racism sometimes perpetuate what the eminent attorney Bryan Stevenson calls “the narrative of racial difference.” Although it is often approached as a black-and-white issue, racism is of particular interest to multi-ethnic people — like me — who are apt to perceive it from multiple perspectives.
It is essential to understand the fact that racial categories stem from racism, and not the other way around. But not through “color-blindness,” which is more accurately “history-blindness.” Stating the beautiful fact that we are all part of one human family should not be the prerogative of clueless right-wingers.
As the acclaimed author Toni Morrison told Stephen Colbert on his show, “There is no such thing as race. It’s just the human race — scientifically, anthropologically.” It is painful to see that fact hijacked by the reactionary right and misused to imply that there are no grounds for dissecting racism.
As long as we see them as stepping stones, and not as the destination, there is a qualitative difference between contemporary institutions organizing self-selecting, optional affinity groups, and past institutions — all of them — overtly segregating and excluding people because of skin color.
It is crucial to envision a society where racism is history. But pretending we are already there, while disparaging any efforts to actually get us there, is counterproductive and deceitful. The goal of obliterating the social construct of race and embracing our common humanity requires acknowledgement that all American institutions stand on a deeply racist foundation that is just beginning to be addressed, and that needs to be rectified.
The whitelash may dispute it, but the current reckoning happening across the nation is a sign of progress in the struggle for justice.