Thank you for this excellent piece. I really appreciate the way that you bring out the essence of the conversation with this example: many white people cannot discuss race without referring to a specific example of a BIPOC, often in a context which is a negative encounter. This example really emphasizes the way that ‘white’ is not perceived as color, as if it is the acceptable backdrop against which the rest of us are meant to aspire, essentially implying that success means erasing ‘color’ (ie, being more white). As you point out, the underlying motivation is to deny the existence of privilege by ignoring the issue altogether through a stance that only BIPOC is color; of course, if white privilege doesn’t exist, then solutions aren’t required. If white people don’t see their privilege, conveniently they get to both keep it AND believe they are ‘nice.’
I’ve been involved with recruiting for large companies in some capacity for many years of my career, also simultaneously functioning as a token — what I’ve heard called ‘double-dipping’: that is, as both a female and a POC, I function to allow HR to check off two of their diversity boxes. The implication is that the token only exists to check off their box, which also implies that the token has not rightfully earned that position.
As the person who has been in this tokenized position, I”ve also been alone in repeatedly attempting to recruit all sorts of BIPOC (though I have to say that Native Americans/Indigenous peoples never even get to the point at which I see their credentials, and any mention of NA/Indigenous peoples provokes a stare of confusion.)
I’ve come to the conclusion that white people collectively do not want any changes. Generally speaking, in these professional settings, there are two general groups: ‘nice’ white people — the ones who publicly advocate (albeit without much enthusiasm) for BIPOC, and those who overtly state that any ‘help’ for BIPOC amounts to favoritism — people who don’t believe white privilege exists. Of these, the latter group is easier to deal with, because once engaged in conversation will often make comments which not only give them away but also land them in the HR office; this allows their egregious stance to be addressed, and at times I’ve seen successful lawsuits arise from the behaviors of these more overt racists.
The most difficult group is the one full of white people hell-bent on preserving their ‘goodness’ in their own minds, even if it means a significant distortion of their privileged reality. This group will toss an occasional public statement about equality here and there, to establish their own ‘goodness,’ but when the rubber hits the road, will turn away, not show up, or otherwise blind him/her/themselves to the real action that must be taken to support that equality.
In the final analysis, white people’s collective behavior — regardless of a few true antiracists — is fundamentally supportive of white supremacy and the maintenance of their own power. I have seen this play out repeatedly in these situations for over 30 years of my own career: these ‘nice’ white people, when push comes to shove, will circle the wagons and ‘obey’ the bully in the room — typically an aggressive type A with a powerful position and a lot of money — rather than step up to the plate to do the right thing.
After more than 3 decades watching this sort of behavior, I feel it’s time to give up. ‘Whiteness’ is a form of collective narcissism, and as most psychologists say, narcissism is almost impossible to cure even when the client admits to having it. White people as a collective — as a majority — haven’t even accepted this diagnosis yet, never mind starting to do the work.
I admire your essay for its candor and insight.