I am not a historian or social scientist. Nor do I have any fancy research to back up my arguments. But something interesting is happening that I’ve never seen before: White people are having lengthy conversations about race and racism.
When I look around at ‘White America’* (a phrase I’ll use to refer to those who benefit from the white racial status quo and the economic and institutional privileges it incurs), the awareness of race and racism has exploded into the white consciousness.
It is one part encouraging, and many parts long overdue.
The outcry at racial injustice and the wholehearted (although sometimes misguided) attempts to do something about it have gained unbelievable traction in recent weeks. It would appear that White America is slowly, painfully, and reluctantly waking up to racism.
The question is, why now?
- Racial injustice it’s nothing new.
- Police brutality is nothing new.
- Systems that prop-up White America and subsequently disempower, marginalize, and victimize non-white people are nothing new.
So why now, of all the times in recent history, has White America suddenly woken up to is longstanding race issues?
The short answer is the pandemic.
How The Pandemic Catalyzed Racial Awareness
Issues of race, power, and privilege have been brewing in this nation for centuries, and COVID-19 was the perfect storm to amplify and expose these fractures.
Yet COVID did something far greater than put racial inequities on a pedestal. It exposed White America to emotions, vulnerabilities, and collective identities they were not used to experiencing. It backed White America into the corner of a ring that it was not used to fighting in — the fight for hope, freedom, and fairness.
As a result, White America started paying attention to suffering, asking questions about injustice, and feeling more than ever before. This forced shift in perspective would not have happened if COVID-19 hadn’t put the entire country into lockdown.
In particular, four unique social factors emerged from the pandemic that set the stage for the current discussions of racism:
- The Removal of Distractions and Loss of Entitlement
- The Rise of Fear and Vulnerability
- The Failure of Systems and Feeling of Helplessness
- The Search For Belonging and Its Limitations
1. Less Distraction, More Feeling
The pandemic forced everyone to take a time-out, return home, and find new ways to spend quality time with themselves. In the absence of things to do, people had no choice but to feel more.
And the feeling that arose was raw and angry.
Everyone was experiencing some degree of let-down and loss from life being put on pause. Yet there was one factor that distinguished the suffering of White America from the rest of the country — The feeling of entitlement.
White Americans not only took our privileged position in society for granted, but we also felt entitled to the creature comforts we had lost.
This entitlement was apparent in some of the protests against the government-imposed lockdowns. The loss of the freedom to travel, to consume, or to work was a hard pill for White America to swallow. Despite such freedoms regularly being denied communities of color, White America rarely had to fight for the right to enjoy these basic liberties.
Moreover, the pacifier of consumption was put on pause. Many people were forced to acknowledge how dependent they had become on consumption to bypass dealing with difficult realities. No longer could people distract, numb, and shield themselves from the pain of living in a racist society.
When videos of George Floyd went viral (which was amplified by the lack of distractions and people doubling-down on social media) the discomfort of passively participating in America’s racism was exposed.
2. More Fear & Vulnerability
With people at home doing less and feeling more, the tide of fear began to rise. Sensationalist news coverage and a lack of knowledge about COVID’s lethality or spread created tremendous anxiety and apprehension.
There was a deep sense of not knowing whether it was safe to go outside, safe to buy groceries, or safe to visit family. For the first time since perhaps the Cold War, White America was deeply afraid.
This fear, much like racism, was an invisible and ubiquitous threat to people’s very way of life.
Walking around the neighborhood or bumping into the wrong person suddenly became matters of life or death. While not completely analogous to the everyday fears faced by many communities of color, this daily threat gave many White American’s a little taste of what it’s like to live in an unfriendly world.
3. Breakdown of Trust in Systems & Helplessness
The existential fear of the pandemic was exacerbated by a breakdown in the trust of systems White America previously relied upon for security and comfort.
Systems that were supposed to serve and protect us like the CDC showed their incompetence. Security blankets of investments and assets started to crumble. White America started to question whether authorities actually had the knowledge or power to do anything about COVID-19.
The feeling of helplessness blossomed. If my overwhelmed hospital can’t help me, the police or fire department can’t help me, who can I rely upon? Without the usual white privileges to protect me from the virus, I must participate in the struggle for life like everyone else.
This struggle is something that communities of color have faced for centuries, and the pandemic illuminated the ways in which white privilege shunts a disproportionate amount of harm to non-white communities. The pandemic accelerated the distrust in national systems and put their racialized and classist inequities on display for everyone to see.
How is it that a nation legally committed to equal opportunity for all — regardless of race, creed, national origin, or gender — continually reproduces patterns of racial inequality?
White America could not hide from the failings of our national systems to serve and protect. Nor could it ignore the news of COVID-19 ravaging black communities. This loss of security blanket and questioning of everything planted the seeds of helplessness and dissonance that started to blossom into racial awakening.
4. The Boundaries of Belonging
As the call to stay at home pushed people into isolation, there was an equal and opposite pull for belonging. People were searching for security through social ties and looking for refuge by connecting with something beyond themselves, something that gave this whole crisis meaning.
One particularly useful narrative was an appeal to respect our collective identity and interdependence. This also happened to be a very good public health policy.
To mobilize millions of Americans to stay at home and social distance there had to be a greater good — Protecting the health of everyone became the clarion call for staying at home.
The narrative of belonging appeared in many forms, from road signs that said, “Practice social distancing. Protect our heroes,” to sidewalk chalk that said, “We will make through this together,” to website updates that said, “We have closed our doors in order to protect the health of our community.”
The question is, who are our heroes?
Who do we define as “our” community?
Who actually gains protection and who is still in harm’s way?
Within this call for belonging came a heightened realization that not everybody was protected. It all depended on where you choose to draw the line of “us”.
For many, the line was already drawn by the color of their skin.
Even though the pandemic evoked a sense of belonging, when scrutinized, it appeared woefully incomplete. Yes, we were all in this together as Americans and as humans. But we are also just as divided by our whiteness or our blackness.
On one hand, the pandemic dislodged some highly individualistic norms that helped White America broaden its scope of compassion to include people that didn’t typically fit into its sphere of care. On the other hand, it highlighted the boundaries of belonging and the particular benefits or disadvantages of one’s racial identity.
One defining characteristic of White America is that we do not think of ourselves in racial terms. Whiteness is the invisible norm that underwrites all of our political and social contracts. This form of privilege — not having to see oneself as having an identity defined by skin color — was exposed during the pandemic. With whiteness out in the open, the stage was set for the final eruption.
The Perfect Storm of Social Factors
The pandemic turned-off our shield of distractions from the heartbreak of the world. We felt angered by the loss of freedom as we were forced to stay at home yet we were equally afraid to go outside. The existential fear not only amped up the collective stress, but it also opened a door for White America to peer into some of the vulnerabilities minorities face every day.
These inner psychological factors then melded with outer, cultural, technological, and structural ones. The breakdown of trust in authorities and systems White America relied upon exposed white privilege and the disproportionate suffering of black communities. The call for belonging heightened our desire to care for everyone’s wellbeing and mend broken systems while simultaneously creating dissonance for many white people who had been riding-out the pandemic in bubbles of privilege.
The fear of the virus set the fuse, the dissonance of liberal values and white privilege amped up the voltage, and the search for belonging heightened the connection to suffering. All that was needed to ignite a nationwide (and global) racial wake-up call was a trigger event and the technology to make it go viral — Videos of Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd being brutally killed at the hands of white people.
How The Pandemic Exposed My Whiteness
I remember having conversations at the beginning of the pandemic searching for the silver lining in this upheaval. One thread through the many of these conversations was the opportunity this crisis presented to re-vision of our culture.
Yes, wouldn’t it be nice if we could all come out of this pandemic better off?
Less busy, less stressed, less captivated by the mirage of consumption. Many of the dreams involved moving away from exploitative capitalist systems and the adoption of more ecological mindsets. Yes, there was some discussion about ways to uplift marginalized people, but no one ever explicitly talked about race.
The irony is that such a conversation was itself possible due to white privilege. The gift to think about something other than immediate suffering was the privilege of having a job, the resources to do it from home, and many luxuries to make sheltering-at-home easy. Moreover, the belief in the power to transform society itself is an example of a privileged narrative in action.
Now, I fully realize that to move forward as a nation, as a society, and as a planet, we have to address our racial wounds and collective trauma first. This is the true gift that the pandemic has given us — a chance to address racial equity as the wound through which social, economic, or political healing can occur.
The lockdown at home wasn’t just a time to make sourdough bread. It was a time to turn inward and venture back to the unfelt parts of our cultural experience; A time to witness how traumatizing it is to live in such a divided society; And a time to look not just at the black-white binary, but all forms privilege and inequity that exist today.
Without the pandemic, our nation might have cruised past the death of George Floyd without much uprising and protest. Without all these social factors in play, the brutal death of another black man may not have been sufficient to mobilize tens of thousands of people into the streets. Without COVID-19 putting White America in a vulnerable and precarious position where it could both feel and critique the injustice of the systems it upheld, we might not be having these daily conversations about race.
Journaling & Discussion Questions To Explore Your Whiteness
My fear is that these social forces and current movement still might not be enough. Especially as America reopens, it will once again be easy to choose the path of willful ignorance that perpetuates systems of harm.
Is it possible that we can re-configure our society under the current conditions and find greater freedom and justice?
But to do so, we must do the inner work of seeing how we are socialized to retain a racial status quo that disempowers and marginalizes people of color.
And we must commit to that work for the rest of our lives.
Not because of some savior complex or guilt. But because we genuinely want to unlearn harmful patterns and create genuine connections with people who hold different identities than we do.
Difficult conversations lie ahead and we might not be ready for the answers.
But it’s time to ask the questions.
The Removal of Distractions & Exploration of Entitlement
- What am I now feeling that I wasn’t aware of before the pandemic?
- How do I distract myself from feeling my feelings?
- Where do I consume most of my media? How does this media depict people of color?
- Do I feel like exploring whiteness? Is it my responsibility to do so? If not, why? Whose is it?
- How can I take an honest look at myself as a white person?
- What no longer seems as significant as it once did before the pandemic? What now seems more significant?
- What have I found about what I feel entitled to? How is that impacted by my whiteness?
- What am I willing to let go of to create more space for things that really matter? If I were a different race, how would this change my ability to let go?
- How does my racial identity shape my ability to “distract” or “turn away”?
Existential Anxiety & Exploration of Vulnerability
- What has the pandemic taught me about my coping mechanisms for dealing with stress?
- Does my whiteness afford me certain coping mechanisms that others do not have access to?
- How can I allow my feelings of anger, outrage, and vulnerability without letting them consume me? How can I acknowledge that my race grants me the privilege to feel and display these feelings without judgment?
- How can I use any feelings of guilt or shame for productive action?
- What have I learned about feeling vulnerable? How does that lead me towards compassion and understanding of what it’s like for marginalized identities?
- In what ways do my race and class increase my stress and/or protect me from harm?
The Breakdown of Trust & Exploration of Racist Systems
- Who are my most trusted confidants? Are there any people of color in my “inner circle”?
- How has race shaped my circle of friends?
- In what ways is my world segregated? How do I benefit or take comfort in that?
- Have I ever felt that my racial identity impacted my access to systems or places?
- What experiences have led me to trust or distrust systems and positions of authority? How does my whiteness play a role in my faith in these systems?
- When I look around at powerful institutions, do I see people of my race? What does this lead me to believe?
- How is it that in our open, participatory democracy, racial minorities are still underrepresented in positions of power and decision making?
- How can I challenge my complicity and investment in racist systems?
The Boundaries of Belonging & Exploration of Protection and Harm
- How am I now aware of belonging to a larger group, whether that be defined by race, neighborhood, or nation?
- Where have I drawn the boundary of belonging? Who is in my in-group and why?
- What does belonging to the white race look and feel like?
- In what ways have I internalized superiority because of my race?
- How does my sense of belonging impact my responsibility to care for others in my group? How does it impact my attitude towards people not in my group?
- How do my actions reflect my connection to my racial identity?
- What parts of my white identity am I willing to accept and own? What parts am I not?
- Why feels uncomfortable scary about adopting this sense of belonging to a race? What feels safe or protective about adopting this sense of belonging?
Don’t Just Wake Up, Show Up.
I am dedicated to continually revisiting these questions in myself and especially with other white people.
I recognize that this moment in history demands more vulnerability, more willingness to listen, and more questioning of assumptions than ever before. I want to go there.
White America, will you come with me?
~ Jeff Siegel
- Fill-out the book, Me and White Supremacy: Combat Racism, Change the World, and Become a Good Ancestor by Layla F. Saad
- Start your own Racial Affinity Group with the guidelines set forth by Ruth King in her book Mindful of Race.
- If your bookstore is out of it, it’s because you’re late to the party. Find yourself a copy of How to be an Anti-racist by Ibram X.Kendi and continue to educate yourself with I’m Still Here: Black Dignity in a World Made for Whiteness by Austin Channing Brown; White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism by Robin J. DiAngelo; and many more.
- Make this work part of your life.
*I am using the term ‘White America’ to refer to those defined and perceived as white and the system of structural power that privileges, centralizes, and elevates white people as a group. I see White America as both an identity label and a sociopolitical economic system of domination based on racial categories.
** I am using the pronouns “we” and “our” to signify my identity location within White America and realize that I’m writing primarily towards a white audience. I also don’t want to pretend to be beyond the biases I hold as a result of my position in society.
***I recognize that there is still a majority of White America that has not woken-up and joined the conversation for racial justice. I’d love to hear your ideas on how to broaden the conversation to invite in more voices. I also recognize that there is not a unitary experience of being white in America.
****I fully expect some scholar on race and social movements to tell me my perspective is naive, simplistic, and still racist. I welcome all constructive feedback. As scared as I am to publish this piece in such a charged landscape, I consider any dialogue on this topic much more important than being right.
*****You don’t need to clap. You just need to do your work.