CSWAC Blog

Impacts of Racism on White People

Most readers recognize many of these names: Emmett Till, Amadou Diallo, Sean Bell, James Byrd, Troy Davis,  Trayvon Martin.  All are American men of African descent, brutally murdered (or executed by the state in Davis’ case) essentially for the crime of being Black.  They represent a tiny fraction of African Americans assaulted, incarcerated or killed for the same crime.

How many readers know these names? Lawrence Russell Brewer,  Mikhail Markhasev, Michael Maloney.  All are white Americans who suffered terrible consequences of racism in the United States. I’ll come back to their stories.

Like many white activists, I came to anti-racism with a profound concern for the horrific damages done to people of color.  I saw racism ravaging communities of color.  I felt terrible pain on behalf of sister and fellow humans.

In 2003, while participating in an Undoing Racism workshop offered by the People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond, I experienced the first hint that racism could be damaging me and my people too.  I realized European Americans have been trained to numb our feelings about racism.  Without that numbness, it simply would not be possible to perpetrate violence of all forms against people of color.   But we cannot be numb to the suffering of people of color without also being insensitive to our own suffering.  One of the very mechanisms that ought to be alerting us to terrible danger has been disabled, in the service of maintaining a racist culture.

While it is crucial for white anti-racists to understand how racism destroys the lives of people of color, I believe it will fuel our will to end racism when we understand we are harmed too.  This may even be a strategic way to reach white people who, sadly, do not seem to recognize the need to end racism for the sake of justice, equality, and full, happy lives for all people.

Before I explore how racism impacts European Americans, I declare two caveats.  First, I am by no means discussing so-called “reverse racism.”  Racism is a worldwide system of oppression granting white people the power, privilege and resources.  No individual act of hostility toward a white person, no matter how heinous, can possibly reverse this global system.

Second, while I am passionate about ending the damage done to my people by racism, I remain fully conscious that our sufferings are not the same as those of people of color.  And that alongside our sufferings are significant privilege and power due to our white-skin status.

So how can racism hurt white people?

You may recall James Byrd was the African-American man horrifically dragged to his death behind a truck driven by three white men. Lawrence Russell Brewer, one of the three murderers, was executed.  Brewer suffered death by racism.  He was a human being who never deserved to be warped and twisted by a racist culture into behaving like a monster.

Mikhail Markhasev is the Ukrainian American who shot and killed Ennis Cosby, son of Bill Cosby.  Markhasev is serving life without parole for this crime.  Markhasev wrote in his confession, “I shot the n[****]r…”  It’s just possible that if not for racist thinking, Markhasev would not have killed Cosby, thereby ending his own life as a free man.

On April 12, 2012,  Michael Maloney, a white police chief  in Greenland, NH, was shot dead during a drug raid.  Without knowing any further details, I feel qualified to declare Maloney another casualty of racism.  Michelle Alexander’s groundbreaking book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, offers compelling and meticulous documentation that our criminal justice system is serving as the newest method for enslaving black and brown people.  A primary vehicle has been the War on Drugs,  fabricated out of whole cloth by the white elite.  Were it not for this groundless and devastating “war,” it is highly unlikely Maloney would have been involved in a drug raid to begin with.

Obviously, most European Americans are not going to pay the same price for racism as these three men.  But our costs are not necessarily less horrendous, just because they may be less dramatic.  Space permits just a glimpse at a few of these impacts.

The “white” race was not constructed until the late 1600s, when an elite group of Virginians began to amass power and privilege by dividing poor folk into a white group and other “races.”  (Lifting the White Veil: A Look at White American Culture, by Jeff Hitchcock.)  In the process of becoming white, people of diverse European descent gave up their heritage and identity to melt into the pot.  Hundreds of years later, we European Americans know a fair bit about African culture, Latin culture, Asian culture, but we are hard put to it to describe our own culture.  We live with a profound sense of rootlessness, a lack of reality.

On the other side of the same coin, European Americans have seized center stage for the past few hundred years, shoving all other people off to the margins.  This self-centeredness restricts our ability to receive and appreciate the contributions of people of color.  It infects our attitude toward people of color with unwarranted and unwanted superiority.  It blinds us to an appropriate sense of our worth, and the worth of others.

Because the system of white supremacy depends, by definition, on devaluing people of color, it drives a wedge between white folk and all the rest of humanity.  Human relationships that are our birthright are strained, and many white people may never have healthy relationships with any people of color.  Ironically, we cannot divorce ourselves from people of color without also bringing patterns of superiority/inferiority into our relationships with other white people.

One last impact I’ll mention is that racism not only controls all of our institutions, it also affects our personal thoughts, feelings and attitudes.  “Internalized racial superiority,” as it is termed by the People’s Institute, causes European Americans to register racist thoughts and feelings on a daily basis. I am 100% dedicated to the eradication of racism, I am highly educated on the topic, I pour a huge amount of my life into working to end racism … and yet on any given day, I can report thoughts along these lines: “Why do those Latina women have so many babies?” (In reality, I have no idea whether this particular young woman has any other children.)  “That guy isn’t qualified to be a political leader.”  (My only information was a photo of a man with black skin.)  “I feel in danger.”  (Several young African American men are passing me on the sidewalk.)  “I know more about this situation than you do.”  (In almost any discussion with people of color.)  Racism controls my own mentality.

In his book, Lifting the White Veil, Jeff Hitchcock lists impacts of racism on white people in four categories: how we relate to ourselves; our relationships to other European Americans; relationships with people of color; and how we view ourselves relative to racial structure in the US.  Take a look for further insights on this topic.

A popular expression says, “I feel your pain.”  It is hugely important that white people sense the devastation of people of color.  I ask, “Can we also feel our own pain?  What will we do about it?”