I am burying the lede here, but I need to make something clear beforehand: I have no problem with white people. My girlfriend is white. Much of extended family, including aunts and uncles as well as a brother-in-law is white. Moreover, I grew up in a hometown Downstate that was 90 percent white and, to the puzzlement of many, almost all my friends growing up and in college were white.
But the fact I have to preface this piece this way in such a heavy-handed fashion is because headlines like these cause trouble. There’s a growing, disturbing perception among many white Americans that whites are being discriminated against and that whiteness itself is under attack. For most people of color, including myself, this sounds ridiculous, but here we are: For example, according to a poll conducted by National Public Radio, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, 55% of whites surveyed believe they have been discriminated against. Of course, there are also the more extreme manifestations of this sort of thinking. There’s the ever-growing white supremacist movement which includes the tiki-torch wielding marchers in Charlottesville chanting “you (Jews and minorities) will not replace us.” And in many areas throughout the U.S. and Canada, including locally in Buffalo, we have flyers like these found on Hertel Avenue shown here.
For many, including some minorities, this poster might elicit a response of ‘So, what’s wrong with being white?’ And the correct answer is simply this: It’s absolutely okay to be white. The problem lies with the racist—presumably white supremacist—people who put those posters up in the first place. The posters are not intended to be a white counterpart to hopeful, positive statements like ‘it’s okay to be gay’ or ‘it’s okay to be black.’ Instead, they are intended to trigger insecurities among some whites about their social standing by falsely implying that whiteness is under attack.
Hopefully most of you understand what is going on here and can see the ploy for what it is. Nevertheless, it’s not hard to see how effective these posters could be. For some whites, especially poor and/or conservative ones, the line of thinking after seeing might follow as such: ‘What’s wrong with being white?’ you might ask yourself, followed by ‘Who thinks being white is a problem?’ You don’t get an answer immediately, but the thought sticks in your head like a filter. As you scroll through the news especially on social media, whiteness, it appears, is under attack: protests against police brutality conducted by often white police officers, complaints about TV shows and movies being too white, and expanded efforts for workplace diversity. Being white starts to feel like a liability: Not only does it seem like you are economically under attack, your identity starts to be one to as you worry people start associating racism and violence with your race.
But that’s not the case despite what white supremacists and these posters want other whites to think. They want to people look inward about their own shortcomings and ignoring the injustices that led to these protests and changes. It means ignoring that racial bias sometimes exists in law enforcement. Or that media is finally beginning to reflect the actual demographics of this country. Or that minorities are usually underrepresented in business and in government. Whites hold a disproportionate amount of positions in government, with minorities making up 9% of the current Congress, despite making up nearly 40% of the US population. In business, according to a Fortune Magazine report, 78.5% of corporate executives in the 2017 Fortune 500 are white. If these numbers seem appalling, it’s worse: Minority representation among Fortune 500 executives and Congress is at its most diverse ever. Whiteness is far being under attack.
But if you aren’t aware of how increased representation and calling out discrimination are attempts to right historical wrongs against minorities, it might feel such an attack exists. There’s a saying, almost clichéd at this point: “When you’re accustomed to privilege, equality feels like oppression.” Case in point with the NPR poll: Very few whites report that they personally faced discrimination, with only 19 percent saying they were discriminated against when applying for jobs. Of course, such discrimination is very hard to prove and blatantly illegal. It would also not be a stretch to guess at least some respondents might be blaming their economic issues on the wrong cause reason, namely non-whites. But if you’re under the influence of white supremacist rhetoric and struggling under in the job market, even if you don’t identify as racist, it’s easy to imagine why it could feel like whites are being discriminated against.
This is how racial tension happens in the 21st century: It’s not so much the grand displays of blatant racism like in Charlottesville, but making a majority worry about their place in a count that is more accepting of diversity and becoming more diverse.