The Brooklyn Rail

SEPT 2020

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Anti-Racism at the Borderlands of Whiteness

I’ve heard people say, “Black people cannot end racism on their own. If they could, they would have done it already.” I’m paraphrasing, but the idea is that white people need to stop enacting, protecting, and perpetuating systems of white supremacy. How do white people do that? How do I do that as someone who is white enough most of the time?

To begin, we are all being asked. For the millionth time. By Black people. To think and learn about racism, white supremacy, and racial capitalism. To decide what our role is in a society where the cornerstone issue remains brutal racial exploitation. To do this we must think about our own race, and how race defines and determines our life. But white people like to think of themselves as outside of race, as neutral. The control group for the grand experiment of racial capitalism.

Since moving to the US, people have often asked me whether I see myself as a person of color or as white. I now say, “White enough most of the time.” This answer is conditional and not based on an internal sense of self, but on how I’m seen by others. This answer acknowledges that I've benefited from white privilege most of the time. I’ve experienced the respect, deference, assumption of authority, invisible force field of protection, and other privileges white people get. I notice this preferential treatment because, unlike many white people, I have also not been white.

I’ve had police called on me because, quoting the officer, “There was a brown man prowling around the area.” I’m definitely not considered white at airports or in rural white areas. My life’s been threatened because I’m Jewish, once in front of a favorite bar in Brooklyn. And let’s not forget the merciless bullying, harassment, and violence I experienced in middle school for supposedly being a “Paki.” These experiences, while not even a fraction of the racism Black people and others experience, preclude me from really belonging in whiteness. I associate whiteness with the not-knowing of race, the comfort of forgetting the violence it took to create and maintain all-white suburbs.

Perhaps it was those experiences that motivated me to get involved in activism around racial injustice. Maybe these experiences gave me more empathy towards oppressed people, more righteous anger at oppression. Maybe if I was really white, I too would feel bad racism happens occasionally to others but it has nothing to do with me.

Detachment seems to be the attitude of many white people, despite recent uprisings. This is a country where statistics show that Black people are discriminated against in housing, education, health and medicine, criminal justice, employment, even by AI. But nobody thinks they’re racist. A country where (almost) every political figure spoke about John Lewis’s bravery without anyone discussing what the threat was that he so bravely faced. Who attacked and almost killed him? A country that mythologizes its history, uses euphemisms for crimes and passive voice to avoid naming criminals. In the same way the term “violence against women” makes it a women’s issue rather than focusing attention on the problem: violent men.

Yes, white people need to learn about Black people’s experiences, read Black feminist literature, James Baldwin, novels, and history (PLEASE!). But stop pretending that racism happens on its own, that people of color are the only ones whose lives are determined by racial identities. Stop erasing the perpetrators of violence from language, history, and analysis. We need to see ourselves as part of a society that is built upon racial exploitation. White people’s silence and inaction are deeply violent; symbolic gestures and good intentions are not enough.

White people experience several deficits that prohibit their full participation in transforming our society and ending white supremacy. One is about knowledge and understanding. Most white people don’t have adequate factual knowledge about their own society or history. Another deficit is empathy. White people are painfully lacking in empathy towards Black lives. To address these deficits, we need a national truth and reconciliation program, leading to reparations and systemic changes. Full accounting of the shockingly violent history of our nation, the latticework of laws and policies that discriminate against BIPOC, and the accumulated wealth that has been stolen from Black people by white society.

More immediately, white people can use their privilege, protection, power, and access to support and elevate BIPOC. If we see a Black person stopped by the police, don’t leave the scene, stay, support de-escalation. Talk about white supremacy where we work, learn, pray, and play and call out racist language or behavior in those settings. Don’t just invite BIPOC into white spaces. Rather, work to make those spaces places that BIPOC would actually want to be in.

The abolition of white supremacy is not inevitable. The arc of the moral universe does not bend on its own. Whether generations continue to suffer or can breathe freely is our choice to make. There is only one right choice.

Guerrero, Mexico


Nassim Zerriffi

Nassim Zerriffi teaches middle school History, Current Events, and coordinates the Activism program at Manhattan Country School. He lives in Brooklyn but is quarantining and writing from Guerrero, Mexico.


The Brooklyn Rail

SEPT 2020

All Issues